By: Rob Kyle
Since I first started fishing competitions in the Mission Rocks area south of Cape Vidal on a regular basis over ten years ago, I quickly realized that this piece of coast and its extensive rocky inshore reef habitat is a very important nursery area for many of our reef-associated fish species. Over the next number of years, we fished this area frequently in competitions and I got to know this piece of coast like the back of my hand. We would go up early in the morning of the competition weekend, on the low tide, to check the formation which changed constantly. I would take a mask and snorkel and dive many of my favourite spots to see what fish were there to catch later and in many instances I knew spots where specific fish lived. Eventually, as a result of the success we had in the area as a club, many other clubs started fishing the same area and the pressure on that stretch increased drastically. While fishing shore-based competitions within the iSimangaliso Park is done on a 100 percent catch and release basis, there will always be an impact from fishing pressure. As the KwaZulu Natal Coastal Anglers Union, we realized that this amount of fishing effort on such a sensitive and important area was not right, so we made an internal ruling that any club may only fish this area for two competitions in any one year. This went a long way to reduce the pressure on the area but I still always felt kind of guilty when we fished that stretch, even though it is one of my favourite styles of angling. In 2019, when the new MPAs were gazetted, and the central area between Mission Rocks and Cape Vidal (6 km) was proclaimed as an inshore no-take zone, I was obviously sad to no longer be able to fish this area. However, I was satisfied that the right decision had been made and this sensitive and important section of coast and its fish was now going to be left in peace and allowed to recover to its full potential.
When Bruce suggested that we do some tagging trips into this area, I was obviously super keen to get back in there and visit my old stomping grounds. Logistically, it is a difficult area to sample as there is very limited vehicle access and long walks are required to access many of the spots.
One of the purposes behind the iSimangaliso surf-zone fish monitoring and 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 areas. The data 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 Park Authority. These very recommendations were instrumental in getting the new inshore no-take zones positioned where they would be most effective. This type of cooperation between scientists and protected area managers 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 for the trip consisted of seven guys who were all competent shore anglers. Generally, the team consists of 8 anglers, but due to the unrest and uncertainty leading up to the trip, one of the guys had to pull out at short notice. 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, two of which are in the central no-take sanctuary area and two are catch and release (C&R) areas on either side. The anglers are divided into two teams, 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 has been doing so for twenty years now. 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 are 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 years 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 water’s edge in the bucket and released. The goal is to limit the time that the fish is exposed to air as we have learnt that this is one of the biggest factors that contributes to post capture mortality. Where possible, we try to keep air exposure periods to 15 seconds or less. This is not always practical but it is a good target to aim for. Just for a simple example that Bruce always tells us to highlight the importance of keeping the fish in the water, you could compare fighting a fish and then holding it out of the water to one of us sprinting for 200m and then having your head held under water. When you think of it like that it certainly motivates you to keep the fish in the water as much as possible!
Bruce’s team for the week consisted of Arthur Mann, Simon Chater and Jason Haxton, while I had Matt Notthard and Ben Osbourne. August is well known for being one of the windiest months at Cape Vidal and this trip was no exception with the north-easterly wind blowing hard for the first three days and gusting up to nearly 30 knots at times. Fishing 12/13hr days in this type of wind is not for the faint hearted and by the end of the day, the tackle bags had almost more sand in them than tackle.
For the first day, my team fished the C&R zone from Mission Rocks access ramp to the beginning of the no-take sanctuary which starts about 500m north of first Bats Cave. This zone is open to recreational C&R fishing and no fish may be kept by members of the angling public. This stretch can often be very sanded up and quite difficult to fish. In this instance however, the reef was scoured open and there was some deadly looking water. We made the decision to walk to the northern boundary of the zone to start there and then fish our way back to the ramp. We started on the low tide which I always preferred for fishing this area and most of us started getting fish on the slate quite quickly. Interestingly, the first fish I landed that was a tagging size bronze bream. I have heard of this species being caught in the area on very rare occasions, but one that I had never seen there myself. They are generally considered a cooler water species and aren’t seen much north of the Thukela River. As coincidence would have it, my next fish after the bronze bream was a bomber of a stone bream.
Matt opened his tagging slate with a nice potato bass of 620mm which was a species he hadn’t caught before. This guy got a little bit of extra special care when being handled due to it being a specially protected species. After the initial flurry of activity and once the tide had pushed and the north-easterly had freshened on top of a strong southerly ground swell from the day before, the fishing slowed right down and we methodically fished our way back towards the ramp as the day progressed. There was one really nice stretch of reef in the water about 500m before the rocks going back to the ramp start. We timed our moves so that we would be fishing this stretch over the prime time (late afternoon early evening) in the hope that the cave bass would turn on in the dark and we could beef up our poor numbers of fish tagged for the day. This worked to some degree and like clockwork we had a small flurry of cave bass as it got dark. We fished until the agreed cut-off time and then headed back to the vehicle and back to camp. Bruce’s team also had a good start to their day, but then similar to us, had battled for the second half.
It is very common for us to get recaptures of fish a day or two after they have been tagged on these trips. In fact, we even frequently recapture fish in the afternoon that were tagged in the morning. On this day though, Arthur had caught a nice catface rockcod which he handled in the usual manner in the bucket of water etc, tagged it and released it. He then baited up again and threw back in the same spot. It wasn’t long before he was on with another fish which turned out to also be a catface rockcod. On closer inspection, he saw that it was a recapture, and then when he checked on the number, he realized that it was the very same fish that he had tagged and released not even ten minutes previously! This type of recapture just goes to prove that our fish handling techniques are up to standard and it also proves that catch and release fishing can be done successfully with very little, if any lasting negative impact on the fish!
That evening, while we were sitting around the dinner table listening to each other’s stories from the day, there was a big clattering noise from outside. We went out to find that one of the resident spotted hyenas had pulled the rubbish bin right out from its iron bracket in an attempt to get to the bait flavoured newspaper that had been thrown in there. It was a pretty cool sighting, but we didn’t use that bin again for the rest of the trip.
The following day, my team fished the catch and release zone which starts about 4.5km south of Cape Vidal and extends for another 4 km south until you get to the beginning of the Mziki no-take zone. This zone has very little inshore reef in it at all other than the well-known “Vidal South Ledges” and with the wind and swell, we knew we were in for a long and tough day. We fished the few reef patches that we did find pretty meticulously but there were very few fish on offer. Around midday, we found a small ledge in the water about 20m further out than the main ledge that comes out of the water on the low tide and we managed to pluck a few small rockcod that were just big enough to tag. I had a feeling that there might be a better size rockcod on this little piece of reef, so I pinned a clean mackerel head through the lips on my bottom hook and lobbed it onto the reef. I was fishing with 30lb braid and a medium heavy Assassin with a 4/0 BKK circle hook so I knew I was taking a chance but I was confident that I would be able to land a decent catface which was my target. I sat for about five minutes with the baits getting destroyed by small pekkers and then all of a sudden the pekkers vanished and a few seconds later the rod got pulled flat so fast that I was too scared to even lean into it but rather ran forward trying to loosen my drag. I was pretty sure from the beginning that it was a GT that I had hooked but considering the tackle and terrain I was fairly confident that I would not be winning this battle. The fish took about 30m of line quickly and then doubled back and swam faster than I could wind back to the ledge where it swam up and down tight in against the rocks before finally deciding to move out again. I took my time with the fish, knowing that on the light tackle, my only hope to get it over the ledge was if the fish was tired. I also didn’t want to fight the fish for too long as if given the opportunity a GT will fight itself to the point of total exhaustion which makes the subsequent release difficult, especially in strong surf conditions. I edged the fish closer to the ledge and then, carefully, with the help of a few big sets, I was able to get it over the edge and onto the top of the reef. It was still another few minutes of pulling as hard as the tackle would allow to keep the fish from going back over the ledge before I could slide it up with a wave and Matt was able to get hold of it. It was high tide, so there were no pools to keep the fish in. The only option was for us to put the kingie head first into the bucket of water and rush to get it processed and released. This we succeeded in doing and the fish powered off into the surf on release. It was by no means a giant, but at around 13kg, a nice fish on the tackle and a consolation for an otherwise very difficult day’s fishing. Matt got himself a smaller kingie later in the day, and Ben got a proper hiding but other than that, it was a very slow, windy day with minimal fish tagged.
Bruce’s team was fishing in the main sanctuary area on the second day which has by far the most extensive inshore reef and was always my favourite stretch from back in the day. They had a good day and their tagging slates were nice and full.
Arthur again had an interesting experience for the day. On the walk down to their fishing area, he had heeded the call of nature and was a little behind the rest of his team members. Upon completion of his business, he had looked down the little depression behind the first sand dune and the main vegetation and seen a leopard. The cat apparently walked along parallel to the beach for a bit before turning up into the bush, gave Arthur one final look over its shoulder and then melted into the undergrowth. A very special sighting indeed.
That evening, while we were preparing dinner, one of the resident camp honey badgers spent some time trundling around outside our bungalow. They are such cool animals and not something you get to see nicely often at all!
Thursday, we fished the northern half of the Mziki no-take area. There is some really cool reef structure in this zone and we were excited to get stuck into it. Despite having some absolutely amazing water to fish in, the bites for the day were hard to come by. Ben got a nice dusky kob early on of 70cm which ended up being the biggest fish for the day.
The majority of the daylight hours were spent just trying to keep the board ticking, but as soon as the shadow from the dune started going out over the water, the reef fish woke up and we had quite a busy last hour of fishing. It is amazing how the cave bass and most of the other reef-associated species only start getting active in the evenings and all of a sudden you are getting a fish every cast in the exact same spot where you have thrown twenty times during the day without a bite. This is nothing new though and in the days when we fished competitions on this stretch we would fish the entire round in the night. Unfortunately, along with the reef fish, the moray eels – aka “bogwanes” also get much more active at night and we caught more than our fair share of them too. Matt got a bomber lemonfish towards the end of the evening which was a PB for him, Ben got a proper yellowbelly and I ended the evening with a good tasselfish or baardman just shy of 60cm. This evening flurry again made up for what was actually quite a disappointing days fishing considering the type of water we had at our disposal and our expectations for the day. Of the fish that we caught, five of them were recaptures of fish which had been tagged two days previously by Bruce’s team and they were all within a maximum of 200m of where they had been tagged.
Bruce’s team had fished the section we fished on the first day from Mission Rocks and had a tough day. Arthur found an absolute honey hole as it got dark and tagged something like 12 fish in the last hour as well as pulling the hooks on a 12/15kg class kob almost on the beach. He chased it through the gutter and managed to touch it a few times but sadly wasn’t able to prevent its escape.
Friday, the final day, dawned with only a light north-easterly blowing, which was forecast to die out during the day and we were fishing the best area with the most reef. Expectations were high while we packed our trollies and headed off into our zone for the day. Our plan for the day was to fish through the whole area thoroughly, but quite quickly, during the course of the morning to establish where the most fish were holding and then from the afternoon into the evening we would know where best to position ourselves to capitalize on the evening bite that we knew would turn on.
The last day was as good as we had hoped with pretty consistent bites throughout the morning with a bit of a quiet period over the midday and then things woke up in the evening again with the expected night time flurry of cave bass and rockcod. The whole team had nice full slates of tags for the day! During a quieter patch in the day, I decided to throw half a baby squid bait onto the back bank in the hopes of getting a stumpy or pompano. I held the bait for about 15minutes before I got that familiar feeling of a stingray settling on the bait. I had thrown over about 50m of foul reef in the trough to get to the bank so I knew my percentage chance of landing a flat-fish was not high. Fortunately though, it was just a medium size brown stingray, not a honeycomb, and with a bit of luck and patience I was able to work it through the reef and slide it up the beach. There is currently some uncertainty regarding how many and exactly what species of brown ray we get on the KZN coast. The only way to clear this up once and for all is to get DNA samples and detailed photographs from representative specimens which will hopefully shed some light on this dilemma! This ray was held in a rock pool while we took a small tissue sample from the edge of the wing, tagged the animal and took the necessary reference photos!
Ben was on fire on the last day and seemed to catch a yellowbelly rockcod on almost every cast at times. He even caught one with his rod in the pipe during his lunch break. It was awesome to see so many yellowbellies again as they are a greedy, slow growing and resident species that you hardly see caught anymore on the majority of the KZN coast. All the specimens we caught were still immature as the females only reach sexual maturity at around 60cm and the males (after changing sex from female) a lot later at about 80cm. Living in a no-take MPA, hopefully these youngsters will be able to reach maturity and move out to deeper offshore reefs where they will still be protected as there is no bottom fishing allowed within the iSimangaliso MPA. One of the yellowbellies that Ben caught was a recapture of a fish that I had tagged on the 2019 Mission Rocks tagging trip. I had tagged it at 345mm TL and Ben had recaptured it at 455mm TL. In its 734 days at liberty it had grown 110mm and stayed in exactly the same place. On top of this older recapture, we got another three recaps for the day all of fish that had been tagged by Bruce’s team when they fished the same zone two days previously.
With ten minutes to go until lines up that last evening, I threw a small chokka bait a little further than I had been fishing and almost instantly hooked a good fish which turned out to be a cave bass of over 50cm FL. This fish filled up the last space on my tagging slate and was a very fitting end to the trips fishing.
Bruce’s team fished the sanded up zone on the last day, and had a similar battle to what we had on our day in that area. Jason managed a nice stumpy on a big bait meant for a sandy and Bruce pulled the hooks on a good GT, but besides that they got rats and mice. They recaptured two of the fish that we had tagged in the zone and also recaptured two fish in the afternoon that they had tagged in the morning. Another great example of how good handling reduces capture stress!
It was a wind-blown and weary group of anglers that sat around the dinner table on that last night reliving experiences from the week. Between the two teams, we had caught a total of 298 fish of which 163 were big enough or of suitable species to be tagged. A further 14 of these fish were recaptures and all but the one yellowbelly were of fish that were caught on this trip. Cave bass made up the vast majority of fish caught with a total of 84. They were followed by catface rockcod, grey grunter, blacktail and yellowbelly rockcod in that order. Surprisingly, there were only two very small speckled snappers caught for the whole trip.
Cape Vidal’s beaches are one of the absolute jewels of the South African coast and to be able to fish them is a real privilege. It is good to know that such a sensitive and valuable piece of inshore reef habitat as the Mziki no-take area north of Mission Rocks is now fully protected and as much as I appreciated the opportunity to check up on my old friends, I am not sad that I won’t be able to go and pester them as a recreational angler. In the morning, we packed the vehicles to the chirps of a small group of green twinspots that had come past the cottage every morning. On the drive out, we saw two groups of white rhino, several groups of buffalo, some spectacular kudu bulls just meters from the bakkie and numerous other animals. After the crazy times we had experienced in KZN just a few weeks prior, it was great to spend a week away from civilisation and realize again what a spectacular country we live in and remember what we are fighting continually to conserve and protect.