Hunting the giant guitarfish
During summer, there is one species of fish that big-fish anglers along the KwaZulu-Natal and Zululand coast most aspire to catch: Rhynchobatus djiddensis, or as it is commonly known, the sandy. By Rudolf Scheepers
In the warm months, the giant guitarfish can be abundant in the surf zone, where it will feed on crabs, crayfish and bivalve molluscs that accrue there, its strong jaws and flattened teeth easily crushing these baits. It will also readily feed on bait fish.
The sandy is ovoviviparous, which means that the female produces her young from egg cases in which the embryos develop.
This species can be very difficult to catch, and in some seasons, not too many of them do get caught. In other seasons they can be abundant for periods of up to three weeks in specific areas. The pattern that has been observed over the years is that when they become abundant in an area, the average size of these shoaling fish is between 30kg and 50kg. These are young fish; the adult sandy can weigh over 100kg.
It’s not common for the average angler to land a sandy of over 80kg. These big fish seldom feed as a shoal and generally occur in very small groups. Anglers who have landed one of these powerhouses can consider themselves very fortunate, and, I am sure, will testify to its brute strength and stamina. This doesn’t mean that an angler will be wasting time targeting a big sandy, but it will normally take many fishing hours and a lot of perseverance to land one that size.
Where to find it
Over the years, some areas have become synonymous with the giant guitarfish. With the correct weather conditions during the months from November to March, with three days of north-east wind, preferably some colour in the water, and water temperature between 21°C and 24°C, an angler putting in the time and effort has a good chance of hooking into a sandy.
From the south, the deep water points between Pennington and Umkomaas always work well. Some of the beaches will also produce sandys. Moving north, Amanzimtoti will produce fish on the deep water points and some of the deeper beaches in the area. The deep rocky points in the Ballito area are good spots too.
Moving north towards Stanger and Zinkwazi, the deep beach areas become more productive for these fish; during the past season, this location was one of the most productive. Moving up to the area between Amathikulu and Mtunzini, when conditions are good you may also find lots of sandys between 20kg and 50kg.
Probably one of the best areas for targeting a sandy over 80kg is between Richards Bay and Mapelane. Fishing the beach area at St Lucia and off the ledges of Cape Vidal can be very productive too. Sodwana Bay always produces some sandys of all sizes, and Kosi Bay is a good option if you are looking for one of the big ones.
When fishing the beaches, anglers should look for the deeper holes in front and to the sides of sandbanks. This is where the bait should be placed. Small sandys will often feed on the sandbanks, but normally the bigger fish can be found in the deep holes.
What tackle to use
Personally, I would never use any rod lighter than a Heavy to catch the fish. If you are in an area where the average size of the sandys is small, a Medium-type rod can be used. You might regret it, though, if you hook into a beast. At some stage of the fight, the angler is going to be required to place maximum pressure on the fish, and using a soft-medium rod might make this task very hard work.
A strong reel with .47mm to .55mm nylon would be sufficient. If fishing with braid, I would suggest nothing less than 40lb. It is critical to use a strong, good-quality leader line. The sandy can put a lot of strain on the leader by slapping it with that powerful tail every time it makes a run. I would suggest nothing lighter than a .80mm leader and trace.
Choosing the correct hook is also very important. The sandy has a thick, round, bony type of jawbone. Anglers who have caught lots of sandys will tell you that often the hook will just fall out of the mouth as soon as the fish is landed. The reason for this is that the hook was basically wedged only over the jawbone of the fish, and as soon as the pressure is released, the hook comes loose and falls out. If a weak hook is used during this scenario, it will simply pull straight under tension; using a hook with a small gape could also be a problem, as it cannot fit over the jawbone and could simply pull out of the fish’s mouth.
The two methods commonly used to target the giant guitarfish are casting baits and using the slide.
The slide trace that is commonly used for targeting sandys is similar to the standard trace used to target sharks. The only difference is that the trace wire is thinner and lighter.
The slide trace will consist of two hooks between 8'0 and 10'0. The hooks can be fixed on the trace about 120mm to 150mm apart. Nylon or carbon coated steel wire between 120lb and 150lb will be more than sufficient.
The total length of the trace between the first hook and the slide should be about 1m. A 100lb to 120lb piece of carbon or nylon coated steel of about 80cm should be used between the end of the leader line and the stop ring of the slide. These pieces of steel prevent the slide from damaging the nylon leader while fighting the fish.
So what bait works best when sliding? Over the years, a few baits have proven very successful. The first and one of my favourites is mackerel. The mackerel can be slid as whole bait, or the back end, towards the tail, can be cut off at an angel to release smell into the water. Then there is the bonito. A bonito of about 25cm to 30cm is ideal. It can be applied to the hook in the same manner as the mackerel. You could also use a whole chokka. The slide chokka has yielded very good results over the years and is very popular.
The trace to be used when casting bait for a sandy is also very simple. A strong swivel should be attached to the trace line, which will be attached to your hook at the other end. The trace line should be strong enough to be able to withstand the chafing of the line against the hard, rough skin of the sandy. I would suggest nothing thinner than .80mm line. The trace can be around 400mm to 600mm long.
The sinker line should be lighter and a bit longer than the hook line. 7'0 to 10'0 hooks can be used, and it is up to the angler whether he wants to use one hook or two on the through bait trace. When using two hooks, one is attached to the end of the trace line and the other is used as a slide hook between the swivel and bottom hook.
There are a few very effective baits. One that is popular and which was very successful during the 2013/2014 season is redeye. A good way to make the bait is to cut the redeye in half. Hook the head part on to the hook; cut the remaining tailpiece in half lengthways and tie these two pieces on to the outside of the head part, with the flesh to the outside.
Also very useful is a mackerel head cut off behind the gills – placing the hook through the end of the top and bottom jaws, near the lips. The same bait with cutlets attached to the head is also good. A small bonito can be used in the same manner.
Chokka works well too. Build the chokka around the base of your hook. A thin strip of foam can be tied on to the hook first, to secure the chokka on the hook. Use a chokka hammer to smash the chokka; this will make it soft and easy to work with, and will release more scent into the water. Some small feelers can be added to the bait to make it look more natural and to cause some vibration in the water. Extra chokka or redeye cutlets can be added onto the chokka base to make the bait more bulky and add more smell.
One rule that is very important when fishing for sandys, and something that should be kept in mind while fighting this fish, is never to give the fish slack line during the fight. Always keep tension on your line. As mentioned earlier, the sandy has a hard, bony mouth. If the hook is positioned only around that hard jawbone, as soon as pressure is taken off, it will fall out.
Tight lines and good luck in your quest for the giant guitarfish.