Rob Kyle reports on February fish tagging trip to Sodwana

By: Rob Kyle
Senior Aquarist – Collections
uShaka Sea World

I was fortunate to accompany Bruce Mann from ORI from the 4th to the 8th of February 2019 on one of his quarterly shore-based fish tagging trips within the boundaries of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park.  This particular trip was to Sodwana Bay and we fished four areas south of Sodwana. The purpose of these trips is to compare the catch rate within the no-take “sanctuary” areas of the St Lucia Marine Reserve to that of the adjacent exploited areas, while at the same time gathering data on the movement patterns and growth rates of the fish.  The team of eight anglers is divided in half with each team of four having an off-road vehicle. The area fished is divided into four with two areas inside the no-take area and two areas in the exploited area. Each of the teams has a turn to fish each of the areas over the course of the four days. The days on the beach are long with most sessions being about 12hrs and by the end of the trip the anglers are generally exhausted but happy to have had the privilege to fish these amazing places. The team this trip consisted of Bruce Mann (trip leader), myself, Arthur  Mann, Devon Crowe, JJ Turner, Kevin Rudolph, Gareth Jordaan and Sfiso Gina, a subsistence fisherman from the local community. These anglers get the opportunity to observe first-hand the value of no-take areas and hopefully better understand the purpose behind the tagging project and ultimately take this message back to the fishing communities that they come from. The hope is that this knowledge will encourage anglers to respect the no-take areas and hopefully at the very least report tagged fish when they catch them.  

 The angling during the week is done as a recreational angler would fish so standard rock-and-surf or spinning tackle is used. Barbs are squashed and the use of circle hooks is encouraged wherever possible to reduce the chances of a fish swallowing the hook and being injured. In the rare cases where a hook does get swallowed, the line is cut as close to the eye of the hook as possible and left so that the fish can hopefully get rid of the hook itself. If a hook is left in a fish and the fish is tagged, this information is noted on the tag return data so that if the fish gets recaptured we will know that the fish survived. We have had quite a few instances where fish with hooks left in them do get recaptured so it is evident that this is best practice rather than damaging the fish trying to remove a hook that has been swallowed.

Before anyone throws a bait or a lure at a spot, a large water bucket of fresh seawater is filled and placed at the tagging station. When a fish is landed, the fish is run as quickly as possible and placed in the water bucket while the tagging equipment is prepared. Sometimes, as is the case with most GTs, the fish are too big for the bucket and in these instances they are put in head first and held there until the stretcher is ready. The fish are measured on a PVC stretcher with a stainless steel ruler down the middle to allow for as accurate a measurement as possible. This stretcher is wiped down with a wet cloth before a fish is placed on it every time to ensure that it is damp and smooth and does not remove any of the fish’s mucous covering. A wet rag is generally placed over the fish’s head and eyes to calm the fish and reduce the chances of it flapping and damaging itself.  Once tagged and measured, the fish can then be released and in the case of a good fish, a quick pic can be taken for the angler’s brag book. The goal is to never have the fish out of the water for longer than 30 seconds at a time.

The first day of the trip we had a light to moderate southerly wind blowing but the sea was pretty flat fortunately. The area my team fished had quite a lot of close reef which was easy to fish despite the wind.  Scratching for smaller fish was the order of the day with a few opportunities to throw lures over the low tide when we could get onto the ledges.  As the evening drew to a close, we moved to a spot that was holding some better class fish and it was a frantic last 45 minutes while we tried to capitalise on this late find before we had to end the session and drive back.

On the second day of the trip, we had pretty much had “picnic perfect” weather all day which as anyone who knows the northern Zululand coast well will tell you, means that the fishing is generally hard during the daylight hours.  This day was no exception with over five hours passing over the mid-day period where we barely caught a fish. As the afternoon wore on however and the shadow of the dunes started walking out onto the water, Kevin found a patch of reef that was holding a lot of quality fish. This reef was on an absolute full cast distance from where you could wade and stand and if you didn’t land on the reef you pretty much didn’t have a chance of getting a bite. There was also a sudden abundance of blue bottles that had been blown in by the wind and were getting wrapped around our legs when going in to cast and even getting stuck in the braid.  This made for some painful, tiring fishing having to attempt a career best throw every cast into a light south-easterly wind. The rewards were great however and pretty much every bait that got the distance got a pull!

The third day was forecast to start off calm with a moderate southerly wind coming through in the afternoon and the reality was exactly that. Once again, the first half of the day was quiet with the guys just ticking over the tagging slates with the odd wave garrick and small reef fish.  Over the high tide in the afternoon, we were unable to move on the beach so we had selected a promising looking hole with some scattered reef. We hadn’t been there for long when JJ spotted a shoal of 10-15 GTs ranging in size from 10 to 30kg patrolling the mid-break. Pandemonium ensued but unfortunately none of us were fast enough to get a lure to them.  We all thrashed the water with lures for about half an hour with no luck before calm settled and we returned to puzzling with baits. I had taken my light surf rod and thrown a double hook trace onto a patch of reef and had settled down to wait patiently for a bite when in front of me a wave lifted up and I saw JJ’s shoal of GTs coming past me. Again, pandemonium ensued with me trying to wind in my baits while at the same time running towards my spinning rod which was a good 80m away. Again, we couldn’t get to them in time and the opportunity was missed.  This time, we persisted with the lures and it wasn’t long before I got a decent greenspot kingie on a plug and JJ followed this closely with a nice bluefin. Kevin also got a nice greenspot a little while later.  Fishing then went quiet for a while and JJ seized the moment to tuck into his lunch sarmie which he had been saving.  Kevin and I were watching from a little way down the beach and the next thing, the sarmie was dropped and JJ dived for his spinning rod. He threw the plug while still running towards the water and went tight almost immediately with what we knew must be a decent kingie. After a short hard fight, JJ landed a beaut of a GT and after some quick teamwork to keep the fishes head in the water bucket we were able to tag it, get some nice pics and get it back in the shortest time possible.  As if this wasn’t enough for the afternoon, JJ then went on the land a second GT a bit smaller also on a plug about an hour later as the light was fading.

With all the GTs around during the day, I was excited for the evening session as I was confident that they would still be in the area and as is their nature they would be more inclined to eat a dead bait in the night. This proved to be true and it wasn’t long after it got totally dark that I got an unmistakable GT bite on a bonny head. Unfortunately, after about a minute of back and forth tug of war where neither of us gained advantage, the hooks pulled on this fish. A short while later, JJ hooked what we knew immediately was another good GT and he hung on for dear life to hold the fish away from the reef on either side of us. After a hectic tussle which probably lasted just under 10min, I was able to grab his fish in the shore-break. This fish was too big to use the bucket so we had no choice but to work as quickly as we could and keep the fish in the wave zone. Tag in, measurement taken, some quick pics to remember it by and it surged off as soon as it was put back in the water.

For the final day of the trip, a north-easterly from hell was forecast to blow up to 35knots which made the fishing very difficult and unproductive. We fished hard over the low water with very little to show for it. At 14:00, the options were either to stick it out over the high tide (probably catching very little) until 21:00 that night when the tide would be low enough to drive home or tuck our tails between our legs and head back early. A vote was taken and we decided that the second option was sensible. We were fishing on the southern side of Bruce’s team who were fishing the zone closest to Sodwana. The whole drive back to meet up with them, I was going over in my head what Arthur, who is a hard core farmer and doesn’t get to the coast as often as he would like, would have to say about us “lighties” cutting short his last days fishing!  My anxiety was justified and we were suitably chastised with several references being made to the sizes of certain of our body parts and the fact that “they don’t make them like they used to”.  After weathering this abuse and being made to realize that I would be reminded of this day for all eternity, it was agreed that the conditions were pretty horrible and nobody really felt like staying on the beach until 21:00. It was agreed to head off the beach while we still could.

In summary of the trip, we caught a total of 278 fish between the eight of us in the four days fishing. Of these, 165 were tagged and 9 were recaptures. The CPUE or Catch per Unit Effort was double in the sanctuary areas compared to the exploited areas which just goes to show that the no-take areas are really working. The majority of the recaptured fish showed very little movement which we have learned to expect with the exception of one speckled snapper which moved from Lone Tree south of Leven Point to the middle of the sanctuary area, a distance of 19 km. This is a relatively big movement for the species and its always interesting to see that in even the most resident of species there are those individuals who feel the need to travel.  It is always a massive privilege to fish on these trips and one that none of us take lightly or for granted.