The forward-casting, centrepin Nite Hawk reel is a South African original manufactured some forty years ago as a freshwater bank angling reel. I have been using it since its introduction and have more than 40 of them, all spooled with different breaking strength line, depending on what fish I am targeting. I always wanted to test its fish-catching abilities in saltwater, and in April this year I did just that …

Life sometimes takes us on a journey we didn’t plan for.

Many years ago, life dealt me a strange hand of cards. At first glance the cards I held appeared to be unplayable, a losing hand so to speak. I suddenly found myself in a position with extremely bleak prospects. Little did I know then how my altered journey would bring new meaning and great joy to my life.

Out of the wreckage of my life I was at least able to hold onto my old Isuzu bakkie. One cold morning in July I mentioned to an acquaintance that if I wanted to eat and stay alive, I would need to go fishing. The Highveld in winter is a hard place to survive. Unemployment and lack of opportunity in small, dusty towns closed most conventional doors to me. Nevertheless, I think my acquaintance took pity on me and presented me with two used Nite Hawk reels, two fibreglass 12-foot rods, a bucket of very old mealiebom and some expired floaties. He also slipped me R200 to get to the dam.

My basic idea was to catch a few carp to sell. I’m sometimes embarrassed by that, but hunger can often blur the boundaries of ethical considerations. I packed my ‘new’ tackle, put in R100 of diesel, bought a loaf of bread and headed for the dam.

Apart from the hard frost at night and sleeping in my bakkie, the frustration of using the unfamiliar Nite Hawk reels and inappropriate rods was extremely frustrating. At first casting was difficult. Retrieving line one turn of the handle after another was a nightmare. Underwater obstacles were hated and my whole pathetic setup just sucked. But I persisted and I stayed alive.

One year later I was fishing Arabie Dam. Some Chinese dudes came around every evening and bought all my fish, common carp and also the Chinese Silver carp. All good, but after catching hundreds of fish my Nite Hawks were packing up on me. The ratchets were worn out. Without the ratchet a Nite Hawk is essentially just an ordinary centerpin reel, useless for carp. One afternoon at a dam, I overheard an angler say to his mate, “Nite Hawk katrolle? Nee wat, dis nou k..k op sy beste!” I said nothing but I thought about his comment and just had to smile – he didn’t know how many fish I had caught with the reels! A little while later they saw where I was casting but just looked on in silence. When the reels started to run, making that incredibly beautiful sound unique to a Nite Hawk when a good fish is hooked, I knew they were watching me. Envious disbelief! And then I realized I had become an artist with my “obsolete” and “forgotten” reels. My life changed soon after that. I got dealt a new hand of cards and when I looked, I was holding four aces!

Nite Hawk reels were produced by East Rand freshwater bank angler Bennie Swart some forty years ago. As he went into production the first Mitchell coffeegrinder reels appeared on the market. The Nite Hawk was dead in its tracks. No one wanted them anymore. Pawn shops across Johannesburg and Pretoria became glutted with secondhand reels and so a proudly South African creation was almost forgotten.

Most anglers today can recognize a Nite Hawk, but few know how they actually work. The first one was a model 6003, crafted from solid aluminum. The next was the model 7003, this time manufactured using a tin alloy and featured a narrow spool. The final model produced was the League Master which has a broader spool, a relocated reel seat and casting pin to enable total hassle-free casting. A fully functional Nite Hawk has a built-in battery-powered system with an electronic buzzer and small indicator lights on the spool that flicker when a bite is registered and the fish takes line. Ingenious to say the least! Most secondhand reels no longer have all the working parts as spares are extremely difficult to come by. Only the mechanical ratchet remains intact and it is this simple mechanism that produces the unique Nite Hawk sound all anglers can’t get enough of. Even without all the electronic parts, the reel is still perfect for tight line fishing.

Over time I have caught an incredible number of carp with my Nite Hawks. Some fishing venues on the Vaal Dam system with sand bottoms were tailormade for these reels. Long distance casts and a free ratchet system place no pressure on the reel or the fish. All I want to say is, “thank you Bennie, your reels are still good to go!” I now have a collection of some 40 reels and the thought of using a coffeegrinder is quite unthinkable!

To get the most out of the Nite Hawk, I combine them with the best top end rods on the market. The combination produces astonishing results. Just ask Schalk van Breda how much distance he can achieve with a well balanced rig. Enough!

After fishing the Vaal River system for a few years, I became bored with catching carp. I then began targeting barbel. A 15kg barbel on a Nite Hawk is a very sweet thing. There is very satisfying direct contact with the fish from the first pull-away to the landing net. Granted, some experience is required otherwise busted knuckles and reel burns happen to fingers and palms. Over time, I wanted more from my reels and equipment. I toyed with the idea of catching saltwater fish. A crazy thought, or so it seemed.

For a saltwater venue I selected the Gamtoos River estuary near Jefferies Bay. It appealed to me because of the good fish found there and the river bank profile making it suitable for tight line angling. For several weeks I planned the trip. I focused on the details and eventually the day came for me to leave Pretoria bright and early for J-Bay. Fifteen hours straight driving. Most of my fishing I have done alone, so I had to keep my wits about me. The trip down was long and physically demanding. As soon as I arrived, I set up camp and then installed myself on the bank. I took a small packet of frozen squid with me from Pretoria. I cut the squid into tiny blocks and using small hooks soon had a few small stumpies to load as live bait. I tied a basic barbel trace with decently sized circle hooks. I had a lot to learn, but it was game on!

Saltwater fish are different to freshwater fish in many respects. I fished the Gamtoos for four days with live bait. On the first day I struggled to catch the right sized live bait. Hoping for a few mullet, I only caught stumpies. The bigger ones I ate! The second day produced six undersized garrick (350mm) but they gave me the run around. The third day was extremely hot and windless. The rods rested motionless in their holders. I was becoming anxious because my time was running out and I had no fish of any consequence. Then at around 14:00 my yellow Nite Hawk went “click, click, click”. The line into the water was taught. My heart wanted to stop beating. Again, “click, click, click”. Then nothing. Minutes passed before the reel began to roll out steadily. Steadily and slowly. I gave it time, fifty metres and then I lifted the rod and made contact with the fish.

The reaction was explosive! The sheer power and speed of the fish I have never experienced. The handle of the spinning spool connected with my middle finger and I thought the joint had dislocated. The line stripped out so fast I could smell the burn of line on my skin. The fish ran for another 70 metres and then slowed down. When it turned, I knew I had him! Just like another big barbel! After a number of massive runs I brought him a little closer. Fifteen minutes later it was close! My mind went crazy. I glimpsed the leader line. Would my knots hold? I didn’t have a big enough landing net or a gaff and I was alone!

Fishing stories with happy endings and stunning photos end up on the cover of Tight Lines magazine, but not this time. All I remember is an ugly little grating sound, like a defect in a gear box, and then the hook pulled!

Alone! No witness! It was difficult to suppress the unexpected surge of anger and disappointment. I was devastated, to the point of tears. All the meticulous preparation, the effort, the flawless precision of my fish plan, all the research, all the imaginings and fantasy of a different outcome. All for naught! Later that evening I felt drained. I was emotionally depleted. My one and only window of opportunity had passed me by. Gone! I was sick! From the power and feel of the fish, I reckoned at least a 30 kg kob or garrick. I never actually got a clear view of the fish which makes not knowing even worse. Alone with a memory that will haunt me for a very long time!

However, I am somehow profoundly comforted by the fact that I had succeeded in my mission. Bottom line, I wanted one big saltwater fish to challenge the Nite Hawk. I hooked it and I had it beat! After the ‘incident’ I stayed on for another day. I had four perfect live baits out from dawn to dusk, but – I blanked! I slowly realized that I too had switched off, mentally and physically, so I packed up and started the long journey home. I don’t have to provide any detail about what I thought about all the way back to Pretoria. I was “sick”! I am still “sick” but I will be back soon…with my beloved Nite Hawk reels!

The latest digital edition of THE BANK ANGLER / DIE OEWERHENGELAAR is now available!

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