WORDS & PICS: CRAIG THOMASSEN
On my recent trip to the Transkei, where we fished the estuaries with light spinning tackle, one of the most rewarding ways of catching fish was on surface lures. I have always got a big kick out of fishing topwater lures. I enjoy being able to see the lure and have the opportunity to give it the most enticing action, and then of course being able to witness the smash, which is often as vicious as it is sudden. Apart from this you also see the subtle boils on the water around the lure from fish that are shy and have come for a look, without hitting the lure. This gives me extra resolve and pushes me to try harder, knowing that there is an interested customer in the area.
Fishing surface lures in the still, calm waters of an estuary is far more subtle, and requires a lot more finesse than casting poppers in the ocean. A very splashy, fast retrieve will work for some species such as kingfish and garrick, but a slower more subtle action will attract a whole variety of species and can be hugely rewarding. Garrick and kingfish will also attack these slower moving lures, so it is generally the best all-round action, unless some frenetic surface activity is spotted.
WHERE TO LOOK
The first thing that is important to bear in mind is that fish move into very shallow water to feed in tidal estuaries at times. This is especially true at dawn and dusk. The bait organisms such as mullet, crabs and swimming prawns are generally in very shallow water at these times, trying to hide from the predators, and the predators move in to the shallows looking for them. Surface lures in shallow water will attract strikes from any aggressive predator, even those that do not traditionally feed on the surface, such as kob. By moving stealthily up the river during these quiet hours, and keeping a sharp lookout for signs of feeding fish, it is easy to identify where to cast your lures. Look out for splashes and swirls close to the banks, and get into casting range quietly, without disturbing the feeding fish.
There is nothing quite like having a large kob sipping a lure off the waters surface, making a big boil in the water as it feels the hooks bite, and then starting to run for the channel.
It is worthwhile travelling as far up these rivers as you can go with a boat, even if it means getting out and hauling the boat over rocky beds in order to reach pools higher up. In many cases some of the best fishing is to be had in these upper reaches of the rivers. There is also the added advantage that there is a layer of muddy fresh water on the surface, with clean salt water below. This restricts the fish from seeing out of the water and means that you can approach without being detected.
The upper reaches of the estuary are good areas to target perch and river snapper in particular. Both species are very susceptible to slowly worked surface lures. These fish are normally found amongst structure that makes any other form of fishing for them very difficult, as you snag up continuously with sinking lures. They seem to be particularly attracted to rocky beds, especially areas that are largely exposed on the low tide, with oysters and barnacles growing on the rocks. These fish are often best targeted when the tide begins to drop and the tops of some of the rocks in the areas that they inhabit become exposed. They are very territorial and will be caught in the same places time after time. It is important not to over-pressure a favourite spot though, or the fish will stop feeding there. Rather give each area a rest and try some other spots to keep all your areas productive.
Other good structure to look out for is rock ledges dropping into the water and overhanging vegetation. Many of these species like the cover provided by shade and deeper water amongst the rocks. They will hole up there during the day while not actively feeding, but can be enticed to strike a well-presented lure that is worked above them. Surface lures can be used throughout the day to target species such as perch and river snapper, with well-aimed casts that get right into the structure.
Some of these pools in the upper reaches will also hold decent-sized kingfish and surprisingly large kob. Even though it will seem that they have to swim on their sides to access this water. It is worth exploring every single nook and cranny in these Transkei estuaries you will be surprised at what you can catch in the most unlikely-looking places. After doing this for a while, you will be able to quickly recognise areas that should hold fish, and concentrate your efforts on the more productive areas.
A few of my favourite lures for this type of fishing are small cup-faced poppers, such as the 5cm Rapala Skitter Pop® and 6cm Storm Rattlin Chug Bugs. I change the hooks on these to stronger, salt-resistant trebles. The reason that I do not change the hooks to singles is that with this kind of fishing the fish frequently strike in a wild, angry way, often missing completely, and the hook-up rate with singles would be too low. I find that colour is generally not a huge issue, particularly if the water is murky, but at times the fish can be selective so it is worth carrying a range of colours.
These small poppers need to be fished with a slow, twitching action, with pauses between twitches. The strike often comes on the pause, or just as you start to twitch the lure after letting it lie still.
The next lure that is important is a range of surface sliders that can be fished with a slow zig-zagging walk-the-dog action. The 9cm and 11cm Rapala X-Rap Walk lures are excellent and have loud rattles. It is also good to have some small sliders without rattles, such as a Zara Puppy or a Bagley Finger Mullet. These lures should be cast beyond where you think the fish are and then worked towards and over them in a subtle zig-zagging action, imparted by twitching the rod tip. If the action is smooth and the lure looks like a swimming snake from where you are standing, it will attract some vicious strikes.
The other lure that I do not ever leave out of my tackle box when fishing estuaries is a MirrOLure 7M. This lure is almost impossible to find in shops in South Africa, and may need to be bought from an online tackle store. It is a very unique lure and is known as a floating twitchbait. It floats at rest then, when given a pull, does a shallow dive with a small wobble at the end, throwing a flash, before floating slowly up to the surface. It is worked very slowly around likely-looking structure and almost never fails to attract a strike from even the most wily predator.
I fish these lures with a light, fast-action rod and matching reel loaded with 15lb Sufix performance braid and a two- to three-metre 20lb hard fluorocarbon leader such as Double X. The reason for the fairly strong braid and very hard leader is that most of the fish hooked in the structure where you are fishing your surface lures will attempt to cut you off on rocks, oyster shells and barnacles and will succeed if you do not hold them out, or have a very abrasion-resistant leader.
These fish are generally resident in the river systems and are very territorial. Any one of them removed from the water is one less fish for you to catch on your next trip. I strongly recommend releasing all fish caught in our estuary systems. That way we will all enjoy these fine rivers for years to come.
Colin Parker of Bimini Lures with another kob on a surface slider.
Colin Parker with a good river snapper caught on a MirrOLure 7M.
Fishing some shallow boulders in the upper reaches of a Transkei river.
Pam Thomassen with a good river snapper caught on the surface.
Shallow rock beds such as this hold lots of bait and are a great feeding spot for predators.
This kob took a MirrOLure 7M off the surface in shallow water.
Tommo with a snapper taken in the shallows.