It's just over six hours flying time from Gatwick. There are flights in and out every Friday to Banjul, fares are relatively cheap, as is accommodation, and you're pretty much guaranteed good weather outside the main rainy season through August and September. More to the point the fishing can be awesome with not just a variety of fish, but also some new opportunities opening up that have already produced potential world record fish.
Mark Longster, an ex pat from Yorkshire is one of the main driving forces out here and runs fishing trips out on the numerous reefs and also down into the mouth of the Gambia River where it meets the sea. Mark works his boats out of Denton Bridge Harbour, an easy access point just a couple of miles up the road from Bakau. Mark is working in conjunction with World Sport Fishing Holidays run by Richard Sheard, based in Bedford in the UK. Between them, they look set to really open up the fishing in the Gambia, and this will include Up River fishing excursions where you'll sample species you'll be struggling to identify.
Back on the coast, your boat could be either skippered by Mark himself, though more often by very capable local skippers who know the waters and marks well and consistently produce good fish.
Your first stop will be to supplement your livebait stocks. You'll be targeting yahboys, a fish looking a little like a freshwater bleak but bigger, by anchoring up just above Denton Bridge. I found the best lures for these were Mustad Fish-Skin Sabiki feathers in strings of five. These not only take the yahboys, but you'll add silver dollar fish, something that I couldn't verify that looks like a sardine, the odd angelfish and tapendal, plus other small fish useful for bait.
If you've time to spare, a day fishing above the bridge with fly gear picks out some huge garfish which are keen to take any type of streamer fly with silver or white in it. Alternatively, you can try with small livebaits trotted back under the bridge for a chance of tarpon to 50lbs, cassava, rays and barracuda.
Pushing out towards the shallow sandbanks just out from the bridge, you'll take a north turn and head for the famous mark they call The Barra. This is the junction where river meets sea and it's formed a huge deep underwater shelf where rocks and big boulders fall vertically on to a mix of sand and mud bottom. The tide runs fast through here, but then so do the fish. This mark produces lemon, bull, sandbar and black tip sharks in season, rays over 200lbs, captain fish to 55lbs, big cubera snapper, plus a host of other species including the ugly frog fish, moray eels, wrasse, tapendal and the hard fighting bream-like sunpat.
The captain fish, they look identical to what the Australians call threadfin salmon or king threadfin, are a mean adversary. These big bars of silver armed with massive scales have a blunt almost clear coloured nose full of sensory organs and a shovel-sized tail. They will really give you a run for your money on 30lb class outfits taking anything up to 20 minutes to subdue.
You fish them with a running ledger rig with a 6ft trace of 60lb clear mono and tough suicide type hook pattern. These fish will crush standard hooks.
Use a weak link of light line to the lead weight from the slider so that if it snags in the rocks you can snap it off without losing tackle and fish. The best method is to choose a lead light enough to allow it to just lift and fall back with the tide run by lifting the rod. Aim to trot the bait over the edge of the shelf and down on to the clearer ground where the fish hunt through. When you hit a fish the skipper will buoy off the anchor and you fight the fish from the drifting boat.
If the livebaits are slow to produce fish, try adding several big fresh shrimp above a live yahboy. This combination bait can often get the captain fish feeding when the plain livebaits won't work. This combo bait also has a habit of picking up the bonus big cubera snapper to 50lbs.
Smaller two-hook rigs baited with fresh shrimp will take all the bottom feeders, which really come out to play as the tide drops off around low and high water. This is the time to target the sunpat.
You can also freeline livebaits out on the surface current. This is a good way to take surface feeding black tip sharks, but really targets big barracuda that can touch close on 50lbs out here. Deadbaits, usually smelly bonga fish fished on wire traces, will tempt the other bottom feeding sharks.
The reef fishing is also good. Mantle Reef, the reef of Seragambia, and a host of others hold a myriad of fish. Expect hard fighting cassava, ninebones that look a little like a sea bass and go aerial during the fight, barracuda when trolling, trigger fish, tapendal, groupers, sunpats, tundara ray, stingrays, butterfish with two front teeth that can literally sever through average strength hooks, snappers and spanish mackerel.
If you want real thrills though, in the afternoons out along the reef lines you'll suddenly see masses of birds start to dive frantically in to the sea. This is a sign that the Jack Trevally (Jack Cravalle) are on the feed. You can cautiously approach these feeding frenzies with the boat and cast lures into the ravenous hoards. Brace yourself! Pound for pound these jacks are one of the hardest fighting fish in the sea. I had a mere 7lber that took me over 10 minutes to land on 10lb line. It's one of the best scraps I've had in years. The jacks aren't nicknamed the "pound per minute" fish for nothing.
There is good quality tackle provided right up to 50lb class, but if you prefer to take your own, I suggest the following. Take a light spinning rod matched to a fixed spool reel carrying 200-metres of 10lb line and fish this as your "fun" stick for everything living on the reefs, bar the big barracuda's, rays etc. A cod type uptider is useful when trolling for barracuda, plus is a useful weapon for getting baits away from the boat to target average rays, captain fish and general fishing for the big snappers. Use this with a 7000 sized multiplier loaded with 20lb line. For the sharks, big captain fish at The Barra, big rays and the like, then I'd pick out a 30/50 stand up stick, multiplier reel holding 350 to 450-metres of 30 to 50lb line. With the boats being buoyed off immediately a big fish is hit, massive line capacity is not a major issue here, but then you never quite know what you might hit in to.
If you're into saltwater fly-fishing, then add in a 9-10 weight fly outfit and carry weight forward floating and fast sinking lines with plenty of backing capacity. I think a selection of poppers, bug flies or fast-stripped streamers would give awesome sport on the jacks, as well as produce good all round sport for cassava, barracuda and ninebones.
There are big tarpon here. By big I mean world record fish. The biggest so far verified went 303lbs, but the IGFA at the time wouldn't take a claim from a third world country. I understand this problem has now been rectified with accredited scales etc all now available at Denton. The biggest tarpon caught here have been estimated at a staggering 350lb plus with photos to prove it. The tarpon fish best over towards Dog Island and Mark tells me that the best time of all is July and August, though the tarpon fishing is still in it's infancy but the guys are learning fast. There was a 25lb baby tarpon caught underneath Denton Bridge on a livebait while I was there.
If you decide to try a little fishing on your own, you can get fresh prawns from roadside stalls in Bakau and Serrekunda. The prawns are a must and will catch most things here, especially at night off the beaches in front of the hotels where you'll take tundara ray, sunpat, thick-lipped groupers like the one I'm holding, guitarfish and butterfish. It's also worth visiting the fish markets where you'll pay pence for half a dozen fresh bonga, which will keep you in bait all day.
When you're booking fishing holidays you need to know that the guy on the other end of the phone knows what he's talking about. Richard Sheard of World Sport Fishing is a keen and very capable angler with five years experience fishing in the Gambia. His personal fishing adventures over there were what spawned his idea of creating angling holiday packages to The Gambia and he's now taking hundreds of anglers over there each year. If you fancy following in my footsteps have a chat with him and he'll be able to suggest the best overall package to suit you and your party.
THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT GAMBIA
The local currency is the Dalasi. Expect about 20 Dalasi to the pound.
Temperatures average around 30/33 degrees Celsius all year.
You may need Yellow Fever, Hepatitis A, Typhoid, Diphtheria and Polio vaccinations, but check with your own GP.
You'll need a precautionary run of malaria tablets, which you begin taking a couple of weeks before leaving and continue with for a couple of weeks after your return.
Use the local taxi's to get about, but get a definite price off them for your chosen journey before you get in the cab.
The Gambia is a safe, friendly and pleasant country. You only need observe the same precautions as you would travelling anywhere else in the World. Expect some minor hassle from hustlers outside the hotels. Just be firm but polite, and say "No!"
Best not to drink tap water even in the hotels. Bottled water is cheap, good and readily available. Drink at least 1.5 litres a day when fishing in the sun.
Wear a wide brimmed hat or proper tropical fishing hat. Also long trousers and long sleeved shirts. Shorts are okay for short periods, but watch yourself regards sunburn.
Take plenty of high factor sun cream and use it! Factor 50 or 60 is best for day after day at sea.
Richard Sheard, World Sport Fishing on 01234 376 462. Also check out their website at www.worldsportfishing.com. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Mark Longster has a website at www.gambiafishing.co.uk
For further fishing adventures in the Gambia & Senegal visit Greenies Game Fishing Ltd.