The words ‘prime spearfishing’ don’t necessarily come to mind when you think of Durban. The harbour and yucky water is what one usually thinks of first. But this could not be further from the truth. For those in the know, Durban during winter is an absolute spearfishing Mecca, with some of the most fantastic and challenging diving on the planet. From shallow water winter species like Garrick and Brusher, to Grunter and Daga Salmon on the wrecks… Durban might not be paradise, but boy can you get fish.
In this article we are going to focus on the wrecks and reefs in the Durban basin and the two main target species, the Daga Salmon (Argyrosomus Japonicus) and the Spotted Grunter (Pomadasys Commersonnil). The Daga Salmon is a trophy fish like no other, unlike most blue water trophy gamefish that swim up to a flasher in shallow water. With Daga, skill and great diving ability are required for a successful hunt, and it’s this challenge that makes them so attractive and a prize of note.
Pretty much all the wrecks and locations that hold Daga in Durban are over 25m, and this coupled with the fact that the visibility will probably be 8m at best and a balmy 20oC means that it’s not the easiest diving. Put it this way, if you are a 60 to 70 downs a day diver, you are probably going to only do a third of that on the wrecks. Constant diving to depth is taxing and this is where fitness and ability come into play. As a general rule, you will need to be able to operate in 30m to be able to work the tough environment of the wrecks in winter.
I know that for many of our readers, getting to these depths is only a fantasy, but use this as a goal for each year’s progress and develop your diving. If you feel you are ready for this challenge, make sure you have competent divers with you and dive well within your limits.
This is extremely dangerous diving and there are loads of things that can go wrong. Don’t be too proud to ask the guys to keep an eye on you.
WHEN TO GO
The best time of the year is late winter, August through October, but you can start getting Daga and Grunter on the wrecks from as early as late June. The fish stay around as late as mid-December if the water does not warm up too quickly, but this is rare. One of the signs that the Daga will start to populate the wrecks is the pilot shoals of Sardines. Once these have passed Durban you should start looking at the wrecks.
The best conditions are normally after a westerly has cleaned up the water, however you will need to catch a day when there is not too much current, otherwise your work rate will increase and diving will become very difficult.
PLAN OF ATTACK
It is best to go and dive the wrecks a couple times with some guys who have been doing it for a while, this way you will get a good idea of how to effectively work each spot.
If you don’t have that opportunity, getting out there and working it out by yourself is not impossible and if you put your failures down to ‘school fees’ it won’t be long before you start having successful sessions on the wrecks.
The first step is to locate the wreck or structure on the sounder. This is where good equipment comes into play. Make note of where the bait fish are in relation to the wreck. This will help when deciding on which side to make some of your dives. Drop a marker buoy just up current of the wreck, and once it has settled go over the wreck again to double check where the wreck is in relation to the marker.
On your first dive, you should try to be directly on the wreck as this will help you get an idea of your bearings. So, when you hit the surface, take note of where you are in relation to the marker buoy and plan your next few dives accordingly.
Tip: Ask either the topman or the guy who did the first dive where the wreck is. Don’t waste a single dive, make each one count.
The Daga and Grunter in most cases won’t be on the wreck at all but off on the sand. This will mean that you will want to aim to land just next to the wreck or structure. You will need to get right onto the sand, don’t stop short in the bait fish as the Daga are unlikely to come in on you while they can clearly see you above them. This is the tough part as the last few metres to the sand are the hardest. Try not to dawdle down… get to the bottom and stay there. The guys with great diving ability will often cover area or swim towards the drumming of the Daga. This is what makes some guys more effective than others. But swimming around on the bottom in the cold green gloom at 28m is easier said than done. Rather sit tight, conserve your energy and get to the surface fresh. This way you will be able to execute another fresh dive in the direction of the fish sooner and more effectively than if you come up when you have pushed it.
Tip: Don’t ‘push’ your dives to your maximum bottom times. There will be many dives in the day and you will need to conserve your energy.
The Daga generally swim along the sand underneath the bait fish, and they will often come in off the sand and approach you. If you see the shoals of Grunter, don’t be too quick to shoot one as the Daga are usually right behind them. Leave the Grunter for last; if you don’t shoot at them they will stay near the wreck. Once you have done a couple of dives and assessed that there are no Daga around then start to hunt the Grunter.
The problem with Grunter, is that after you have taken one or two fish, the shoal usually spooks and you will have to move on. Some guys say that the trick is to try and shoot the Grunter on the way down from the top. This way the shoal congregates around the wreck for safety. I have had mixed results with this, but it has worked. The best way is to stone the Grunter and not make too much commotion.
Many guys get ‘shoaled’ by Grunter and land up missing the fish. (Getting shoaled is when there are so many fish you battle to choose a fish and when you do, you miss) The best way to guarantee a fish is to lie on the bottom and aim at the fish coming past. Only focus on the ones still coming and forget about the ones that have passed. This way you can pick out a good fish coming in and without moving your gun too much, take the shot as the fish crosses your sights. The moment you start going back and forth you are setting yourself up for another miss shot.
Once you have gotten a spear into a fish you are only half way home, you still need to get to the surface and at the same time stop the fish from getting into the structure. Grunter are not too much of a problem, but don’t just shoot and swim. Be conscious of not letting too much line out otherwise the fish will run freely into the structure and reef you up. A 6 to 8kg Grunter will give you a fair run and you will need to hold this fish. Daga are another story altogether. They play dirty and at 20kg plus you have to do everything you can to hold or turn this giant fish. This is partly why it is important to always have a little extra in the gas tank, you are going to need it hauling this fish off the bottom.
After you have shot the Daga, turn and start to swim up and away from the wreck. For the first few kicks do not let much line (if any) out and once you are about 5 to 10m off the bottom, try let out the line only as fast as you are going up. Once your line is vertical and the fish is off the bottom you should be able to land the fish without getting reefed up.
Tip: Once you’re off the bottom you don’t need to put too much pressure on the fish. Gently bring the fish up, as there is always a chance that the spear has pulled through while holding the fish off the wreck. If you did not puncture the swim bladder the fish will start to float upwards from about 8m.
BEST GEAR TO USE
Daga, and even Grunter, have hard scales, but the Daga’s scales are probably the thickest and hardest out there. They are normally a bit bigger than a R5 coin and if you don’t have enough power to go through the fish then you will probably just injure it and lose it.
For this reason the guys who hunt these fish on a more frequent basis will use high powered guns.
The guns range from 1.1m up to 1.4m in the cleaner water. The typical set up is a 1.1m or 1.2m gun with a short 20mm band and a 7mm spear. This is usually fine when hunting in 2 to 4m vis.
As soon as the vis opens up, a 1.3m or even a 1.4m gun is advisable. These are big fish and you have to make sure that your spear goes through. If you are able to load an extremely short (70 to 72cm) 20mm band on a 1.3 with a 7mm spear, then a single band will be sufficient. Otherwise 2 x 16mm with a 7.5mm spear or 2 x 14mm with a 7mm spear are good options. (Remember that overpowering double bands can lead to the gun being inaccurate due to recoil.)
Don’t use a double wrap shooting line as this will only give the fish those few metres more to get into the wreck before you can start applying pressure. Dynema is a good option for your shooting line as this won’t cut as easily as mono does if the fish swims you around the wreck.
Most of the guys diving the wrecks these days use reel guns, but unless you are super confident in being able to handle holding a big fish with a reel gun or dealing with a muzzle wrap with a big fish swimming away from you, then stick to using a buoy line.
Get a 5mm chicle smooth skin top or at very least put a raincoat on while travelling on the boat. The winter mornings can be seriously cold and will chill you to the bone, and being cold is not going to help with your breath hold.
Make sure you are weighted correctly, especially if you are wearing a thick suit. You want to be neutral at about 10m.
Never put a Daga head first into a hatch, unless you are able to get to the head again. They are virtually impossible to pick up by the tail.
Take extra time on your breathe up, add a couple minutes to it and make sure you are super relaxed. Draw straws to see who will dive down first at each wreck, this way you eliminate the race to get to the bottom first. This will mean your breathe ups are better and your dives safer.
If possible stop off at the Southern Breakwater or some shallow reef and do a handful of dives to warm up. Otherwise you could hurt yourself diving straight to 29m and land up with lung squeeze.
Make sure your spears are very sharp to get through tough scales.
The fish are usually on the current side either over sand or under high shaded areas, they may sit on smaller structures off on the sand.
When there is no current, look for fish near overhangs or in and around plates on broken sections. Even have a look higher up on the wreck for holes that hold fish.
Give fishermen a chance if they are there first, or ask them nicely if you can dive if they are not catching anything.
COOPER’S LIGHT WRECK
Max depth: 32m
Average Depth: 26m
Lying almost 4km off shore, Cooper’s is one of the deeper wrecks visited by spearfishermen. It is rather far from all the other wrecks at 10km south of the harbour and does not get dived all that often. Only a handful of guys can effectively work this wreck.
The wreck’s name is actually still unknown other than it was probably scuttled after one of the world wars. The wreck comes up to 25m, making it a great dive if you are in the area.
NUMBER ONE REEF
Max depth: 32m
Average Depth: 25m
Number One is often the first stop for many guys as it starts about 6km from the launch at DUC and can produce really good fish. The Grunter shoals seem to congregate there towards late winter and if you know where to look there are some spots that hold Daga as well.
Number One is a large area and finding the fish will require a fair bit of local knowledge and a good sounder. The Grunter do tend to stay out on the sand, so when you find a solid showing just off the reef there is a good chance that it is Grunter.
Max depth: 27m
Average Depth: 25m
The ‘Containers’ is actually a whole bunch of different structures that are strewn across the bay. The more prominent ones are made up of Containers lost off ships either in bad seas or that were dumped. The Durban bay is a treasure chest of sunken debris, some guys even have marks for odd things like an aeroplane and an old tractor. There are even some old tree trunks washed down from big floods that lie in some shallower water that can also be productive on the right days. These structures can hold very good fish and it is almost mandatory to stop off at each of them on route to the more prominent wrecks. For the most part they are fairly small and a marker buoy dropped right on the showing will be key to a successful dive.
Max depth: 27
Average Depth: 23m
The T Barge is actually an old floating crane that was sunk in 1990 by the Oceanographic Research Institute. The wreck is T-shaped, about 30m by 20m in size and comes off the sand at 3m. There is also a section of the gantry still intact in the middle that comes up quite high off the top of the barge. This is a prime Daga and Grunter spot and even if it appears to be quiet, do a few dives on the sand listening for the tell tale drumming of the Daga.
Max depth: 28m
Average Depth: 20m
The Fontao Wreck is an old Mozambiquan prawn trawler that was sunk by the Oceanographic Research Institute in 1991. It is not a massive ship but is 33m long and comes over 10m off the sand making it a very picturesque dive. Don’t get caught up looking on the wreck too much, as the Daga and Grunter will be down off the sides on the sand. That’s not to say that you will never see a Daga swimming over the wreck, so do your first orientating dives onto the structure and then cover the area around the wreck.
Diving the wrecks is very dangerous it is very easy to get reefed and tangled in your line. The wreck may also move so be careful of what you swim into. Strange surges and currents can also pull you into the wreck so always exercise extreme caution. Remember wrecks have caused many fatalities and blackouts.
If you are ‘top manning’ the boat don’t just park off. Be aware of when and where each diver dives, and take into consideration their dive times so you can know when to expect them to surface. Your quick response could save a life.
Remember you can forget how deep you going, and the presence of big fish can push a diver past his limits. Know when to turn around, and if you start taking strain, get on the boat or call it a day. Dive conservatively and safely and enjoy the experience.
Thanks to the following guys for their input and information used in this article: Ryan Burmester, Guy Le Meme, Garret Staats, Garrick Morris.