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Spring time surface pelagics
  |  First Published: September 2013



Surface feeding pelagic bring an unequalled level of excitement to anglers all across our country.

Much of the appeal comes with the visual aspect and challenges associated with trying to fool fish you can physically see feeding: nothing really compares in the angling world.

This time of year sees bays, lower estuaries and coastal fringes come to life with small bait species that NSW anglers refer to as ‘eyes’. Victorian and Tasmanian anglers simply refer to them as ‘bait’. They turn up in huge schools and enter the inshore waters to feed and seek shelter, unfortunately most don’t get an opportunity to do either as they are herded up on the surface and decimated by ravenous schools of Australian salmon and tailor. In summer add yellowtail kingfish. Quite often under these schools will be some decent silver trevally as well.

The easiest method to locate surface feeding activity is to watch for seagulls and terns. They should be either hovering very close to the surface or diving repeatedly to indicate feeding activity from pelagics below. Early and late in the day is the best time to spot these flocks from greater distances as the low angle of the sun reflects off their wings similar to someone reflecting the sun off a wrist watch.

Seagulls do tend to sit in large flocks on the surface and can be a sign of prior surface activity and a few prospective casts in their general direction is never unwarranted; all bird activity should be investigated and ruled out before moving on.

It’s easy to get all excited and rush up on these active schools of fish but the end result will most likely lead to the school being spooked and going deep, ruining the fun for everyone. Taking the time to observe the behaviour and direction of the school; this is highly advantageous for your crew and the other anglers that will invariably be cashing in on the same action.

The trick is to pick which way the school is working; they will generally push into the wind and/or current. With this in mind you should position your boat well upwind/current and kill the engine. Let the fish come to you and pass by before starting the engine and taking a wide berth around them and back to the upwind/current side. At times you can have fish busting up all around the boat and at other times the bait may use your vessel for cover and you turn into a mobile FAD (fish aggregating devise).

Trollers be warned, it is not appropriate to tow your lures through the middle of any bust up, pick your line and work the edge of the school so as to not spook and send the schools down deep shutting them down.

At times it is hard to see what the fish are feeding on it may look as if they are gulping air. If you find it hard to observe the bait spraying from the surface, it would be fair to assume that the bait is of the microscopic form and lure selection should be made accordingly. At the Rip in Port Phillip and coastal regions of north and eastern Tasmania this can be krill.

Small baitfish, or ‘eyes’ can range in size from 10-75mm so it pays to a have a few lures in your kit that can ‘match the hatch’ when these situations occur. A selection of metal slices from 3-25g in a range of profiles and colours are the most commonly used for this style of fishing.

In recent years I have been removing the standard treble hook that is rigged on most metal slices and replacing it with a single non offset J hook. This serves two purposes, firstly the hook up to landing ratio is far better when you have species like salmon and tailor that like to get airborne during the fight. The single hook tends to find its mark in the corner of the jaw and is hard to throw even with the weight of the metal slice working back and forth.

Secondly is the practice of catch and release when we are encountering large volumes of fish such as this. Salmon aren’t the most highly desired table fish so the majority are set free after capture, having a single hook is far safer for removal and is less damaging to the fish and humans for that matter, than a treble hook.

Metal slices work best when retrieved flat out most of the time but they can also be worked slowly and down deeper. Fast rips with pauses and slow constant retrieves whilst twitching the rod tip are effective at times too. Deep holding schools of salmon tend to prefer their metals after it has been let sink and then retrieved back towards the surface at a rate of knots. Vertically jigging small metals under the school or when they have gone deep and marking on your sounder is another method that can keep a bite going.

Soft Plastics

Soft plastics are another great option for targeting surface feeding schools.

The versatility to swap and change lure profiles, sizes and colours is endless with soft plastics but there are drawbacks too. They can fall down the on the shank of the jig hook when retrieved briskly, they get damaged easily by toothy critters like tailor and they are fiddly to rig dead straight when you have adrenalin running through your veins while fish are busting up all around you.

That aside, the benefits of soft plastics far outweigh the above mentioned drawbacks. On particular days they will not eat anything other than lightly rigged plastic slowly twitch on the surface, at other times they want it moving as fast as you can wind. It’s just a matter of seeing which will work best on the day.

One of the main benefits of plastics is the ability to modify them to suit the prevalent bait. It’s quite common the cut down 3” stick baits to half or a third of their original length to get a bite when the fish are fussy.

Poppers and stick baits

Small poppers and stick baits are another exciting way to extract interest from these fish. These lures give great visual strikes for anglers but have their drawbacks too. Fowling up the trebles is the most common issue with poppers and stick baits especially if there is a rough chop on the surface. Low rod angles during the retrieve can help to alleviate this as can removing the belly treble hook.

There are three main retrieves with poppers and stick baits to draw strikes. The first is a slow constant wind; this gets the lure to ‘V’ across the surface and is often the best approach when fish are spooky. The second retrieve is more so for cup-faced poppers and consists of a series of short stabs with the rod tip to get the popper to ‘bloop’ continuously, adding a pause every so often is also deadly.

The third retrieve technique can be utilised with poppers and stick baits, commonly known as ‘walking the dog’ the angler must time twitching the rod tip with small winds of the reel handle to pick up slack line between twitches. Once mastered your top water offering will dart from side to side imitating a wounded confused baitfish.

The tackle I most commonly employ to target the tailor, salmon, bonito and silver trevally schools are 2-4kg medium to fast action graphite rods matched to either 1000 or 2500 sized reels with 3-8lb braid. The 2500 comes in handy when the fish want faster retrieve speeds and there are bigger fish to be found. The majority of this action happens out in open water so bust offs on structure aren’t that common just make sure you have a full spool of line.

When yellowtail kingfish are on the agenda they present a different challenge and require a heavier approach. For this I use a 6-8kg rod paired to a 4000 sized reel and 15-20lb braid. A range of leader sizes from 6- 30lb will cover most bases here and is best determined on the day once you have worked out what species are launching the attack. Fluorocarbon is a no brainer for leader material with its near invisible composition and high abrasion resistance, a rod length is all that’s required most of the time.

When these pelagic species focus on small bait they can be quite hard to tempt on conventional tackle. Fly fishing is a great alternative for presenting microscopic flies that replicate the size of the bait and are rarely refused once the right retrieve is worked out. Slow and steady strips, figure eights and rapid two handed retrieves can all work at times it’s just a matter of seeing which one the fish will respond to on the day.

For those of you that don’t have the time or skills for waving the long wand there is an alternative. Remove the treble or single hook from a 15 gram metal slice and attach a short length of fluoro leader material to the rear split ring, to this you attach a small fly that represents the prevalent baitfish. Using the weight of the metal lure a tiny fly can then be cast great distances and retrieved on conventional tackle. I have also come across anglers using clear bubble floats that can be partially filled with water to add casting weight and a little more finesse to the rig.

It’s always good practice if you are planning an outing in the lower reaches of your local waterway at this time of year to have an outfit rigged and ready in case the above scenario presents itself; it has turned many a slow day around for a lot of anglers out there and has to be experienced to be appreciated.

Selbysept13_1.jpg- Fly fishing for surface pelagics like this aussie salmon is very rewarding when they are feeding on ‘eyes’ and refusing standard lure presentations.

Selbysept13_2.jpg- Frustration is all part of the challenge when trying to temp fussy feeders.

Selbysept13_3.jpg- Matching the hatch with this 7 gram metal slice proved productive on this particular day. Note the single non- offset j-hook in place of the standard treble hook.

Selbysept13_4.jpg-Top water stick baits give anglers great visual strikes when the correct retrieve is employed.

Selbysept13_5.jpg- Silver trevally tend to hang beneath the active surface schools and can be caught by presenting an offering down deep where they await any scraps or unwary baitfish.

Selbysept13_6.jpg- Not all surface activity will have large numbers of fish busting up. Here a single Tern alerted the author to a school of Tailor working along the shoreline.

Selbysept13_7.jpg- Bonito are exciting targets when feeding on the surface.

Selbysept13_8.jpg- Australian Salmon are the most common species to be found smashing bait on the surface. What they lack in eating quality they sure make up for with blistering runs and aerial antics once hooked.

Selbysept13_9.jpg- Having a selection of top water presentations, soft plastics with matching jig heads and some small metal slices will get you into some hot action this spring.

Selbysept13_10.jpg- Tailor are great sport and not bad on the plate when eaten fresh. Metal slices and surface lures are the best options when these guys are in attendance to minimise bite offs and destroyed plastics.

Selbysept13_11.jpg- Some big Kingfish can get in on the action at times. It can pay to have a larger surface lure or plastic rigged and ready on appropriate tackle.

Selbysept13_12.jpg- Multiple species can be found hunting together at times. Here a Bonito and Salmon were caught as a double hook up using cut down soft plastic minnows.

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