Fishing Lines: Attack of wind foiled my chance of fame

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The Independent Online

The more you fish, the better you get at concocting excuses. That makes my reason for failing to chisel my name into the Gambian angling hall of fame sound pretty feeble.

Ready for it? It was windy.

Told you it would sound weak. But when you're sea fishing, a bracing Force 6 in a small boat (there are no others in The Gambia at present) can be scarier than any rollercoaster.

It was gusty when we arrived. "Winds only last for three days here," we were told. It was still blowing a hoolie as we flew out eight days later. On just one afternoon, we managed to reach an area where our quarry, giant tarpon of 300lb and more, are said to live. But even then, bouncing around on the briny, we spent much of the day trying to catch barracuda.

For some reason, the pike-like predator is every Gambian's favourite fish. In the Caribbean, you can't eat it because it carries ciguatera toxin. This probably won't kill you, but a few Alka-Seltzers won't sort it either.

In The Gambia, it's apparently safe to eat, though we gave all ours away, making a million friends along the way. "You my best friend for dat fish! I come to visit you in England to say thank you!" I gave them the editor's address. He seems a social chap.

But it wasn't a total blowout. Far from it. The Gambia, which is about the size of Yorkshire, is like a little fish in the mouth of neighbouring Senegal, which surrounds it on all sides. The River Gambia estuary is home to a host of fish, so when it's windy you can potter into the mangrove swamps and catch a mess of species. We caught more than 30 during the week.

If it hadn't been so rough, we might have caught more during our beach excursion. But we still landed a stingray, a grouper and two weird shovelnose guitarfish, a cross between a ray and a shark, shaped like (you've guessed it) a badly made guitar.

The disappointment is what we didn't see. The nearest we came to a tarpon was a broad brown-and-silver back cresting a wave. Not one of the legendary 300-pounders, but no tiddler either. In a year, maybe two, the right anglers with the right boat (and no wind) could shatter the existing world record by as much as 100lb.

And there's something equally exciting if you're prepared to spend a day or two travelling into the interior. Way upcountry, the River Gambia holds tigerfish, one of the most savage and exciting freshwater predators, with humanlike teeth filed to a Dracula point.

Tigerfish aren't rare; they are found in several places in Africa. But Steve Hurst, who runs Gambia Sport Fishing, said that he had caught them to more than 40lb. That is well over the world record. Could these be the elusive goliath tigerfish (more terrifying than any crocodile), which reaches more than 100lb?

I've always dreamed of catching one. But accepted wisdom has been that the Congo River is the only place to do so. No one in their right mind would venture into the heart of the "Democratic" Republic of Congo. But upriver Gambia? Maybe. And the wind wouldn't be a problem, either.

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