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Springer Acrobats of the estuary


This species is one of the most incredible fish to catch on light tackle

The scientific name for this species is Elops machnata, but it has many common names in different places. In South Africa, it is most commonly referred to as a springer in KwaZulu Natal and a skipjack in the Cape. It has a number of other names such as ladyfish, tenpounder and giant herring, and is found in the Indo-West Pacific regions of the world’s oceans.

In South Africa, it occurs along the entire east coast as far down as Mossel Bay. There is relatively little scientific data available on this species, and it would appear that there is scope for someone to do some research on the diet, lifestyle and breeding habits of this fish.

What we do know about the springer is that it seems to be a bit of a mystery species, appearing at times in numbers in an area, and disappearing completely at other times. They prefer warm water and temperature is probably a major factor in determining their occurrence in an area. These fish seem to be more common in South Africa during the summer months.

Springer occur in the surf, offshore behind the backline and in sheltered bays and estuaries. Estuaries are normally the easiest environment to target them, particularly on light tackle, using artificial lures. The tidal movements and concentrations of prey items make their habits fairly predictable within an estuarine system, allowing anglers to target them specifically.

This species has become a favourite with light tackle lure anglers in estuaries due to its speed, agility and hard fighting abilities.

Some of the estuaries and waterways that have produced very good catches of springer over the years are Knysna Lagoon, Swartkops River, some Transkei estuaries and Durban Harbour.

They were common in St Lucia lake, but since it has been closed, that is no longer the case. Kosi lakes were another favourite haunt of springer, but they have also become less common there with the increased pressure from local fish traps. Large specimens are often caught in the surf in northern Zululand and Mozambique, with the latter having its best springer catches during the winter months.

Springer are elongated in shape, with a large mouth, very large eyes, and a heavy coating of slime over their tightly packed scales. They have a large, forked tail, which gives them incredible speed through the water. The large eyes facilitate low-light feeding and they are very active during the dawn and dusk periods, as well as feeding in the dark. Springer in estuaries feed mainly on smaller fish, such as glassies, estuarine round-herring, orangemouth anchovies and small mullet. They will also eat swimming prawn and mud prawn when these are available.

They will attack shoals of bait fish with lightning speed, sometimes jumping from the water in the middle of the shoal. It would appear that they stun some of the bait fish during these lightning attacks, as they will then cruise slowly around the bait fish, gulping down stunned or injured fish at their leisure. Bait fish will often congregate at night where there is a light over water, and springer will often feed at the very edges of the light, ambushing the bait fish in the dark.

Springer like warm water, and will often be found in parts of an estuary where the water is warmest.

Where shallow water has been warmed by the sun, and then drains off into a deeper channel, is a good example of an area where one can expect to find springer feeding, particularly if there is a fair amount of bait fish movement in the area.  Springer will go far up estuaries at times, to the upper reaches of the river, particularly when the seawater is very cold and the river water flowing in is warmer than the seawater being pushed in by the tide.

Springer can be targeted with light tackle. My favourite outfit for these fish is a Shimano Cumara 7’2” MH rod with a Shimano Stradic 2500 reel, loaded with 8lb PowerPro Braid. I use a fluorocarbon leader of 20lb, because springer have a very rough rasp-like edge to their mouths that can wear through a soft leader quickly, as well as the ability to cut you off if your line gets into the scissors of the hard jaw. This outfit, while light enough to cast very light lures, is also strong enough and has enough line to land springer in an estuary system.

While these fish possess unbelievable speed and power, they are clean fighters and will not purposefully cut you off on structure. They will take off on a long run, melting line from your spool at an alarming rate, and often become airborne with a number of spectacular jumps.

Some of my favourite springer lures are Rapala X-Rap Walk 9cm, Rapala X-Rap Subwalk 7cm, MirrOLure 7M, Storm Rattlin’ Chug Bug 8cm, ¼oz bucktail jigs and a variety of soft plastic minnows rigged on a light jighead.

As mentioned earlier, despite their large mouths, springer prefer small prey. They also are far more likely to take lures that work slowly, with a wounded or stunned action. When using topwater lures such as the X-Rap Walk, I work it with a slow zig-zagging action, pausing it for a couple of seconds every now and then. The hit often comes on the pause, or just as I start to move the lure again after the pause.

Suspending-type lures, such as the X-Rap Subwalk, are deadly for springer, as they can be paused on the retrieve and pretty much hang still in the water, looking stunned. When using sinking lures such as bucktails or dropshot, these can be fished right on the bottom, with a twitch-and-pause retrieve similar to that used for kob.

Drifting quietly in parts of the river where you would expect to find springer pays off at sunrise and sunset. These fish become quite active at these times and can often be seen swirling or finning on the surface. Patiently fishing lures slowly in these places will achieve results with this species and, once hooked, they put up a spectacular fight. They often hit the lure with a frenzied smash, turning the water to white foam, before screaming off on that first long run.

They are not tough fish, and should be carefully handled once landed.

It is very important not to remove the slime from their bodies, so handle them with wet hands. After a quick photograph, they should be revived for a few minutes in the water before being allowed to swim off.  


Craig Thomassen is the presenter of Inside Angling, which can be seen on Supersport 6 on Monday nights at 7pm.