A guest blog by Paul Danckwerts
“The most dangerous risk of all – the risk of spending your life not doing what you want on the bet you can buy yourself the freedom to do it later” – Randy Komisar
I only recognise part of it. Old black Africa and his Muslim cousin are similar beings; both ancient and frightening in their own way. It’s the smells and the desert that remind you that you are no longer in the comforting embrace of the western world. The homely and security comforts that have always been there are suddenly gone. As we traverse the vast inhospitable sands of Saudi Arabia in this tin tube one can’t help but feel quite helpless. My isle companions, difficult to age but I’d say around 27 offer me some chewing gum garnished with broad smiles which I guiltily decline. My guilt later fades when I offer them the use of my pen to fill out the Sudanese paperwork. A cultural hairline fracture in the barrier between north and south. How have I found myself here? The pursuit of a giant trevally (GT) on fly; the colour changing piscatorial leer jet of the fly fishing world. The bonefish, triggerfish, bump nose parrotfish and permit are also something of a dream for me but it is this “gangster of the flats” that has enticed me across the world and out into one of the last remaining pockets of untouched ‘nowhere’ on this shrinking planet. Eventually desert turns to water and all you see is two shades of blue separated by a misty white horizon. As we near the Sudanese coast a patchwork of islands, hard rock fringed by turquoise beaches, begins to materialise. “This is why we came” said Jim. He was right. You could almost see a team of GT’s roaring into a school of baitfish in a black rage. We were truly nearing the business end of the Saltwater fly fishing spear.
From OR Tambo international airport it takes eight hours to fly to Dubai International Airport followed by a three-hour flight to Port Sudan and a three-hour drive on a seventeen seater minivan to the Scuba Libre; an 18m catamaran that we would call home for the next six days. Port Sudan is a young settlement less than 100 years old. It’s a whirlwind of Dajaj trikes, six seater Daewoo mini taxis, Bedford trucks from who knows when and Hyundai everything else. Modified trailer drawn bikes and donkey drawn drums of water were also common. A Cessna 150 mounted on a pedestal in the middle of town also bears mention. The streets are lined with stores selling anything from fruit, nuts and clothes to cinder blocks while camels and goats roam freely. Few international logos (e.g. LG and KFC) can be recognised amidst a sea of Arabic scribble. Once out of town we’re greeted by the desert with its inherent beauty; our minds already adrift, wondering what the next six days held in store.
The Scuba Libre is a modest yet spacious vessel sporting two seven meter fibreglass tender boats, three bathrooms, six single beds in the bow and two double beds in the aft. We are warmly greeted by the five-man crew and the two guides; Stuart Harley and Federico “Fede” Castignoli. The afternoon briefing is sound and to the point, a well balanced mix of professionalism and humour. What springs to mind is a staunch emphasis on safeguarding the ecology of the area as well as the fishery; not overworking the beats and avoiding standing on coral where and when possible. Of particular significance was a strong reminder to keep hydrated as we were now “within walking distance of the sun”.
Day 1 – Shambaya and Angarosh
At some point in the night the lights of Shambaya went off and the thud of the generator ceased. One lone red light off a distant cell tower was all that remained. The Nubian breeze was constant so I was happy I brought my sleeping bag. The stars alone made sleeping on the foredeck, something I did every night, beyond worth it. Everything was where it should be only tilted somewhat. Scorpio was now standing on his tail; perpendicular to the horizon.
The anchor was hoisted with the sun and we set sail for Angarosh “Mother of shark”, an isolated atoll ringed by a 60 to 900m drop-off. Everybody was up at 05:30 ready and eager for the first day in fishing paradise. At 5:50 my fishing companions and I were already going through our equipment checks. Phrases such as “I am a big fan of things that work, it doesn’t matter what it looks like” and “thin through fat and fat through thin” filtered around the upper deck. If you weren’t a fisherman you wouldn’t know what we were talking about. “So what fly are we using today?” Jim asked head guide Stuart Harley. “Anything with a good hook” he replied. What better answer could one wish for. At some point during the morning during a conversation about GT’s I was told in no uncertain terms that once you have mastered your fly line all you need to do is “strip fast, strike hard and hold on” and that gloves, a tight drag and strong hooks would go a long way. To me it sounded more like good analogy for life.
First cast with the tease (a hookless pencilnose popper) and it explodes as it hits the water like a hand grenade. I remember thinking that that was simply not possible. The fish must have watched the tease’s trajectory through the air. Nothing prepares you for what happens next; not Stu’s tailored briefing (honed by years of experience), his shouts of “Drop it! Drop it! Drop it!” or the voice in your head telling you to remain calm. That you’ve got this… because you don’t. That voice in your head is lying to you. The fly hits the water and the GT, black and angry, screams towards it. Your strips need to be quick and concise. Mine were not. In the time it had taken me to strip twice, this demon of the deep had come and gone. I was shaking like a leaf and all I could think was “what the #### was that?”. I had a second enquiry that morning. Two GT’s zoned in on the tease simultaneously, a line of erupting water betraying their presence. The first broke off early, the second estimated at 90cm in length charged towards my fly only to break off at the last second. I was left with nothing except a bewildered expression of disbelief. Once we’d walked around this tiny patch of sand and seashells, we tried our hand at queenfish and the occasional bluefin trevally with our nine weights and chartreuse clousers. What followed was reminiscent of the Okavango barbell run in Botswana; fly lines and piscatorial chaos. Between the two of us we caught six bluefin trevally and four queenfish, both worthy adversaries in their own right. The other group caught triggerfish and a large porcupine pufferfish on the flats.
That evening I returned to the boat hands bleeding along with my pride. The GT dream had eluded me on a further six occasions during the afternoon session. Four were half-hearted follow-throughs from the opposing team while two brought me close to tears. The first involved a 90cm and a 70-80cm GT working in tandem. Both flew in like torpedoes hungrily searching for a target. They got to within the length of my rod before making their customary disappearance. My fly was not where it should have been. It was caught on a rock in front of me. What it was doing there I simply do not know. The second involved a large bluefin trevally that rocketed in from the right a few minutes after the tease was drawn. My fly was still in the water. The fish sampled my offering between strips before leaving me with the proverbial “%%%% you”. I felt the tension for just a moment. Again, the dream slipped away. Stu insisted we snorkel around for a while which turned out to be a great suggestion and something I wish I had done more of. In the ensuing snorkel session, a school of 6 large permit and a pod of dolphin casually graced us with their flawless elegance. The visibility must have been close to 50m. I had never seen such clear water.
Day 2 – Khor Shinab
At 03:00 hours the captain fired up the engines and we set sail for a lagoon in the North; Khor Shinab. We were on the water rods in hand by 09:30 as ready and eager as the previous day. Armed with our twelve weights we walked a near constant drop-off that shined with possibility. Our first shot arrived after ten minutes. A trio of GT’s had fallen to the tease’s charm. My colleague and I failed dismally. For some reason my fly line was wrapped around my real. While we were exploring the scope of every profanity known to man the fish vanished. For whatever reason every cast is perfect until it matters but we need not have worried. Faced with several hordes of bluefin trevally we had two successful double-ups in the region of 60-80cm. It was also in the midst of one such onslaught that I was picked up by a 70cm GT. In those few short seconds he tore so much line out of my reel and abused my equipment to such an extent that I was convinced I was about to break something. Losing a fish like that will and very nearly did reduce a man to tears. It was a double up. My companion on the day, Merryman, lost a fish of about 1m in length while I landed the fish of a lifetime. No mix of words or music will ever come close to adequately describing that feeling. Stu likened it like hunting buffalo except you’re trying to balance on coral and rock while being belted by six foot waves.
During the afternoon at the edge of the blue water we combed a coastal reef with our brushflies while walking on a false bottom of coral. We saw three different schools of bump head parrotfish feeding well within casting distance. Fede gave us that challenging look which we tried to ignore. He’d hooked up with these fish before but had yet to land one. Merryman and I agreed that our battle lay with the GT and not these behemoths so on each occasion we admired them and then fished on. There was no wind and no current so naturally the fishing was tougher than usual with only two snapper enquiries and yet another large GT that deserved its freedom. I was busy watching this strange hazy sunset that only the desert can provide when my fly hit a brick wall. I struck like it was the stepmother of all trout with predictable results.
This morning saw my first shot at a triggerfish. Up until now I’d preferred the cut and thrust of GT fishing but it wasn’t long before the quick fingered trickery of trigger fishing had me by the proverbial short and curlies. Rather predictably my first cast saw the fly drop onto his head and he spooked. On my second the fly was heavily scrutinised by three triggerfish before they lost interest. Little did I know but my relationship with the “bump, strip, wait” was in its infancy. It was a very calm and hot day so there was not much movement on the flats. We had one shot at a number of moderately sized Bluefin and one GT but they were not as aggressive as their predecessors. We had a few exciting encounters with smaller fish and on the way back to the mother ship I landed an 8kg barracuda on a chartreuse spoon.
That afternoon we chose to dabble with triggerfish on a coastal sand flat that was at least 200m across while the others went in search of GT. They had a chaotic afternoon with two double ups on GT, a six foot barracuda that hit the tease and a successful landing of a yellow lipped empora. We ended the afternoon by throwing nyap poppers off a sand spar at the entrance to Khor Shinab amidst the most beautiful oceanic desert scenery I had ever seen. Unable to resist such intriguing countryside Stu and I climbed a large sand dune comprising mostly of sea shells. We were treated to a birds’ eye view of the desert, the lagoon snaking it’s way inland and the unblinking eye of the desert melting into the sands.
Day 4 – Shab Kumera
The mornings session was memorable for two reasons. Although I fought and lost a 1m GT at close quarters, it was witnessing a large bluefin or GT in action on the flats for the first time which I will never forget. And it happened twice in fairly quick succession. Fede spotted the fish first and shouted for us to “load up!”. I was ready and couldn’t understand why the tease wasn’t already in the water. The tease went out and I knew that all I had to do was drop the fly within the 50m kill radius of the fish, strip for all I was worth and it would zone in on the fly like a bullet with a grudge. On the first bluefin (80cm) the fish reeled the tease so quickly that Fede simply could not pull it out of the water fast enough. On the second, the bluefin, a very large individual nearing 1m in length, broke off the tease and rocketed towards my fly at a terrifying speed. I was watching the fish instead of my hands. I fumbled a strip and I was left with yet another sequence of events that will haunt me for the rest of my days. However, we did not go back empty handed and managed to catch two moderately sized bluefin which proved to be just as satisfactory.
After the morning session we sailed to a set of unbelievably beautiful oceanic reefs known as Shab Kumera. This line of reef was truly something to behold. Fisherman or not, this was beauty beyond measure. A reef with a false bottom of coral surrounded by the deep blue. Colours and shades of blue and purple that they don’t even have names for. The coral coupled with the tide provided some fairly treacherous footing so one had to be cautious, slow and deliberate while walking. After being dropped off some way from the channel so as not to spook the fish we positioned ourselves at the edge of this tiny break in the reef and fished the same spot for three to four hours. Once we arrived Merryman went to work with a tan coloured brush fly. He had still not caught a GT. Fede suggested I use a nyap popper and also decided not to use the tease. It was a good decision. While I was changing my fly a 75cm GT smashed Merryman’s fly on the lip of the reef. We saw him scrabble to the edge as fast as he could with his rod almost vertical. Given the state of his flyline afterwards he had not been without a fair measure of luck in the landing of that fish. I was very happy for him and so was Fede. I started chugging my nyap popper through the water. Three or four casts later a giant white mouth swallowed the fly and plummeted downwards. It was a big fish. I had not seen a GT this size before. Fede screamed at me to “hold it!” and I did. With one hand, as hard as I could I tried. Alas the coral cut the leader and my second 1m GT earned its escape. I was after one thing and Merryman, his GT in the bag, was simply enjoying himself. A whole host of interesting and thrilling species were caught in those three hours. And we did not stop casting.
As an almost perfect day drew to a close Fede and I were standing on a coral bump chatting mostly about fishing, the mythical GT’s of Socotra to be specific, and women. Occasionally the conversation was punctuated by a lot of shouting and swearing whenever a fish followed or smashed the, by now battered, nyap popper. On one such occasion a big (90cm plus) bluefin erupted over the lip and grabbed the fly but with its momentum continued onto the coral bed. Fede had to duck while my rod passed over him. In the next second the fish realised where it was, turned and fled over the lip and down. I leapt off our coral protrusion and ran towards the lip as fast as it could by which time the fish had already dismembered any hope of me controlling him. In my haste I found myself entangled in my own fly line. All I could do was laugh. And I did. At what I was doing, what had just happened, where I was and the beauty of it all. Doing what I loved while the two tender boats swayed gently silhouetted against the sunset. I had ample time to think about it that night; sitting in the dark looking at the stars with their mirrored reflection on the ocean surface, listening to the roar of the reef.
Day 5 – Ras Abu Shagrab
That morning we walked some truly magnificent coastal flats; 50 shades of azure transparency over 300m wide. A powerful north current throbbed over the flats; excellent conditions for GT. The water was cold and, with Stu’s careful scrutiny of the flats, teaming with triggerfish. Months of searching for delicate irregularities in colour or texture coupled with the behavioural subtleties that betray a hungry triggerfish or bonefish meant that he missed nothing. In total we had nine shots at triggerfish (excluding the fish that spooked); five were mine. Trigger fishing is a difficult thing to explain to someone who has never done it. It must be without doubt the most interactive form of fishing. It begins with what has to be an almost near perfect presentation of the fly which results in either a spooked fish or some intense scrutiny. Everything you do then results in an action from the fish which precipitates a reaction on your part and on it goes. In some cases, the fish will continue to inspect the fly long after the leader has entered the eyes of your fly rod. Only if luck is in your favour the fish will actually pick up the fly. At this stage often he does not know that he is hooked because between the teeth and the mouth he is as tough as old leather. Your success rests with the fish’s realisation that he is hooked; the theory being that with the first run the hook sets itself or something to that effect. If the fish does not realise that he is hooked, you end up dragging him through the water as he pumps his pectoral handbrakes. On my tenth shot this clever boot had me worried. Once I’d set the hook I was into my backing in seconds. A few runs later, after some careful give and take and much to my relief I landed a 30cm yellow margin triggerfish. Long live the triggerfish.
Before commencing with the afternoon plans Stu, Merryman and I walked out into the desert and up onto a large sand dune. Once away from the water one could feel the heat vibrating around you as the moisture was sucked from our bodies but the view we were presented with from the summit was breath-taking. After our 3-4km loop we flagged down the tender boat and made for a tiny island connected to an oceanic reef 300m long that no-one had ever fished with a fly rod. As we waded out towards the waves on another magical false bottom of coral Stu told us to be ready as it was not uncommon to see the fish patrolling in the waves. The words had barely left his mouth when we spotted at least four bluefin in the breakers. With 5m of line already out I immediately slapped the water with the fly. Two Bluefin cruised towards it and broke away at the last second. By now Merryman had his in the water too. Thirty meters off to my right was the biggest of the four. He was at least a 90cm in length, casually trailing the other three. In no time my fly smashed into the water three meters ahead of him straight into an oncoming breaker. In one strip this blue missile was onto it. Only now did I realise how big he was. He launched down the front of the wave and engulfed the fly in what seemed like slow motion. I gave him all I was worth. One. Two. Hard strip strikes before he was onto the reel. I gave it to him a third time from the reel just for good measure. He tore back into the waves for only a few seconds before the fly line popped. We walked and fished that perfect reef twice but only came right with two garfish. Every time we approached the tiny island 200 terns flew into the air at once and floated past us in the breeze against a setting sun. The scene was too surreal for words. On the way back to Scuba Libre we released the aforementioned chartreuse spoon as well as a nine inch Rapala. As we made our final approach to day’s end Merryman and I were simultaneously thrown into a 75cm GT and a 15kg dogtooth tuna. We managed to land both but due to some tired and torn fingers I prematurely released the GT before we could capture the moment on camera. That night my hands were in need of some attention. I counted 21 cuts and a torn something or other on my left hand between my ring and middle finger as well as grazes on both legs from the coral.
Day 6: Margarsum
By now the trip had long exceeded my expectations let alone my objectives so regardless of what the fishing gods were to deliver I was happy. Naturally a choice was offered as to what fish we were to target. I was grateful we even had the choice as sometimes, we were assured, the weather can be unforgiving so to me it did not matter. We drove out towards the flats on the far side of a large island known as Margarsum and fished the eastern drop-offs. Other than a sulky 6ft barracuda who completely ignored our flies and a really big titan triggerfish that was basically beaching itself like a killer whale in its feeding efforts at the water’s edge we had little luck. Stu decided to abandon our plan and move to the large flats on the western side of the island. En route to our intended drop off point we stumbled upon what was quite possibly the biggest GT of the trip; a 110cm giant that was casually scouring the edge of the flats in search of fusiliers. Immediately the tender boat was positioned broadside and out came the tease. All too quickly we were again schooled in piscatorial law by one of its most savage representatives. Another reminder that this truly was the “gangsta of the flats”. We spent the rest of the morning tampering with triggerfish. Merryman finally got his first, a respectable 25cm yellow margin triggerfish, and I, hooking three more but landing none, added a few extra unforgettable sequences to add to my long list. We walked to the end of the flat on the Northern tip of the island, bumping two schools of bonefish along the way. As the flat narrowed out into the deep blue in front of us one could almost see the curvature of the earth. Another moment I’ve permanently etched into my memory. To borrow the words from a recent Instagram post by Ranger Diaries. Sometimes you find yourself in a moment so beautiful that the world around you fades away. No troubles and no worries. Just beauty and grace.
After our three hour drive out of Port Sudan we have a meal at the Red Sea Café before taking off for Khartoum; one of the dirtiest and dustiest corners of our overpopulated world. After landing in the middle of a mild sandstorm we pass the carcasses of three or four passenger jets either side of the runway. Stu’s been asleep since we left and I’ve been wishing we’d never left the Scuba Libre. After a 45min wait we take off for Dubai. Stu shakes his head as we take another look at this humanitarian sprawl that stretches out either side of the Nile River into the polluted haze as far as the eye can see. A stark reminder of how fortunate we have been.
We who have spent the last six days reconnoitring massive coastal flats, islands, atolls and oceanic reefs hunting for triggerfish, GT and their equally powerful Blue finned brethren; every night planning and preparing, every morning exploring and experiencing this forgotten corner of Africa. From authentic Sudanese string cheeses and Red Sea seafood pasta dishes to glow in the dark coral and flying fish that splay out from beneath the tender boats across the mirrored blue waters there is a wealth of other Red Sea wonders which would require the use of a book to cover adequately. What truly makes the Sudan experience unique is the undoubtable sense of adventure inherent to each day that makes Sudan an inexcusably must fish destination. I also personally saw a sailfish breech itself repeatedly within casting distance of the tease and having succeeded in throwing a tease over a sailfish from the shore twice already who knows what the men of Tourette Fishing will come up with next.