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Trolling for Big River Reds
  |  First Published: December 2011



Mangrove jack are one of Queensland’s most treasured estuarine sport species. Just about every serious saltwater angler tries to tackle these brutes at one time or another, often with mixed results and always with some tall tales to tell.

They are caught in northern NSW in smallish numbers but as you travel north along the Queensland east coast their density thickens until you reach the Cape, and then it tapers off slightly as you venture back down into the Gulf of Carpentaria. Although the numbers of jacks caught in South East Queensland (SEQ) are lower than in Tropical North Queensland (TNQ), the average size is much bigger.

Over 6 years of recreational fishing and guiding on the Cape and in Cairns I seldom caught or saw clients catching jacks over the 50cm mark. I have seen literally hundreds caught in the 40s, but rarely bigger.

In the Noosa River during October 2011 I saw at least 12 over 50cm landed from my boat alone and I know many others were having similar success, so it’s safe to say that there are some big jacks down south.

My theory is that the further north you travel the earlier in their breeding cycle they head offshore to the reefs and therefore there are fewer really large jacks found in northern estuaries and rivers

Quantity or Size?

I know I’d rather catch one horse river red than a dozen barely legal jacks, but you can make up your own mind. I would suggest you connect to a jack over 50cm before making your mind up. These big brutes are powerfully addictive.

Two main ways I like to catch jacks in SEQ are by casting at structure or trolling. I prefer to catch them by casting however, all my biggest fish have been caught trolling. I have hooked big brutes on cast lure, but at 50cm+ the majority are virtually unstoppable. Once you start using a main line over 20lb, lures, hooks and split rings start failing. That first run back into the timber or structure usually determines who wins and who loses the battle.

I know that some anglers are dead against trolling and look upon it as amateurish, but if you want a big jack this is your best shot.

Trolling

In a session I have caught up to a dozen fish and regularly catch more than 5 within a few hours working the low tide change on the upper Noosa River. It’s a very relaxing form of fishing and is also a great way to introduce inexperienced anglers to lure fishing.

In the early days when I first started experimenting with lures I occasionally trolled up the odd jack and a few other species in the Gold Coast canals, on the Tweed and around Fisherman Islands rock walls. My first jack was 51cm on a Nils Master hard body from the Gold Coast and this remained my PB for 8 years until I moved back down to Noosa from Cairns.

The most important factor when trolling is to be in the zone. About 30cm off the bottom is what I would call the perfect position for lures. The occasional puff of sand or bump over structure doesn’t hurt and in fact can be a turn on, however you don’t want to be constantly on the bottom or you’ll end up retrieving a lot of lures with a tackle back. Lifting and lowering your rod as you watch the sounder will raise and lower the lure in the water to a certain degree, as will letting out or retrieving line. The diameter of the leader and main line also plays its part in how deep a lure will track. The lighter the line, the deeper it will troll.

The creeks and canals that have worked best for me are those that have an average low tide depth of 1.8-2.8m, with decent structure like rocks, jetties or timber along its banks. If there is too much structure in your troll path, trolling may become frustrating with continuous snagging.

I have trolled for jacks in depths up to 15m with the use of downriggers but the deeper you get the thinner the numbers tend to be. You will get onto the odd patch in deeper water and on rock bars but the shallower creeks are much more predictable, reliable and thicker in numbers.

Once you catch a jack while trolling, work over the same area a few times because there are usually a few hanging out together. They’re all probably in the same area for a good reason, food availability!

I always troll at idle speed and it doesn’t seem to matter if you’re sporting a 2- or 4-stroke motor. When I was guiding I had a 100hp 4-stroke pushing a 6m boat and now I get around with a noisy 60hp 2 banger pushing an antique 4.9m Clark Abalone. The noise doesn’t seem to deter them at all. I have tried trolling with an electric but it’s much more hassle than it is worth. An electric is great in smaller, more constricted creeks but the size of fish also seems to suffer in these locations.

Stagger your lures out the back for two reasons. The first is to try and cover as much area as possible and the second is to avoid fouling on bends or when turning. If you’re spreading different depth lures, place the deeper divers in close and the shallower lures further back but ideally you want to use lures that swim at similar depths. If trolling over a structure-less, muddy or sandy bottom a deeper diver can be set in close to puff up the bottom and draw extra attention.

When working a new creek take the time to map out your troll path concentrating on the channels, structure and mangrove undercuts. It’s possible to troll 3 lines down one side when targeting deep mangrove undercuts or steep snaggy banks if you stagger them correctly. I wouldn’t recommend trolling more than 2 lures if fishing solo, a double hook up is absolute mayhem.

Get to know your local creek and always keep a keen eye on your sounder because the more you troll it the more refined you will become.

Tides/times:

As with most species the tides and moon phases influence the feeding patterns of jacks. They can be caught day or night, low or high tide but if you want to be constantly successful attention to the tides and applying the right techniques for those tides makes all the difference.

For trolling and casting snags the optimum luring time of the tide is about 2 hours either side of the low tide change. When the water starts to slow the jacks come out to play and when it turns and starts to pick up speed they will go off the bite.

Trolling on the high tide change will also catch you big jacks but not as many. On the high tides they venture up onto the flats or into snag ridden areas and are a much better option to target with surface lures or shallow divers while casting.

I have trolled at night but find it less productive and generally a great deal of hassle. The most consistent results and best days trolling have been the 5 days leading up to the new and full and a few days falling away. This is when the tides are more severe and the run is harder in between changes.

Coming into winter months when the first cold snap (14-22 degrees) hits and the water temperature drops suddenly, they almost go off the bite at the click of your fingers. Jacks respond well to sudden rises in the water temperature but react badly to sudden drops in temperature. You can still catch them in the winter months but the bite slows down and they are more successfully targeted at night with live bait.

From May through to the end of August they are not considered a viable target species for charter operators. Coming out of winter when the water temperature rises back up, the jacks go in search of food just like a bear coming out of hibernation. The warmer the water, the more energetic, curious and troublesome the fish become. I would rate October the best month of the year to target them. This is generally when we get that sudden rise of 4-5 degrees in water temperature.

I usually start looking for them in early September and persist through the slow days as I know it is going to eventuate. This year in the Noosa River they came on hard on the last week of September, last year it was in October.

Tackle

When trolling a 4-6kg spin or baitcaster combo will do the job fine. Use the best gear you can afford and look after it as the last thing you want is a reel seizing when a big fish hits. However the trusty old ABU full of 20lb braid and an Ugly Stick will be ample to knock over the majority of fish you’re likely to encounter.

Jacks don’t take long blistering runs but you will need to lock the thumbs down and pull the bigger fish up short if they head towards structure in a hurry. You might pull a few hooks but it’s better than loosing a few lures.

When trolling back the drag off a little especially if the rod is in the holder because they hit pretty dam hard. There’s a lot of inertia behind the boat and when a big jack hits a trolled lure the boat keeps going, the rod bends a little and something has to give. I’ve seen rods with locked drags disappear out the back of the boat breaking plastic rod holders and have even had a friend have a locked rod ripped from his hand.

For leader I recommend about 100cm of 25-40lb fluorocarbon attached via a double to the main line. No swivel! I prefer to use a perfection loop but a snap clip can be used for ease of changing lures. If I want a particular lure to swim a little deeper I will go as light as 12lb in open water.

Lures

Most of the hard body lures I use for Jacks are around 5-10cm long but I also go up to 20cm at times. A pattern will start to evolve however it’s always changing. I fish for jacks a lot when in season and manage to keep on top of what their preference is, being either size or colour.

Pontoon 21 Greedy Guts, Damiki Long Bills, Maria SP55S, Barra Classics and old school Leads Hijackers are my favourite lures to use at the moment.

Use sharp and strong hooks; this is very important for your hook up rate and fish landing tally.

I’ve seen jacks caught on every colour of the rainbow but I usually start off with something gold or pink. On some days one particular colour will catch every fish and on others they’ll hit anything you throw at them. I always say what works today might not be in season tomorrow however it’s still a good place to start.

So get on the water, learn the terrain, troll a few lures and create some memories of stunning jacks for yourself.

• Greg Carter owns and operates the Noosa Fishing Shack on the upper Noosa River. It’s affordable, secluded and secure accommodation for enthusiastic anglers to stay with their boats. Updates and precise local knowledge is always given to customers so that they can make the most of their stay. For enquiries about accommodation at the Shack please email me at: --e-mail address hidden--

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