Shockers of the salt-water kind.
Many of these latter worthies sported dental formulae more commonly associated with selachians such as the ragged-tooth shark (Odontaspis taunts) or some of the larger inshore members of the Sparidae, or sea-bream family, specifically the so-called poenskop or black mussel cracker (Cvmatoceps nasutus). Based purely on the evidence exposed by certain toothy grins, many of these brothers (and sisters) of the angle possessed the comparatively rare ability to eat an apple through a tennis racket. But I digress.
Spangled through the ranks were the usual Ooms, Tannies and Nefies, lining the river banks, rods pegged in the finest traditions of karphengelaars the world over. Not pap-gooi, mind, but with hooks baited with fresh mud--or swimming prawns--and thus ready, willing and able to dram up some serious business. New river inflows usually meant the mud prawns started getting restless and began to vas-trap about the shallow-submeiged and silty banks, whilst shoals of spotted grunters appeared and came fully on the feed. Perhaps only in the eastern Cape could something with a rash of black spots, set off against a silvery, opalescent bronzy-mauve be called a "tiger". Yet if there is a more magnificent fighting fish or one better on the table than a grunter, it does not immediately spring to mind. Some mornings even now I wake up with the sight and aroma of a whole grunter, pan-grilled as served by the Swartkops Hotel in die goeie ou dae. Perhaps the folks there still do so, but no more delicious fish dish have we ever eaten, before or since.
The mud prawns and the tigers had company. The prawns were joined by active, kicking, swimming prawns, with the tiger sharing the bounty with leervis, kabeljaauwens, the occasional river gurnard, and most of all, with skipjack; a hard fighting fish in Natal called "springer" and in Australia and elsewhere, "giant herring". Times like these were rare. Anyone who wanted to share in some seriously worthwhile fishing would drop everything, get ready and spend some time at water's edge or aboard a boat. And perhaps none more so than the swelling ranks of salt-water fly-fishers.
And so it was that on one clear, hot Saturday morning, with cars parked along the fence outside the Rod Club, and with scarcely a backwards glance (those being days of woe and want, with the occasional break-in to "redistribute" a tape-deck and car radio set). Die Manne set forth. The word was out: "The Fish Are On!" and there was no time to lose! With light and energetic steps they set off along the slippery-slidey banks, downstream through the close-cropped, salt-tolerant plants along the river, past the ranks of folks with lines set, and towards the river mouth to their west. The tide was pushing, and water conditions looked and felt ideal: water clear yet not crystalline, warm but not quite tepid, and a good, strong, incoming tide.
As they waded through Steenbras Creek, the first stirrings of unease were felt. Underfoot, the linn sand was overlain with a thickish layer of fine, soft silt. This clinging muddiness seemed not to affect the fishing, but drew another species into the matrix of possibilities. One not nearly so admired as a fighting fish, nor sought-after for food. Four anglers passed through the mid-thigh-deep water without incident, when with a sudden jerk and a strangled snort of "Eina!" lucky number five's leg whipped out of the water, knee fully bent and was raised with great vigor, gumboot-dancing style, almost level with his earlobe. Beneath him. a muddy billow of water swiftly spread, as, hopping furiously and pani-stricken on one leg, knee-jerk evasive action was taken. Everyone froze in place, as the victim surged ashore like a hippopotamus and vigorously rubbed his heavily-muscled calf. Danger: electric rays present! With considerable trepidation, heavy of heart, and with exaggerated foot-shuffling, the rest of the group oozed ashore. We all adopted the tried and tested "Siffie Shuffle", long the first (and only) line of defence against The Creatures Of The Black Bog: stingrays, electric rays, curious octopuses, and the odd unexpected river gurnard or bar-tailed flathead. Standing on any of these organisms was anadrenalising experience, especially at night; more or less guaranteed to evert one's hair follicles and raise pulses and blood pressure to dangerous levels.
Now the presence in perfect fishing water of electric rays sends a shiver of apprehension down the spine of all sensible people. These curiously configured, flat-headed and (according to some) turd-like rays are indeed a curiosity, about which the eminent ichthyologist Dr. Rudy van Der Elst had the following to say in his fascinating booked guide to the common sea fishes of Southern Africa (2nd edition: revised and updated. 1988):
"Known as the marbled electric ray. Torpedo sinuspersici is an inhabitant of shallow sandy areas, frequently entering and burying itself in the sandy bottom of estuaries. This creature reaches peak abundance in summer when females produce 9-22 live young, each measuring about 10cm disk-width".
Of perhaps only academic interest to some terrestrial life forms, but of intense interest to others, specifically those who happen to stand on these torpid, quivering, wobbling creatures, whilst immersed sporran-deep in hyper-conductive salt water, is the derivation of this creature's name: torpedo, meaning "numbness" according to the good doctor himself. As to how numb, well, we are left in limbo as to an accurate reading of the voltage and amperage, with "many an unsuspecting diver or careless angler ... startled at its 'punch'". Ancient Romans apparently put these rays to "medical" usage for shock therapy in the treatment of gout, whilst the ancient Greeks so far forgot themselves as to closet pregnant women with these satanic shockers in the belief that "the shocks would ease delivery of the infant". True story as they say in Australia ...
Well, as to being "startled by its punch", that day was something special and the topic of the story to follow ... but that will have to wait for the next issue ...
To Be Continued ...
Glossary for non-South Africans
Die Goeie Ou Dae: The Good Old Days
Die Manne: The Guys (macho term)
Etna!: Exclamation of pain: "Ouch!"
Eitsa!: an exclamation of surprise
Gumboot dancing: Called in South Africa 'isicathuan African dance performed by dancers wearing Wellington boots (known inRSA as Conceived by black miners in South Africa as an alternative to drumming, which authorities restricted. This percussive dance is similar in execution and style to forms of "stepping" done by certain African American fraternities and sororities.
Kabeljaauwens: fishes of the species Argyrosomus hololepidotus (family Sciaenidae)
Karphengelaars: carp fishermen.
Leervis: gamefish Lichia amia (family Carangidae): literally "leather " a reference to the leathery, apparently scale-less skin of the fish
Modderspruit: literally, muddy creek
Nefie (pl nefies): Afrikaans term meaning "cousin" and/or "nephew", used as a form of address, usually informally, amongst people not well acquainted Equivalent to USA Southern term "cousin" as in " How you doin ' cousin?".
Oom: Afrikaans wordfor "Uncle" a semi-formal term of respect much employed by the young when addressing men older than themselves.
Pap-gooi: literally 'porridge throwing": carp baits in South Africa are often made based on boiled maize meal (similar to corn grits, only made up as a stiffporridge firm enough to be hand-moulded into a ball). Often used as a term indicating derision or contempt for this form of angling.
Poenskop: short for pampoen kop: literally "pumpkin headed"
Siffie: a slow-moving mollusc of the genus Haliotis
Skoppejag: phonetic Afrikaans rendering of the English name "skipjack".
Spotted grunter: the fish Pomadasys commersonii, a target speciesfor light tackle anglers in Southern African estuaries. A much prized catch.
Spruit: creek or stream
Tannie: Afrikaans wordfor "aunt" or "auntie": a semi-formal term of respect much employed by the young when addressing women older than themselves
Tjokkavangers: literally "squid catchers", the Eastern Cape of South Africa being the centre of a massive (and unsustainable) boom in squid fishing in the 80 s and 90's: such that squid were called "wit goud": white gold. Squid species targeted was Loligo reynaudi
Vas-trap: a popular and lively Afrikaner folk dance.