Light Tackle Game Fishing on Tropical Shores in Southern Africa

by Scotty Kyle

In 1980 I was offered the post as Fisheries Officer for the KwaZulu Government stationed at Kosi Bay. This sounded little short of idyllic; my wife Diane and I decided to first visit the place and immediately fell in love with it. There was water, with fish, everywhere. The Ocean teemed with tropical fish from 3 marlin species, giant trevally and giant grouper to estuaries with massive shoals of mullets, trevallys and some sharks, to freshwater rivers teeming with over 50 fish species including the iconic African tigerfish

I was to work on fish and fishing in one of the most amazing and, at that time, unspoilt areas of South Africa and be paid for it. I had to monitor fishing activities and advise managers and communities on how best to exploit the various fish species and resources. One of the best ways, I suggested, was to catch, tag and release fish and, through the recoveries, gain important information on capture rates, movement, growth and population size. In close cooperation with the Oceanographic Research Institute in Durban, I began to tag fish and quickly found that the best way to catch them was by rod and line. Thus began over three decades of fish tagging in some of the best fishing areas in southern Africa and, by my recent retirement, I had tagged well over 5 000 fish. 

Kosi Bay mouth
Kosi Bay mouth, about two kilometers south of the Mozambique border

My target was to annually catch, tag and release at least 100 fish along the ocean shore, in an area closed to recreational fishing and in the Kosi Bay estuarine lakes. The local people had a traditional fishery in the lakes while others fished along the ocean shore to obtain essential protein for their families but a serious concern was possible conflict between these local Zulu fishers and increasing numbers of recreational anglers. I had to investigate the conflict and recommend on future management. 

It was an important project with serious implications but, if I had tried to create a better job description while in Scotland, I could not have designed anything vaguely as promising. I was, thus, committed to many happy hours spinning and fly fishing along a vast expanse of open, pristine, sandy ocean with occasional rocky outcrops. The target area was from the Mozambique border southwards for over 50 kilometers to “Black Rock”, an impressive basalt outcrop from which, allegedly, Zulu chieftains threw unfortunate captives.   The tackle was simple – spinning with 7 foot rods and medium, fixed spool, reels or fly fishing with 9 weight rods and conventional reels. 

Tagging a fish
Tagging a wave Garrick

The water was always crystal clear as there were no rivers south of the area for hundreds of kilometers and the tidal range varied from about 30 centimeters (12 in) to 1.5 meters (5 ft.) at spring tides. There were always waves and these were often very large and powerful. Fish could be caught under almost any conditions but I had to try and optimize my success rates to minimize the work time spent fishing. Winter waters were cooler and some target species such as giant, bluefin, bigeye and brassy trevallys and wave garrick (similar to smaller permit in USA) were less active then. I thus made my target tagging period from October (spring in the southern hemisphere) to April (fall) each year. 

October was usually fairly quiet but in November the gamefish began to feed more actively, after winter, and early mornings were best. Our children Robert, Ewan and Kirsty, in their teens and early 20’s, would often come along to help with the fishing, while my wife, Diane,  saw to the logistics and other needs. Our favorite trip was to drive from our home, on the north east of the largest of the Kosi Bay lakes, southwards round the lakes to “Dog Point” another impressive basalt outcrop. In November we would leave at about 03h00 to be on the shore as dawn broke.  The “road” was a sandy track and before dawn it was not always easy to follow ill-defined single tracks over vegetated dunes, avoiding hippos and heading towards where light was beginning to glow on the eastern horizon.

There were always waves, usually large ones and sometimes waves simply too massive to be able to fish off the rocks. My children always fished with fairly heavy tackle off a flat rocky point while I went up and down the rocky ledges using a light spinning rod or fly fishing. 

dropshot rods and reels on a beach
“Dropshot” tackle, one of the most effective methods for catching fish to tag.

I initially spent some fly fishing but it soon became clear that if I continued I was going to seriously hurt myself. In the crystal clear water trying to catch wily, alert fish with large eyes, it was essential to repeatedly cast as far as possible, whilst scrambling out onto the extreme edges of rocky outcrops. I was washed off the rocks many times and sometimes spectacularly. There were normal and sometimes larger waves and then, every now and again, there were true monster waves that terrified me and required immediate scuttling back to safety. The problem was that you had to always be on the lookout for fish, safe rocks on which to stand, check what the family were doing and also to be on the alert for monster waves. The answer was “dropshotting”, using light spinning equipment and a variety of plastics put onto fairly large hooks with a lump of lead around the eye of the hook. 

Dropshotting allowed me to cast much further and with more accuracy than fly fishing and also, if required, it was much easier to quickly reel in and scramble over the rocks to safety without metres of fly line around your feet and dangling from the rod. My main target was what we called “wave garrick” (Trachinotus botla) and we only tagged fish over 30 centimetres (12 in.) in length. This species alone accounted for most of the fish tagged and was the most commonly caught fish in this area. 

With dropshotting on relatively calm days you spent the time casting into the limited turbulent “white” water while, on rough days, you cast into the few clear-water patches among the turbulence. The fish “hid” in the turbulence and darted out to catch unsuspecting food and so the best plan was to land your lure right on the outside margin of the disturbance.

Robert with giant trevally
Our son Robert with an amazing 40+ kg (88lb) giant trevally caught off the rocks

My children, using heavier tackle, caught some amazing fish including giant trevally and king mackerel. They occasionally saw marlin and they even briefly hooked one or two. Landing very large fish from very rocky outcrops could be extremely difficult and sometimes dangerous. While they helped with the tagging, their fish numbers were lower than mine but it all helped and was great family fun. Occasionally I would hook something that was simply too big and it usually ended badly but quickly, as the fish snapped the line or took it several times round a spiky rock. Giant trevally (Caranx ignobilis) are challenging fish to catch, in that as soon as they are hooked they will very strongly make a beeline for the best and most horrible cover available. Even if there is only one rock they will find it and go round it. My personal feeling is that all the stupid fish were caught years ago and the remaining ones are becoming progressively more wily.

One time I walked south of Dog Point into a pure sandy area and cast onto some promising looking breaking waves about 25 metres (80ft) from the shore. I caught and tagged a couple of nice brassy trevallys (Caranx papuensis)of about 2.5 kilograms (5.5 lbs) each so went a little further, round a corner. Here I cast right into the middle of a cresting wave and the lure stopped where it should not stop. “That’s weird”, I thought, and then the lure slowly and powerfully started moving towards Australia. “That’s great”, I thought, I have hundreds of metres of backing, there are no rocks and I was using  10 kilogram (22 lb) line. Bring it on! The fish pulled more and more line.

After about 10 minutes I managed to recover a little before it went out again and again and again. I think I had about 300 metres (980 ft) of line on the spool and I was anxiously watching it approaching the end before I managed to retrieve about 100 metres (328 ft) before it stopped again. The fish had to be well hooked and I thought I should be able to tire it out and land it. After about 30 minutes of struggle with neither of us winning it clearly found some kind of current where I could feel it just sitting “resting” while I applied the maximum tension I thought was safe. It did not seem to be progressively tiring and yet I was mentally and physically exhausted and my knees felt like jelly. The fish was almost certainly a giant trevally somewhere between 10 and 20 kilograms (22 & 44 lbs) but we were in stalemate. I can be stubborn but I was tired and it began to look as if I could not win. My family was round the corner and I had left my camera with them and so, I reasoned, even if I did land the fish I could not photograph it. 

Thicklip trevally
Me and a rare thicklip trevally

I would give myself 15 minutes more, then increase pressure till something happened. I let a little more time pass and finally decided that this was truly a great fish and had already given me an excellent fight. Usually, after a fish gives an excellent fight, it is sitting below us exhausted and defeated while we are triumphant but I felt that honors were even – I had not lost the fish but he had not escaped. I could simply wait hours till he did tire and my family arrived, or I could precipitate an outcome before either of us died of exhaustion. I thus tightened my drag slightly, went a little higher up the beach and slowly pulled harder and harder hoping the fish would come out of the current. Suddenly there was slight but definite movement, the fish had moved, and then came the feeling that we all know too well as the line parts.

Light tackle fishing on the shores of northern KwaZulu Natal must truly be one of the most exciting, and potentially rewarding, fishing experiences possible. It is a truly beautiful and unspoilt area, inside a World Heritage Site and contains fish that most of us can only dream about. Over the years we all had the most amazing, world class but typically “African” fishing experiences and caught some truly amazing fish in areas so beautiful that they defy description. 

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