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Big game fishing rocks Tassie seas
  |  First Published: March 2016



The signs are there that March is going to be a great month for fishing, particularly game fishing. At this stage the Easter break is shaping up to be sensational.

The fishing so far this year has been excellent, and a lot of anglers have been saying it’s been the best they can remember. February continued to have marlin spotted, hooked and occasionally landed. Craig Shipton was one angler who had a smile from ear to ear landing his first marlin. Craig and his crew of Evan McMillan and Jason Dodge fought the fish, and after much excitement had an 80kg striped marlin at the side of the boat. There were a number of photos taken and a heap of high fives that would have made a West Indian cricket team proud. The lads reset the lures and after 20 minutes had another marlin strike, but after a massive run dropped the hook.

A week prior off St Helens, James Heinrich, Jarrod Hyland and Damian Turner managed to hook up and land a nice striped marlin and also hook up and lose another the following day.

Yellowfin tuna threatened to fire up, but have failed to live up to expectations thus far. Still, I recommend you keep working those bait schools and areas in and around the 100m mark. If you can put up with the striped tuna, March may well reward your efforts.

Mako sharks have continued to thicken up, and the amount of people that have been tagging fish is fantastic. Taking one of these splendid fish for the table is of great value, but letting a few bigger ones go is of equal value.

In March it won’t be all about the offshore currents and water temps, as the water temps in general will be up. The warmth and ambient heat of the last few months will have warmed the water, and that will remain throughout March and April. Just as it takes the water a while to warm up, it also takes a while to cool down, even when the ambient air temperature has started to move down the thermometer.

This of course means inshore fishing will continue to fire as it has done in February. Fish will still be active and looking to feed while they are warm and lively.

The trout fishing and particularly dry fly fishing is fast and exciting in March, so get some flies tied and get out there.

FLY FISHING
Trout

March officially marks the end of summer and the start of autumn. Don’t let this fact have you dropping your bottom lip though, as it’s one of the most exciting times to be a fly fisher in Tasmania. The weather is normally very settled and can permit some very good days wading and boating.

February normally sees the grasshoppers arriving, but they will still be thick as we go into March and be great fun in most rivers. The good thing about grasshopper presentations is that even the most awkward and clumsy fly presentation will often get some interest. Hoppers hit the water with gusto at times, so the beginner who hasn’t mastered the art of the gentle presentation will still have success.

Look out for black spinner falls later in the day, and look for rivers with a slower flow rate as they’ll give you the best chance of success. Rivers to try include the South Esk, Lake, lower Macquarie and Meander rivers. Mayflies can also thicken in autumn, along with dun hatches. The gum beetles and jassids will have made an appearance by now, and should form part of your plan of attack. These little leaf hoppers are trout candy, and if they start to hit the water in some numbers will create quite the feeding spectacle.

SALTWATER

Never has there been a time when bluefin on fly is as attractive a prospect as right now. The bluefin are in great numbers, and they’re close into shore where they can be easily accessed by smaller craft. The fish are surfacing and feeding hard in and around points and bays where you can motor over and present a large, flashy saltwater fly.

Bluefin are not the only sportfish in good numbers – yellowtail kingfish are in fantastic numbers in the Smithton, St Helens and Derwent areas. Plenty of these fish have also been found in and around Coles Bay and Bicheno.

Having a keen eye and watching for bust-ups of feeding fish is crucial to the success of landing both of these fine sporting fish. Motor over within casting range and get a big saltwater fly in their vision. They will fight hard and long on the fly. They’re definitely a lot of fun!

Using 10wt or 12wt rods with reels able to handle a good amount of matching line is important. There are some great set-ups available that cater to all budgets. Rods don’t need to be longer than 9ft while working from a boat.

Fly line in this space is very specialised and should be a weight forward intermediate or a shooting head.

YELLOWTAIL KINGFISH

I mentioned before that the kingies are about in good numbers, and anglers are getting a real buzz out of targeting them and getting their techniques perfected. These fish can be the cause of great frustration, as it can be difficult to elicit a hook-up or strike at times. Even an angler who feels he has the kings sussed will be given the run-around on some days, putting him back at square one with his thinking.

The most consistent success is had with baits that are fresh, and lures that have plenty of action. Fishing areas that at times have some good water movement on the tide is also a huge bonus. These fish really get active when there is some tidal movement, and become very aggressive.

A few years back we would have a crack at them with the trout gear or slightly heavier gear used for the bigger Australian salmon. We don’t do that anymore though, as the kingies seem to have bulked up and are found in locations that hold some much better fish. In this instance you will need to upgrade your gear because they fight dirty and will take you to the cleaners in no time. Reels around the 6500 size with rods in the medium to heavy spin class will have you stop some when hooked.

Remember that kingfish are nasty pasties and can be one of the hardest fish to land. On hook-up they turn into the piscatorial version of the Hulk and look to bust you off on rocks or anything sharp. If you are in a boat you can move away from the shallows and head out to deeper water to fight the fish.

The Derwent River has been on fire in February and the points and rocky shores are holding some good kings. Kangaroo Bluff, Tranmere and the point as you round into Ralphs Bay are worth a look on the Eastern Shore. Also worth a look is the area in and around the moorings from Wrest Point up river to the wharf precinct.

YELLOWFIN

March is that time of year when serious offshore game fishers obsess about fish with a tinge of yellow in their fins. The mighty Thunnus albcares or yellowfin tuna is on everyone’s minds. It’s a fish that is very much sought after and a prize trophy. Pound for pound, these babies are the fastest and the most agile of all the tuna we face here in Tasmania. To land a good sized yellow is an angling feat to be truly proud of. You can tell when someone has recently done it, as they have their chests puffed out so far they can overbalance and fall over.

In all seriousness, the yellowfin is a true athlete of the ocean and is also fantastic eating when looked after. Be sure to straight away bleed the fish well and get it on ice. That way you’ll avoid ‘burnt tuna syndrome’, which happens when the fish has overheated in the battle and isn’t chilled quickly enough (this can make the flesh taste muddy). Don’t be one of those people who say “yellowfin taste terrible” after leaving the guts in the fish all day on the deck.

Yellowfin love a temperature break and current line. If you find some water that is dramatically hotter (4-6°C) than where you just came from, work up and down that area until you can get a sense of where that temperature break is and where it runs. You can use the sounder to plot marks, and instead of naming them just log the temp readings. You will soon get a picture of what might be going on around you.

While you’re traveling and plotting, keep an eye open for bait schools as well. If you start to have a temp break and some bait, you have found an area that is worth working over. Come over the ground from all angles, working the bait from the warmer water to the colder and vice versa.

Yellowfin don’t mind traversing the shallow ground to get to where they want to go. Many spots along the east coast of Tasmania have held yellowfin (sometimes feeding) in water as shallow as 50m.

Don’t get hung up on any special lure needed to target yellowfin in Tasmania. If you have a good spread of lures that mimic the Tasmanian pelagic bait, you’re on the money. A couple of brown and light orange skirts will keep you in good stead as they will replicate the squid we start to see offshore in March.

It has been a while since we have seen a good run of yellas off Tasmanian shores. When we do see them they are normally good sized fish of 50kg or better. With the water temp and quality we had out wide during February, I’ll go out on a limb and suggest we may see some this year. Don’t let me down though, get out and drag a spread. Destinations like Bicheno and Triabunna are prime yellowfin haunts. They are also great places to take the family while you’re dragging lures for hours offshore.

Hot spots include off the back of Merricks – St Helens; in and around Joes Reef – Bicheno; and out to the 100 and up to Lemon Rock – Schouten Island.

BLUEFIN

Never has there been a more perfect time to go and catch a tuna in Tasmania. The fish accessible by a far greater range of anglers at present due to their good numbers and proximity to good sheltered areas.

Often seen as the domain of the big boat fraternity, these fish are currently accessible by nearly everyone. In previous years, the continental shelf or out in exposed waters was where the fish were usually found in good numbers. Not so this year, it’s an amazing start to 2016 and everyone can become involved! So fingers crossed they stay around and you can find some on your Easter break.

Below are some ideas, hints and tips for those who are new to tuna fishing. I’ll look at some basic gear to get you out on the water with a great chance of landing some hard-fighting fish that will have you smiling from ear to ear. I’ll even point out some places where you can launch a smaller boat and target these fish safely.

Clear the boat

If you are keen on a tuna mission, clear the boat of all unnecessary gear (think of it as an excuse to spring clean your pride and joy). Why? Because when you’re looking to land some tuna you don’t need things getting in your way. The boat should be neatly packed and have everything in its place ready to grab when you need it. There are often quiet times when trolling for tuna, but when these fish hit the lures things can get hectic. Double and triple hook-ups are not uncommon, and in these instances a clear and tidy boat will maximise your success. Before you hit the water, remove all the used bottom rigs and empty bottles of sunscreen from the side pockets. Clear the storage areas and the dash. You will now have room for your gaffs, lures, gimbal belts and so on.

What gear to take

Now that you have a tidy boat you can pack in some essentials. Four rods is enough to get the job done, and if your boat is small then three is fine.

Overhead reels are the traditional domain of tuna anglers, and these reels don’t necessarily cost a fortune. One affordable series is the Penn Squall range, which comes in both single and two-speed models, but there are other reasonably-priced overheads that should do the job just fine.

If you want to stick with spinning reels, you’ll want them to hold a reasonable amount of 10-15kg mono or 50lb braid. Rods can be matched to suit the line breakage, but are best kept around 5ft in length.

If you have had little experience with tackling tuna, you will need a bucket or gimbal belt. These awesome devices hold the rod butt in a cup, and make handling the rod and fighting the fish much easier. The next step up is a full-blown fighting harness, but a gimbal belt is fine to start with.

A couple of longer handled gaffs are next on the list. When tuna are spent and you think you have them, they have a habit of stubbornly circling just out of reach. This is where a good gaff is a godsend (another reason for having a tidy boat). The gaff doesn’t have to come out until needed at the last minute, so resist the urge to pull it out too early. On a smaller boat with a bit of excited action and a bit of sea on, that’s a recipe for someone to bleed a lot. Keep the gaff in the side pocket until someone yells that they can see the fish (the standard thing to shout is “we have colour!”). The gaff can then be calmly taken out of the side pocket and readied. That should be about the same time the fish has been leadered and the gaff deployed.

Don’t be too fussy about where you sink the gaff. We all like to fire off a great shot into the gills and head to save the meat, but when you’re new don’t worry about that. Just relax, take your time and get it in wherever. You can get fancy and pin them in the lip when you get some experience.

Lures

Now here is a subject where people get into a tizzy and froth. One bloke will declare that such-and-such a lure is a killer, while another angler will disagree and say another lure is the best in the entire world.

Regardless, there are a few factors to consider when choosing lures: quality, action in the water and proven ability. I have spent a fair bit of time on the water trying different lures, so here’s my suggestion for a spread of lures that will give you a head start.

Lures are run in what we call a spread. Our competition spread is a five-lure spread although, depending on conditions, we sometimes work in two or three more. What you are trying to create with your spread is the appearance of fleeing baitfish. The boat creates the illusion of some surface disturbance that grabs the tuna’s attention, and from within and just out of the prop wash they will see your lures. Each lure within a spread has a name given to it according to its position in the spread. Starting closest to the stern and moving further out, they are: short corner, long corner, short rigger, long rigger and shotgun. It might seem confusing at first, but it will fall into place. Don’t get too hung up on the word ‘rigger’, as this refers to outriggers. If you don’t have any it just means the rod position not in the corner of the boat.

The lures are placed in this formation for a number of pretty cool reasons, the first of which is to stop tangles when trolling. If the lures were all let out the back at the same length there would be hell’s own tangle in no time flat.

There are two other instances when a big tangle will occur, and that’s when turning and in a fair side wind. Placing the lures in the spread properly should avoid any tangles, and you should be able to turn and troll in a side wind with the smallest of tweaks. You will quickly get an idea of what the spread is doing, and know when to let some more line out or wind some in to have the lure work in its own little gap.

If you hook a fish or two, back the throttle off but don’t take the motor completely out of gear and steer straight. This will allow the lures that are still out to be kept straight as they are cleared away. When they are cleared away, fight the fish in one corner. In a two-way hook-up, the skipper has a bit more work to do and can have one angler slow as you deal with the closest fish. If three or more are hooked up, the skipper can just lie on the deck in the foetal position, rocking back and forth.

What lures to run

Lures are a personal choice, and my preference is for Zacataks. They are of awesome quality and their design and action in the water is a huge part of their success. We’ve had good success on them in a number of gamefishing competitions.

These lures breathe and produce a smoke trail and a great ‘waggle’ when they dip below the surface, which the fish seem to find very attractive. Zacataks also hold the water very well in a side wind.

When it comes to choosing lure models for different positions in the spread, the basic rule is that the longer the head is on a tuna pusher, the further back it goes in the spread. The shorter and more cup faced the lure head is, the shorter it goes in the lure spread. As an example, the long head design of the Smoka model means it’s good in the shotgun position. Use the wash from the boat to decide where you will run the shotgun lure. Set that lure 5m or more back from where the wash starts to clean up.

When it comes to the long rigger and short rigger positions, the Sprocket heads are perfect. As we get shorter, the Roach and the Midge models work very well. If you are looking for a conventional sub surface lure you can use the Halco Max range to great effect.

Here’s our typical spread: short corner – 8” Midge in secret squid; long corner – 6.5” Roach in sacred saury; short rigger – 6.5” Sprocket in oily green lumo; long rigger – 6.5” Sprocket in sacred saury; and shotgun – 6.5” Smoka in red bait.

Weather and where to go

Safe boating is very dependent on good weather. Pick some good, calm weather and make a plan that allows two days to get the job done. That way, if you have bad weather on one day you still have another day up your sleeve. Swell and seas below 1m and little to no wind is preferable in a smaller boat. Check the Bureau of Meteorology website and learn how to use it. Its METEYE section is fantastic once you get your head around it.

Make sure you have all your life jackets and wet weather gear up to spec. While we always look to go out in good boating conditions, those conditions can change in a heartbeat. Having a plan based around the weather report is a great idea as well. Heading in a direction of travel in the morning that has you coming home with the sea and swell at your rear is always favourable.

Tasmania is blessed with some special places to fish for tuna, and the action can be located very close to land or in and around some fantastic shelter. Fortescue Bay, Bicheno and Schouten Island are all accessible by smaller boats and crews with little or no tuna fishing experience.

• Fortescue Bay: fabulous and sheltered in most wind and sea conditions. The main exception is anything from the east. Fortescue is not a place to be in a howling northerly – but then neither is the entire area. This is a great place to launch and set your tuna spread in the comfort of the bay. When the tuna are as thick and hungry as they are at the moment, you won’t have to venture too far from the mouth of Fortescue. Keeping inside the shelter of either headland will find fish at the minute. If you don’t find them in the middle or directly out front, work the areas from The Lanterns and back towards The Thumbs. It takes some getting used to, but you don’t have to be out to sea. You will pick tuna up very close into shore along the cliffs. Mix your line of travel up a bit between in close and out a bit wider. Always look for surface disturbance or birds taking interest in something.

• Bicheno: a little more open to sea conditions, but on the right weather pattern it’s an amazing fishery. The beauty of this region is again the close proximity of the tuna at present. The boat ramp is very sheltered, and it’s easy to launch and retrieve there. On a very low tide some care needs to be taken, but it’s still OK.

The fish can be found just about anywhere, but in recent weeks have been in the 70-100m mark. There is abundant birdlife in and around Bicheno, and when you encounter them out to sea it’s a great spot to concentrate on. The band of birds is often on or just before the 100m mark, and this is where we’ve found found good numbers of fish. Birds are very important to the tuna fisher as they can turn a very poor day into a good one. The crew that remains vigilant, keeping an eye out for feeding birds, will be rewarded. If you see some birds gaining height and diving into the water, head over slowly. Don’t barge through the middle of them but circle them and work the area over.

• Schouten Island: another jewel in Tasmania’s tuna fishing crown is the area in and around Schouten Passage. The current and water flow here brings nutrients and bait, which, at certain times of year, brings the place alive. You can use the shelter afforded by the Freycinet Peninsula and travel down Great Oyster Bay. Set your lures in the calm waters of the passage and head out into the open sea looking for tuna. You don’t need to head off into open ocean; working the edges of Schouten Island will find fish. The point down the far end has some bait-holding grounds that are worth a look. Keep an eye out for birds picking right in close, because they’ll be on fish and cleaning up the scraps from the feeding frenzy. If it’s a bit quiet in close and the weather allows, head out towards the 100m-depth line and again watch for bird action. The place has been alive with tuna of late and you should find them.

Speed and species

The speed to tow your lures is 6-8 knots or 14km/h. Don’t get hung up on being too fast or too slow – just do 14km/h and you will get strikes. It may seem too fast if you aren’t used to it, but tuna are speedsters and they will smash it easily.

Although you can’t go too fast for the tuna, you can go too fast for your lures. If you haven’t purchased good quality lures they may blow out of the water and tumble. This creates two problems – they don’t look desirable to the fish, and the hook doesn’t sit well for a hook-up. Going down sea without adjusting speed is the biggest cause of this. If you are picked up by following swells and surf a bit, your speed will increase rapidly and ruin the lure spread. Pull the throttle back a little and watch the lures. They should be on the surface and then dive under a little, pulling a bubble trail down with them. They should then resurface, creating some disturbance and cupping some water forward before submerging again with a little wiggle.

I have not been particular with specific tuna species as they will all fall for these techniques. We are lucky that we have all four species off our coast at the moment. Southern bluefin, albacore, yellowfin and striped tuna will all fall to these lures and tips, so be prepared for anything to come over the side. The bluefin are most plentiful, along with the albacore. Striped tuna are the much less favoured catch, and are unfairly seen as bait and berley.

The prized catch is yellowfin tuna. They are superb eating and have fantastic fighting qualities. They’re often mistaken for bluefin by newbies as bluefin schoolies have bright yellow finlets behind their second dorsal. A yellowfin has bigger elongated second dorsal, often called a sickle.

When you hook a fish

When the reel screams off (or maybe more than one), it’s important to remain calm in and around the excitement. Get the rods in hand and have others clear the lines not connected to a fish. Don’t rush, just be smooth and steady. Don’t give the hooks an excuse to come out by jerking and being rough; the rod is a tool and should be kept bent at all times. You can do this by lifting up and pulling a curve into the rod and winding down slowly. You don’t want to get ten winds back each lift! Lift up and quickly get one or two winds back on the reel and repeat.

The tuna will be as unhappy to see the boat as you are happy to finally see it alongside. This is the time for cool heads and maybe backing off the drag a touch. This will allow the fish to run smoothly should it still have some energy up its sleeve. A tired tuna will start to do circles in the water, and the trick is to gaff the fish as it comes past in one of these loops.

Once on deck, get a few high fives out of the way but watch the flapping fish. Nobody wants a hook in them at this stage. Get a knife and place a cut 2cm behind both pectoral fins and allow the fish to bleed out. Next, place the fish in the shade or, better yet, an ice slurry. Bluefin is best for the table when looked after. If you leave it on the deck all day, sliding around in the sun, it will taste very ordinary.

Bluefin is awesome, yellowfin is better and albacore is totally different again. While bluefin and yellowfin lend themselves to sashimi and steaks, albacore is fantastic done in crumbs.

So make a good plan, head out, be safe and catch some tuna!

MARLIN

We’re in the midst of marlin madness down here in Tasmania. Sighting and captures are coming through each week, along with hard luck stories and photos of triumphant anglers. These fish are coming up for lures and there’s mixed success in hook-ups. Nailing a marlin in the right spot in the mouth to keep hooked up is very tricky. These fish have hard areas around their mouths and slash at the lure as much as eat it. This leads to a lot of half hook-ups and bill wraps. These fish are very spectacular and jump and throw their heads violently, often leading to thrown hooks.

While targeting marlin, scale down the hook size and material section (i.e. the diameter of the material the hook is made from). This will allow the hook to penetrate the fish’s jaw more easily. Make sure the hooks are as sharp as they can be. Years of rattling around the tackle box and hitting the side of the boat will blunt the hooks. Have a file on hand to give them a touch up every time they go into the water.

Lures are one way of catching a marlin, but even with the right gear and everything checked and double checked a hook-up and capture rate of 50% is good going.

There are two other marlin fishing techniques that are worth a try when the marlin are as thick as they are at the minute. Right now they have been taken at St Helens and all the way down the south coast at Cape Raoul. Not in great numbers but let’s have a think about this for a minute. That is at least 2400km2 of area that marlin will be in.

SKIP BAITS

This technique is fun, exciting and a little bit technical. You have to find and locate the bait and then rig it up so you can hook it up to a circle hook and troll it (much more slowly than you would with a lure). Rigging up a skip bait isn’t rocket science – you just need a bit of practice. There are many articles and online videos to get you started.

The idea is to have your baits out skipping along and your reels in freespool. Ideally you have the two baits in the riggers with some slack line from rod tip to rigger clip as a drop back. This allows the fish to take the bait and you to let the marlin run and swallow the hook. You then slowly push the drag lever up to hopefully hook the fish in the corner of the mouth. Hook-up rates are far greater than with lures and so too is keeping connected to the fish.

We love skip baiting. It can be very exciting to see a fish come into the trap and light up as marlin does when excited. They will go from bait to bait and then POW! You are hooked up – the trap has been sprung and worked!

LIVE BAITING

When it is ‘go-time’ off Australia’s famous marlin bait grounds the atmosphere is electric. Boats jockey jockeying for position, the marlin are hungry and the fights are intense. Most days there are one or two limited hot-bite windows and nobody wants to miss them. First you have to locate the bait, and ‘mark’ fish. Marking fish is the term used when you can, without doubt differentiate between bait and marlin. You can then see what depth they are at and pull your baits down to them.

Fluorocarbon leaders and circles hooks are the order of the day – use varied snapper weights to get down to the feeding fish. When you locate a feeding marlin or two in the bait below you, pull out of gear or nail reverse and bark out to the crew where the fish are.

On a good bite the rod won’t make the rod holder, but if it’s a bit slower the rod can be sat down with just enough tension to stop the sinker paying out line. You can then put the line up in the rigger clip, watch it and concentrate.

Down below, your live bait is hopefully swimming in a school of bait about to be wolfed down by a hungry marlin. When that marlin comes past with intent the bait school says – “We’re out of here,” and the sinker slows your little bait up. Eventually all his mates have done a runner and here is your little bait swimming his heart out in the open looking like the last lamington on the plate at Nan’s.

From up top you have to watch the line as it will go tight or get bumped and go slack. Either way you have to get that rod in hand and free spool the line. Once you are confident that the fish has taken down the livey you can slowly push the drag up. More often than not the next thing you know you have a marlin bust out of the water with your leader hanging out of its mouth just near the boat.

It’s awesome and some of the coolest fishing I have ever done. I love it. As with all fishing techniques it’s just about getting your head around it, understanding the process and practice.

I hope you all have a great month in March as the game fishing comes on strong.

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