By Craig Stubbs
IF I had a rand for every person who asked if we could please try and catch a rockcod on a bottomfishing charter trip, I’d have quite a few rands stashed away! There is good reason for their popularity, and it mainly comes down to their delicious white flesh that can be turned into some of the yummiest dishes around. It is certainly one of my favourite eating fish and is extremely popular all over the world.
In our warmer KwaZulu-Natal coastal waters we are blessed with a healthy population of rockcod (many of which are endemic), both in terms of their numbers, as well as the variety of species we can catch. Given that some of these species grow rather large, there is always the added excitement of having a real giant of the deep grabbing your bait.
The most popular target species from a ski-boater’s point of view are yellowbelly rockcod, white edged rockcod (Captain Fine) and catface rockcod. These three are the most common ones encountered, but there are dozens of rockcod species that one can, and most likely will, encounter over the years if you spend time fishing for them.
All of them can be found from shallow to deep water reefs, although the catface rockcod is seldom caught deeper than around 50m of depth, and the Captain Fine is seldom caught deeper than in 100m of water, whereas the yellowbelly can be encountered slightly deeper.
They aren’t called rockcod for nothing — these guys really love rocks. By rocks, I mean jagged reef, caves and big structure where they spend the majority of the day skulking and resting. If your sinker is getting hung up and snagged on bottom reef, you are probably in the right place.
The other thing rockcod really like is a nice big juicy bait. Fishing for them is not finesse fishing, and although they will snack on smaller baits, the majority of fish will be caught when you are actively baiting for them. The good news is that you don’t need anything special to target them, as live bait, dead bait, chokka, cutlets and fillets are all very effective for them — provided they are big and bulky with a little inherent movement.
Big baits mean big hooks, so gear up accordingly. The rockcod species all have giant mouths relative to their size, enabling them to easily inhale big baits and hooks. My go-to hook when targeting rockcod is a Mustad Kendal Round 9/0 or 10/0 as this hook has a nice wide gape and long shank enabling me to build up a good sized bait without overcrowding the hook point.
If you are a fan of circle hooks (which I am), go big (16/0 minimum), but be careful when building your bait and keep as much of that hook point exposed as you possibly can, or you may end up just pulling the hooks straight back out of the fish’s mouth, with the hook unable to do what it is meant to do.
My favourite rocky baits are a flapped mackerel or a dead mozzie/chokka tentacle combo, or a fillet bait/chokka tentacle combo. All of these baits share two things in common: they are large, with plenty of bulk and “flavour” and have good movement to lure in a fish.
A bait that Captain Fine in particular really enjoy is a dead sand soldier with a few slices cut into its flanks revealing some flesh and scent. The good thing about this bait is that it is also very hardy and doesn’t easily get pecked apart by smaller fish or pulled off the hook, which allows sufficient time for that rockcod you are looking for to find your bait.
I very seldom only fish with a single hook when targeting rockcod, as they are very inquisitive fish, and you need to tempt them to leave cover. I usually have one or two smaller hooks/baits above my big hook. The commotion of other species attacking the baits may just be enough to get that rocky to come and take a look, and when he sees that delicious big bottom bait, he may not be able to resist.
Regarding terminal tackle, don’t skimp on your mono hook snoot. Nothing less that .80, but 1mm mono is recommended. Not only do rockies have rows of sharp, sandpaper-like teeth which abrades light line, but they also often back into their holes and caves after being hooked, and you need some protection should your line be dragged over the reef.
Average size rockcod are not spectacular fighters. Yes, they give a decent encounter of themselves just after being hooked, with a few attempted runs, but once you have them a few metres above the reef, they loose energy, and one simply needs to take one’s time and bring them up.
They have a very distinctive feeling on the line as they open their huge mouths, which provides quite a bit of resistance, but with very little head shaking which is common with most other bottom fish species. It’s akin to the feeling of reeling up a bucket full of water or sand.
Having said that, I’ve been lucky to catch a few large yellowbellies over the years, and when they get to 15kg-plus, they give a very decent account of themselves, stubbornly refusing to leave the reef and making you hold hard and gain a turn of line at a time until they begin to tire.
I have always battled to nail down specific rockcod feeding patterns and habits, as there appears to be no apparent pattern to me. There are days and even weeks where you go without catching any, and then there are days —particularly with Captain Fine rockcod — that they feed aggressively and in decent numbers. There is some scientifically monitored seasonal movement to these fish, mostly associated with spawning aggregations etc, but there are days when it’s as if someone pressed the “feed” button and they are present and aggressive, and then there are days not far apart when they have utter lockjaw.
Either way, don’t let that put you off. Keep at it, keep sending those big baits down into big structure, and I guarantee you will get some good rockies over time.
Rockcod are a critical part of our reef ecosystems, so let’s take a quick look at their status. Not only are some of our rockcod species endemic to our waters, meaning that we are solely responsible for their future wellbeing, but they are a slow growing and slow maturing fish and are mostly listed as Vulerable.
I mentioned at the start of this article that they are relatively plentiful at certain times and places, but the species biomass is estimated to be only a small fraction of what it once was, so don’t be reckless with your efforts. Ensure you’re aware of bag and size limits, and if you have your quota of rockcod, rather move away from that particular reef.
Releasing rockcod is not a simple task because they often blow their swim bladder and eyes when they’re brought up from the deep. If you are a serious bottomfisherman, you should always carry a deep drop release weight setup for releasing fish on the boat, and be familiar with how to quickly use it to get a fish back down safely.
Finally. two quick personal tips from me when it comes to rockies. Firstly, never put your fingers into their gills or mouths. Their gills have a few sets of extremely sharp inward facing rakers, and once your fingers have entered, you will battle to remove them without some extremely painful cuts and slices to your hand. It’s really important to brief kids about this, as often their first instinct is to reach for the mouth or gills to pick up the fish.
The best way to handle a rockcod that you intend to keep, is to either gaff it in the mouth and handle it on the gaff, or else cut a small slit with the tip of your knife through the soft skin under its throat. You can then insert a finger through that cut and use as it a grip to handle the fish.
Secondly, rockcod have large bones and rib cage structures, so meat yield is rather low compared to other species. Take your time with your knife work to maximise your meat yield because wasting meat as delicious as a rocky’s is sacrilege.