A Cracking Day Out in the Transkei

Fly Fishing ‘out the box'

We are all guilty of it; it's in every angler's nature. Why risk wasting a potentially fruitful days angling by ‘fishing out the box' when we are confident with our own tried and tested methods.  “Ludicrous, waste of time and tackle, even if you get a strike you will be lucky to get it up”. These are just a few of the responses, coupled with sniggers and queer looks suggesting angling insanity, we received when discussing our plans with fellow anglers.  Mussel Cracker on Fly!

Thursday seemed to draw on like a scene from Ground Hog Day.  With the news of a cold front approaching, possibly arriving as early as Saturday, the gods of meteorology seemed to be in agreement with our pessimistic angling peers. Nevertheless by mid-afternoon we were double checking equipment and making sure all was in place for a potentially wet and windy weekend.  “Fishfinders and GPS”, “check”, “spare lines”, “check”, “spare rods”, “check”, “three somewhat ‘touched' anglers”, "p@#$ off” and away we were. Fishing skis firmly strapped to the roof-racks, and a four hour drive to the Transkei ahead.

Negotiating the notorious roads with their ever present eclectic mix of domestic animals and R120 driver's licences is a feat in its own, resulting in the focus of our weekend being to arrive alive, fishing having been shunted to the deep recesses of our otherwise one tracked minds.   The final descent through the indigenous forests of Mboyti evokes countless memories of past fishing trips and a nervous anticipation of the awaiting adventures.  Arriving at the “Scottage” in the late evening, although tired, there was time for a quick braai and couple of well earned lagers. 

Friday morning dawned (well actually it was still dark) with Rob waking us, piping hot mugs of tea in hand.  Half an hour was spent sorting tackle, rigging fish finders and tying spare leaders in the tranquil light of paraffin lamps.  Skis were packed, rods, reels, flies, anchors, and snacks were all secured in the ample space provided in the hatches of our Eric's Fishing Skis. With skis in hand we walked the short distance to the Mboyti beach.  Cresting the last rise we were greeted by a magenta sun seemingly resting on the horizon of a “smooth as silk” ocean.  With gentle surf of no more than two feet, a slightly overcast sky, and not a breath of wind, conditions were perfect!  Skis were promptly launched, fish finders and GPS's assembled behind backline and off we were, in search of the infamous muscle cracker. 

Rob, having fished this area of coast extensively from fishing skis over the past 10 years, took us directly to a good patch of reef about 200 meters off backline.  Watching the fish finders with more intensity than a blockbuster Hollywood thriller we were pleased to see a healthy number of good sized fish crowded around the reef.  The long rods were assembled, skis were anchored…. ‘Mission Cracker' was well and truly underway. Various patterns, including Sempers, Clousers, and Deceivers were used. All flies were tied on 6/0 hooks heavily weighted along the top of the shank, thus ensuring flies swam hook-point-up minimising snags on the reef.  Casting up current with fast sinking lines allowing the fly to sink over the reef followed by a relatively slow strip retrieve was decided on as the best method.  A few shad and slinger were caught. Mr. Cracker however, was in no mood for a fight.

It was decided to paddle a couple of hundred metres further north and fish a shallower reef which has consistently produced good fish in the past using conventional tackle. En route we were pleasantly surprised by a humped backed whale and her calf, which after a brief view of us decided we were not worthy of their attention and headed south. On arrival at the reef, at a depth of just over 12m, the fish finder was alive with life. 

With renewed zest and mounting anticipation the quest to land a cracker on fly was resumed.   Tying on a heavily weighted chartreuse Clouser I once again began with a cast up current letting the line sink before beginning a strip retrieving over the reef.   On about the fourth strip of my third cast my fly was met with solid resistance. Thinking I was again snagged in the red bait covering the reef I was about to administer a solid strip to free my fly when I realised this was no ordinary snag! In an instant the fly line was ripped through my stripping hand. Gaining control of the line I was able to put in one good strip strike. Fight on!

Once hooked, cracker will turn and head straight down to a well chosen hole in the reef they inhabit.  When they get there (as they often do) there is very little the angler can do to move them, if your line has not been severed in the process. It was with this thought ever present in the back of my mind and frequently discussed in the build up to our trip that I franticly tried to stop the fish on the end of my line reaching its home turf.  Still not positive on the nature of the fish I was up against I did my utmost to move the fish off the reef and get it onto the reel.  Once on the reel, and the odds levelled out slightly, the characteristic nodding of the fish left me in no doubt as to what I had hooked. I was definitely in for a “cracking” time! 

The realisation that we had finally managed to hook a cracker on fly made the ensuing fight all the more nerve racking.  Although not a big fish, it was a cracker nonetheless and to lose it now would be extremely disappointing. Lifting fish from a seated position on a fishing ski with a fly rod proves fairly arduous as one's ‘power window' is significantly reduced. A short tugging match between the cracker and the now seemingly flimsy 10wht resulted in a fine juvenile mussel cracker of just over 7 lbs being landed and three ecstatic anglers.

Subsequent to releasing this magnificent fish we continued fishing for another hour or so, but to no avail.  A fresh Easterly picked up and we decided to call it a day and head back to a well earned lunch.  Paddling at a leisurely pace just off backline we were fortunate to be escorted by a pod of around eighty common dolphins, many of them with young calves.  It would be great to think they were congratulating us. I am however inclined to believe they were probably revelling at our clumsiness in the water when compared to there graceful and seemingly effortless motion.

Traditionally mussel cracker have been targeted by rock and surf anglers and ski boat fishermen using conventional tackle.  Crayfish, crabs, redbait and small live baits are used. Although an unpopular decision with many anglers, the banning of beach driving and launching of ski boats along the Wild Coast has done wonders for marine conservation in the area.  The ruthless action of overzealous bottom fisherman, both commercial and recreational, is a thing of the past.  The increasing numbers of juvenile mussel cracker pays tribute to this ban.  It is imperative that all cracker caught be released, there are many more prolific species which can be “taken for the pot” if needs be.  This being said it continuously amazes me to see fisherman showing off their catches of cracker, the beautiful brutes of the bricks, completely oblivious of the atrocity of their actions.  Cracker have the potential of becoming a truly unique South African sport fishing target and should be treated as such. 

Reaching weights in excess of 25kg's mussel cracker are a challenging adversary even when using the stoutest tackle available.  The few inconveniences the fly fisherman has to overcome when targeting these magnificent creatures are worth considering.  Firstly one has to find reef suitable to targeting cracker with fly.  In most cases this necessitates fishing off shore. Unfortunately the average fly fisherman does not have access to a ski boat, or fishing skis.  The fortunate few who do, unless in company with like minded fisherman, will most likely be ridiculed at the slightest mention of the “bizarre notion” of targeting mussel cracker on fly.  Secondly the chances of landing cracker of over 10 kilos on fly are definitely in favour of the cracker.  Finally, the intricacies of targeting mussel cracker on fly have, to the best of my knowledge, never been delved into in any great detail.  

It is however, through pushing the boundaries we set for ourselves that our angling horizons are infinitely expanded.  Most of us (myself included) are far too preoccupied with the results of our fishing excursions.  The barometer of our success and enjoyment often being the number of fish landed.  It is a liberating day in every fisherman's life when conventions are set aside and we can go out in confidence when having little assurance of results. As the famous golf putting saying goes, ‘if the ball doesn't pass the hole it can never go in”.  It is in this mindset that we should view our angling.  Go on, take the step, “fish out the box” no matter what the results, you can be sure to walk away a more knowledgeable and rounded fly fisherman.

Keith Clover – Tourette Fishing