Maputoland

My pal Al and the one that got away.
by Donald Blackbeard

Maputoland is the rich, low lying coastal plain lying east of the Ubombo mountains which start as a ridge of sand dunes at St. Lucia, about 150km north of Durban, South Africa, before angling away from the coastline to stretch into the mountain kingdom of Swaziland. This largely uninhabited coastline is home to innumerable bays shaped by the strong counter currents to the warm Agulhas which streams down the Mozambique channel in inky blue splendour. These nutrient water pass close inshore at points stretching from Ponto St. Maria , east of Maputo, down to Cape Vidal in KwaZulu-Natal. Millibangala, Ponto Dobela, Malagane, Bhanba Nek, Black Rock, Dog Point, Rocktail Bay, Island Rock, Mabibi, and Langa Nek all hold special significance to those fortunate enough to have visited. Just a stone's throw across the beach dunes a series of inland lakes, estuaries and wetland areas which offer fishing, birding and a wildlife experience unique for its beauty and isolation.

Our annual fishing holiday took us to two long established resorts - Ponto D'Ouro and Kosi Bay - which straddle the international border and offer two very different but equally exciting forms of fishing.

MY PAL AL & THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY

My pal Al catches more fish than anyone. He is that type of guy. Lucky some people say. I say it's Murphy's Law at work here. Whatever is least expected to happen, will happen. That's my man Al. That is the way he fishes.

Of course he is also very good value and very good company on a boat. He always has a story to tell - real, ribald and even better still. However he has this nagging desire of always wanting to catch a bigger fish and forever wants to bait up some prickly scavenger in the hope of landing some extraordinarily large and stupid fish.

One thing is certain, however. Al catches a lot of fish and a lot of fish are caught when Al is around. First time out deep- sea he hooked a yellow-fin tuna off Mauritius that was so big he could not get his arms around it when they finally got to hang it on a derrick. Eighty something kilos. He needed some help from his friends to land it, him not knowing the rules and all, but that didn't cure him of wanting to catch bigger fish.

First time on my boat he caught a King Mackerel of 15 kilos and succeeded in breaking the rod in the process. He was there when we boated a baker's dozen before running out of bait at sunrise. Murphy's Law again. He was also on the boat when I caught my big salmon, which flapped around the deck, cornered him against the gunwale and nearly broke his foot. That didn't stop him either even though, at the time, I heard him mutter -"nah, I don't wanna catch big fish no more"- which raised my hopes, momentarily.
That is him in the picture with his features suitably shaded just in case he contemplates charging royalties. The fish he is holding is a King Mackerel (Scomberomorus commerson) of 27,5 kilograms, caught off a reef known as the Spikes, just a little north of Ponto D'Ouro in Mozambique and very close to the South African border. The sand dune in the background is Ponto D'Ouro itself, which forms the border point and shelters the entrance Kosi Bay around the corner on the South Africa side.

The fish might not look that big but it was, believe me. It was a short, very fat and very powerful. He caught it on a red and silver rapalla in the ink blue water the warm Augullas current pushes close inshore here. We filleted it and fed nine people three times over. There was still plenty left to give away to our helpers, not counting the head, which made a very fine stock.

We got the chef at our rundown, pre-war days hotel to grill it first time around. He did in the way only Mozambiqicans do properly - lots of garlic, oil and lemon - over a flaming hot grill with a fire big enough to burn the whole place down. Absolutely outstanding. We ate so much and the lunch lasted so long that we had to stay active, and keep drinking that Laurentina beer, or the rest of the day would be wasted. So we took a drive up the coast following sand-tracks weaving northwards through low coastal bush so typical of East Africa - knotted milkwood trees combed backwards over the dunes by prevailing north-easterlies. Here and there a clearing dotted with clumps of lala palms and stunted water berry trees.

The tracks are made by drivers seeking the firmer ground between the sand dunes and the swampy lowlands which stretch away leeward. As a result there is no single track or clear direction. Drivers have got to keep a sharp lookout for a converging tracks and vehicles which suddenly appear seemingly out of nowhere.

We took a walk along a wide, deserted and unnamed beach where one of the tracks came to a dead-end. I'd taken along a small bait- caster which was easy to carry and had some fun casting a small silver spoon into the shore break. It was a nicely balanced setup and Andrew and I caught small shad (Pomatomus saltatrix) and wave garrick (Trachinotus botla) almost cast for cast. Of course Al had ideas of baiting one of these up and soon took over the rod determined to catch the big one. All he managed was to instantly build a tangle of truly professional quality which, in turn, only made him more determined to master the contraption.

Three days later. We have moved south to Kosi Bay where catching fish requires a completely different approach. We fish super light tackle or throw a fly in any of three large, inter-leading lakes which lie in a deep geological fault, separated from the sea by a steep and thickly forested sand dune.

There are no rivers in these parts and the salinity and colour of the water is balanced by fresh underground seepage at one end and the tidal inflow through the estuary mouth at the other. The water at the top end of the system is stained a dark coppery hue by the decomposition in forests of giant Rafia palms growing along the shores of Lake Manzimyama. (Black Water), which feeds into the largest lake. While First Lake is normally 100% fresh sea water, spring tides push sea-water into the second lake and sometimes well up the channel connecting to the third lake. The biggest lake is some five kilometres across at the widest point and substantially longer. Periodic droughts or heavy rains alter the water balance quite dramatically, in turn affecting water levels, salinity and fish species.

The lakes are home to vast colonies of cracker shrimp which borrow in the sand and are most easily syphoned out in the shallows on the banks of the first lake, the one nearest the sea. The pumps have got quite sophisticated nowadays, having been develop from the original length of plastic three inch pipe with half a tennis ball inside attached to a plunger. The local name for the shrimp is ka-fufa - the sound the pumps makes in action.

These same ka-fufa are prey of large numbers of fish which enter the system to spawn in the summer months, notably spotted grunter (Pomadasys commersonni) and various kingfish species (Trevally/jacks). It is an scene of great marine abundance and natural beauty. Masses of fry cloud the water, shoals of fish dart through the shallows and canals as you pass, while deep indigenous bush grows down to the lake's edge and adds its own blend of deep forest sights and sounds. Fish eagles and terns line ancient fish traps set by tribesmen along the tidal banks and the faraway crash of the surf blankets all but the sharpest sounds.

Do not believe , however that this bodes for large and easy catches. The fish spook very easily here because of water clarity, stillness and presence of predatory sea pike (Sphyraena barracuda), kingfish (Caranx ignoblis), springer(Elops machnata) and river snapper (Lutjanus argentimaculatus). Fish or edible size have first got to be found and here stealth is the key. The proven way to least distract them, is to drop it the baits out as far as possible and then beach the boat in the shallows. It is an odd way of fishing but it works. Everyone has to bait up together, drive out three or four hundred metres to drop the baits and then head straight back to the shallows without getting the lines tangled. It is a far cry from trolling for game fish as we had been doing days earlier but it is the way to do things here and grunter are a good fish to catch and a good fish to eat. Given the right conditions we have had great success trolling for kingfish, springer and barracuda in third lake and have made good with the fly rods in the first lake late afternoon on an in-coming spring tide or at first light on the ka-fufa banks. By and large however this long-line fishing is what brings home the supper , besides it is a very sociable way of going about the business.

So three days out of Ponto we are fishing in Lake Two, sun blazing away. It is a glorious, throbbing 35 C in the shade, our lines are way out in the deep and most of us standing in the water, cooling off as best we can under hats, canopies and umbrellas. Our group has three boats spread several hundred meters apart. Time is of no consequence and apart the persistent tak-tak-tak of the little prunier bird and a few other jungle sounds drifting across the water, all things are pleasantly out of focus.

Not with Al however. He is standing fifty metres further out, practicising with the bait caster, throwing a little silver spoon out over the drop-off which is about another twenty metres beyond. He throws it over and over again, going for the big one. He has been producing over-wind after over-wind, with accompanying swear and curse, but with less regularity now. I call him to return to the boat to check baits but he persists with his casting.

Eventually he turns and declares that he has mastered the art. He starts walking back towards the boat still reeling in the spoon, the rod pointing backwards over his shoulder. The next thing the rod is jerked violently, the reel whines and he is into a big fish . Murphy's Law - he thinks someone is playing the fool with him and has grabbed his line while his back was turned.

I'm telling him to get back in the boat, that our only chance of landing the fish is to follow it in the boat. Al is not listening. He is standing in the water waist deep, intent on following the line as it peels off the reel. I am imploring him to get back into the boat and I am winding in the other lines in preparation. The rest of the crew are stealing ice and snacks from one of the other boats and are now rushing back as fast as they can wade. I can see Al is not going to bring that fish in on that tiny little rod. He manages to retrieve line only until the fish reaches the drop - off where it then realises the danger of being pulled into the shallows and it takes off back into the deep without too much trouble.

The process is repeated time after time. I figure it must be a sea pike, known world wide as the Great Barracuda which has two great big dog teeth up front of its mouth. There are a lot in these lakes. The book describes it as "..a voracious feeder …adults eating either sluggish reef fish, or faster surface species such as kingfish, mullet or garfish (Al's silver spoon flashing by)……choice of habitat is also linked to age ….juveniles more common in shallow estuaries ….several well documented cases in which the great barracuda has attacked humans….however can hardly be considered a "man-eater" and is only dangerous when provoked or molested. World Angling record - 37,6kg"

That would make a juvenile between 6 and 10kg, the size we have seen here before. I give up calling Al back in the boat and ask him if he can see the fish. The tiny little road he is holding is bent almost double. Al wades out again to meet the fish. He peers in the water. He is navel deep. He moves further. He bends like the rod, peering in the water.

"Yes"- he shouts triumphantly and then immediately leaps -" Holy sh….!!!" - there is a scramble in the water. Al grabs the tip of the rod, diving to one side. The line snaps. Something dark breaks the surface next to him and disappears. It is a crocodile !. Good grief !!.

Al is still holding the tip of the rod in his left hand, still bent double..

"What was thatt !!"- shock in his face, he scrambles into the boat at last. I look for signs of blood, relieved to see no trickle.

"That was a barracuda, a dog - toothed cuta, Al. You are lucky it didn't remove the family jewels while it was at you ."

Now the man is desperately worried, a look of horror on his face as his hand reflexively checks to make sure everything is still in order.

To this day he still does not realise how close he was to his ultimate nightmare. When I recount the story he gets a faraway look in his eyes. This is not his favourite subject, but what the hell, I have been getting good mileage out of it.

One of the first things he did when he got home was buy himself a bait caster and start practicing in his garden. Now you can pick out his house in the street - it is the one with little silver spoons and traces of fishing line hanging from the telephone lines.

We'll guide you on a trip to this magnificent part of the world. Give us some idea of what you would like to do, how much time you have to spend and we will get you there and back again. Luxury lodge or bush safari camps - we cost it, pick you up at the airport and you don't have to put your hand in your pocket again.

Tours for Boys- holidays for small groups of friends who want to behave like boys again.