By: Rob Kyle
As I sit in my office now, catching up on emails and getting back on top of my usual daily tasks, I can’t help but think back longingly on last week and what is definitely one of the “perks” of the job I do. Last week, I was assisting Oceanographic Research Institute (ORI) senior scientist Dr Bruce Mann as the second team leader for one of his quarterly shore-based fish tagging trips. This trip was to the Kosi Bay section of iSimangaliso Wetland Park, which is where I grew up and lived for my first eighteen years. The area holds a very special place in my heart. For the trip, we were fortunate to stay in the turtle research shack which is literally on the beach in the bay at Bhanga Nek. A more picturesque setting you will struggle to find. To make the trip even more special, my team for the weeks’ fishing included my dad, Scotty Kyle, who worked for Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, based at Kosi for over 40 years, my brother, Ewan, a fishing guide in the area and a fellow member of the ORI Cooperative Fish Tagging Project, Avlik Singh.
One of the purposes behind Bruce’s tagging project is to compare the catch rates within the sanctuary areas to those areas where the public are allowed to fish to ascertain the effectiveness of such no-take MPAs. The other data that is generated from the tagging and ultimate recaptures of the fish gives us valuable insight into the growth rates, movement patterns and home ranges of the species and assists the ORI in making accurate and realistic proposals regarding the management and zoning of the coast to the iSimangiliso Wetland Park Authority. This helps to ensure that the resources can best be managed to ensure a healthy marine ecosystem while at the same time catering for the tourists and holiday makers who travel big distances to fish within the park.
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 recreational angler would fish, predominantly with bait on standard surf fishing gear but also with lures when conditions for this are favourable. We fish long hours, generally heading out at first light and only returning around 20:00. The area that we fish is divided into four zones, some of which are no-take sanctuary areas and some are open to angling. The anglers are divided into two teams of four, and each team gets a turn to spend a day fishing each of the areas. The itinerary is planned so that no area is fished on consecutive days., Bruce runs the project, and he ultimately is the one that sits down with the mountains of data that we gather and turns it into valuable science.
Each tagging team member gets issued a tagging box on the first evening which contains the obvious tags along with vials containing alcohol to take DNA samples from certain species. In the box is a slate upon which the angler records where he fished, what he was targeting, what tackle he lost and any other small fish, too small to tag, that he caught. The zones that we fish ware divided into GPS points 100m apart and whenever you move fishing spots, you have to close one session and open the next. The locality that any fish is caught at is recorded to the closest 100m point which allows for really accurate movement data when tagged fish are recaptured. This data has proved to us over the past 20 years that Bruce has been running the project just how little many of our reef-associated fish species move and how vulnerable they potentially are to being fished out. Each team is also issued with large buckets which get filled with water before the first cast is made at a spot and any fish caught is transferred directly into the bucket upon landing. The fish are measured and tagged on a damp stretcher before being placed back in the bucket of water prior to release. If the fish is deemed picture worthy, it can be lifted for a few seconds from the bucket of water for a “grip ‘n grin” and then placed back in the bucket. The fish is then generally carried back to the waters edge in the bucket and released.
The weather forecast leading up to the trip made it pretty clear from early on that the fishing conditions we were going to be faced with were going to make it a tough trip. The incessant ground swell of 2021 was going to be big all week and then on the day that the swell was forecast to drop, there were strong winds to contend with. Kosi is not a place that takes a big sea well so my expectations for the trip on the fishing front weren’t very high.
On arrival at the shack at Bhanga on the Monday afternoon, we were greeted by a shoal of flagtails in the bay, balled up and getting hammered by what appeared to be greenspot kingies. Everyone attempted to maintain a level of calm while unpacking and watching the baitfish literally getting chased onto the beach. When the last items were offloaded and packed away, tackle was quickly thrown together and a dash was made to the water. Typically, the departure of the kingfish coincided almost precisely with the moment that the first lure was tied onto a leader and calm descended on the bay much to our dismay. I caught a few flagtails for live bait and eventually managed to hook a small greenspot kingy which threw the hook at my feet. The rest of the evening was spent with tackle prep, a braai overlooking the ocean and then to bed with everyone eager for the first day.
The area we fished the first day was from Bhanga Nek (Boteler Point) up to marker 13 (~ 6 km) which is the only non-sanctuary zone of the four areas fished. This was the stretch of beach that I grew up fishing and I know it better than any other piece of coast. The ground swell was big, but there were lulls enough to get a few baits over the back in the hopes of finding a green jobfish/kaakap, blue emperor or one of the other tropical species which one can encounter up there. Unfortunately, by lunch time, the tide had pushed, the wind was up and the options to get baits into the deep were no longer there and it was apparent that we would be scratching for fish to tag the whole day. Avlik managed some really good wave garrick on his ultra-light setup and small soft plastics and Ewan got a quality greenspot kingy also on the light tackle. GTs often like a bit of a messed up sea for hunting, and after seeing one big fish around the 30kg mark in a wave on the back of the ledge I was scratching on, I opted to throw a small wave garrick just over the lip at one of my all-time favourite GT spots. I sat with this live bait for a few hours, but sadly there was no further sign of the big fish. Once it got dark, we threw some baits onto close inshore reef and Avlik, on his first two throws, got his backside handed to him solidly by something that had no intention of being tagged. After that however, it went dead and we fished until lines up with no further action.
On arrival back at the accommodation in the evenings, it’s always fun to catch up with the other team and compare results while unpacking and cleaning gear. On this day, they had found some better fish than us in their zone, with Bruce tagging two good spade fish, a blue kingfish and a southern pompano. The rest of the team had also got a few better fish as well!
The following day, we woke up to a very strong land breeze blowing from before first light which swung around to a North-Easter without faltering and just got stronger as the day progressed. We made the most of the extra distance on the cast that the offshore wind provided in the morning to throw some lures and Ewan and I quickly got stuck into a few nice greenspot kingies on soft plastics and spoons on medium spinning tackle.
Unfortunately, the wind direction changed all too quickly to a north-easterly and we only had an hour or so before it got too strong to fish bigger lures effectively. We changed over to the ultra-light spinning gear and soft plastics and tried to fish under the wind as much as possible to keep the tags ticking over for most of the day with wave garrick and some small kingies. I got a really nice wave garrick of 47cm FL which, on 4lb braid and an ultra-light Assassin Infinity, I was pretty stoked with.
There were some really good inshore reef stretches in our zone for the second day, but despite scaling right down and puzzling hard with small chokka and prawn combos through the wind, it was almost impossible to lose a bait. When it got dark, I opted to throw a bigger bait on heavy tackle and quickly got a classic small sandy bite which I duffed. A small sandy will often hang around in the area if you duff it cleanly without spooking it so I rushed to get another bait in the water and it wasn’t more than a minute or so before I got another bite. This time I managed to hook the fish and while I was landing it, Ewan dug a hole on the beach into which a PVC stretcher was placed and filled with seawater. Upon landing, the sandy was immediately transferred to the stretcher of water.
ORI, in collaboration with the Acoustic Tracking Array Platform (ATAP) hosted by the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity (SAIAB), is busy with a project on giant sandsharks, now called “white-spotted wedgefish”, to try and ascertain their movements, home ranges and the extent to which our fish travel across the border into Mozambique where they are potentially much more vulnerable to commercial exploitation. The traditional plastic dart tags have over the years given and continue to give, great data on sandshark growth and movement, but now with acoustic tags, we have the potential to monitor the movement much more closely and accurately. The project has been running for a number of years and has already produced some fascinating results. This young male sandy which I caught was quickly tagged with an ORI dart tag as per normal and then also fitted with an acoustic tag as part of this project. Hopefully he will tell his story over the course of the next few years until the battery on the acoustic tag runs out and then the dart tag will remain.
After the sandy, there were no further bites and we fished until lines up for no more tagging fish. Bruce’s team had also had a tough day in the wind and on top of that they were licking their wounds after getting thoroughly beaten up by some big reef fish. It is never good to lose fish and leave tackle in them as a result but it is an unavoidable reality when fishing. On the project trips, all hooks used are barbless and 99 percent of baits are thrown using circle hooks so there is a very high probability that any fish lost with this type of tackle will have been hooked in the mouth and because of the hook having the barb removed, the fish will be able to get rid of the hook very soon after breaking free.
The third day was forecast to be the best weather day with the wind only picking up late morning. Everyone made the most of the calm conditions to throw lures for the first few hours, and about an hour into the session, Ewan hooked a really good fish on a long throw with a GT Ice Cream plug. Shortly after being hooked, the fish jumped out the water and identified itself as a largemouth/talang queenfish. This was a real trophy fish to land from the shore on a lure, and there were some stressful moments while Ewan was trying to guide the fish up onto some foul ledge between the big sets that were still rolling through at regular intervals. Eventually, with some clever angling, the fish was pushed up with a surge and I was able to get hold of it before it got sucked back in with the next wave. We carried it quickly to a large pool where we could admire it for a bit, tag it, take a few pics and ultimately release it none the worse for its capture. The fish measured 98cm FL (~ 9kg).
Unfortunately, this was the last quality bite that we got on lure for the day despite persevering for another hour or so. After the spinning, we moved to one of my favourite spots to target reef fish where you can get a bait well out behind backline and into the zone where the kaakap, bohar snappers and mataharis live. Despite throwing all manner of baits until the tide finally pushed us off the bank, we could not raise a single quality fish. The ground swell was still just too strong and despite there being big lulls between sets, when the waves did come, they filled the water column with sand and I think this was keeping the target species further offshore than we could reach. The rest of the afternoon was spent puzzling with small soft plastics and small baits and just trying to keep the tagging slates ticking over. Just before dark, dad got a nice young GT on light tackle which was a good end to the day for him.
Once the dark descended, we changed over to heavier tackle again and started throwing bigger baits for speckled snappers into some foul reef. It wasn’t long before Avlik hooked a really good fish which had him in and out the reef all the way to the beach. It turned out to be a beaut of a speckled snapper of 62cm FL. A really special fish and it ended up being the last decent bite of the evening before we had to wrap things up and return to the shack.
Bruce’s team had had a good day and Arthur had just about filled his slate. Besides a shoal of bonefish which he had got properly stuck into, he also had some younger speckles, some cave bass and a nice kaakap which he had managed to find despite the big swells. The rest of his team also had respectable numbers of fish on their slates for the day.
The final day dawned similar to the second day with a very strong offshore wind blowing from before dawn which swung straight into a brisk north-easterly that blew right through the day and into the evening. The zone we were fishing in had some epic spots, but unfortunately, with the strong wind, we were unable to throw far enough to get baits into the strike zone. We puzzled around for most of the day alternating between throwing small soft plastics and scratching with small baits for anything that might be around. It was a hard day and despite our best efforts we didn’t manage to put anything respectable on the slates until dark when Avlik again hooked a good fish. After a violent tussle through some very treacherous reef, he landed a stunning speckled snapper of 66cm. The fish was his PB and an epic last fish of the trip for him. Despite fishing for another hour and a half or so, we were unable to get another decent fish and eventually the final whistle sounded and we had to pack up for the last time and head back to camp.
The other team had also struggled in the wind and despite finding the odd fish here and there, including a big grey chub that Bruce got which is a very unusual catch on rod and line, they had also had a pretty quiet day.
We were a pretty worn out group that sat around the dinner table that evening, reliving the stories and experiences from the week while Bruce captured all the data from our slates.
During the trip, between the two teams, we caught a total of 261 fish of which 150 were big enough to tag (>30cm FL). Unfortunately, we did not get any recaptures of fish that had been tagged on previous trips but Ewan did go for a snorkel on one of the days and he saw a large kaakap that was sporting a tag. The large number of small fish caught was mainly because of the big swell and the need to scale down and target anything that swims rather than gunning for the special fish that Kosi can offer! A total of 62 fish (23.8%) were caught in the one exploited (controlled) area (Boteler Point to 13 North), while 199 fish (76.2%) were caught in the three no-take (restricted) areas (Dog Point to Boteler Point and 13 North to Kosi mouth). In terms of catch rates, the catch per unit effort (CPUE) in the exploited area (0.73 fish/angler/hour) was very similar to that achieved in the three no-take zones (0.78 fish/angler/hour). The similarity between the catch rates in the no-take and exploited zones can largely be explained by the fact that the no-take areas are not enforced by the authorities and subsistence shore fishing is conducted by local fishermen throughout the area. While these subsistence fishermen don’t generally have sufficient tackle to land a large reef fish, they do have a very big impact on the juvenile fish and take a lot out of the system before they can reach maturity.
Species composition for the trip was dominated by wave garrick/largespotted pompano (85), grey grunter (26), speckled snapper (26), Indian snapper (previously called Russell’s snapper) (19) and bonefish (18), amongst others.
As always, it was an absolute privilege to spend time in an area like this, see some awesome fish caught and released, and despite the fact that my “best fish” for the week, where I fished for around 48hrs, was a wave garrick of 47cm FL, it was a fantastic experience shared with family, colleagues and friends! Hopefully, the data generated from the trip will in a small way contribute to the improved conservation of this truly special piece of coastline.