Crocodile Hunting on the lower South Coast
Every angler dreams about a screaming reel as a monster of the deep attacks the bait and heads for the horizon. When a giant couta smashes the bait, the power and speed will impress you every time. The time and effort is always worth the reward.
The lower South Coast of KZN is arguably one of the best places in the world to hunt this prize fish. Every year, fish weighing more than 35kg come out, and fish of over 25kg are quite common, while the odd 40kg-plus is landed from the boat or beach. Local clubs run ‘couta classic’ competitions and if you don’t get a fish of over 30kg, don’t even bother trying to weigh in for a prize.
When I first moved down to the South Coast and sat at the weigh-in stations, I was simply blown away by the size and the health of these huge fish. Having learned to fish on the North Coast of KZN and not having seen such big couta before, I was filled with a desire to catch one of these monsters myself.
I have hunted them relentlessly for the last three years and here I will share with you what I have learned so far. Having a charter business gives me a great amount of time on the water to test theories, bait, traces and tactics. I hope this will help you get your ‘croc couta’.
As I chatted to guys, and researched how to get these beasts, I realised that fishing for the crocs of the South Coast is not the same as catching shoal couta in Vidal.
One of the first things I had to do was upgrade the thickness of the steel wire. I was using No 6 wire and soon realised that this was way too thin. After having three No 8 wires bitten off, I upgraded again. The trace wire I now use is No10 between the hooks. When the water is very clean, I use a No 6 wire leader, but often the water is quite dirty and green, and I don’t think that the wire leader thickness makes a big difference, unless you are drifting very slow, or the water is very clean.
The length of the leader is about 70cm. Hopefully, your irresistibly vibrating live bait will be the only thing that the lateral line on the Couta will sense!
For me, the verdict is still out on the ‘treble vs single’ hook question – for sure, both hooks have their advantages. Nothing beats a good clean hook-up in the corner or front of the mouth with a good single hook, and the chance of losing a cleanly hooked fish is less. A quality single hook will not straighten, either.
hooks, on the other hand, are nasty little critters that wrap the fish up in a
nest of barbs. The last fish I landed was 28kg and the hooks had pulled out of
the mouth. I landed the fish with
a treble hook, hooking a chunk of skin on the top of the head. I have had other occasions where I have landed couta with a treble hook in the anal fin or even the skin on the side of the body! Not my favourite way to catch a fish, but much better than losing the fish. Most of the traces I use now are a combination of singles and trebles. A No 2 or 4 quality treble is my hook of choice, while with singles I use a 6/0 for the lead hook and a 4/0 to 5/0 for the trail hook, or 6/0 for live bait hook.
It can be tricky to tie the correct size (length) trace, especially when you never really know what size live bait you will catch. So tying an adjustable slide trace is of great help. It gives you the ability to adjust the length of your trace to your bait. I also keep a couple of traces in my bag that are very long , with five trebles tied on a line. These can be cut down to any size bait, or kept for a bonnie or long pickhadle.
Speaking of bonnies – they require a slightly different trace when they get bigger. After getting back a number of sliced bonnies and wondering: ‘How did I not hook that fish?’ I decided to add more hooks and the hook-up rate has increased.
Regarding Couta flashers/skirts/dusters, most work well but I prefer the synthetic ones over the plastic ones. I prefer not to use a skirt on live bait in order to keep the bait as natural as possible. Sometimes I like a certain colour plastic skirt and use a white duster inside the plastic to add shine.
For the live bait trace I like to use a single and a treble hook. When I used to use two trebles the leader would often get wrapped around the front treble, then I found a single eliminates that problem.
Live bait is the best; it’s simple and straight. It may take you hours to get good bait, but it’s better to fish less time with a good livey than fishing longer with bad bait!
Shad, mackerel and bonnies are top of the list. Dead or alive, but preferably alive as live bait is twice as effective.
Pickhadle barracudas are also good bait, especially the bigger ones.
Sardines can be used if none of the above are available, but don’t totally write this humble bait off. It does work.
Apparently, walla walla are also a good bait type, but I don’t know because I can never catch one.
The three common techniques used are: slow trawling, drifting and anchoring.
Trawling involves setting out three or four rods at various depths and distances behind the boat, trawling at speeds between 1km/h and 5km/h. This is a good way to control where you fish and also to cover greater distances while locating fish. Couta will often travel on a specific line and at a specific depth.
Sometimes they feed at 15m
or 25m, so trawling over various depths can help you isolate the depth couta
are running. If you find a depth where you get bites, stick to that depth – you
will probably get more bites there. Our most common depths here are between 10m
and 28m. Don’t be scared to fish shallow; remember that some great fish havebeen caught from the
beach. Just watch out for rock cod stealing your prize bait – if you come
shallow, fish your bait
on or near the surface.
Drifting is also very effective. You can simply drift with the current using no motors, and set a few rods at various depths. A float or balloon can be used to keep bait at the top, and downriggers or bait swimmers can be used to place bait at deeper depth. Free-swimming bait with no float or downrigger can also work well. Just watch out for tangled lines, though, as a fresh livey will swim all over the place. You can use elastic and a 5-8oz sinker to keep your bait down deep. A good place to attach the elastic is 4m to 5m in front of your bait on the front end of your leader knot.
As much as fish travel on a line, they feed at a depth. So if you get a few bites on the bottom or the top, you might want to change your depth of the other rods to the depth where the fish are feeding.
A good tip while drifting is to bottom fish while you drift. The constant up and down motion of the boat, the bait in the water and the struggling fish all create a disturbance in the water. This will attract game fish. Traces of blood and bait falling off the hooks also work well, creating a trail for the game fish to follow, through the smell and vibrations of the struggling fish.
The next technique is to find a pinnacle, drop-off or good showing on the fish finder and then anchor on that spot. This is very effective on our coast. Besides saving petrol, there are a few other advantages. While you wait for that trophy couta to eat your bait, you can bottom fish. Again, the struggling fish vibrations call in the bigger game fish.
You can also put out a burly bag, which is a net or orange bag filled with sardines and fish. As the boat moves, traces of fish, blood and oil come out of the bag, making a trail that no game fish is its right mind can refuse. As the fish swim up the trail, they will hopefully find your bait. Beware – sharks also love this, but sadly there is nothing you can do to avoid them.
You’ll need a good strong reel that can hold 500m of 15–20kg line. A good leader of about 70cm is recommended. Standard couta ski boat rods are good, and a smooth drag is a big bonus.
April to July is the best time of year, with May being the peak season. I have found here on the lower South Coast that the bait is more important than the time of day. On the North Coast, it seems that the first light and the golden hour as the sun rises is the most productive time for couta.
Here we find that 9:00 to 12:00 is the best time to get that ‘croc’. Usually, we drift for hours with no bite and then suddenly – BAM – the fish is on and the adrenalin is flowing. I always say to friends and charters, ‘Couta fishing is very boring, and then VERY exciting!’
If you have a day out and get nothing, don’t give up. A trophy fish will need commitment and time. That’s what makes the success so sweet.
The take is spectacular – a powerful sudden scream of the reel that leaves your heart pounding, and your mind wondering if you have enough line on your reel. You’ll need to grab the other rods and move line so you don’t burn off, and reel the other lines in. Then you’ll need to position your boat to follow the fish.
Now begins the fight. Slow down, relax and let the fish get tired. You don’t want to rush up to the fish; it will simply dive down and stay there – not a good thing.
Let the fish get tired and let it swim in one direction. Once you are over the fish, it will do big wide circles under the boat. These circles are not good for your steel wire that will kink off with enough movement, so rather tire the fish from a distance. When the fish stops running, you can bring in a very weary couta.
A few anxious moments later you can gaff the fish and finally put the beast on the deck of the boat. Well done. Feel free to shout, cry and punch the air... I do!