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The Big One

Angling in Africa leads to a mammoth encounter.

October 4, 2007
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I don’t have a catchy nickname like “Rip, “Flip or “Crunch”, but I’ve got a fish tale that tops the bunch. For more than a decade, I have been master baiter and wire man aboard our 37-foot Bertram, Anhinga. My wife, Nelia, runs things on the bridge while I do the heavy lifting, facing off with irritated pelagic creatures of all stripes. I’ve pulled my share of dolphin, wahoo and tuna over the rail, tagged countless sailfish and been released by marlin that were as big as a whale.

Still, my signature tale predates this service. It took place in a spot where few anglers would have thought to wet a line. I was a young lad seeking adventure in Africa. More specifically, I was deep in the Aberdare, tracking dik-dik, bongo and the elusive giant forest hog. Those south of the Mason-Dixon Line will appreciate that the latter represents well over a thousand pounds of barbecue and is not to be trifled with.

Being a waterman at heart, I lusted for surf with my turf, so I embarked on a journey south to the mighty Mara River in search of the giant Nile perch (everything is big in Africa). The portion of the continent this waterway bisects can be uncomfortably warm, making the Mara this wild kingdom’s version of Coney Island on Labor Day weekend. Having been a loyal fan of Marlin Perkins, I knew that to survive I would have to remain alert and fully hydrated. I sipped an ice cold Tusker, a reasonable, regional substitute for Heineken.

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Light tackle skiffs were not yet the rage in the region, so I was forced to improvise. I found a semi-submerged log that served as a splendid casting platform. As cable had yet to turn fishing guides into TV travel hosts, I called on local talent-a Masai fellow by the name of Keelu. As a simmering sun rested on the distant escarpment, I swatted flies the size of pigeons. Keelu baited my hook with a small, crushed amphibian.

A ripple in the water caught my eye, and I made my presentation. It was of course a perfect toss, but to my surprise, the water exploded! Fishing is an imperfect science, and while I had hoped for a giant Nile perch, I had assumed that at the least, something with fins and scales would respond.

I was wrong.

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A greyhounding grander has nothing on a pissed off hippopotamus.

While most folks think of these creatures as a cross between Babar and Barney, the truth is they have short fuses attached to bad attitudes. The beast surfaced like a Trident submarine. Water spewing from its swollen nostrils, it appeared intent on boarding my “skiff. My “guide vaulted ashore in panic, and I faced the monster down.

This, in my view, counts as a legal release-a record, I’m sure, and a hell of a fish story.

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Like most anglers, my memory serves me well, and I have taken only modest creative license in the telling of this tale. My ration of Tusker was small, and the hippo was not pink. I swear!

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