’Cuda stage a comeback in 2021

(Originally published in the May 2021 issue of SKI-BOAT)

By Erwin Bursik

A FLASH of silver is the first reward a ski-boat angler gets following a fast first run and short but dogged fight. That flash is the first confirmation that the adversary is indeed a king mackerel, more commonly known as cuda or couta.
Shoals of this magnificent gamefish migrate southwards from Moçambique waters in early summer, arriving in South African waters off Sodwana Bay in November, and thereafter moving down the KwaZulu-Natal coast. They’ve traditionally arrived off Durban on 16 December.
This was the history and the fish that was responsible for getting shore-based anglers in the mid 1940s to fabricate small boats — ski-boats — to get out past the backline and target these splendid silver fish that were also so good as table fare. The vagaries of nature often delayed the arrival of these fish until after the Christmas holidays, but the shoals eventually made their way, seemingly reluctantly, down the coast.
Early 2021 allowed ski-boaters fair opportunity to target ’cuda from Sodwana Bay down to Salt Rock, but very few reached the Durban/ Umdloti area that, since time immemorial, was traditionally ’cuda rich.

However, in the last weekend of February 2021, following some heavy rains and much dirty water flowing into the ocean, the silver fish arrived off Umdloti in fair numbers to reward the flotilla of ski-boats that were there to meet them.
Reminiscent of the good old days, a fleet of about 46 boats was spread from just opposite Umdloti’s southern rocks right up to the area opposite Sea Belle at La Mercy. The sight of bending sticks and the tangible excitement in the air provoked continued anticipation of a strike that was so eagerly awaited.
Even the “taxman” was not that much of a menace on this day, allowing us anglers a lot more relaxed enjoyment while fighting these magnificent fish.

Above: Ryan Dalton, Scott Magnus and Tyler Dalton with a haul of dinner-sized ’cuda caught off the Bluff in early March 2021. Photo by Daryl Milne.

Chasing the shoals of sprats was another firm favourite of the ski-boaters in this area. The good number of Natal snoek (queen mackerel) that came out added greatly to the enjoyment for those anglers who were flicking small lures into the after boiling mass of snoek attacking a shoal of sprats.
Back in the 1960s and ’70s, traditionally a ’cuda shoal feeding off Umdloti could be expected to move southwards towards Umhlanga, feeding well off Peace Cottage, then for some inexplicable reason moving out to Durban’s No. 1 reef.
The smaller boats that were unwillingly or unable to run to Umdloti would congregate in this relatively small area to fish. An armada, we called it, referring back to those of our fraternity who fought in World War 2 and who well remembered the assault on Dunkirk.
For the small boats available during the ’60s and ’70s, this was realistically Durban ski-boat club boats’ only opportunity to take part in the annual ’cuda run. With the flat bottomed boats of that era, often only powered by two 5hp to 20hp tiller operated outboards, even No. 1 was a long run and good weather conditions were essential to make that run out into deep water.
From April, but normally during May and June, until the sardine shoals arrived, the fleet would largely sail south around the Bluff and fish the area off the second whaling station down the “path” — a steep walkway down to the beach where the northernmost houses stopped before the admiralty area that ran further north to the end of the Bluff.
A sidenote is that the whale blood that collected on the “flensing floor” of the whaling station was washed out of a pipe into the sea nearby. This attracted not only lot of baitfish but also created an area that produced a lot of snoek for those pulling very small Rapalas.
A few of the Durban boats usually followed the shoals of ’cuda down to The Cutting, but in those days that was stretching their capabilities and safety to the limits. When the sardines had passed and the cold clear water was prevalent along of our stretch of coastline, the ’cuda were gone. We speculated that the ’cuda then followed the north-bound shoals before moving back to Moçambique.
With the abundance of gamefish then gone, the Durban boats stated targeting bottomfish, generallyy not venturing further south than The Cutting and further north than The Flats off Umhlanga.
It’s interesting — and perhaps surprising to younger anglers — to note that back in the 1960s and ’70s hardly any of the boats targeted the tuna shoals that were around. In those days nobody ate yellowfin tuna, and hooking and fighting them not only wasted time but also broke up a lot of terminal tackle, and wasted precious frozen bait which had been carefully collected and frozen for targeting ’cuda.
On the drop off ledge that runs on the outside of the No.1 pinnacles, the flocks of whirling birds indicated a shoal of yellowfin tuna. This sight inevitably caused the trolling ski-boats to move inshore of the main pinnacles where they could continue targeting ’cuda. The tuna shoals seldom came in that close.
One of the theories that abounded among the old timers and doyens of the sport back then was that ’cuda followed the rainfall cycles, and that was borne out over many years. According to the sugar industry’s rainfall statistics going back to the early 1900s, there’s a ten-year cycle that peaks between two- and three years after the turn of each decade. This theory is largely confirmed when looking at historical ’cuda catches off Durban.
February/March 2021 falls into this period, and with all the rain and dirty water that have abounded recently, the shoals of “silver fish” that have arrived bring with them huge excitement for the anglers after a relatively lean period over the last few years.
’Tis the time, as they say, to bring out the light tackle, make up the treble hook traces, prepare your boat and head to sea off Durban to enjoy the ’cuda season’s excitement and rewards.

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