Unfinished Business

David Reverdito tackles giant tarpon in West Africa.

Back in early 1998, I was a freshly minted Petroleum Engineer and had just landed my first job with a multinational service company. After one month of initial training I was sent off on my first phase assignment to Gabon. Most people won’t have a clue what Gabon is let alone where it is, and that’s hardly surprising as it has stayed under the radar for a long time. This relatively small country straddles the equator in West Africa. Bordered by more-troublesome countries like Congo and Equatorial Guinea, it is characterised by having a very small population — roughly two million people in a country the size of Italy. After gaining independence from France in 1960 Gabon was governed for almost 50 years by President Omar Bongo. His son, Ali, is the current president, and apart from the odd attempted coup, Gabon has been stable and quiet, mainly due to the presence of large oil and gas reserves and constant oversight by the French. Port Gentil is the main oil town of Gabon and is effectively isolated from the mainland, being located on a peninsula and cut off to the south by numerous rivers. During my seven-month training assignment I spent a lot of my time on oil rigs learning the ropes, but on my time off I quickly found out about the fishing in the area. In the dry season (May-Oct) there was excellent sailfishing, but in the wet season (Nov-Apr) what really got things going was the tarpon fishing. West Africa has probably the largest Atlantic Tarpon (Megalops atlanticus) in the world, and although the same species as their West Atlantic cousins, they seem to grow much larger — with fish over 200 lb caught up and down the coast, from Angola to Senegal. Unfortunately, in many of those countries they are fished for and eaten, and in others they are found in politically unstable places, so Gabon has always been somewhat of a safe haven for them. On my weekends off I would head out with my friend Joel and go tarpon fishing. In those days I was just starting to dabble in saltwater fly fishing, and no one there had ever heard of one being caught on fly. All I had was an 8-weight rod that I used to catch African snapper, jack crevalle and Guinean barracuda, so I was massively under gunned to tackle tarpon. We used to fish for them with conventional stand-up gear, drifting dead mullet out on circle hooks under balloons, and this was very effective. However, we would always see the fish rolling, and I did try a few times with my fly rod but with no luck. The average size of the tarpon we would catch on bait was 60 kg — so probably a good thing I never hooked one on my 8-weight. EXPLORATION Life continued, and I moved around the world with my job, but the thought of going back to Gabon to catch a big poon on fly was always there. I cut my teeth in the Keys, fishing in the springtime for the migratory Oceanside fish, and over a few trips managed to catch a number over 100 lb, but the really big ones seem to be few and far between over there. After moving to South Africa for work I heard on the grapevine that legendary South African guide Arno Matthee was somewhere in West Africa exploring for giant tarpon on a mothership; one day he was in Congo, then in Angola, but nothing really viable that could be marketed as a destination. I didn’t fully appreciate the time and effort he put in to developing a new tarpon fishery in West Africa until I had the chance to chat with him about it — the logistics were daunting to say the least. Arno has so many stories to tell that I hope he writes a book about it one day. He is truly a pioneer. Then in 2018 my good friend Peter Whittaker, who has known and fished with Arno since his early days in the Seychelles, told me that Arno had finally found something worthwhile in Gabon, and the memories of my time there came flooding back. Peter fished with him and came back with stories of big tarpon rolling and feeding, as well as all sorts of other species. After catching up with Peter and Arno for a coffee one day the deal was done — I secured some dates from Arno and the wait started. I managed to convince fellow tarpon addict Mark Weeks to join me. Mark makes my addiction seem mild as he spends a huge amount of time and money fishing for tarpon in the Keys every year. GETTING TO GABON My week was booked for the end of March to coincide with neap tides that, according to Arno, were ideal for the tarpon in the areas we were going to fish. Getting to Gabon is not too complicated but is quite time consuming. I flew from Johannesburg to Addis Ababa where I was meant to meet up with Mark, but plane issues in Shanghai meant he landed just after we left for Libreville, and he ended up delayed one day. I did, however, meet up in Addis with two South African tarpon anglers also on their way to Gabon. When we landed in Libreville we were met by Arno’s local fixer who took us to a beach hotel for lunch, and then to the domestic terminal where we caught the flight to Port Gentil. It’s a short hop of 40 minutes, but as it was the rainy season the flying part proved interesting. As we got closer to Port Gentil there were giant flashes of lightning everywhere, and on final approach to the airport the plane aborted the landing, gained altitude very quickly and returned to Libreville. After a few hours of waiting for the weather to clear we finally took off again and landed in Port Gentil where we were met by Arno and taken to our accommodations for the week. Our hotel, Le Bougainvillier, was fairly basic but comfortable, and after a quick dinner we hit the sack as it was an early start the next day. THE FISHING Arno currently runs two 20-ft skiffs, with another South African guide Roelof working for him, and we would rotate between the guides, one day with Arno, one day with Roelof. Leaving the marina in the dark and running out through the bay amongst the old abandoned drilling rigs and other ships was always interesting. Most days we ran about one hour before starting to look for the fish. Tarpon are obligate air breathers, and depending on the amount of oxygen in the water, will come up to breathe. So we would look for rollers and feeding fish out in the front of river mouths. It’s not difficult to see them; a 200 lb fish crashing or rolling is quite visible, to say the least. Arno’s skiffs are perfect to fish two anglers, and he would control position and drift with the electric motor on the bow. Once Arno located feeding tarpon he would slowly approach from a distance and then lock the boat into position, using the ‘anchor lock’ on his electric motor. As we were fishing to feeding and rolling fish in 18 to 25 feet of water, we used 12-weight rods, intermediate lines and large Brush flies, in red and black or purple and black, tied on sturdy 4/0 and 5/0 hooks. The tarpon tended to be active until mid-morning and then they would not be as visible on the surface even though still showing on the sounder; they were obviously resting and not feeding. If the conditions were calm then we would go and look for laid up fish – they seemed to be resting, just laying stationary in the water, with just the tips of their fins poking out. This would be the time for smaller flies and floating lines, and an accurate cast would pretty much always cause the tarpon to ‘wake up’ and inhale the fly. If the tarpon were quiet we would look for jacks, and this was a whole different level of fun. As the tide drained off the flats, packs of jack crevalle and longfin jacks would herd the mullet and crash into them, the explosions visible from hundreds of metres away. Using big popping heads, you didn’t even need to get close to the bust ups. As the fish were moving a lot, the loud pops from the popper would attract them and before you knew it a school of 15–30 lb jacks would be crashing your fly. One memorable session at a spot I christened Roelof’s Jack Hole saw Mark and I get smashed by longfin jacks for more than an hour. I lost count of how many we hooked, including double hook-ups, and the mangled and bitten popping head in front of my fly was testament to the assault. During the middle of the day we would move into the river and there were a couple of spots where the tarpon would roll. These were smaller fish but very aggressive. Then in the afternoon we would head back outside the river mouth to resume the morning hostilities. TACTICS & BEHAVIOUR Compared to my Keys experiences, these fish definitely weren’t shy, and they were hungry. Since they are implosion feeders with huge bucket mouths, tarpon don’t chase their prey too fast, but rely on the massive suction generated by them opening their mouths. Thus, your retrieve would get interrupted by a loss of tension followed a split second later by massive weight and an airborne tarpon. After landing and making a giant hole in the water they would be off on searing long runs, helped by the static boat and the current running in or out of the river mouth. A big difference compared to other tarpon fisheries relates to tidal movement: the tides are much bigger in Gabon and so the fish are much more affected. Arno has found that neap tides are the best times, whereas more tidal movement means less activity during spring tides. The other main difference is the fish in Gabon are actively feeding. They move around and use underwater structure to intercept the baitfish, and a sounder with detailed maps has proven invaluable to help Arno locate areas where the tarpon will feed – given the depth and turbidity of the water this has been fundamental for him. Tarpon can be very lazy, and the ones we fished for tended to be local residents. The bigger fish were all darker ocean fish, often with remoras attached. Arno believes there is some kind of migration but doesn’t know where they are going or why. He thinks they move from one river to another and possibly far upstream in the winter months, and then once the rains and slightly warmer weather starts the big fish seem to reappear. He plans to try GPS tagging but there is no research funding available and the pop-up tags are not cheap. Over the six days we fished together, Mark and I had several double hook-ups, often experiencing the eats at the same time. With the bigger fish this made for some interesting moments, and the two South Africans on the other skiff had two fish estimated over 200 lb on at the same time, with both anglers almost getting spooled as the fish ran in separate directions. My personal best that week was an estimated 180 lb tarpon that gave me the hardest fight of my fishing life; the entire fight is firmly etched in my memory. The tarpon were rolling and feeding and I was casting to fish that had shown themselves near the boat. About five metres from the skiff the huge fish rolled on my fly and one second later launched itself completely out of the water. Then it was off, my reel shedding line as if the drag was off. One hour and 10 minutes later, having almost been spooled twice and seen the backing eight times, including parts of the spool I had never seen before, we had the big girl alongside, and managed to grab her, get measurements and then release her. I finally had come full circle, but as is often the case, I will be going back again for more.

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