Mustapha's Place

Zanzibar, Bwejuu, Tanzania, East Africa, budget hotel

Game fishing local style

This is a piece that I wrote for the July-August edition of Swahili Coast. It was a rushed, last-minute trip having just got back from the UK, but I really enjoyed it and want to go fishing again!

Plenty of fish in the sea

Rachel Hamada goes game fishing for the very first time

I have never caught a fish in my life before. With a cocktail of excitement and trepidation brewing in my stomach, I haul myself up from the bustling beach that fronts the World Heritage Site of Stone Town onto a boat entitled “Gladiator” that is going to take me and my companions out onto the ocean in the search of piscine bounty. We are going game fishing. The words conjure up visions of speedboats and rich Americans, of Cuban cigars and testosterone-fuelled competition over the biggest marlin.

“This is actually more like sport fishing we are doing today,” explains our guide, Hemed Moroko, from Eco + Culture Tours, who offer local-style game fishing excursions. “You can also do deep sea fishing, but today the fishing grounds we go to are just about one hour out.” We knife through the ocean – myself, documentary maker John, who has experience fishing for tuna and salmon in the US and Canada, our guide and his assistant Hamad. We draw close to the island of Bawe, which is uninhabited except for a single hotel.

We are handed our fishing lines. Expecting copious amounts of equipment that would have to be explained patiently to me, instead we’re presented with a roll of nylon fishing line. On the end of each line, a weight and two hooks. On the hooks are speared strips of fresh calamari. “Just lower the lines in until you hit the bottom,” we’re instructed. I lower, and lower, and lower. “Will it be obvious when the line hits the bottom?” I enquire. “Yes,” I’m told. I lower, and lower, and lower. Still not sure if I’ve hit the bottom. A bit more. Not sure. More lowering. Still not sure. By the time I run out of line I come to the conclusion I must have hit the bottom metres and metres ago, and start raising the line again. “There are no fish here,” says our guide, and I haul the rest of the line up frantically before we move onto another spot a few hundred metres away.

We lower again. This time I notice a slight change in tension, which I think might mean I’ve hit the bottom. We wait. Looking out across the azure waters with the African sun warming my back, I can see the appeal of fishing. It’s doing nothing, with a purpose. In fact it’s really the ultimate lazy person’s sport – you get the satisfaction of feeling outdoorsy and sporting an authentic weatherbeaten tan rather than the insipid bronze of the beach enthusiast without actually leaving your seat. Plus you get a meal at the end of the day. But joking aside, there is a peace here, an escape. You can physically feel your blood pressure subsiding.

Paradoxically, there is also adrenaline. There is a clue in the name – “game” fishing. Much like “gaming”, the polite term for gambling, this is a sport where you are always waiting for the big one. Even if you just haul in a few tiddlers, next time you lower that line into the ocean you are, of course, going to hit the jackpot – the huge barracuda or tuna that you have to wrestle on board. It can be hard to stop and be satisfied with what you have scored. At least game fishing doesn’t, on the whole, involve the personal risks that serious gambling does. However it appeals to the same sense of machismo, and perhaps at some deep level both activities appeal to our hunter/gatherer instincts, whether it is bringing home the spoils of the sea or plunder from the blackjack tables.

Maybe game fishing’s greatest attraction is that it offers peaks and troughs. It offers silence and then drama, stillness and then, in its more full-on incarnations, frenzy. Much as most people say they would rather experience great sadness and happiness in their lifetime rather than settle for flatlining mild contentment in the suburbs, game fishing offers us a rollercoaster of experience, whether the gentler ride of sport fishing or the more intense deep sea game fishing.

I snap out of my reveries – there is a definite pull on the line. I haul it in, and in, and in. When the line finally appears at the side of the boat, there are two small-ish fish on it – white snapper, apparently. Not monsters of the deep, but eminently edible. “You are lucky – you have great luck!” smiles our guide. The luck does not continue.

We relocate to another patch, but nothing materialises at the end of my line. John hooks a few coral tuna, and some more snapper. I haul my line up pessimistically. But then I feel a tug – I’ve got something sizeable! Pulling the line hand over hand toward the surface, impatient to know which fish I’ve captured, my catch breaks the surface. It’s a large clump of seaweed. I blush. Our guide, however, has the Midas touch. He brings in fish after fish – none huge, but his success rate is astonishing. “What’s your secret?” I ask. “I have no secret,” he smiles enigmatically. Hmmm. Later I hook more tuna, but again they are small. In all we catch over 20 fish, but none massive, the biggest being white snapper. We also catch different kinds of coral and rock fish, and also a couple of balloonfish, which like puffer fish are poisonous, but can be eaten if prepared properly. Local fishermen know how to do this.

There are few other fishermen around. The reason for this soon becomes apparent. Daytime fishing is not the done thing if you’re fishing for business. To hook the kind of substantial fish for sale in Stone Town’s markets, you go out at night and fish by the light of a lamp. That’s when the bigger beasts are out in number around the fishing grounds. The main catches near Stone Town are tuna, kingfish and barracuda. Marlin and sailfish can be found to the north of the island, where trawler fishing is more common. Can tourists go night fishing, I ask? Yes, if they wish, says our guide. So take note, if you want the drama of fighting a bigger fish into a boat, go in the dark. As you depart from the beach in the centre of town, this is entirely compatible with staying in a town centre hotel.

The only downside of the whole experience is if you are squeamish about the business of death. Believing in the idea that whatever one eats one should feel comfortable catching oneself, I nonetheless feel strong discomfort at seeing fish suffocating gradually on the floor of the boat. This is what it means to eat fish. Sometimes I struggle to sit and chat casually as these iridescent creatures die slowly at my feet. They are so fine, looking like they have been dipped in mercury and then swum through rainbows. They bring with them the atmosphere of the strange colourful world they live in, deep below. Yet catching and eating wild fish is so natural to the human race that there is something eternal about it. We will give them the respect of barbequeing them without spices, without lime, letting the true flavours and freshness of the fish themselves shine through.

When we finish fishing, we throw our spare bait into the sea as a present for the fish, with “no strings attached”. We caught some of them, but they stole some of our calamari and a couple of big ones got hooked then escaped. They were worthy contenders.

Landing on a magnificent sandbank of white coral dust in a field of turquoise waves, we relax. I lie down and fall asleep in the sun. I wake to calls from the boat – our fish is ready. Gutted and cooked on board, we now hold the hot, fresh, slightly charred fish in our hands and tuck in. It’s almost unbearably succulent. When we finish we throw the bones overboard, back into the depths from which they came.

I ask our guide if game fishing is popular with tourists in Zanzibar. Apparently at the moment it isn’t much requested – Zanzibar isn’t much known as a game fishing destination. Yet the fish are out there and the boats to take you to them. It’s also hugely accessible – you can do this trip in just a few hours from town and even be at the airport in the evening. If you want a local-style fishing experience, the trip we did was ideal, or if you’re into major game fishing and want the really big fish just Google Zanzibar game fishing and you’ll find many pricy but good quality operators to take you out into the Pemba Channel to the north of the island where many of the biggest fish such as swordfish can be found.

Whether you’re a rank amateur like me or a seasoned game fisher, you will find something in Zanzibar’s waters to satisfy.