My surf-angling friend really wants to catch a fish. He stands atop a seaside bluff overlooking the Atlantic between the Western Cape’s Gordon’s Bay and Betty’s Bay, points to a rocky outcrop far, far below, and ponders the long hike. It’s a great fishing spot, he tells me.
I size up the precipitous slope of loose gravel, soggy orange sand, bony tree snags, heavy boulders and fynbos thickets, then do my best to calculate distance. “Are you serious?” I ask. The dedicated surf angler unloads from his truck a large, white box with shoulder straps, stuffs it with fishing gear and loosens a set of long fishing rods from the roof carriers, all the while ignoring me. If only he would stop and look at my pleading eyes.
I point to my camera bag and tell him it weighs 25 kilograms, remind him he is 20 years my junior, and throw in for good measure an old football knee injury. But Ebrahim Dien is not buying it. “I’m carrying every bit as much as you. Let’s go,” he says and disappears over the edge of the mountain. I grab my camera bag and grudgingly join the death march.
My friend skips through the first patch of fynbos, quickly crosses an uneven patch of scree, and disappears into the towering folds of craggy seaside rock. It begins to rain. I sniff out the trail and eventually find Ebrahim behind a steep rock wall. Surprisingly, five other fishermen are perched nearby, clinging to 14-foot fishing rods, all pointed skywards. The rain grows heavy as puffy grey clouds fall from the sky and shroud us in a misty haze.
Ebrahim is squirrelled away in a cranny preparing bait and I shimmy down the final bluff, stepping carefully on wet, sharp-edged rocks to reach him. He hammers a slab of mullet to soften it, wraps it into a large bait ball, clambers atop a big rock and throws a long cast out to sea. “Now, we wait,” he says.
The dedicated angler tells me that baiting is an important element of rock and surf fishing. “Mullet is one of the best all-round baits, but mackerel, yellowtail and octopus are also good choices.” The heavy ball of mixed fish bait is cast beyond the surf on an incoming tide to produce the best results.
Ebrahim is a member of the Two Oceans Angling Club and competes in a fishing event called rock and surf angling. The fishing style remains popular throughout South Africa, with six clubs in the Western Cape and about 200 clubs throughout the country.
“Nobody else in the world does it, other than Namibia,” Ebrahim tells me of the competitive sport. In it, anglers score points by catching two distinct categories of fish. Edible fish like kabeljou (aka kob or grunter) are scored four points per kilo, and inedible species like sharks, skates and rays earn one point per kilo. “But edibles are not as abundant,” says Ebrahim, “and the focus generally is on inedible species.”
Rock and surf clubs consider conservation the mantra of their chosen sport. Fish landed during a competition are measured and the length calculated to weight based on a scientifically formulated chart. Total weight per angler and per team are tallied at the end of a fishing day for aggregate scores. All fish are quickly and safely released.
“Look there, Sakkie is hooked up,” Ebrahim says, pointing towards an angler. I pull myself up the rock face and get into position close to the fight, as the determined angler lifts his rod high, then lowers it and reels to gain line.
Sakkie van Rensburg battles the fish for quite some time and suggests he is hooked into a big ray. The veteran angler has caught many before and can feel what’s on the end of his line. Unfortunately, after a long struggle, Sakkie realises that the ray has wrapped itself into someone’s discarded fishing line and, sensing the futility, cuts his line. He re-rigs a new bait that includes octopus.
Sakkie, the senior angler in the group, tells me he has been fishing rock and surf for almost 50 years, starting as a youngster and learning from his father. The Western Cape angler says fishing has deteriorated drastically over that period and attributes much of it to pollution.
“I wouldn’t eat a fish out of these waters,” he tells me.
Ebrahim, Sakkie and the other anglers are engaged in a Two Oceans league tournament. Similar squads are scattered along the Western Cape shoreline and will come together at the end of the day to tally scores. Each of them wears clothing emblazoned with an identification number. It’s a provincial rule that the number remains visible while fishing.
The whistling wind, rain and crashing surf drive Ebrahim and me to a quiet place between the rocks. The conversation becomes relaxed when we can hear each other, and I ask Ebrahim how he got started in competitive rock and surf fishing.
Unlike Sakkie, Ebrahim, an architect by trade, is a relative newcomer to the sport. He began in 2012 after volunteering at a shark-tagging event with the Oceanographic Research Institute (ORI). Members of the Two Oceans Angling Club assisted in catching, tagging, measuring and collecting DNA.
Soon afterwards, club members invited him to the Two Oceans Bronzie (Shark) Festival and Ebrahim was hooked. He joined the club immediately and tackled what he calls a difficult learning curve. The skill to consistently catch big saltwater fish from the shoreline requires knowledge and practice.
“It’s best to go with guys who know, and learn from them,” says Ebrahim.
He partnered with a knowledgeable angler named Charl Marais, learned the ropes and began winning tournaments. Ebrahim earned colours in his second year, made the Protea B Team in his third, and the Protea A Team in his fourth. Rock and surf fishing afforded him the opportunity to fish the entire South African coastline from the Transkei, to East London, Jeffreys Bay and home again.
“We fish at night a lot and I fish at least two days every week,” Ebrahim says of his practice schedule.
In 2013, Ebrahim was awarded a Pro Staff sponsorship with a large fishing-distribution company called Pure Fishing. He became part of an elite group that advised a major American company on the development of fishing rods for the Afro-Eurasian market. The research led to the development of the Penn Battalion and Venom Medusa rods, now widely used in saltwater applications. The African coastline proved an ideal testing site for big fish in rugged saltwater conditions.
“We catch lots of short-tail black stingrays, and my biggest so far is 188 kilograms. I’ve lost bigger ones.” Ebrahim tells me it’s the same stingray that killed Australian television host Steve Irwin. “But they are not dangerous once you learn how to handle them,” he adds.
Ebrahim says the rock and surf crowd catches many species of sharks – cow sharks, smoothhound sharks, soupfin sharks and many copper sharks, also called bronze whaler sharks or bronzies. The South Africa bronzie record stands at 229 kilograms but averages about 150 kilograms along the Western Seaboard.
“I caught four bronzies in one day that averaged between 144 and 174 kilos,” Ebrahim says of one great fishing expedition.
Suddenly, one angler cries out from above the surf, “Fish on!” Ruan Brand, a young angler decked in white ankle-high, waterproof boots and a black rain slicker, stands atop a jagged rock and heaves against the strain of a fish. It doesn’t take long until he scrambles off the perch, wiggles his way to the seashore and lands a small cow shark. The fish is quickly measured, photographed and released.
The rainfall intensifies and I fear for my camera gear in the onslaught. Reluctantly, I leave the troupe of dedicated anglers and begin my ascent back up to the road. Of course, there’s a bit of huffing and puffing on the steep climb but it’s the price you pay in the company of passionate anglers who really, want to catch fish.
South Africa Shore Angling Association
Two Oceans Angling Club on Facebook