Autumn harvest
  |  First Published: April 2011

As the weather cools the inshore pelagics turn it on

SECTION: feature


Autumn is great for all styles of fishing along the NSW coast. Our estuaries, rocks, beaches and offshore are alive with all manner of fish.

At this time of year one of the most exciting forms of fishing, and one that’s accessible to anglers in small boats, is spinning for inshore pelagics.

Along much of the coast bonito are about in good numbers and are probably the main species worth targeting.

They’ll take a range of different lures, fight well on light gear and can show up in large numbers, providing plenty of action.

Bonito also make excellent bream and snapper bait and the truth is, they go down well on the barbecue or fried up as fish cocktails. The trick is simply to bleed them on capture and keep them on ice in the esky so the flesh will remain white and firm.

Cousins of the bonito which turn up with a reasonable degree of consistency are the smaller and elaborately marked Watson’s leaping bonito, frigate mackerel and mackerel tuna.

On the Central Coast frigate mackerel are the most common but north of Port Macquarie the Watson’s and mack tuna become more abundant.

The hard fighting striped tuna is another species that hasn’t been quite so common closer to shore over the past decade but they have showed up with more frequency this season and in 2010.

Striped tuna tend on average to be a touch bigger than bonito and when hooked on light tackle they’ll smoke up the drag with their blistering runs. Fun stuff indeed!

Rat kingfish may also get in on the act and although they’re just as much fun to catch as the small tuna, even small kings like to run for rocks or reef so losing lures and re-rigging is a risk you’ll have to consider if kings are around.

Two more species encountered are tailor and salmon, which are a lot more sedate than kings, bonito or the small tunas. A decent salmon or tailor can still rip out some line and put on an acrobatic display, so they are still loads of fun to catch.

And in such a remarkable La Niña season as 2011, there are even those exotic northern visitors such as spotted and Spanish mackerel and cobia.


While it’s possible to catch any of the above species on the same rod, reel, line and lure, they all have slightly different habits.

This means that it’s a good idea to be prepared with the appropriate tackle for the task. Firstly, identify which fish are more likely to turn up in your waters or which ones you would prefer to catch.

Frigates and Watson’s bonito are the smallest and although they fight well for their size, they won’t stress your tackle too much. So a rod and reel not too much bigger than you would employ for bream or flathead can be used for these little speedsters.

However, I recommend using a decent quality 2500 or 3000 size threadline reel with a gear ratio of at least 5.7:1 so lures can be retrieved fast enough to score plenty of strikes.

A rod of around 7’ or 2.1m that can comfortably cast lures of 15g to 30g is right on the mark.

If you have to choose between something slightly longer or shorter, go longer because it will be a better casting rod.

The same rod and reel can be used on tailor, salmon and bonito with reasonable success, but once we start looking at larger striped tuna, mack tuna, mackerel or kingfish, it’s a better idea to step up a notch.

Getting stuck into a good patch of stripies, kings or bigger bonito will test your tackle and quickly sort out cheaper reels. Broken or stripped gears, wobbly handles and failed anti-reverse bearings are common problems.

I mainly use two reels when spinning for inshore pelagics, a Daiwa Heartland 4000 and a Daiwa Catalina 4500.

The Heartland is spooled with very fine 10kg Sunline braid and is great for most of the fish mentioned.

When it comes to hard-core high-speed spinning for bigger bonnies, kings or stripies, the Catalina, spooled with 15 kg braid, is more appropriate. It’s a very tough reel that can handle the punishment much better than most others and with gearing of 5.7:1 has plenty of speed, an asset in this sort of fishing.

That 2m rod needs to be suitable for casting lures from about 25g to 60g.

Braid or PE line certainly casts farther than nylon mono but a leader around 2m is a must.

For lighter spinning, 8kg to 10kg mono or fluorocarbon leader will do the job, although when specifically spinning for tailor a heavier leader is recommended to minimise bite-offs.

Where kingfish are likely it also makes sense to use more robust leader of, say, 12kg to 15kg mono or fluorocarbon.

And if you find your lure is snipped off, particularly during a sizzling run, you’ve been mackerelled! The solution is 10cm to 20cm of 15kg to 30kg sevenstrand or mono wire joined to your leader with an albright knot.


There are plenty of good metal lures that will interest all of these fish.

Generally speaking, smaller chrome or white metals are best for frigate mackerel, Watson’s and striped tuna while mid-sized metals of 30g to 60g will catch the rest.

However, all of these inshore pelagics will at times focus on tiny baitfish, meaning that they’ll ignore larger lures. So even if the target species are bonito, tailor or salmon it pays to have at least a couple of little 15g to 20g lures in your box.

Some of the more reliable all-round metals include Lazers, Twisty Lazers, Raiders, Surecatch Knights and River2Sea Sea Rocks.

The one I seem to use for everything from frigate mackerel to tailor is the 40g Surecatch Knight, but I’ve had great success with smaller white Lazers around dawn or dusk when light levels are quite low.

Another good lure to try when high-speed spinning for the small tunas is a simple home-made barrel sinker lure. They’re easily made by inserting a length of stainless or galvanised wire through a small barrel sinker.

A swivel is attached to one end with a treble hook at the other. Each end is twisted around neatly with pliers and the barrel sinker sprayed with white oil-based enamel paint. The paint will chip off but that’s nothing a quick respray won’t fix and they really are effective fish-catchers.

Apart from basic metal lures, there are a number of other types worth considering, such as diving minnows, poppers and soft plastics.

One of the real standouts that I’ve used is a small weighted minnow called the Maria Duplex. It’s 65mm long, weighs 31g, it can be cast a reasonable distance and can also be trolled at speed.

While such lures may not be as cheap as metals, they make up for it with their fish-catching abilities.


Most of these small inshore fish respond well to a lure retrieved fast, although tailor and salmon tend to react better to a slower or moderate retrieve.

As with many other forms of lure fishing, plenty of pauses and extra twitches with the rod will make the lure seem more lifelike and entice more strikes.

If you can’t see fish feeding on the surface then it’s generally a good idea to let the lure sink down before commencing the retrieve. Of course, that may not be such a good idea in shallow, snaggy areas.


In some cases you may simply launch the boat, start driving and then spot a patch of fish breaking the surface. That doesn’t always happen though, so it’s time to go searching.

Tailor are most at home around shallow reefs, inshore islands and headlands surrounded by some foamy whitewash.

Salmon also like this sort of environment.

Bonito and kingfish will be found close in under the wash around deeper islands, bommies or headlands, but they’ll also roam freely further away from such structure.

Striped and mack tuna are a bit more oceanic in their habits, although they’ll occasionally be found closer to shore adjacent to bays or prominent headlands.

Frigate mackerel can turn up almost anywhere but commonly move into shallow sandy bays, adjacent to points or headlands and even make their way right up into estuaries. So don’t neglect quite shallow or even strange places when looking for frigates.

If you’re having trouble finding any of these fish then the best option is always to troll.

Some of the metal lures that we use for casting will be OK for trolling at slow speed but it’s a better idea to use a lure that tracks straight at speed behind the boat.

Small white feathers and pink Christmas tree-style lures are ideal but others worth trolling are the Maria Duplex, Rapala Magnums, Lively Lures Macbaits and some of the larger metal blades on the market.

Once a fish is hooked, stop the boat and start casting. If no other fish are caught then keep trolling.

Fish that are clearly feeding on the surface are easy targets but some, like striped tuna, keep moving around.

This makes for challenging fishing because you may hook one or two fish and then they’ll take off and move 50m or 100m in the blink of an eye.

Whatever you do, don’t drive straight into a patch of feeding fish. This will put them down instantly. Just cruise up slowly and then drift towards them.

Even though most of the fish mentioned in this article are aggressive predators, they can also be extremely difficult to catch at times. They move fast, switch on and off and change habits from day to day.

Once you’re into them with the light gear, though, it’s all fun and games.

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