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Pier rat

by Len Jones

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The denizens of South Pier settled in for a night's fishing.
Original drawing by Len Jones.

The year 1952 was a period of great advancement in my fishing career. First I graduated from Maydon Wharf to the West Street Groyne, which stretched seaward for about 150 metres from South Beach at the end of West Street. It ended in a T shaped section that extended about 3 metres either side of the main structure. Halfway along the Groyne was a ticket-office and a turnstile where a fisherman would pay a shilling (12 cents) for a day ticket to fish past that point. The depth at the end at low tide varied between 3 to 5 meters depending on sand movement, but at high tide there was always enough water to allow gamefish such as king mackerel (known as couta or cuda) queen mackerel (snoek), shad, snapper salmon and garrick to be taken. After three pretty uneventful weekends spent at the Groyne, and having heard talk of the catches being made at the piers on either side of the harbour entrance, I graduated to the North Pier, and finally via the Point ferry, to what was to become my favourite place on planet earth for the next ten years: Durban’s South Pier. The area between the ferry jetty and pier became my spiritual home. I worked, ate and slept in Pietermaritzburg but I lived on the South Pier. It was here that I caught my first shad, cuda, kingfish, garrick and shark as well as many other gamefish that came my way.

Some of the steam locomotive drivers who worked at West’s Marshalling yard a kilometre from the base of the pier, were fishermen and one of them, Cyril Wentworth, organized a locker for me in the driver’s cabin where I could keep my food and  blanket etc for the weekend’s fishing and showed me the sand cabin, a brick building 5 meters square which housed a huge coal stove that was used to dry the heaps of fine sand that was trickled onto the railway lines to prevent the wheels from skidding during steep climbs. This was where I slept on cold winter nights when fishing was quiet, or to dry out my clothes after being soaked to the skin by heavy rain or spray on the pier. In  June 1952 I started catching shad, bonito, etc from the South Pier and during the whaling season began fishing from the whale slipway where I learnt from Indian anglers, Bobby Naidoo and his two brothers, to use a piece of hoop iron to scrape the skin from whales as they were dragged up the slipway to the waiting low-bed railway truck that was used to haul them around to the whaling station on the other side of the Bluff.  We used the skin to catch grunter and other fish by throwing handfuls of it into the water. This was known as masala, to attract fish to the area. Then after a few seconds, we would gently cast a No 5 hook with a tiny piece of lead pinched onto the line half a meter above it and the hook baited with whale-skin into the area where the masala had been thrown. This method produced some spectacular catches of grunter and other fish from half to two kilos in weight. There was one snag fishing at the whale-slip... ‘the law’. One of the crew of a whaler had jumped onto the jetty, slipped on someone’s bait and had broken  his leg. The powers that be then decided to ban fishing there. It was left to the South African Railway and Harbour Police to make sure that this ban was enforced. However, the police had to patrol kilometres of wharfside and although it was seldom that anyone was rash enough to fish on the jetty in daylight, with the setting of the sun it became a battle of wits, with the anglers on one side and the Railway Police on the other. Sometimes when staff was available, a permanent guard was ensconced at the slipway and he would patrol up and down the jetty  watched by a long row of malevolent eyes from the shadows just beyond the one and half metre high fence, which surrounded the slipway. Quite often the promise of a couple of grunter was sufficient to send the constable on a long patrol to the West's Hotel 500 metres or so down the wharf, otherwise the regulars would wait patiently for the changeover to take place which usually guaranteed a period of twenty minutes or so of frantic angling. This time could sometimes be extended by someone being sent to intercept the replacement constable as he landed at the ferry jetty three hundred metres from the whale slip, with stories of fights, break-ins or murder at the bar of West's Hotel. Invariably an argument would ensue when, after pulling matches, the loser would find a hundred reasons why he shouldn’t run the three hundred metres. By the time the argument was sorted out, the constable had arrived and everyone had to slink back into the shadows bitter and twisted, all the while hissing dire threats to the still whinging loser who had drawn the short match. However, this ploy only worked with new recruits, the regulars having got our measure a long time ago.

Another permutation in the ongoing battle of wits (or lack of them) between the lawmen and the anglers was the patrol boat. On nights when they were unable to put a permanent police guard on the slip-way, they would attempt to catch us using their new toy, a very fast boat equipped with a powerful searchlight, but since the base was only 700 metres from the slipway on the Point side of the channel, we could observe their every move, due to the wharfside lights, as they left the office and clumped aboard. We knew that once it was no longer visible, they had left their mooring, dimmed the lights, and were on their way, there would be a frantic winding in of lines and a concerted dash for the one and a half metre high fence. With feats of athleticism not normally attributed to fishermen loaded down with rods, bags and fish we vaulted over the fence like Olympic athletes and slunk back into the sanctuary of the shadows with dry throats and heaving chests to await our tormentors departure. When it was obvious that the direct approach was not having the desired results, they repaired to their lair to work out their next move which was to leave the base with lights ablaze and head deep into the harbour until out of our sight. They would then drop a constable off on our side of the channel then drift towards us with the out-going tide with the lights once again dimmed. When the constable was deemed to be within striking distance of his victims  (there were no cell phones in those days) they would switch on the lights and come roaring towards the whale slipway, sending everyone into a mad panic and in the ensuing exodus the waiting constable would manage to net one or two miscreants who usually proved to be newcomers to the ranks, who had not yet realized that the open gate was the very last choice in the escape routes and the obvious point of ambush.

Years later, a retired member of the Railway Police confided to me that in those days of minimal crime, the on-going slipway ‘wars’ made the long winter nights bearable. For whom, may I ask?

With this unsatisfactory state of affairs, I decided on my own solution to the problem. With the aid of a welder friend I made a strong mild steel bracket, much like those used for supporting shelves. In the upright member, which would normally be screwed to the wall, I made two inverted keyholes, the larger end big enough to admit the head of a roofing screw. The slot above it was wide enough to slide over the stem of the screw and completed the job by fixing a wooden seat on top of the bracket. Just before the opening of the 1953 whaling season, I climbed onto the steel bracings under the jetty, worked my way to the outermost piling and with hand drill and hammer, drove two roofing screws into the wood to match up with my inverted keyholes on the bracket. We (Jessica and I) now had our own fishing spot under the jetty, safe from the prying eyes of the law. Situated as it was in a very restricted area under the planks, our tackle had to be tailored to suit the conditions. First the rod had to be of a length that would not hit the timbers above our heads when we cast or struck when we had a bite. Eventually I decided on a 1 metre long Indian cane with four small porcelain eyes. The reels were of plastic, 8 cm in diameter, loaded with 2,5 kg monofilament nylon. A metre long piece of stiff cane with a large hook minus the barb whipped to the end with copper wire served as a gaff. Since the total cost of the whole rig came to about 19 shillings (about R2.10) each, even in the unlikely event of us being nabbed and our tackle confiscated it could hardly be considered a train smash.

To reach the seat, which, when we left, was stored on one of the beams under the jetty, we, like everyone else had to wait until the policeman went for a leak or during a change over and also had to consider the state of the tide, as it was not possible to make it to our perch at high water. This private fishing spot served Jessica and I well. When she joined me under the jetty, I, forever the gentleman, was relegated to perching on a sack wrapped around one of the rusty shell-encrusted bracings. We often smile when we think of the nights we spent catching grunter and watching the shadow of the constable on the water.

In those days of the early 1950’s Durban was a city geared up for anglers, both local and visitors. Except for the oil wharves, where the tankers discharged their cargo, which were closed to the public, the rest of Durban Bay was open to all anglers who purchased a 5 shillings (about 60 cents) harbour-fishing licence. In addition to the North and South Piers and Durban Bay itself, there were the West Street and Paterson Groyne on the beachfront, all open to fishing. Even the cities trolley bus fleet had on the back of each bus a tray along the bumper which accommodated the butt ends of fishing rods, with two bars situated two and three metres above the tray that the rods slotted into, so that anglers using the bus to reach their fishing spots had a relatively safe place to store their rods. I say relatively safe place, for on two occasions I witnessed fishermen sprinting after the bus, rod in hand and taking giant steps of two to three metres to keep up with the bus after their lines or hooks had become entangled with the back of the rack as they were removing their rods. Highly amusing for the onlookers but not so funny for the participants in what could be termed a ‘drag race.’

Some members of the Railway Police tolerated our fishing on the slipway and usually turned a blind eye, while other members of the force made it their sole function in life to pursue us with the vigour and single-mindedness usually accorded to mass murderers and bank robbers. One cop in particular who we knew as Van, let it be known that if he caught any of us fishing at the slipway, jigging mullet or doing anything slightly illegal, he’d make sure that we ended up getting ‘cuts’ (caned) at the Point Prison.

Jigging mullet was one way of getting bait for catching sharks or various other predatory species like kob or geelbek. This method was considered dangerous by the majority of rational thinkers since it involved casting out a huge treble hook beyond a shoal of mullet and allowing it to sink, then striking vigorously, with the rod going through 180º during this operation. This was fine when some poor unsuspecting fish became impaled on the hook, but when the treble hook missed its intended target it would carry on its trajectory often leaving the water and proceeding like a bullet in the direction of the angler or anyone else standing nearby.

One morning, while waiting on the floating ferry jetty at West’s for the ferry to take me across to the Point to buy some tackle I needed, I saw a shoal of big mullet cruising slowly on the surface. Maybe I could jig one before the ferry (which was halfway across the Channel) arrived. I quickly tied a big treble onto the end of my 15 kg line and cast it carefully across the shoal, allowed it to sink, struck hard and was rewarded with a large mullet. I began cranking the fish in but before lifting it from the water, I heard the familiar high-pitched voice of Van shouting from the Stonewall 30 metres away. ’Hey you, yous not allowed to fish here hey!’ then in an even higher pitch bordering on hysteria, ‘an on top of it all, yous gaffing the fish with three anchored hooks!’  I didn’t turn to look in his direction but knew from bitter experience that he was now bounding   in my direction. However, the ferry had now arrived and disgorged its load of passengers who were now plodding up the narrow gangway to the wharf, slowing Van’s progress down considerably. In fact, just long enough for me step aboard the ferry. As I turned to lift my fish from the water, Van made a valiant charge, prepared to leap aboard, then decided at the last second that the rapidly opening gap between ferry and jetty was definitely beyond his athletic capabilities.   Cheers Van…

On the pier, I was quickly learning the various methods of catching cuda (king mackerel), kingfish, queenfish, garrick and other gamefish. After catching a good number of these species on my heavy rod with 15 kg line, I followed the example of a small group of enthusiasts who were doing the same job with nylon as light as 3.5 kgs (8 lb) to take these same gamefish. They used a fairly stiff rod, one that would normally be used with line of double this breaking strain where one was fishing for grunter or stumpnose. The reason for the stiff rod was that the outcome of the fight was usually decided with a distance of two to three hundred metres between the angler and the fish. With the amount of stretch in that length of light nylon, it required a stiff rod to make a reasonable recovery of line possible. Usually a reel of 10 cm diameter was used, loaded with 400 metres of nylon and quite often there was very little left on the Scarborough’s drum after the initial run of a 15 to 20 kg gamefish. It was not unknown for the whole lot to be stripped from the reel, with the obvious result. My biggest fish was a 16 kgs cuda (king mackerel) and the heaviest taken to my knowledge was one of 19 kgs landed by Basil Hill.

During my weekends on the pier, I became more and more keen to catch a big shark and, having saved up enough from the sales of my edible fish that I could not transport home while hitchhiking, I went to J. F. Kings in West Street one Saturday morning and purchased a shark fishing rig loaded with 18 cord flax line with a breaking strain of 81 lbs (36.8 kgs). I had made my trace up weeks earlier in anticipation of getting my complete outfit. I took everything back to Pietermaritzburg and placed it next to my bed where I could see it before I went to sleep, and after fighting monster sharks in my dreams, was the first thing I’d see on waking up in the morning

In the halcyon days of fishing just prior to and after the Second World War, the South Pier at the entrance to Durban harbour was unrivalled along the South African coast as a premier spot for shore anglers, not only with regard to edible fish, but was one of the few places in the world where large sharks were caught regularly from terra firma and with gear which in these days of high technology would be regarded as primitive.


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