Joel Abrahamsson is famous for targeting big fish in the cold, clear Scandinavian rivers and seas. In freshwater,
he targets giant pike and wels catfish. In the salt, he goes after massive halibut and other deep-sea monsters.
His resume includes a 1,247-pound Greenland shark he pulled from 1,600 feet of water.
After pushing the boundaries of the northern scene, Abrahamsson turned his attention south. Way south. Last winter, he traveled to South Africa to test his skills against the legendary big fish and big surf of the Indian Ocean. He got plenty of both.
We entered Mozambique at the Kosi Bay border post and headed north. Minutes after crossing the border, the asphalt disappeared into a sandy road only locals drive. Our caravan of three trucks stopped, engaged the four-wheel drive and lowered tire air pressure. I found out firsthand, when driving through an elephant reserve, take every precaution to stay out of the sand.
Almost as soon as we entered the reserve, I saw giraffes. Their long necks reached above the trees making them easy to spot. Moments later, zebras and kudus, a long-horned antelope, galloped through the savannah.
Our host, Brett Challenor, owner of Stealth Kayaks, told us about his first trips to Mozambique in the late nineties, shortly after the civil war ended.
“There were no animals at all, I didn’t even hear birds singing,” he recalled. After 30 years of war, the animals had been eaten by the army and starving civilians. People even captured birds with fishing nets. “Mozambique was a country in ruins,” Challenor said.
In the old days, Challenor and his friends would camp on the beach and paddle the ocean all day catching big fish from their surf skis. But one of the things he remembered the most was the complete absence of wildlife. “And plenty of land mines,” he added.
Twenty years later, Mozambique has recovered, and the wild animals returned. My head was spinning with first sightings. When we encountered a herd of elephants, I stopped the truck to get photos.
Out of the brush, an angry elephant, ears flapping, charged our wagon train. The guys in the last vehicle signaled wildly and we hopped back in the truck and took off, barely pulling a trailer of kayaks out of the way. We had blocked a mother elephant from her baby. In Mozambique you have to be careful where you park.
Best Laid Plans
Challenor put together a dream team of big game anglers to test his kayaks and our skills. South Africans Jules Dalton and Scott Hunter, author of Extreme Kayak Fishing, were our local connection. Paco Ramos, Fred York and I were excited to explore South Africa for the first time.
The plan was to drive north from Durban and fish Millingabala in southern Mozambique for a week, primarily searching for giant trevally, called GT for short. In Mozambique, GTs are big, plentiful and close to shore. The fish are famous for brutally destroying a topwater lure. If the drag is too tight, a GT can pull you into the water.
After wildlife watching and big game fishing in Millingabala, we planned to head back to South Africa to fish the famous Cape Vidal. This spot is legendary for marlin, sailfish and unpredictable seas. We were in for an exciting trip fishing legendary locations in the company of the top South African kayak anglers.
“Timing is everything,” Challenor told me as we stood on the beach watching huge waves crash across the horizon. He instructed me to look for a gap in the waves. I couldn’t see any. All I saw was a constant flow of white water and pounding waves.
When he yelled, “Let’s go!” we jumped on the kayaks and paddled like crazy. The waves around me seemed like buildings roaring by, but somehow I followed Challenor to open water.
Returning to the beach was even more difficult. With the waves rolling in behind me, I couldn’t see impending doom. Instead, Challenor told me to time the sets and paddle like mad after the last wave passed. He warned me I would only have a few minutes to navigate breaking white water before the next set rolled in.
I was confused. All the waves looked big and they never seemed to stop. Ignoring Challenor’s instructions, I turned and started paddling to the beach. The first wave picked me up high then threw me down. My kayak disappeared and I was left holding my paddle and my breath.
The swim to shore was long and heavy; waves threw me around before I made it to dry land. As I pulled myself onto the beach, I was greeted by a group of locals cheering and laughing. Apparently, my crash had been great fun to watch.
The guys had already collected my kayak, emptied it of water and carried it up the beach. While I was flailing in the surf, they kept an eye on me. I was never in any danger. I felt happy to have survived my first encounter with the surf and provide entertainment for the locals.
Offshore fishing in South Africa was just as I had dreamed. After watching videos of African kayak anglers, I knew they fish in some of the most extreme conditions. I also knew they catch the biggest gamefish. Even though my surf technique needed work, I felt reasonably sure I would survive the week.
Unfortunately, Mozambique was not happening. Timing is everything and we had the timing wrong. The wind was blowing cold water to shore. Jules Dalton started out in style by landing a big GT and pumping my hopes.
To our amazement, he caught the world-famous fighter on a light rod and rig he was using to catch bait. The brute GT grabbed his bait rig and steamed for the horizon. After a long and frustrating lopsided boxing match, Dalton finally released a healthy GT. The first and last giant trevally I saw on the trip.
Even in the absence of the target species, Mozambique was a big-water heaven. Each morning, we launched at first light and paddled hard until lunch. After food and a siesta, we headed back out for an evening session.
One afternoon, the wind was blowing so hard the guys decided to go surf fishing. They used a 15-foot fishing rod to cast a chunk of cut bait beyond the sand bar. It didn’t take 15 minutes before a big fish picked up the bait and someone handed the rod to me.
I was in for a grueling two-hour fight with a honeycomb ray the size of a car hood. Honeycomb rays are strong fighters pulling a lot of line. Locals call them “Honey back breakers” for a reason, the fish was trying to rip my arms off. Every time I would get the monster close, it would take 150 feet of line.
I finally worked it into the whitewater and pulled the flapping wings ashore. We took some photos and dragged the dining room table back into the surf. The ray had enough energy to swim away, but I was beat. While the guys stayed up for barbecue, I went to bed early, satisfied to check another sea giant off my list.
With prospects looking bleak, we decided to make a break and leave Mozambique early. We were staying in a private holiday home where we lived well, eating fresh fish every evening and hanging out with a group of South African surfers. The locals were very accommodating, and the resident dogs, goats, cats and pigs greeted us when we returned from fishing.
The setting was perfect except for one thing: we were fighting building surf and the weather report pointed to Cape Vidal. We packed up and headed south.
Cape Vidal is a legendary spot for big tuna, mahi-mahi, sailfish and marlin.
Best of all, Cape Vidal is part of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park where bottomfishing is prohibited to protect the reef.
We rented the Bhangazi Lodge, rustic but comfortable cabins overlooking Bhangazi Lake. From the window, I watched hippopotamuses floating like logs in the lake. Sitting around the fire at night, I could hear bush pigs, hippos and other wildlife moving just outside the ring of light.
After a disappointing start in Mozambique, Cape Vidal was on fire. Minutes into my first morning on the water I had my first close encounter. We were setting out baits when I heard Challenor yelling, “Duck!” He was flailing his arms and pointing. Then I saw a sailfish greyhounding straight towards me. Challenor had hooked the fish and it was taking its anger out on me.
At the last second, the fish turned and took Challenor on a long sleighride. And I had been worried the surf would kill me.
Live bait was the key to catching mahi, tuna and billfish. The best time to catch bait is early in the morning. Each day started before dawn dropping Sabiki rigs and hooking small mackerel.
A live bait wouldn’t last long before getting crushed by a trophy fish. But, by the time I would work in my first fish of the day, the sun would be high, the bait scarce and fishing would slow.
The mahi bite was hectic; the prolific blue and green fish showed up in such numbers we had a hard time catching anything else. Rigging was easy, a medium-heavy rod, matching reel and 30-pound mainline straight to a circle hook.
It was no nonsense fishing, just pin the bait behind the head, drop it 20 feet from the kayak and paddle into the current. We mostly fished within a couple miles of shore, but the strong current would sweep me far from the launch.
Our host, Brett Challenor, was the sailfish whisperer. He caught two big sails during my visit. Each fish took him on a long ride down current followed by an even longer paddle back.
As I watched Challenor get towed towards the horizon by something big with a bill, I felt a bit bad for not pullingin my bait and following him. But knowing he had won the surf rescue world championship and I was a Swedish kayak angler with little experience with African oceans, I figured he could take care of himself. An hour later he came paddling back having released a huge sailfish very far out to sea.
Cape Vidal is a popular spot crowded with kayak anglers during the weekend. Instead of rivalry, the atmosphere was friendly. Several times, total strangers offered me a live bait. One day I was returning to the beach by myself and another paddler waited to guide me through the breakers.
At the end of each day, a group of kayak anglers would form at the car park inspecting the catch and swapping fish stories. Each time an angler came to shore, a couple guys would run down to help him carry his boat.
Spirits were always high. Many of the anglers were also staying at the cottages or camping area. Each evening, we would join for braai, a spontaneous barbecue party.
Unfortunately, the weather kept us from fishing some of the legendary big fish spots. On blow days, we visited the local kayak fishing club. The crew had a little restaurant and a bar. Every second Wednesday, they host a social gathering with seminars on kayak fishing. I was privileged to see a part of kayak fishing culture I was unaware even existed and it inspired me to help the sport grow back home.
South African kayak anglers have one of the best fisheries in the world. The only downside is the difficult surf launch. But the danger brings these anglers together. It is better to stay friendly because the surf can humble anyone in a matter of seconds and help may come from your fellow kayak angler.
Joel Abrahamsson is a Stealth Kayaks Pro from Gothenburg, Sweden. He is already planning his next trip to South Africa.
Brett Challenor steaming towards the horizon, pulled by a giant sailfish. | Photo: Joel Abrahamsson