Jacks on Poppers
  |  First Published: April 2007

Mangrove jack are tough competitors in most fishing situations but when targeting them in snag-ridden mudflats in less than a metre of water, you instantly double the difficulty factor. Explosive surface smashing hits followed by ‘brickings’ and bust-offs are common and on average only one in two fish are landed. The bigger fish power off sideways through the snags on near locked up tackle. Once they find structure a stray treble usually catches on the timber and it’s all over. If you’re lucky you might get your lure back.

Nathan Ruth first put me onto this exciting way of jack fishing a few years ago and we’ve spent many trips experimenting with different tides and poppers in the shallows. It can be just as effective as most other forms of lure fishing, and you get the added bonus of heart-pounding visuals.

If you’re a keen flyfisher small poppers can be just as effective but sometimes you won’t have enough space to properly back cast. While it can be difficult, the rewards are worth it.

We have caught lots of jacks on poppers in the salt and freshwater reaches of our northern rivers but never as consistently as when we target the snag flats. Jacks will often rise out of a snag or drain to take a well-presented popper but the flats are the place to target. I reckon that the same techniques used in different parts of Queensland on similar flats would produce a variety of species.

The big advantage of using surface lures in these shallow snaggy flats is that you can work them over timber just below the surface without too much trouble. The trouble starts when you’re hit by a brute on the other side of a shallow log or snag and you have to get it back over, through or around the obstacles.

Tight drags (almost locked) are essential and this puts enormous stress on tackle – I have a collection of poppers that have been destroyed by these beasts. For most brands hook and split ring upgrades are a must. I have experimented with VMCs and Owners, which seem to be the strongest I’ve come across. VMCs bend a little and are my choice for that reason. Owners on the other hand don’t bend, they’re expensive and small poppers will start to break more often. If I were fishing with bigger poppers for barra I would use Owners.

Leader under 40lb is suicidal and I highly recommend a braided main line of at least 20-30lb. A 6-8kg rod will also help you pull them up quickly.

To successfully catch jacks target waters 0.8-1.2m deep. Too shallow and the fish will get a bit spooky but too deep and they won’t respond. Once the depth is over 1.2m they tend to taper off in response to the surface action.

You also need bait in the area. Usually if there are jacks about feeding in the shallows you will hear them chopping and see occasional small bust-ups of bait fish close to structure. On different days at least one flat should hold good numbers of fish so it pays to have a few options. If you’re getting a bad vibe hit another spot or try a new flat.

Low light, heavily clouded days or heavily shaded areas are a must. If it’s too bright the jacks will be spooky or still on the deeper water edges.

Water clarity also plays its part in success: clear shaded water usually around the slower/neap tides seem to work best. The water is usually clearer around the neap tides as there is less run to stir it up. Wind direction, rain and rain run-off also influence water clarity but it’s almost impossible to get everything perfect.

Timing of the tides is the most critical factor to ensure a successful trip. Ideally, you need to time it so that you have the magic depth of 0.8-1m coinciding with the lower light situations. The longer the water remains at the magic height the better. If the water is too high the jacks go right into the inaccessible mangroves in chase of a feed. In a month there might only be 5-10 prime opportunities to target them, so you do have to plan your trips. Neap tides that have the right depth are a stand-out which usually coincides with the first and third quarter of the moon phase. This is a time when other methods such as trolling or ‘snag bashing’ can be quite difficult.

Jacks are just about always there for the taking but techniques for different tides and seasons change dramatically.

There are many types of surface lures that produce results and many different ways to work them. Poppers between 5-10cm are your best bet but my personal favourite is the Skitter Pop. Nathan loves the Yo-Zuri Banana Boat lure worked in a rhythm, and Della likes Pop Rs. We all catch fish!

The main retrieval patterns that we use are simple small blooping strokes and walking-the-dog. Practice and variation are the keys to success, especially on fickle days as sooner or later something will start to work. To make the small blooping action keep your rod tip down and twitch the rod towards your feet as you take up slack line. Walking-the-dog is similar but a rhythm is worked which makes the surface lure pop or skip from side to side. They don’t like a fast retrieve skipped back to the boat, that is more of a pelagic technique, but a quick squirt and pause attack has worked a few times.

An electric motor is an essential tool to target jacks on the flats. We work the likely looking haunts as accurately as possible, trying to get right into the structure and as far up into the mangroves as we can without committing suicide. We are always slowly motoring along weaving amongst the snags. Most of the hits happen within the first few bloops of the popper and very close to structure but they have hit us at the boat in open shallow water.

When targeting the snaggy flats with poppers there are plenty of other species to keep you amused and confused. For us up here in TNQ barramundi, pikey bream, trevally, barracuda and a lot of other species will react to a surface lure if it’s worked in front of their face. – Greg Carter

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