Small to big and back again

By Mush Nichols

[Originally published in the March 2023 issue of Ski-Boat magazine]

I BEGAN my fishing and boating journey in the suburban area of Pinetown, on the New Germany border of Durban in the mid 1950s.
I soon had a few friends, both black and white, and boy did we have fun. The days were simply too short. In those days we had thousands of acres of forest, grasslands and of course a lovely little river full of small fish, eels and crabs to explore. There was so much to do, and we set about it all with unlimited energy..
My pal Robin, nicknamed Bin, decided to build a boat to tame the mighty Palmiet River — although actually it was just a small stream. My late father, being a master carpenter, cut us a thin transom and a bow post, and the rest was easy. Bin and I used our combined marine engineering skills, and flattened a piece of corrugated iron into an uncorrugated piece.
My mother, being a German thoroughbred, insisted our boat had a name; she also decided unilaterally that the name would be Fraülein. And so Fraülein #1 was born — a six foot master craft.
A few kilometres downstream lived Monkey Mcgee. There was no doubt about how he obtained his name — he not only resembled a vervet monkey, but also acted like one. When he was not up to mischief he was a help to our small Huckleberry-type group. His role was to get our boat back upstream by dragging it along the sandy bush path with the aid of one of his father’s donkeys. In return he was allowed the use of our boat. Rednecks? Well, if not, we weren’t far off
By the mid 1960s boarding school was behind us and it was time to get really serious about fishing. Real fishing. In the sea. A soft loan from Pa enabled us to purchase an Ace Craft paddleski kit, and within two weeks we were ready to put to sea.
Our base was Vetch’s Pier, and the fishing was hectic on Limestone Reef. Watching the large boats from the Durban Ski-Boat Club which often anchored in the same area taight us a great deal, and it was not long before we caught our first ’cuda. We were totally hooked on our new sport.
There were no shoal ’cuda near the shark nets, they were all big fish — seldom less than 15kg and many in the 20kg range.
The bulk of our catches were made up of snappper salmon and shad, along with the silkies and walla walla, all of which came in with the off-coloured water from the Umgeni River. The silkies (wolf herring) and the walla walla (ribbonfish) were put out as live baits and accounted for the large ’cuda.
Soon we decided it was time for a bigger boat; our small paddle craft limited us from venturing out to the main grounds, and we needed something with a motor. The purchase of a used 13 footer with one 35hp Mercury motor was the next step forward. Tongaat here we come!
As the years passed by the boats slowly increased in size, and at long last I was granted a number at the Durban Ski-Boat Club.

One day in the late 1970s this farmer-type character arrived at my small boat building factory and introduced himself as Joos Solms, a farmer from Winterton. He pronounced it without the first T and added another N next to the first one — Winnerton. His English was far better than my Afrikaans but, he explained, his volcalvary was not so good!
This was the start of a very special friendship. Joos grew up near Nongoma in Northern Zululand and had a similar Huckleberry-type childhood as I did, and his love for fishing was and is unquestionable. His small ski-boat, Capt’n Morgan, was well known at Umdloti and Cape Vidal.
Joos later progressed to larger boats, but he never lost his love of fishing on small boats. Whether it be fishing for bass or bream in Zimbabwe, tackling marlin and sailfish in Moçambique, or just fishing from the river bank or beach, he and I do it all. Our beach fishing trips to Moz were always accompanied by some tiny craft of his, and the two I recall very well could hardly be classed as boats! All the same, they did the job for some fair weather backline fishing.
Out of the blue an excited Joos called me last year to say he had ordered a small boat to suit our needs in Moz. He asked my advice on fitting a single 30hp or two 15hp motors. I mentioned — as diplomatically as possible — that my days of going to sea with one motor were officially over. Now we have a lovely 12 foot Gypski with two motors and even a canopy. Her name is Gypsea Girl.
Since then we have made two trips to Moz and have had an absolute ball. We never say nice things to each other, but I must add that Joos is one of the best skippers and fishermen I have had the privilege of fishing with, and when the fishing is slow he keeps the show alive with his great humour and wit.
In November 2022 Joos and I were sitting in the bar at the San Antonio Motel, Landela, Moçambique, enjoying the company of the owners Vic and Adelaine, and getting stuck into the ice cold beers. Suddenly we noticed a large catamaran with two huge outboards hanging on the transom arriving in the car park. It looked very similar to Joos’s new Cobra Cat 650.
Shortly thereafter the owners arrived in the bar and were also thirsty. They introduced themselves as farmers from Komatipoort — a short guy and a tall guy. The short guy began the interrogation, as is usually the case: “Waar het julle baars probeer vang?” They had obviously seen little Gypsea Girl.
Joos spoke in Afrikaans, explaining that in fact we had been sea angling. There was a brief silence as the short guy and tall guy looked at each other, not sure if they were being handled or not. The short guy then asked me in English what we’d caught. I mentioned that we’d had good angling with an array of gamefish and a marlin.
There silence again as our new friends were even more confused as to whether or not they were being set up. Clearly it was time for show and tell, and we ran the movie of Joos fighting a small marlin which I somehow managed to film. It was really spectacular, with the fish dancing all around the boat.
The farmers, now relaxed, had one more question — the short guy again: “Hoekom vis julle twee saam? Boer en Engelsman?” Joos looked at the short guy with that natural naughty smile on his face, and retorted: “Because no one else will fish with me!”

Now, in the latter years of our fishing careers, Joos and I have become fairly selective about our fishing venues. We no longer fish in Durban, and at Cape Vidal we use the big boat; with tractors to launch the boat there one does not even get one’s feet wet! In Moçambique and other far off places the small craft is more suitable, and one is hardly aware of towing the little craft with a 2.8 Hilux. Cost wise, there is no comparison — in seven days of fishing we used 55 litres of petrol.
Other than the much higher costs involved in travelling, obtaining licences, launch fees etc when using a big boat, there are other reasons why we enjoy the small boat so much. It certainly has nothing to do with comfort and keeping dry, because Gypsea Girl is a tiny craft — strictly a two man boat with little space to move. However, she more than makes up for her size with the pleasure she affords us. We are now fishing the way we did a long time ago, the way we enjoyed fishing so much in our youth.
I fish from the front where there is a comfortable padded little bench seat (the suicide seat!), whilst Joos has a seat behind the console. There’s no problem until all four rods bend simultaneously!
We normally manage the small space without too much fuss as we both have our own gaffs and priests. In other words, you are on your own! Occasionally a fish may surface in front of the other angler and it is only polite to gaff the other guy’s fish for him, but do not miss-gaff your pal’s fish, because the verbal abuse is most unpleasant — both ways.
That said, I have always preferred gaffing my own fish and so does Joos; this comes from the old days when one had no choice. Besides, it is far easier to present the fish to gaff the way you want to. We always gaff the fish we wish to keep in the middle on top so that the fish is well presented for the head blow without trying to give it an upper cut as one does with an upside down fish.

Joos Solms with the marlin he caught from his 12ft Gypski, Gypsea Girl.

Catching billfish in a small boat is an entirely different story. The highlight of our last adventure was the marlin Joos caught. We have both caught several marlin, but boy, this small marlin could fly! With each leap, we both applauded the fish with with loud shouts and laughter. After bringing her alongside we took a quick pic and she swam away happily.
In conclusion, I would say we have come full circle … or perhaps we’re just enjoying our second childhood!

• For more reasons why fishing from a small boat might be a good idea, see Justin Paynter’s article in the November 2022 issue of SKI-BOAT.

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