By Donavan Cole
[Originally published in the November 2020 issue of SKI-BOAT magazine]
FALSE Bay offers some really good reef fishing that many overlook as most boat anglers are usually chasing after the larger inshore and offshore pelagic species. The best part about targeting the smaller reef species is that you usually don’t have to travel very far from the launch site so these spots are accessible for most craft, and you will rarely return empty handed when reef fishing inshore.
False Bay reefs offer a wide range of species and it is not uncommon to catch more than ten different species of fish and small sharks in a day. The variety of species will, however, reduce as you go deeper, with more variety being found in water shallower than 30m. This is also the case as you move westwards out of the bay, because the water gets colder up the west coast. When you’re fishing west of the SW reefs outside the bay you will mostly only catch hottentot.
The cold Atlantic Ocean is believed to meet the warm Indian Ocean at Cape Agulhas (southernmost tip of Africa) you will, however, find far more evidence of these two currents actually meeting at Cape Point if you look at the fish species caught in False Bay. We have many species that are commonly caught in False Bay and up the east coast into KZN, and most of these species will very rarely be caught west of Cape Point.
ABOVE: A lovely hottentot caught on a light spinning reel setup.
The most common species caught in False Bay is hottentot, also known as Cape- or black bream. You will find them close inshore between the kelp and out as deep as 100m outside the bay. You will generally find that the deeper you go the bigger the fish get, but large specimens can be caught in the shallows if your bait isn’t devoured too quickly by the small fish.
Hottentot can also be like chameleons that change colour slightly according to their habitats. The fish you catch close to or in the kelp will most often be a dark brown colour, and as you move into deeper water they get lighter in colour. When catching them down off the sandy areas between Strandfontein and Macassar you’ll find they are a silver colour. I personally prefer to eat hottentot caught away from the kelp beds, as I think they taste better; those caught around the kelp beds apparently have a stronger taste due to the iodine in the kelp that they often feed on.
Red roman are probably the most heavily targeted reef fish inside the bay. These beautiful, slow-growing red fish are the most aggressive feeders on reefs around the bay and you will quite often find that when you drop a bait they will are one of the first fish to grab your bait, rushing in and chasing away other smaller fish.
I try to release most of the roman I catch around the bay and have tagged and released more than 300 in the last couple of years. A few of the tagged fish have been recaptured a year or two after being released while fishing on the very same reefs where they were originally tagged and released. This proves that these fish do not move around much, staying on a specific reef for great lengths of time.
These fish are very aggressive feeders, so you will quite often hook them in their throats or deeper. If this happens it’s usually best to cut the line as close to the hook as possible and leave it to rust out rather than trying to pull or rip it out as the fish will most probably die after release in that case. Be very careful when handling a red roman as they have razor sharp gill plates; I have received a few nasty cuts while handling them.
When considering whether to release or keep a nice big roman, please remember that a specimen of 45cm and upwards is 20 or more years of age.
ABOVE: Ryan Cole with a red steenbras which was tagged and released.
Red steenbras were once very common in the bay and some massive fish were landed in the early 1900s. They were, however, fished to near extinction and for many years you would rarely see any caught in the bay. Over the last few years there has, however, been a massive increase in juveniles caught all over the bay. Most are around 30- to 40cm in length, with the odd larger one coming out. I would like to appeal to all anglers to please handle these fish with care when landing them and try to return them to the water as quickly as possible. With any luck we could see the larger specimens also returning to the bay like in the good old days.
You will quite often find that fish caught on the inshore reefs will carry some parasitic lice on the side of their heads and inside their mouths. While this puts many people off, it does not affect the quality or taste of the flesh. If I’m going to release fish that have these lice I will usually remove the lice before releasing the fish.
When targeting reef fish in deeper water (30m-plus) you will usually find that the fish will embolize (suffer barotrauma) while being pulled up from the depths. This is due to the big pressure change from the bottom to the surface. When releasing these fish you will usually find that they battle to get down due to their expanded swim bladders and float away to be eaten by birds or seals. A way to minimise this is to pull the fish up as slowly as possible. You can also make up a simple weighted release tool using a biggish upside down hook with a clipped off point and a squashed barb. The line is attached to the bend of the hook and you hook the fish lightly in the lower jaw. You then send the fish down, keeping slight tension on the line, and when you recover the hook it will usually pull easily from the fish’s mouth, releasing the fish to swim off. I usually use a device called a SeaQualizer which clips on the fish’s lip; the clip is then set to open at a desired depth using a built in hydrostatic release.
Please keep an eye out for tagged fish, and if you catch one please note the length, tag number and location where it was caught, and email that info to ORI <email@example.com>. If you release the fish again please do so with the tag in place. Most anglers won’t carry a pen or pencil to write down the tag details, so the easiest thing to do then is to take a quick photo of the tag number.
When reef fishing, the bottom will generally be very rocky and foul which results in you hooking up to the seabed frequently; with lighter gear you tend to snap off very easily. I usually opt to fish with stronger braid which allows me to have a direct feel of any bites and great fun when pulling the fish in as I can feel every head shake and pull because there is little or no stretch in the braid.
I generally use a standard “Paternoster rig” when bottomfishing, with three-way swivels to separate the hook and sinker traces. (See photo alongside.) I will usually fish a double rig with two hooks above each other. The hook traces are around 30cm long, with the sinker trace slightly longer so that when I’m fishing flat on the bottom my hook stays off a bit to minimise snagging and lost tackle.
My hook and sinker traces will be of a lighter breaking strain than the main line so that when the hook or sinker trace snags up on the seabed I can just break off the trace instead of losing everything. When I’m fishing close to the kelp beds in shallow water I will make up a drift trace with a small swivel to allow it to sink slowly.
I prefer to use “J” type hooks when reef fishing as I like to feel the bite and strike the fish as opposed to using circle hooks where you let the fish hook itself. I use 1/0 to 3/0 size hooks as smaller hooks will result in me hooking most of the smaller fish that come to nibble on the bait and missing out when a bigger fish comes along. I do, however, use circle hooks when targeting red roman as I release most of them. The circle hooks usually hook in the corner of the mouth and can then be removed quickly for the fish to be released with minimal damage, unlike the J hooks which often hook in their throats.
Sinker size depends on tackle, depth of water and current. When fishing inshore in shallower water (under 20m) you will rarely need to fish heavier than 1- to 2oz. When fishing deeper, especially outside the bay, you might encounter some strong currents and need to fish much heavier. This is when braid will outperform mono filament as the thinner braid will create far less resistance in the current, meaning you can use lighter sinkers.
I generally fish with a spinning reel setup loaded with 20 lb to 30 lb braid. When fishing close inshore a lighter rod can be used, but when you’re fishing deeper waters that require a bigger sinker a heavier rod is used.
When reef fishing around False Bay almost any baits can be used, but I prefer to use the tougher baits like octopus and squid/chokka as there are loads of small nibblers that will tear most soft baits apart in seconds. Another favourite bait is white mussel which is really soft when fresh. I will usually defrost my white mussels a day or two before going fishing and then salt them heavily with coarse salt and leave in a strainer overnight; this will remove most of the moisture and the mussel meat will toughen up nicely.
When using softer baits like sardine or red bait, I’ll put a thin strip of chokka on the hook first and then have the softer bait on the outside which will usually attract the fish. As it breaks up you will be left with the firmer chokka that will be chewed on until a bigger fish comes along.
When it comes to using fish as bait I like to use pike instead of sardine as the tough skin on the pike keeps it on the hook a bit longer. The pike is also pretty oily which usually gets a lot of action. The pike can be filleted then cut into pieces or chopped into blocks. In the summer months mackerel is often caught in the bay, and if they’re frozen properly these make excellent bait as the skin and meat is quite firm and I don’t know of any fish that will swim past a strip of mackerel.
I don’t usually chum while reef fishing as the chum will drift away in the current, and by the time it reaches the seabed it will be a way off from the boat where the baits are. You can, however, drop a weighted bait bag down to the bottom to attract the fish into the area where the lines are.
A few anglers have shifted from using conventional baited hooks to artificial lures for reef fish with great success and most reef species can easily be enticed to grab a lure. Micro jigs have been proven to work for many of the reef fish encountered in and around False Bay.
I’ve had great success using micro jigs on the bottom of a baited trace as a weight instead of a conventional sinker. On many occasions the fish have gone for the jig instead of taking the baited hooks just above. I think that the jig action from the moving boat will also attract fish quicker than a bait that’s just hanging there, but I often end up losing more tackle due to the hooks on the jig snagging the bottom which can become very costly.
WHERE AND WHEN TO FIND THEM
Reef and rocky bottom are found throughout False Bay and fish are found from the edge of the kelp line right out to a few miles off the coast. The most productive areas are, however, towards Cape Point where the largest variety of species and rockier grounds are found.
When fishing close inshore it’s always worthwhile noting what the coastline contours looks like; that will give you a good indication of what the bottom is like. Deeper, rockier ground under the surface is usually found off steep cliffs, while softer, flatter grounds lead off beach stretches.
The beach stretch between Muizenberg and Macassar is a perfect example of an area where the sandy bottom and shallow waters extend quite far out. Quite often the water a mile off the coast will be as shallow as 6m compared to the steep coast line around Cape Point where the seabed is mostly rocky and the water drops off past 30m very close in.
Venture a bit further out for some very nice reef fishing around Whittle Rock/Bell buoy which is around four miles east of Miller’s Point out into the middle of False Bay, otherwise try Rocky Banks which is around five miles off Cape Point. Both these areas can quite easily be found on a nautical chart or on a plotter, and once you’re in the vicinity you will not have any problem finding fishing areas using a echo sounder.
Don’t discount the sandy stretch between Muizenberg and Macassar, though, because there are plenty of spots to catch reef fish around there. Those reefs are usually small and not always easy to find, but you may be very well rewarded if you ride around a bit watching your echo sounder.
One way to find some productive areas is to get a paper nautical chart for the bay and plot GPS positions of pinnacles or steep changes in depth contours. You should also be able to see these pinnacles and contour lines on your plotter fishing chart. You can also draw your own contour lines on some of the newer echo sounder/plotter electronic units using pre-installed software. I use Quickdraw™ Contours on my Garmin echo sounder/plotter. By drawing your own contours you can get a nice idea of the seabed structure and if you cross reference this with what fish you see on the echo sounder you can get a good idea of the best areas to fish.
Reef fish around the bay usually bite in most water temps and wind conditions although there is usually far less action and fewer bites when the water drops below 13°C. There are, however, times when there is a rapid drop in water temp from day to day and the fish will go off the bite completely while they acclimatise.
At other times the water is warm and we see plenty of fish on the echo sounder but get no bites. This might be because there is a thermocline (large temperature difference between the surface and bottom). A way to check this is to feel your sinker when you pull your line in; you’ll be able to tell if the water is abnormally cold as the bottom temp will transfer into the lead.
I usually mark fishing spots on my plotter when I see nice structure, pinnacles, drop offs or fish markings on the seabed. Most of the spots around Cape Point and further out I have found and marked while trolling around for yellowtail. If I see any interesting structure or pinnacles I will usually mark them and come back and fish them at a later stage. You can usually tell when you are passing over rocky/reef areas as the thickness of the seabed reading on your echo sounder screen will increase as the bottom gets “harder”; when moving onto softer sand or shell the seabed image will be thinner.
Once you find “the spot” head up into the wind and throw anchor, then come back slowly until you are on top of the spot you intend to fish. When fishing around the point or outside the bay always keep an eye on the swell as an anchor that is thrown too short could result in your bow being pulled under when a big set of waves come through as they peak over a reef or pinnacle.
Once the anchor is hooked and lines are dropped you should get bites pretty soon if you have positioned the boat correctly. If you don’t get any bites then let out more anchor rope while watching your echo sounder to see if you come onto the fish. If you’re still not getting bites then it’s best to pick up the anchor and try again. When we’re reef fishing we won’t usually lie and wait for the fish to arrive as most of the reef fish will hang around a specific spot, and if you are not on top of it then you are wasting your time.
If you manage to get onto the spot and start catching fish then you will usually find that the fish go off the bite or slow down after a while. When that happens I pick up my anchor and look for another spot.
I usually use a grapnel anchor with a shorter length of chain when reef fishing as you generally don’t have a problem getting your anchor to hold, and if your chain is too long you run the risk of the chain hooking up which will often result in a lost anchor.
Alternatively on calm, windless days you can drift instead of throwing anchor. This can be quite productive as you can drift across a reef and cover a lot more ground, especially where you have small pinnacles and drop offs that can be hard to anchor on exactly. Unfortunately you lose far more tackle when drifting as your line gets dragged along the seabed; this method is also not practical when you’re fishing in deeper water because even with a very slow drift you will need to keep on paying out line to keep your bait close to the seabed where the fish usually are.
I usually drop my bait down to the seabed, and once the sinker hits the bottom I will take up the slack and try to keep my bait as close to the bottom as possible. I generally don’t strike when I feel the first bites but wait for a proper take or the biggest bites; this way you don’t end up hooking the smaller fish before something bigger comes along.
Seals can be quite a nuisance when reef fishing in False Bay, especially when you are boat alone. A seal will sometimes hang around the boat taking almost every fish you hook! If this is the case then it is best to pick up and run to another area as the seal will usually hang around the boat until it has eaten its fill.
Please check the most recent marine recreational angling regulations for size and bag limits for the various reef species. Also ensure that you know details of the Marine Protected Areas that are off limits to fishing. MPAs are put in place around important reef areas which populate the outlying areas with fish, ensuring that we will still be able to catch reef fish in the future.
The most important MPAs to note in this area are listed below, and they are visible on most plotter maps.
• Boulders Restricted zone: in the area between the eastern end of Simonstown harbour and Oatlands extending out around Roman Rock Lighthouse.
• Castle Rock Restricted Zone: between beacon VB1 at Miller’s Point just south of the Cape Boat and Ski-boat Clubhouse and beacon VB2 at Partridge Point extending one nautical mile seawards.
• Paulsberg Restricted Zone: between Smitwinkel Point and Venus Pool, extending one nautical mile seawards.
Remember: Limit your catch; don’t catch your limit.