By Henk du Plessis, Chairman Sodwana Ski-Boat Club
SODWANA Bay is, without doubt, the epicentre of offshore big game fishing in South Africa. From its semi-secluded position at Jesser Point where the substantial reef juts out in a north-easterly direction, to Mgobezeleni Lagoon further north, this long stretch of beach is the launching pad for an exceptionally fine array of sportfishing craft during the major billfish competitions run from this base.
When 70-plus ski-boats — outriggers erect and bowed for action — are lined up on the water’s edge, awaiting the signal to commence launching, it’s a sight that burns deep into the soul of any offshore angler.
But this is not where ski-boating began at Sodwana Bay. Way back in the 1960s, intrepid farmers of the north Zululand coast and Pongola area cut their way through the coastal bush to camp and surf fish at Jesser Point.
Surf fishing gradually expanded to boat fishing, and the fertile waters of the area provided huge hauls of bottomfish and limited catches of inshore gamefish that were taken home to use for farm rations.
In later years, once the then Natal Parks Board opened the area and serviced campsites were set up, many more ski-boaters began venturing to this pristine fishery.
During the late 1970s a number of ardent billfish anglers from the Natal Deep Sea Rod and Reel Club, beefed up by billfish experience gained in Cairns, Australia, and/or Bazaruto Island off Moçambique, banded together with about eight ski-boats to test the waters off Sodwana Bay for marlin potential.
This venture was so promising that in 1978 the Sodwana Gamefish Club was formed, formally putting the billfish of Sodwana on the map.
During this period many of the Transvaal and Eastern Transvaal fishing club members also travelled to that section of coast to try their luck.
During these forays in pursuit of the mighty billfish, three big black marlin stood out and really set a high benchmark. The biggest was a 936 lb marlin caught on Piet Joubert’s Bonito, then another of just over 900 lb was caught, and then one of 927 lb on Erwin Bursik’s Sea Lord.
With the advent of trolling lures instead of deadbaits and livebaits, anglers experienced an above average catch of striped marlin deep off Jesser Point. This tactic was introduced by Piet van Dyk, a Kenyan farmer who had relocated to South Africa and who had a great deal of lure trolling experience in the billfish-rich waters off Malindi on the Kenyan coast.
Now almost the norm, two massive blue marlin — one of 1 112 lb caught on Francois Erasmus’s craft Big Time and shortly thereafter the current All Africa record blue marlin of 1 149 lb caught on Lappies Labuschagne’s Black Magic — set the current trend of lure fishing as being the most effective way to target marlin in this area.
Having said all that, there is also a very strong following of light tackle offshore ski-boats that target the wide variety of gamefish species and sailfish this area has to offer.
King mackerel (aka ’cuda), yellowfin tuna, dorado, wahoo and the various kingfish species give the gamefish anglers something to target virtually all year round. However, with such a vast expanse of ocean available to explore, everyone wants to know exactly where to catch the specific fish they’re after.
I have spent many years fishing for gamefish off Sodwana, and now run a charter operation targeting almost exclusively the light tackle gamefish this area has to offer. I will thus focus mostly on this aspect in detail as Sodwana Bay has a lot more ski-boaters visiting the launch site all through the year than those who just come to target the billfish which frequent this area in summer.
On the map alongside, I have not only marked my most prolific areas from Black Rock in the north to Red Sands in the south, but also indicated available livebait marks and times of the year when I have found light tackle gamefishing is most productive.
Since the implementation of the inshore marine reserve many years ago by the Natal Parks Board, no bottomfishing or jigging has been allowed. The iSimangaliso Marine Protected Area begins south of the beacon at Red Sands (south of Jesser Point) and all angling from the beach and at sea is prohibited in that area. Fishing is also restricted from Black Rock north.
King mackerel (’cuda) will always be the premier sportfish targeted off Sodwana, because not only is it an exciting fish to catch, but it also remains a most appreciated table fish and the fillets hold well in a freezer to take back home after a fishing trip to Sodwana.
It is well known that ’cuda are basically reef specific, and for this reason I am including the positions of a number of my favourite areas where these fish are most frequently found.
Bearing in mind the virtually continuous current that’s experienced off Sodwana Bay, slow trolling is the preferred method of targeting this species. Having said that, if the current is not strong on a specific outing, then you can drift over the suggested areas, especially if your sounder reflects more fish showing near the bottom than in a higher water column.
Again I must stress the importance of being area specific and fully focused; one can’t just set a drift and sit back and snooze.
The reefs holding the gamefish are small and don’t run parallel to the shoreline for long distances. Also, being species specific in this article, I don’t fish for ’cuda by just pulling deep diving lures for hours on end and hope for a lucky shot.
From February to June I fish for ’cuda at Diepgat, working a straight line between the two marks I’ve shown on the map alongside, slow trolling with bait or maasbankers.
The reef at Island Rock produces shoaling ’cuda from March to May, and the spot called “Piet” is an excellent location for big winter ’cuda on the downrigger. Mabibi also produces big ’cuda during winter months.
King Marlin is a long reef on the 45m to 50m depth mark about 5km south of Diepgat. The reef is not in a straight line, so I have shown its location with six waypoints. From July to September, when we struggle to get gamefish, I exclusively fish up and down this reef with Speed Pro, Rapala or Halco lures, favouring the dark colours like black or purple.
You will get ’cuda, yellowfin tuna, skipjack, wahoo and the odd sailfish here. It is also a very productive reef where you can use a downrigger to reach big ’cuda from February to June.
A new white buoy has been anchored at 18m depth at Red Sands. This is much further north than the boundary line for the MPA on our GPS maps. Be careful not to cross this line as you will be challenged by Sharklife’s Grant Smith who has taken it upon himself to guard this buoy. The buoy is an excellent gamefish spot for ’cuda and dorado from November to March.
Specific baits are important, and whilst we have access to hand-caught halfbeaks which are very successful in the area, I rely on frozen baits such as sardines, mackerel and other exotics that are available.
Livebaiting used to be quite popular, but there is now a restricted dive zone in the shallow waters which is part of the MPA, and which stretches from the launch site to just past Nine Mile. This restricted dive zone took away about 70% of our livebait spots to the north of Sodwana. However, I have shown a number of areas on the map alongside where livebait (especially maasbanker) can be caught on Yozuris.
The three other species that are specifically targeted are dorado, wahoo and tuna. Each of these is a little more difficult to specifically target and, to a large extent, they are caught using either Rapala-type lures or small, straight-swimming plastic lures or chuggers with a halfbeak or fish fillet tucked in behind it.
Tuna can be caught specifically on the southern wall of Diepgat at around 80m depth from mid-January to May. We use 50 lb rigs from January to April, though as sharks are a big problem.
While the small yellowfin tuna are definitely more abundant in specific areas, they are best targeted when they show themselves working bait shoals. This often happens on an upwelling on the edge of some of the deep canyons we are so fortunate to have close to Jesser Point. Prime examples of this are the ledge of Diepgat in the south and the base area of the canyons off White Sands.
Wahoo and dorado are ocean wanderers and one has to cover distance in search of these fish. In saying that, the ocean off our area is magnificent, clear and warm, carrying many of the tropical baitfish species such as friggies, bonito and “sprats”, so one’s chances of finding or attracting a wahoo or dorado into one’s spread of various lures being pulled at 3- to 5 knots is good.
Piet is an excellent spot to target wahoo early in the morning, and “Elusive”, north of Island Rock, is a good spot for kingfish, ’cuda and wahoo, although sharks can be a problem in summer.
In Rocktail Bay the water temperature always seems to be one or two degrees warmer than in Sodwana Bay itself, and I have won numerous gamefish competitions over the years by fishing in this area.
Black Rock is very far to travel to, but it’s always rewarding from February to May.
When targeting the gamefish mentioned, it’s paramount that you get an early start to your day on the ocean. Most, if not all, of these species feed well up until 10am, after which, as the sun rises well above the eastern horizon, fishing becomes a lot more difficult and then working very specific reefs and/or working shoals are the only ways you’ll get acceptable results.
The clear water off Sodwana Bay makes it difficult to catch Natal snoek (queen mackerel), but if we get them, it will be right behind the backline in 5m water and usually in a light southerly wind, very far from the boat. August and September are the best months to target Natal snoek.
Sailfishing off Sodwana Bay is not to be underestimated. Although a number of sails are taken by the marlin boys as an incidental catch, they are an essential and very exciting fish for our light tackle brigade to target. What’s more, they are found year-round in varying degrees of profusion.
I have personally released more than 100 sailfish at Piet over the last eight years; it’s my go-to in sailfish tournaments. During the winter months my first stop and working area for sailfish is known as Sailfish Knoppie and it is also marked on the map.
Our best time for marlin is from the beginning of November up to March. In April and May we get the big blue marlin, but during the winter months we only get small black marlin (40- to 80kg) in the shallow water (40- to 100m depth). During November and December there are a lot of striped marlin around Sodwana (300- to 500m depth).
In conclusion, we at Sodwana welcome all ski-boaters to our area, and if we can help you enjoy the area’s gamefishing to the maximum, we will certainly do so. Anglers are more than welcome to join our local ski-boat club, and this is where they will get most of their information regarding what is on the bite and where.