Targeting black steenbras aka musselcracker

[Originally published in the May 2022 issue of Ski-Boat magazine]
By Craig Stubbs

THE black steenbras/musselcracker, alongside the red steenbras, is probably the most prized bottomfish species that ardent bottomfishing anglers target and long for, and a big specimen is both memorable and often celebrated on board.
Known colloquially as “poensies” or “cracker”, these fish occur along most of the east coast of South Africa and are most abundant along the Eastern Cape/Transkei and KwaZulu-Natal coastlines.
The Transkei is recognised as the nursery for these fish, and many juveniles are hooked and landed there, whereas, along the KZN coast, most of the fish are larger adults. They are present all year round, throughout their range, but there are periods where they gather over certain reefs in higher numbers. This is often associated with spawning aggregations which occur in the cooler months between May and October.
These fish stir up quite a bit of emotion from a conservation point of view, so it is worth expanding on the subject. Firstly, they are an endemic species (native to our eastern seaboard), they are extremely slow growing and take a number of years to reach sexual maturity. They are listed as Orange on the WWF SASSI List, meaning that they are prone to exploitation, and one should think twice before harvesting this species.
So, from an angling point of view, be responsible with your catch, and remember the bag limit is one fish per person, with a minimum size of 50cm tail length.

Once you have caught your limit of one black steenbras you can use this simple method to release any further black steenbras [or other deepwater species] accidentally caught. As the weight takes the fish down to the depths at which it was caught, the pressure increases and the swimbladder deflates so the fish stays down.
Although they are caught as by-catch during “general” bottomfishing, there are a number of things you can do to up the odds in your favour should you wish to target these beasts of the deep. They are incredibly strong fighters, and are fine sports fish, particularly when they get around and above the 20kg mark. If you are ever fortunate enough to get one above that magical 30kg mark, you are going to be in for a proper game of tug of war which will test your skills and tackle to the limit.

Cracker can be found in shallow water along the Transkei coast, but larger adults are best located in water between 40- and 70m deep in KZN, with a few fish occurring deeper in water up to 100m in depth.
Without doubt, my most consistent cracker spots are in water depths of 55- to 70m, so when I am fishing that depth zone there is always that little tingle of excitement and an air of expectation.
Isolated, larger pinnacles of rock within a given reef structure are prime cracker habitat, but unlike rockcod that set up camp and reside largely in a small area on a reef, cracker seem to be willing to travel around the reef or between reefs as they defend their territory or seek out a meal.
Although they can be caught throughout the day, the majority of my cracker have come earlier on in the day, or later in the afternoon/evening.

One sometimes hears stories of cracker being caught on a “piece of squid” on a small 2/0 hook, but these stories are few and far between and 90% of my cracker have been caught when I was rigged and baited accordingly.
You have two options here. One is to deliberately target cracker (or other large bottomfish species) with a single hook rig and big bait, and the other is to include a large hook and bait in your general bottomfishing trace.
It is for this exact reason that I recommend always having a large hook and bait included in your bottomfishing traces even if you are targeting red fish, so that when Mr Cracker shows up, you have a nice snack for him to crunch down upon.
Hook wise, a good old Mustad Kendal Round in size 9/0 or 10/0 is a good choice. If you prefer circle hooks, which I find myself fishing more and more these days, then a circle around a 14/0 or 16/0 in size will do the job, depending on manufacturer.
Minimum line diameter of .8mm is preferable, and nothing heavier that 1mm line is needed.Make sure your swivels are in good shape and knots are well tied.
I find that once you have used a swivel for a while, some of the protective coating seems to crack and peel off, and actually leaves a fine but sharp cutting edge which can cut into your line. For that reason I regularly replace my swivels and throw old ones away as soon as they show any signs of wear.
This problem of line damage can easily be overcome by using heavier mono, of 1 to 1.2mm which is more abrasion resistant, but I honestly feel that as one goes heavier, your strike rate reduces. My choice is nearly always to fish lighter, but I make sure my components and knots are not going to let me down.
As a further note, and particularly if you are fishing lighter, regularly run your mono trace through your fingers to check it for abrasion, particularly if you have caught a nice rockcod, as their fine, sharp teeth can damage lighter line. If there’s any doubt, rather take a minute and replace your snoot than later lose a nice big fish.

Black musselcrackers love a nice, energetic live mackerel, so that rates as my favourite for targeting them. Like most fish, they also seem to be willing to move a fair distance to get that mackerel in their mouths.
When fishing a live mak, a bridle rig with a cable tie between the eyes is preferred as the live bait is less likely to tear off the hook during the bite and this method also exposes the majority of the hook shank which plays towards a more solid hookup.
Fear not, however, if you can’t get your hands on live bait, as cracker readily devour dead baits too. A whole, dead sand soldier (regular bycatch on smaller hooks when bottomfishing) is a very effective bait, particularly with the tail chopped off, the fins trimmed and a slice or two made in the side of the bait to release some scent.
Another very effective cracker bait is a mixed bait of squid arms and fillet. Trim a portion of the squid that contains the arms so that three or four arms remain, and thread this onto your hook, so that the arms are free to move about in the current.
Next, cut a slender and relatively long fillet of fish (fillet of descaled redfish), and thread this onto the hook so that the majority of the fillet hangs down below the hook bend. What you now have is a long, well proportioned bait with plenty of movement and smell that is relatively hardy too.
When tying this bait on a circle hook, be careful of overcrowding the hook which makes setting the hook difficult.
You can also try a whole red eye sardine in lieu of the trimmed fillet, but red eyes can be a little fragile and are easily pulled from the hook.

Cracker are not normally shy or delicate with a bait. They are large, and often aggressive fish, which means that if one is showing interest in your bait, you will be well aware of it. There will be the odd occasion when your rod is virtually pulled out of your hands as you are instantly connected to a powerful fish, but generally this bite consists of a series of hard jolts as the cracker bites at your bait.
The cracker’s jaws are powerful and armed with strong and mainly blunt teeth which it uses to crush and devour a bait, so when you feel that strong bite, be patient and use the line control that a KP reel so beautifully allows. Keep light tension on the line and wait for a solid pull before winding hard and sinking the hook home.
I’ve definitely lost a few cracker by waiting too long and being stripped of my bait, but being patient on the bite has allowed me to hook my fair share. The upside of being overly patient and missing a fish from it stripping your bait, is that you may have another shot at the same fish on your next down, but if you strike early and prick a fish, you won’t get a second chance at it.
When hooked, cracker are incredibly tough fighters, particularly for the first few minutes after being hooked. They take short, fast runs along the reef as soon as they are hooked, so give them their due by backwinding while still applying maximum “safe” pressure.
Those powerful short runs and big head nods are very characteristic of a big cracker, so one is seldom left guessing what one has hooked. Cracker also tend to run “along” a reef rather than dive behind ledges etc, so being cut off isn’t as common as it is with fish such as yellowtail and big amberjack.
Once the cracker begins to tire, the rest of the fight is about slowly gaining line while remaining vigilant of not pulling hooks on those powerful head nods. A long, soft bottomfishing rod does well at absorbing those nods, but once you have a fish under control be patient and slowly bring it up to reveal your prized specimen.

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