Exploring south-west of Christmas Rock, Eastern Cape

[Originally published in the May 2023 issue of SKI-BOAT magazine]

By John Luef and Fred Clarke

THE coastline from Christmas rock to Bira (pronounced Biga) is one of the most picturesque of Southern Africa, being surpassed only by the Wild Coast of the old Transkei, in my opinion.
This area also has a great diversity of species that can be caught from just behind the breakers, all the way out to the “shelf” approximately 20- to 25km offshore, in depths ranging from under 10m up to 100m, with shallow, mid and deep reefs in abundance. In this article we will cover the fishing from Christmas Rock all the way down to Mgwalana river mouth.
Christmas Rock is on the southern boundary of the Gulu Marine Protected Area, so all skippers angling in the area are reminded to ensure they have the coordinates and are aware of all regulations pertaining to the MPAs.
This area is particularly well known for its abundance of decent sized carpenters (dogs) which average over 3kg. The current SA record — a whopping 4.8kg — comes from the area and is held by Garth Roux.
The abundance and diversity of the species in the area can mainly be attributed to:
a) The effectiveness of the MPAs which have become overpopulated over the years, and many fish are migrating out of them.
b) Bag and size limits being implemented years ago that are now showing their effectiveness.
c) Recreational fishermen being far more responsible due to the awareness and protection measures created by clubs and associations.
The area covered in this article has two registered clubs from which vessels may proceed to sea to partake in recreational angling. Visitors to the area can contact the clubs (information below) to enquire about launch permits, costs, and any other relevant information for that site.
• Christmas Rock Ski-Boat Club
Claud Wilken 084 951 2696
• Bira Ski-Boat Club
Anthony Thompson 082 577 9097
Both launches are surf launches and a tractor or 4×4 is definitely required.

When fishing in the shallow reefs up to approximately 40m depths, the more common species to expect are kob, black musselcracker, Scotsman, dageraad, santer (soldier), Roman and yellowbelly rockcod. Gurnard and stockfish are also occasionally caught on sandy areas in approximately 40m water depths.
The mid- to deeper reefs will produce red steenbras, Miss Lucy (red stump), carpenter (dogs), seventy-four, butterfish and geelbek. Although these are predominantly deeper water fish, they have also at times been landed in relatively shallow waters.
Gamefish are rare and not often targeted in these areas.
The coordinates supplied alongside this article need three more numbers on the end (a fisherman has to have some secrets), but they do give a general area where these species can be targeted. Good luck and tight lines.

Generally, in the shallow waters, a light rod of around 7 to 8 foot should be used, along with a reel of your choice and light braid or nylon up to around 20kg. This will give the angler the most pleasure when fighting a fish. For shallower waters an 8-to-12-ounce sinker is usually sufficient.
In this region, anglers mostly use the “Scarborough” (KP) fishing reel, which generally gives a great feel of one-to-one on any fish, but anglers can use whatever they are most comfortable with.
On the deeper reefs, a heavier rod with an 8-inch Scarborough is mostly used. Braid is virtually a must due to the strong currents. As braid is thinner than nylon line, it cuts through the water, gives you more chance of keeping your bait on the seabed, and allows you to feel the bites better.
Nylon has a lot of stretch, and when you’re fishing at 80m-plus depths in a strong current, a lot of bites will not be felt.
In these deeper waters you rarely get away with a light sinker and generally a 16- to 32-ounce sinker is required, depending on the current strength.
The Agulhas current is predominant in this area on the mid- to deeper reefs, running from north to south down the coast and can get extremely strong at times.

Bag limit is five per angler from a boat; minimum length is 50cm, with only one of the five allowed to be above 110cm.
The general area off Hamburg is the best place to target this species, with some very nice sized ones being landed from time to time. Kob can be caught from very shallow to depths up to 40m.
Kob seem to like a neat bait and will readily bite on pilchards, squid and even octopus leg. They are targeted in this area, using three strips of squid dangling off the hook. Some anglers like to use small white or colored skirts above the hook. Generally, a 6/0 to 9/0 hook can be used with a relatively long hook trace, as kob seem to be sensitive to feeling resistance on the hook trace.

Bag limit is one per angler with a minimum 40cm total length. Dageraad feed on many types of bait, including but not limited to pilchards, squid, and sliced fillet. However, their favourite bait is a nice, cleaned piece of octopus leg and in this area the leg is cut into medallions like coins and put on the hook.
A 5/0 to 6/0 hook is a good size to use for this species.

Dale Webb with a black musselcracker.

Bag limit is one per angler with a minimum 50cm total length.
Black musselcracker are abundant in the shallows and up to around 40m deep, although have been caught deeper. This species likes very clear water and areas where there are lots of smaller fish and large reefs.
They will feed on most baits but prefer a big eye (Frans Madam) or steintjie flapper (tail and spine removed). Black steenbras are extremely exciting to catch as they bite ferociously and fight all the way up. They also try to head for the nearest reef to cut off your trace.
A minimum of a 10/0 hook is ideal for this species.

Bag limit is one per angler with minimum 40cm total length.
Scotsman are generally found hanging around with black musselcrackers, and usually when one of these species is caught, the other is caught soon after.
Scotsman can be caught in all depths of water up to 100m, but are more common in the shallows in less than 30m of water.
They feed on most small baits with their favourite being a couple of pieces of squid. A 5/0 hook — not bigger — is ideal for this species as they have relatively small mouths.
Scotsman are also strong, clean fighters and give immense pleasure to light tackle anglers. They are one of the more stunning fish in the ocean with very vibrant colours.

Bag limit is two per angler with minimum 30cm total length.
Romans are, without doubt, one of the most colourful fish in the sea, and their bright red colour is unmistakable. From in front of Christmas Rock all the way down to Bira, they are quite abundant, and specimens of over 3kg are caught regularly.
These fish are mostly found in shallow water under 20m deep where they feed on a variety of small baits like squid, octopus and pilchards. They have very small mouths, and a 3/0 to 5/0 hook will be ideal.

Bag limit is five per angler with minimum 30cm total length.
Soldiers are normally found in the shallows in less than 40m of water, in shoals where they will aggressively feed on just about any bait presented to them. Usually a couple of strips of squid or a whole pilchard works well. A 5/0 hook is the ideal size for this species.
They are extremely feisty fighters and are very enjoyable to catch.

Bag limit is one per angler with minimum 40cm total length. These fish are relatively rare in this area and are not often caught. It is advisable to release them to allow their stocks to multiply.

Bag limit is one per angler with minimum length of 60cm.
This fish is known to be extremely slow growing and very territorial. Yellowbellies will readily take sliced bait as well as small flapper baits. They can also be targeted on old smelly pilchards which most other species will not take. They have very large mouths and can be caught on 8/0 and larger hooks.
Yellowbelly rockcod are known to grab a bait and head into holes or crevices, with the angler having a hard time getting them out.
Beware when handling them because their gill plates are very sharp and have sliced open many an angler’s hands.

This species has no size limit, and the bag limit is ten per person.
Gurnards are almost always only caught in sandy areas and in water round 40m deep.
They generally like pilchard baits and are found right on the sea bed, so are targeted with a very short sinker trace. Despite their fearsome appearance, gurnards are extremely tasty and very sought after.

Bag limit is five per angler with no size limit. They are very popular table fish in South Africa and have huge commercial value, being netted and caught on long line commercial vessels.
Stockfish can be caught along this area of the coast and are generally also found in sandy areas from 40m depths. The trawlers and long liners usually catch deep water hake in much deeper areas.
Hake enjoy a strip of squid or pilchards and are generally targeted with 8/0 or bigger hooks. Their mouth is relatively soft, so they cannot be brought up fast or the hook may tear out.
They also have very sharp teeth and anglers must take care when handling them.

Bag limit is one per angler with minimum 60cm total length. They have a closed season for October and November each year, although clubs and associations have voluntary increased this to include September for their members.
Red steenbras is the iconic species for the Border area and they are fairly abundant on the deeper reefs, although they sometimes pop up on the shallow reefs as well. This species gives anglers one of the most exciting thrills when it bites as the bite is very aggressive and exaggerated; they then go on to give one of the most exciting fights — long, hard and tiring, but very satisfying in the end.
Generally red steenbras are caught in around 90m of water. This fish will feed on most baits from a mixed grill to a live smaller fish (butterfish, dikbekkie or carpenter), sliced baits, flappers and pilchards, and have even taken small strips of squid. Some days they can be extremely fussy and will only take on certain baits, which makes it a great challenge to the angler. A 10/0 or larger hook can be used to catch this species.
These great fish do not release very well, so rather move to other areas once you have caught your quota, as they will continue to feed.

John Luef with a beautiful Miss Lucy caught on a Scarborough reel.

Bag limit is one per angler with minimum 40cm total length.
Miss Lucy is one of the most beautifully coloured fish to catch, with banded shades of bright red and white which vary extensively in males and females, and black speckles. They have huge bumps on their foreheads which are more pronounced in the males. Once landed, they also have a very strong distinctive smell and are quite slimy.
They will feed on a variety of baits including pilchard, squid, mixed baits, and octopus. Their favourite is a long, thin mixed bait and a squid head. They can generally be caught on 5/0 to 6/0 hooks.

Bag limit is four per angler with minimum 35cm total length.
Carpenters are nicknamed dogs due to the structure of their teeth which is very similar to that of a dog.
As mentioned earlier, this species is the most abundant in this area and can generally be caught at any depth from 20m and up, even beyond 100m. They congregate in very large shoals, and it can become very frustrating when an angler cannot get any other species due to their abundance and continuous feeding.
Carpenter will feed and bite very aggressively on absolutely any bait. They have large mouths and can be caught on 8/0 hooks with a large luminous bead above the hook, which attracts the fish.

Bag limit is five per angler with minimum 30cm total length.
These fish are not as abundant in this area as they are in the East London area, but can be caught on the deeper reefs. They are generally found in shoals and will feed on small squid baits. They can be caught on a 2/0 or 3/0 hook with one small strip of squid and a luminous bead above the hook. They have tiny mouths and make an excellent bait for red steenbras.

Keagan Nieuwenhuis with a lovely geelbek.

Bag limit is two per angler with minimum 60cm total length.
Geelbek are so called, because of the bright yellow colour inside their mouths. They are long, streamlined fish and give a very hard fight to any angler. Their bite is an unmistakable aggressive shake, and they often swim up with your bait, creating slack line.
This is probably the most unpredictable species in our waters as they are mostly caught on the deeper reefs for three- to four months following the annual sardine run, but they can often be caught on the shallower reefs as well. They are also caught sporadically in unexpected areas all year around. They usually move around in large shoals.
Geelbek will feed on pilchards, sliced bait and squid, but sometimes get “lockjaw”, and although they can be seen on the fishfinder, they cannot be enticed with any bait.
Due to their large mouths 10/0 or bigger hooks can be used.

This is a banned species and must be released. They are, however, extremely abundant in this area on the deeper reefs and some days are pests as they are so abundant that you cannot catch any other species.
They feed on any baits put down for other species.
In my opinion, it’s long overdue that the decision makers un-ban this species.

As mentioned earlier, gamefish are not usually targeted in this area, but dorado, bonito and yellowfin tuna can be found in our waters from November through to March each year. The most common species caught then are bonitos, with the odd yellowfin tuna being caught.
Angling in the Christmas Rock and Bira areas can be very exciting and rewarding due to the many species available to target and the diverse seascape, so go out there and have some fun.

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