By Mark Cockcroft, Johan Lange and Erwin Bursik
WITH the development of offshore boating off the KwaZulu-Natal coast during the 1950s and 1960s, the offshore anglers who started fishing off Durban began to develop a beach launching fraternity that moved further south and north along the coast.
These brave ski-boaters with their 14- to 17 foot craft, mostly powered by one motor, started looking for semi-protected launch sites from which to venture out to sea to pursue their love of deep sea fishing.
Among these were many North Coast and Zululand sugar farmers who had the tenacity, resources and staff to explore what were then the northern beaches of Zululand, stretching from Mapelane in the south up to St Lucia and Cape Vidal to start with.
Initially they saw these as surf fishing venues, but soon they began to tow their ski-boats through long stretches of riverine bush, coastal dunes and inland swamp areas to access this stretch which boasted pristine beaches and close offshore reefs, to test the warm tropical waters for the presence of gamefish. What they established, was that the area offered arguably the most prolific sportfishing opportunities available on South Africa’s eastern coastline.
St Lucia was the most accessible of the three spots. With its immense tidal estuary, existing land infrastructure and top class estuary fishing, St Lucia soon became the epicentre of the spotted grunter and kob fishery for ski-boaters. As beach launching from the northern side of the vast river mouth was deemed extremely difficult, ski-boaters found a way to Cape Vidal via forestry tracks.
Cape Vidal soon became the jewel of the Zululand coast. Its history, combined with the protected bay created by the substantial reef which extended to the northeast, drew the boating pioneers to set up camp and shacks to use as a base for this exceptional venue for beach- and boat fishing, as well as family holidays.
Initially, the Department of Forestry controlled this area, but they subsequently handed it over to the then Natal Parks Board (now Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife), which managed the camping, beach access and chalets which were later built.
From the earliest days Cape Vidal became an extremely popular destination. Not only is it an outstanding beach venue, but its fishing from the shore is also revered by that fraternity and the offshore abundance of the full range of tropical pelagic gamefish and billfish provides some of the best offshore sportfishing in South Africa.
Jumping to the southern extremity of the area under review, we have Mapelane which is situated on the southern banks of the Imfolozi River. The estuary enters the ocean virtually alongside the St Lucia estuary.
The beach, sheltered by the immense Mapelane dune and substantial reef, was initially inaccessible to man and vehicle, let alone a vehicle towing a ski-boat. Again, it was the sugar farmers of the area who carved a track through the dense coastal forest abutting the Imfolozi River. They then built wooden shacks on the beach, some on stilts at the base of the high dune, to create the Mapelane Ski-Boat Club.
Access is now under the control of iSimangaliso Wetland Park authorities, but launch access to the beach should only be undertaken by ski-boaters after they’ve done a great deal of homework and have taken advice from the local operators.
The Mapelane Ski-Boat Club was later forced to abandon its beach facilities and relocate a kilometre or two inland, where it carved out a large camp site, clubhouse and boat parking area.
Mapelane has traditionally made a name for itself as the Natal snoek Mecca of the northern South African coast. Immense shoals of these fish frequented the area off the Mapelane lighthouse from May through to August before the annual rains and the off coloured waters from the Imfolozi River made fishing south of the river unproductive.
During this period really big king mackerel could also be targeted, with fish in the 20- to 30kg class frequently being caught. During the summer months, boats launching from Mapelane had to travel northwards to find clean water, and this is still the case.
St Lucia’s ski-boat club came into its own in the mid-1970s when the boats started launching in the lee of the estuary’s northern breakwater. Offshore anglers made use of St Lucia’s centrally situated accommodation and ease of access, which provided them with offshore fishing up the coast to Cape Vidal, as well as southwards to Mapelane lighthouse.
The 1984 floods caused by Tropical Storm Domoina changed the estuary completely and after that it was often completely closed to the ocean, forcing boats launching from St Lucia to locate other viable launch areas. These sites enable an active fleet of both commercial and recreational craft to put to sea in pursuit of the pelagic gamefish and bottomfish of the region, as well as the marlin and sailfish the northern Zululand coast has become known for.
As the accompanying map of this area’s recommended fishing spots clearly shows, this section of the coast is extremely productive. Depending on how adventurous the ski-boater is, one can either base oneself at St Lucia and launch from there, or tow one’s boat up the eastern shores seeing as there is now a good tar road up to Cape Vidal. A popular option is to camp at Cape Vidal or book one of the EKZN Wildlife chalets situated just behind the primary dunes, although it’s best to check current reviews of these before booking.
Mapelane is by far the most inaccessible of these three venues, but it is a unique destination that offers an incredible experience. Unfortunately, with the heavy rains experienced since April 2022, the estuary prevents access from the beach, and high water on the “forest road” makes it largely inaccessible, even to 4×4 vehicles. Presently, towing a boat is practically not feasible.
The once popular cottages on the beach are no longer maintained by iSimangaliso and the Mapelane camp is exclusively for club members or by invite only. With the estuary being open constantly for almost a year now, anglers are therefore limited to the St Lucia and Cape Vidal launch sites.
St Lucia town has developed over the years and boasts a vibrant foreign tourist trade. There are numerous guest houses, lodges and a hotel, three supermarkets, more than its fair share of liquor stores, and a number of good restaurants and watering holes including the St Lucia Ski-Boat club which is open to the public for meals and a beverage on most days.
For those wishing to hire a fishing charter, there are a handful of very experienced charter operations in the area including the Wave Dancer and Free Spirit charters. Our sincere thanks to Barend Verster and Walter Leibrand who both kindly assisted with valuable insight on the area and confirmation of the information in this article.
The details provided below are for the benefit of skippers with their own boats who wish to venture to Zululand and experience the exciting fishing in the southern portion of the iSimangaliso nature reserve, namely St Lucia/Cape Vidal/Mapelane fishery.
Firstly, please note that if you plan to launch at Cape Vidal or St Lucia — and even more so at Mapelane — proper planning and homework needs to be done by the skipper to ensure that when you get there you don’t incur any unforeseen obstacles which could put a damper on what should be a fantastic experience. Some things to consider are launch permits, tractor fees and Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).
Launch permits (for both sites) can be purchased at the entrance to the Vidal nature reserve, and recently increased from R110 to R150 per launch.
The launch site at Cape Vidal enjoys the protection provided by the reef, thus making it possible to reverse launch. However, during peak seasons there is a private tractor that will push you in (provided you have a push plate) and retrieve you for a fee, making life a lot easier. Investigate this as part of your planning.
The St Lucia club tractor has become an essential feature of the St Lucia launch on account of the open sea beach launch. If you are new to the area, talk to the locals and Wiseman, the tractor operator and beach controller; they will explain the line and provide any guidance you need. As with all launches, patience is the key.
Wiseman is an old hand at this job and it is best to put your faith in his ability to read the swells and any shore dump, rather than to try and tell him when to push you in. He knocks off at 2pm, so don’t get caught on the ocean expecting a pull up out of the water unless you have an alternative plan if you beach after 2pm. Tractor vouchers can be purchased at the St Lucia ski-boat club and cost R250 for visitors and R200 for members, a small price to pay for the convenience.
The Mapelane, St Lucia, Cape Vidal fishery falls within the same marine reserve as Sodwana, stretching from the Mapelane lighthouse in the south, to Kosi Bay in the north. Be aware that no bottomfishing or jigging is permitted in the area.
Furthermore, a small area south of Vidal known as The Barges, and the much larger area north of Leven Point have been declared no fishing zones. These no fish zones are demarcated by white stakes on the beach and Ezemvelo officials have been known to monitor these from a vantage point in the dunes.
Notwithstanding the no jigging policy, there are sufficient other means of targeting the wide variety of gamefish and billfish. Drifting live- and dead baits has become more popular each time the petrol price increases. Hand in hand with this go popping, drop shotting, and spinning with stick baits and spoons while on the drift. On occasion, when the wind and current are not favourable, a slow trawl is necessary to maintain course.
There are of course still those die-hards who like to trawl a full spread with teasers for marlin, sailfish and wahoo, and others who are content to go to The Ledge (shown as the dark 50m contour on the map alongside) and pull Rapalas and Speed Pros. On any given day success can be achieved in each of the methods described above.
If you plan to drift livebait, the popular bait points (depending on where you launch) are as follows:
Mapelane/St Lucia — Directly behind the Mapelane Reef. If you have no success there, then travel slowly towards the St Lucia swimming beach on the back line. Maasbankers and mackerel are generally found on this line between 9- and 14m deep. Also along this line lies the old St Lucia dredger that was washed out to sea by Tropical Storm Domoina. This is usually an excellent spot for bait.
Other areas to try for bait going north are: Slides (approximately 22m), Mission Rock (13–25m), Bats Bait (12m) and Big Hill (20m).
Lately, by far the easiest means of collecting bait is to go to the colour line where the brown estuary outflow meets the blue water, and sound along this until you find the bait balls. Other boats and birds feeding are also a dead giveaway.
Cape Vidal — Directly behind the reef after you have launched, alternatively slightly south at a mark known as Bats Bait [28 14 248S 32 31 003E].
If bait is scarce, continue fishing with what you have and, while you are drifting (with one guy popping and another spinning), keep an eye on the sounder. If you see a showing, have the Sabiki stick handy to make a drop.
The gamefish species you can expect to catch in this area include, but are not limited to, king mackerel (’cuda), queen mackerel (Natal snoek) and a variety of kingfish, all of which I talk about in detail below.
Other pelagic species you can expect to find are yellowfin tuna, bonito, eastern little tuna (skipjack), dorado and wahoo. These are all mainly caught on The Ledge. On the shallower reefs you’ll find prodigal son and queenfish.
The species listed above can be targeted all year round, however this article will deal specifically with ’cuda, snoek, kingfish species, sailfish and marlin, and I’ll detail the best locations and times of year to target them. A list of co-ordinates is provided alongside, along with a map to give you an idea of where to find the various areas and reefs I mention.
King Mackerel (’cuda)
’Cuda can be targeted all year round, but are most prolific from February leading into the winter months. From late summer the shoaling ’cuda tend to come through thick and fast, and will take live maasbankers (mozzies), dead mackerel, spoons, bucktail jigs, deep diving Rapalas and Speed Pros.
Popular areas (starting in the south) are: the Pinnacles opposite the Jolly Rubino shipwreck south of Mapelane, Home Reef in the St Lucia Bay if the water is clean, Mission Rock (between 14- and 28m deep) and in the north between Three Sisters and Big Hill.
The most popular method of targeting these 5kg to 15kg shoaling fish is to drift with the current or slow troll (to hold your line) anywhere from 10m deep to 30m deep, changing the depth of each drift until you find the depth at which the fish are holding.
Much further north (from Vidal northwards) the reefs called Vegetation and Leven Point are also popular marks for the shoaling ’cuda. Some might say Oscar reef is good, but my personal experience with sharks — and especially dolphins — stealing your catch drops Oscar off my list.
From May to as late as December, big ’cuda — those 25kg-plus models that the locals call “crocodiles” — can be found on The Ledge. The Ledge lies approximately 50m deep and then drops to 300m, or in some places to 600m, fairly rapidly.
With the predominantly north to south current, an upwelling of nutrients is created as water is pushed from the deep up to 50m, creating a healthy food chain of plankton, baitfish and the larger predators. Large ’cuda are targeted at various rocky outcrops along The Ledge including Big Hill Deep, Dingos, the Table Top, Bats Pinnacle, High Point and, my favorite, Scavengers.
Depending on the speed of the current, a downrigger is advisable; alternatively 12oz to 16oz sinkers are a must to get your bait down to the reef. Don’t be scared to put a livebait out on the surface too — without a steel trace — as there is every chance of a tuna or dorado finding it on The Ledge.
Queen mackerel (Natal snoek)
Natal snoek are traditionally early morning winter fish that can be caught slow trolling a skirted sardine fillet or small Rapala on the backline in 5- to 10m of water. They also provide great excitement on light tackle if you throw small sprat-type lures at feeding fish. Iron Candy and Onde Onde lures are deadly, and if you run short then Wave Dancer Tackle Shop in St Lucia stocks all the hot lures.
Historically Natal snoek have been caught on the backline from Mapelane reef to the Jolly Rubino wreck, with a particularly productive area being Crayfish Point just south of the reef. For the adventurous, Dawsons Creek which is the southernmost extremity of these waters, also produces quality snoek in the prime months. Heading north, each year in the St Lucia Snoek Derby decent snoek are caught along the backline in 9m to 12m of water from Slides to First Rock, Mission Rock, Bats, Big Hill and all the way to the Vidal Lighthouse.
In most years the prime months for snoek are May to August, with some of the bigger snoek making an appearance in September just after the red eye sardine run. However, since the estuary re-opened, and following good rains and dirty water in the mouth, the snoek have tended to hang around the dirty water well into the summer months. During this past December snoek could be seen jumping in the brown water and there were regular reports of 6- to 8kg snoek being caught opposite the estuary mouth and swimming beach, sometimes as late as 14h00.
A variety of kingfish can be caught in the Mapelane, St Lucia and Cape Vidal fishery. These include the bluefin kingfish, bludger, yellowtail (black tip) kingfish and the big eye kingfish which provide tremendous sport for lure fishermen on light tackle. Then there is the holy grail of tackle busters, the giant kingfish aka the giant trevally/GT/Caranx ignobilis.
Kingfish are said to be resident on the reefs inside The Ledge, generally up to 20m deep, however, big GTs have been hooked on The Ledge while using dead bonnies as bait. Because they are resident (as opposed to pelagic), environmentally friendly fishing and catch and release of these species is encouraged.
Kingfish are generally targeted while drifting livebait and spinning with lures, bucktails and drop shot. They can be targeted all year round, but the prime time for kingfish is September to March with November to March being particularly productive along this coast when the baby turtles hatch and are hunted by the larger predators.
Bluefin kingfish frequent the pinnacles and reefs opposite the Jolly Rubino wreck, and without changing lures there is a good chance of picking up the other kingfish species in this area as well. Conditions permitting, good returns can be realised by casting spoons and bucktails to the wreck itself. First Rock, Mission Rock and behind the reef at the Cape Vidal up to 15m are also popular areas to target the smaller kingfish species.
In the larger category, impressive GTs have been caught at Crayfish Point and further south on the Pinnacles at the Jolly Rubino, but by far the most popular area for targeting GTs is Mission Rock. Again, livebait and spinning are the most popular methods, but trolling Speed Pros at 4- to 5 knots over the shallow reefs can also be effective. GTs like a full moon in summer, and you are sure to develop a deep burn in the arms when trying to stop one of these freight trains.
Cape Vidal has, in some circles, been labelled as “sailfish central” along our coastline; some anglers maintain it’s even better than Sodwana. Different theories for this have been discussed around the campfire without a definitive conclusion being reached, but one thing is unquestionable: there is an abundance of sailfish from Mapelane to Cape Vidal.
It is not uncommon to hook a sailfish while drifting for ’cuda or other gamefish; in fact, it is quite a regular occurrence. I have experienced this on five occasions that I can recall. One such occasion helped dispel the superstitions that surround fishing vessels and fishermen. While drifting for ’cuda between Big Hill and Bats with my good friend Carmen Badenhorst, we were enjoying the boat lunch she had packed — including bananas.
In the middle of a discussion about whether bananas brought bad luck, we had a sharky sounding strike. Carmen politely dodged the “shark” and offered the rod to me. No sooner had I picked it up when the water exploded as a sailfish realized he’d been hooked and breached the surface next to the boat. The sailie was safely released but, needless to say, bananas, eggs, oranges and women are all welcome on my boat.
Sailfish hook ups are fairly regular all year round in the St Lucia/Vidal area, but the best time to experience the gill rattling thrill of a sailfish strike in our fishery is August to November, with better fishing closer to November.
The predominant area to target these exciting fish lies between St Lucia and Cape Vidal. My experience is that more sailfish are caught in the 20m to 30m depth range, although I have also caught sailfish and seen others caught on the 50m mark on The Ledge.
This being the case, I would suggest working between the 20m and the 50m marks in the following areas which are all popular for sailies: Perriers reef, Bats Cave, Big Hill and Cape Vidal lighthouse.
The Mapelane/St Lucia/Cape Vidal area is a prolific marlin fishery holding blue marlin, striped marlin, black marlin and shortbill spearfish.
The drop off (Ledge) in this area is close to the shoreline, reducing the travel time before lines in, adding to the attraction and making marlin accessible and easy to target on boats of any seaworthy size. Perhaps it is the attraction of the variety of gamefish or possibly the expense that detract from marlin being targeted as much as they could be; however, for the adventurous, there is terrific potential of big fish in greater numbers in this area.
Blue and striped marlin are usually targeted using konas, mainly on account of the strong currents in the deep water. The prime time to target these fish is November to April.
Generally, the working depth ranges from 300m to the 1000m mark but is area specific, as explained below. The areas to concentrate your efforts for blues and stripies include, but are not limited to:
The Canyon at Leven Point which drops quickly from 90m to 500m. Moving south, zig-zagging the 500m contour has proved to be very productive up to Cape Vidal point where the 800m contour is a good area to work.
Further south towards St Lucia, the Slides hold abundant structure from the 200m to the 600m mark, and this area is popular amongst the St Lucia and Mapelane marlin anglers. Even further south is the Mapelane Gat. This is another canyon that drops from 200 to 600m very quickly and creates a nice upwelling of nutrients and baitfish.
Black marlin of all sizes can be caught along the entire stretch in varying depths. This past December while fishing for livebait at The Dredger in 12m of water, I (Johan) caught a black marlin on a light tackle flick stick. A few years back, Mark also caught a black marlin in the shallows off the Slides; it was so small that at first he thought it was a dorado. However, the black marlin in the shallows are not always small; within the past five years, a 300kg black marlin was speared in 8m of water off Leven Point. At the time this was a pending record.
It follows that you can and should target black marlin from the shallows up to the 500m mark using my preferred method of livebait angling. Alternatively, if the current allows, target your black marlin on swim baits and skip baits. Unfortunately, our generally rough sea conditions and the low angle of our viewpoints on our boats, makes the switch bait method very difficult to use effectively in this area. That said, it will not hurt to have a bait ready to switch if you do see a marlin come up on a teaser or dredge.
The productive areas to work are Oscar from the 50m to the 500m mark and, my favourite, from Mission Rock to Slides between the 50- and the 300m mark. This area is loaded with structure and, as the old adage goes, one should always fish the structure. Further south, the upwelling at the Mapelane Gat generally creates a holding pattern for marlin livebait such as the tuna species, and is also very productive. Keep a look out for the thermocline as that can be a game changer.
For further information contact the specific ski-boat clubs:
• St Lucia Ski-Boat Club:
Peggy Rigby Cell: 073 789 8660 <email@example.com>
• Mapelane Ski-Boat Club: Lourens (chairman) 083 448 0971
• Cape Vidal Ski-Boat Club: 083 273 0872