By Warren Deon van Tonder
Being fly fishers, we all have that one special place on this big blue ball that owns our fly fishing souls and draws us back time-after-time. Kept mostly under the radar, these places are about so much more than the scaled adversaries that haunt their waters. To some this place is an exotic destination two continents away, but to others it’s simply the local river an hour’s drive from home. Despite their stark contrast, these destinations all have one thing in common; they are the places we go to disconnect from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, to reconnect with friends and family and to slow down, switch off and hand the controls over to Mother Nature. To me, the quest to find this mythical place is the whole “purpose” of being purposefully lost.
Nestled along the Kwazulu Natal East coast, in the heart of the Isimagaliso Wetland Park (a world heritage nature reserve), lies my fly fishing Nirvana. A place with mile upon mile of pristine beaches, turquoise blue waters darkened only by patches of reef, towering sand dunes blanketed in green by untouched coastal forests, fresh air filled with the best perfume the Indian ocean has to offer and of course, healthy populations of a wide variety of fish species.
This place is known as Cape Vidal and is truly a nature lover’s paradise.
Being approximately 700km from our base in Pretoria, we try to at the very least visit Cape Vidal once a year, to cleanse ourselves of the stresses associated with the fast paced city lifestyle. This year was no different and we were already planning our annual pilgrimage 8 months in advance to the trip. Tides and moon phases were scrutinised and a week where the full moon and high tides coincides with sun rises and sunsets, was carefully selected.
About a month before our departure, I received a call form Vagabond Fly’s Pieter Taljaard. After hearing about our planned trip to Cape Vidal, he informed me of some fantastic new LOOP gear that he recently tested on the infamous striped water dogs of the Chobe River. Having tamed the mighty Tigerfish, Pieter thought it was time to crank it up a notch and see what the LOOP tackle was really made of.
To those not yet acquainted with the harsh and unforgiving conditions faced by fly fishers in the Zululand surf zone, let me attempt to aptly explain the conditions one is likely to encounter. Big waves, strong currents and high winds are a given on most days, add to this the constant bombardment of sand in both the surf and the wind, jagged and potholed reefs lined with razor sharp molluscs and you now start to get the picture. Now imagine wading into the pounding surf with a shopping basket, filled with fly-line spaghetti strapped to your waist, the wind pumping straight onto your casting arm while you try to send a 4/0 baitfish imitation out over the shore break on a full fast-sinking line. Not to mention the steep dunes hampering your back cast, the fly-line tangling in every imaginable way or the likelihood of a Zambezi (Bull) Shark eyeing your tasty looking calves in the shore break. Then, provided luck is on your side and you connect with a decent fish, you need tackle strong enough to keep the fish from heading into or over the sharp reefs, inevitably resulting in heart break. This is surely one of the harshest fly fishing environments you can find and your tackle needs to be able to stand up to the abuse and perform seamlessly every time.
With the potential target species (mostly various trevally, pompano and a multitude of other surf and reef species) in mind, Pieter suggested that we give the 9wt LOOP Evotec outfit a good work over at Cape Vidal. We were also armed with an 8wt LOOP Cross SX paired with a LOOP Optirunner reel to put through their paces in the surf. The big surf and strong currents dictated the use of fast sinking and sink-tip lines to get the flies down quick and keep them in the strike zone for as long as possible. The 9wt LOOP Evotec outfit was paired with Scientific Anglers’ new SONAR Triple Density Hover-S2-S4 line in a 10wt titan taper. The 8wt LOOP Cross SX was complimented with an Airflo 250g sink tip line.
With all our gear sorted and boxes overflowing with 8 months worth of tying, we were armed to the teeth and ready to tackle the surf. However, a week before our departure, social media suddenly came alive with conspiracy theorists mongering doom and gloom for the entire East coast of South Africa. A quick look at our weather apps seemingly supported their claims and the forecast for our trip was not looking pretty. According to an official warning issued by the South African Coast Guard, the closest supermoon in 67 years would occur right in the middle of our trip and result in extreme sea conditions, high winds and persistent rain. Being recently married and considering that this was my wife’s first official camping trip, the chance of any future camping trips to Cape Vidal were directly proportional to the level of wife-satisfaction-achieved on this trip. The pressure was on to deliver and the flood of warnings and terrible weather forecasts did not help my confidence at all.
Road trippin, Monkey Wars & Rain
With the car packed and the trailer probably slightly overloaded, we departed for Cape Vidal on a Sunday morning, looking forward to getting out of the city. Halfway through our road trip we were met with pouring rain and I could see my wife asking herself what she had gotten herself into. However, any thoughts of wishing the rain away vanished as we drove past the parched and barren landscape surrounding Lake Jozini. In the grip of a severe drought, the rain was desperately needed.
At about lunch time, we finally arrived in the small town of St Lucia and stopped to fill up on fuel and ice for the week ahead. Fully stocked, we then paid our park fees at the reserve gate and enjoyed the final 30km drive through the nature reserve. Seeing Buffalo, Kudu, Wildebeest, Zebra and numerous other game species on the drive, it finally felt as if we had left civilisation behind. Arriving at Cape Vidal, our fleet quickly checked in at reception and then raced down to the beach to have a look at the surf. The wind had died, the sea was relatively flat and the tide was just starting to push. With the water looking really fishy we had to seriously restrain ourselves from diving into the trailer and rigging the 9wts, and opted to rather be responsible and go set up camp.
As we pulled into our designated camp spots we were almost immediately initiated by the local welcoming party, the infamous Cape Vidal Vervet Monkey clan.
It’s uncanny how they can sense the naivety of new comers in the camp. We had just unhooked the trailer and Pieter Botha had left the passenger door of his bakkie (pick-up) open and when we turned around there were no less than 3 Vervets pillaging his lunch packets. The monkeys escaped with the loot and gorged themselves on the burger and chips in the trees while watching us pitch the tents. Wise to their intensions and next level hijacking skills, everything that remotely resembled food was secured in the trailers.
With the camp sorted and monkeys temporarily raiding another camp, we set up our rods as fast as we could. By the time we were geared and ready to roll it was 4 in the afternoon and we would be just in time for the pushing tide in the bay at sunset. After a long day driving, setting up camp and battling monkeys we were all a little weary to say the least. But, stepping onto the dune and seeing the beauty of the Indian Ocean laid out in front of us, we were all overwhelmed by the urge to wet a line and miraculously found enough reserved energy to charge down to the beach and flog the surf for last few hours of daylight. Despite fishing hard and the water looking really fishy, the bigger fish were just not around and we had to scale down and target the smaller species. Having located a school of kitefish (Natal Moonies), Pieter was picking fish cast for cast out of the school with his 6wt and a small Flashy Bugger. After a while the school wised up to our antics and suddenly developed lockjaw, but at least we didn’t draw a blank for the day. We decided to call it off early as the Southwester had picked up and the weather was looking more and more ominous. With the rain pouring that evening we were forced to braai (barbeque) our steaks on a gas cooker (a cardinal sin I know, but hey, desperate times call for desperate measures) and retired early for a good night’s rest.
Monday, Rainy Monday
After a good night’s rest we were woken up to the sound of rain bucketing down onto our tents. The Southwester had picked up and it was oddly cool for this time of year. Just like the rest of the camp our mood was rather dampened by the weather, but we were still eager to get down to the beach. We donned the rain gear and off we went to flog the surf once again. With the tide just starting to drop we decided to fish the shore break gullies in front of the campsite and progressively moved up the beach to the Northern ledges as the tide dropped. Fishing back towards the beach from sand bars and swinging our lines though the gutters behind the shore break we managed to land some small wave Garrick and threadfin mullet on small Charlies and Salty Buggers. However, it was hard work reverse casting in the SW wind while trying to keep your footing in the unusually big surf.
By 11am the rain had eased off and the tide had dropped enough to get onto the Northern ledges. Fishing from these ledges under normal sea conditions is almost like fishing in an aquarium and you can usually spot schools of Stone Bream, Wave Garrick and other reef species feeding in the wash on the edge of the ledges. But with a huge swell breaking on the outer reef, the ledges were almost devoid of fish. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, or rather not seeing. The currents must have been too strong and the fish must have decided to seek refuge in calmer waters. Apart for the odd Wave Garrick and Kitefish we didn’t manage to connect with anything substantial. After fishing really hard for meagre returns, we headed back to camp for some lunch and rest before the afternoon session during the pushing tide.
By 4:30 we were back in the bay with the hope of connecting with some proper Trevally. The wind had fortunately died down, which made casting the sinking lines much easier. But alas, with the huge swell coming over the reef and the bay being very sanded up, the current was flying over the sand spit. Even with a 500 grain sinking line, casting up current, the line would was out on the beach before we could get in two or three strips. If there were fish in this steam train of a current (which I doubted) our flies weren’t spending enough time in the strike zone and we didn’t feel confident that we had a chance of hooking, yet alone stopping, any decent sized fish in the current. At this stage a group of overseas tourists (mostly Europeans) had arrived on the beach and were absolutely fascinated by our antics. It was almost as if the paparazzi had arrived and camera flashes lit up the beach. Considering the sea conditions and with the weather giving us a break, we decided to head back to camp early to get the fire going and have some proper chow.
We discussed the days fishing and Pieter was starting to doubt my stories of the numbers of fish I had caught here on previous trips. Ironically, with overcast skies we could not even enjoy the spectacle of the supermoon and cursed its effects on our planned fishing. At least the weather forecast looked better for tomorrow and we agreed to hit the sack early and rise before the sun to hit the incoming tide in the bay.
The following morning we were up at 3am (much to the delight of my wife of course) in the hopes of putting in a session during the pushing tide before dawn. Poking our heads out from our tents like a bunch of meerkats, we were greeted by a pumping wind and as if on queue it started pouring again. We had to concede defeat to the weather gods and retreated back to our beds.
Waking up again after sunrise, the weather had miraculously cleared up a bit and the wind had faded away. After fending off the monkeys again and indulging in a delicious breakfast in the bush (the perks of camping with your missus), we were off to fish the dropping tide.
With the water still too high to get onto the main reef we fished the gutters and sandbanks to the North of the bay. The wind had completely died off and casting was much more manageable; the sun even made an appearance and burned off the remaining clouds. Things were looking up and we fished with renewed enthusiasm. We managed to get stuck into the usual small Wave Garrick and Threadfin Mullet but in better numbers this time. By lunch time we were all properly on the board and decided to give lunch a skip to “make hay while the sun was shining”.
As soon as it was safe to do so we hopped onto the main reef with the lighter rods.
We prospected the wash and deeper pockets on the reef with small Charlies and Ruffies fished NZ-style with a trailing #14 hot bead brassie. Swinging the flies over the reef as the waves washed back, we were rewarded with numerous species, including Blacktail, beautifully coloured Surge Wrasse, One Spot Damsels and Stone Bream. Despite being small the takes were very hard and it was a case of hit and hold to keep the fish out of the reef on 8 and 10lb tippet. Size doesn’t always matter and we had a jol (party) nailing the various reef species.
Being a spring tide we were able to get to parts of the reef that are not usually accessible (especially with the added effects of the supermoon. Pieter had moved to the edge of the ledge and was casting an olive Charlie back towards the bay and swinging his sinking line into the undercut below the ledge on his 6wt outfit. As his fly passed through some white water next to the reef he was met with a solid take. The fish put a proper bend into the rod and Pieter had some fun trying to keep the fish out of the reef with the lighter tackle.
He managed to land the first of our intended target species, a stunning juvenile Bluefin Trevally.
Then, just as the tide started to push, all hell broke loose in the wash coming off the point of the reef. A school of Trevally had appeared out of nowhere and were absolutely hammering the baitfish on the surface. It was action stations and Pieter even made some frantic casts with his 6wt and Charlie combination which would have most likely ended in tears if he had hooked one of those fish. I had left my 9wt LOOP Evotec outfit in a holder on the beach (rookie error) and had to “maak ‘n plan” with the 8wt and quickly too. The 10lb leader was quickly replaced with 20lb fluoro and a 2/0 olive and grey SF clouser was sent into the mass of boiling Trevally. But I had a tangle in the line and the fly fell slightly short of the target. In that frenzied and adrenalin-filled moment I chose to ignore the tangle and after letting the fly get down a bit I started to rip the fly back as fast as I could. As the fly was exiting the white wash it was met with a thumping take and the fish took off at one helleva speed, with line flailing everywhere. Of course the tangle managed to get caught up somewhere on my rod or reel while the fish was heading full taps towards the nearest reef. The 8wt was properly buckled and the 20lb tested to the max with the tangle jammed solidly. But miraculously the fish turned and I managed to redirect it from the reef.
After untangling the line and getting the fish onto the reel, I managed to land a decent sized Brassy Trevally. Elation, best describes the feeling I had and that fish definitely had my name on it.
We kept on sending out casts into the white wash as the tide was pushing but had to wait a while till the school of trevally returned. Once again pandemonium ensued and lines and flies were flying left right and centre. We were ripping the flies back and on my first cast I missed a couple of very hard takes with the fish ripping the line out of my wet and slippery paws. After several more missed takes I connected with a solid fish that took off straight out to sea along the ledge. Applying heavy side strain, the backbone of the 9wt LOOP Evotec rod (now collected from the beach) kicked in and the fish turned and sped off away from the reef. After an excellent fight, I slipped a slab of a Brassy over the ledge. These fish have some serious power and after admiring my prized quarry for a brief moment, it was sent back on its way.
Walking back to the beach we noticed a massive cloud bank building to the North and the NE wind had also started picking up. Stoked with our success and smiles from ear to ear we headed back to camp to celebrate our success with some well-deserved cold ones. That afternoon the NE really picked up as the front pulled in and motivated us to rather enjoy the comfort of camp and the company of good friends.
This is what trips like this are all about, sharing in the stoke and knowing that feeling your fishing buddy is feeling as he sees his trophy swim away and celebrating a plan coming together and all the hard yards finally paying off.
As predicted by our weather apps, we woke up to a howling NE wind. It wasn’t raining but the wind was blowing gale force. Motivated by yesterday’s success, we headed down to the main reef on the low tide. The wind was crazy and blowing straight into us while standing on the reef. Despite our best casting efforts, the lines were almost blown right back at us and we were forced to call it a day.
Writing the fishing off for the day, we did the next best thing. Off our group went to the St Lucia ski-boat club for their legendary pizza and a couple of beers. Having over indulged ourselves, I think we all enjoyed the leisurely game drive back to Cape Vidal. With the North Easter still pumping, we decided to swop our 9wts for body boards and had a blast in the shore break barrels that afternoon. That night was spent debating the serious matters in life of course, like bucket list destinations and how we were going to rob a bank to book our dream trip to the outer atolls of the Seychelles. We also managed to tie up some more of the flies that were producing well and sat chatting around the fire with some good craft beers till late that night.
Thursday: the cherry on top
Two strips into the retrieve the fly stopped dead and the fish instantly took off with such speed that the line burned straight through the stripping guard on my glove.
We all woke up a little gingerly from the festivities of the previous night, but quickly shook off any weariness when we saw the perfect weather conditions. The wind had died down and the sea was flat and was glowing orange as the sun rose over the liquid horizon. Rods at the ready, we charged down the dune and hit the surf hard that morning. The water was looking really good and we managed to get stuck into some Wave Garrick along the sandy gutters as we worked our way towards the main reef. With high anticipations, we all jostled for the prime spots on the reef, but due to my successes on Tuesday I was unanimously relegated to the back of the group. We flogged away but didn’t even get a sniff. With his arm giving in from casting his 10wt, Pieter needed to take a break and handed over the prime spot on the point of the reef to me. I clearly remember clipping off the Clouser and replacing it with a 4/0 grey and white SF baitfish. With 3 false casts I sent the full line out into the deep wash coming off the point. After giving the fly some time to get down, I tucked the rod under my arm and started stripping the fly back. Two strips into the retrieve the fly stopped dead and the fish instantly took off with such speed that the line burned straight through the stripping guard on my glove. I could immediately feel I was dealing with a serious fish and it had much more power than the Brassies. It had me scrambling all over the reef, trying to get the best angle on it and keep it away from the undercut in the ledge. Fortunately the 9wt LOOP Evotec was up to task and the reel smooth as silk every time the fish took off. After putting up a serious fight I had the fish right next to the ledge and the water was lit up as the beautiful Bluefin trevally was bumping its head hard in the current. Finally, after what felt like an eternity I was cradling the most beautiful fish I have ever caught. I took some time to really eyeball the fish and take in its electric blue colours and massive yellow eyes. As the fish slipped back over the ledge and swam off strongly I couldn’t contain my stoke and sent out a yelp that echoed across the bay and it was high fives all round.
That was a fish of a lifetime for me that I had been dreaming about since I can remember.
Our bodies were starting to feel the week’s fishing and we were all bearing the compulsory battle scars. Apart from groin rashes, bruised shins and tennis elbows from all the stripping, the cold, gale force South Wester made us feel even wearier as we ducked our heads into the wind while we made our way to the reef for our final session. At least this time the wind was blowing with our casts and it took minimal effort to get the line out. After throwing the 9wts for some time with no results we scaled down and targeted the smaller, more obliging reef species. Almost like short line nymphing, we lobbed short casts up current and drifted brassies into the schools of Kite Fish. Takes were hard and we must have nailed more than 50 between us that afternoon. I think we all saw where the name Kite Fish came from – as you lift these small diamond shaped fish out of the water the wind would lift them up out of the water.
We hit the sack early to get a good night’s rest for the long road back to Pretoria. As Murphy would have it, we woke up to blue skies, not a breath of wind and scorching heat. After saying our final good byes to this beautiful place we hit the long road back to suburbia.
TACKLE REPORT BACK
To say that we were faced with tough conditions is an understatement – constantly changing winds, pouring rains and rough seas. Despite these trying conditions, we fished hard and were well rewarded with some spectacular catches. Above and beyond pure luck, the tackle needed to step up to the plate and roll with the punches. So, how did the LOOP tackle stand up to the abuse from the South African surf zone.
Both the 9wt LOOP Evotec Cast Fast and 8wt LOOP Cross SX are spectacular rods and performed well under the given circumstances. However, I constantly found myself grabbing the 9wt LOOP Evotec outfit. This rod has oodles of backbone and sent out the heavy 10wt titan taper with ease and was a dream to cast. Considering that this rod falls within the mid-range price bracket, it is fitted with top notch, durable components that stood up to everything we could throw at it. Other than some minor wear on the cork grip (which is acceptable considering how many casts were made) the rod came out on top. Aesthetically, LOOP has as always out done themselves. The beautiful deep blue blank accompanied by the titanium coloured reel seat and guides was striking and really appealed to me. After the trip I had really grown fond of this rod and struggled to hand it back to Vagabond Fly.
Although very lightweight, tippy and super-fast, the 8wt LOOP Cross SX was slightly under gunned in the big surf and strong winds. However, the rod did play a key role in scratching around the reefs and its light weight made it a pleasure to cast. Standard to all LOOP rods the Cross SX is beautifully crafted and the exposed blank in the reel seat looks really cool. However, if the rod were to be used for extended periods in the surf, I felt the exposed blank in the real seat my take a beating from the sand in the surf, but this needs to be verified over a longer test period. The 8wt LOOP Cross SX will definitely find favour with anglers who mostly fish in estuaries. I’m sure the rod will shine in this environment, where long, accurate casts are needed and delicate presentations are the order of the day.
The contrasting colours and design of both the LOOP Optirunner and Evotec reels are very eye catching. The electric blue spool of the Evotec reel really complimented the rod and loaded with 300m of 50lb gelspun backing and a 10wt sinking line, the reel still had some space left on the spool. The drag was silky smooth and although I would preferred a larger drag knob, setting the drag was hassle free. I liked the wide spool of the Evotec reel and found it a bit more user friendly that the very narrow spool of the LOOP Optirunner, but that is possibly just due to personal preference. With a very large arbor, the Optirunner picked up line very quickly, but I found the cranking handle to be a bit small and its positioning on the inside edge of the spool took some getting used to. The max drag of the Optirunner was also on the lighter side for our saltwater environment, but would be adequate for fish typically being targeted with an 8wt (don’t go chasing GTs with this specific model). Both of these reels also have a full cage construction which fits over the spool.
I was fortunate enough to give the new Scientific Angler’s Triple Density sinking line the run over at Cape Vidal. This line was a game changer for me on this trip and as promised by the advertising on the box, this was a sinking line that casted more like a floating line. With the titan taper, cutting through the wind was easy and full line casts were sent out with only 3 false casts. The line I was fishing had a S4 Tip, S2 mid-section and a Hover running line, which was perfectly suited to fishing off the reefs at Vidal. Casting over shallower reefs into deep slots, the S4 tip ensured that the fly got down into the strike zone, while the Hover running line was kept well away from the shallower reef closer in. This also provided a gradual ascent to your fly during the retrieve, which in my mind really gave a good impression of a fleeing baitfish. Being dragged over jagged reefs and rolled around in the sandy surf for a week, the line showed no signs of wear or tear and amazing still looked new. This line is a game changer and a must have for anyone wanting to up their game in the rocky surf zone of South Africa.