Article and photographs by Mossie Basson and Doreth Greenberg with input from Anton Bothma
As far as economical and versatile protein rich dishes are concerned, very few foodstuffs can compete with a West Coast Snoek. This fish species can be prepared in so many ways that it can become a staple diet without being boring.
The West Coast Snoek with the scientific name of Thyrsites Atum is related to the Spanish Mackerel or Cuta of the Indian Ocean. They viciously hunt their prey, which consists mostly of pilchards and anchovy. Their feeding pattern takes them after their prey and they can disappear from an area and reappear many kilometers away. Snoek has the habit of going into a feeding frenzy and will snap at any moving object that is large enough to swallow. This feeding frenzy usually results in a catching frenzy amongst the snoek anglers and conditions of near chaos often exist on a snoek catching vessel with lines getting entangled, tempers flaring and injuries being sustained.
For the snoek angler, be it commercially or for pleasure, catching snoek becomes a powerful drug that they get addicted to. The normal fishing permit covers snoek, the minimum length is 60 cm and the bag limit is 10 per person. Snoek is seldom caught in bays and lagoons, which suggest that the angler must be willing, and equipped to go out onto the open sea.
Where to find the snoek is a continuous problem for the angler. The commercial anglers have an informal “web” amongst them whereby the word is spread, and for the pleasure or weekend angler it is best to know somebody with commercial connections. If no such contacts are available, there are only two options for the non-commercial angler. The first is to go out to areas where snoek has recently been caught, and look out for the commercial boats. As far as this is concerned, there are two serious warnings. Firstly, do not go anywhere close to a commercial vessel while they are catching, your vocabulary of the foulest swear words will drastically be broadened. Secondly, listen for vessels from which they are shooting and stay well clear. Snoek anglers often shoot into the water with firearms to keep the seals away from their catch and you do not want to be in the ricochet area.
The second option of finding the snoek is to troll with fishing rods and rapalas. Look out for birds that are feeding and troll that area. The best trolling speed that I have found is around 5 knots. A rapala, which is constantly out-performing the rest is the “Deep-Water STORM”. It is also advisable to use different colour rapalas to find out which is the colour of the day and then change to that colour.
When the snoek is located, there are again two options. First option, if indications are that there are lots of snoek around, like multiple strikes or other vessels in the vicinity catching, it is best, if the sea condition and depth allows, for you to anchor and start working the hand lines. If anchoring is not feasible, then the second option is to drift the area while working the hand lines.
The hand line consists of an 80-kg nylon, about 50 m in length attached to a snoek dolly or a bait hook. It is always good to have a different line thickness available. If there are few snoek, use a thinner line (around 40 kg) and if they are running thick, use a thicker line (100 kg). Just remember: the thinner the line, the more difficult it is to handle and the easier it is to cut your hand. The snoek dolly or “bokstang” consists of a shiny weight which could have different colours attached to a 10/0 or 11/0 hook with some plastic frills around the hook (see photo below).
Like the rapala, the preferred color of the snoek dolly can vary according to weather conditions. A general guideline is to use bright colors such as red and white in bright light conditions and dull colors like green or blue if the light is dull. Some anglers buy shiny snoek dolly’s and color them with different colors of nail polish.
Working the snoek dolly is a bit of an art in itself. The dolly must move smoothly through the water so the pulling-in process must be hand over-hand almost in a rolling motion without individual jerks. Try and ascertain at what depth the snoek is biting from other crew on the vessel or by watching nearby anglers. If the depth is called out in fathoms, remember two arm lengths is roughly a fathom or 6 ft. Measure this length plus about two fathoms on your hand line and make a knot or tie it to a boat structure so that you do not have to measure the length with every throw.
When the snoek hits the dolly, it feels as if your line has gone into the boat propeller. It is now important to straighten your back and pull as hard as possible, if you allow the snoek any slack it will turn away and you will really battle to turn its head again and in the process it will probably gather the lines of other anglers around you which might cost you more than a round of drinks. Continue pulling until the snoek is clear of the water. Swing the line once around your hand and pull the fish over the side, but do not let go of the hand line. The neck of the snoek must now be broken as soon as possible to avoid getting the dolly hooked into your clothes and to avoid any part of your body being exposed to the razor sharp snapping teeth of the snoek.
As I am not a commercial snoek angler I still find the underarm neck-break method a bit dicey. I tried it once and nearly lost the tip of my nose. I prefer the between-the-legs method. Make sure that you wear proper trousers like a denim jean or a rough oilskin. Clamp the snoek tightly between your legs, while holding firmly onto the hand-line to keep its teeth away from any vital organs. Now take the other hand around the head of the snoek with your fingers in both eyes. Let go of the line, unhook the dolly and throw it over the side, grab the snoek in such a way that the mouth is closed and firmly brake its neck to the side. or towards its back. The fish will immediately stop fighting and can be moved to the fish-hatch. Chaos erupts when the next snoek grabs the dolly while you are busy with this process.
Snoek is also caught using a baited hook. Use pilchards cut in chunks or the more expensive pike. Whether the snoek prefers the dolly, pilchard or pike, can only be established using all three types and then concentrating on the one that produces.
The most popular snoek catching areas along the West Coast are Lambert’s Bay, Elands Bay, St Helena Bay and the area from Vondeling Island to Dassen Island. For the Dassen Island to Vondeling Island area, it is best to launch from Yzerfontein. Launching and recovering from Yzerfontein is not recommended without thorough local knowledge. Huge waves can suddenly appear at the entrance to the harbor and recovery of a ski boat onto a trailer with waves pushing from behind often results in damage to boat or trailer.
The area north and south of the Langebaan lagoon mouth is productive and the snoek caught here are usually big.
The St Helena Bay area is very popular. It offers various launching sites like Stompneus Bay, St Helena Bay, Sandy Bay or even Laaiplek. Further north launching is possible from Lamberts Bay.
A dreaded term in the vocabulary of the snoek angler is the word “pap snoek”. The meat of a “pap” snoek is totally without the flaky texture and it feels like soft mud in your mouth. It is not poisonous but has lost its flavour. It is best to use it for fish cakes and snoek pate.
What causes a snoek to be or go “pap” is still somewhat of a mystery. There is general consensus amongst anglers that warmer sea water than usual produces a high percentage of “pap” snoek. A sure sign of a “pap” snoek is that when it lies in the fish hatch, it becomes stiff , while a normal snoek stays flexible. Other theories on the causes of “pap” snoek are rough handling or not breaking the neck properly.
When back on land, the snoek should be prepared for eating, drying or freezing. There are always willing helpers to “vlek” (clean and fillet) the snoek for you for a small fee, but the art of “vlekking” is soon acquired and you will feel good when performing this yourself. I prefer the head of the snoek to be removed before freezing. The head is excellent for a delicious soup and is also popular bait for catching West Coast lobster (crayfish). There is a difference of opinion as to whether snoek should be salted before freezing or not. I prefer not to salt it as the fish is then kept at a lower temperature, below freezing point, which I believe keeps them in a better state. For the salt option, cover the complete fish in course salt and leave for about 30 minutes. Wash off the salt and allow to wind dry before freezing.
On the West Coast we are blessed with the snoek season now being almost all year round, where in the past it was restricted to the winter months. This is probably due to the sardine stocks that were depleted off the Namibian Coast, which forced the snoek to stay in South African waters all year.
Snoek is caught out in the open ocean without the protection of the lagoon or other protective bays. Often vessels have to travel very long distances, in excess of 60 km to find the snoek . This has some serious safety implications.
It is important to take note of the following:
- The open sea can be dangerous and some experience of open sea vessel handling is necessary.
- Ensure that all crew wear the prescribed safety jackets, and ensure that emergency gear is within easy reach in case of a capsize.
- A GPS, which the operator understands and knows how to handle, is a MUST. Coordinates of the launching site and dangerous spots must be programmed beforehand. In the case of a handheld GPS ensure that spare batteries are available. The West Coast is notorious for its dense fog, which can close in within minutes.
How to ‘Vlek a Snoek’
- Provide for additional fuel to allow you to beat back through waves to your destination. Hammering through waves at low speed eats fuel. If you intend to anchor, ensure that you have enough anchor rope to span at least twice the depth to the bottom.
- While retrieving the anchor, NEVER EVER swing the anchor rope around your arm or any fixture on the vessel. If the anchor is stuck and you tie the vessel, the next swell can pull the nose underwater and flip the vessel in a second. If the rope is around your arm it will pull you overboard and you may drown and or break your arm.
- Wear protective gloves to prevent the line from cutting your hands or fingers or at least use a finger guard over the fingers that pull in the line.
- The teeth of a snoek contains an anti-coagulant substance which will prevent the blood of a bite-wound from clotting. Should you end up in the unfortunate situation where you get a nip from those razor sharp teeth, pull the eye out of a snoek and rub the gel on the wound, this will get the blood to clot.