There was a massacre, but not in the sense that many fish were caught and it was a poor fishing day in terms of large fish. This expedition to Malindi on the Kenya coast, was to be the culmination of three previous fishing expeditions, and the result of reading many articles about fishermen who had had terrific success using a fly from a boat out at sea. I, too, was convinced that I could be successful with a fly in pursuit of big game fish, ever since I had fantastic fly fishing success from a Pedalo at a resort in Zanzibar – but ‘that’ as they say, ‘ is another story’
My appetite for catching saltwater fish on a fly (excluding bonefish) was whetted by an almost, accidentally, good day’s fishing at a remote place called Pangani, on the Tanzanian coast, where Belinda, my wife, and I, spent a weekend. This small rundown coastal town, near Tanga was formerly an important slave-trading centre, but had very little tourist infrastructure, and was only accessible by 4WD car on some rough roads, in the dry season. A pleasant Australian couple, however, ran a sort of resort there. The rooms were in what can only be described as concrete Tukuls resembling ‘after the holocaust’ air raid shelters, but they were comfortable, and the food was excellent if you liked seafood and especially prawns, which Belinda, along with all fish, except smoked salmon, is allergic to. However, the owners had a boat, and, although, not designed for sport fishing it was quite large with a good diesel engine, and whilst not very speedy it was fast enough to troll.
What we were lacking were sea fishing rods. All I had were a couple of trout rods that I had brought along thinking that I might be able to catch something from the shore. Nevertheless, we decided to try, and early on a Saturday morning, we chugged out of the river estuary at Pangani, through the sediment brought down by the river, past the ruins of the old Arab fort on the headland, and into the clear blue waters beyond. I tied on a large green and white streamer fly containing considerable amounts of lureflash, and we were ready to hunt the schools of fish indicated by the birds. On reaching a school of tuna (all skipjack), we would slow the boat down, and cast into the fish. This was extremely successful – virtually every time I cast and gave a couple of pulls I would hook a hard fighting skipjack, which averaged about 5lbs. But, there was one major drawback; they were such hard fighting fish that it took a long time to land them on my AFTM 6 trout rod, and, by the time that we had done so, the school had moved on. We would then have to look for another school, which due to the limitations on the speed of the boat was not always a quick process. In the end, I only caught five fish. However, it was exciting sport.
Some time later, I had a good day’s fishing for yellow fin, on the Kenya coast, at Watamu, when a friend and I were trying to catch sailfish. We didn’t catch any sailfish but we caught a lot of yellow fin, despite the fact that, according to our skipper, the water was the wrong colour. It was ‘green water’ – which is maybe why we did not catch any sailfish. On the following day, we decided to take a small boat out and fish exclusively for yellow fin with a fly. This turned out to be a problem, because the fish were not much interested in our flies, even when we landed them on their noses (which due to the strong wind we didn’t often succeed in). They were completely content with glutting themselves on mantis prawns. I don’t think that there has ever been such an explosion of these prawns – the sea was just a carpet of them, and you could almost have walked on them. All the Tuna had to do was swim around with their mouths open and they would have filled their bellies within ten minutes. This, of course, is what they were doing.
Following this expedition, and to escape for a few days from the claustrophobia of living in Nairobi, Belinda and I went down to Malindi, where we stayed at a place called the ‘Driftwood Club’. Whilst it is not as luxurious or as pretentious as some of the hotels on the coast there, it is much cheaper and equally pleasant in many respects. The great advantage is that it is further up the coast and much closer to the sailfish areas. Before, however, I went fishing, ‘Mission Control’ wanted to go diving and we could only do that on Saturday. We dived on a reef in the Marine reserve that we had not visited before and it was excellent. Visibility was good and we saw a large variety of marine life. There were impressive numbers of large fish, particularly giant trevally and barracudas. We also saw some very large groupers, and what are locally called potato fish, which I think are a type of grouper. There were plenty of turtles, huge infestations of purple spotted stingrays and some large manta rays. All very exciting.
I went fishing on the Sunday, once again in pursuit of sailfish – to the same area that I had been to when we had been so successful with the yellow fin, in a boat called ‘Tina’, with an experienced and friendly crew. Within about ten minutes of starting to fish, we went through a large school of yellow fin, and six rods bent, six reels squealed and we had six fish on. They were not large fish – about 15lbs to 20 lbs each but like all Tuna, they fought hard, and being the only client, I played all six, which obligingly stayed on until I got to each of the rods. This was hard work. Once we had got those six in, and reset the baits, there was approximately a ten-minute gap and we hit another school of yellow fin – this time slightly larger fish, and we had three on between about 25lbs and 30lbs. Well… this was tough work as well, and it was a hot day but I cranked in those three fish.
The Captain decided to try to avoid the tuna, and concentrate on the sailfish but about 15 minutes later, three rods curved and we had yet another bunch of yellow fin – these had not been showing on the surface. After, we got those in there was a gap of about 45 minutes, when a sailfish appeared, and after one of those agonizingly long pauses that only occur in fishing, it took the bait, leaped high out of the sea, and by the time I grabbed the rod, it had dropped off the hook. Half an hour, this time, without any action, and then the rods only vibrated this time – virtually every one of them, as we went through a school of small bonito. So we didn’t get too excited and started reeling them in, but… a big mistake to be so blasé, because what we didn’t realise was that a sailfish, which must have been following the bonito, had taken one of the baits. When I put down the rod that I was playing a bonito on and got to the rod with the sailfish, it leaped and that was that. No more sailfish, or, as one famous fishing writer described it so well "Goodbye Mr Sailfish". (Actually, I think he said "Goodbye Mr Salmon"). The skipper stuck one of the bonito on the downrigger to see if we could catch a shark, of which there were plenty around. We had a strike but we didn’t manage to hook it.
I had booked a short day and so at 2 o’clock we had to pack up, but, before that, we caught some more yellow fin, and also a dorado, which really do fight hard as well. At the end of the fishing, we had well over 20 yellow fin, up to 30lbs, a couple of bonito, and a dorado, so I was extremely pleased. My pride was, however, somewhat punctured when I got back to the Driftwood, and a woman that we were speaking to told us that her husband was a skipper, and that they had been catching too many tuna, and that they were trying to avoid catching them. I thought it was all terrific fun, but I was sorry not to have tried to catch any on the fly rod and I was determined to try this next time I went. The only problem is that you never know what size of fish you are going to catch when you fish for the yellow fin. Two days before I went out, the same boat, Tina, caught four, all over 55 kgs and one, which they think is a record for Kenya of 91 kgs. They would probably have caught more fish that day, but, as you can imagine, they spent a long time playing them. If you hooked one of those on a fly rod, you might be playing it for the rest of the week – although more likely you would lose it on its first diving run.
Finally, the culmination; having had such a successful time with the yellow fin a month previously, and having caught other tuna on a fly, and having seen plenty of schools of them showing on the surface, I was rather hoping for some serious excitement on a fly rod, when Belinda and I returned to the Driftwood at Malindi. I was well prepared with my powerful 11’ wrist breaker, and my exceedingly smart and reliable (and a fabulous drag), JW Young saltwater reel with miles of backing on it. My excitement was also raised when the boats came in with bucket loads of fish on the Saturday – the day that I wanted to fish, (but unfortunately, all the boats were booked up for a fishing competition). They were still mostly booked up on the Sunday, but I was able to go out on a little boat called ‘Malachite’, from the same company (Kingfisher). The Malachite was half the price (and half the size) of the boat that I went out on previously (the Tina), which in turn is half the price of the boats that I had used before that. So, already, I didn’t think that I was doing too badly. The crew were also pleasant and experienced. Even this little boat had done well on the Saturday, catching a sailfish, some large kingfish, a couple of very large giant trevally, (one of 35 kgs) and all sorts of other things such as dorado, and bonito, although no yellow fin. Subsequently, talking to some fishermen, I found out that the yellow fin had moved away recently. What was keeping them on the Kenya coast, right up to January of this year, 2002, was the huge numbers of mantis prawns – that I had witnessed last year, in March. Apparently they had been there ever since and the yellow fin have been feeding on them greedily, which probably also accounts for the numbers of very big fish that have been caught recently.
I was quite hopeful. When we set off the sea looked perfect, quite choppy but not too choppy – no whitecaps, not too much swell, the right colour (no notorious ‘green water’) and everything except for lots of fish! Well… there might have been lots of fish but they were not showing anywhere near the surface, and nor was there any sign of birds diving into baitfish, and so there was not much opportunity to use a fly. However, I should have been able to catch fish on a fly, because we caught many little skipjack on small white lures, trolled. These skipjack were so small that we didn’t even notice that they were on. However they were extremely good bait. As soon as we caught one we put it out as live bait, and within a few minutes a large fish – usually Kingfish – would come and munch it; this was the massacre. The problem was that they were exceedingly clever fish, because they would take the baitfish and then chomp it all except the head and the hook. It was amazing how surgically neat and careful they were about it – it was almost as if they had used a sharp knife, so clean were the bites. However, it was frustrating fishing and out of almost twenty takes we only caught three Kingfish. One was quite a large one of about 40lbs and the other was about 20lbs, and the third was a very small one of about 5lbs. (I say ‘about’ because the measurement was done in kgs.)
We did have an even larger Kingfish on for a while but that came off, when we thought that it was well under control. This was quite exciting, because when we were fishing live bait, we pulled in most of the other lines, mainly because when we fished live bait we were travelling too slowly to fish anything else. So all our concentration was on this one line. When the big fish took there was a bow wave and a big boil, and all three of us rushed for the rod. I was, virtually, shouldered away, and the Captain of the boat set about getting this monster properly hooked. Having taken the bait, it appeared to have, subsequently, spat it out but then it seemed to take it again, plus lots of line. The Captain struck and we were on. He handed the rod over to me, before I, as the paying client, got in a sulk. It felt very powerful. It took out a lot of line before I could start recovering any. I must have had it on for about ten minutes, when it suddenly came off, and that was that.
However, maybe all the takes that we failed to connect with were not Kingfish – I have just been sent these two reports from the Kingfisher people:
In the last couple of days there have been a large amount of Tiger Shark seen, boated, hooked and lost.
On the 13th February 2 boats fishing for them had 6 strikes, two were caught and boated over 500 lbs each. One monster was hooked from Neptune, it was a huge fish of approx 1000 lbs; they had the gaff in its mouth, but it went ballistic and got off.
On the 14th February, 7 boats fished for these Tigers, they had 17 strikes. 2 or 3 were landed, one weighed 816 lbs. One fish was lost after 5 hours and another after 4 hrs, the others were also lost after 1 or 2 hrs, a very exciting time for all the boats and clients.
another news flash on 14th February
Another amazing day with Tigers; lots of strikes again. A lot of strikes, mostly lost but 4 big fish were boated. A very big Tiger was caught on B'nest a lady’s Kenya record 993 lbs. One on Neptune caught by angler Segers from Holland, the weight was 826 lb. Two Tigers on Snark with a party from Germany Heinz Oberholz, one of 617 lbs and one of 421 lbs the picture of these fish are attached.
Maybe something else was chomping the baitfish. Coincidentally, I have just been re-reading the excellent book, ‘Battles with Giant Fish’ by FA Mitchell Hodges, and so I think that I’m going to have to get down to Malindi again, quickly.
There is always somebody that benefits from these things and on this occasion, apart from the Kingfish that weren’t caught, the boat boys did pretty well – with all the fish heads. Since they were not whole fish they were not obliged to take them to the market, and so they had a bucket load of fish heads for their supper that night.
I was quite jealous of the other Kingfisher boat that was out in the same spot of sea as us. There was a party of Dutch, two men and a girl, in the boat. They had flown in the day before to spend a week fishing. They had not caught any big saltwater fish before, as I discovered when I accompanied them to the fishing boats, and were all quite excited about it. Malachite was quite close to their boat when they hooked a large sailfish that went wild. I don’t think that I’ve ever seen such an aerobatic sailfish. It was quite a big fish as well, but they (actually it was the girl who was playing it) got it in quite quickly, probably because it had tired itself with so much leaping. Afterwards, even from our boat, you could see that the girl was trembling from head to foot with the excitement of it all. In the meantime, I was reeling in my tenth skipjack without any noticeable drag on the reel or bend in the rod. They also caught a couple of large kingfish and many skipjack.
Maybe I have made it sound a bit more exciting than it was, because I can assure you there were a lot of boring bits in between, and trolling, when you are not catching much, can be an exceedingly dull occupation, comparable only to those other famous activities of watching paint dry or grass grow. Still, as a friend used to say about poker, "if you’re not in you can’t win".
Having failed on the fly fishing front this time, I’m still determined to try again. However, I do not believe that fly-fishing for big game fish is necessarily the be all and end all of fishing. I reckon there’s a limit before it almost becomes too artificial or simply an affectation. Whereas fly-fishing for some sea fish from a boat is much more exciting, when the conditions permit, than, for example, trolling, it is a pointless exercise if a) there are no fish showing that you can cast to and b) if the fly fishing tackle becomes so cumbersome that you can hardly flick the fly out. I am reminded of an occasion when I was fishing on the lower Vosso in Norway, where the salmon lie at the bottom of pools that are so deep that they are almost impossible to reach with a fly. The sensible way to fish for them was to harl with heavily weighted prawns or Kynoch lures from the back of a boat. One fisherman I saw, however, was determined to catch a big Vosso salmon on a fly. To get his extremely heavy brass tube fly to the salmon he had to use a very heavy lead core line. The set up became so cumbersome (and dangerous) that he couldn’t cast and he had to flip the line out in coils from the back of the boat, letting it straighten itself in the current. He never caught anything like this, but the point is that, to me, it no longer seemed to be fly fishing, and it was all a bit pointless because there were more efficient and elegant ways of getting the bait to the salmon. I sometimes think that it can become a bit like this with big game fly-fishing, although to feel the power of a sailfish on a fly rod is a thrilling experience.
I’m no expert on big game fishing or fly-fishing for salt water fish, or fishing off the Kenya coast, but if you think that I can provide any information please don’t hesitate to contact me. What I do know is that the fishing tails away at certain times of the year, mainly when the monsoons come, prices for boats vary and this does not necessarily reflect the quality either, of the boat or the crew, and the comfort and the costs of the hotels also vary. All this is obvious stuff, but staying on the Kenya coast and chartering a boat, especially if you’re in a group, need not be the exclusive domain of multi millionaires, and for much of the year you will catch fish of one sort or another.
Having written this piece about my lack of success with a fly in saltwater, I have just had the most fantastic fishing with a fly catching Koli Koli, aka Golden Trevally, much further North off the Kenyan coast. Fly rods were severely tested!