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Keeping track of the crazy changing fishies
  |  First Published: February 2017



Just when you think the fishing in Tasmania is as crazy good as it can get, boom – it grabs another gear and says, “Watch this!”

January was on fire and it doesn’t look like it’s slowing down in February either. The fishing around Tasmania is often spasmodic with one species firing up as another slows down, but someone has forgotten to tell the fish. It seemed like the entire state was fishing exceptionally well in January and across a great number of different species. This is great news for anglers of all skill levels. The super practiced can catch the fish they have spent years targeting and the mug punter can waltz along and catch that fish of a lifetime while everything is on the chew hard.

There isn’t an area or discipline that isn’t fishing very well. Land-based, rivers, estuaries and offshore are all just going bonkers. Yellowtail kingfish, snapper, gummy sharks, whiting and silver trevally are all showing up regularly across the state. Offshore, the bluefin, albacore, mako and deep water ooglies are finding their way onto bbqs and into freezers everywhere.

The good news is that the tried and true methods are working, but so too are a few fun techniques like stickbaiting for tuna. Tea bagging big soft plastics in the berley trail while waiting for a mako is also finding favour and putting smiles on dials. The common theme of the Tasmanian reports is timing and seasonal shifts, and species runs going completely out the window. The idea is to just gear up, get out and have a go. Get into your local tackle store and load up on some gear and goss on what is being caught where.

The weather in February is still in great form with plenty of sun and loads of warmth. Daylight hours are still plentiful, so make the most of it while you can. The summer solstice or longest day was 22 December or thereabouts and the days start to shorten from there. With good weather and a good bit of daylight after work, it’s best to get out in February and make the most of it.

Offshore

Right here, right now, offshore fishing has gone nuts. The eager souls that were very keen to take on an early season mako shark found albacore and bluefin in early January and it hasn’t stopped. If ever there was a time to gear up and catch some tuna on the shelf, it’s now. I have mentioned before not needing to rush out and buy eleventy squillion dollars worth of offshore overhead reels. There are a number of affordable options and the big 6000-8000 size modern spinning reels can cope beautifully. Let’s talk more about these later.

The fish seem to be on the continental shelf and in very good numbers. The shelf is relatively close from shore in Tasmania and we are spoilt compared to mainlanders. Just 12nm is a sweet run in good weather and far less than the 30nm needed to steam from Sydney or Port Stephens. Even the gamefishing port of Eden is 20nm from the continental shelf. Modern weather apps allow us to spot a weather window and keep an eye on it over a couple of days. When it’s behaving, the weather can be perfect for a spirited run out to the shelf to tackle some powerful and tasty fish.

Mako sharks have been coming into berley trails regularly and it has been great to see crews taking one for the table and tagging the rest. These fish are magnificent animals and hold a great deal of valuable flesh. If you catch one it can yield enough flesh to feed a number of people and even a few families. It is also a fish flesh that takes to freezing very well when dressed and stored properly.

You will need enough berley for at least four hours of fishing – a good, solid berley trail. The fishing is that good at the minute you could expect a shark in the trail in an hour, but don’t expect that all the time. The speed in which your berley will break down and need replacing will depend on the water temperature and the speed of the drift or the wave action generated by any breeze. The breeze will create chop and that will pump the stern of the boat up and down in the wind slop. This action can accelerate the flow of berley from your drum or catch net.

If you have a heap of berley, this can be a good thing. You do not have to keep tea bagging the berley bag. If you don’t have a heap of berley, negate the wave action by letting the berley bag out on a longer section of rope and eliminate the bouncing movement. Keep an eye out, as the last thing you want is a mako steaming up your trail unnoticed, only to munch your frozen berley off and leave.

To help the fine minced berley work its magic on the shelf you can also use some cubes. Cubes is the term given to chunks of fish cut up into small pieces and kept on the back of the bait board. Once you have a nice pile, flick a few over every now and then and allow them to sink down into the trail. At the start you can cut the first lot of cubes into a bigger sections and lob them in straight away. These will sink faster and get that trail started. After that, adding a few every so often is the trick. Not only do these cubes give your berley trail some added depth and shape, they also do a great job in attracting other species.

It’s not uncommon after a while to have tuna or kingfish flashing about in your trail sniping the morsels you have been putting in the water column. The keen-eyed will see these on the sounder and get a spinning rod rigged with a metal jig or large soft plastic. These can be worked in behind the boat or you can cast them out along behind the boat and let them sink down into the column. These fish are fantastic fun on medium sized gear.

An inexpensive way to get the job done is a 6’6 Ugly Stik Gold rod and a PENN Slammer 760. Match this bombproof combo up to some 50lb braid and leader and you have some serious sportfishing on your hands. It’s by no means the most glamorous outfit, but it will be a solid performer that will last you for years.

If you happen to catch some tuna out of your trail, this is a huge bonus. You can bleed them straight into your trail. If there is anything that will get a mako shark storming up a trail, it’s fresh tuna blood. There are times that a mako will come to the back of the boat and won’t nail a bait no matter how hard you try. This can be super frustrating, so if you have harvested the blood of previous tuna caught and frozen it in 600mL bottles, you’ll have a trick up your sleeve. Tipping some blood in the water and drizzling some over your bait will fire up even the most wary blue missile and raise your chances of a hook-up.

Once a mako has taken a bait, let it have it for a while and get the hook down. The further down the fish’s gullet, the more chance the hook has to catch some flesh and set. Once you decide to strike the hook, don’t go mad. Just make a solid and deliberate strike upwards and have the skipper drive off at the same time. This helps by taking all the slack and stretch out of the line to get a solid hook-up. I’ve said it before that it’s a better than good idea to trundle off away from a mako while you’re setting the hook. This will stop you having to explain that the reason the inside of your boat is smashed up is because a shark came for a ride. No one wants a green and angry shark break dancing and doing the electric boogaloo in their pride and joy.

This is where you have to pick your shark fishing crew very carefully, as you need a few people with certain attributes. One needs to be cool and calm in an exciting situation. One needs to be strong, good at lifting and good at handling heavy stuff. One needs to be keen to gaff a fish that may want to waltz. Then should the worst happen and a live mako somersaults into the boat alive and angry, you need the sort of robust cobber who will throw down on top of the shark and dispatch it.

Mako sharks are very exciting to catch and yield a good amount of fish flesh for the table. The worst thing you can do is go to the trouble and expense of catching one and not field dress properly. Look online for YouTube videos or ask a mate who has a good technique to part these fish out and get maximum meat returns.

Offshore, mako sharks aren’t the only news. Albacore tuna and bluefin tuna are taking lures readily in and around the shelf. The area is most popular for accessing the continental shelf are St Helens, Bicheno and of course Eaglehawk Neck. This year has seen a resurgence of activity off St Helens after a few years of slow fishing. The water is looking very good, the temperatures are up and the currents from the north are bringing a lot of nutrients and bait. The area is again stamping its claim as the gamefishing capital of Tasmania after the water off the Neck looked to be taking that mantle.

The underwater structure off St Helens and slightly to the north generates significant upwellings and water divergence attracting a wide range of pelagic species. The albacore and bluefin are there and hungry. Also look for kingfish and the possibility of a mahimahi in February. The striped marlin fishing last year was the best it has been for a very long time. There are a number of keen anglers that hope it continues this year and February is the time to get excited.

Dragging skirted lures will bring them undone but the nature of their strikes and hard mouths means you have to rig your lures differently. The thick and wide section tuna hooks we use in our tuna skirts are not well-suited to pinning striped marlin and staying tight. Marlin hooks need to be strong, built of finer profile stock material and have a needle point.

This will increase your hook-ups by a heap but it won’t get the job done all the time. If you want to really lift your hook-up rates, then it’s switch baiting for you. Switch baiting is an exciting way to fish for marlin, but the idea of trolling around with lures and no hooks in them does a lot of people’s heads in. Yes, that’s right – lures out the back of the boat with no hooks in them.

The idea is to have three bigger lures out the back causing a lot of spray and commotion on the surface. Striped marlin will come up and aggressively strike at these lures as your crew winds them in. The last one you bring in down the centre and replace with a live bait snooted onto a circle hook. The angry marlin sees this and inhales it as you slowly push the drag tension up and hook him right in the corner of the mouth. It’s very exciting and very visual, but also very good for getting solid hook-ups.

The live bait of choice in Tasmania is a slimy mackerel and at this time of year they can be found in 10-30m of water around rocky bottom and drop offs. The paper or tinsel Sabiki rigs are what’s needed here to catch them. Lower them down to the bottom and then quickly get them up about 3m, or you’ll catch a lot of rubbish fish. Work the rod tip up slowly and drop it at the top of the stroke quickly, and repeat. You can jig them up and down madly and get the biggest tangle ever, but I rather you didn’t.

Once you feel a few on, bring them up and use a wet, clean cloth to handle them. De-hook and place them in you livewell. If you don’t have one, an esky with a battery-powered bubbler will do. Get online to see how to make up some live bait rigs using 100lb leader and circle hooks. Check out how to make a bridle and rig the mackerel onto a hook. Some Black Pete Marine bait needles will be a huge help here.

It doesn’t hurt to rig one ready to go and have him swimming around in the livewell. You can rig two if you want and have them swimming around madly awaiting their fate, but when a marlin comes to the back of the spread and the skipper is screaming to get the livies out, what you will have is the second biggest tangle ever, and I would rather you didn’t.

The lures to use for this type of fishing are bigger than normal skirted lures. This is one of those occasions where you need to get out of your comfort zone and do something different to get results. Quality 8 and 10” lures with a good bit of weight and sizable cup face will do great. The range at Zacatak Lures fits the bill nicely, as they are well made and have a few models that cause a fantastic amount of surface disturbance.

This is exactly what you’re after. You want the fish to spot a bit of carry on from below and head up. The wash of the boat and its silhouette trick the fish into thinking it’s a bait ball. When they see the lures frothing and smoking behind the boat looking like wounded stragglers, a marlin will then roar into the spread and start to hit them with its bill. A Zacatak 8” Roach and 10” Smoka will create a good trail and add into the mix a Thunderstruck. This bad boy is mad!

If the idea of trolling around for hours with lures out and no hooks just blows your mind then take the time to re-rig your tuna gear with super fine hooks with super sharp points. The other key to keeping a marlin on when hooked is to keep tight and avoid slack line. A marlin is a quick, powerful fish. Early on in the fight, it will jump and shake its head furiously. If you have any slack line at all, this is when your lure will be flung out of wherever it was hooked with the striped marlin having the last laugh.

The key here is for the skipper of the boat to be on the ball. At the sign of a marlin in the spread, be ready to accelerate on hook-up. This doesn’t mean you have to take off under full throttle. On hook-up, just throttle away firmly. If you can work out which way it’s headed, go in the opposite direction. Don’t panic, as you won’t break your line or pull the hook out of the marlin’s mouth. It’s actually quite the opposite. This is precisely why you have invested in a reel with a smooth drag and it’s time to put it to work.

Driving off the fish will pull all the slack line tight and the drag will start to pay out and set the hook firmly. The tension on the line will also negate the fish’s ability to throw its head violently and drop the hook. Once the fish has settled down and worked out it’s not a bird, you can settle into a standard battle. The crew and skipper should always be ready for when the marlin decides to jump again or run towards the boat. The skipper can help the angler by throttling away hard until the drag pays out keeping the line tight. The crew has to be ready for this and hang on.

North West

February will have the top of Tasmania continue to fish very well. The kingfish at Montague will creep along the coast in the warmer currents chasing the bait about. Look to find these on rocky points along the coast. They like a bit of lure speed at times to get a bite, so don’t be scared to turn and burn your lures. Wind them twice and three times as fast as you would normally.

Mix your return speeds up a bit and get a setup that casts well. Fire your lure out long and hard and as soon as it hits the water, burn it back in. With kings, it doesn’t matter if you break the surface occasionally either. This is where stickbaits have it over bib lures sometimes. You can manipulate your return speed and with a quick pop of the rod tip as you wind, you’ll break the surface.

The land-based areas to try your luck are the rocky outcrops in and around Rocky Cape, Sisters Beach and Boat Harbour. Further down the coast towards Burnie, you can try anywhere across the front on the last of an incoming tide and fish the high. Ulverstone has continued to fish well for gummy sharks. The areas to start a drift are directly out the front or slightly west of the river mouth in 25-30m of water.

If you find you are drifting too fast for gummies, a sea anchor or drogue is a good idea and handy bit of equipment to have on board. Gummy sharks rely heavily on their ability to find food by smell. They don’t smell like us, of course. Their ability to sense odour is better described as olfaction. The little holes in some fish that look like nostrils are called nares. These nares don’t lead to the throat the way nostrils do in mammals. They lead to a chamber lined with sensory pads that can pick up chemical signals. These signals reach the fish’s little brain they respond appropriately.

Should that signal tell the gummy sharks brain he is onto something yummy, will he come looking for it? A gummy shark won’t do that at a million miles an hour and as you can imagine, finding a small lump of bait on a massive sea floor takes time. The longer you can leave your bait in the one spot, the better, allowing Mr Gummy to find it and eat it.

West

The Wild West has not been so wild of late and the weather and sea conditions have allowed many anglers to load up. The cray fishing has been very good and those that like to eat abalone have been well looked after. Getting out to the stripy trumpeter grounds has been very rewarding, as the fish off this coast are dead-set beauties. When fishing this stretch of water, you must treat it with the utmost respect.

Mild conditions mean you can come out of the sheltered harbours of the West Coast and set gear and dive in areas not accessed at most times due to swell and sea. When the weather aligns with swell under a metre and no wind, you can come out of Hell’s gates and swing south to find some massive cray and abalone.

Stripy like good fresh baits and also a bit of movement on the hook. Cut baits into strips and allow a bit to flap about. Don’t jam up the gape of the hook. This is the area between the back of the hook and the point. If this is not clear and jammed up with bait, you’re fighting against the design and way a hook works. I often see people get carried away with stripy rods and have them a bit long and stiffer than what’s needed. A good stripy rod is around 5ft with a bit of power in the butt section to lift the fish off the bottom, but subtle enough to stay well bent on the lift and wind.

A good bend in a rod while fighting a fish is not a bad thing. The bend in the rod is like suspension. You should keep the rod bent with pressure enough to leave a little give left in the blank, in case the fish makes a run. This reduces the load on everything allowing a slow take up of pressure until the drag pays out. When lifting and winding a stubborn stripy from the depths, it’s nice to lift a decent bend into the rod as the power in the rod blank loads up and then winds down with a bend still in the rod. This bend leaves a bit of room for the fish to bounce and fight and not have the hooks fall out of its mouth. If you have a stiff rod, you can introduce some slack line or even let the fish ‘have its head’ on the down stroke. This is a recipe to drop fish. It won’t happen all the time, but who wants to drop any fish after winding 80m of a 120m wind up?

East

I mentioned earlier how St Helens is fishing very well and this is not isolated to the grounds offshore or indeed just St Helens. Georges Bay has had an influx of species and numbers and always fishes well in February. The area has the widest species spread I can think of in Tasmania and if you can think of one with better, please write to me and let me know.

Michael Haley reported that kingfish are in the bay and outside. Jobs on. Michael is a very experienced and well-respected charter operator in the area. If you are looking to get your head around the area, you would be well-advised to get yourself a spot on one of his trips. February will see the bream and silver trevally provide lots of fun on soft plastics. There are gummy sharks and elephant sharks to be had as well.

The albacore tuna are out in force all along the East Coast, as too are the bluefin tuna. Bicheno and the areas off Schouten Passage are areas to have a go. Get the weather right and head to the shelf. Set your spread about 3nm from the shelf itself and keep your eyes peeled. You are looking for birds feeding or fish breaking the water in good sea conditions.

If the fish are being a bit flighty and not taking skirted lures, manoeuvre so you drift down onto them and toss big soft plastics. Mix up your retrieve with a cast and let it drop technique and a high speed return. This is great fishing and good fun. Albacore are one of the best eating tuna and totally different to bluefin to prepare. While you have to muck about with bluefin to have it be a great meal, albacore is dead simple. Again, look online for some great recipes for both. A big tip is to not overcook either, as it can dry out and need a lot of beer to wash it down.

Southern Tasmania

The tuna are also firing down this end of the state and aren’t being left behind. Expect the normal haunts in and around Eaglehawk Neck to produce. Young charter operator Locki Nichols has reported good catches of albacore and blueys. The mako shark fishing is also going very well. Locki mentioned the kingfish will fire in February and is hoping for some bigger fish this year.

The flathead fishing has been quite good over the festive season and into January. February is a month where the crowds slow down a bit and you can find a good spot to drift in relative peace. Whenever we fish the areas of sand in the south, we mix it up with bait and soft plastics. The depth of water we find fish in will depend on what jigheads and plastics we use.

Moving about early and trying a few different depths to find the fish is crucial. The grounds off Boomer Bay and even Fredrick Henry Bay vary a lot. Look for bottom that falls away sharply or shows up as a gutter or gully on the sounder and try and work a drift that takes in the flat ground and the transition. This will have you cover all bases in trying to find fish. I love Berkely lures when we have kids on board fishing, as the funky colours and names entertain the kids and more importantly, catch fish. If you have kids on board and they are not catching, you have trouble!

Don’t discount the Derwent River system for a feed of flathead. The system is teeming with flathead and catching them on soft plastics in the shallows is a good bit of fun on a summer’s day. There are many bays and sandy stretches to explore and find fish. While you are doing this, keep your eyes peeled for a school of Australian aalmon to play with or a gang of kingfish cruising the boat moorings of wharf fronts.

I asked Adrian ‘Mozza’ Morrisby what he might get up to down south in February and he gave away a few secrets.

Southern Tassie is having a cracking start to the gamefishing season with some of the warmer current fish like snapper, kingfish, albacore and mako shark arriving in good numbers. Snapper have been caught from Marion Bay right down to the bottom of Bruny Island and are even showing up in the D’Entrecasteaux Channel as well.

Johnny Valentine has been regularly pulling some good-sized models from Storm Bay and some great gummy sharks as by-catch too. This can only improve during February, so I am going to give it a crack soon. Kingfish have been a little elusive compared to their plague proportions last year. January saw some good catches and sightings around Mercury passage and Fortescue Bay. There were also many schools sighted around the mouth of the Derwent River, so we will look for these to increase this month.

Albacore up to 30kg have been caught out on the shelf and mixed up with them are some ripper bluefin tuna. February is a great time to try some lighter gear without the fear of a seal interaction and many anglers are getting their bag of fish in under an hour. This leaves some time on the water to set into a mako while long dropping for some quality table fare of blueye, grenadier, gemfish, pink ling and harpuka.

All and all, February is looking pretty fishy.

TROUT

Hopper fishos, it’s go-time in February. Flyfishers and those that like to throw unweighted hoppers on light spin gear are in their element this month. The grasshopper fishing in low land rivers and creeks is sensational fun. I remember as a kid finding streams in and around Melrose behind Devonport and having a ball. The fish aren’t monsters, but on light gear, the fishing can be explosive and an absolute hoot. Mind you, every now and then you will trip up a fish you would never have expected to come out of the skinny water.

I also remember shooting on properties in the midlands as the sun would get up and be far too hot for hunting. We would collect grasshoppers in a jar, punch holes in the lid and drag out the rods. We would sneak around the river banks quietly and catch a lot of fish. We would also see a few snakes, so be mindful of that!

We would use small longshank hooks and thread a good-sized grasshopper on through its body. Fishing unweighted, you’d pull off a bit of line from the reel, being careful not to tangle it up, and flick the bait upstream to have it float unhindered past an overhang or big rock. If there was a trout in the area, you’d soon find him. Writing about it reminds me of the fun we had, so I’ll take my eight year old son out this week to show him the ropes.

It’s one of those contentious subjects like which is the best calibre for fallow deer. For me, February may be the best month of the season for trout. Flyfishers are going bonkers with hoppers and mayflies on the rivers and the weather is so stable now that the lakes areas are a great option.

I was speaking to a seasoned flyfisher who agreed and said it’s a fabulous time to head up into the mountains and western lakes if sight fishing is your bag! The best flies are black spinners, hoppers and the black and peacock spider.

The great Lake is an option for spin fishers and trollers, but your best work is done early morning or in the evening. Bright sunny conditions are great for giant trout at the great Lake Hotel. This changes if the middle of the day has some cloud cover and a bit of wind ruffling the surface. The rivers that still have a bit of flow over shingle bottom like the Forth and some parts of the Mersey are great places to try a Celta style lure. Hardbody fishing will slow a little, but if you can find some deeper pools to work your t-tails in you may do alright. Throw them up into the water coming into the pool and work them back through the pool and its edges.

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