Old School - Durban South Pier Shark Traces


Old South Pier traces.

The longer of the two must be about 4m long.


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[align=JUSTIFY]Those were the days[/align] [align=JUSTIFY]by Len Jones[/align] [align=right]Back to Len's main page[/align] The South Pier stretches out 600 metres from the Bluff, protecting the southern side of the entrance to Durban harbour from the violent storms that develop in the southern Indian Ocean. These storms generate 4 and 5 metre swells that regularly batter the South African coast. The pier was constructed from 3 metre long concrete blocks, nearly two metres wide and one and a half metres deep. The north eastern side has a twenty foot flat area stretching its entire length, with a railway line running down the centre along which travels a twenty-five metre high crane which is used to repair storm damage when necessary, placing new blocks when those on the pier have been dislodged by heavy seas. Along the south side, a concrete wall was constructed one and a half metres high and one and a half metres wide, the top of which is approximately four metres above the high water mark. From the base of this wall, the jumbled concrete blocks slope to the water and stop only on the seabed, which at the point of the pier varies in depth between 10 and 15 metres, from where the flat sand bottom becomes progressively deeper. Prior to 1976 when whaling was outlawed (quite rightly so), there was a thriving, shore-based industry in Durban. The whaling season from May to September saw the whaleboats towing in their victims from the whaling grounds 70º south of Natal to the slipway in Durban harbour, some 400 metres from the base of the South Pier, which attracted hordes of big sharks. These included great  whites (known as blue pointers in those days), ridgeback (or lazy grey) tiger, blackfin, and Zambezi sharks, which we knew as slipway grey as they often attacked the whale carcasses right to the point when they were hauled up the slipway. I remember as a youngster of 19, fishing for grunter at the slipway with my girlfriend and future wife, Jessica, and seeing in the lamp-light the broad flat heads of Zambezi sharks breaking the surface as their teeth crunched through layers of blubber with a sound like fire-crackers going off before sinking back into the water, leaving a perfectly round, bowl-shaped scoop on the whale. The first 10 cm or so pure white blubber, the rest bright red like a scoop taken from strawberry ice cream. The presence of so many large sharks inspired local anglers to take them on and, in so doing, perfecting a fishing and fighting system unique in the annals of big game angling.
Lefty Schmidt with a 453.6kg great white taken on South Pier in September
1947. To the right is the renowned seine netter spotter Red Coat.
Picture courtesy Len Jones.
Click image to view enlargement.[/align] The gear was basic. A Scarborough type reel without gearing or mechanical drag system, carrying 6 to 8 hundred metres of flax line with a breaking strain 36.8 kgs. The rod was a stout bamboo or in later years a fibre glass rod of three to four metres in length. Fishing from terra firma posed the problem of getting the 16/0 Southern Tuna hook loaded with 2 to 4 kgs of whale meat out beyond the barnacle and mussel encrusted blocks that could sever a line like a razor blade. This problem was solved in the following manner, originated by the legendary Lefty Schmidt. While a helper held the rod, the angler walked backwards with the bait and placed it on the edge of the pier 20 metres from the rod tip. Retracing his steps, took hold of the line at the rod tip again and carefully laid out another double length behind the first. He then walked back to the baited hook on its 10 metre steel cable trace and took hold of where the cable was interrupted by a link of dog chain bound with old style linen insulation tape to form a hand grip. Then he began to swing the bait around his head, gathering momentum with each revolution until about the fifth or sixth swing he released his grip and the bait sailed through the air for thirty or forty metres where its 200 gram sinker dragged it to the seabed. Once the bait was in position, the rod butt was placed into a 20 cm deep hole cast between the blocks in concrete or in a hole laboriously chipped out with hammer and chisel by the fishermen themselves. After winding in any slack line between the bait and the rod tip, a pad of dry newspaper was then wedged between the reel and the rod butt to prevent water movement from turning the reel and causing the line to sag onto the blocks below. When the bait was taken, the owner of the rod would rush to the now spinning reel, take the rod and place the butt into his leather waist harness (bucket), whip out the newspaper and after allowing the shark to take a few more metres of line, stop the reel, and as the line tightened and the rod tip pulled down, the hook was driven home with three or four hard strikes using the shoulder and not the arm.

[align=JUSTIFY]As in any form of angling, once the fish is hooked it’s show time! Especially when the fish weighs several hundred kilograms and there is no automatic drag system, no harness, no fighting chair and no boat. This was akin to hunting big game with a bow and arrow. Drag was applied with a 5 mm thick pad of chrome leather forced by hand against the reel drum. The rod butt ahead of the reel was braced across the left thigh and knee, that part of the butt below the reel was under the right buttock. An experienced shark angler could release his grip on the rod while sitting in this position and apply pressure using two leather pads (known as palms). One on the right hand that could be backed up by pressure from the right leg and the second in front of the reel so that they could be used alternatively as one started to smoke and burn, as they often did when a great white or tiger exceeding 300 kgs or more peeled hundreds of metres of flax from the fast spinning reel. I was personally stripped of all my line on two occasions by sharks that proved unstoppable. Once the initial run was over, line was recovered by using the left knee as a fulcrum, pushing oneself upward and forward with the right leg and, as the rod tip dropped, recovering turns of line then leaning back until one’s buttock was once again back on the concrete, after which the process was repeated as many times as possible. Once a fish was turned and coming back relatively easy, the angler would jump to his feet and with his rod butt in the bucket, recover line in the normal fashion. However, when the fish turned and began to peel off line again, it was a case of assuming the position as previously described. After many minutes, or sometimes hours, with one leg doubled up underneath your backside, then being required to jump up and follow the fish as it changed direction, it made walking extremely difficult with a leg that had gone to sleep. One tactic used by great whites to defeat an angler was to spin its body in the water, thereby rolling the trace around itself which would cause the wire to kink as it came off the shark during the fight, or the entire trace could be wound around the shark and when the flax line came into contact with the sandpaper like fins it would part like cotton. One would also have to take care that the fish did not die before being brought alongside the pier to be gaffed, as this would result  in its being dragged along the bottom until its body became lodged in the outer blocks of the pier base, which in most cases was ten metres or more from the lowest accessible blocks and still in at least seven metres of water. Even if the swivel of the ten metre trace was within reach, the fish itself could be inextricably jammed in the blocks.[/align] [align=center]
The 'Heavy Brigade' from left, Peter Botha, Len Jones, Tony Garrioch, Brian Bernstein, Harold Rosevear,
Mike Titlestad and Clive Olivier. The trolley is loade with whale meat for bait. It was possible
to push it to the end of the pier on the rails laid for the crane.
Picture courtesy Len Jones.
Click image to view enlargement.[/align] [align=JUSTIFY]Sometimes a big shark in excess of 450 kgs would take four to five hours to land. Once the trace was within reach and in the hands of the helpers, an extremely sharp grapple hook of 2 cm hardened steel was used as a gaff on the end of a strong rope. Once this was securely hooked into the fish, another rope was used as a lasso to secure the head or the tail depending on the position of the grapple. After this, it was hauled across the blocks and onto the pier where it was weighed on a specially constructed gantry made from welded railway line, and after it had been weighed and photos had been taken it was used by anglers on the pier as bait. The record shark in those exciting years between 1935 and 1976 (excluding the war years when the pier was closed) was a great white shark caught by Reg Harrison of 754.54 kgs (1,660 lbs) which took six and a half hours to land and is the largest fish to be taken from land on a rod and reel. All the very big sharks were taken during whaling season from the 1st May to the 30th September each year.
[/align] There was, however, another period that kept the heavy brigade happy for a few weeks. It started with the first spring tide in November and lasted until the middle of January. This was the time of the hammerheads; not as big as the sharks taken during whaling season, they ranged in weight from 54 to 180 kgs but what they lacked in size they more than made up for with speed and stamina. Most anglers used a medium outfit for them with line of 18 to 24 kgs breaking strain. All these big hammers were without exception taken on the north side of the pier as they travelled south to a destination known only to themselves. There was no return run however, so where they went to was anyone’s guess though they were certainly prolific as far south as the Transkei coast during the summer months. These fish were bronze hammerheads (S zygaena) though one great hammerhead (S mokarran) was landed weighing 301.8 kgs (664 lbs) This was taken in 1936 and was caught by Bob Blaine. This was the only hammerhead ever taken on whale meat; all the others without exception were taken on fish bait.

With the end of whaling in 1976 came the end of this type of big game fishing and now, all that remains of those days are old photographs and tales of unstoppable monsters that swim through the memories of those who lived and fished through those magic years.