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The 2013 swimming prawn season in East London has been an absolute cracker. I have been throwing a net for something close to 40 years now and I have caught prawns from Swartkops to Mdumbi, so I have seen things come and go, and this year’s season is one of the best I have ever seen.

The big excitement, though, is not so much the prawns themselves but how the river responds when there are prawns in it. Everything lights up. Every fish with fins and scales (bar mullet) – and some without – keenly eats a swimming prawn when the season is on. I get plain excited when my net lands and the river erupts with the familiar clicks, jumps and splashes known only to prawn season. How many netsmen can tell you about the familiar sight of a prawn snapping up a closing net towards the neck and about to pop out the draw-cord hole? Just lift the draw rope quickly and the prawn stays in the net.

This year has been different from any year that I have seen before. Ordinarily, the white prawns are dominant (I have taken to calling them blondes). And then there are the tigers. This year, I have caught more tigers than ever before. In years before, I have caught one tiger for every 10, 20 or 30 blondes but this year, in the Gonubie, it has not been uncommon to catch 48 tigers and fewer than only six or eight blondes.

On one outing in a known favourite spot (prawns are strangely territorial and seem to go back to the same spot each year), I rounded a bush to see
a small bay just big enough to accommodate one full spread of the net. There before my eyes was a full school of tigers – about 18 to 24 of them.

Lying in the shallows in crystal clear water on a light-coloured mud bottom, the dark prawns were as easy to see as reading a newspaper. I could even see the colored yellow markings on their sides. In one throw of the net, all of those little suckers were in my bucket. Nearly every other throw produced only tigers as well.

My top trick using prawns as bait is to keep them alive. This means don’t put too many in the bucket or they will start to die (like too many mullet in a bucket) and keep them in a proper live bait bucket and in the river. The other thing is that the smaller prawns pick up a bite far sooner than the big guys. The flip side of the coin is the big kob (big is a relative term only –
about 4kg to 5 kg – but on a 6/7-weight fly rod with a 2500 Shimano and 5kg line a kob like this is big game). One  I caught this season had a boss prawn in its stomach when I gutted him. Must have been about 15cm or 16cm long and for sure not something I would usually use as bait. I picked up the kobby on a regular 6cm small bait prawn and – would you believe it – a float on the surface with a bit more that a 1m leader.

I have been encouraged this year by just how many junior dusky kob there have been in the river. I’ve also been surprised that sometimes, with just a 600mm leader below the float, boom  – in less that 60 seconds the float is straight down and another baby kob is on. I would not ordinarily expect kob on float. On one outing, fishing drift live swimming prawn, no float this time, I caught a baby kob that knocked the prawn up the line after I set the hook.

I got the fish and the prawn back. I let the kob go, put the prawn back on the hook and cast out again; got the next kob and the prawn was pushed up the line again. I repeated this process five times, all with the same single prawn. I missed one hit and landed four kob on one prawn – all of this in the space of about 10 minutes.

Granted the kob were small, all in the 20cm to 30cm range, but the event just points to how well the fish are breeding and maturing in the Gonubie River. I hope it is much the same in all our Eastern Cape rivers. Certainly the number of baby kob I caught recently when netting the Hamburg River was also encouraging, and the Nahoon River has also recently produced beautiful small kob.

While kob on swimming prawn have been prolific in the Gonubie River this year, certainly there is no shortage of spotted grunter that fall over themselves for this bait too. Surprisingly, the float system has seduced them to the hook as well. One might think that drift or on the bottom is the better option but in the upper reaches of the rivers where there is a lot of rock and gravel to snag against (a good area for prawns is often a bad area for nets) a float keeps the line up and snags, chafing and snapping off is kept to a minimum.

A live swimming prawn on the bottom is a cheeky bugger who likes to walk between and hide under rocks. Snapping up is quick if you let him get
to the bottom on anything other than sand or mud. This year has produced a few small leerie on swimming prawn, fewer kingies than I am used to catching and, much to my disappointment, not a single skippy was landed this season.

For whatever strange reason, the skipjack have seemed rare this season and the two confirmed hits I have had this year were only on my line for all of about three seconds before they snapped my 5kg leader off at the hook. Last year, I landed three skippy out of four hits in one outing alone, this year a golden duck.

Nahoon River seems to have had a good supply of blondes this season (white prawns). When I was a kid there were no mangroves on the Nahoon.
A good doctor by the name of Howesn on Torquay road planted some mangrove trees on his waterfront (sometime in the 1980s, if I am not mistaken). Bless this man, because I truly believe that mangroves add a spectacular dynamic to any river. The root system is a fantastic haven for all manner of estuarine life, not the least of which is swimming prawns.

You can’t throw a net over mangrove roots so it becomes a wonderfull natural protection. Howes’ mangroves have colonised the Nahoon River and I might be imagining it, but I think prawn seasons now on the Nahoon River might be better than they were when I was a kid.

One of the reasons why mangroves grow so well in the Nahoon might be  (unfortunately) the regular spill of sewage into the river. For sure, you do not want to eat swimming prawns out of the Nahoon, and probably not the fish either. The regular grey-water smell on the river is a huge sadness but still, the sport fishing is entertaining and the area is pretty if smelly. In sourcing photos for this story, I took my 10-year-old daughter Amy onto the Nahoon to take photographs. Blow me down if, at 9.15am on a sunny Saturday morning in the middle of East London, a small duiker buck does not decide that she no longer wants to live in Nahoon but that the real estate in Beacon Bay is a far better option.

The small antelope jumped into the river at a wide point and took a big swim across, right in front of us. Amy got three photos of the duiker swimming.

Only twice in my life have I ever seen this happen – once, on the Gonubie River in the new Estuary suburb area, a buck swam the river in front of me, and then this time, when I had my daughter with me with her camera. A special occasion indeed.

It is something of a tragedy that the Nahoon River, so abundant in wildlife and fish is not far off from being converted into an open sewer. Take a look in the bays and coves in the river and behind the reed beds – the plastic, bottles and litter is diabolical. Little of it is dumped by fishermen and most of it just a symptom of the Buffalo City Metropolitan Municipality’s (BCMM’s) inept attitude to waste management. I was pleased to see otter faeces on this trip to Nahoon with my daughter, but under the pressure of pollution I do not know how long the otter will last.

As an older fisherman, I am tempted to think I know it all and have seen it all Only this year, after more than four decades of fishing, have I finally learned how to head-hook a live swimming prawn. Thank you, Warren Botha, for teaching me this one. This system is criminally deadly for hookups. A fish always swallows a swimming prawn with the prawn spike facing outwards and the tail curled up. Try not to leave your strike too long if you want to release your fish. A lip hook is far better than in the throat if you want to let a fish go and a swimming prawn quickly ends up
down the throat.

I was very entertained this year when I put my net over a couple of red mullet or goatfish (never seen them in my life before). I picked them up on two outings in the same place on the Gonubie, but not on a third outing when I took the camera.
My copy of JLB Smith’s Sea Fishes of Southern Africa does no justice to the spectacular colour of these interesting fish. They look a bit like a mullet/cross baardman/cross golden stripy/cross thorn fish with an unusual pinkish red head and a slightly underslung mouth. I was not able to find
a satisfactory pic of the Gonubie variant of red mullet on Google, even though it looks as though the fish is common in other parts of the world. It was a pleasant surprise to put the net over something new.

I had another first this year in the upper reaches of the Gonubie, about 4km or 5km from the mouth. Just a little above the top slipway on the Kwelera-side bank, I was standing in ankledeep water at about 7pm, busy catching small kob and spotted grunter. Darkness had just set in. The bank slopes away quickly, then remains shallow, a little above knee deep about a rod’s length in front of me. There in the defined light of my headlamp a 4ft to 5ft spotted gullyshark (sweet william) swam past me.

I know that there sharks in the river up there because league-fishermen friends of mine target them during the season on 4kg line as practice for competitions. This is the first one I have seen, though, and it was clear enough to see the spots on its back. Perhaps it was attracted by the flurry of small kob I had caught in the preceding minutes. It was so close, I could have touched it with the tip of my fly rod. Sure would have woken me up if it had latched onto one the kob I was bringing in.  

Just as I write this story, the rain is bucketing down and the Gonubie River is on its way out in flood. Prawn season is a thing of the past.

I am not sure what swung prawn season in 2013 the way it did. Perhaps it was our rare winter floods in 2012 that prepared our rivers just right, or some well-timed westerly winds in October, November and December that gave us warm water and good spawn.

Whatever the cause, I am glad to have had it. Fishing a prawn-infested river is a great joy.