Jeremy Wade has written on natural history and travel for publications including: BBC Wildlife, the Guardian, the Sunday Telegraph, Kew magazine, Fortean Times and The Field. He has also contributed to The Natural History Programme on BBC Radio 4.
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Published in the Sunday Telegraph (UK) on 28 June 1998, and also in Sunday Times of South Africa

A 15-stone monster is the unofficial record; 40-pounders are mere tiddlers. Jeremy Wade casts for Nile perch on the desert sea of Lake Nasser.

Big fish in an enormous pond

Spray breaks over us in silvery blasts as the boat pitches in the heavy swell, splinters of cold flying through the tropical furnace. The not-quite-rhythmic pounding of hull on water is hypnotic. But the impression of time as a repeating loop is abruptly dispelled. Something has yanked one of the rods into an alarming curve and is making the reel's friction surfaces scream...

It would be a typical moment of big-game-fishing high drama, but for two facts. The boat's occupants are not members of that affluent club that migrates between Hawaii, the Bahamas and the Great Barrier Reef. And there is the taste of the spray: this is fresh water.

Lake Nasser is a vision of the world after the flood, with just the mountain-tops left above the water. But the aspect of this remaining land banishes any thoughts of refuge. Bare and heat-shattered, strewn with clinker-like rubble and swept with drifts of blinding sand, it all seems to be visibly in the process of crumbling beneath the surface. In places, a single line of thin greenery skirts the shore. Otherwise, water meets desert with no transition.

It is a disconcerting place: a dreamscape with a logic of its own, where the unlikely but true explanation - that it is a manmade one-off - comes as a strange relief. Created just three decades ago by the raising of the Aswan High Dam above the Nile's first cataract, it is still the subject of much inconclusive debate about its environmental consequences. For instance, is reduced fertility in the delta a fair price to pay for flood control? What is undeniable, however, is that the Nile's fish now have a huge new habitat - more than 2,000 square miles - in which all species have thrived. Doing particularly well at the top of the food chain is Lates niloticus, the Nile perch.

Formerly the object of one of ancient Egypt's bizarre animal-worship cults (mummified bodies were interred in a cemetery near present-day Esna), this giant relative of our village pond perch is now attracting devotees from around the world. Their offerings are gaudy caricatures of small fish, made from wood, metal, plastic or rubber, that come exaggeratedly alive when pulled through the water. Using this deceit, most first-timers on Lake Nasser catch their lifetime-biggest fish. A 50-pounder is a realistic target for a one-week safari, but something twice or even four times that size could be just a gulp away. A fish of 213lb (more than 15 stone) caught in December 1997 is currently awaiting ratification as the official world record. But the biggest one caught so far was too heavy for the scales available at the time. A colossal 6ft 1 1/2in long, with a girth of 59in, it was estimated at more than 250lb.

Two days in, our party's biggest catch stands at 77lb, with everyone already blasé about "twenties" and "thirties". In the evening, the three steel-hulled fishing boats rendezvous with the supply boat, Bahr el-Nuba ("The Nubian Sea"), deep inside a khor, an inlet, somewhere down the east bank, for supper of fried perch, miraculous fresh-baked rolls, and iced beer. As the slow kaleidoscope of night sky and flat water turns, three old hands and six first-timers swap tales of the day's events: of monitor lizards, 1,000ft-high dust-devils, and the goat-herd with the Calvin Klein T-shirt. The exchange that follows news of a big fish lost looks set to become laughably familiar: "Where was that?" "I haven't a clue!" It appears I am not the only one who has lost his bearings.

I am not sure quite where it happened. The map we were each given as we set off in convoy from the High Dam at first made some sense of the vastness around us. Although more than 300 miles long, the lake is relatively narrow - steaming down the middle we could see both banks. Its alignment, most of the time, is north-south. And there is a rule of thumb that the east bank is more mountainous than the west. Orientation looked a simple enough affair.

But approach the shore and the picture changes. What appears from a distance to be a continuous steep bank breaks up into shifting fragments that slide over and behind one another like multi-layered stage scenery. These promontories, islands, and deep, branching inlets add up to 4,500 convoluted miles of shoreline. What's more, it is constantly changing due to the annual 10ft-15ft tide that reflects rainfall half a continent away. Headlands suffering identity crises become part-time islands. Submerged pinnacles peep above the surface only to sink again two months later. For the angler this complexity means a glut of underwater features that attract and hold fish. But once inside the maze, even a momentary lapse of concentration can lose the thread. Was it that gap we came through, or that identical one over there? The sun, directly overhead, gives no clue. So navigation is entrusted to the Nubian guides, whose relatives once lived in ornamented mud houses in the villages 300ft down, along the sunken river's course.

This anonymity of landmarks makes it hard to peg memories to any framework. After a few days they float around in no definite sequence. The family of golden jackals feeding on scraps just 30ft from where we were dining in the moored supply boat. The snake-like vundu catfish that stuck its tentacled face out of the water right in front of me. Waking in the small hours up on the canopy of Sobek, one of the fishing boats - to see a red tower of light on the eastern horizon, which had me quietly perplexed until it grew into the upper horn of the tilted crescent moon. Meanwhile, wind and calm alternate, following a cycle of their own.

But for each of us, some places do etch very clear pictures in the mind. About halfway through the week, we reach a spot where the east bank suddenly falls away into the distance. We enter the khor, which after two hours funnels down to the mouth of Wadi Allaqi, once a caravan route from the Sudan and conduit for Nubian gold, now a flooded valley that threads far into the desert. We cross towards a prominent headland that meets the water in a vertical wall. As we approach, we see the overhangs, clefts and ledges that hint at an underwater architecture made for ambush-predators.

One possibility is to swim the lures behind the boat, a rod-length out in water 60ft deep. But there is another option, which pits angler against fish in a way no other big-game fishing can match - I decide to stalk my quarry from the shore.

The boat noses into a cove around the side of the headland, from where a climb leads to a platform of sorts between the cliff top and the slope to the summit. Peeping over the edge, I see two fish very close in, lying along the top of a ledge: black silhouettes against the rock's carpet of pale yellowish algae. Keeping as far back as possible, I cast well beyond them. A pause of five seconds allows the lure to sink as many feet, then a few erratic cranks bring it to life, its angled diving-vane keeping it deep, out of my sight. It is hard to identify exactly what happens next - a slight flaring of fins? An inching down the ledge's slope - but the fish are definitely aware of my offering, perhaps just from its vibrations. Intuitively, I spurt the lure forward in an escape bid...

The next moment something heavy - not one of the fish spotted - is carrying it away, impossibly far, down the submerged precipice. When it stops, there is a grating and jarring coming up the line. I picture the fish in some underwater cavern, sawing the thick monofilament leader across a ragged edge. Then it comes out, and I regain a few feet of line. But now I have to follow it along the cliff, past where the platform tilts sideways to merge with the mountainside. The slope above me looks disconcertingly like a still from a film of a rockslide, but for one reassuring detail: spiders have stitched it all together with fine-spun cat's-cradles that comb the air for lake flies.

With nearly all mental capacity taken up with footholds and rod control, the following minutes leave just snapshots in the memory: the fish jumping, mouth agape and gills flaring in a flurry of spray; Mohammed clambering down 20 sheer feet to the water; an indistinct larger form, deeper down, inscrutably shadowing the fish on the line. And then it is over: a slab of silver nearly 4ft long lies on its side at the surface, a restraining hand gripping the lower jaw of its bucket-sized mouth. Briefly, adding a surreal touch, two other perch materialise just feet from where Mohammed is crouched, and calmly observe proceedings before melting back into the fathomless blue.

"Fifty pounds," says Mohammed. I take a couple of photographs, then he lowers it back into the water and holds it steady. Soon it flexes from side to side, signalling that it is ready to go.

It silently launches itself from the mountainside, gliding high above the desert floor.

* * * * *

For more information on fishing Lake Nasser, see: www.african-angler.co.uk


Nile perch
Nile perch, Lake Nasser
Lake Nasser
Lake Nasser islands

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