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Jack Pot!
  |  First Published: March 2006



My heart was thumping loudly in my ears , my palms were sweating, eyes fixed on the rod tip and knuckles were white around the overhead reel. I felt the livebait send back a short SOS of panicked tail beats to the rod. My grip tightened in anticipation, I knew there were predators in the zone. Each time I let it drift over a particular snag the message was the same: “Pull me back in; there's something bigger than me down here!”

I knew they were lurking there, but how could I tempt one?

The next cast was to the same area – just upstream from the beginning of a shallow sloping rockbar that was home and shelter to all manner of small critters. The bait drifted silently downstream with the run-out tide, bumping over logs and the odd rock when I lifted the rod tip to avoid the loss of tackle. The livebait sent me one more ‘help me’ tail beat transmission up the line. This was then followed by an abrupt lock-up and then rrrrip! The moment everyone loves to hate – 3m of line was ripped from the reel against 4kg of drag in under a second and there I was retrieving limp line and gathering my frayed nerves.

You haven't got time to swear, let alone strike at anything as fast and powerful as these fish in thick cover. It all happens too fast.

What am I fishing for?

MANGROVE JACK!

Almost everyone who has fished the Australian tropics a few times has a jack story, and a lot of them go like this: “I was livebaiting near some snags and something slammed my bait and busted me off.”

They often conclude in dulcet tone: “I had no hope, it must have been a jack.”

It seems that if someone hooks and loses something that couldn't be stopped, poor old Mr Jack will get the blame.

Their reputation as a brute and dirty fighter that gives you no warning is often discussed at fishing club meetings and dimly lit watering holes.

If you manage to drag one from its lair, you're almost guaranteed to be surprised at the size of the fish to which you surrendered so much line.

Their power to weight ratio would be like putting a funny car engine on a billycart. They’re explosive over short distances, but will slow down if you can stay connected longer after the first four seconds.

Good ol' Dad!

Having a father on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast has really helped me expand my fishing horizons. I've caught my first bass, many great golden perch, bagged some impressive flathead along with a few tropical trevally species.

Then one day while we were catching livebait for a flattie drift Dad told me he was taking me jack fishing. He looked across to his mate Ken who returned a wry smile. My eyes were darting between them looking for a wink signalling a prank was afoot, but nothing was obvious.

“They go like crazy, do your drag right up,” Ken says.

So I did.

“More,” said Ken without even looking at me.

So I upped the drag to what I thought was almost line snapping level. The poor ABU was tightened until my fingers hurt. ‘Nothing could pull that,’ I thought confidently as I wrapped the 20lb braid around my sleeve in an attempt to pull line from the reel.

With my first hit for that day, I bagged a 1.1kg mangrove jack.

To say I was in awe is an understatement. That tiny little 1.1kg fish ripped off 3m of braid against 4kg of drag in less than a second – that is no lie!

It hit so hard I stopped breathing. It really deserved to gain its freedom after running me straight into the rocks. The fish was back in its hole long before I knew what was happening.

The locals called out that it was long gone, and began laughing, swapping of wry smiles and winks at my expense.

I was still pulling at the snagged line a few seconds after the hit when the fish swam free and the action began again! I don't know where the fish thought it was going, but I managed to get it boat side for a net shot.

After a few quick pics, Dad asked for the rod. I handed him the still smoking rod and reel and he checked the drag.

With a grunt, he said to Ken, “He's still got this set on Victorian trout drag!”

I then found out why the loudmouth experts beside me had insisted on 1m of 20kg leader. The leader was mangled all the way along apart from the last 10-20cm before the bimini double. It's not only the jack's dog-like teeth that do the damage, but the entry and extraction of the fish from the rocks is also very damaging!

After replacing the leader and giving the drag a nip past the ‘warranty void if tightened past here’ mark on the ABU, I knew I had a new favourite species.

Tackle

If you're thinking about targeting this estuarine powerhouse, make sure you're prepared.

Your rod should be able to cast, yet have plenty of ‘guts’ close to the butt. Your reel should be strong enough to withstand abuse and still come up with a silky drag.

You can use threadline (eggbeater) reels, but a baitcaster adds a little more accuracy when casting.

The line can be either braid or monofilament starting at 6kg for light cover and 10kg for heavy cover. A decent abrasion-resistant leader to the terminal tackle for both lines is well advised. I use 6kg braided line with a bimini double on the end. The leader is about 1-1.5m of 20kg mono with a braid leader knot joining it to the bimini double. Make sure you give the braid to mono connection a check every now and then as braid leader knots are known for weakening after repetitive casting.

If you were just starting out, I'd opt for 10-15kg line (I'm not joking!) and work back from there.

Rigs

It's not unusual to go through 20 livebaits and land only two fish in a day’s jack fishing. You lose so many rigs to fish and snags that you’ll keep tackle shop proprietors smiling. So make sure your tackle box is bulging with spare hooks and sinkers.

The rig used for this method of jack fishing is pretty simple. The mono leader runs down to a wide gape hook. This is tied on with a tag of about 25cm is left over. This tag is used to tie on a stinger hook for attachment into the last 1/4 of the livebait. Use an octopus style stinger hook in around size 4-6. This style is preferred because the offset in the hook allows the hook to point up when lying on its side in livebait.

The wide gape hook is placed through the top lip of the livebait. This style of hook has no offset and because of this, the bait swims in a straight line and can be manoeuvred in a life-like manner. Relatively small (but strong) stinger hooks are used to ensure the bait is not damaged too much when rigging up.

A small sinker about the size of a pea is run down to the wide gape hook. This gives the bait enough weight to get it down where the fish are when the tide is moving.

Baits

I have caught jack on dead baits in the past but the baits that draw the most strikes are small live fish.

Live fish that come into contention are mullet, garfish, herring and small whiting (where legal). These can be caught using a bait trap baited with bread and set on a sandbank or where you can sometimes see fish in the shallows.

You can also berley up with bread and catch them singularly with small hooks and floats; flick a cast net or use bait jigs where permitted.

The method

Using the weight of the bait to cast, flick it just upstream of the intended snag and let it drift downstream with the tide (assuming you are fishing the run-out tide).

You will feel the bait bumping along the snags (this is where braided lines excel with their feel). Lift the rod tip and guide the bait over the hidden obstacle and if you don't get nailed on the other side, you're laughing!

Avoid loose line. If a jack can get an extra metre of line before you start winding, it’s long gone.

Just keep flogging an area until you're absolutely certain there is nothing there. Mangrove jack can't really be classed as a schooling fish, but they do live in small communities with the dominant fish having the best spot.

So if you manage to muscle one fish off a particular snag, keep casting baits at it, as there may be more fish in the area.

Sizes

Jacks can reach 10kg+ on offshore reefs, but at this size, they’re rarely bought boat side due to underwater obstacles and their own ability to find them and sever the line. I know of one ripper that was taken offshore from Groote Eyladnt, NT. Caught by Mick Drennan, this monster pulled the scales down to 11kg!

Your typical estuarine jack is between 1-2kg and if you manage one near 3-4kg in heavy estuary cover consider yourself lucky. At about 50cm (approximately 2kg), jack move to the offshore reefs to spawn.

HANG ON!

A popular belief is that a mangrove jack will actually exit its snag and line up the bait whilst facing back at its hole. The bait is then slammed at full throttle on the way back in! Of course, nothing short of an underwater camera can prove this, but it sure feels like they're doing mach 2 when they hit!

It only takes a second and you're bait and terminal tackle are history Therefore angler concentration has to be razor sharp.

Times and locations

The jack is a well-known warm water species that prefers the waters from (approximately) the northern New South Wales coast up to and right across the Kimberly region of WA. They can be caught a little further south, but the further north you go, the better your chances.

Jacks are a viable target in southeast Queensland estuaries and canals but are at their best in summer. In the northern quarter of this country, they're almost a year round target in the right waterway.

Past experience shows the run-out tide seems to have the most responsive fish.

A lot of articles explain about structure and how so many fish are drawn to it. Well, where Mr. M Jack is concerned, it's all true - mangrove jack are a prime example of a fish that lurks in the shadows of the fallen tree or has its head poking out of a rock crevasse.

You can either prospect by drifting and casting your livebait at likely looking logs or anchor and really give one spot a flogging.

Chances are you'll annoy them so much they'll strike eventually. If you've caught jacks from a particular spot before, then they'll be there again this time - so keep casting.

I've cast the same bait at one snag for over an hour before the first jack hit – and you know what, I still managed to get busted up!

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