Fishing For Talking Fish
  |  First Published: December 2005

In the past two issues of QFM, I have presented my own thoughts on current fish management practices and the correlation between fish vocalisations and improved management of the resource. From a commercial point of view there is much to gain from adopting these new technologies. I would like to think that readers of those articles from the angling fraternity are now considering their own approach to fishing and devising methods of 'spook factor' avoidance.

Many experienced anglers will have already developed techniques that can reduce the effect of fish to fish communication and noise interference on their angling endeavours. They may not have known exactly what was spooking their fish but through trial and error over a period of time discoveries are made. How many people, I wonder, have found that to repeatedly return fish to the same calm water location after capture as is being fished, eventually causes the bite to cease? Or to drive one’s boat straight through a school of feeding mackerel or tuna will cause the school to dive?

Since learning of the ability for fish to communicate, I have become increasingly conscious of sound in water and the impact it may have on my fishing. As an angler my field of expertise is most definitely in the surf. Although experienced in other forms of angling, it is in the surf gutters of Teewah Beach that I have been able to observe fish behaviour on a regular basis for the past 34 years. I can safely quote examples of fish spooking and means of avoidance. These examples are then easily transferable to other forms of angling that I do in order to improve the strike rate in these areas.

During the late seventies, my father and I noticed chopper tailor were biting us off above the sinker when that hadn't previously been the case. We agreed that it had to be tailor and that the hooked fish must prompt this behaviour through audible distress vocalisations or body language. We had suffered similar experiences with Spanish mackerel which we overcame by running another length of wire where the sinker could run to a 2nd swivel 2ft or so above the sinker.

The same principles can be applied to spinning metal slugs or trolling for spotted mackerel that have a tendency to strike at swivels and crimps when one of their colleagues is hooked. I find that the best options are to either use a mono leader tied to the main line negating the need for crimps or swivels, or to have a very short wire trace which dissuades other fish from getting too close to the hooked fish and its razor sharp teeth.

Another scenario that became a major problem for my friends and I when spinning lures in the surf for tailor was the number of fish that we were dropping. All spinning lures at the time were constructed with the hooks attached by a split ring to a heavy casting slug. Tailor, which leap and headshake violently, are able to dislodge these lures quite easily and catch rates are often below 50% of hooked choppers. Distress vocalisations and body language of the hooked fish that escape will usually cause whole schools of immature tailor to eventually depart the gutter. If the dropped fish are mature tailor of 5lb or more, then the effect is generally instantaneous and to keep casting in the same location is fruitless.

However, if each of the fish is beached and none are dropped then the fish will tend to stay in the gutter for much longer. Even if the fish are returned after capture, the tailor will stay biting as long as the fish aren't lost whilst still in the gutter. This is why anglers fishing for tailor using baited ganged hooks generally dislike sharing a gutter with lure throwers. Less fish are lost on gangs than on conventional lures due to the number of hooks in the fish’s mouth and the weight of the sinker being of a distance from the hooks. This doesn't allow the fish leverage on the hooks when headshaking.

Anglers who prefer to use lures shouldn’t panic, as the problem is solvable by using a sliding lure. Sliding lures are a fish-shaped slug manufactured with a hole through the middle. This allows the weighted lure to slide up the leader during headshake, which dramatically reduces the leverage imparted by the fish on the lure and the attached hooks. Tailor, Australian salmon, queenfish and dolphinfish are obvious species that leap and headshake and can be best targeted using sliders. The benefits can apply to any fish that will take a spinner. Cobia, for example, are a large fish that doesn't leap but headshakes violently when brought to the surface and with only a short length of cushioning line out, often escape at this point. I use sliders for all of my spinning and jigging activities. As a result the quantity and quality of captured fish has improved dramatically.

Commercial netting always causes distress vocalisations and area abandonment. As such it makes no sense to fish near where netting activities are taking place. With a little research as to what fish are targeted where and at what time of year, we should be able to structure our fishing so as to be as far away from commercial netting as possible.

It may be worth noting that headlands and changes in coastal direction act as blocking devices to distress signals released by the netted fish. Sound in water travels efficiently but does not bend around corners. Therefore, if the southern side of Indian Head is being netted then the signals will not immediately affect Orchid Beach. The signals will, however, cause northern migrating fish within range to push offshore causing a few fish to travel along Orchid Beach. If the fish are migrating south then Orchid remains unaffected.

One modern tool designed to improve the ability of an angler to find fish, can also work to the detriment of the same angler. Fish finders and depth sounders are wonderful devices that use sound waves to locate underwater structures and schools of fish. Unfortunately they also cause havoc with the acoustic environment of fish and will often cause these fish to move away from the area. To gain maximum benefit from your sounder, I would suggest that they be turned off as soon as possible after locating a target and be used as sparingly as possible.

When targeting mackerel or tuna it is not a good practice to drive a boat through feeding schools as the noise and disturbance naturally causes the fish to dive. The same can be said for 4WD on beaches, the noise of the vehicle is sufficient for most species to move away from the source. Easter, Christmas and long weekends in particular when there is generally a lot of traffic on our driveable beaches are times when it can be very difficult to find inshore fish. One vehicle on a quiet beach can often be enough to scare schools away. Always approach schools, whether it be in a vehicle or in a boat, as quietly as possible and with consistent revs.

Reef fishermen targeting snapper in particular, tend to avoid throwing fish carcasses overboard in the belief that it spooks the snapper. This may well be the case and certainly any shark presence is going to affect success rates. It has been well documented that noise emanating from the boat, such as music or sinkers banging on the side, will adversely contribute.

Lure manufacturers in North America have recently begun focusing on lures that make sounds that supposedly mimic a wounded baitfish. In theory these lures should work well – unfortunately they sound nothing like a fish and their actual effectiveness is severely limited. The sound of the splashing lure can be detected by fish from a distance through their lateral line and is the initial attractant for the fish. The appearance of the lure and the retrieval method adopted are then critical in prompting a strike. Fishing with lures at night can be quite successful.

Undoubtedly there will be changes in fishing trends and equipment over the next few years as a result of further research into fish acoustics. There are certainly gains to be made now for those anglers willing to think about their fishing practices. For anglers it’s satisfying to have an increased awareness of the underwater environment and the pivotal role that sound plays in the lives of all marine creatures.

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