ORI Tagging trip to Bhanga Nek, Kosi Bay in May 2019.

By: Rob Kyle
Senior Aquarist – Collections
uShaka Sea World

Having grown up at Kosi and developed my passion for shore angling on this coastline, the area will forever be very close to my heart and I look forward to the annual Kosi fish tagging trip the most out of the four venues that we work in. With the crystal clean water, Kosi has always been a difficult area to fish and of recent years it seems to be getting more and more difficult and the exact reasons for this are unknown. There are several different theories for this apparent decrease in catches. These range from the fish getting clever to lures (due to fishing pressure with the majority of fish caught by recreational anglers using this method being released and “teaching” the other fish) to the local subsistence fishermen fishing throughout the area, including within the sanctuary zones and harvesting a lot of small fish. There is also the possibility that the Mozambican line boats from Maputo or further afield are coming south under the cover of darkness and hammering our fish offshore or maybe the Kosi fish’s movement patterns extend up into Mozambique and they are getting hammered there? Chances are, it’s a combination of all these reasons plus a myriad more which we will still have to work out. Whatever the reasons, Kosi is without a doubt one of the most challenging pieces of coastline in South Africa to fish. Having said that though, when you do finally get that bite, it could well be a fish that you will remember for the rest of your life and it will make your whole trip worthwhile.

As with the other areas in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park where Bruce carries out these shore-based tagging trips, the purpose is to compare the catch rates within the no-take sanctuary areas to those areas where the angling public are allowed to fish to ascertain the effectiveness of the no-take areas. 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 this assists the Oceanographic Research Institute (ORI) to make accurate and realistic proposals regarding management and zonation of the coast. This ensures that the resources can be well 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 in the evening. The area that we fish is divided into four zones, some of which are 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 four areas. The itinerary is planned so that no area is fished on consecutive days. Senior scientist, Dr Bruce Mann, 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.

For this trip, the teams were divided as such:

Team 1 – Bruce Mann (team leader/driver), Arthur Mann, Trevor Pike and Mark Mthebu (subsistence fisherman) 

Team 2 – Rob Kyle (team leader/driver), Ewan Kyle, Kevin Rudolph and Matt Furniss.

On each field trip, we take a subsistence fisherman from the local adjacent community with us. The hope is that he will learn about the importance of no-take areas and take this information back to his community. It also helps to create awareness around the tagging project and hopefully increases the chance of a community member contacting us with the tag details should a tagged fish get recaptured.

During the Kosi trip, we stay in the turtle research shack which is literally on the beach in the bay at Bhanga Nek. There are few more beautiful settings in which to be based at for a week of fishing. What generally happens is that we speak ourselves into an absolute froth on the drive up and upon arrival on the Monday, once the vehicles are unpacked, it is always a mad rush to get the rods together and rigged up to go for a quick throw before dark. This is generally a crash back to reality and you realise that the stories told in the car took 30 years to accumulate.  This fishing isn’t considered part of the project but it’s always a good way to settle in for the week. During the evening meal which is a braai the first night, Bruce runs us all through the project and explains to the guest anglers how to record all the data that we gather as well as highlighting some fish handling techniques and explaining the rules like only using barbless hooks and only one rod in the water at a time.

The first day, my team fished the area where I grew up fishing. It is the only area of the four that is not a restricted area and as such it sees all of the pressure from the recreational angling public. Having fished this area my whole life, I know it like the back of my hand and we went straight to my all-time favourite spot in the hopes of getting a kaakap/green jobfish early before the wind got up. We made a rule between us that we would only throw lures for the first half an hour in the morning when we got to a spot. As soon as we had written down the starting time on our slates, we all rushed out onto the ledge and it wasn’t long before Kevin hooked what we knew was a kaakap on a GT ice cream. He fought the fish all the way to the ledge in front of him but unfortunately whilst walking back to get to shallower ground, he capsized in a hole and allowed the fish a few centimetres of slack line to shake the hook. A short while later, I hooked a small kaakap on a jigging spoon and also managed to get it right to my feet before it got tumbled in a foamy and shook the hook.  After getting these bites on the lures, it was evident that the kaakap were there and as soon as the half hour lure rule was up, I wheel-spun to get a bait in the water. True as nuts, it wasn’t long before I was tight and I had a kaakap in a pool ready to be tagged before the other guys had even got a bait in the water. What followed that morning was the most insane kaakap fishing I have ever experienced with the team ending on 20 tagged for the day. The majority of the fish were between 55 and 65cm with the best coming in just over 70cm FL. Ewan was the only one of us who persevered with the lures and was rewarded for his efforts with a beautiful fish which ate a GT Ice cream a few meters into the retrieve.  Kosi is the only place in SA where you can target Kaakap off the side with a real chance of getting one but to get one on lure is still a big challenge and every one is a great achievement. True to Kosi form, there was only one spot in our zone on the first day that produced bites and once we got pushed off by the incoming tide the rest of the day was pretty quiet. Bruce’s team started the day in their zone with two a massive kaakap of over 85cm FL caught by Trevor and a big fish lost on plug by Bruce which by all accounts sounds like it might have been a yellowfin tuna. After their early morning action, their day also slowed right down and they struggled for bites.

The second day, both teams fished sanctuary zones that have produced some epic fish on previous trips and expectations were high in the morning with hopes of a busy days tagging. This was not to be the case however and by mid-morning we had only a few scraps on the tagging slates despite fishing some epic looking water. Once the tide started pushing properly, we found a few patches where some sprats were concentrated in the white water and had an absolute ball picking off a number of wave garrick/largespot pompano and small kingies on small soft plastics and very light tackle.

Once the tide had filled up completely, the baitfish moved away and even the light tackle went quiet. We moved back to a section of foul ledge extending out from the beach which had some scattered reef at the back with the intention of fishing for blue emperors/Mataharis.  Because the ledge was so foul in front of us, we all threw baits beyond it and then went and sat on a high dune behind us hoping to have a better angle on the fish should we get a bite. It wasn’t long before Kevin got pulled absolutely flat, went tight briefly, and then got slack line. He started winding in the slack line and we were still passing comments on how he had managed to duff such a good bite when the line suddenly got tight again only 20m from the ledge. The fish had turned when he hooked it and had charged back towards the safety of the reef.  Because the dune we were on was quite steep Kev lost his footing and ended up fighting the fish from his backside. He was pulling so hard and had there been a second where he eased up on the fish it would have been able to duck down behind the ledge and cut him off.  The result was very amusing to watch as he did his best not to get dragged on his backside off the dune by what turned out to be a very angry GT. It felt like forever, but it was probably only a few minutes before the fish finally gave up fighting to get back over the ledge and I was able to get my paws on it. As it was high tide, there were no rock pools for us to hold the fish in and the fish was too big to put its head in a bucket! Fortunately, we had the PVC stretcher with us that we used to make a pond with while inserting acoustic tags, so while I held the fish in the water, Matt and Kevin quickly dug a hole and filled the stretcher with sea water. This worked really well and took the pressure off to get the fish back immediately.

After this fish, things were quiet for a while with the only excitement being a short-lived bite that Matt got from a big blacktip shark which came spinning out the water as soon as it felt the pressure and bit him off.  Eventually, as we were about to give up on the spot, I got the classic Matahari/blue emperor bite that I had been looking for and after a characteristically strong tussle I landed a nice one of 68cm FL. Matt came with the bucket of water as I landed the fish and it went in head first, tail sticking out while I hurried to get my tagging box and measuring stretcher. This was the last bite we got for the spot despite fishing it almost into dark.

Bruce’s team had caught a nice sandy as well as another big kaakap and a variety of other odds and ends including a small shoal of cave bass caught by Arthur which is unusual for the area.

The third day we fished an area which has epic lure fishing potential and we knew from previous trips that anything was possible here. Bruce was fishing the area where we had caught all the kaakap on day one so they also had high hopes for the day. On arrival at the spot, we literally ran out onto the ledge unable to contain the anticipation knowing that within the first few throws, someone would get an epic bite. I had chosen a popper as my lure of choice to try and maximise the fish calling potential of my lure and get the attention quickly of whatever was there waiting. It worked perfectly and on the second throw, I had a big swirl and the tail of a very big kaakap broke the surface. Sadly, this is where my good luck ended and this fish missed the hooks completely and didn’t come back. A short while later, I had another unmistakable kaakap swirl behind my popper but this time it came back for a second go and I set the hooks solidly. I fought the fish hard to the ledge and as I slowed down to wait for a bigger set to come to pull the fish with, it gave a violent shake and my popper came flying out the water. That was the end of my bites on lure despite throwing my whole arsenal at the sea over the space of the next hour. Kevin had a few chases on his GT ice cream and one even bumped the lure but nothing stuck for him either. Kevin was the first to break down and throw a bait which was quickly picked up by a really good kaakap.

This fish caused me and Matt to spin out completely and both of us put down the lure rods and scuttled to get a bait in the water. Ewan was the only one who persevered with the lures and as I was walking out onto the ledge with my bait in hand, I saw him go on. Immediately as he hooked the fish I could tell by the body language that it was something to be excited about. Ewan has caught more than his fair share of epic fish on lures at Kosi so it doesn’t take just any old bream to get him wobbling. I could see that his arm holding the rod was shaking before I even got to him and when I did, he turned and said “it’s a Scooter”. Ewan has spent many thousands of hours at Kosi throwing lures off the rocks and beach, and to get a couta has always been a dream. He has had a few bites from them over the years, hooked one and even got it onto the rocks before it threw the hook and washed back.

Couta are particularly “soft” fish and are next to impossible to release safely from the shore so I knew we would have to move like lightning for the release to be successful. I ran back and readied the tag applicator and tape next to a big rock pool with a smooth bottom.  Matt was already on the camera. By the time I got back to Ewan, the fish was close to the front of a particularly horrible section of the ledge. The last minute of the fight was touch and go, with the fish up tight against the reef. At one point the leader was around a rock but luckily the fish turned and went back. With a bit of quick manoeuvering Ewan got the fish onto a ledge and a well-timed wave pushed the fish into my reach where I quickly latched onto its tail. We ran the fish straight to the pool and Matt snapped off some pics between the measuring and tagging. The fish was probably out the sea for about a minute and of this the majority of time it was in the pool. Once the hook was out and the tag was in, Ewan ran the fish back to the front of the ledge and released it where it swam off encouragingly well.   

After well deserved hand-shakes and manly hugs all round, catching anything on a bait seemed pretty lame so we all went back to throwing lures. Unfortunately, the moment was passed and nothing else was landed.

From the couta ledge, we moved back to another section of reef where there was about a 100m wade to get onto a waste deep bank from which you could get a bait out onto epic looking reef. My first throw here, I waited quite a while but eventually got an unmistakable bite from a big reef fish. From the moment I set the hook, the fish was in the reef and all I could do was hang on, hold the spool and feel my leader and trace pinging off rocks. Fortunately, everything held together and within a short while I had the fish’s initial charge under control and could start working it back to safety. There were only two options as to what it could be. Either a very big speckled or a big bohar snapper. When the fish finally popped out of the white water, the blood red colour immediately gave the species away. Kosi is the only place on the South African coast where I have ever heard of bohar’s being caught from the side and despite all the fishing I have done here I have only landed a handful of this spectacular species.

My next throw out onto the same reef, I had a horribly slow bite and from the beginning I had a suspicion that it was an eel.  My fears were realised when its toothy face appeared.

Once we got pushed off this spot by the tide, the wind had gotten up and we had very hard fishing for the rest of the day. Kevin did well and found a nice kaakap that had got lost and was swimming around over the sand in the middle of the afternoon in a very uncharacteristic manner and then once darkness fell he got a really nice pickhandle barracuda.

Bruce’s team also had a good day with a number of kaakap tagged as well as a roundnosed brown ray and a honeycomb ray tagged by Arthur. Bruce even caught a golden kingfish which is a species I have never before seen caught at Kosi but, as it was his birthday, this was a great present for him!

The last day, we fished another of my favourite areas but sadly the formation was very sanded up and the reef where the fish can come absolutely silly was totally covered. The north-easterly wind also blew hard from early on and made the long casts to reach the reef a challenge. Matt started the morning with a nice Jenkins whip ray which is similar in appearance to a normal sharpnose brown ray but has a shorter tail and different pattern on its back which almost looks like it’s got coarse sea sand sprinkled over it. This pattern is more evident around the edge of its wings.

After that, we were unable to get a decent fish to commit despite long wades and big throws for most of the day. Even the light tackle proved to be ineffective at getting anything big enough to tag.

Towards the end of the afternoon, we decided to make one last move to a patch of reef that would have filled up and become nice over the high tide. On arrival at this spot, I took my small rod to try and find a wave garrick to tag while Kevin and Matt threw baits. I had fished about 100m up the beach when I turned around to see Kevin bending properly on what was clearly a good fish. I ran back and grabbed my camera to film the last section of the fight. What Matt lifted out of the shore break, blew me away.

I always maintain that what makes Kosi so special is that you never know what’s going to take your bait or lure next but you would have thought that in 30 odd years of fishing the area, I would have seen most of what was on offer.  This 61cm titan triggerfish is one of the coolest fish I have ever seen caught on rod and line. As if this epic fish wasn’t a high enough point to end the trip on, Matt’s next bait was eaten by a proper fish that instantly had him in the reef. Over the years, we have learnt to fish with the heaviest terminal tackle possible and despite this fish’s best efforts Matt got it out of the stones and was able to ease off once it was in the sand channel inside the reef. It turned out to be a magnificent speckled of 68.5cm and was an absolutely epic way to end the trip. We threw a few more baits after that but without any luck we decided to call it an evening and head back to the cottage.

Bruce managed an exceptional Natal stumpnose of 63cm on their last day and Arthur managed quite a few tags including a whitebarred rubberlip of 48cm despite the trying conditions. All in all, it was a great trip with a great bunch of guys. We tagged a total of 153 fish but only got one recapture and this was a sandy that I had tagged in 2017 about 2.3km from where Trevor recaptured it.  Kosi has many secrets for us to try and understand regarding why the fishing is quite as hard as it is but every little piece of information we gather adds more pieces to the puzzle.

We fished exceptionally hard for four days for pretty much 13hrs a day, only ever stopping to move spots or push some food into our beaks. We were wet up to our necks (totally wet from head to toe in Kevin’s case) from pretty much the first throw of the morning until it got dark whether it be to get a bait to the back reef, get a lure just that little bit further or land the small soft plastic far enough past the shore break to get a bite. Pretty much every throw with a bait you have to throw as if you are trying to achieve a career best and if you miss the spot by as little as 10m you will just not get the bite. There were many hours that passed on all of the days where we just could not get fish no matter what we did despite everything appearing to be perfect. To put it into perspective, I tagged a total of 36 fish for the trip. We tag pretty much all fish over 30cm Fork Length. I fished for a total of 52hrs over the four days. This means that I averaged just over one tagable fish for every two hours of fishing.  Every bite that you get at Kosi is a struggle, but every bite you get could well be a fish that you remember for the rest of your life.