Fishing Where Silent Death Lurks

By Herman Labuschagne

So you think that fishing in the great African rivers is all about sport? Well, that may be so, but only until the hunter become the hunted...


In the murky waters of the great rivers of Africa they lurk. Some grow to enormous sizes. All are dangerous and deadly. Not often seen, they’re ever-present. You always know they’re there, waiting. Watching. Searching for one fatal mistake. When they strike, it is with blinding ferocity and amazing strength. He who finds himself between their jaws, rarely escapes. And for millennia, they have struck fear into the heart of man and beast. They are –  the Nile crocodile...


These animals are monsters. Silent killers of the most efficient kind. They are the ones that foolish fishermen forget about occasionally. But to forget about them in a land where death is always just a cast away, could be your last mistake ever. Funny, but when a man lives under conditions of danger, he soon becomes complacent and accustomed to them. The best example is perhaps the native fishermen of Africa’s rivers. How often I’ve seen them? Wading waist-deep through the turbid grey waters of the mighty Zambezi as they cast their nets. So unconcerned when – amazingly – you look a hundred yards downstream, and there lie some of the biggest old granddaddy crocodiles. You see the same thing all over Africa. Fisherman who do their trade with little or no fear of the big crocks in the waters around them – each one more than able to take a full grown man to his watery doom. In the fish kraals of lake Kosi the fisherman tend their catches daily in waters where crocks do take humans, and where the sane and the wise would think twice about even dangling an arm from a boat! And just recently I watched with wonder yet again as dozens of fishermen and -women dragged their nets through the Limpopo at Crook’s Corner, not too far from me. The fact that a whole nest of these uneven-tempered reptilians were basking only metres away, seemed again, to be just one of those  “occupational hazards” that is accepted with an attitude of blind fatalism!


I have lived in Africa for all my life, and some things you just never get used to. Such foolishness, for example. But this raises an important question for the modern-day fisherman:  Do crocodiles still take humans, or is this something that only happened in the days of Selous, Livingstone and the other explorer-adventurers? Not quite. Crocodiles have a taste for human flesh which is still every bit as keen as it was 150 years ago. Every year, dozens of native fishermen still get eaten in Africa. In fact, this happened only two years ago, a short distance downstream from where I live, when a croc distributed justice to a poacher by devouring him! Yet, just a few weeks ago I had to go and warn another one of our bush-fishermen who was sitting by his rod with his feet in the water, that a recent areal count had revealed nearly fifty crocs in that particular region! Even those foolish fishermen on the Zambezi and elsewhere, still regularly pay the price for their folly. A few short years ago my father hunted elephant with two American friends in Zimbabwe. Mercifully, he rarely eats meat, but the Americans dug in with the appetite of Neanderthal hunters. It was only halfway through their meal, however, that their host casually remarked that the meat they were having for supper, was that of a huge man-eater crocodile which they had recently shot. Ashen faces turned white when the unthinking host explained how one of the local woman had shrieked with hysteria when she saw the clothes and remains of her fisherman-husband being extracted from the belly! –The husband had mysteriously gone missing only days before...!


The rule when fishing in tropical African rivers has always been: Stay on the high banks at all times, or try to stay at least five paces away from the river at all times. Oh, and keep moving around! But any fisherman who has ever had to extract a snagged hook from reeds and rocks will tell you that this is hardly practical advice. So we all take our chances until one day, when our hourglass runs empty... When the flat dog of death leaps from the waters with the speed of a bullet, to drag us away with barely enough time for one solitary scream. Few and far between are those who have lived to tell the tale of their escape from the death-trap jaws of the Nile crocodile. And those who do, usually have the kind of scars which leave little kids breathless – and wise old fishermen with bad nerves. Oh, and incidentally, even five metres is often playing a game of dice with fate. Nobody who hasn’t seen a crocodile in action, can ever begin to realize how blurringly fast these seemingly lazy and lethargic lizards can cover ground.


Not many people are ever fully aware of what successful killing machines these beasts are. “But can’t you see them coming?” some may ask. Well, the answer is sometimes yes, and sometimes no. Crocks wouldn’t have been built according to the same blueprints as millions of  years ago if there had been something wrong with the design. The approach of a croc can be so slowly and with such nerve-destructing patience that often you just don’t notice them coming. And they can attack from below the water, as well as – occasionally – on dry land. No kidding? — Yes, no-o-o-o  kidding! We would all do well to remember that back in the ‘eighties a game ranger in Kruger was attacked thirty kilometres from the nearest water! 


Perhaps the danger with crocs is like most other things. You don’t see them and you get used to it. Or maybe you do see them and you still get used to it! The point is, you become complacent because for days on end there seems to be no threat. But the croc is wise and patient – a timelessly deadly combination. One day, perhaps a day or three months later, it will be there. Waiting. Hungry. And then you better hope those life policies of yours are fully paid up! 


But what if you’re a strong man? Say you’re a sumo wrestler or a football player, for instance? What chance would you have then? The answer to that one is as simple as the saurian’s brain is small: Precious little still. Especially if he gets you into the water. When the crock takes a person, the first thing he likes to do is get you into the water as fast as possible. Holding his victim in a vice of steel, he then likes to spin incredibly fast – which either disorientates the victim completely, or sends him into instant “try-not-to-get-drowned” mode. So after a bit of spin-treatment and disorientation, croc likes to shake his victim around until the limbs literally go flying in all directions! And without question, there is no sumo wrestler in the world who would be up to an underwater fight against a beast heavier and stronger than him, after that!  I know a man who had a fourteen foot croc in his back yard. I’ve seen it shake an impala apart. Believe me, it works!


But speaking of size... My father once missed an opportunity to shoot an enormously big buffalo under interesting circumstances that might illustrate this point. It had come down to drink, belly-deep in the mighty Zambezi. Not being allowed to shoot without the bureaucratic presence of a game scout, he watched as he impatiently waited for the hastily summoned scout to arrive. But then... one minute the bull was standing there, and the next minute he was gone! That buffalo bull disappeared beneath the waters of the Zambezi with one great splash, and not a piece of it ever surfaced again! 600 kilograms of horned death just disappeared in one great splash!


“So, do crocodiles ever take elephants?” you may wonder. While I’ve never heard of a confirmed case, it is probably likely that they will go after young ones. My grandfather was fishing on the Limpopo once, and watched as a big tusker came to drink next to him. It wasn’t too long before a fair-sized croc had bit it on the foot. Now, I don’t know whether elephant-attack is described in the “Crocodile’s Guide to Animal Attack,” but it certainly turned out to be a poor choice on this occasion. The elephant calmly proceeded to harass the creature with its trunk until the croc decided to snap at the offending member. And that was its last mistake! In one fluid move that old bull just grabbed the saurian and flung it across its back to where it struck the bank with a sickening thud. You should have heard Grandpa describe what that big lizard looked like after seven metric tons of bad attitude had mashed it into the sands of the Limpopo! A small bloody spot as a testimony to perhaps the only living mammal which has a chance of dealing effectively with a large, determined crocodile.


So what is the moral of the story to us fishermen? Stay away from Africa’s big rivers? No. That would be like avoiding flying because aeroplanes sometimes fall. The average fisherman has a far greater chance of finding out about the possibilities of life after death in a car crash on his way to the fishing waters, than he would at the jaws of a crocodile. If there is a moral to this story, it is probably that one should always know the capabilities and habits of one’s adversaries. Never become complacent, never underestimate them. Be extra-careful and use that wonderfully neglected human talent which is known as common-sense. Those that do so, can be assured of many happy years of fishing in some of the great waters of the world.