A Fisherman’s Tale of an ORI Tagging Trip

By:  Rob Kyle
Senior Aquarist – uShaka Sea World

I recently returned from a four day fish tagging trip on the Zululand coast.  This trip was one of four similar trips that guys from ORI do annually as part of an ongoing monitoring project that has been running for many years.  The conditions that we were faced with were far from ideal, with only one day of pleasant conditions followed by giant swell, wind and rain.  The weather, coupled with massive sand movement covering up a lot of the inshore reefs, made the 12 hour fishing days feel quite long.  As always though, the trip was most enjoyable and it’s always a privilege to fish these areas.  We caught and tagged some good fish and recaptured a few that had been tagged on previous trips as well as some that had been tagged by private individuals doing their bit for the project and sustainable fishing.

The sand movement that we had during the week was something I have never experienced.  One day in particular, we fished what is usually a 2km long high ledge covered in mussels with a 2m drop off in the front.  On the Wednesday when we fished it, this ledge had been sanded up so that only about 10m width of ledge was left exposed with about a meter drop off in front in some places.  By that night, the sand had moved in so fast that the surge and ladder wrasse which had gone to sleep in pools on the ledge on dusk were getting forced out and, being disorientated at night, were washing up on the beach.  We must have thrown more than 20 back into the water that we found flapping on the sand.  There was also an octopus, blennies and crabs that were clinging to the small sections of ledge that were still exposed.  By the Friday when the other team fished the same area, the entire ledge was under sand.  It will be interesting to see how the mussels and other rock life recover after the sand eventually scours out again.

One of the main goals of the trip was to get acoustic tracking tags into 10 catface rockcod over 50cm total length.  Thanks to Kevin Rudolph getting the last suitable fish with 20 minutes to go on the final evening, we achieved this goal.  This particular fish of 59cm was caught by the other team on Tuesday and tagged with the standard spaghetti tag as well as the internal acoustic tag.  The acoustic tag looks like an AA battery and gets inserted into the celomic cavity through a small incision on the belly.  We fished that same zone on the Thursday and I recaptured the same fish in pretty much exactly the same spot.  It was a great sign that our fish handling and tagging techniques are working well if the fish is back to feeding a day after being caught.
Assassin horizon, Shimano twin power 14k, 30lb JDB, 7/0 BKK heavy wire circle.

Kevin holding up one of his catface that we tagged with an acoustic tag.  We had a specially made stretcher which we placed in a hole dug in the sand and filled with water.  The fish was held in this while the tag was inserted.  All the necessary details were recorded on a slate and then transferred every evening to ensure that data was not lost.

This young potato bass was one of quite a few that we landed during the week.  This one was a recapture of a fish that had been tagged by a member of the public who is part of the ORI fish tagging project.  It will be cool to see what growth and movement info we get when the number is checked up on.  Potato bass are a protected species in South Africa and should not be purposefully targeted by recreational anglers.  It is inevitable however that we will catch them frequently when fishing the Zululand reef areas so just be sure to keep them wet and get them back into the water quickly.  Assassin horizon zero xh, Shimano Stella 18k, 50lb blue grinder braid.

Stumpies are one of my favourite fish to target on this part of the Zululland coast.  For me, regardless of the size of the fish, there is very little more satisfying than targeting a specific species and then catching it.  In this case, I identified a piece of formation that looked perfect for a stumpy, made a baby quid bait with some crayfish around it on a barbless 7/0 rock point and threw it into the piece of water that I could most imagine the fish swimming along.  The sinker had hardly hit the sand and this 54cm fish had taken the bait.  Needless to say, I fished the same spot for another hour and didn’t get another bite.  Assassin horizon, Shimano twinpower 14k, 30lb JDB, 7/0 rock point.

Big stumpies are notorious for being very soft fish, often doing a death rattle on the beach when you land them and giving up the ghost.  For this reason we are super careful and quick with them when tagging.  By far the best thing that you can do for any fish is to keep it wet as much as possible.  We kept a bucket full of fresh sea water at all times and any fish we caught goes straight into this while the tagging stretcher was made ready and moistened.

Stumpy is moved from the water bucket onto the stretcher with a built in measuring ruler to get an accurate measuring as fast as possible. Then get the tag in as fast as possible, keeping the fish on the wet stretcher.

Off the stretcher and a quick “grip ‘n grin” pic before running the fish back to the water.  By keeping the time out the water to a minimum, both the big stumps that I got last week swam off very strong.
Assassin horizon zero xh, Shimano Stella 18k, 50lb blue grinder braid.

This frigate bird rocked up the one day and started robbing the seagulls of the scraps that they were picking up from our bait boxes.  This pic was taken with a cell phone so certainly won’t win any awards but super cool to see one of these rare visitors so close up.

Nice big cave bass.  Unusual to catch these guys in the day.
Assassin horizon, Shimano twin power 14k, 30lb JDB

One of my all-time favourites as you all know – a Speckled snapper.  Just a baby unfortunately and the only one I caught in the four days, but always a pleasure.  This little guy had me around the reef for a while but the heavier that usually necessary terminal tackle ensured that I dragged him out and he wasn’t left with a hook in his mouth.
Assassin horizon zero xh, Shimano Stella 18k, 50lb blue grinder braid.

The weather for three of the four days was pretty horrid.  At this point, it had been raining sideways for the better part of the morning and all the layers of clothing, including a full piece wetsuit were on and wet through.  It’s amazing how a bite can lift the spirits and rejuvenate the enthusiasm though.  I managed to sneak this yellow belly out between the many eels that Kevin was clearing out of the way for me.
Assassin horizon, Shimano twinpower 14k, 50lb JDB ultra tough.

Pompano are one of the best fish to catch in this area and going into the last day, none of us had even seen one.  Towards the end of the Friday session, myself and Kevin Rudolph moved to a spot that was known to throw pommies to have one last bash for one. With a bit of luck and some good targeting we both managed to land one.  Both fish measured in at 51cm, so far from big fish, but it was nice to tick the species off for the trip.
Assassin horizon, Shimano twinpower 14k, 30lb JDB, 7/0 rockpoint