Part 1: Offshore Options
There are two things I hate – wind and cold. Combine them and I’ll sit inside like a nervous hermit.
Thankfully on the Mid North Coast we have to shiver through only of handful of horrible days; the rest of time it’s cool to mild with some exceptional fishing.
Not only is the fishing near its peak during the cooler months, crowds are at an absolute minimum. The mass influx of holidaymakers during Summer and Autumn are long gone. Now most towns are near empty and the boat ramps practically devoid of trailers. It’s a great time to visit and a great time to live in this neck of the woods.
So what’s biting? Well, what isn’t? Depending on water temps (which are usually quite steady around 18° to 19°), there’s likely to be anything from bream up to yellowfin tuna.
The main players are kingfish, salmon, snapper, tailor, tuna (yellowfin, striped and mackerel), trevally (GT and big-eye), bream, drummer, blackfish, bass and jewfish. There are plenty of other species that may be around if the water’s a tad warmer, like cobia, billfish and even the odd Spanish mackerel but, as a guide, the fish on the first list are usually pretty hot to trot and biting freely most days.
Everyone has their favourite Winter species. For me it’s usually a toss-up between belting poppers at big kings or flicking soft plastics in the river for mulloway.
Most locals chase either the good run of inshore Winter snapper or are strewn along the lower river rock walls hunting blackfish. Smaller groups are keen on the rugged headlands pulling out obstinate black and silver drummer while an even smaller band heads up the rivers to spin up the big bass that congregate in the brackish water. There’s plenty to chase, it’s all a matter of personal taste.
In this article we’ll look at the offshore options and next month we’ll shed some light on the ample estuary species.
Without a doubt kingfish are my favourite offshore Winter targets. This time of year they’re usually bulked up and are hot to trot on surface lures.
There are few Winter species up this way that will happily belt a skipping popper with such enthusiasm. Most strikes are brutal, the hoodlums often exposing their heads and shoulders as they try to inhale the fleeing lure. It’s real heart-in-mouth stuff and every battle is a full-contact, gloves-off affair.
But there are more ways to catch Winter kings other than surface lures. Those fishing live baits score plenty of good fish, with live yellowtail being a firm favourite. Around here kingfish much prefer yakkas to live slimies or scad. So if you’re into livebait fishing, catch a good supply of yellowtail and keep a few slimies, scad or pike as back-up baits.
Frozen baits work quite well, particularly squid. You can buy imported or local squid, both work fine. Just rig them so they lay quite flat on a large single hook. You don’t want them to pull into a heap when they hit the water, so a half hitch or small stinger hook above the main hook is a good idea.
Pilchards, fished whole on a set of solid ganged hooks, are also pretty good back-up baits. Various cut baits also pull fish but the front-runners on the Mid Coast are either squid or cuttlefish.
During the cooler months kingfish tend to school up around inshore islands and reefs systems open to current. They average around 6kg to 9kg and put up a serious fight on most tackle.
There are usually some much larger fish from 12kg to 25kg mixed in with the school-sized fish so gear up for the big bruisers even if there are only medium-sized fish present. This means no lighter than 15kg tackle with 24kg being a good choice in bad country.
Of all the offshore Winter targets, snapper are certainly the most prized. Virtually every boat heading to sea is chasing them. Many score quality fish while others head home with a few plate-sized reds and a mixed bag of trevally, flathead and pearl perch.
While there are pretty good numbers of snapper up this way, success will largely depend on how you target them.
Fish are becoming wise to crude methods and heavy dumpy rigs and frozen baits will score mediocre results at best. Fish light with quality baits or flick soft plastics around and you’ll come back with a much better class of fish.
Perhaps the most reliable of all the popular methods for snapper is float-baiting. The idea is head out early, anchor on a likely inshore reef and set up a good berley trail. The baits are weighted with minimal lead so they waft back through the berley trail rather than plummet to the bottom. If weighted correctly, they should sink back on roughly a 45° angle. This approach works well with most proven snapper baits and has accounted for plenty of big reds over the years.
The latest craze for snapper is soft plastics. I’m a pretty recent convert and have to say it’s the most exciting way I know to consistently catch quality reds.
The basic idea is fish super-early, casting out 4” to 6” lures weighted with jig heads that steadily sink to the bottom. Cast as far from the boat as possible and allow the snapper to take them on the drop.
If there are any fish around they’ll grab them with glee and charge off, setting the hook themselves. It’s entirely different from any style of bait fishing but, with a little practice, will prove surprisingly effective.
There are plenty of anglers up this way who love chasing tailor. Some fish from the rocks and beaches but many troll slowly around the headlands, dragging anything from Smith’s jigs to garfish.
The idea is pretty basic. Just troll wide of the headlands around 4 to 5 knots with the lures or baits running about 25m behind. Tailor aren’t overly fussy so most methods work and you get to cover plenty of likely country.
Perhaps the most exciting way to pin a few nice choppers is to spin back into the washes. This is done from a drifting boat with the engine at idle and sitting at the limit of your casting range.
This style of fishing is a little risky and should be done only on fairly calm days with light offshore breezes. Mornings are the go: Get up early, troll the headlands until you find a good school of fish, then sit wide and cast various metal slices, spoons, minnows or surface lures. It’s good fun and an exciting way to score a nice feed of tailor.
Like them or loathe them, salmon are becoming more numerous every year. I think they’re great. There’s plenty of fun to be had pulling up alongside a frothing school of 3kg sambos.
Bait, lures or flies work well, depending on the mood of the fish. They can be super-fussy buggers at times, focused on the tiny baitfish many anglers refer to as ‘eyes’. If they’re feeding on eyes, they’ll drive you nut if you haven’t got any tiny flies or micro metal slices.
Admittedly salmon are pretty lousy to eat but they’re great fun if you like light-tackle sport fishing.
Late Winter sees a pretty good run of yellowfin tuna on the North Coast. Good numbers of school fish of 15kg to 30kg, plus a few sluggers around 50kg, run wide of the 60-fathom reefs with most off the action taking place from 80 to 140 fathoms.
Depending which port you head out from, you will probably be anywhere from 16km to 30km out to sea. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea but plenty of keen anglers are prepared to drive long distances and fish wide to wrestle with these golden balls of muscle.
All the popular methods work well, with trolling skirted lures covering plenty of water as you search for birds and fish activity. Then set up a good cube berley trail once you find roughly where the fish are travelling. It’s all about big boats, big fuel bills and potentially big fish.
Offshore boaties can have a ball on the Holiday Coast during Winter. The mornings can be fresh but the days usually warm up and there are good fish to be had. So get out there.
Tailor are in good numbers around most headlands and usually respond well to baits and metal lures.