The history of tailor in Hervey Bay
  |  First Published: July 2016

With Fraser Island’s tailor season just about to become serious, a fairly comprehensive tailor article is appropriate. After looking at the prospects of this coming season, I would like to take a look at some historical aspects of this fishery and the way expectations have changed, and how techniques have evolved over the last five decades.

Firstly, we should look at the prospects for this coming season. As I write, there are few encouraging signs. A few short bursts of average fish have started to cause some excitement, but it’s starting to look like this month will see the first significant schools of fish working the beach. The season seems to be starting a little later each year, but there is no real statistical evidence to support this. For an unknown reason (possibly temperature related), the movement of mature tailor into their spawning areas is being delayed.

On a positive note, we know that some good catches have been made along Stradbroke and Moreton islands, and to some extent along Sunshine Coast beaches.

It is widely believed that there is a general northward migration, so hopefully Fraser Island will be the next stop. This may be so, but I am inclined to believe that it is more to do with water temperature and the availability of food. There is no doubt that the season will get into top gear very soon and that there will be plenty of opportunities for great fishing along the entire eastern beach.

the sixties

My first experiences of Fraser Island came in the mid-sixties when we had the use of shacks just inside the headland at Waddy Point. We first travelled here from Hervey Bay – a five-hour sea trip to Wathumba Creek, then 4WD vehicles to Orchid Beach, and on to Waddy Point. This was when the Orchid Beach resort was in the process of development. At the risk of being accused of writing too much about ‘the good old days,’ I just need to say that fish were in abundance around the headlands, in the lagoons and on the ocean beaches. It was just too easy – you didn’t need to think too much about improving technique, but we did like to do whatever we could to improve, and make the equipment we use more comfortable.

In the late-fifties and early-sixties, the rod blank of choice was the Rangoon Cane. We would fashion this blank into surf or estuary rods by using winch fittings, binding on stripping guides and porcelain runners. The whole outfit would be completed by one of Alvey’s beautiful silky oak or bakelite spooled reels. The word circulated quickly when one of the tackle shops was about to receive a shipment of Canes, so it would be a smart move to be one of the first to choose the best of what might be a fairly dodgy selection.

I recall my first Rangoon Cane surf rod with no affection at all. The term barge pole would be flattering. It lived on, converted into a gaff for dealing with mulloway caught from the rocks at Waddy Point. The Rangoon Cane era gradually came to an end when solid and heavy glass blanks started to appear, and the first hollow, and lighter, blanks just about put us out of the Rangoon Cane misery.

As much as the first hollow glass surf rods were a welcome development, they were heavy and unwielding by today’s standards.

The Fifties

In the mid-fifties, the Queensland and Australian fishing champion, Len Thompson, introduced the tailor fishing techniques that still account for the majority of fish taken by anglers today. The gang of four, 4/0 hooks was central to Len’s technique. A short 20kg trace connected by a number 12 swivel to a 7kg main line completed the simple rig. In those days, the bait of choice was the sea-gar, readily obtainable along the surf beaches. Great care was taken in the alignment of the bait along the gang of hooks so that its presentation would be as natural looking as possible.

Len was insistent that this rig be used without weight, and it was said that he would rather not fish than use lead. His approach, widely known as bait-spinning, earned him the title of legend in tailor fishing circles. In those early years, WA pilchards were not readily available as they are today, but limited stocks of locally caught blue pilchards, as well as small yellowtail pike were available and these proved worthy substitutes.

Today almost all bait-caught tailor are taken on WA pilchards, but sea-gar have made a comeback when available. Today there are still excellent tailor anglers who, like Len Thompson, confine themselves purely to bait-spinning, preferably using sea-gar. Of course weather conditions do not always make bait-spinning possible and ball sinkers are needed to get the bait into the zone. In this case the sinker is run between the swivel and a second swivel attached to the main line.

The Seventies

In the years following the sixties, the numbers of anglers targeting tailor continued to increase, with Fraser Island becoming the destination of choice, thanks in part for the abundance of spawning fish through late winter and spring.

Of course the increasing ease of travelling to the island, the explosion in the number of 4WD vehicles, the availability of accommodation and a culture of camping out with family and friends, added to the influx.

Prior to the end of the eighties there was no management of the tailor recreational fishery. Until then with no legal size and no bag limit, anglers could pull in tailor until they dropped, and many of them did just that. With minimal refrigeration one wonders about the amount of wastage there must have been. There were disgusting scenes of mounds of rotting tailor on the rocks at Indian Head and Waddy Point, left by low-life, lesser individuals who were there just for the kill. It still disgusts me when I think back thirty years to witnessing this behaviour.

A change of heart

It was certainly time for some sensible management of the fishery. In 1990, a legal minimum length of 30cm was imposed. In following years up to the present the legal length was increased to 35cm and possession limits of 20 tailor imposed. For a short time anglers staying on the island for at least three days were allowed to take 30 fish home.

After this there was the seasonal closure in 1990, of beaches and headlands south of Indian Head and north of Waddy Point during September. This was later to include the month of August. It should be pointed out that management of the commercial fishery has also taken place. Most recently in the Great Sandy Marine Park zoning plan, which has designated the majority of the eastern beach as yellow zoned – effectively prohibiting netting.

Since the first management measures were put in place, anglers have been able to continue making good catches, enjoy great camp feasts of fresh tailor, as well as get involved with family and friends on what must be one of the world’s best beaches. No longer is there the temptation to fish till you drop. Most anglers are keen to catch and release as much as possible, keeping those that are severely maimed to contribute to the in-possession limit.

While most tailor continue to be caught using techniques similar to that introduced by Len Thompson, there has also been the challenge of diversifying as far as equipment and terminal gear is concerned. Of course, high-speed metal lures were accounting for tailor well before Thompson developed his techniques. With the continuing development of light, high-tech, purpose-built rods and reels, casting metals to where the better fish are holding has become more effective and enjoyable. Similar equipment is being used to put a wide variety of soft plastics and poppers out into the strike zone. The possibility of using artificials effectively in the surf has anglers enthusiastic about finding the right lure for the conditions.

WA pilchards continue to be the dominant bait while, as mentioned earlier, sea gar are making a strong resurgence. Slabs of horse mackerel and tuna are being used by a select group of tailor fishers. These guys are looking for the biggest fish that patrol the inshore gutters during the night.

Recreational tailor fishing has gone through some interesting times during the last fifty years. Early in this period we saw the tailor scene dominated by those just out to kill as many tailor as possible. Later the sensible regulation of the fishery through size and bag limits and closed seasons, certainly curbed those earlier attitudes. At the same time this set sensible guidelines that anglers concerned with conservation were and are more than happy to live with.

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