Jack tactics from the far north
  |  First Published: December 2016

Red devils, dogtooth bream, or red dogs – these are a few of the names given to one of Australia’s favourites. Of course I’m talking about the mighty mangrove jack. They’re brilliant to look at with their deep reddish-bronze appearance and vibrant markings and they’re a fish with real character and aggression. Experts in the art of ambush, jacks are true hunters armed with razor sharp teeth like canines, to pin and devour their prey with speed and explosive power. It’s easy to become addicted to targeting this iconic brute of a sportfish.  

Members of the Lutjanidae family, these fish are simply magnificent. The aggressive nature and extraordinary lifecycle of this magical species can only be admired and respected. Well known for their brute power and strength, jacks are the champions of getting the upper hand in the battle against fishers, many times resulting in an angler confused and shaking as the adrenaline continues to pump through their veins.

Almost every angler becomes addicted to targeting this iconic species, especially when they experience that first jack hit! They require solid preparation, outsmarting and sometimes a bit of luck to catch, but when it all comes together it’s a fantastic feeling that leaves you on a high and wanting more!

Jacks inhabit a wide range of locations during their life cycle. As juveniles, they’ll be found in the upper reaches of rivers and freshwater streams. As they grow older, they begin to venture out to the tidal mangrove estuaries, rocky walls and headlands. Occasionally, bigger models will be happy to stay in the fresh for longer periods, sometimes even heading many kilometres upstream – these make a surprising reward for anglers who intend to get jungle perch or sooty grunter.

Up here in the tropical north, a 50cm+ brute from the snags is a trophy fish. Often when they get to this size, they’ll begin making their migration out to the reefs. During this extraordinary journey, they can be found hanging around the many rocky headlands, wrecks and caves. Eventually when they make it out to the reefs, they can grow massive and well over the 20lb range. What a spectacular life cycle! 

Most of the lure fishing for mangrove jacks takes place in the creeks and estuaries. These fish are the master of ambush and will often be found positioned in heavy structure. They use elements such as tide, currents, wind direction and overhanging vegetation to make their assault on unsuspecting baitfish and crustaceans. They often hit their target on the way back to cover – a very intelligent predator. I like to call it the ‘fish hook attack.’

In a flash, they’ve already circled the prey to smash them with their powerful jaw-snapping teeth. All of this happens at full speed towards the cover they ventured out from. The strike is breathtaking compared to anything else, as the instant pulling power from a jack is very unique. Any slip in concentration when jack fishing will result in brutal bust offs and complete railings into the snags. 

Mangrove jacks can be caught all year round, but really start to fire during the warmer months. The extra humidity gets them super aggressive and during these times of the year, you can target them on a wide range of lures including hardbodies and soft plastics. Surface presentations will always be entertaining and can result in amazing sessions, especially in the low light conditions. My favourite time is when the sun is going down. With the closure of barramundi season, targeting jacks becomes the main focus. Many keen lure fishers look forward to this time of the year, because the jack fishing action is red hot!

In the tropical north, there are plenty of ideal locations to target jacks. My all time favourite place for them is the Hinchinbrook Channel. Hinchinbrook Island is Australia’s largest island national park. It’s an absolutely pristine environment with spectacular rugged mountain backdrops and endless mazes of creeks and rivers to explore. It’s a magical part of the world. Catching fish is a bonus.

Jacks love to be hard up in the cover. Accurate casting is the key to unlocking them from the snags. Getting your presentation deep into the structure and as close to them as possible is what it’s all about. I rig my plastics weedless so I can be in the strike zone without getting snagged up. It’s just a matter of time before an angry red dog jumps on. The most important part of the fight is without a doubt the very start.

Get the upper hand early for a good chance of winning the battle. Having a tight drag is a must – sometimes even with a locked up drag, they’ll still be able to pull line of the spool. Using rods that absorb the shock will save your line from breaking under the violent whip lash effect. There is intense power in the initial hit.

I use a rod rated 3-6kg matched with a 2500 reel. I run 15lb Platypus Braid with a 30lb fluorocarbon leader. This combo allows me to flick lightly weighted presentations into the honey holes and still have the authority in the butt section of the rod to turn them from the heavy structure they will power towards. Knot strength is of utmost importance and the FG knot is a tough, reliable one that gives me the confidence to pull fish out without any issues.

Tides are important when it comes to jack fishing, the perfect tides don’t always line up with the days we have off. You can catch them at all times of the tide, but on a high tide, I like to take advantage of the smaller creeks and go exploring. Some of my best fish have come from the smaller creeks that only get enough water up them during a big tide.

When you start getting to know a system, have a game plan for where you want to be fishing at certain times of the tide. This will be a great advantage. My favourite time to be casting for jacks is the few hours leading up to the low. The snags and rocks begin to be exposed and the baitfish, crustaceans and other food will be forced out and hanging around these areas.

With just a little bit of run, you can really allow your presentation to naturally drift under the snags. Jacks will be waiting for the food to come to them! Always keep an eye out for likely looking areas and mark good looking exposed snags and rocks on your sounder. On your next session, you’ll have a great start. 

When prospecting for mangrove jack you can expect to see a wide range of other species sharing the same snags. Some of the by-catches are very exciting. Golden snapper can make an appearance, and expect to see plenty of cod, grunter and barra. It’s a big lucky dip sometimes – you never know what’s going to jump on next! 

I love using soft plastic lures for my jack fishing. My favourite artificial presentations to use are from ZMan. They look fantastic and life-like through the water, and they’re super tough. Their buoyancy makes them perfect for skipping into the tight spots where a jack is likely to be waiting. The Elaztech plastic they are made from can take an absolute beating and will swim perfect every time.

I rig them weedless, because being able to get a presentation deep into cover is such an advantage when it comes to jack fishing. There’s a wide range of lures that have proven to be jack candy many times. These fish are super territorial, so often when things get a bit quiet, I like to tie on a colour that may resemble a smaller jack. If you find a good snag, peppering it from every angle can often stir up an aggression strike.  

A really important tool when it comes to mangrove jack fishing is a good pair of polarised sunglasses. These help to hone in to what’s happening under the water and locate hidden snags, fallen logs or rocks ledges. Be aware of your surroundings and tune into the elements. This is what jack fishing’s all about.

Mangrove jack is by far my favourite species to target. They’re extraordinary fish that require plenty of research and hours on the water to get results. The lead up to a jack session is always filled with excitement from the preparation of rigging all the gear to the early mornings on the water. The scenery that surrounds you when you’re out hunting is always magnificent, especially up here in the tropical north – the wildlife you get to see is spectacular! I feel very privileged to target them on a regular basis.

While I’ve been sitting here in front of my computer writing about my favourite fish, I must say I’m getting rather excited. In a few weeks, my old man is flying up from South Australia to come fishing with me for a few days. He’s never been jack fishing and I can’t wait to get him onto his first ever mangrove jack! It’s going to be great to watch him feel the power of this amazing fish, but getting him to land one is a different story.  

I wish everyone the best of luck out there in the great outdoors, targeting this tough brute of a fish. I hope you don’t get busted off too many times in the process. Remember, a fisher won’t remember every fish they catch, but they’ll always remember the places it takes them.

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