Monday, March 25, 2019

South Africa part 10 - Struisbaai chapter 2 - hammer time

This is the end of the saga! The tenth and final post from our South African adventures. On Sunday, March 24th, Josh and I woke up in Struisbaai for our second full day of shore fishing with Xander de Beer. We were feeling fantastic after each catching a monstrous ragged tooth shark the night before, and we were ready to see what else we could add to our lists with the remaining day and a half before we had to fly home.

Xander took us west to fish a rocky cove on the edge of town. We went back and forth between the two oceans, and this time we were starting off in the Atlantic. We soaked baits for sharks, and while we waited I microfished the tidepools. New species were getting harder to come by though, with most of the fish being either banded gobies or super klipfish.

Banded Goby (Caffrogobius caffer)

Super Klipfish (Clinus superciliosus)

We told Xander we were interested in more of the small endemic sharks like the spotted gully shark and various shysharks. This was supposed to be a good spot for them, but again the bite was slow. Josh caught one new species of shyshark, but I didn't get any bites.

As the tide was coming in I noticed a fish in the tidepool to my right that looked different from the klipfish. It was a picky eater, but a freshly cracked mussel was too tempting. I caught my first lifer of the day, a redfingers. They're called redfingers because the extended pectoral fin rays turn red on bigger individuals, but the ones on mine were mostly white.

Redfingers (Cheilodactylus fasciatus) - new hook & line species #638

Josh had a shot at a redfingers as well, but after trying for a few minutes it was time to pack up and head to the next spot. When he gave up I cracked open a new mussel, put on a fresh piece of bait, and caught the second one. I am a huge jerk, and Josh will never let me forget it! Changing topics though, here is a cool coastal flower we saw.

We headed back towards town for our next spot. I honestly can't remember if it was in the Atlantic or Indian Ocean, which is a statement that only makes sense if you're fishing in Struisbaai. We fished from the rocks again, but this time the bottom was mostly sandy. The clock was ticking with the incoming tide and crashing surf threatening to push us off the rocks.

Once again the sharks didn't show up, but I did feel small taps on my line. Whatever it was didn't have a big enough mouth to take in the bait whole. After failing to hook whatever it was a dozen times, I finally succeeded and pulled in another species of seacatfish. As a shark fishing guide Xander hoped we wouldn't post these, but guess what... a new species is a new species, so here it is. Sorry Xander!

White Seacatfish (Galeichthys feliceps) - new hook & line species #639

The incoming tide chased us off the rocks, so we took a break and had lunch at a fish 'n' chips place. The portions were so big, and the food was so greasy that it was honestly difficult to stand up after we finished. In the afternoon we went back to the same beach (definitely the Indian Ocean) where we caught the ragged tooth sharks. The water was more turquoise than the day before, and Xander declared that it looked like good hammerhead conditions.

Apparently Xander knows his stuff, because my first bite was none other than a small hammerhead, the perfect size for a quick photo and release. This same species of hammerhead shows up in San Diego during El Nino years, but they're typically around 10 feet, so I'm extremely relieved that I don't have to think about catching one now.

Smooth Hammerhead (Sphyrna zygaena) - new hook & line species #640

Josh quickly caught a hammerhead as well, but unfortunately it was foul hooked on the head. He debated on whether or not to count it, but what he really wanted was to catch another one that was fair hooked. Several hours later he got one, and I could tell he was immensely relieved. I may have caught one or two lesser guitarfish, but mostly it was a steady stream of smoothhounds.

Smoothhound (Mustelus mustelus)

We didn't have any big sharks this time, but we got a good workout after dark when a butterfly ray took Josh's bait and then got tangled up in my line. We reeled it in together, but we weren't sure who's fish it was until we had it on the beach. Fortunately it was the same species I caught in Durban Harbor, and since it was Josh's bait in its mouth he could count it as his catch. It was huge too, easily over 200 lbs!

The next morning we had a few bonus hours to fish before we needed to drive back to Cape Town. Xander gave us the options of trying for sharks again or species fishing an estuary a short drive from Struisbaai. We went with the latter. 

We walked the shoreline of the estuary and threw small shiny lures. After a few missed bites, I hooked up with one of the small leerfish that was chasing bait fish. Also called garrick, they get much larger than this, but as we keep saying, a species is a species. After that I spent the remaining time fishing bait, which resulted in another white seacatfish and a handsome white steenbras, my last new species of the trip.

Leerfish (Lichia amia) - new hook & line species #641

White Seacatfish (Galeichthys feliceps)

White Steenbras (Lithognathus lithognathus) - new hook & line species #642

Xander took us back to the rental house where we packed our luggage, said our goodbyes, and then drove our rental car back to Cape Town to catch our flights. I headed to Johannesburg first, then had an international flight to Atlanta, and finally flew back to San Diego the following morning.

I want to give a huge thanks to Xander for making all the arrangements for our stay in Struisbaai and putting us on some really cool fish. It was an awesome end to our trip. I ended up adding 67 new species to my list, including some very memorable ones like the tigerfish and the ragged tooth shark. We did a good mix of guided and DIY fishing. Of course it would have been cool to discover more on our own, but we did the best with the time we have. Thanks again to Josh, Eli, and Ken for being such good travel and fishing companions. And to everyone who made it through all 10 blog posts, thanks for reading!

Sunday, March 24, 2019

South Africa part 9 - Struisbaai chapter 1 - ragged tooth

On the evening of Friday, March 22nd Josh and I drove our rental car from Gordon's Bay down to Stuisbaai, a few hours along the coast to the south. When we arrived we met Xander de Beer, owner of Zoo Look Fishing, who would be our guide for the next few days. Xander's specialty is big sharks from the surf, which Josh and I hoped to catch in order to balance out all the tiny fish we had been catching. We arrived in Struisbaai with enough daylight for Xander to take us out for a short session. We met up with his friend Stefan and fished the surf in a rocky cove. Josh caught a spotted gully shark, but I came up empty handed. Once it got dark we packed up and drove back to the house Xander had rented for the three of us.

The next morning we started early at one of Xander's low tide spots. We walked out over a field of rocks and cast out into deeper water. We played the waiting game, but the sharks didn't show up.

Since our baits weren't getting any interest, Xander kept us moving to new spots. Our next stop was a cove surrounded by jagged rocks and tidepools. Xander told us this spot was great for sharks.

We picked our way over the rocks and set our gear down where there was some protection from the crashing surf. The water was churning from the wind and surf, and the waves would occasionally wash into the tidepools carved into the rock.

The bite was slow, but we were able to pick up a few species. Josh caught a new species of klipfish in the tidepools. I tried as well but came up with the same super klipfish from Gordon's Bay. We each got a few nibbles on our shark baits, and Josh pulled in a small shyshark, and I caught a saltwater catfish.
Super Klipfish (Clinus superciliosus)

Black Seacatfish (Galeichthys ater) - new hook & line species #633

We took a break from fishing to stop by Africa's southernmost point. This point also divides the Indian Ocean from the Atlantic Ocean. Thanks for joining me on this little side adventure Josh!

Xander needed to stop back at the house to get some baits for our evening session, so he dropped us off at the marina so we could species fish. This was really the only time we fished next to other people in Struisbaai, and we had a few encounters with flying sinkers and hooks from younger anglers. Fortunately no eyes were poked out.

Photo courtesy of Josh Leisen.

There were small fish around the rocks, but catching them proved to be tricky. By the time Xander came back, Josh had caught a species of fingerfish, and I had caught a salema and a Janbruin, or John Brown. I think we left a few new species on the table at this spot, but that was ok as we were eager to get back to shark fishing.

Salema (Sarpa salpa)

Janbruin (Gymnocrotaphus curvidens) - new hook & line species #634

Xander drove us out of town to a sandy beach where we could soak baits in the surf for the rest of the afternoon and evening. The road going to the parking area was so choked with sand that only a 4x4 vehicle could make it. We had the beach mostly to ourselves.

We soaked big baits on Xander's rods, and while we waited for the sharks to show up I fished a smaller rig with my travel gear. Josh and I were both really excited to catch lesser guitarfish, and we didn't get tired of them even after we pulled in several each. Later in the afternoon we doubled up on dusky kob, which was the same species I caught in Durban Harbor.

Lesser Guitarfish (Acroteriobatus annulatus) - new hook & line species #635

Dusky Kob (Argyrosomus coronus)

After dark our thoughts turned to sharks. It was their hour, and we really hoped they'd show up hungry and find our baits. We were teased by smoothhounds, which weren't the sharks we were hoping for, but at least it was a new species. There had to be something bigger out there though.

Smoothhound (Mustelus mustelus) - new hook & line species #636

Finally it happened - one of the big rods bent over, and line started peeling off the reel. We let the fish run for 20 or 30 seconds, and then I lowered the rod tip as I tightened up the drag. When I lifted the rod back up, the circle hook dug in, and the fight began!

I've caught a few decent sized sharks in San Diego, but nothing has tired me out as much as this fish. Its runs weren't very fast, but whatever it was had a lot of weight, and when it wanted to go in a particular direction, there wasn't much I could do to stop it. We didn't keep track of how long the fight took, but I would estimate that 30 minutes went by where the fish was in charge, and then over the next 10 minutes I put line back on the reel and eventually got it into the surf. Xander followed the line out in the dark and grabbed its tail, a huge ragged tooth or sand tiger shark!

Sand Tiger Shark (Carcharias taurus) - new hook & line species #637

We measured its precaudal length at 190 cm or 6 feet 3 inches. Xander looked up an estimate of its weight with a length vs. weight chart, and it came out to 286 lbs. It was almost 3 times heavier than the biggest fish I'd ever caught! We kept her on wet sand where the occasional wave would wash over her gills, and once we were finished taking measurements and a few photos, I turned the big girl around and pulled her back into waist deep water and watched her swim away.

Josh didn't have to wait long for his rod to go off, and we repeated the whole process again. The only difference though was that his ragged tooth shark was even bigger! Its weight estimate was 327 lbs, by far the biggest fish Josh has ever caught. It was such an epic end to the night, and it was an experience we will never forget. Both of our sharks had tags near their dorsal fins, and Xander was able to send in the info and find out more about the two sharks. Both had been caught in the Struisbaai area by recreational anglers multiple times over the years, which goes to show how important ethical handling and catch and release fishing are for large sharks. I'm sure both of them will add on 50 more lbs and eventually be caught again.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

South Africa part 8 - Gordon's Bay fishing the jetty

On Thursday, March 21st Josh and I took a domestic flight from Durban to Cape Town to start the bonus leg of our South African trip. We would eventually make our way down the coast to Struisbaai, so to make the drive shorter we rented an apartment in Gordon's Bay for the first night.

We needed a break from fishing (it's embarrassing, but it's true), so after we settled into the apartment we geared up to go trail running in the nearby Helderberg Nature Reserve. We knew the elevation gain would be tough, but we didn't realize how steep the main trail up the mountain would be, so we had to walk quite a bit. The view of False Bay and the surrounding area was well worth it though.

Eli had a bonus leg for his trip as well, a few days in Malawi targeting cichlids, but he also had enough time to join us in Gordons Bay for a day of fishing. We planned to fish the rock jetty of one of the nearby marinas, but first we wanted to checkout the stream near our apartment. That area has two endemic species, Cape galaxia and Cape kurper. We walked the bank for a while, and the water was pretty clear, but we didn't see any fish. We knew they would be tough to find, so we decided our time was better spent at the jetty picking up saltwater species.

Originally we had a fishing charter booked, but they called a few days before we arrived to let us know that it was cancelled due to the high winds in the forecast. They made the right call, because the wind was howling when we arrived at the jetty. And to think we also considered doing kayak rentals!

Fortunately the jetty made a perfect wind break, so the water inside the marina was calm. We chatted with the owners of the bait shop for a few minutes, and they recommended we head to the end of the jetty and fish the channel as the tide was going out. It looked promising.

I rigged up a piece of bait on medium gear and cast it out to the center of the channel. Perhaps something would pick it up as the tide was going out. While I waited I fished the rocks with lighter gear to catch the oddball stuff. The oddball stuff ended up being 90% super klipfish, and eventually a South African mullet and a Cape stumpnose. The klipfish were highly variable in appearance, so I took a photo of each one I caught, but they turned out to all be the same species. 

Super Klipfish (Clinus superciliosus) - new hook & line species #625

South African Mullet (Chelon richardsonii) - new hook & line species #626

White Stumpnose (Rhabdosargus globiceps) - new hook & line species #627

In classic Ben fashion, I added another injury to my list of fishing mishaps. The rocks closest to the water had a film of algae on them that made them incredibly slippery. I got overconfident, and you can see the result below. Coincidentally, those were the same pants that I was wearing when the catfish in Peru stabbed me with its pectoral spine. Sadly, they did not return home with me from Africa.

We expected the new species to come a little more easily, but we had to work pretty hard for them. The bait in the center of the channel wasn't getting any love, but eventually I was able to find one more small species in the rocks, the barehead goby.

Barehead Goby (Caffrogobius nudiceps) - new hook & line species #628

At low tide we decided to move over to the tidepools that had become exposed next to the base of the jetty. It was a habitat unlike anything we had ever seen. The rocks were pointed upward in jagged rows. I was glad to be wearing my sturdy hiking boots!

The tidepools were full of gobies, and they were easy to fish for. We added two more species from the same genus as the barehead goby. One of the commafin gobies I caught was especially colorful, and some of the banded gobies were jet black. The only other fish I saw were a few juvenile super klipfish, but there were other cool things to see like octopi, anemones, and urchins.

Commafin Goby (Caffrogobius saldanha) - new hook & line species #629

Banded Goby (Caffrogobius caffer) - new hook & line species #630

We were keeping an eye on the clock, and it was getting close to last call, so I gathered up some mussels from the tidepools and took them back out on the jetty. We hadn't really fished the ocean side, but I thought it was worth a shot despite the wind and surf. After a few bait resets, I felt a solid bite and pulled in the national fish of South Africa. Its name is really fun to say out loud. Give it a try, and say it with gusto! 

Galjoen (Dichistius capensis) - new hook & line species #631

We ate a seafood lunch at the restaurant next to the jetty. It was greasy but good. The tide was coming back in, and when we finished eating we noticed some kids fishing at the end of a concrete ramp. We didn't have much time, but it was worth taking a look.

The kids were catching a mix of small fish. Most of them were mullet, but there were a couple of salema mixed in as well. Josh and I needed the salema, so we jogged over to the car, got our micro gear, and jogged back. It was one of those situations that we felt should be easy, but it took us a while before we each caught one. Thanks to the kids for putting up with us!

Salema (Sarpa salpa) - new hook & line species #632

Eight new species in a day where our fishing charter got cancelled was beyond awesome. Sure the fish weren't big, but we did our best given the circumstances. The galjoen was the highlight for me. I wonder what else was lurking under the waves that we missed.

Photo courtesy of Elijah Wang.

After taking a group selfie, Josh and I said our goodbyes to Eli and hit the road for Stuisbaai (which should also be said with gusto).