Catching the Bus

Targeting tarpon in the surf in Gabon

[Originally published in the July 2022 issue of SKI-BOAT]

By AJ Pretorius

AS the last bit of daylight disappears in the west, the sky turns an eerie dark grey. The beautiful red and oranges colours we marvelled at a few minutes ago are suddenly gone.
Behind us to the east, the first stars appear and the jungle is already dark and quiet. It’s the time of day just before the night time sounds of crickets, frogs and other jungle sounds take over from the day time sounds of sunbirds, kingfishers and parrots.

AJ Pretorius with a spectacular Cubera snapper caught off the beach in Gabon.

This is the magic time at Setté Cama — time for big tarpon to roll in and use these low light conditions to ambush bait in the river mouth…
The light is fading fast and it’s hard to see. On the bank above the beach, the guides and gillies, with well trained eyes adapted to these conditions, scout the waters for signs of tarpon rolling.
Below them on the beach the anglers are lined up. A few “just in case” casts are made, sending lures into the dark, probing, hoping, anticipating. A small dress rehearsal, twitching lures, feeling the rip of the current, figuring out the angles for the best drift. Hoping to be “the man” when the time comes.
“Tarpon!” The shout from behind gets everyone into a frenzy. Blind casts are made to make-believe shapes. Some claim they saw a ghost and exclaim it’s a “#$%&ng BUS”.
Some are not sure and shout “Where? Where?”
“Behind the rock!” comes the reply from the dark behind us, followed by “Cast! Cast!”
Some harsh words are spoken when casts don’t go according to plan. Everything that was rehearsed is now forgotten and it seems that suddenly fingers turn into thumbs.
“Viskoors!” (fishing fever) comes an unnecessary sarcastic comment from someone along the beach. A few choice words sound in response from another angler.
I have not yet made a cast. I did not see the ghost in the dark, but I heard a splash off to the left. I walk to the edge of the channel, feel for the edge of the drop off and take a few respectful steps back. I have seen the sharks that patrol these waters, and am not up for that kind of fight.
I peer into the dark and can just make out the turbulent water over the rock ledge in the middle of the channel.  I hooked a tarpon there the night before. I feel around to make sure my line is not tangled, then I raise my rod tip to see the shape of the blue, battle-scarred CID lure. Checking that the leader knot is outside the rod tip, I turn the drag knob a few clicks, making sure I am not going to be “that guy”. I place my index finger on the line, open the bail arm and start moving slightly to the left, trying to get the right angle for the assault on the rock.
“Tarpon!” The call comes at same time as I see the dark shape breach the water exactly where I hooked the fish the night before. I am 100% ready and send the cast out. Left of the rock, about the 11 o’clock position, I feel the line go slack as the lure hits the water. Like a fly cast in a drifting current, I mend line up current to avoid the lure moving out the strike zone. “Fish it slow” was the instruction I was given long ago when I first fished here. I resist the urge to jerk it, and just gently bob the rod tip up and down.
The take is gentle. At first the left to right drift seems to stop and it feels like the lure gained weight; there is no GT- like smash. The tarpon must have simply sipped the 90g lure off the surface. Keeping the line tight, I set the hook!
My next thought is that I’m stuck, as there’s no movement on the line. Then it all happens at once. “Fish on!” I shout out to whoever can hear me.
I see a shape coming out the water and know instantly this is my biggest tarpon ever. After the slow motion jump, I hear the splash of water as the fish falls back into the water and instantly line starts peeling off the reel.
“Run! Run! Run!” comes the command. “Get above the fish!”
“Fish on, Fish on! Watch your lines!”
I hear another command: “Run, run, run! Pull hard, turn its head!”
Line keeps disappearing into the now dark ocean. After running about 70 metres, I stop. I am above the fish and pulling as hard as I can. The PE6 is wining heavily in the breeze. Line is still going the wrong way, but it has slowed down. I add a few more clicks to the drag and grab hold of the spool. It’s hot! I slowly become aware of everyone around me and lights flashing.
Line finally stops peeling of the reel but I also don’t win anything back. It’s a good old Mexican stand-off. After some time the tug of war changes in my favour and more line makes it back onto the reel.
Finally I see the reflection of a giant eye as the tarpon reaches the outer edged of the headlamp lights.
It takes another 15 minutes to move the fish close enough to try and land it. Watching this big fish slapping around as the guides try to land it, makes you realise how strong they are.
Finally I get to flop down next to the incredible beast. It’s too big to try and hold out the water, so I lift the tail and stare at the huge V tail in awe. I look around at those sharing this moment with me — friends I have fished with all my life and my proud father who was there to witness this moment.
I realise I am panting. “Breathe, Uncle, it’s done,” comes a remark as someone cracks a beer in the darkness.
It was indeed a “#$%&ng BUS”!

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