Travel

African Dog

The eastern seaboard of Africa is home to some of the best Dogtooth Tuna hunting in the world, with some of the biggest Doggies speared in the last decade coming out of the small area between Tanzania and Northern Mozambique.

For a spearo, nothing quite evokes the same feeling as the thought of getting a large Dogtooth Tuna. For many blue water hunters, these fish are the Holy Grail of spearfishing – even surpassing the mighty Black Marlin. Doggies have possibly achieved this status because unlike Marlin, you can intentionally target them. Most guys who have shot Marlin have just been in the right place at the right time, myself included. With Doggies, it’s generally different. Trips are planned, gear is specifically built and the diver needs to be fairly accomplished to put himself in the right spot if he has any hope of even seeing a fish. All this, however, is not the hard part. The hard part is landing the fish. They are probably the most difficult fish to land, making them even more revered.

Recently, I was fortunate enough to spend a few weeks in the far north of Mozambique chasing Doggies at various locations. I was there purely as a guide, along with Richard ‘Snoek’ Leonard, to document the spearing that was going on. This gave me a unique insight into these incredible fish. Put it this way, before the trip I thought I knew something about giant Doggies. I now realise that I am still completely ignorant.

Before I get into telling the tale of the trip, let’s have a look at this beast of a fish commonly known as the Doggie. Its real name is Gymnosarda Unicolor and it falls within the family Scombridae. This means that even though guys call it a Dogtooth Tuna, it is in actual fact not a Tuna at all. The Scombridae family is made up of your Mackerel and Bonito families. The genius Sarda includes striped Bonito, and there are a host of similarities between the toothy Bonito and their giant cousin the Doggie.

So, the Doggie is actually a Bonito on steroids. This does not explain much, because the Doggie does not act like a Bonito, a Tuna or even a Mackerel. It might have the speed of a Mackerel and the power of a Tuna (actually you can multiply that), but it acts like a GT and fights like a Snapper. They are super dirty when they fight and they sometimes hit the reef so hard that they end up with massive scrapes and chunks missing from their heads. On a previous trip to Madagascar, I’d had pretty much all of my gear smashed up by Doggies… so I was determined not to have the same problem on this trip. Our first stop was the famous Lazarus Banks off Pemba, Mozambique. Rich and I were going to be diving with Mohammed Al Kuwari, alias MJK, who is no stranger to the mighty Doggie. He had experience shooting Doggies in the Coral Sea and had landed a number of fish around the 50kg mark. Using our combined experience (both positive and negative) and passion for gear, we put together the equipment we thought was best for the job.

This would be our first trip to Lazarus, so we got in touch with Eric Allard who has been there a number of times and has started running charters in the area. Eric had recently shot an 80kg Doggie at Lazarus, and had seen many more, so we knew there would be monster Doggies to be had. As Lazarus is far offshore, a yacht was organised for us to live aboard, with Eric’s 21-foot Butt Cat to use as a dive boat. This setup would give us the best chance at landing the massive Doggie we were after.

Lazarus is a massive area but we found that most Doggies held up on one specific ‘hot spot’ that Eric had discovered on a previous trip. This spot was a section of the drop off that came together in a point with a large crack at its apex. It was not a vertical drop off, but dropped away from 25m to the sand at 40m. The sand then dropped away hundreds of metres, out into the Indian Ocean.

We anchored the yacht near the Doggie spot, for quick and easy access every day. On the first drift over the spot each day, the Doggies would be relaxed, swimming high up in the water column. It was amazing to see the big Doggies up and milling around. It really is a sight to see. They became more wary on each drift, even if we had not taken any shots at them. After the first drift, they moved progressively deeper, and after the first shot would stay down, meaning that we would have to dive quite deep for even half a chance.

We eventually worked out that we would need to do our warm up dives away from the spot, so that we could make the first drift on the spot count.

It wasn’t long into the trip when Mohammed stoned (or MJK’d) a Doggie over the 30kg mark. The Doggies disappeared for the day after that, leaving Mohammed to take the one and only GT of the trip. It was another ‘MJK’ and the fish tipped the scales at 45kg!

Using the Bluewater Express double roller gun from Alemanni was amazing. This gun’s range and accuracy is incredible. So, it seemed like everything was going to be easy with Mohammed simply stoning all the fish. It took another 2 days for Mohammed to pull the trigger. A combination of MJK wanting only bigger fish now that the bar had been raised and the Doggies getting more difficult to approach, made it harder to pick the right fish. Eventually the right opportunity presented itself, and Mohammed lined up on a great fish. It is so difficult to judge how big these fish are until you have shot them. It looked like Mohammed was thinking about whether or not to shoot… and the fish seemed to be moving out of range…

Thwack! The Alemanni let rip and the spear flew towards the fish. It was so far away that by the time the spear reached the fish, the double wrap shooting line was virtually straight. The spear went in just behind the head and the massive Doggie just rolled over.

I swam up to the fish and it was a giant. On the surface all of the boys were freaking out, another ‘MJK’ on a crazy fish. Back on the boat there were pics to be taken and a fish to be weighed. There was a bit of swell so the yacht was rocking, and the scale was jumping between 60 and 70kg. It was safe to say that the doggie was well over 60kg!

With a good Doggie on the boat, the bar had been raised and our sights were set on an even bigger fish. Easier said than done. The really big Doggies are not dumb, and they stay just far enough away not to be able to take a shot. The trick was to try and get down just before the drop off and drift in at between 25m and 30m. Diving too early would mean running out of bottom time by the time you reached the reef. Diving too late would put you on the reef behind the Doggies and the drift would be wasted. This meant that we had only one dive on each drift, making it hard work.

So far, Mohammed had been very successful with his ‘MJK’ kill shots, but this had meant that we had not put any of the float systems to the test. What was about to happen can only be described as a fail of epic proportions. We had been diving with the same rig that Eric finds successful at Latham in Tanzania. This consists of a long blue water bungee and a series of big and small floats. This rig is specifically designed to take the pressure off all of the weak points and help stop the spear from pulling out.

With our confidence at an all time high, we did drift after drift until the right fish presented the right opportunity. It was a beast of a fish, far bigger than the previous Doggie. Mohammed lined up and made no mistakes. The spear hit the massive Doggie just behind the head and it twitched and started to roll over. I could not believe it, another ‘MJK’!! But, after a couple  seconds, the Doggie woke up, shook its head and did a slow shaky arc around us before disappearing down off the reef and over the Sand.

On the surface the buoys were heading down at a rate of knots. The fish was still alive! Our thoughts were that the shot was good and the fish was off the reef, and that there was still a good chance of landing it. Not long into the fight, the line went slack and the buoys returned to the surface. The thick clear ghost leader line had snapped. How did that happen? That line is incredibly strong. Puzzled and disappointed, we regrouped on the boat, set up another rig and continued the quest.

However, we had now started a chain reaction that resulted in a losing streak that would haunt us for the rest of the trip. We changed the lines and removed the ghost leader. We would not see another fish stoned on the trip. I’m not sure if this was because of the change in spears and setup, or if the Doggies were becoming more and more wary – making them harder to approach, and get the kill shots in.

The next Doggie we shot was very much alive and smashed into the reef at pace, reefing up the bungee lines. The bungee line offered very little resistance to help stop the Doggie, so off they came. This then led to more pressure on the rest of the gear. We broke a barb clean off a 8.5mm shaft, a drop head sheared off at the thread on the spear, one of the long line clips failed, and we even snapped a 2mm stainless steel cable attached to a spear. All in all, it was a massive failure in the gear department. Not having the bungee lines meant that the Doggies did not hit the reef as easily and we had the fish on for longer. But the huge fish always found a way to smash something up. Mohammed and I had literally put together the strongest gear we could find and it still was not tough enough. You can only imagine the lengthy discussions on gear that followed each of these failures.

Our time on Lazarus had come to an end. It was disappointing to leave on such a low note, especially since we had started so well. I guess a 45kg GT and 65kg Doggie are just not good enough when you consider that there are 100kg Doggies out there, and that we were so close to getting one. That big one that almost rolled over… why did we not land that fish?? I guess it’s this frustration that will motivate us to go back out there and make things right. Mohammed gets really bummed about damaging gear and losing fish like this. So, we’re going back to the drawing board to make sure it never happens again.

My next stop was Vamizi Island with Patrice Etlin from Brazil. He was out with his friends to celebrate his 50th birthday. Vamizi is just one island north of the Metundo Canyon, and has the most amazing lodge on the island. Eric has been exploring there for some time and has set up a base to work from at Vamizi Lodge. After being on Lazarus, I honestly did not expect much from Metundo. My expectations were about to get blown out of the water.

The Metundo canyon is a massive wall that starts on one end in about 10m of water and ends 2km away in 50m. The wall drops off into hundreds of metres and you can choose at what depth you want to dive. Sometimes the current is strong and you pretty much get one dive on the wall’s drop off and then it is on to the reef. There are some good spots that hold some decent Job fish and other pelagics, but generally the big action is in front of the reef.

For Patrice and his crew, this was a totally new experience. They were used to the murky waters of Brazil. So the +25m visibility was a great wow factor, but this made shooting the fish easier said than done. Add the fact that the guys had never used a gun over 100cm and now were wielding 140cm double banded canons, and the adjustment was not any easier. The first 2 days were spent acclimatising to the clean deep water. Richard and I were in the water coaching and guiding Patrice and his friends on hunting in the new environment.

It wasn’t long before the guys eyes were in and they started getting some good fish. Geraldo even shot his first Doggie after Richard got him to drop right on the ‘hot spot’. Patrice landed a nice Boha Snapper, which required a fairly long shot in the clean water. Most of his shots were spot on, with the stock standard 1400 Rob Allen he was borrowing from me. With smiles all round, they headed back to get ready for one of the many themed parties with the rest of the crew on the island.

On the second to last day at Vamizi, we decided that since everyone was acclimatised, we should start targeting some bigger trophy fish. This meant deeper and shorter drifts onto the Metundo wall. This was not as easy and relaxing as the previous days’ diving, but the guys were amped. We spotted a few small Doggies and even a Sailfish and a Wahoo, but there were no easy shots and nobody managed to convert any of the opportunities. With the ledge being deeper, it was pushing their limits a bit, and so Patrice and I did some practice dives to help with his technique once we were over the wall and on the reef.

Patrice and I made a good dive on the approaching ledge, but alas no fish. We breathed up and prepared for another practice dive while the boat picked up the other divers. I dived down to about 15m to watch Patrice’s dive from below. After a few seconds, Patrice made his duck dive and headed towards me. The dive was good and I indicated to him to try and hang for a while.

Next thing, I saw a massive shape coming towards us from the deep. I got Patrice’s attention and he swung around quickly, and with all the confidence in the world, took a shot.

At this stage I was thinking, “wait for the fish to turn!” But Patrice had middled the massive fish while it was still approaching. The Doggie bolted. Patrice hit the surface and tried to hold on, but the last 35 litre float pulled out his hands and disappeared into the blue. I started to call for the boat, but they had to pick all the other guys first. Doggie fights can take forever and we couldn’t just leave the others floating in the middle of nowhere.

By the time the boat got to us, I thought the fish was lost. We had not seen the fl oats again and I thought that it had reefed up. Man… I was actually pissed. I could not believe that we had lost another Doggie. Then, the guys on the boat pointed out the fl oats, still being pulled along in the distance. The fish was still on!! I think I was more excited than Patrice was.

After a mammoth battle, Patrice eventually got the fish up. The swim bladder had popped and the dead weight of the fish was too much to hold on the surface by himself. Just about the whole boat, excluding Eric who was driving, was now in the water celebrating and helping keep the fish on the surface. We eventually tied a couple of buoys to the fish to help it float and took some photos.

The Doggie weighed in at 72kg and was taken with an off-the-shelf Rob Allen 1400! I don’t think you could wish for a better birthday present. Back on the beach, all of Patrice’s friends greeted us, and the celebration of celebrations that followed continued late into the warm Mozambican night.

You can only imagine the bar talk after trying to diagnose how and why this fish was not lost. It came down to a few things, but I think the main reason was that the shot went in at a 45o angle to the oncoming fish. The spear went in dead center and came out in the tail area. The double

flopper 7.5mm spear hardly even tore the skin where it excited. The spear was bent all the way back and probably took all the pressure off of the gear.

At the beginning of this story, I said that before this trip I thought I knew something about giant Doggies… and that I now realise that I am actually clueless. Even after this last trip, this statement still holds true. We followed all the advice and techniques used by the best in the world. We used the best gear money could buy… and we were still beaten.

And so, the question still remains: how do you beat these  fish?

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