An Epic Day’s Diving at Protea Banks, Natal South Coast - Corry Versluis

Corry VersluisThe following is a recount of an absolutely phenomenal day involving 2 Marlin, a crocodile Couta, massive Kaakaps, Dusky Yellowtail and a wayward Cape Yellowtail. This is the reason we all spearfish and it’s a day I will never forget.

Wednesday, 10th January saw a second day of exceptionally good weather here in Natal. Garret Staats and I decided to take a trip out to the Protea Banks to target big game fish. The banks are known for big game fish but alas, also notorious for aggressive Zambezi Sharks and many other denizens of the deep that have frequently been spotted. Fisherman (and spearo’s) often lose many fish to the tax man and this coupled with being a very deep dive (26m at its shallowest) is testament that it is not a frequent dive spot.

We launched at about 09h00 from the Mzimkulu river mouth and had a quick 11km trip to the banks. The sea was dead flat and calm, not a breath of wind and the water getting bluer and bluer the further out we ventured. To say we were excited was an understatement as we dedicated the days diving to “Glory and Honour” in search of big game fish.

We arrived at the spot and decided as there were only two of us to drift with the boat to which our flashers were attached. There was already action in the water but a very slight N-S current with small Bonito everywhere and now we realised we had to relax and transcend our psyche into that karmic zone where you’re not a floating signpost telling all fish in the area to “come here, I want to shoot you”.

The first drift was uneventful as we did a couple of dives to open up the lungs and get the heart rate down. The water was crystal on top but a total vis of about 15m left us under no illusion that today could be the day. The second drift we started seeing the Bonnies and I dived in amongst them hoping to maybe shoot a size one but they were all still at crèche. When I turned and looked up I was dumbfounded as a Cape Yellowtail was gnawing at my flasher. But Garret had already started to line up on it. Curse those Bonnies, a plague on all their houses and my eagerness. A solid shot from Garret saw a 4.3kg ‘Tail in the hatch very quickly.

The next drift again proved fruitless and we decided on a slightly deeper line. Here the water was slightly cleaner and from about 15m down you could see the bottom (depth 30m). I hung at around 20m where I spotted a massive Ember Parrot of around 10kg. I dropped to about 23m and placed what I thought a solid shot in the side only to see it come off. The next dive down I saw my favourite target, several Kaakap of around 4-5kg. Being a bit over eager on one I placed my well aimed shot short. Curses!

Relax, calm down I told myself. We had now started drifting into the murkier water and so jumped back onto the boat. Although, truth be told it is actually a bathtub with a 30 Yammi (come to think of it, I’ve been in bigger bathtubs…). We traipsed back to our jump point and started the drift. I noticed on the GPS that we had drifted further in less time. “Hmmm, current picking up” I said to Garret. This is good, very, very good. My first dive down, I saw and shot a 4.3kg Kaakap, but in the process I saw bigger ones right on the bottom. At the surface Garret’s remark “ahh you bastard, you got one” as he hadn’t managed to shoot a Kaakap yet. I remarked that they were thick and you just had to wait a while at about 23m and in they came.

Next dive to the bottom Garret managed to shoot a 7.9kg Couta that came right in on my flasher. Slightly miffed I decided to hang around the flashers but got bored after about 30 seconds and dived down into a shoal of small Bonnies.

They were highly agitated and darting around and I was thinking jackpot. I saw a bus of a Dusky Shark and a movement on my right hand startled me as I realised not a shark but a crocodile of a Couta, 25kg+ was cruising in on me. This was going to be a phenomenal day. I lined up and shot it behind the gill plate 2cm below the lateral line. It just stopped dead in the water. I had barely time enough to think “stoned” when it took off, the tail cavatating the water like a Wahoo does. I let the fish run and actually felt the rope burn as the floatline tore through my hand. I must admit I thought that maybe I shot a Wahoo but it was definitely a Couta. I played the fish for about 30seconds when suddenly the line went slack.

Anguish! Shark? Couldn’t be, didn’t have the classic jerking. Come off? No chance, solid shot, new spear and new mono. Belatedly I hauled in the line to see that the mono had snapped very neatly where it went through the hole in the spear. It wasn’t the crimps it was bizarre, the mono just snapped where it shouldn’t have.

Meanwhile, Garret had now also shot a Dusky Yellowtail of 8.5kg, a new personal best. 3 species of game fish, 3 max weighers. Garret is having quite a good day I thought to myself. Little did I know?

To put it lightly I was now thoroughly miffed. 3 Quality fish missed. “Give me my reel gun” I said to him as I disembarked into the water. “Don’t you want your float line?” He replied. “No, I’m going for those big Kaakap”. At least I could console myself if I managed to shoot a 6-8kg Kaakap.

First down to about 26m, just to get the lungs working for the coming deep dives. I saw a few 4-6kg Kaakaps and was tempted, but the prey lay deeper. On coming up I was met with an ecstatic Garret who had managed to shoot a 4.9kg Kaakap. Bastard, it’s bigger than mine. It was his first ever Kaakap so the man looked as if a bevy of supermodels had acquiesced to his desires.

Corry VersluisFour game fish, four max weighers! Is this guy having a good day or what? I told him to relax, and get his heart rate down so he can shoot a few more. Now was time to let the big dogs out. I breathed up five slow deep breaths the last taking a few extra gulps and sank into the deep. I closed my eyes and relaxed and kicked slow rhythmic but powerful kicks. One thing I must stress is that Carbon fins are a must. They give at least an extra 5-8m of depth which is a massive advantage. Periodically taking a peep to see I don’t crash into the bottom I flared about 3m from the bottom and softly and quietly settled on the sand just off the reef. I checked my watch to see I was at a depth of 32m. Looked around and saw absolutely nothing. After about 5 seconds they appeared out of nowhere. At first I didn’t know what they were, all I knew is that they were big. I saw the DVD of Barry Skinstad shooting big Kaakap but these were huge. Four of the most beautiful fish I have ever seen and they were gliding towards me, totally unaware of what lay before them. I selected the closest one, which luckily was the biggest as well, as now after about 20 seconds air started to look like a good option. It was text book the way it turned about 1.5m in front of me. Aimed and placed the shot just behind the head.

All hell broke loose. The instant I kicked off the bottom the fish had peeled about 15m off my reel. I knew that I was in trouble. I only had 40m of line and I still had 32m to go. I swam up as hard but controlled as I could watching the line get less and less. About 5m from the top The line was all out. I tried 2 hard kicks to see if I could lift the fish, no chance, I had to let go. I broke the surface, took a breath and immediately turned and dived but it was quiet and blue, not a hint of the battle that had just been lost. A massive, massive Kaakap swimming away with my gun in tow. The swim back to the boat was long and my mind was racing, R1700 gun, Should I or shouldn’t I have. Did I do the right thing? Only five more metres.

At the boat Garret looked at me incredulously and I said I had just lost my gun to a massive Kaakap. I asked if we could quickly go back up current drift a bit deeper and hopefully I would see my gun. Garret told me to take his reel gun. “It’s got 70m on the reel, If you had 70m you would have landed the fish”, yada yada yada. As if I wasn’t feeling crap enough. Fine. I took the gun and jumped guestimating on the GPS where my gun could be. I breathed up and dived. Remarkably I was relaxed and decided that the water is cleaner underneath and that’s where I’ll look. Again, settled on the sand and after about 15 seconds they were everywhere. About 12 fish but this time I estimated them at about 6-8kg. I shot one of them and motored up to the surface. Determined that losing two guns in two dives was a good way to not keep friends. Made it to the top and got dragged under a few times. I couldn’t believe the power of this fish. It was almost like a Yellowtail. Quickly I managed to get him up and realised that this fish was probably about 10kg.

Hah. Trophy, and shot at depth. Garret is going to be green with envy. I saw that Garret had obviously realised that I had shot a big fish and had very courteously cut short his drift to come and fetch me with the boat. Imagine my shock when he sped to me and shouted with joy that he’d just shot a marlin. I mean, does this guy know how to pop my balloon or what. I must admit though when I put the Kaakap on the boat for a brief moment he had a shocked look and said “that’s a monster, right, let’s go find my buoys” My moment of glory in flames.

  Alan Fraser (a.k.a. Moo) and Calvin Moore diving off Moo’s boat tried to follow the buoys when they disappeared underwater (more about Moo later). After about five minutes Garret saw them pop up about 800m away. To say he was mildly excited was a major understatement. Off we went. When we got to the buoy he jumped overboard and hung onto his buoys and got dragged at a rapid rate. I gave him my 1.2m reel gun that had somehow managed to get completely tangled in the line from the Kaakap I had just shot at which he looked at me and said cut it (the line) to free the gun. I tried to reason sanity but he was adamant, “CUT IT” I acquiesced. I told him now we only had one functional gun and if he shoots it, make sure of a kill shot. I kept near Garret and told him to make his way up the float line to try and get near the fish to place a kill shot. After about 45 minutes of being towed around Garret could see the fish and immediately Shouted “There’s another one swimming with it, must I shoot it” Realising we had only one functional gun and that he was tired, excited and in no shape to attempt a possible dive to whatever depth (at least 15m) I said no, concentrate on landing the one you’ve got. But bagging two Marlin in one go sounds very tempting. It was a smaller Marlin roughly half the size of the speared one and quickly disappeared into the blue.

Corry VersluisGarret now managed to get relatively close to the Marlin and placed his “kill” shot right in the meat in the back of the fish. My honest thought was that we were going to lose the whole rig as well as my second gun. And all in one day! “Are you insane” I shouted, “why didn’t you wait for a better shot?” “I wanted to make sure we’ve got him, gurgle gurgle gurgle” as the fish dragged him all over creation again.

Well can’t argue that. I immediately improvised the disabled gun I had used to shoot the Kaakap with (It was still on the deck under a mass of rope) Man was it an awesome fish or what. After admiring it for about 2 seconds, Garret shouted “What are we going to do now?”  Like I’m an expert on landing Marlin!

“We? You wasted the kill shot” I just ragged him a bit as in the mean while I had managed to re-rig his 70m reel gun to a 30m reel gun. I gave him the gun, told him to relax, load it and only shoot it when he is absolutely certain of a kill shot.

By now we had been dragged relatively close to the Charter Fishing Boat “Sensational”. I sped to them and asked if they were anchored and they replied no. I explained that we had a marlin on the line and was worried if they were anchored it could use the anchor line as a snag line.

When I got back to Garret the look said it all. “It’s reefed me up, you’ll have to dive down and check what’s happening” Was this guy insane or what? We don’t’ know how deep it is and he expects me to free dive to heaven alone knows what depth to a pissed fish with a big spike for a nose!

I surmised on recollection from other divers that had shot Marlin that the fish had either fought itself to the point of death or was in fact dead. They all said that the dead weight of a Marlin is something to behold. Garret was exhausted and would be unable to lift the fish. I jumped in and started to pull on the float line. Inch by inch we were able to bring the mass of the fish up. Eventually the Second gun appeared and Garret eagerly started pulling on that line to assist. What happened next froze my blood, in his eagerness to get the fish up, the dynema had wound around his legs and if this fish had suddenly gotten a second lease of life Garret would have been in serious trouble. I calmly tried to get him to move away and let me pull up the fish, but getting Mad Bob Mugabe to admit his policies are psychotic would perhaps be easier. Eventually I managed to get Garret away by telling him he has to dive down and shoot the fish when it appeared and much to my relief, it worked. He recounts later that he wasn’t even aware that the dynema had wound around his legs. Eventually the shape of a magnificent Makaira indica appeared and started coming closer and within reach. Garret’s heart was racing and I told him to relax, dive slowly as to not spook the fish and deliver the coup de grace. He dived took careful aim and dispatched the worthy adversary with a clinical head shot. At the moment he shot, the whole fish flashed an iridescent electric blue and faded. Sad in a way but hey, it’s not as if you shoot one everyday and the odds were definitely in the Marlin’s favour.

The battle was won. Garret landed his first Marlin. It eventually weighed in at 98.4kg! I firmly believe that this fish was over 100kg but it was in the sun for about two hours before it was weighed and must have lost a few kg’s due to evaporation. The Skipper of the charter boat Sensational realised our little bathtub was way too small and offered to take the fish in for us.

So, after diving for only 2.5 hours our bag was:

Lost:

The reef switched on and I am in no doubt had we dived some more we would have bagged several large Kaakaps. But the glory was Garret’s and we were on our way to savour the moment. I shot some good footage which will hopefully be posted on the site.

Moo Fraser diving off his boat shot and lost a Dusky Rubberlip of about 14kg to a shark but managed to land one of over 10kg which exceeds the current SA Record

I don’t profess to be anywhere near the best of spearo’s or amongst the elite but I have heard the stories and their experiences but the lessons I learnt in this one day are:

  1. The rules (for record purposes) for landing big fish must be re-looked at. Years ago when they were first drafted those guys never envisaged that the massive game fish would be targets. These fish are extremely powerful and thus extremely dangerous. The story could have had a tragic outcome had he spooked and dragged Garret into the deep. At least one other nominated diver must be allowed to assist, for both safety and to minimise the fish being lost and needlessly perishing.
  2. Divers must ensure they are correctly geared. I lost an expensive gun (and a fine trophy) but had no hesitation in dropping it when I realised I had no chance in landing it. Someone else may hesitate that split second too long or try fight and have a blackout. No matter how good or sentimental or whatever, a gun and a fish is just not worth it. Live to dive another day. I only had 40m dynema on my reel, nowhere near enough considering the depth I dived, Garrets reel had 70m and thus I was able to land an excellent trophy (albeit less excellent than the one lost, hehehe). I don’t like diving with float lines, a personal choice, and will have to think twice should a Marlin or some other massive fish present itself. I have already arranged for 70m on my reel and am looking at a bungee system to give me extra leeway.
  3. The allure and glory of landing a big game fish are powerful draw cards and as they are perhaps “easier” to spear than e.g. Poensies or Kaakap (sorry, had to mention that. Also want a little glory, hehehe), “novice” divers might be tempted to target these fish. They are powerful and to underestimate them could kill. They are to be respected and hunting them should only be attempted in the company of experienced spearo’s. In the event of a situation like we had where another Marlin arrived the temptation for one of the other divers to shoot it should be avoided at all cost. I don’t want to be a skipper and be faced where one diver is being towed one way and the other one in the opposite direction and having to make a choice on whom to follow. Aliwal or Protea is a long swim back but places like Highpoint or the 12 mile Banks at Struis could be a death sentence.

I am glad I was able to be an integral part of probably the most memorable dive of one of my best mates. We had planned a mission like this for months and this is a day we will long remember for both the good and the bad that befell us, but hey. He landed a Marlin.

And Garret, I might have mentioned it once or twice. Fine fish bru. Fine fish.

Good diving to all.
Corry