Shockers of the salt-water kind-the tale concludes.
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. Aside from their targeted prey, the presence in perfect fishing water of electric rays sent a shiver of apprehension down the spine of all sensible people. These curiously configured, flat-headed rays are indeed a curiosity. Known as the marbled electric ray, Torpedo sinuspersici is known to give a "punch" to those unsuspecting anglers or divers who come into contact with the quivering, wobbling creatures, whilst immersed sporran-deep in hyper-conductive salt water.
As to being "startled by its punch", that hot and muggy Saturday was something special. We arrived at Modderspruit, and fanned out across its sandy, silty mouth, spaced to allow full play with the sweepstokke we wielded, and mid-thigh deep in water. The skipjacks (known colloquially as "skippies" or by some as "skoppejags") were there in force and it was a day to remember, catch-wise. Alas! that this was somewhat tainted by the presence in almost plague proportions of hordes of wobbly, high-voltage rays. No one was spared, as time and again an angler, playing a good fish, would take a step back or a half-step to the side and plonk his foot square on one of Satan's Skateboards. There was always a microsecond of horrible anticipation between stepping on one of these beasts and the receipt of sufficient voltage to wrench one's calf muscles nearly off their points of attachment, and to straighten one's spine with a series of whip-cracks normally not even heard with the most robust of chiropractic manipulations. And this microsecond's delay was time enough for the victim to involuntarily tense all his muscles; something that added greatly to the effect of the alfresco electrification.
After each of us has trodden on our very own, individual quota of four to six electric rays, straightening with a buffalo-like bellow, a range of curious physical and psycho-somatic symptoms began to manifest themselves. Several of the fellows, serious rugby players in their youth, had badly cricked necks and what appeared to be the sort of mid-thoracic back pain suggestive of herniated vertebrae. Several complained of blurred vision and dull headaches, whilst others suffered unsightly and disconcerting muscle spasms, and facial twitches vigorous enough to warrant the fitting of an orthopaedic neck brace. With chattering teeth, several tried to light fags, but even these did little to re-insulate nervous systems wracked by repeated busts of cruel voltage, as time after time, an angler would unexpectedly straighten up with a yelp, roar or bellow, and with knees lifted high do the Swartkops River equivalent of The Highland Fling and the Eastern Cape's answer to Russian Squat Dancing. I attribute my own premature and catastrophic balding to the effects of these electrical episodes on my hair follicles as well as several cracks in my teeth, that even now have my long-suffering dentist shaking his head and going 'Tsk tsk'.
Now these galvanic contortions were accompanied by bursts of the sort of soul-blackening language that would colour the cheeks of a Rumanian brothel keeper. Many of those affected already possessed rich and varied vocabularies of the sort indispensable to all those who spend time in harm's way. As we all know, there are situations in which strong language is essential. After all, no one I have ever fished with, upon sticking a 2/0 hook through his own earlobe whilst trying to execute a particularly tricky steeple cast is content with an "Eitsa!", "Ouch!" or even a "Dang it all to heck! I've hooked my earlobe again!" Infinitely more powerful oaths are called for. And so too when one treads for the fifth time on an electric ray.
On that day, airbursts of profanity sleeted over the sandbank, sending prawns scuttling into deeper water, scattering feeding shorebirds, and scything through the salt flats flora like a claymore mine. To this day, on Google Earth, blackened expanses of riverbank may be seen, in places close to Ground Zero, where more than fifteen years later, plants still will not grow.
And then it was that we noticed him, a distant figure, walking barefoot, as was his wont on the river, with fly-rod in hand. "J", as I'll call him, was not really one of the regulars, but as a qualified marine biologist and keen and capable fisherman, enjoyed easy rapport with the fellows. A broad-shouldered and muscular man, "X' was a courteous, mild, measured and serene presence, amidst the Godless Blaspheming and occasional violence and carnage of the riverbank community. Not once had any of us ever heard "J" swear. It was unnatural.
We spotted him parking his car at the rod club about 900m away, and watched with keen interest as he made his way down to, and then along the bank. By now, Steenbras Creek was almost navel-deep and water rushed in rising ever faster. Mid-way across, he was torpedoed. Even from a distance, the steps of the traditional Gumboot Dance were unmistakable: the huge splash of one leg whipping out the water, foot level with the earlobe, and then a bigger splash as he lost his balance and fell over into the creek and was, for seconds, lost to view. Then up again, and surging strongly towards the closer bank. Almost there ...! Eina! Down again! More splashing! Down with one hand to help raise himself from the water: oh NO!! He's put his hand on it! More splashing yet, as "J" eventually dragged himself ashore, having forded at last the 15m width of Steenbras Creek.
Score: "J" nil; Torpedoes: 4! And he hadn't started fishing yet.
We carried on casting, but with many an over-the-shoulder glance to check on his progress. Ever the optimist, "J" seemed philosophical about this all, as with apparent fatalism, he stopped several times to wade out waist-deep and cast his fly. He had seen jumping skipjack at the end of our lines and thought to cash in along the way. Alas! it was not to be, for four more times (once each at his first two stops and twice at his third) was he smitten. It took him about half an hour to get to us, by which time, we were pulling back out of the water and making for the upstream bank of the spruit. The tide was really pushing now, and the skipjack were still fully on the feed.
He greeted us with his usual courtesy: "Hi guys! I see you all caught good fish: well done! Hey, those electric rays are quite bad today, hey? The little devils. Ha! Ha!"
"Little Devils"? That's not what we'd been calling them, that much was certain! Against our advice, "J" waded into the channel of Modderspruit, casting (it must be said) without his usual smoothness and fluency. As Lefty Kreh says "God rarely lets you throw a perfect back-cast", and with his powerful shoulder-, arm and neck muscles cramped and frazzled from no less than eight encounters with fully charged electric rays, it was a wonder "J" was still standing. It was pitiful to see someone take all that these terrible fish could throw at him. It was also not fair: the skipjack by now had moved further offshore, drawing "J" out into the deeper water along the main channel. Three more "lightening strikes" later, still fishless, and now twitching and warbling, "J" at last seemed to cave in. With his stifled snorts and choked screams still ringing in our ears, and clustered in the shallows and with rods slung, we stood in silence, willing him to catch just ONE fish. It was not to be: with shoulders slumped, he slowly reeled in his fly-line. Unbloodied, but bowed, he made his way cautiously back ashore.
He almost made it. About a rod-length from us as he shuffling his feet slowly on the bottom, a tiny electric ray, about the circumference of a side-plate settled on top of "J's" right foot and zapped him. Again, the water-borne Highland Fling. We winced in sympathy. "J" picked himself up from the shallow water. By now, his sunglasses lay weird athwart the bridge of his nose, revealing a disturbing sight: with the muscles of his left cheek twitching furiously, his eyes appeared to be spinning horizontally in their sockets, as with a terrible rictus-like grin, he spoke in a parched, cracked voice. "Gee! That's got to be about the eighth or ninth time that's happened!"
"Twelfth." I told him. "We've been counting".
"Golly!" said he. 'That's surely some kind of record, hey? Ha! Ha!"
We waved "J" good-bye, as he wobbled off back towards the Rod Club, twitching and muttering to himself. Tension again grew and no-one spoke as we watched him draw up to the bank of Steenbras Creek, six hundred metres distant. The creek was now bank-to-bank full and near nipple-deep. The wind had shifted, and now blew back towards us from the northeast. On the higher ground above the creek banks was a mixed flock of shorebirds all busily feeding or preening; mostly sacred ibises, peppered with the odd oystercatcher, a few cormorants, a number of kelp gulls, and small sanderlings.
We watched in dreadful anticipation as "J" slowly waded in. The weight of five pairs of beady eyes must have tickled the back of his neck, yet he did not turn around until he reached calf-deep water across the Other Side. "J" seemed to stop and turn around to face us, when one last time, he was zapped. We watched in horror as he fell back into the shallow water. At that moment all the birds took off in panic, and a heartbeat or two later, a distant cry came to our ears, faint but unmistakable: "FFFFFFFFaaaaAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAACCCKKKK!!!!" it said.
We looked at one another in pure and undisguised admiration. "My, but that man's got a way with f*$%#Ag words!" said The Vicar.
Glossary for non-South Africans
Die Goeie Ou Dae: The Good Old Days
Die Manne: The Guys (macho term)
Eina!: Exclamation of pain: "Ouch!"
Eitsa!: an exclamation of surprise
Gumboot dancing: Called in South Africa 'isicathulo': an African dance performed by dancers wearing Wellington boots (known in RSA as "gumboots"). 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 fish" 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 word for "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 stiff porridge 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 species for light tackle anglers in Southern African estuaries. A much prized catch.
Spruit: creek or stream
Tannie: Afrikaans word for "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.