The wild was calling again. I could feel the fiery coals stirring my stomach. This time I was better prepared than for last year’s hiking trip – I had a vehicle and could take a lot more gear with me. I also managed to persuade a good fishing buddy to come along. We studied the map and planned our route: destination Mdumbi River Mouth, Wild Coast – a must-visit destination for the angling enthusiast. I was going back to visit my favourite fishing spots in and around the Mdumbi and Mtatha rivers.
We arrived at the Mdumbi Backpackers hostel to a warm welcome. It was a good feeling being back in this beautiful place, and in the company of the Backpackers staff.
We unpacked, tackled up and headed for the rocks, where we met Dan, a local fisherman, spinning for shad. ‘Molo Bru, iph’ishad?’ ‘Azikho,’ he replied. As much as I wanted to experience the thrill of light tackle shad fishing again, I also wanted to be more specific and target certain species such as bronze bream and kob.
Our timing was fortuitous; the moon was waxing, which meant brighter light and ideal fishing conditions. A brighter moon enables predators like kob to hunt their prey by sight. Mullet congregate in calm shallow waters (kob holes) near the shores, and are followed by kob.
The mullet creates shadows, giving the kob a moving target. On darker nights or in dirty water, they rely more on their sensitive lateral line to home in on tiny vibrations or their keen sense of smell to pick up dead bait. Our plan was to fish the rocks under moonlight, but first we needed fresh live bait.
We headed to the river and threw for mullet. On his second cast, Justin netted a small shoal. That would do, and so we returned to the rocks with a bucket of swimmers and a load of eagerness.
Soon after the moon had risen, we met Dan again, this time carrying two long poles. At the end of each pole was a few metres of thick fishing gut tied to a neatly made seafood skewer of shells and chunks of hard white meat. He was crayfishing.
Hours ticked past and many logs burned low, and we still had no bite. While we sat next to the fire, we saw Dan’s headlight moving up and down the reef, no doubt checking his bait. I decided to change tactics to those for crayfish. Earlier that day, while snorkeling in the gullies, I managed to catch one while looking for lost sinkers. I used the entire crayfish tail as bait. Tied to a 4/0 hook, it looked like a big tiger prawn, perfect for salmon or grunter – or so I thought. To my surprise, I reeled in an average-sized blacktail. Neat bait with proud hooks catch more fish, that’s for sure!
My next bait was half a sardine –
I’d found two in a packet and decided to give it a go. It didn’t take long before a salmon picked me up. Perfect eating size too – just over 50cm – which is also the regulation keeping size for kob. Dan joined us later with his bag of crayfish and we bartered for several minutes. I’d given him a pair of old swimming fins and he also received a snorkel from Justin to replace his broken one, so the deal was four crayfish for the fins.
The days rolled by and our move-ments ebbed and flowed like the tides and winds. Our fishing plans had a way of working out. One of the highlights was the Umtata River Mouth. Recent floods had carved the mouth open, flushing an entire beach out into the sea. The heavy floods brought with it tons of debris, including four cow carcasses. We’d heard recent stories of big kob and grunter coming out of the river.
With this in mind we headed for the southern side and fished the rocks near the cottages, and it wasn’t long before the shad got stuck into our bait. They were so thick in numbers that my buddy gave his spare rod to George, the oldest of the lads in our service. Another boy told me he was a good fisherman and I lent him my spare rod. The third lad, only a few feet tall, was playing runner for us, assisting with each catch. He had a busy day carrying shad off the rocks
In one afternoon, we caught enough to feed a small village. We shared the fish accordingly and parted ways. We then gave our share to the kitchen at the Backpackers, who prepared a delicious meal for all their staff, and us, the next day.
The best part of our fishing trip was our last day, landing three shad on the rising sun and, later in the day after a second breakfast of pan-fried shad and fresh Xhosa bread, hunting for bronze bream on the rocks. A few days earlier, I’d seen Teo, a local lifeguard, crayfish-diver and shore fisherman, land a nice bream off the reef at low tide.
I’d heard someone call bronze bream, ‘the bushbuck of the sea.’ In my many sightings and encounters with bushbuck, I could see this parallel. They share physical traits, being stoutly built and well camouflaged, but what really gives more meaning to their comparison is in hunting them. It takes stealth and patience to find one and land it. Like bushbuck, they have their favourite browsing spots and I was looking for these. Having grown up on a farm in the Eastern Cape, I have an intimate knowledge of the ways of bushbuck.
All I had to do was adapt my skills to the sea.
My strategy was to work my way up the stretch of gullies, looking for a spot where I thought they’d be browsing the sea plants growing on the rocks and ledges beneath the surface. Bream are powerful swimmers in shallows where their food grows, and are often caught
in the white chop.
I planned on luring the bream with crayfish on a small sharp hook tied to resemble a prawn. Above the hook, I attached a float made from half a cork and slid it down the line to just above the bait – a cunning tactic I’d seen used by other anglers on bream rigs. This technique lifts the bait off the seabed and allows the current to propel it, mimicking a swimming prawn or shrimp. Lifting bait off the bottom is one of the secrets to picking up more bites, even when targeting other edible species.
I’d slowly worked my way back to my lucky rock overlooking a wide gully. A few days earlier, after watching Teo pull out a big bream, it tugged at my guts to try for one. I went down with the same verve and intention to land this particular species, only to be surprised by another specimen of rock dwellers.
I baited up with surgical precision, neatly tying the soft bait with thin silicon stretch-cotton. I studied the area and noticed water rush up and then lunge back down over the rocks to the far side of the gully near a ledge.
I sensed that that was the magic spot to cast. I placed my sinker in the white water off the ledge where I wanted it, then clicked the reel back into gear, reeled in the slack and sat down to wait. I had looked at the clouds for a split second when my rod tip went down. I felt I was into a decent fish, expecting a good-sized bream, but I was surprised by a large blacktail instead. Blacktail are strong fish for their size and quickly snap up bait. Big ones are great for catching and eating too.
When we weren’t fishing, we were resting in the comfortable lounge at the Backpackers, drinking tea and playing backgammon to pass the time between fishing sessions. It’s a game of percentages, luck and knowing when to take risks – a bit like catching fish. You have to know what you’re after, and then chance your luck.
After a few games, we’d head for the rocks. I still had a very specific target – bream using crayfish. I just had to find a good area and keep trying, hoping to get lucky. I tried a few new spots; having no luck, I headed down to my lucky rock where I’d hooked the big blacktail. There I met Justin with Eco and Beaula, the resident dogs from the Backpackers. ‘Anything happening here?’ I asked. ‘Nothing,’ was his reply. However, being the eternal fishing optimist, I stayed positive.
I prepared my bait with extra care, making sure it looked good on the hook, as it was my last piece of soft crayfish. I tied it neatly to resemble a prawn with the proud hook in familiar fashion, then cast to the same spot where I’d hooked the blacktail. My accuracy was spot on, exactly the same spot as the day before. We sat on the rocks waiting, watching a school of dolphin working over a patch of sardines while a few gannets made the occasional dive bomb. Then I noticed a bump in my line.
It felt like one swift bite, but then…nothing. I quickly pulled on the slack and, sure enough, felt something reasonably large tug back.
We were in for a game! I played the fish, waiting for it to tire in the deeper water, depleting it of energy before the final haul near the sharp rocks in the shallows. A run for the deep could snag the line around sharp rocks and I didn’t want to lose this fish. I worked the fish closer, pulling it into shallow water where I caught a glimpse – just before it turned tail for the deep. It was good-sized bronze bream and I had a smile on my face – my strategy worked. I let it take line one more time and brought the fish back in another way. Timing my retrieve with the help of an incoming wave, I landed a fine bronze bream from my lucky rock, ending the day with a successful afternoon hunt.
A few days earlier, Teo had caught a 12kg poenskop in the same gully – I’d seen it lying in the deep freeze. How he managed to haul such a large fish out in that rocky area in the dark, and alone, is a story for another time.
Meanwhile, I had a fish to prepare for dinner – bronze bream make excellent eating. Prepared butterfly-style and grilled, uncovered, over medium coals allows the butter, onions and garlic to infuse a sweet flavour into the smoky, tender meat. Bronze bream makes
a tasty dinner served with potatoes, basmati rice and sautéed vegetables. A perfect ending to another holiday at Mdumbi Backpackers along the Wild Coast.