There was, according to the weekly angling report in the Argus, a run of yellowtail at Rooikrantz. Yellowtail are not caught too often by surf fisherman like myself. You need to spin for them at places where you have access to deep blue water, places where rock falls sheer into the ocean. Rooikrantz, just inside the tip of Cape Point in the Good Hope reserve, is rated one of the best. Never having been there I decided to give it a try. The morning after the report I drove to the reserve, paid at the gate and headed to the small car park above Rooikrantz where several cars were already parked. The stony path leading down the mountainside is very steep, it tacks its way down by running at a shallow gradient and then changing direction sharply to come back the other way.
It took me about forty-five minutes to get down to Rooikrantz. The path arrived at sea level not quite at the spot, having to bypass the red cliffs that seemed to overhang the actual fishing area. There was quite a swell running. It seemed that you were standing next to the open ocean, and in a sense you were. The swells came in from the deep, lifting the blue up ten feet or so against the rock and then sucking back, not breaking onto the rocks but sweeping past and heading into the bay. There were five or six men sitting on a large, flat rock some way back and up from what seemed to be the best spot. Their rods were lying, unattended, close to the water. Some way down there were a few anglers spinning from some precarious looking perches. Their silver spoons sparkled out in arcs against the sky before splashing down and barreling back through the water like tiny torpedoes.
Nobody was catching anything. The fishing area seemed to have an amphitheatre feel to it, as if it was the setting for something. The massive cliffs that formed the backdrop seemed to curve around us and any sound, even a kicked stone, echoed and reverberated around the rock arena.
After watching the scene for a while I figured that, if the group of what seemed to be the Rooikrantz veterans were taking a break, then I would claim a little patch of the rock in front of them. But as I walked over and put my tackle down, one of them shouted at me - "No man! Don't put your stuff there unless you want it to get kicked into the water!" I looked up to see a wiry, bearded old man looking fiercely at me and gesturing to the effect that I should slope off.
I raised my hand to show that I understood and moved some way up and well clear of them. But I didn't understand. There didn't seem to be any reason why I shouldn't set up there if they weren't actually fishing. I put my stuff down and started to set the rod up. Then all became clear as one of the men shouted. Suddenly they all jumped up and stampeded down to where their rods were. I was then quite glad that I hadn't set up in front of them. They all started hurling their spoons out and to the south. Looking to where they were casting I couldn't see anything. Then a shoal of fish nosed into view, maybe sixty yards out. The ghostly shapes were dark in the blue water except for the occasional flashes of silver as they showed their sides. Large yellowtail, swimming hard and fast on their way into the bay. The men tried to cast ahead of the shoal, a spoon landing on top or too close scattered them. Two or three shapes at a time would break away to follow a spoon, winding and snaking behind the lure but not taking, and then the shoal was gone. The whole thing had taken maybe forty-five seconds. I could see now that the veterans sat up there so that they could see the shoals coming and so did not waste their energies by fishing blind.
I tied my spoon on and had a few practice throws under the gaze of the men who had re-convened at the watching rock. Another shoal came by and I made a pigs' ear of casting to them, scattering the fish by landing my lure right on top which earned me several rough shouts of censure. Despite my efforts two of the men hooked fish and I stopped casting to watch. They played the fish very hard with rods bent double, and the violence of the splashing next to the rocks as the fish were brought closer made me wonder if I could manage on my own. The men seemed to know just what to do, hauling the fish confidently onto the rocks with a long bamboo gaff. I'd liked to have thought that they would have helped me, but my fears were allayed when the first and only fish I caught was small enough for me to bring it up without a gaff. Once again I had landed my spoon on top of the shoal, but for reasons known only to itself my fish fastened itself immediately on to the lure. Once it was on the rocks I heard the old man shout, "Well done boykie. Take it home to your mama she's going to give you a big kiss." It seemed to be a friendlier shout, and when I looked at him he was smiling as he prepared to cast.
That was my luck for the day, but I was more than happy to have caught a fish. As the sun rose higher in the sky the shoals came by less frequently until they seemed to have stopped altogether and I decided to pack up. The veterans were relaxing on the rock talking and smoking, six large fish lay in a shaded pool close by. I walked up to them, the old man watched me approach.
"You've got yourself a nice little fry there", he said. The other men regarded me briefly and then turned back to their talk and smoke. They were all rough men, wearing khaki shorts and stout boots, faces lined and brown from a life in the sun.
"You've got some pretty big ones," I answered, motioning to the pool where their fish lay inert. "Ja well, we got a few. You could have had one of those too. Remember those two big ones that followed you right in? When you slowed down right at the rocks to try and get them to take? When they follow you in but won't take, that's when you must wind in as fast as you can. Even get the spoon skipping on the top. That's the way to get them to make their minds up. That's exciting hey, to see them slash at it so close."
"But won't you just pull it away from them?"
The old man laughed. "If a big 'tail decides he wants it, he'll make you think that you're not moving at all. And you must be careful that he doesn't pull you right in. I've seen that before." He took out some rolling tobacco and carefully made a cigarette.
"So has the fishing been good here this year?" I asked. He considered the question.
"My boy, the fishing hasn't been good here since about 'fifty six."
"Jeez. I wasn't even born then."
"Ja, fifty five years I've been walking down that bleddy path to come and fish. Been married three times and got five grown up kids. Three girls and two boys. But these rocks don't change. I'll keep coming till they have to shoot me." "So you must have been here in the old days when they used to catch tunny from the rocks?"
"Oh ja. Now that was something to see. But carrying the fish back up on your back is something I don't miss, to be honest."
"And your sons, do they come with you sometimes?"
"No man, they don't even fish. Too busy making money."
Now he stopped talking and looked back at the sea, it seemed that speaking of life above the stony path had changed his mood somehow and our conversation was over.
"Well maybe I'll see you again sometime" I said by way of leaving.
"Ja, go well. Maybe next time you catch those two big ones," he said, still watching the sea.
I went back to my tackle, picked it up and prepared to go. As I got to the beginning of the path there came a shout from behind- another shoal was arriving. I stopped to watch, it was a small shoal and passed quickly. One man hooked into what was obviously a large yellowtail, it made several long unstoppable runs and then held fast. The line was pulled so tight from the curved rod that it sang like a harp string. The other men gathered around, watching and giving the occasional word of advice. Eventually the fish showed signs of tiring and came closer to the rocks. The old man picked up the gaff and went to the edge to wait for the fish to come nearer.
"Careful Jan," said the angler, "he's a strong bugger. Don't go for him, I'll bring him over you."
Jan leaned over and held the gaff down, waiting for the right moment. Suddenly he pulled upwards, driving the hook perfectly into the tail section of the fish and hoiking it onto the edge of the rocks. The fish was kicking heavily and one of the other men grabbed the gaff to help, as for a moment it seemed that it might kick itself back over. The yellowtail came off the gaff and bucked on the rocks, the men were exclaiming at the size of it. I was still watching Jan, the effort of bringing the fish up was showing in his face as his foot slipped on the lip of the rock and he fell backwards over the edge. The men turned at the same time as my shout, I threw my tackle down and run to join them at the edge. Jan was not in the water. He was hanging on about six feet down, both hands stretched out above his head and gripping on to a small ledge. His right leg was swinging free and kicking against the rock to try and maintain his grip. His left foot was wedged tightly into a crack in a buttress. It was obviously what had arrested his fall but his leg didn't look right, having a strange angle to it from the knee down.
"Hang on Jan, we'll get you up" shouted one of the men. "Hold my legs" he said to the others, they lowered him headfirst over the edge and he grabbed Jans' wrists. Jan was not in the water when there were no waves, but when the swells came the water lifted up to his chest and sometimes his head. The man hanging and the other men holding his legs both yanked to try and get Jan free. We were looking down at him, he had not uttered a sound. He was looking back up at us, his hat gone and his hair plastered in disarray. His teeth were clenched and he was obviously in considerable pain. The men were shouting encouragement to him but his eyes were like a strangers, as if he didn't recognize anyone and didn't know who he was. We could see that he was not able to see us because he was looking at something else, something that had filled his vision. He was an old man contemplating his death. His trapped foot came free of the boot under the mens' efforts and they hauled him up and over, laying him gently on the rock. Someone put a canvas bag under his head. Jan's leg was obviously broken, it looked buckled about the knee and was already blue and very swollen. Eyes closed, he was concentrating on breathing steadily in and out as if it was the only way he could bear the pain. The men had a quick discussion about the best course of action.
"We could carry him up."
"No man don't be crazy he's in too much pain."
"But what if we made a stretcher?"
"Ja, from what?" They looked around, there was nothing but rock with some scrub higher up.
"We could use rods for the poles, two a side."
"Ja, and shirts and so-on ."
"Look", said the man who had pulled Jan up, "we could build a stretcher. Then he has to be carried up and driven to hospital. The whole thing will take hours. Why doesn't someone just run up, drive to the shop at Dias and phone for the sea rescue helicopter."
"Ja okay, that makes sense. Who's going to be the quickest up the hill?"
"I'll go", I said. They all turned and noticed that I was there.
"He probably will be the quickest" said one man. "You know where the shop above Dias beach is?"
"Ja, the tourist one" I said, turning to go. I ran to the path and started slogging up it. The incline soon bit into my progress and I was forced to walk and run in turns. When I got to the top my lungs were burning and I was drenched in sweat, in the heat my car had turned into a sauna and I felt almost out of my body while driving to Dias. It took around five minutes to get there, I ran into the cool shop that had zebra skins, soapstone carvings and copper elephants and managed to convey the situation very quickly to the tannie behind the counter. She was great, she had the emergency numbers right there and made the call.
Then I drove back to the Rooikrantz car-park, all my momentum gone and a numbness starting to set in. The woman at the shop had said that the helicopter would be about forty-five minutes, it hardly seemed worth going back down. Except that I had left my tackle down on the rocks. So I went back down as swiftly as I could manage, the fronts of my thighs were aching big time and I could tell that the next few days would involve no hills. I heard the helicopter coming from across the bay as I neared the bottom. It arrived more or less as I did. The blades whipped up the water in front of the rocks, the noise was tremendous as it rolled around the amphitheatre. The pilot landed a little way down from us where there was a clear spot large enough to do so. Two guys jumped out with a stretcher and ran over to us. Jan's eyes were closed, but as they lifted him onto the stretcher he opened them and I could see that he knew what was going on. They picked the stretcher up, the guy who had pulled Jan up was going with them. I was watching the old man's face as they started off towards the helicopter. Although there was such pain in his face he was somewhere else, in a place of his own. He was looking up at the immensity of the rock behind us all and I could see that he didn't hear the noise at all. He was fixing the rocks, the way it looked, into a quiet and peaceful part of his mind. For he knew, like we all knew as they put him aboard, that he was not going to fish at Rooikrantz again.
Once the helicopter had taken off across the bay the men picked up their stuff and prepared to leave. One of the men called me over to the pool where the fish were lying.
"You take Jan's fish, boykie. He won't mind."
I picked up the heavy yellowtail and said goodbye to the men as they started up. I was feeling whacked and fancied sitting down for a moment before doing the climb. I sat for a while, it was very quiet now with just the sound of the sea against the rocks. Then I got up and put Jan's fish in my bag, only half of it went in and the tail section poked out the top.
I took it easy on the way up, stopping halfway to look down at the rocks. A shoal of yellowtail was passing the ledges and you could see them very clearly, from so high up, as they swam over a shallow reef. The shoal thinned out into single file as they soared up and over, a glittering necklace being pulled through the water, then they were gone.