HOVERING IN EARTH’S OVEN: Explorations in Cameroon

Our expedited visa service was apparently going to take 10 days, but we didn’t have 10 days. My calls to the Cameroon embassy were beginning to resemble a hellish mix of customer service calls to the U.S. Postal Service and a cable provider: hours on hold sprinkled with various takes on absolutely not. I got on a plane to Washington D.C. to see if I could make a case in person. A Hail Mary with flights three days out. Filmmaker and fishing guide Jako Lucas had invited me to explore a Nile perch fishery being developed by African Waters (formerly known as Tourette Fishing) in the north-central panhandle of Cameroon. Exploratory trips had taken giants on flies, some well over 100 pounds. The trick was to get there.

above A makeshift computer desk at the Maroua airport.

It was snowing when I landed at Dulles International in mid-February, a pretty setting for a swamp with big buildings. The next day the government was closed. Snow day. The Cameroon embassy was going to savor it. No shoveled walkways and no open doors. I stayed another night and arrived at the embassy one minute after it opened. Several hours later, when the D.C. police had to intervene with a woman trying to go home for a funeral—she claimed the embassy had lost her passport—I gave up. It was not the day to ask for special treatment to go flyfishing. We pushed the trip back.

Our visas arrived eventually in FedEx envelopes, barely in time even with the delay, and looked like something I could have printed myself on an old desktop computer. 

Three days and plenty of delays later, we landed in Garoua, Cameroon at about midnight. We were greeted by Koen, an overly direct but kind Belgian who owns the hunting concession and Faro River access African Waters is exploring. This time there would be no wait; he told us to hop in a 4×4 Nissan called “the Beast” for the ride to camp straight away as the car needed to be back in the morning to pick up another load of guests. I let out an exhausted laugh. He wasn’t joking. We ripped through a small town where a few street-side gatherings were winding down and within a few minutes were in total darkness, speeding through the savanna with no lights in sight. 

above What passes for a shady parking spot in the savanna.

We arrived at our bush camp—a remote collection of circular buildings—about 4 a.m. The buildings were constructed of mud, clay and cinder blocks with straw-like roofs. Most were sleeping quarters for guests and staff, but there were kitchens and storage as well. Lucas and I crashed on mattresses in one of the traditional mud-and-brick huts—thankful for a small battery-powered fan I’d bought at the last minute before leaving home—and slept until the temps outside reached 100 degrees and our sweat forced us to rise. In the morning we ate breakfast on a high bank looking over the river and watched baboons come down to the water. It felt as remote as it was.

Keith Clover and Rob Scott—both from South Africa—started Tourette Fishing there in 2006. They were a few years out of university and had spent their early careers outdoors. Keith worked on mobile safaris across Africa, fly rod in tow; Rob was a hunting and safari ranger in some of South Africa’s best safari destinations. Tourette began with guided trips on the lower Zambezi River, followed by Mozambique and Lesotho, before international clients began booking tigerfish trips in Tanzania. Now, with a new name and nine destinations running from Sudan to Costa Rica, the team is always looking for new places to explore, fish and protect. West Africa is high on the to-do list between their Gabon operation (which targets a variety of exotic gamefish) and the relatively new Nile perch fishery in Cameroon. The region requires a lot of work on the logistics side, but it’s work they feel is worth the investment. African Water’s presence and conservation efforts—15 percent of their proceeds go to local anti-poaching efforts—could go a long way toward protecting Nile perch and the countless other species that exist in the Faro River watershed. 

above clockwise from top left
Filmmaker and guide Jako Lucas. African Waters cofounder Keith Clover. Bebe loved photos, cigarettes and wearing a beanie in 110-degree heat. Guide Greg Ghaui was a gentle, kind man aware of everything around him. Head guide Stuart Harley. 

Clover is pragmatic when discussion of Tourette’s goals comes up. “Our selling point is never going to be luxury and five-star cuisine,” he explained. “Our aim is to add value to an area through protection and conservation. More than likely in places without previously existing tourism.” 

In Cameroon, the need for conservation is glaringly obvious. The Faro River runs through Faro National Park, a mostly unmanaged chunk of land struggling to control poaching. Hippos, elephants, monkeys, roan antelope, giraffes and giant eland—a massive antelope that can grow to more than 2,000 pounds—all call the park home. We saw most of these species during our daily drives to the river.

above Faro River offering—on 80-pound tippet. 

But we also saw poachers and the signs they leave behind, like string nets and trash throughout the river. Cameroon’s recent poaching history highlights the problem: slaughters of dozens of elephants in a day; rangers dying in their defense; and even thousands of pounds of pangolin being seized on their way to China. African Water Fishing, by being present and by contributing to conservation efforts, is doing what it can to help. More than once we watched poachers run into the bush as we came down to the water to begin fishing. On one such day Bebe, the loyal anti-poaching member of our crew who accompanied us every day, followed their tracks away from the river. He set their camp ablaze and we watched smoke fill the sky through the blistering heat. Bebe was dedicated to his job, watchful and stationary, eager for the next cigarette and always down for a photo.

above top to bottom
Where’s roadside assistance when you need it? 

Stuart Harley ties up a lunchtime special. Perch flies were big; their profile and how much water they moved were more important than the colors used. 

Jeff Currier admires a Niger barb nailed right in front of camp on a small nymph. 

The Faro River emerges from the Adamawa Plateau and flows almost due north for 190 miles before joining the Benue river on the border of Nigeria. Along much of its length it runs through a Sahelo-Sudanian ecosystem—a stretch of tropical savanna that runs east-west across much of Africa. During the winter fishing season the river runs quite low, but the signs of big water from the rainy season are obvious. It’s a straight river, for the most part, with few major turns. Sections of higher gradient and rapids have huge rocks, jagged bottoms and visible boulders, while other sections are flat with sandy bottoms. 

Each day on the river began about 10 a.m.—ending some 10 hours later—typically with a 45-minute safari drive through hair-dryer air to and from the fishing beats. The guides and anti-poaching member would make a quick run to the river to check for poachers before setting up a day camp. While the sun was up we targeted Niger barb and tigerfish in stunning sections of braided river. The barbs, a sort of giant goldfish/carp hybrid, flickered in the riffles, making awesome sight-casting targets. They’d take small nymphs on light tippet and were easily spooked and harder to land. 

Artist and flyfishing adventurer Jeff Currier went into his usual mode of covering about one yard of river per hour, dissecting the water and dialing into the barbs like a scientist testing a hypothesis. He came in for lunch a couple hours late one day exclaiming that he would return just for the barbs—an idea that garnered no response as the group savored its time in the shade—then returned to trying to make a small nymph intersect with the mouth of a barb a few feet in front of him. 

Jeff Currier in the first few seconds of battle with a solid tigerfish. 

The guides meticulously measured and weighed every Nile perch caught to gather data about the new fishery. 

Jeff Currier shows off what might be one of the best tails on the planet. 

With 110-degree highs every day, we interspersed fishing with plenty of resting and swimming—or what counts for swimming in hippo country. Our dips took place in about 15 inches of clear, flowing water well away from the hippos, which the guides nonetheless described as “way chiller than the ones in the rest of Africa.”

That guide team was made up of Stuart Harley of South Africa and Greg Ghaui of Tanzania. The duo is young yet experienced, with admirable enthusiasm and calm in the wilds of Africa. They have been responsible for a lot of the heavy lifting in establishing African Water’s presence in the area and figuring out how to make things work, and they’re both tougher than hell. Ghaui had malaria (for the umpteenth time) a couple of weeks before we arrived and stuck out a full week of guiding in the heat. 

The camp staff, drivers, chefs and others involved in the operation were equally lovely and bright, with their pace of life dictated by the stifling heat. Shade is king, and days are organized around the cooler mornings and nights. One of the anti-poaching crew members was nicknamed the “Lounge Lizard,” due to his ability to lie down and rest in almost any situation.

above Bebe, a member of the crew’s anti-poaching team, took exception to a poacher’s camp and set it on fire. 

After an evening nap, with the sun sinking, we shifted our attention to Nile perch. This involved 12-weights and forearm-length flies, 80-pound leaders, knots checked and rechecked, and drags ratcheted down. The perch are caught as the sun goes down and into the night. Focusing on a single pool, usually the deepest one for miles, we stood 50 yards apart for several hours covering the water all around us. 

Currier landed a proper tigerfish at sunset that jumped a handful of times; everyone looked on and cast harder. Nearly every pool was loaded with small tigerfish, though the chance for 10-pounders was always a possibility. Then came the Niles; Currier and Lucas each landed a couple in the 20-pound range. Decent, but not quite what everyone was hoping for. 

Currier hooked into the fish of the trip several hours into darkness. Old-man grunting took over the silence of the night as he put every ounce of his body into the butt-end of his 12-weight. The perch, powerful and steady in its fight, was like being snagged on a trolling motor. In weeks prior, after a bucket of sliced fly lines, Harley and Ghaui had fashioned a long stick with a U-shaped piece of metal at the end to push and guide lines around sharp rocks and oysters during the fights. Thanks to that stick, Currier landed a 42-inch, 53-pound Nile. He held it in his lap afterward, exhausted and ecstatic.

above top to bottom 
A braided riffle section of the Faro River leading into one of the deeper pools that provide prime low-water habitat for Nile perch.

Poultry transportation division near Maroua, Cameroon.

The anti-poaching team looks on as anglers begin the evening’s perch session. 

Though these deeper pools were also filled with hippos, crocs and other life forced there during the low-water winter months, the rule was no lights unless hooked up or making a change. Cast, wait, strip—all while the hippos breathed and howled in the darkness. The sight of a headlamp—meaning a possible hookup—broke up the fatigue. Bites were brief but synchronized, typically once or twice a night for five to 10 minutes. We’d hear the perch feed several yards underwater, a cross between a clap and giant bottle filling with water. You had to be there, and you had to make it count. Steelhead rules applied. A fish a week is good, and a goose egg is always possible. Over the course of six nights, our group landed about 10 and broke off more.

Despite the potential for big, exotic fish, the days were often brutal and an utter beatdown, with little to no relief during the hot, short nights. Still, everyone awoke each day with that excitement peculiar to the outdoors fanatic in pursuit. Walking and hovering in Earth’s oven, blind casting in the dark, god knows what around you, all on the prayer of a hookup. We did it late into the night for six days, and everyone was in. You couldn’t escape the heat, but sometimes you could hide. Bill Douglass, at 79 years old, pushed through. One day we lost sight of him, only to find what looked like turtle tracks on the beach. After a hard afternoon of fishing, he had crawled across the sandy bank and fallen asleep in the half-shade of a bush. He was right back at it that night.

This article first appeared in volume eleven, issue two of The Flyfish Journal.


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