I’d spent two days on planes, starting in Doha, with airport stops in Cape Town and Windhoek; before finally landing in Lubango, Angola. Chris, one of our two guides for the coming 12 days, waited patiently for us at arrivals. Meanwhile, Shawn, our second guide, was outside using the little free time between the departing group and our arrival to carry out some on-the-fly maintenance on one of the 4-wheel drive twin cab pickup trucks. “The roads are rough”, he said. That turned out to be a serious understatement.
I was exhausted from the journey, but excited to finally step foot on Angolan soil. The country is located on the west coast of Africa, sandwiched between Congo to the north and Namibia to the south. First settled by humans during the Stone Age, Angola was colonised by Portugal for 400 years. Used in part as a base for the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the country has played host to a violent history that includes a brutal civil war that lasted 25 years from their independence in 1975.
Stringent, somewhat archaic, visa requirements mean few tourists visit Angola and even with some pre-trip reading there was an air of mystery and adventure about the place. I’d read of many fascinating sights and unique indigenous cultures that would make for a rewarding trip. On this occasion, however, we all came with one goal in mind: Lichia amia.
The leerfish, or garrick, is an enigmatic species that grows to 1.5m and 30kg. Nicknamed the gentlemen of the sea for their hard, but clean fighting abilities, they inhabit the surf zone, within reach of a land-based lure angler. Southern Angola is a hotspot for oversized leerfish and I had arrived with the aim of landing a 15kg fish on artificial lure.
Our flight landed in the early afternoon and we immediately set off on the 5-hour car ride ahead of us. With a quick stop to get basic supplies for camp we were on our way. Our destination: the iconic Flamingo Lodge. Within an hour we were leaving Lubango behind, the road winding through small villages with a backdrop of Baobab trees and semi-arid desert brush. Soon enough we were making our way down the infamous Serra da Leba pass. Known for its intense hairpin turns, the pass marks the end of the inland escarpment, dropping from 1,845m altitude to sea level over a distance of only 10km.
From here the condition of the road rapidly deteriorated. Potholes large enough to swallow passenger buses are not uncommon. Locals plant trees in the larger holes so drivers can spot them from further away and avoid the danger. It’s quite a unique sight driving along a highway with tree tops showing out of potholes, the odd car wreck being dodged by local drivers going at 120km/h. It was well past sunset when we finally arrived in camp and we wasted no time sorting gear for the next day’s fishing.
We’d set off from camp before dawn and it was only after sunrise that we could finally take in the magnificent setting. Driving along the beach, watching the water for signs of fish activity, the surrounding scenery was truly breathtaking. To one side, an endless expanse of desert dunes framed by the Serra da Chela escarpment in the distance. To the other, the mighty Atlantic Ocean violently lashing the coastline, almost as if offended at our presence. The lodge stands on the edge of a low plateau that abruptly rises from the beach to create a dramatic setting with incredible views in all directions.
A major storm had blown through just days before our arrival and conditions were rough. It was mid-August, the tail end of winter, bitterly cold and the sea was up. Difficult fishing conditions, but we roamed far and wide in the SUVs, stopping to cast out lures in any likely looking spots. Fishing was slow on that first day and we only managed a couple of small shad (bluefish or tailor, as they’re known in other parts). Our never tiring guides prepared an excellent barbecue on the beach and if the fishing was poor, at least the company was excellent.
The next couple of days were frustrating. The weather wasn’t playing ball, grey skies and cold wind settled on the land and at times it felt almost hopeless. Shawn and Chris remained ever optimistic and never seemed to take a break from trying to put us on the fish. We followed a routine of leaving camp just before dawn, driving along the beach and casting endlessly at phantom fish. Using mainly metal spoons and surface plugs, we covered lots of water, but to no avail.
A long drive north out of camp, the beach which seems to stretch unbroken forever, suddenly gives way to a steep ridge that runs perpendicular into the ocean. Through the years, countless adventurers and hopeful anglers have carved a well-worn jeep track to the top and over to the little bay on the other side. We followed the track every day and every time we crested the ridge we’d all keep a sharp eye out for signs of fish in the bay.
After four long days of endless casting with little to show for it, it was atop this ridge that we came across the scene we’d all been hoping for. A large bait ball was trapped in the bay and the water was alive with predators. In between the seals and gulls we could see the silver flashes of large leerfish joining the feeding frenzy just below the water’s surface. The cars stopped halfway up the ridge, in line with the bait ball and chaos erupted. Everyone jumped out, grabbed rods and rushed down the steep incline onto a rocky ledge about 10m above the waterline. On the way down I realized my leader was frayed and I had to make the difficult decision to turn back to replace it. This turned out to be fortunate.
By the time I’d fumbled my way through a FG knot with unsteady, fish fever infected hands, the bait ball was on the move. The rest of the group were furiously casting from the ledge to my left far below me, but the bait ball was moving toward my right and I clambered over boulders trying to intercept the action. I could see a very large leerfish aggressively feeding as I reached a casting platform. This was it.
I steadied myself, trying to keep the adrenalin under control, aiming at the leerfish which was just within range. I let the surface plug fly and as it hit the water I watched as the fish lit up, dashed toward my plug and engulfed it. Instinctively, I set the hook hard and before I could gather my thoughts the fish had stripped 150m of line in a blistering run. It soon dawned on me that the only safe place to land the fish was the beach, at least 100m to my right and separated from me by car sized boulders.
Shawn, showing the value of an experienced guide, appeared right on cue to calmly help me through the obstacle course of loose rock while I made my way to the beach. At times it felt more like mountaineering than fishing as I had to climb up the incline, high up above the water, to clear boulders. All the while the fish was showing no signs of tiring, with long sustained runs against a drag set as tight as I dared.
I finally made it to the beach, covered in sand and out of breath, partly from running, partly from letting out screams of pure joy. By now the fish was also feeling the effects of the prolonged fight and the long runs gave way to a determined sideways pressure punctuated by deep thumps of the tail.
I was slowly gaining line. The fish would turn, run a few meters and try to hold its ground. The fight was now well past the half hour mark and the fish was approaching the backline. A few nervous moments followed navigating the fish into shallow water before Shawn waded in and grabbed her by the tail. I let out a howl of relief, excitement and satisfaction that only an angler could possibly understand.
As we put her on the scales, I realised I was holding a fish I hadn’t even dared to dream of. 25kg…55lb…I could scarcely believe it. We took a couple of trophy shots and sent her off once again to terrorise baitfish in the deep. A spectacular fish in a spectacular setting.
We ended the trip with a combined total of 112 fish, of 5 different species, between 6 anglers. Well short of the season record of more than 300 fish, but a great trip by any standard. The privilege of battling a trophy leerfish in the harsh, but breathtaking, environment was an incredible highlight.
As always however, it’s not the fishing, but the location and the characters you meet along the way that makes a trip like this truly special. With so much more to explore and endless fishing potential, I’ll no doubt be back to the mysterious desert of Southern Angola.
Special thanks goes to Shawn Mey and Chris Ferreira of ‘Go Fish Mosselbay Fishing Tours’ for their endless hard work and dedication. Anyone wishing to experience this unique destination and tremendous fishery can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org. Flamingo Lodge can be reached at email@example.com.