Rob Kyle’s Blog – Annual Cape Vidal shore-based tagging trip

By: Rob Kyle
Senior Aquarist – Collections
uShaka Sea World

From the 11th to the 16th of November this year, I was fortunate to accompany Bruce Mann on his annual Cape Vidal within north shore-based tagging trip. Cape Vidal is the area where Bruce first started his iSimangaliso Wetland Park tagging project in 2001 and has to date accumulated nearly 20 years of data from this stretch of coastline.  The data obtained from this tagging project, combined with other tagging data from the ORI tagging project as a whole, was instrumental in ensuring that the newly proclaimed no-take and catch-and-release areas in the park were put in the right places and are big enough to effectively protect important shore angling species.  As with the other areas where Bruce carries out these shore-based tagging trips, the broad purpose of the project is to compare the catch rates within the no-take sanctuary areas to those areas where the public are allowed to fish to ascertain the effectiveness of the MPAs. The other data that is generated from the tagging and ultimate recaptures of the fish gives us valuable insight into the growth rates and home ranges of the species which assists ORI in making accurate and realistic recommendations regarding the management and zoning of the coast.

The tagging team consists of eight guys who are all competent shore anglers. During the course of the four days of fishing, we fish pretty much as a recreation angler would fish, predominantly with bait on standard surf fishing gear but also with lures when conditions for this are favourable. We generally fish a 12hr day, heading out at first light at least three hours after high tide to ensure that  the tide is low enough for us to safely drive below the high tide line and only returning on a similar low tide in the evening. The area that we fish is divided into four zones, two of which are within the no-take sanctuary area north of Leven Point and two are in the catch-and-release area between Leven Point and Cape Vidal. The anglers are divided into two teams of four and each team gets a turn to spend a day fishing each of the four areas. The itinerary is carefully planned so that no area is fished on consecutive days. Bruce (a senior scientist at ORI), runs the project, and he is ultimately the one responsible for the project and who sits down every evening after fishing with the mountains of data that we gather and turns it into valuable science.

For this trip, the teams were divided as follows:

Team 1 – Bruce Mann (team leader/driver), Simon Chater, Gareth Jordaan and Roger Mann

Team 2 – Rob Kyle (team leader/driver), Kevin Humphreys, Stephen Humphreys and Jacques Geldenhys.

During the trip, we stayed at the Nyala fishing cabin which is big enough to accommodate the whole team under one roof. The Vidal tagging trip has great sentimental value for me as I was a youngster in my early teens when Bruce first invited me to come on one of his early trips. Back then, we didn’t trust the GPS so we had to get to Vidal the day before and spend the better part of a day putting up marker flags along the beach every 100m over the areas that we fished. In the beginning, Bruce did six trips a year and they were all to Vidal.  The project has evolved considerably since those early days and we now fish different venues, much bigger areas and operate off GPS coordinates. After the initial trip, I was fortunate as a youngster to go on a lot of these trips and it was my first real exposure to proper rock and surf angling. I got to meet some experienced competitive anglers like Julian Pybus and Barry Tedder whom Bruce had on the teams on these trips and they sparked my first interest in competitive angling. Due to work commitments and a general lack of days in the year, I hadn’t been able to make a Vidal trip for many years so I was super excited to see and fish in these old stomping grounds again.  

As luck would have it, our trip fell directly over the week where we had the first big summer rains of the season and the long range forecast for our trip was spectacularly “challenging” with colours on windguru that you don’t often get to see. On the first day of the trip, my team fished the zone which started at Leven Point and extended North about 6km into the no-take sanctuary area. This was always a hard zone with a lot of open sandy stretches which were pretty unfishable due to side-wash as a result of the conditions we had. The area around Leven Point itself usually has some really nice reef structure with deep water around it which holds good fish. Unfortunately, the whole stretch was very sanded up and even this section was hard to fish especially over the full tide when there was a lot of water in the gutter and it all became a bit of a river from the big sea and wind.

Consequently we had a slow start to the day and it was only around mid-morning when I got my first tag. I had thrown a bait just over a ledge that was about 20m in front of me in the hopes of attracting a speckle or rockcod out of its lair. Instead of getting a characteristic reef fish bite, my line suddenly came slack and I quickly reeled into a solid fish that was rushing around at high speed. I had my drag pretty much locked with the intention of yanking a reef fish out of its hole. This fish wasn’t strong enough to take line off the reel but it was rushing around so erratically up and down the ledge that it took me a few seconds to get things under control, trying to keep the rod high so as not to get cut off and maintain my balance on a little pimple of barnacle covered ledge that I was standing on. It was all over in a matter of seconds though and I slid a very “green” bluefin kingfish into a pool on the ledge. The fish was just over 50cm FL. I was chuffed to see it as we had one acoustic tracking tag left to use on bluefin kingfish and this one was just over the minimum size for tagging. I quickly set up the tagging gear and Jacques held the fish upside down in a rock pool while I inserted the tag. Once the tag was in and the fish was stitched up, we left the fish in a nice deep rock pool to fully recover its energy before being released. I like to do this wherever there is a suitable pool as a fish is at its most vulnerable to getting snacked on by a predator when first released as it is tired and often disorientated. By allowing the fish to recharge its batteries in a pool or even in a big bucket of water for smaller fish, you are now releasing it in a much less compromised state. Obviously, this is only an option for some species and only in certain areas where you have suitable pools.

James Wood, who is the Marine Officer in charge at Cape Vidal had come past us in the morning on a beach patrol. On his return trip down the beach, he had noticed the single track of a loggerhead turtle going up the beach and into the dune. There was no return track. On closer investigation, he found that the turtle had gone too far over the crest of the dune and had slipped down the back into the forest. The back of this dune was far too steep and loose for the turtle to clamber up and she had been struggling there since the previous night. The animal was too heavy for James and his field ranger to move by themselves so on his request we went to assist. With the aid of a short strap that we hooked behind the carapace and with much puffing and panting we finally managed to get the turtle up and onto the beach where she was able to trundle back down to the water.

As the tide pushed, conditions got even harder with the side wash becoming almost unplayable over the high. We persevered however and kept the tag slates ticking over with a few cave bass, speckled snappers and potato bass.

 I hooked one fish which I am sure was a nice rock cod but unfortunately I couldn’t pull it fast enough and it cut me off on the ledge that I was throwing over. The other guys also had a few “OH SHAME” incidents but generally it was a slow day. One worrying thing that we did notice during the fishing was that there were signs of people having fished in this part of the sanctuary area. We recovered a few traces that had been tangled in the reef and obviously broken off.

Bruce’s team fished the zone closest to Vidal which includes the Vegetation stretch.  They also had a slow day and struggled to find decent reef that wasn’t sanded over. Roger however, had a “purple patch” and managed to tag an impressive nine fish including a few nice stumpies, speckles and cave bobs. It was a relief to get back to the cottage, wash the vehicles down, rinse the tackle, get out of the wet clothing and enjoy a well-deserved beverage while transferring the day’s data from the tag slates onto data sheets.

The second day, we fished from Leven Point coming south about 10km, an area historically known as “Lone tree” named after a big Euphorbia tree on top of the dune which has subsequently fallen down. This was always my favourite zone to fish as there is some epic “big fish” water in this stretch. Unfortunately, the north-easterly wind was howling and the swell was too big to make a big fish a reality for anyone. Nevertheless, the zone did have some nice stretches of reef that were holding the side-wash at bay at low tide and from the first spot we stopped at we were immediately putting tags in fish.

With the conditions being far from ideal, I started the day off with the light rod. A nice .60mm fluro trace onto 1/0 BKK circles and two small chokka and pink prawn baits. The first few throws resulted in grey grunter and a few cave bass that were tagging size.  The next throw I hooked a much heavier fish that was immediately wrapping me around the rocks. The tackle was too light to try and bully the fish, so I just maintained a constant pressure with the rod high and eventually I felt the line stop pinging off reef and the fish popped out. It was a decent potato of just over 60cm which considering the small tackle I was pretty happy with. The BKK circle hook with its barb crimped was solidly in the corner of the mouth.

We got a few more decent cave bass from that section before it turned off. The trick to effectively fishing a reef is to keep moving until you find the section where the fish are holding. You can fish 10 spots that all look similar from the outside but only one or two of them will be holding fish. This day was a perfect example of this and we bounced off a few other sections of reef before finding the next “honeyhole”. Kevin, Stephen and Jacques got stuck into the fish here and tagged a number of young speckled snappers, rockcods and cave bass. I had seen a section of water that I was convinced would hold a good speckled but try as I might, I couldn’t get a fish from it. Eventually, the water filled up here and the fish turned off as fast as they had turned on and we moved to a section that we had earmarked for our high tide spot. With the tide filling up, the side wash came. Even the reef areas began to wash and we were really struggling to find fish.  I scaled down to 30lb JDB on the medium Assassin horizon zero and went back to the small chokka baits. There was one small “pudding bowl” that I could see in amongst all the wash. It appeared to be holding but it was a long throw and needed a proper wade to get to it. The first throw I didn’t wade far enough and didn’t get into the right spot. Pekkers cleared the bait as it washed out the zone. I scaled down a bit more on the bait sizes, waded a bit harder and was happy to see the bait plop down right in the middle of the zone. By the time I got back to where I was standing, I could already feel the distinctive bite of a cave bass. I gently pulled into the fish and the circle hook grabbed it. Cave bass aren’t the strongest fighters and I was confused by the fight as I was sure that it was a cave bass from the bite but it was very heavy especially pulling it back through the side-wash. My confusion was explained when two decent size cave bass popped out the white water in the shore break. These fish were quickly tagged and released before I rushed back to get another bait in the water. This little spot was very good to me and I must have tagged about 7 fish out of it before the bite dried up.

After the cave bass stopped biting, I decided to scale up to a larger bait on the heavier tackle and see if there wasn’t a speckled lurking. First throw with a mackerel head I got a nice little speckled. The next throw, I stood for quite a while before what could only have been something like a 20kg+ class potato picked up my bait. I knew from the bite that I was in trouble and it was one of those instances where you almost don’t want to lean into the fish because you already know the result.  I had the fish on for probably a minute in which time I achieved nothing before it cut me off. After this interlude, the spot went stone dead and from that point on I struggled. The rest of the team managed to scratch out a few more fish over the high and as dark descended and the tide retreated we moved back to the area that had worked so well on a similar tide in the morning. It wasn’t long before Jacques was into a good fish that proved to be a solid speckled just over 50cm FL – a wonderful birthday present seeing that it was his 50th birthday! I was still adamant that the spot I had fished earlier to no avail was going to produce a speckled for me so I made a bonny head bait on a 1mm nylon trace with a 7/0 BKK circle and threw it into the dark. It wasn’t long and I got the bite I was looking for – the unmistakably aggressive bite of a good speckle.

It was by no means a giant speckled, also just over the 50cm mark, but it was a good end to what had been a productive day in trying conditions. Bruce’s team had also had a good day considering the conditions.

For the third day of fishing, we had the area closest to Vidal – the same zone that Bruce’s team had fished the first day. The weather forecast for the day was the worst for the week with torrential rain forecast from mid-day with 30-knot winds. We knew it was going to be tough and that we had to try and make the morning count before the tide pushed and the weather made it unplayable. On top of the foul weather, the zone had become even more sanded up than when Bruce had fished it less than 48hrs prior. The one patch of reef where they had tagged the most fish was reduced to one spot which was barely fishable. We had a few throws here despite it looking pretty poofy. Our first throws produced a few bites and we recaptured a speckled that Roger had tagged and one taggable cave bass. After that, it went dead and we moved on. The only option available to us was to fish every patch of reef that was even vaguely open, so we bounced from one spot to other trying to find a section that was holding some fish.

As the tide started to push properly, the options got more and more limited and eventually we were down to the last fishable section in our zone. The wind had started to howl properly and what had been a light drizzle had turned into bucketing rain. We were just about to dig in for the high tide as the vehicle was going to be stranded for six hours before we could drive again, when we saw Bruce’s team coming down the beach. Considering the weather forecast and the already mostly unfishable sea, which was just as bad in their zone, Bruce had decided to call the day short rather than get stranded (and soaked), unable to move, until after dark. It was a good call as the rain poured down the whole afternoon and we were all very grateful to be in the cottage drinking coffee rather than on the beach freezing and getting sand blasted.

For the last day, Friday, we fished the zone furthest into the sanctuary which traditionally is the area that produces the most fish as it has got some great inshore reef structure and is furthest away from any fishing pressure. Bruce was fishing the zone we had fished on the second day that had also produced good fishing so both teams were excited to make the most of the last day despite the sea conditions having deteriorated further with a swell of over 3m running. We fished an area known as “the gap” where Bruce’s team had knocked the bonefish and I was very keen to see if I could get one on a soft plastic. I have caught quite a few at Kosi on soft plastic but never a decent sized one and knowing the spot where they had caught them on the Wednesday, I was hopeful that I would be able to get a lure to where they were feeding. In my experience, bonefish will eat the right artificial lure quite readily in SA but the challenge we have with our high energy coastline is that we almost never have a situation where you can get the right lure in front of them on a regular basis. The few that do get caught are flooks. We started our day on the far northern end of the zone which has some really good reef. Even on the low tide, the side-wash was very strong and we were limited to a few spots that we could get a bait to hold. We managed a few small fish and Jacques got a bomber of a lemonfish but other than that it was quite a disappointing start.

Lemonfish, which are part of the “rubberlip” family are usually quite plentiful in the Vidal area but on this trip, they were conspicuous by their absence. They are very pretty fish and quite strong when hooked. Lemons have the most annoying habit of lying nice and still and then as you go to tag them or lift them for a pic they give a flap and a jump which more times than not lands one of their sharp dorsal spines in some part of your anatomy! 

From the initial spot, we retreated back to the only other section in the zone that was holding the sea to some extent. There was an outside barrier reef which broke the swell and the inside gutter was relatively sheltered until the tide filled and there was too much water coming over the reef. From the first throw at this spot, we were getting bites and this carried on for the better part of two hours before the bite slowed and the side-wash increased until it became an unfishable river.

To get the bites, you had to throw quite a long shot over a sandy gutter and land just in the foul ridge of reef at the back.  If you landed 5m short, you got no bite and the peckers cleared you but if you went 5m too far you lost a trace almost every throw. With the strong wind, making accurate, long throws was quite tricky so we weren’t able to capitalize on the feeding fish as much as we would have liked to. Kevin managed to extricate a nice potato from the stones but other than that we got a mixed bag of young speckles, rockcod and cave bass. This was the spot where the other team had found the bonefish when the tide filled but unfortunately the side-wash just got too strong due to the bigger sea. Eventually, the spot got totally unfishable and we moved south about 500m to where the gutter started and there was the least water moving. The sea was still strong and we were throwing into churning white water but at least you could hold a bait.

 I had been carrying my light soft plastic outfit around with us every day but as yet hadnt really had an opportunity to use it. The narrow, deeper gutter just over the shorebreak was the perfect formation for the small rod as it meant I could get the light lure into the right zone despite the wind. The white water was solid on the top but with the depth to the gutter, I was pretty sure that the lower water column in the trough would be clearer and the predatory fish would be waiting here for some food item to get tumbled out of the froth. This is the perfect application for a soft plastic as you can fish them slowly and get down to where the fish can see the lure. Being able to fish the lure slowly means that even if you can just reach the bite zone you can still keep it there for long enough to get a bite and the 6lb braid was effected relatively little by the wind and side-wash.

From the first throw with the plastic, I was pretty much catching fish. Mostly small bigeye kingys, green-spot kingys and wave garrick that were too small to tag but every now and then there was a taggable fish in the mix. This very pale coloured blue-fin kingy was the first good fish that I got and gave me a proper work out on the small Assassin, 1000 size reel and 6lb JDB.

Eventually, after about an hour of fishing the soft plastic, I was bouncing the lure slowly on the ground and I felt a light tug but no connection. I dropped the lure back down again and the same light bump. I thought to myself that this was exactly how the bonefish I had caught previously had bumped the lure before eating it but I doubted that one would be in that turbulent side-wash. The third time I dropped the plastic back, I lifted it a bit slower and true’s a coconut a solid fish grabbed it. It was a very strange fight that had me puzzled. It was a heavy fish that would often stop and shake its head violently before smoking off on a short but unstoppable run. The fish went with the side-wash and I followed it for about 200m down the gutter from where I hooked it before I caught a glimpse of it in the shore break. It was a proper size Bone.

I tussled that fish up and down the shore break for another five minutes or so before I finally managed to hold it when the water sucked back and had a chance to scamper down and grab it. This fish made my trip and I hurried to get it tagged and released. Bonefish are almost impossible to hold nicely for a pic without injuring them and as much as I wanted to get cool pics, it was more important to get the fish back. I went on to catch another two good bonefish that evening on the small rod with the last one – which was the biggest at 61cm FL-coming almost in the dark. I lost a few to hook pulls as well and landed a few other half decent kingies which all added to the tagging numbers for the day. This session with the soft plastics was undoubtedly my highlight from a week’s tough angling and a very good way to wrap up the trip.

On the way back down the beach to meet up with Bruce, we came across this lady dragging herself out to lay her eggs. I haven’t had the privilege of seeing a leatherback coming out for many, many years so this was super cool. Unfortunately, the wind, rain and flying sand prevented a decent pic.

Bruce’s team had also done well considering the conditions and the fact that they had even less sheltered water in their zone. We were a worn out but satisfied group that gathered around the dinner table that night and recounted incidents from the week.

In summary, we caught a total of 299 fish over the four days of fishing of which 162 were tagged and 12 were recaptures of fish previously tagged. When worked out, this equates to about 1 fish per angler per hour which is pretty slow going considering where we were fishing.  All 12 of the fish recaptured were speckled snappers of which the longest time at liberty between captures was three years. In that time, this fish grew only 14cm and it was caught only 600m from the initial tag site. It was a memorable trip as always and a real privilege to spend time on the magnificent beaches of Northern Zululand again.