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What the pros say: Richard Sheard

To set the scene , the previous days had been windy and almost overcast, if there is such a thing when its 32 degrees in Africa , meaning the Reef fishing had been difficult and although we had several good runs , no decent fish had been brought to the boat. Mark Longster , charter skipper and probably the greatest authority on West African fishing, had assured us that there was no need to panic we just had to bide our time and the tides would drop off and we would soon be into the big reef species.

We were however on a time limit , we had three radio shows to record for Dirty Tackle and although we had had some excellent light tackle fishing , we just needed one thing Really Big Fish !!. I was amazed by Marks cool demeanour considering this to me was a major crisis , he just kept saying , don’t worry when the tides drop below 1.3mts it will be like flicking a switch. I must say that the other 3 in the party were looking a bit nervous too , Mike Thrussell , well , as a angling journalist its his job to write about big fish, Rob Wyatt , a top angler who was there to help Mike out and My mate Derek who “just wanted to get stuck into something that pulls back” were all keen to see some action.

Due to Mikes busy schedule we had a fairly small window to hit as far as tides were concerned and not much time to fit it all in. We had programmes and articles on the Upriver trip for the Tigerfish and the Big Clarius Catfish , a beach fishing segment, Tarpon fishing , Reef fishing and of course general country information to do , a pretty tight schedule in 7 days.

We had completed the upriver and beach sections , so then Reef , Tarpon were next. With the approaching smaller tides we decided to target the 2 of the best fighters on the Reef , Captainfish and Cubera Snapper. Captainfish or more correctly West African Threadfin Salmon are a superbly adapted bottom feeding predator equipped with a huge array of sensors to track down their food in even the murkiest water. They have a clear Jelly like nose containing sensory organs which pick up vibrations and electrical impulses , this gives rise to their local name ” Shiny Nose or Jelly Nose “. Below and slightly behind their mouth is a set of adapted fins { threadfins } which have evolved to feel along the bottom just in front of the fishes mouth and detect Crabs , lobsters and any other poor unfortunates that happens to get in the way.

The Cubera Snapper on the other hand is a smash and grab merchant , big baits , the smellier the better , a big 2lb “Bonga” fish { bit like an Allis Shad } flappered and fished hard on the bottom will normally do the trick , although these opportunists will knock off most things that don’t swim away fast enough . Living in around big rock holes the Snapper will quite often , “knock on the door and run away ” , but if you do good a good take , its hit them hard and go for your life !! .

Anyway the stage is set , all the anglers board the two 22ft Wilson fliers Tarpon 1 and 2 and the Orkney and set off to Denton bridge to jig for the small Yahboy livebaits that have in the past proved deadly for the Captainfish. The yahboy is very like a baby herring and can be taken 2 or 3 at a time on small Sabiki feather rigs and even bear sweetcorn hooks. They are tough little critters , which makes them an excellent livebait in the coloured waters of the Gambia River , their movement and bright silver colouration are about all you could ask for in a good livebait.

With the tank filled with about 30 Yahboys and 15 finger sized mullet bought from the local cast net fishermen , we set off to the Barra , a reef area in the main river mouth. The Barra area has traditionally produced most of the Gambias largest fish, renown for the Tanjura Stingrays , Requiem Sharks , Tarpon, Big barracuda , Cassava and the species already mentioned , this rocky drop off can normally be relied on to get your string pulled “big style”.

Cutting the engines some 800 yards from the ferry terminal over 70ft of water , everyone seemed very aware that we were fishing to order , radio , magazine articles , and websites all waiting. But Mark stuck to his predictions , as he moved off to his mark in Tarpon 1 , he said ” get some down on the bottom and watch out , cos it might just all go off ” well I’m not sure Id have been quite so chirpy if I was under pressure to produce , but then again he’s seen it all before with the John Wilson programmes and books .

Down to the rigs , Livebaits are fished on sliding ledger rigs , with 20lb to 40lb mainline biminied and a 70lb 2mt abrasion resistant trace with a very good quality 6/0 hook, which allows the baits to swim freely in the slow tides , movement and vibration are the key to catching these Captainfish. Deadbait rigs are similar but using an 8/0 O,shaugnessy stitched through the body of the fish on a shorter 1mt leader with the tail of the fish looped into the line to ensure its presented flat. The method behind the shorter leader is that it prevents the Snapper from wrapping itself around a rock before you have time to do anything about it. We fished six rods fished from each boat with a spread of various baits , obviously the live and Deadbaits as described, but also large racks of local fresh prawns , some of which are 5 and 6 ins long , and cocktails of prawns and bonga fish to add to the variety. This array of tasty morsels gives you a good chance of pinning down exactly what the target species are after , on a particular tide.

Just along side us in Tarpon 2 was Pete Clarke and his team , all regular visitors to the Gambia and avid travelling anglers , needless to say it was them who hooked up first, because it was us who needed the fish. A screaming run meant that Assan their captain had to buoy off and drift with the fish , and then just as the boat started to drift , bang another big hit and two fish on . Playing two fish from a static boat is difficult but playing two big fish whilst drifting is nearly impossible , especially when the fish always seem to want to go in different directions, so its testament to the anglers and the captain that both fish were brought safely to the boat after about a 30 min tussle. As they returned to their buoy , Pete held up a Snapper of at least 35 lbs and Bill a Captain fish of 40 lbs plus , not a bad start . The tide conditions were absolutely perfect , the small height meant a nice consistent flow , creating superb scent trails drifting off across the reef , I could just imagine all those big reef fish moving up the scent just like the Bisto kids. We were finding the bottom with barely an ounce and a half of lead so fishing conditions were easy, just lift and drop the baits slowly back down the tide. The 20lb Masterline Big Game I was using started to tap gently and as I picked it up a slow pull developed , just feed out one hand full of line to allow the fish to take the bait and turn it, and then tighten in and jab it twice to set the hook and off we go. This characteristic surging run of the Captainfish is straight away up tide up and although not fast it is tremendously powerful. Unlike the Snapper the Threadfin will not head for the rocks but will run for deeper water ,its natural home, this is why 9 times out of ten if it’s a decent fish you have to buoy off and follow it. I put on some sustained pressure but it wasn’t making much difference, as the boat drifted with the fish I found it amazing that a 45lb fish could pull a 22ft boat round in a circle , and it took a good fifteen minutes before my Shimano TLD 20 started to get filled up again. The closing stages of the fight consist of large circles, not the tightening fast circles of a tuna , but long slow surging sweeps as the fishes huge tail beats for the bottom. Then exhausted the fish rolls to the surface and into the net .These Captainfish always look huge as well because of their streamlined shape and big fins ,they seem to me to be very good value for their weight.

They are spectacular out of the water , bright bars of silver with gold underbelly and proud powerful fins, the fish was easily 40lbs and maybe even 45 , but we would have to wait until we got back to the slipway to sort that out. As I looked up, Tarpon 1 had buoyed off and was drifting on a fish, which was obviously a Snapper as they very quickly returned to their mark after some swearing which could be heard several hundred yards away. I gather they were hard into a snapper mark as this was repeated 6 times before they successfully boated a fish , those snapper are not easy if your not experienced , and not much easier if you are. But more of that in a minute.

A more positive bite , resulted in Mikes first Threadfin , a beauty of 43 lbs which took 20minutes to subdue , at last we were getting some good photos and recording action. At about 2.15 Tarpon 2 again drifted off on another fish and were not to return for 40 minutes , must be a big fish , maybe a shark although with only mono traces they don’t tend to stay stuck for long. In the mean time Rob had hooked up and was doing well against what was obviously another quality Captainfish , the uptide rod he was using had a nice balance for these mid range sport fish ,giving nice control without outgunning the fish and ruining the fight. I may not have told you but Rob had had wretched luck all week , well that’s an understatement , if it was going to snap up , fall off or bite through , it was going to happen to him that week and true to form the fish appeared on the surface with the hook attached to what looked like one scale on fishes gill cover , it was tantalisingly close as Yaz our captain leant across to slide the net under the fish , just inches more and the fish made one last effort and ping !!! out came the hook and Robs prize righted its self and made its escape back to the bottom.

At that moment things went from constenation to elation ,Tarpon 2 was back , and they held up another threadfin, I say they because it took two of them, the fish was huge fish a good 50lber and caught on 20lb line , this was possibly a world line class record. The world record is already held in the Gambia a fish of 74lbs caught by a Dutch lady who beat her own husbands record , poor guy doesn’t even bear thinking about does it. However the commercial fishermen regularly pick up offshore fish weighing in excess of 100lbs so its only a matter of time before the record goes again.

As the tide began to slack we realised that we were running short of live baits with the action being so fast and furious we hadn’t even noticed, so Mark who had been on Tarpon 1 with some other clients who had by this time lost 7 Snapper and were now suffering a bit with the heat, volunteered to go back to the bridge and catch some more Yahboys, I do like a skipper who looks after his clients. Just as his boat moved off the heavy deadbait rod began to screech against the ratchet, this could only be one thing , a Cubera Snapper , the shear ferocity of the hit takes most anglers completely by surprise , its all violence with the Dog Snapper ,to give it its local name. Most Snapper fights are won and lost in the first 15 seconds, because if you do not prevent it reaching its safe hole then Game Over , next player please. Even small fish of 15lbs will bend a 30lb class boat rod until it locks up and then some , so hit them hard and hold on, get there head up and your getting there ,well about 5 % of the way there anyway. There is then a series of blistering dives , back to the bottom which have to be stopped ,each time you make 10 yards it seems to take 15 . Anyway Mike had obviously been heeding my warnings, because he had the fish on the move , and in the right direction, unfortunately it had other ideas and headed off straight round the anchor rope ,turned and swum straight back up tide . Which left us with the impression we were fighting a fish going down tide , everything got very heavy until we realised the fish had wrapped the line twice round the rope and gone in the opposite direction . I managed to pull enough of the rope out of the water to free the line , by which time the fish was heading directly away from us towards a Sports boat which had dropped in near us because of all the action. Mike applying heavy pressure managed to force the fish to the surface but not before it had fouled the line of the guy on the sports boat , his response was to strike what he obviously thought was a bite, our captainwas not best impressed and let him know in no uncertain terms, but too late the second attempt at freeing his line tore the hook hold leaving us attached to him but not to the fish. Oh _ _ _ K !!!

Never mind we were soon back into fish with several more good sized Thread fins and a big Snapper safely landed . After the turn of the tide we changed tactics to lighter gear and picked up a veritable aquarium full of strange species , Tapendal a local Angel fish , Thick lipped Grouper , Sunpat { A sea bream } , Jack Crevalle , Cassavas to name but a few. These small tropical species are often over looked by the travelling angler in pursuit of monsters , but I like nothing better than a couple of hours scrapping it out with these excellent little fighters on light gear. I have a little six foot single handed bait caster with 10lb braided line , fished with small sliding ledger rigs, and the smaller fish can be lots of fun if tackled correctly. Especially the Grouper and Sunpats they offer tremendous sport for a warm up session and are all excellent table fish as well , and then nobody says the bigger fish wont pick up your small baits too , and that really is fun, a 35lb Cassava on a single handed baitcaster , now that’s what I call fishing.

Returning to the slipway at Denton bridge, I could not believe the consistency of these fish ,12 Captainfish over 30lbs , 7 of which where over 40lbs and the one fish of 52lbs 9 oz. , a new World line class record. Not to mention Snappers of 38 , 27 and 14 lbs , 4 Sunpat of 8lb plus and a whole range of fish between 2 and 5lbs. Quite some day .

Anyway Mark should have had a bet on, because his predictions were spot on , being a charter skipper is a difficult job because they have to produce fish to order all the time , and I take my hat off to him because he did prove to be the KING OF THE CAPTAINS .


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