I only had a couple of weeks in which to conduct some basic research before the trip was scheduled. Information coming from Richard Sheard (who will be organising future up river trips through his company World Sport Fishing) told me about catfish and the infamous tigerfish, but that was about it. We knew that sawfish had been caught in this river system and that they grew big, between 700lbs and 1000lbs. Books confirmed this, plus suggested that certain types of catfish grew pretty fat and to well over 100lbs, but beyond that it was a blank paper.
We found ourselves in Bakau watching as a group of Gambian guys loaded two long-wheelbase series 3 Landrovers to the hilt with kit. One was carrying a 10ft fibreglass dinghy on a roof rack. We also knew we'd have the services of another boat once we arrived at base camp, which would be the Bird Safari Camp on McCarthy Island near Georgetown.
The road trip took about 6 hours, but you get to see a side of Africa that many tourists miss. The villages, the changing scenery and the varied wildlife make for interesting travelling.
The camp was right by the river. I checked the river out as soon as my feet left the Landrover. It was about a quarter mile wide and the colour of cocoa with dense vegetation down each side. The rainy season had lasted a little longer than normal and the river was still high with floodwater.
There was a small rickety jetty that gave us a platform to fish light float gear from, for characins. These are small roach-like fish but with teeth and they avidly took small bits of bread. These, and another small fish that look a little like a dace (and that I still can't identify) would be our main source of bait. We also bought some bonga fish from a small market stall to supplement bait supplies.
We managed to hire a 30ft fibreglass boat which surprised us as we'd expected something a little less grand this far out in the sticks. We had our own 40hp motor to strap on the back, which gave a quick and stable fishing platform.
With two boats, we elected to split up to try and learn more quickly about the fishing available. The large boat went to try for the tigerfish. These live around sandbanks, working along the edges like true predators do, or around the edges of rush beds trying to startle prey and then chasing them down. The knack is to anchor well away from the bank or reed bed to be fished, then cast baits back in to the mark. Noise must be kept to a minimum, as tigers are shy. Just one tiger was caught, a small 2lb fish, but nevertheless it confirmed their presence.
The riverbed is mainly soft sand and mud, but up river a little way is heavy bouldered ground where the river flow increases. This had been earmarked as a likely place for bigger fish. The boulders are half the size of cars in places and the river flows fast. As mainly a sea angler this suited me and I elected to cast leads up river about 30-yards and let out lots of line to get the lead to hold. I also fished a lighter outfit cast away from the boat and allowed this to trot down with the current.
It was the light outfit baited with small strips of fish that typically produced the most bites. First off came a solid hit that pulled the tip hard over. Heavy resistance and runs downstream took yards of line off the light reel. This fish turned out to be a 4lb Captain Fish (threadfin salmon) that nobody knew lived this far up river. Second bite produced a mormyd, at least we think it was a mormyd. This looks a little like a lungfish and is half fish, half eel shaped.
The river flow was slackening off now, but the bites continued. I added a hideous looking elephant fish to my species list. Silvery white in colour and thinly tapered in shape, this fish has a trunk like mouth with teeth. This fish obviously earns its living grubbing about the bottom and scavenging. The other two guys on the boat added small catfish and another mormyd.
Richard had also set an uptide rod up and simultaneously we both had savage bites on the heavy gear. These fish took off upriver in unstoppable runs and both broke us off. Obviously these fish ere moving up river feeding as they went in a small shoal. What they were we'll never know - but they were big!
I then hooked what looked like a catfish. We had a local guy on board who went absolutely berserk and indicated in broken English that I shouldn't touch it. This turned out to be an electric catfish, also called current fish, and quite capable of giving you a nice belt of electricity for your trouble. I let the local guy take it off the hook and drop it back over the side.
Back at the camp, we spent the nights fishing from the boat tied up to the jetty. This proved interesting with more big fish hooked and lost, a couple even biting through 50lb wire traces on one occasion. We stuck with wire though and started picking up several different types of catfish to close on 10lbs. One type was a walking catfish, another a silver catfish, and a sandy coloured one that defied identification. We also caught more mormyds and elephant fish.
Early the second morning, two of us were fishing float gear off the jetty to fill the bait buckets when I noticed a small fish hiding in a hole in the bank close to one of the jetty supports. Occasionally the little guy would poke his head out then turn back in to the hole. I couldn't make out what type of fish this was. I dropped a couple of pieces of bread right in the hole but the fish ignored it. As I left for the boat, I flicked another couple of bits of bread into the hole intending to try again the next morning.
Twentyfour hours later, with the sun just coming up over the trees, I started to float fish for the characins. At the same time, I dropped a small piece of bread at the opening of the hole that held the fish I'd seen the day before. After a couple of minutes the bread was gone, but I'd been engrossed in watching the float so couldn't decide whether the fish ate the bread or it had sunk or washed away.
With enough live baits caught, I turned my attention to the fish in bank. I removed the float tackle and chose to freeline a small piece of bread crust. It wasn't easy swinging the bread in the confined space underneath the trees, but after three or four tries the bait hit the spot. It was as if I'd written the script. The fish eased out of the hole and in full view sucked the bread down. It was on a short line of about 10-feet, but this fish was amazingly powerful and buried his head back in the hole. My light little rod was hooped over and the line singing. I had no choice but to hold this fish hard.
This heavy pressure forced the fish out of the hole, but then it made a beeline for the jetty structure. More heavy pressure and it turned and decided to fight it out right on the surface where it kept trying to dive and going round in tight anti-clockwise circles. It took a good couple of minutes to tire this beast. Not big, maybe only 12ozs or so, but it was heavy in the body and very thick set, built for existing in a fast tide run. It was identified as a tilapia.
While all this commotion was going on, I'd also seen another fish right underneath the jetty that came up and took a couple of pieces of bread. While your luck is in you milk it, right? I dropped the floating crust on the same tackle right underneath the jetty. I released some line and let it float with the current. I watched without blinking as a green coloured catfish rose from the depths and swallowed the bait.
Another major scrap on just 6lb line, and I used every trick in the book to keep the cat away from the jetty supports and the tree branches. This cat was a beautiful mottled green in colour with ultra long whiskers and weighed around 5lbs. Down it's flank there were fresh scars where a small crocodile had obviously tried in vain to impale him. I released him gently back into the water.
We also found out that silver catfish love sweetcorn. We took a few tins up river with us and with minimal pre feeding with the corn got the catfish feeding well on it, especially around the mouths of the mangrove inlets.
I also took the little boat into the mangroves where we tried fly gear and surface poppers, and were probably the first anglers to ever cast there. We blanked! Mostly I think because the water was so coloured. In clearer water I'd expect the action to be fast and furious.
Overall, the colour of the river did us no favours, but the water clears by late October right through to July and that's when the fishing will be good. This was borne out by one of the local dug-out canoe fisherman who says they don't bother to fish when the water is coloured. This same guy I questioned for information and he told me that the catfish can top 50lbs, but the really big ones tow the canoe and then break him off! and he's using nylon cord as thick as your little finger!
We watched in awe several times as huge fish broke surface. Wide backed and dark brown, weighing well over 50lbs, but I've no idea what species they were.
As we drove back towards Bakau, we stopped at Tendaba Safari Camp to sample roast bush pig for lunch. As we walked in to the restaurant area I noticed on the wall a huge sawfish jaw. This jaw was about 4-feet long and mighty impressive. Then I was told that a third of it had been cut off to make a necklace. I know zip about sawfish, but I have caught scores of big sharks. Using this as a guideline I put the sawfish that produced this jaw at well over 300lbs and probably nearer 500lbs.
Just three days in this wonderful wilderness flew by. It wasn't long enough to try enough marks, enough techniques, nor experiment with baits. I saw enough though to realise that future anglers visiting this amazing place are going to hook some monster fish.
Richard Sheard, World Sport Fishing on 01234 376 462. Also check out their website at www.worldsportfishing.com. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org