Where and how to target these gamefish

(Published in the March 2019 issue of Ski-Boat)

By Jonathan Booysen

THERE have been many articles written about ’cuda fishing over the years but it is quite often difficult to cover all aspects of the species as there are so many varying factors that influence how they should be targeted.
Two questions need to be asked before the best answer can be given:
• When will you be fishing?
• Where are you fishing?
These might seem like very general questions, but the answers are of great significance as both location and time of the year influence the fishing methods, tackle and bait choices to successfully target ’cuda.
Apart from the obvious off-peak season, the time of the year is a very important aspect to consider as it usually determines the size of the fish and consequently the type of bait and tackle that you would use.
Location on the other hand has more bearing on the fishing method to adopt. In this article, I’ll be focusing on my local waters off Zululand, but the ideas and concepts hold true for most areas where ’cuda are targeted.

During our summer months —December to March — there is normally a good run of shoal size ’cuda. These fish range from 3kg to 10kg and are found in fair numbers. They prefer smaller baits such as sardines, maasbanker and mackerel. Using larger baits reduces the number of shoalies that you catch as the hookup rate is terrible on big baits.
Due to the numbers of fish in these shoals, competition between them is fierce. This means that live bait is not a necessity and good quality dead baits will sometimes produce more fish than live baits do. Often the most important thing is the turnaround time for rebaiting and setting the lines.
This is all good and well, but as I mentioned before, the other factor to remember is … location, location, location!
When fishing on the north coast of Zululand, from Mapelane northwards, the water colour tends to be much cleaner than that further south. Cleaner water translates to trickier conditions as the fish can see your terminal tackle a lot easier. The heavier the gear, the less the chance of getting pulls, regardless of how fierce the competition is. Tackle in the 6kg to 10kg range, paired with 40- to 50 lb leader is perfect. Using #4 wire on the front snoot and #6 between the hooks is ample, just remember to use the smallest black swivels you can. Shoalies are renowned for biting off swivels, especially in clear water.
The average depth at which ’cuda are found is anything from 10m to 50m. Looking at the contour maps of northern Zululand, the places north of Mapelane have much steeper contours than that of areas to the south (Richards Bay, Mtunzini, Amatikulu etc). This means that the feeding area that the ’cuda prefer is very much narrower the further north you go; this will make your target area smaller and easier to work.
When you have these conditions (clean water and a narrow target area) it is a good idea to drift. When you locate the shoal, if you’re drifting your baits stay in the strike zone longer than they would if you were trolling.
In southern Zululand, as mentioned above, the feeding grounds are vast, and the water is usually a bit greener. This means several things. First, you need to cover more ground to find the shoals. Slow trolling is a great way to do this.
The dirtier water has its pros and cons. One of the pros is that you can get away with using slightly heavier gear; 10-15kg line and 60 lb leader with #6 and #7 wire will be perfect and won’t negatively impact the number of strikes. The “con” is that fish can’t see your baits from as far away as they would in cleaner water. To get past this hurdle you should change the type of bait you use. Any kind of non-visual attraction in poor visibility water is a great help. This normally comes in the form of vibrations from — you guessed it — live bait.
Baits of choice in off-coloured water would be mackerel, maasbanker and small shad; they are small enough to get a good hookup rate and lively enough to attract ’cuda by the vibrations of their tails.
’Cuda fishing in the winter is a completely different kettle of fish. This is when the real crocs make their appearance and 20kg-plus fish are the targets. While many anglers are off chasing Natal snoek, the trophy ’cuda hunters are stalking crocs.
Fishing methods and gear will again differ from area to area. From April to July tackle gets kicked up a notch to focus on these larger fish. Heavier wire, thicker leaders and stronger tackle is the order of the day. Big ’cuda are not shy to tackle a large bait; they will trim it down to bite size without much effort.
When fishing up north, I mainly use live bonnies that are caught using small spoons or feathers. I would suggest swimming them on 15kg to 18kg line with 65 lb clear mono leaders. For the trace, a #6 snoot wire and #8 hook wires are preferred due to the water clarity. If there are no bonnies around, large live mackerel and maasbanker are great alternatives.
The one problem with these large live baits is that the big sharks love them as much as the ’cuda do, so be prepared to lose traces and have some long, hard battles.
When using these big live baits you have no choice but to slow troll otherwise the baits will die or cause too many tangles. Trolling several live bonnies can become problematic, so stick to pulling only two at a time. Don’t be shy to troll into shallow water as many big ’cuda have been taken right on the backline.
When targeting winter ’cuda in the dirtier water of southern Zululand my tackle is, by any gamefish standards, heavy. Most of my rigs would be 18kg to 24kg line, 80 lb leader, minimum #9 wire between the hooks and #8 on the snoot. I might get slightly fewer pulls, but most of the fish end up in the boat.
My baits of choice for this area are fresh dead bonnies and wala-wala. The size of the bait and the flash that it puts out seems to be enough to attract fish from quite a distance, even in relatively dirty water.
It is much easier pulling several dead bonnies than live bonnies, as they don’t swim everywhere causing tangles, but the live baits do sometimes make the effort worth it.
If the water is clean and things are very quiet I might be convinced to put out one live bait (mackerel/maasbanker) on the surface on slightly lighter gear, just to make sure we get a pull.

Summer months in Northern Zululand (in clean water) — fish with small baits on light gear on the drift targeting shoal size ’cuda.
Summer months in Southern Zululand (off colour water) — fish with live baits on medium gear while slow trolling, targeting shoal size ’cuda.
Winter months in Northern Zululand (in clean water) — target large ’cuda by slow trolling large live baits on medium gear.
Winter months in Southern Zululand (off colour water) — target large ’cuda by slow trolling large dead and live baits on heavy gear.

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