The old professor, Ben Engelbrecht

Careful observation and experimentation made theology professor Ben Engelbrecht an expert lure fisherman at a time when nobody knew very much about the art, writes Abré J Steyn.

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When I heard my Mini
Cooper S roar into life in my friend’s driveway, I rushed to the large window overlooking the garden. Not because I feared it was being stolen, but because the controls were adapted so only I could drive it. It was equipped with hand controls for everything, but it had dual accelerator pedals – a left and a right – so I could avoid awkwardly using my left foot to reach the pedal on the extreme right, as my right leg was very weak.

My friend was my fishing mentor, but also a professor and faculty dean at the university where I studied. He knew about the hand controls, but not about the second accelerator. While trying to move my Mini to allow another visitor out, he floored the second accelerator instead of the brake.

With smoking tyres, the Cooper S streaked up the driveway. Prof, a good driver and sports-car enthusiast, managed to miss the visitor’s car. But he burst through the rose garden, sliced deep furrows through the immaculate lawn and crashed straight into the house, right beneath the window where I stood.
Although badly damaged, it wasn’t the end of my Mini. Prof summoned a tow-truck, had it repaired at a panel beater and I used it for many years after. Neither was it the end of our friendship, which lasts to this day.

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The best lure fisherman
Dean of Tuks’ theology faculty, Prof Ben Engelbrecht is a humble man and the most innovative fisherman I’ve ever met. He spent hours patiently teaching me the principles of artificial lure fishing and fly casting. Being an expert lure fisherman at a time when nobody else knew much about it, he was no stranger to the older generation of anglers.

In those years it was generally known that trout, bass, tigerfish and certain marine species could be caught on a lure. But few believed that one could also catch carp and some of our indigenous fish, including kurper, yellow fish, barbel and others on lures and artificial flies. Through careful observation and experimentation, Prof Ben eventually worked out how to consistently catch them. He paved the way for a new way of fishing in South Africa, and by sharing his hard-won knowledge with others, spread the gospel of lure-fishing that we all enjoy today.

Catching fish with his own lure
In those early days, when I first became acquainted with Prof Ben, fishing lures were still in short supply in tackle shops around the country. Those available were mostly for bass and saltwater gamefish – quite unsuitable for kurper, carp and barbel. So Prof Ben made his own. He designed many effective lures, with which he caught hundreds of fish. Copies of his marvellously simple kurper-catching “Tickey spinner” (for which he originally formed the blades by hand) and his “Engelbrecht black jig” for carp and barbel are still commercially available in tackle shops today. The designs of many of these effective lures and how to make them cheaply from ordinary household material have been described in some of his many writings.

Book and a cover
Not only did he publish many theological articles, but a wealth of literature on lure fishing also flowed from his pen. He wrote two books on the subject – now sadly out of print – but I was honoured to make a small contribution to the first. As I was an enthusiastic amateur photographer, the publishers approached me for a cover photo. I didn’t have anything, but quite arrogantly undertook to take a photograph the next morning. I’d been working on a secret plan while scrutinising the breathtaking photos in American fishing magazines for a long time.

That evening I called a friend, Dawid Nortjé, and arranged to go fishing before dawn at Rietvlei Dam – Prof Ben’s favourite fishing spot. I brought my Nikon camera, a fishing rod and a shifting spanner. With the sun just cresting the eastern horizon and Dawid repeatedly splashing the spanner in the water, we created, without today’s digital manipulation, a whole film filled with stunning images that amazed the publisher. How we created them was kept secret until now. Whether it contributed anything to the book’s success, I’ll never know, but it would make me happy if it did.


Saluting the pioneer
Many anglers find stalking a fish, either on foot or by boat, and catching it on an artificial lure, a far superior challenge and much more enjoyable than passively sitting for hours in one spot, waiting for fish to take the bait. Thousands enjoy this wonderful pastime without ever thinking about who started it all. It was Prof Ben. He brought lure fishing to our shores a mere 50 years ago.

Last week he celebrated his 87th birthday, but his deteriorating health and failing eyesight don’t allow him to partake in the fishing he loves so much.Each time I return from a successful lure fishing excursion, I think of him and salute him as the dean of South Africa’s lure fishermen. And so should we all.
Photos courtesy of Flip Joubert, Anton Steyn and Abré J Steyn