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Nick Pike puts his friend’s hand-built canoe to the test

My buddy, Warren Botha, is a tinkerer. In his day job he’s a computer techie, but in his free time he is always hands-on to find a better way. He is a kaizen kind of a guy – good change could be his unspoken motto. Be it sliding drawers under his rubber-duck seats, building and binding his own micro-eyes, tying his own flies, reglassing his boat deck or building his own canoe, Warren walks his talk. Big dreamers never sleep, they say – too busy getting things done. Warren is one of those kinds of guys.

There are some places that are just better fished in a canoe. A canoe can access a river on a bush path, where a boat can’t. Shallow ponds and short portages aren’t a problem. And the stealth of a canoe never hurts, either.

After experiencing some Eastern Cape rivers on a canoe with me, Warren wanted a similar double of his own. Commercial options somehow all just failed to satisfy his specifications. Warren bought plans off the internet and built his own. Plywood panels, cable-tied on templates, stitched, glassed and glued, and now the tinkerer has his own canoe.

Thus it was on the Maiden Voyage that Warren invited Chad Hubbard; I roped in Dane Beckerman and two other friends, Brad Lopnow and Pieter Coetzer, and we headed for the summer ebb and flow of a local Eastern Cape river.

“Hey, Nick, I just saw a shoal of skippie,” Dane said to me from a higher vantage point on the bank as we gently placed our canoes on to the first pond. Warren chuckled to himself as I gave voice to his thoughts: “You sure they’re not mullet?” I asked.

Still, I encouraged Warren to throw a fly before we launched out on to the pond and disturbed the water. “Argh, I have never got a fish in this pond before,” he said doubtfully, as he cast out anyway. You can imagine our surprise when it looked as if a small hand grenade had exploded behind his first retrieve. “Yoh!” we all exclaimed. The second retrieve was met with a similar explosion, but also a miss. Third cast: yes!

We hadn’t even sat in the canoes yet and already the first skippie was on. The hook popped while Warren was walking the fish to the camera, but the message was clear: “The skippies are here.” Sorry, Dane, we owe you an apology.

Chad (Bluewater Flies) ties his own flies and, between him and Warren, they crafted an unusual approach for this trip. A small barrel sinker just ahead of the fly assists as weight, and the fly is cast and jigged on light spinning gear rather than traditional fly cast. Chad designed a black-and-white grizzly hackle cockroach with a bit of flash on a Gamakatsu SL12, with orange face and eyes. It swims like a small tiger prawn, and skipjack go crazy for it.

Warren was throwing a purple-and-black marabou and rabbit-tail, wool-head toad. It was a fitting start that the captain and craftsman of the Maiden Voyage set the first hook.

Personally, I prefer bait that is bait, rather than looks like bait, so I plied the water with mud prawn, and quickly answered back with a perch. Sadly, however, bar one on, leap and off, the skippie were happy to ignore my mud prawn. This is the second time that Warren and company have given me a thorough beating with fly. They could do no wrong. Nearly every retrieve was followed by explosions or a fish on.

Pete worked the first pond with an extra-drift mud prawn or two after we had moved on, and was rewarded with a landed skippie.

The second pond was a rerun of the first. Warren and Chad lit up the pond with their flies, and the game was on. Dane and I were the last to set sail on the second pond, and I was quickly rewarded with a 60cm kob on drift mud prawn, in water that had already been fly-fished and paddled over by three canoes. The beauty and effect of quiet, stealth and no motors is a huge win.

Adding to the species tally, spotties and a Natal stump came out. In an unusual turn of events, the skippies were a tad hesitant to smash drift mud prawn. Chad, however, wasn’t happy to beat us on fly, and boated a skippie on drift mud prawn too.

Later in the afternoon, Chad and Warren pulled the Maiden Canoe on to the bank for some coffee and chocolate brownies. Being the good sports they are, they put out mud prawn while they rested. No sooner was the first sip of coffee down the hatch than ratchets were singing, and spottie and kob were coming out hand-over-fist. Granted, these weren’t the 3kg and 10kg variety, but juveniles provide busy and multiple entertainment. Every now and then a bigger fish comes along as well. Warren also landed a 60cm kob.

It is a special joy to experience an estuary in total health, and all fish were released.

Be it on the bank, in the canoe, off the canoe, while drinking tea, with bait, with fly, still or drift, Warren and Chad fished the pants off of us completely. It was nice for Warren to see his handiwork endorsed. It would seem, perhaps, that good fish know how to appreciate a good craft.

Warren couldn’t have imagined a better Maiden Voyage. “I can’t remember when last I had skippie so excited about artificial,” he said.

If you feel inclined to build a stitch-and-glue canoe, email warrenbotha.za@gmail.com. He will give you all of the tips you need. He is a helpful kind of a guy.