Known as skipjack in Cape waters and ladyfish or ten pounder overseas, springer are found along the eastern seaboard from Mossel Bay northwards. The species can attain weights of well over 11kg, with the South African angling record standing at 11.8kg. Although exceptional fish are taken every year, the majority of the catch weighs in at around 3kg or less. It is generally accepted that, in estuaries, spring and summer are the periods of peak abundance; however, as with any angling, there are no rules and good fish are often taken from upper east coast estuaries in winter. In the surf, large specimens follow the winter sardine run up the KwaZulu-Natal coast and some big specimens are taken at this time every year.
The high-speed fight tends to wear them down quite fast, so the majority of springer can be subdued on light tackle provided you have enough line as they are capable of spectacular runs. Young specimens usually erupt from the water in a series of breath-taking jumps when hooked, but bigger fish often dont jump at all, preferring to stay deep and run hard. The springers sandpaper-like teeth wear through light trace material fast, so it is a good idea to use relatively heavy nylon or fluorocarbon traces when fishing for them. Dont overdo this, though, as going too heavy will cut down your pickup rate, especially in bright conditions. Fluorocarbon with a diameter of around 0.042mm is a good choice for most estuarine situations. Anglers using bait off the beaches and points will usually be fishing heavier than this. When big springer are about in the surf, nylon or fluorocarbon traces with a diameter of 0.60mm or heavier are a good idea.
Springer respond well to hard plastics, and on the right day this can be an excellent method of targeting them in estuarine waters. Occasionally, large specimens will challenge a big noisy surface plastic and I know several anglers who swear by lures such as the Z-Claw and Roosta popper, but I personally believe that smaller lures result in more pulls. When targeting springer, I like a lure of around 7cm to 9cm long. Floating lures are extremely popular, especially in low light conditions when the fish are hunting in the shallows or close to the surface. Deep divers and sinking lipped lures have their place and can be effective in calm bright clean water conditions as they get down to where the fish are holding. The range of colours that lipped lures come in is mind blowing, with many being designed to catch anglers rather than fish! I think that most colours will work on the right day but for me chartreuse, blue, silver, white, hot orange and combinations of these colours have been consistent producers. I also like to have a touch of red somewhere on the lure, as I believe that this acts as a trigger and can prompt a strike from a reluctant fish. There are so many good lipped lures on the market that it is hard to only carry a few makes, but I have found the Strike Pro Arc Minnow to be excellent and very good value for money. Other lures that I would not leave the dock without are: a shoal of small Rapalas, a selection from the Sea Bass College range and the Halco Sorcerer.
Springer on fly can be absolutely heart stopping. Their fighting qualities, acceptance of a fly and the fact that they inhabit estuaries where fly fishers have an excellent chance of getting a fly to them makes them one of the most popular fly rod target species in our waters. Rods of six- to nine-weight coupled, with a reel that holds at least 200m of backing and floating or intermediate fly lines, are popular tackle choices. Small fish, shrimps, prawns and squid make up the bulk of the diet so any fly that imitates these organisms will be taken. Bait fish patterns like Clousers Minnow and Polar Fiber Minnows work, but for my money versatile flies such as the Grunter Charlie and Salty Bugger that suggest a wide variety of food types are best. Olive and brown flies work very well in upper east coast estuaries. Some anglers prefer fairly big flies when searching for springer but in upper east coast estuaries, I seldom use anything bigger than a number 2 and usually go even smaller than that. This makes sense as many of the prey species found in these estuaries are relatively small and also because smaller flies usually elicit less careful scrutiny from the fish and result in more pulls.
It is hard to pin down the right retrieve for springer. Normally fast game species like these respond to a rapid retrieve but friends and I have taken them on everything from a fast subsurface strip to flies fished totally static in the water. It is essential to experiment with several types of retrieve over the course of a day, always bearing in mind how the prey organism you are trying to imitate behaves in the water. Springer often react to the fly in different ways. Sometimes they will grab a pattern aggressively and on other occasions they will follow the fly for several meters, sometimes even bumping it, only to turn away at the last minute. At times like this we have found that giving the fly a couple of short sharp jerks then stopping it dead in the water occasionally results in a take. Its possible that the fish thinks that if it doesnt grab the fly it will overrun it and lose out. The trick doesnt always work but it may be worth trying on difficult days. However you get the pull, once you set the hook on fly tackle you wont soon forget the encounter.
Its fair to say that few rock and surf anglers actively set out to target springer and that most specimens caught will be taken while fishing for other species. That said, it is also true that hooking a good springer off the beach is usually a happy occasion for both competitive and social anglers alike. Springer will take a wide variety of bait types in the surf. Pilchard fillets and cutlets, red-eye sardine, mackerel, chokka, prawn and octopus all attract pulls. During the east coast sardine run, a pilchard head fished at night in areas where the shoals have passed through can produce some serious springer as well as species such as big stumpnose and grunter. Anglers fishing deeper water will increase their pickup rate by adding plenty of foam to the bait and lifting it off the bottom. Springer take artificials in the surf zone and long-distance spinners regularly catch them on a variety of spoons, especially the popular bullet spoon.
In the estuary, sand prawns, swimming prawn and small live fish such as glassies are all exceptional bait types. If conditions permit, it is best to fish for springer without a sinker and simply to allow the bait to drift freely with the current. Some specialists make use of a tiny float to keep the bait up off the bottom and drift it into a productive spot. In the estuary a few fish are taken in daylight, but most bait fishermen will concentrate on the species in the dark when it is not uncommon to get five or six pulls in an evening if the fish are about. Drop-offs and sandbanks on the full water can be productive. Estuarine structure such as jetties, rock outcroppings or wharves where bait species concentrate are popular spots as they are visited regularly by packs of springer and are always a good place to have bait in the water.
While springer lack the stamina of species like garrick or grunter they are manic when hooked, often leaping repeatedly from the water and making long burning runs. Many springer exhaust themselves totally during the fight and its a sad fact that a lot of released fish dont survive. Despite their robust appearance, the high-energy fight often results in total exhaustion. A fish that is badly handled or allowed to thrash around, beating its head and shedding scales on a concrete wharf or boat deck while its new owner tries to find the camera is simply not going to make it when it is eventually tossed back.
If possible, its best to try and minimise handling by releasing springer without removing them from the water. A quick shake of the rod tip and some loose line when the fish is close to the edge will often result in the hook simply falling out and a stress-free release. Just remember that when this happens with a hundred meters of line out and the springer still in the air, it doesnt count.