What the pros say: Mike Thrussell - Reef Fishing

One of the highlights during my fishing adventure to The Gambia was the quality and variety of fish I caught whilst reef fishing.


The day began with the customary stop at Denton Bridge to catch some fresh yahboys livebaits. The best lures for these were small fish skin lures tied on size 12 gold hooks. It seemed to be the combination of natural looking fish skin and the gold plated hooks flashing in the water that worked so well for the yahboys. My fishing buddy Rob Wyatt tried several other types of small feather rigs, but nothing touched the fish skin lures for numbers of fish caught.


The yahboys seem to be mostly very close to the surface. Choosing small leads and then working the lures sink and draw catches them okay, but I found that fishing the lures freeline and letting the tidal current carry them down under the bridge supports worked better. The same method and lures will also catch tapendal, angelfish and something that looks like a small sardine.


The boat skippers, often called “captains” in The Gambia, will also arrange to pick up some fresh live mullet from the net fisherman that congregate along the bridge first thing in the morning. These mullet baits are a good deal bigger than the yahboys but are equally good bait.


The reef structures you’ll be fishing are numerous. The ones that seem to be the most popular are Mantle Reef and Senegambia Reef. Safe to say, choose any reef structure just offshore from Leybato southwards and you’ll experience excellent fishing pretty much anywhere.


The mornings are the best for getting some ledger fishing in with the heavier 30lb and 50lb class rods. You can fish yahboy baits hard on the seabed in amongst the rocks for the chance of cubera snapper, which can run to over 50lbs, plus moray eels. Alternatively switch to whole fresh prawn baits using a good half dozen on the hook for captain fish.


Watch carefully where the boat captain anchors the boat. They may choose to just anchor over a known hotspot, but sometimes they’ll anchor along the edge of a reef. You can see the area where the reef edge ends by a line of rougher water on the sea surface caused by the tide run. This is your cue to bring out a lighter spinning rod or 12lb class outfit and cast small half prawn baits on single hook ledger rigs out to the edge of the reef to where the line is obvious on the surface. Let the bait trot downtide a little by choosing a lead around 1 to 2ozs. This moving bait is likely to pick up bonus ladyfish (Nine Bones) which will leap clear of the water when hooked, thick-lipped grouper and even roving jack cravalle, plus other species.


If the captain decides to just anchor over a part of the middle of the reef, then stick to the same light outfit and just cast the bait away from the boat and straight downtide about 20-yards. A typical reef mark will see two types of tapendal banded and silver, brilliant yellow triggerfish, butterfish, rock cod, wrasse, moray eel, frogfish and joto’s.


Still staying with the light 12lb class outfit, try fishing a 30lb hook trace about 2-feet long and go up to a size 2/0 hook and bait with a single whole prawn. When the lead hits the seabed keep lifting the lead up and down with the rod. This action of the bait lifting and falling can increase your chances of hooking in to a brilliant silver cassava or a sunpat. The cassava is a hard fighter, running hard along the seabed and will try to find sanctuary amongst the rocks. I caught them to 18lbs on the light gear and they sure do scrap hard. The sunpat looks a little like a UK black bream, but they run to 10lbs and fight twice as hard as a bream can, size for size that is.


If you want rays, then the captain will change to ground that is more broken with sandier patches amongst the rocks. This brings you in line to hook stingray which can top 200lbs, but average between 30lbs and 50lbs, tundara rays and guitar fish. A single live mullet fished hard on the seabed on 100lb mono or wire traces and big 7/0 Suicide hooks give the best chance. Go for the 50lb class rod and reel when after the rays as you’re never quite sure just what might turn up.


Come the afternoon, then you have another choice. If you watch the line of the reef where the tide run breaks the surface, you’ll see big flocks of birds hanging around. When the birds start to dive frantically in to the sea, if you look at the seas surface you’ll see big fish splashing as they feed. These are the mighty jacks (jack cravalle). They weigh anything from a few pounds up to 30lbs and are called “pound per minute” fish meaning they will fight one minute for every pound they weigh. I caught jacks and can verify they are one of the hardest fighting fish you’ll come across. These are the same fish as the jack trevally in Australia.

The way to fish jacks is to have a 1 to 2oz spinner ready and use the spinning rod. The Dexter Wedge is the ideal lure for this. The captain will quietly approach the feeding shoal, then cut the motor and let the boat drift towards the shoal. Once you’re within casting range go for it. The jacks hit like a ton of bricks and be prepared to give line.


These jacks make an ideal target for the keen fly fisherman too. If you have a 10-weight fly rod ready with a weight forward floating line, or maybe a sinking tip with a 20lb leader armed with a medium sized surface popper or sinking streamer fly in white with yellow, red or blue in the dressing, then you’re in for heart pumping action. Make sure you have plenty of backing line on the reel. Get the fly in amongst the feeding jacks and strip as fast as you can. When the jacks hit they’ll take off on a fast run, so set the drag on the reel accordingly.

Jacks fight by staying underneath the boat and going round in both clockwise and anti-clockwise circles, but interspaced with short fast runs away from the boat. You’ll be up on the bow one second, then having to head for the stern the next to keep the line away from the outboard prop.


The other option is to troll big plugs for barracuda. This is simple fishing. You troll the plugs about 35-yards behind the boat at speeds between 3 and 6 knots. Carry biggish plugs with you, both floating and sinking varieties, though the captains will have their own selections. I used Yo-Zuri Crystal Minnows and Rapala Magnums in mackerel and red/white colours to good effect. Also carry something with orange in it, as this can be good some days. The plugs can also produce big spanish mackerel as well as the ‘cuda.


When plug fishing, use a short 2-foot wire trace of about 50lb breaking strain. The ‘cuda’s have big teeth and can make short work of mono traces.


You can also pick up bonus barracuda while you’re fishing the ledger rods by float fishing. Again use a wire trace, but suspend a yahboy or mullet bait about 3-feet down and use a party balloon about the size of a large orange as a float and let the balloon float away from the boat about 30-yards.


For the barracuda and spanish mackerel, an uptide rod is ideal matched to a 7000 sized multiplier loaded with 20lb line.


As you can see, if you’re prepared to switch fishing tactics and methods you’ll enjoy day long fishing on these Gambian reefs and you never quite know just what the next fish will be, or whether it will be big or small. In just two days reef fishing I managed 21 different species to give you some idea of the variety available.


If you fancy a last hour with the fly rod, then head back to Denton Bridge and anchor up just above the structure. There are hordes of very big garfish here that will take a fly. Rob and myself both hooked up on good gars here but didn’t by any means hit the biggest ones. Some of them look to be in excess of 3lbs and nearer 4lbs. Some adversary on a fly rod!

Also back at the bridge, if you trot a small yahboy back down underneath the bridge structure on a light lead and long 60lb hook trace, you’ve a good chance of picking up cassava, rays and even baby tarpon to 50lbs. Some big sharks are reported to frequent the bridge area too, though I’ve a sneaking feeling that a night tide here would give you the best chance of these.