THE leervis (commonly referred to as leeries here in the Eastern and Western Cape) or garrick as they’re known in KwaZulu-Natal, is a species of marine fish in the family Carangidae, with the scientific name of Lichia amia. They are large predatory fish which are found all along the South African coastline from Cape Point to Cape Vidal. They are also native to the Mediterranean and the coastal waters of Western Africa and have been recorded in the Black Sea.
Leervis can reach 1.5m in length and occasionally weigh more than 25kg, however, in South Africa, a fish of 18kg is regarded as large. They are generally found in small, loose groups rather than large schools of fish. Leervis are fast growing fish and have an expected lifespan of about ten years. They are considered to be gamefish and, as such, are targeted by a large majority of sport anglers around our coastline.
This species was listed as vulnerable in the 2018 National Biodiversity Assessment. The national bag limit for recreational anglers is two fish per person per day with a minimum size of 70cm. It is not considered a commercial species and may only be targeted by recreational anglers with a permit.
Leervis are highly dependent on estuaries which serve as nursery areas for juveniles from around six months of age. At this age they are yellow with black vertical bars. They spend about three years in estuaries along the eastern and southern Cape coast and leave the estuary when they are mature at around 70cm.
Mature fish undertake a spawning migration during winter each year from the cooler Cape to the warmer KZN waters to spawn. Peak spawning season occurs between September and November. After this the adults migrate back to the cool Cape waters to start the whole cycle again.
Adults tend to remain in the near shore zone and are seldom found in waters deeper than 20m.
Plettenberg Bay features the Keurbooms Estuary, and these fish can be found there all year round, but really come into their own from late October to April each year. We also see catches of good size fish by shore anglers off the Robberg Peninsula all year round.
Popping, spin fishing or trolling artificial- or live bait in shallow murky waters near beaches and estuaries are the best ways to lure these fish in, but they can be picky and are generally considered one of the more difficult species to catch.
Live bait is our preferred method of targeting these amazing fish, but surface lures are also always effective. When the sea is choppy, the use of chisel-nose plugs that will slap the water and get the garrick’s attention work well, whereas in a calm sea, the needle-nose plugs often produce better results.
In this article I will try to explain how we target leeries from the boat, specifically in the summer months when they are most prevalent in our area.
By far the most common method is by doing a slow troll with live bait. There are plenty of mackerel — slimy or blue mackerel (Scomber australasicus) — around in the bay all through the year, and we also get large shoals of mullet or harders (Chelon richardsonii) in the estuary. Both are very effective as live bait.
The mackerel are targeted mostly with the use of Sabiki rigs, and the mullet are usually caught with the use of a throw net in the estuary. It goes without saying that a good live-well is a must. Shad or elf (Pomatomus saltatrix) are also very common in our area and work well as live bait, but please be aware of the shad season and don’t get caught with these in your fish tank out of season! Another small prey species that is candy to the leerie is the maasbanker or Cape horse mackerel (Trachurus capensis).
The most common method of trolling with a live bait is with a single 4/0 or 6/0 circle hook through the top lip, with no more than a 30 lb leader of 1–1.5m length. This can be attached to a small swivel (the smaller the better) before the main line or a straight connection with the use of a double Uni or Albright knot. The Catalina method of rigging a live bait is also often used.
The bait is swum approximately 20m to 30m behind the boat, which should only just be in gear; the slower the better, as we don’t want to drown our prey or have it spinning in the wake. With such slow troll speeds (0.5 to 1.5 knots) I recommend you put out no more than two rods, otherwise a tangled bit of knitting will keep you out of the water longer than necessary.
The best place to troll is just off the backline. This requires strong nerves and a clear head as the sea is unpredictable and the skipper must be ready to turn the bow into any rogue waves that pick up at a second’s notice. Trolling around rip currents is very effective as the leeries like to lie in wait where there is movement in the water that masks their presence.
Our bay is also home to large numbers of small bronze whaler sharks (also known as copper sharks — Carcharhinus brachyurus) and smooth hammerhead sharks (Sphyrna zygaena) and they often take any live bait offerings that there may be. As frustrating as this is, they do produce a little fun. When there are lots of these critters around, a move to a lipped artificial lure such as a Rapala or Halco will be your next best option as the sharks seem to be less interested in these when they’re swum at slightly higher speeds.
As stated earlier, the use of poppers, spinners or plugs is another great way to catch a leerie or entice it to bite. It is good practice to have one or two anglers with spinning tackle casting in towards the shore which will draw the fish out of the shallows. Although they may not take the plug, it will lure them into the wake of the boat where your live bait will often produce the results.
Drag settings are crucial when trolling a live bait. The trick is to use the lightest setting you can get away. We want our ratchet on and just enough drag so that the live bait does not take line while leisurely swimming behind the boat. If a predator is in the vicinity, the live bait will often get a little agitated and take a small amount of line — that is how light your drag must be set.
Many anglers are using grinders today and these are also perfect for targeting leeries with live bait. The trick here is to use a thin piece of wire to hold the line on the spool with the bail open. As the strike occurs, the wire straightens, and you effectively have a freespooling grinder. It goes without saying that there is no ratchet in this case, so a close eye must be kept on the grinder at all times or you may end up being stripped without even realising it.
Leervis do not have the teeth of shad and they tend to grab the live bait in their bony mouths and swim away with it before swallowing. When a strike happens, the reel will scream off. Turn the boat out to sea, but keep it just in gear to ensure that you are moving away from the danger zone. Take the rod out of the rod holder, switch the ratchet off and count to ten. This gives the leerie enough time to swallow the live bait. Adjust your drag setting up and gently set the hook.
Circle hooks are great when the intention is to release your catch, but using them also means that a hard strike can often pull the hook out the fish’s mouth. If you miss the hook-up, set the drag back almost to free spool and leave the bait in the water for a couple more minutes as the leerie will often return and take the live bait again. You then count to ten again and hopefully set the hook.
It is common to get strikes without hook ups, and this is often an indication that the fish are too small to swallow the bait. Smaller prey should be used in that case. As I mentioned earlier, leeries tend not to be solitary fish and you will often see a second fish following yours right to the boat.
The leerie is an absolute gentleman when he fights. He will not try to reef you like the yellowtail; he fights clean and is incredibly good fun to catch. If the intention is to release your catch, then try to net the fish. Always do your best to stay away from the gills as these are easily damaged and, although the leerie will still swim away, damage caused by fingers placed in the gills can often cause the fish to die later. Take a few photos and release your fish back into the water as quickly as possible.
Should you wish to keep the odd fish, I find that filleted leervis is excellent on the braai, but be careful not to overdo it as it can be a little dry.
Plettenberg Bay is small, and launching from either the central beach launch area or through the river mouth means a quick run to the fishing grounds. We regularly troll the backline between the Beacon Island Hotel and the Robberg Peninsula, or turn left and work the area from the Keurbooms River mouth all the way around to the hamlet of Keurbooms where the beach ends and the rocks start. Quite often, we will also work the backline off Natures Valley, but extra caution needs to be taken there as this is slightly out of the lee of the bay and produces far bigger sets which will catch out the unwary. Please note that the Robberg Peninsula is out of bounds for boat fishing, and this extends approximately one nautical mile or 1 800m from the shore into the sea all the way around.
Tight lines to all as we move towards leervis season and please remember to limit your catch rather than catching your limit.