Words by Jeff D. Herman and Photos by Will Richardson and Jeff D. Herman
I am officially a criminal. I am forging international import documents. We leave for Uganda in three weeks, and our kayaks have been collecting mold in a South African customs warehouse for more than 45 days. Just in case you aren't a geography buff, that is more than half a big-ass continent away from where they need to be. To further up the ante, we are sitting on three nonrefundable plane tickets.
We've spent more than a year planning this mission to fish for Nile Perch in waters that have never seen a kayak fisherman. Today, that adventure is on the verge of being scuppered, thanks to the woes of international shipping. The best part? I am rewriting the "original invoice" for the kayaks even though the actual invoice is affixed to the shipping crate in Port Durban South Africa. Apparently the attached invoice is not adequate… and so begins my career in international customs fraud.
Uganda began to pull at my psyche more than a year ago. That's when pro angler Jim Sammons, filmmaker Will Richardson and I first Googled Nile perch, and watched slack-jawed as picture after picture of trophy perch scrolled past. Nile perch were introduced to Uganda and Lake Victoria in the 1950s. Today these fast-growing fish provide sustenance to local fishing villages, and if you are crazy enough to try, they offer a unique recreational opportunity. The average fish is a 5- to 10-pound juvenile. If you get lucky you might pull in a 25-pounder, a 40-pounder, or even a 200-pounder.
Jan 23rd 2013
Wheels down in Entebbe, Uganda. When we left home 36 hours ago, we still didn't have a clue whether our Ocean Kayaks would be there when we landed. Now, I've got to know. I fire up the cell phone, risking roaming charges that could rival the national debt of a small country. My wife had been working the phones since we boarded the plane, and I nervously watch the emails populate one-by-one until, finally, the subject line "Success!" flashed across the screen.
Our Ocean Kayaks, shipped out more than three months before, had arrived in Entebbe three hours before we did. Thin margins. Now all we had to do is spring the boats from Ugandan customs.
When the customs office opens the next morning, we are there. Negotiating Uganda's mind-numbing bureaucracy takes patience, cursing fits that'd make a Tourette's patient blush, and bribes. Plenty of bribes. After nine hours, we are finally in-country, kayaks loaded, and bouncing down a dusty two-lane to meet our local host, a Scottish ex-pat and whitewater paddling champion named Jamie Simpson.
Jamie is a director and former owner of Nile River Explorers, a legendary whitewater outpost in Jinja, a few short miles from the source of the White Nile. The river's massive rapids and standing waves have drawn whitewater kayakers from all over the world for a generation, but this is virgin territory for kayak anglers. The potential, however, is huge: The broad, flat pools between rapids are ripe with Nile perch. Jamie and his paddling bros know these waters well, and assure us that the man-eating crocs and even more dangerous hippos don't frequent this part of the Nile. Safety first, right?
The most productive method for catching Nile perch, also known as fresh-water snook, is trolling. Deep trolling. We use Sebile Cooley Minnows and some big Sebile divers. You fish Nile perch deep—10 feet at a minimum, 20 to 25 feet in some spots.
We cast and grind hard for a day and a half at NRE but never pull a fish out. The scenery is magical with birds, monkeys, and landscapes straight out of an IMAX movie. We marvel at the Nile's exotic beauty, but we've been in Uganda for three days and have yet to hook a fish. The pressure is starting to build.
Enter the South African contingent. We are bouncing down a dirt road leaving Jinja and the Nile behind. We are headed to Kalindi to meet Sean and his two-man crew, Jack and Geoff. They built the only houseboat on the whole of Lake Victoria. We are going to mothership the kayaks out to some remote little islands that have never been fished by modern methods.
We chug along in the houseboat for a few hours as dawn breaks. Lake Victoria has a definite majesty at sunrise. In calm and fair weather the enormous lake seems placid and docile. Around noon we pull up to one of the small Buvuma Islands. It's maybe a mile in circumference, with rolling hills, patches of dense forest and a tiny fishing village made up of grass huts and a few tin-roofed shacks.
The local fishermen are curious about our houseboat and our kayaks. As we add up the miles trolling, younger villagers paddle their hand-carved pirogues out to investigate. Eventually three young men, tweens really, paddle straight to us in a battered blue boat. Amazingly, every one of these Ugandan youngsters speaks English, and in short order shenanigans begin.
Jamie quickly finds an outgoing young character and puts him in his kayak. I follow suit, making friends with a young chap named Ian. They think our double bladed kayak paddles are quite amusing, and for the next half hour we forget all about fishing and just paddle with new friends. Putting local kids in kayaks for their first, and probably only time is a brilliant paddling experience.
That afternoon we mothership to a distant group of islands. The big water lies beyond. Victoria is a freshwater sea nearly the size of Lake Superior, and these are the last specks of land for more than 100 miles. We've come an awfully long way in search of Nile perch, and as our fourth day in Africa draws to a close, we still haven't hooked a fish. Their absence is feeding a quiet angst, the gnawing worry that every fisherman knows and dreads—blanked trip blues.
We troll until the sun goes down, and then some. We work and work, and never bend our rods. To make matters worse, Jamie falls violently ill as we paddle back to the mothership. He doesn't call out or complain, just coasts to a dead stop. I wait.
On a lake this size you don't leave a man alone and without a radio, especially with night coming on. When he finally catches up its obvious Jamie is in dire straights. He has lost his bowels and his stomach. Sun poisoning? Malaria? He is fever sick and shaking, but still refuses a tow. He paddles himself the last quarter-mile back to the houseboat. Shaking and unsteady as he beaches his kayak, he drags himself to the upper deck and collapses. No fish. Man down. Africa is humbling us.
Today is the day. We have to get on the fish. The sightseeing has been great and the local culture interesting.
But we are here to catch fish. Jamie is flat on his back, and we are almost out of time. We need to find fish TODAY.
We have clear skies and calm winds as we make our way across an open bay to a rocky, cliff-faced shoreline caddy corner to Mogadishu Island. Immediately, a crowd of villagers gathers, apparently trying to ascertain why these three mzungus are paddling their funny little boats back and forth, 50 yards offshore.
At that moment Lake Victoria shows us just how small and isolated we really are. The seas grow with the winds. The skies turn black. Soon big waves are breaking on the rocky shoreline and we are trolling over rollers big enough to swallow a kayaker in the trough. The villagers watch from the shore as we grit our teeth and keep at it.
We are trolling the edge of a drop off when Jim finally breaks the ice. The wind carries his shout of "Fish On!" across the water. I look up in time to see Jim's fish jump and double up his rod. Within a minute or two, Jim boats a good 10-pound perch, its eyes glowing like fire. The drought is over. Lightning crackles across the African sky, spitting tropical rain. Reluctantly, we retreat to the safety of the houseboat.
Jamie Simpson is hardcore. Aside from being an affable, laugh your ass off good guy, he is one tough mother scratcher. I've never seen anyone so sick on an expedition. We are cut off from all the basic creature comforts and this guy is 'go to the doctor' unwell, yet he is still cracking jokes from his sick bed. A good egg.
After Jim's icebreaker fish, spirits noticeably improve. When we wake at dawn the lake is still hung over from the previous night's storm. Wind waves toss our kayaks like matchsticks, and we wait impatiently for the weather to clear. By midmorning we're mounted up and paddling toward the western tip of the island in still-rowdy conditions.
Rounding a tree-lined hill, the drag on my Avett finally speaks. After four days of paddling and trolling I'm finally in the batter's box, swinging for the fences. The lever drag takes hold. The headshake feels like a big speckled trout. After a couple of spirited runs, I pull it alongside the boat. The eyes are amazing. They glow orange and yellow so brilliantly it's like they have LEDs behind their retinas. Otherworldly.
We continue to troll and I keep getting bit! I reel in four fish in two miles. By the time we break for lunch everyone is fired up. We have that big-day feeling. All we need now is a hog to put the exclamation point on the day.
As we are gearing up for the afternoon hunt, I am stunned to see Jamie putting on his PFD. During his years in Africa, this stalwart Scot has gone the distance with malaria more than once. We never find out what tropical bug or parasite struck him down (a malaria test turned up negative) but it takes more than a garden-variety illness to send Jamie Simpson to his sick bed. But that was yesterday. Now he is suiting up to fish. Game on.
We set out with confidence. Within 45 minutes, Jim hooks up another fish in the 15-pound range. Jim, living up to his reputation, is doing his level best to land quality fish. Jamie is trying to paddle and troll with Jim and I, but he just runs out of gas.
He calls over the powerboat that Will is filming from, planning to recharge with some cold water and a break from paddling. As an afterthought, he set out a rod and opened the bail on his reel.
You guessed it. Within seconds, his lure gets bit.
Jamie is as authentic as they come, and though he knew it wouldn't stand as a pure kayak catch, he was determined to make the best of the situation. Still fever-sick and weary, he asks Sean to untie his kayak and clambers in.
Jamie has caught his share of Nile perch over the years, and he knows instinctively that this rod is tethered to a big fish. Back in his kayak, he fights and pulls and sweats out a landing. Sick as plague-riddled rabbit, he lands a 45-pound pig of a fish. With Jim helping, they boat the fish over two kayaks, grin for a few photos, and release it in good shape.
Stuck. After our big fish we all down all the booze on the houseboat in celebration. We awake groggy and bleary the next morning for a return to Kalindi. It rains hammers and nails all morning. As we reach the dock the roads are all but washed out. We get three cars stuck. An hour's drive back to Nile River Explorers camp turns into an all-day affair of pushing, pulling, and mud-covered silliness.
Uganda teaches you to slow down. You may want to do things by the western clock, but life here, just like the fishing, teaches you patience. You will catch fish. You will get out of the mud and onto the pavement. It just may not be until tomorrow, or the next day. You will be richer for having waited.
That philosophy has its limits, of course. We leave the kayaks with Jamie and NRE, because no tropical attitude adjustment could persuade us to go another 15 rounds with the Ugandan customs office. Besides, Lake Victoria and the White Nile are full of trophy perch lying in wait for the next team of kayak anglers to test these waters.