As a teenager, I came across a copy of Fifty Years a Fisherman. Flipping through the pages, I was suddenly confronted with a photo that changed my life: a fish hanging from a tree with a rope through its prehistoric-looking jaw. It was enormous, taller than the angler posing next to it. I learnt from the caption that it was a tarpon. I was captivated, immediately bought the book and the tales of tarpon fishing in John Wilson’s autobiography set my imagination on fire. It would be many years before I’d finally come face-to-face with Megalops, and, over time, through obsessively consuming anything vaguely related to the species, I realized I didn’t only want to catch a tarpon. I wanted a giant tarpon. From a beach. On a lure. Along the way, I discovered the perfect location to pursue my dream: Gabon.
My journey started in Nigeria, where I worked as an expat, and it was a relief to arrive in the tranquillity of the Gabonese capital, leaving behind frantic Lagos. Libreville, literally Free Town, was established by slaves in 1849 when an illegal slave ship was seized and the captives freed. France colonized and informally ruled the country as an outpost until independence in 1960. In 2002 the country dedicated 10% of their landmass to creating 13 national parks, the jewel in the crown undoubtedly being Loango National Park, known as Africa’s Last Eden. Famous for its surfing hippos, Loango covers 1,550km2 of unspoilt rainforest, savannah, mangroves and rainforest-backed beaches. On the edge of Loango lies Sette Cama, a former colonial seaport for the ivory trade and my final destination.
Our chartered flight touched down in the small town of Gamba, near the southern edge of Loango National Park, and we were warmly greeted by the team from African Waters. After a short car ride through town to the slipway, we boarded two spacious powerboats for the final leg of our journey. We were expertly skipped by our local guides through the waters of the Ndogo lagoon, surrounded by an impenetrably thick wall of green rainforest. Soon the only sign of civilization was the occasional indigenous village that would appear out of nowhere in a forest clearing or a lone fisherman in a traditional dugout canoe checking his nets. The trip had hardly begun, and I was already spellbound by the magic of the place.
After an hour on the boats, we pulled up to the little wooden jetty below Sette Cama Aventure camp and, while the team unloaded our gear, we explored our surroundings. The campsite sits on the edge of the lagoon, on a long sandspit that runs out to the mouth in the north, separating the last few kilometres of the lagoon from the Atlantic Ocean. Mark Murray, head guide for the week, briefed us over lunch on the week’s plans and shared practical hints on dodging elephants in our camp.
Thoughts quickly turned to fishing, and the deck was soon abuzz with activity as rods and lures were rigged, knots checked and rechecked, drags set, and bags packed. Late afternoon into the night and pre-dawn to mid-morning are the prime times in Sette Cama, and this would determine our schedule for the trip. We departed camp at 4pm, and following a short scenic boat ride, we jumped off on the beach just inside the estuary mouth.
We worked our way along the beach, casting poppers at busting schools of longfin jacks and slowly making our way toward the surf. It’s hard to describe the experience of fishing on a pristine West African beach. Pastel sunset hues against a cloudy sky, an endless stretch of beach with roaming big game, white surf caps offset against a background of dark tannin-stained water, impossibly large schools of longfin jacks and tarpon churning the water as they smash bait balls. Combined with the inevitable fish fever, it’s sensory overload.
The surf zone is patrolled by enormous sharks – bulls and lemons mainly, and even crocodiles and hippos make the occasional appearance. Not ideal for wading, but rolling tarpon is a magnet for anglers, and before long, we were spread out in a line, waist-deep, furiously casting all kinds of lures. The action was instant. Heart-stopping takes from cubera snappers, giant African threadfin and jack crevalle had us playing twister to keep our lines clear, and multiple double-ups was a common sight. The fishing was so good that I felt slightly annoyed when I hooked my third 20kg+ cubera snapper on a topwater lure – couldn’t these monster snappers give the tarpon a turn for once?
The first three days flew by in an action-packed instant. Everyone landed several once-in-a-lifetime fish, the camp was comfortable, the food outstanding, and the guide team simply superb. I couldn’t imagine a better fishing trip. Then, on the fourth morning, with 3 days of fishing left, we woke up to an intense tropical thunderstorm. I was first to join Mark at the dining area for coffee, and he told me the morning session would probably be cancelled for obvious safety reasons. By now, it had been raining for several hours non-stop, with no sign of slowing down. I reflected on the excellent fishing we’d enjoyed and, knowing that a river in flood is bad for fishing, I was grateful to have ticked several species off the list. The rest of the guys joined, and while I stared out at the river, reliving the highlights of the past three days, I snapped out of my daydream when I heard Mark nonchalantly tell someone behind me: “when the rains stops, you’ll get to experience proper fishing.”
He emphasized proper as if what we’d been doing so far was a dress rehearsal. I nearly choked on my coffee. Of course, Mark, in his laid-back way, understated everything, and this was no exception. I immediately interrogated him about the effect of rain on the fishing, and he patiently obliged, explaining how the rain pushes dark-coloured freshwater from upriver into the surf. This, he said, serves as a giant dinner bell for the predatory fish we were after. It was hard to imagine better fishing, but Mark smiled knowingly, and I knew we were in for a treat.
The following morning’s session was chaos. It was simply impossible to land a lure anywhere near the water and not instantly get smashed. Snapper, jacks, threadfin, barracuda, even the tarpon dropped their usually aloof pose and joined in the fun. I jumped several tarpon, failing to set the hooks on any of them, and I felt sure it was only a matter of time before I’d realize my long-held dream. The sun rose to reveal a scene of carnage: marauding schools of longfin jacks churned the water in between crashing tarpon and snapper surface attacks that looked like bombs exploding.
I aimed at a rolling tarpon and sent my popper flying, mentally repeating Mark’s advice: small pops….I let the popper settle with a subtle twitch. Small pops…a second twitch. A school of jacks was approaching. Please stay away, I heard myself say out loud. I was replaying in my mind an image from earlier: an enormous jack crevalle coming up and gently sipping my 14cm popper off the top like a rainbow trout eating a mayfly on a chalk stream. Unlike a rainbow, that fish kept me busy for 45 long minutes and literally fought to its death. Not now, please not now.
Another little pop. I saw a dark shape appear under the popper, then fade away. One more subtle pop and suddenly: WHOOF! My popper noisily disappeared into a black hole in the water.
I felt the line tighten, and I struck hard. One, two, three hard strikes and the giant fish broke the surface in an enormous explosion of energy. Time slowed down, and the world dissolved around me. A rainbow appeared in the fine spray of water. Above it, suspended in mid-air, was an enormous silver body arching side-to-side in slow motion. A giant eye stared back at me with contempt, and the fish flared its gills, readying for a violent head shake. I saw my lure swing around from behind the fish’s head toward me and realised with awe that the hook had barely penetrated the bony jaw. The single hook bent open like a paperclip, and the popper was airborne, travelling in my direction. The fish crashed back into the water a few feet from me as the popper hit me in the chest with violent force.
Tarpawn, said one of the local guides casually with a heavy French accent.
Merde! I replied, trying hard to hide the raw mixture of adrenalin and disappointment.
I didn’t get another shot at a tarpon in Gabon after that. On the way home, reflecting on my missed goal, I decided it was a fitting way to end an incredible adventure. My boyhood dream of a monstrous tarpon was still alive, and that, I thought, was a perfect excuse to go back for another trip of a lifetime.
On their Facebook page, African Waters (formerly known as Tourette Fishing) states: “If you take any activity and push it to the wildest edge, you create magic.” I cannot think of a more fitting word than “magic” to describe my experience with their team. Anyone thinking of an African fishing adventure should reach out to Rob Scott – email@example.com