Butterfish aren’t called butterfish because they taste like old soggy cardboard. Nope, they’re called butterfish because they taste like…er, butter. Except they don’t. But, they do taste like something you’d want to eat more and more.
Butterfish are just one of the amazing array of outrageously edible fish to be found in the mangrove creeks of Gambia.
Mangroves provide some of the best fish habitat all over the world. Mangroves take over small outcroppings of land in estuary areas of rivers, they thrive on the mixture of salt and fresh water. They can survive and even thrive though in pure salt.
In Gambia the mangroves cover the islands in the mouth of the huge River Gambia where it spills out into the sea. In places like Florida, the Bahamas and Cuba, the mangroves are the glue that keep tiny crumbling islands together. Without the ferocious strength of mangrove roots and thick ropey-rubbery vegetation stitching islands together and clamping them down to the sea bed, hurricanes and tropical storms would have washed them away centuries ago.
Not only do they provide a safe haven for crumbling land mass, above the waterline, they offer a home to everything from snakes to monkeys and from egrets to ospreys. Below the level of the murky tidal waters of the Gambia estuary around the natural harbour of Banjul, the mangrove islands offer a home to a selection of species that use the thick cavernous root systems as a place to hide and hunt.
Strong tidal currents wash in and out of the mangroves. Shrimps, prawn and other crustacea use the roots as a means of breaking the current’s power. They hide in the lee of roots to stop themselves being uncontrollably washed out and into the big wide estuary. But under these labyrinths of roots also lurk fish. Fish who not only want to avoid the strong tidal currents, they also want to wrap their gums around any sanctuary-seeking crustacea.
It’s dog eat dog. Or rather, fish eat fish in the jungle of the mangrove roots. The habitat makes for fascinating fishing. I love mangrove creek fishing because it’s so varied and surprising. Most of the time the predatory fish are tucked tight into the mangrove roots. So most of the time you have to cast towards an organic structure which is going to snarl up your tackle if you get too close.
Mangrove roots, or mangrove leaves will not give back your fly or bait or spinner or plug, no matter how hard you pull. Mangroves make the thickest bramble patches look like a bed of iceberg lettuce.
The joy of mangrove fishing is that you can use just about any method. The fish that live around mangroves make their living from eating other fish. So anything works. Fry imitation flies cast close to the mangrove and stripped outwards are good. Small plugs, poppers and lures do well. Dead or live shrimp on a long shank hook, or even small live baits like thread-fin herring will bring big mouths cruising out from the dark recesses of the oyster-encrusted root system.
Because mangrove roots extend into the estuary bed, they are exposed at low tide and then covered again as the next tide floods in. This makes them ideal for oysters and mussels to cling to, like ropes. The murky water that floods past every tide is full of micro-snacks for the filter-feeding molluscs to slurp-on. And in turn the rope lengths of tasty bi-vales provide the perfect peck for fish with a suitable set of shell crunching dentistry, like snappers, Florida sheepshead and or course the butterfish.
Butterfish aren’t called butterfish because their teeth are as soft as butter. The dental array of a butterfish makes Bugs Bunny look practically toothless. The butterfish’s big incisors are as tough as nails to allow them to crunch stone-shelled oysters off mangrove roots like they were cheese and chive Pringles.
My mate Hugh and I had a morning out fishing the creeks behind Banjul harbour in Gambia. We weren’t expecting anything huge to bend out rods. Mangrove fishing is usually a light tackle affair. Serious big fish anglers would normally head out to sea to deeper water where lunkers are more likely. But men like Hugh and I who have a habit of fishing for our stomachs are wise to stay in the creeky mangrove shallows and fish the out-going or incoming tide. Normally slack tide is a slack time in the mangrove creeks. And because of the wind-breaking qualities of the mangrove greenery, the lack of breeze in the middle of the day can make the mangroves a very hot and sticky place to be.
With our local guide Yaz, we fished through the creeks, stopping to drop an anchor when the tide was running, to cast close into the foliage. And as the tide subsided we crept out further into the mangrove-ringed harbour to fish our shrimp baits tight into the rusty hulls of shipwrecks that speckle the wide flat estuary.
The hunter fish drop out of the mangroves and take up ambush-position under the cover of a rusty tangle of bent ship metal in favour of a mangrove root tangle.
If we weren’t losing tackle on mangroves we were losing it on hidden rusty superstructures of crippled freighters and a crumbling shell that had once been the Radio Caroline ship. Its new home, after a spell as Gambia’s first radio station, was now the silty bed of the estuary.
We caught great fish like mangrove snappers, sun-pat (named after the peanut butter it tastes so sweet), cassava and ladyfish.
But what our guide Yaz was most happy to see coming over the gunwale was a butterfish. In the boat, when it smiled its toothy smile at him, Yaz just kissed his finger in a gesture that made him look like a mad Italian chef. ‘This man tastes so good’ he said rubbing his belly for extra emphasis as we pointed the boat back to Baba’s harbour side cafe shack, where any catch is gutted and cooked and washed down with cold beer before you can sing ‘Butterfish, butterf‘ish ra-ra-ra-ra’. Which we did. Rather too often.
Over hot butterfish and rice, Yaz told us of his fisherman friend who had spent good money at the witchdoctor to have a special ju-ju spell put on him to protect him from the bite of a butterfish. Their teeth are so lethal and bite so fast, many local fishermen have lost fingers or bits of fingers from the butterfish bite.
‘Did it work?’ we asked. Yaz simply shrugged mysteriously and sucked the butterfish juice off his own hot fish-soaked fingers.