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Plastics for school mackerel
  |  First Published: June 2006



When I pulled into the marina car park, the sun was poking its nose over the horizon and the big high tide had peaked and was preparing to run out. Conditions looked perfect, with minimal breeze ruffling the water’s surface and a gentle swell rolling in through the river mouth. The sight of diving birds and feeding fish up and down the river didn’t hurt either. I launched the boat with renewed energy and headed out to get amongst the action.

Cutting across the shipping channel, I headed for a flock of birds that were working up close to the North Wall. The frantic action lacked the leaping bodies of tuna, so school mackerel were a real possibility. I fired a cast in at the wall and let my little soft plastic lure sink. Holding a tight line, I could feel the lure darting from side to side as it rode the current.

I didn’t have to wait long as a sharp tap indicated something was interested in my offering. I gave the lure another small flick and it got nailed. The fish took off on a short but spirited run, and I was hardly surprised when a little school mackerel of just over the legal size limit came to the back of the boat.

Without lifting the fish out of the water, I used the long nosed pliers to reach down and unhook the mack before sending it on its way. I could have kept it but the single hook on the jighead had done minimal damage to the fish, so there was no problem with letting him go. Judging by the amount of action happening around me, I knew I would get many more chances to land a feed of bigger fare anyway.

I managed to hook heaps of pelagics on soft plastics that morning. I caught a mixture of tuna, mackerel, queenfish and trevally. The largest were big mack tuna while the smallest were handspan long queenfish and trevally with eyes much bigger than their stomachs. Regardless of size, they were all great fun.

While catching pelagics on soft plastics is nothing new, I was pretty pleased with my results, especially considering I had taken a bit of a gamble and tried something a little bit different.

Instead of the usual high-speed metal lures, I was using a jighead rigged soft plastic to fool the fish. While it sounds a bit strange to be using plastics to catch high-speed pelagics, it was actually a bit of lateral thinking that really paid off.

The lure I had decided to try was an Eyeball Tail from Eco Products. I’ve written about these lures in QFM before, outlining how the larger 5” tails in smoke core/blue make a great garfish imitation. However it’s the smaller, 3” version in white that is a deadly copy of the small baitfish that many pelagics feed on. Basically they’re whitebait imitations that fish will pick up as they sink, which is a pretty good endorsement of their lifelike look and feel.

I rigged them on some of Shimano’s excellent Finesse jigheads. These heads are built on solid hooks but are nice and light, allowing the lure to sink slowly and dart around when flicked. It may be easier to cast a heavier jighead but then you’d lose the slow sinking action that generates so many hook-ups, so it’s worth putting up with that slight inconvenience.

To help get around the lack of casting distance, it’s best to always try and position the boat upwind of the fish you are casting at. Light tackle is also required and 6kg spinning gear offers the right amount of fish fighting power.

Bite-off Blues

The trouble you run into when fishing for a mixed range of species like mackerel and tuna is that you tend to suffer a lot of bite-offs if you stick with a mono trace. I was bitten off twice in succession when I let the lure sink a little too deep under one school of tuna. Those mackerel teeth were so sharp that I didn’t even feel it – I just wound in and found my lure missing.

I added a 20cm length of knottable steel trace to the business end of my leader. I use Graphite Metal Tresse, which is distributed by Shipton Trading. I only use the 4kg stuff, which is very thin but like most braids breaks well above its stated breaking strain.

I must have landed more than a dozen mackerel after switching over to the bite proof trace and while none of them were huge, there was no visible damage to the leader. Considering how easily they can snip through 10kg mono, it’s pretty remarkable stuff.

The new trace didn’t put the tuna or other species off either, which can happen when you use normal wire. For some reason, local anglers have been slow to realise just how handy this stuff is, and even though it isn’t cheap it will soon pay for itself in lost lures. There is always a spool of it in my tackle box these days.

Lure damage

The other downside when using soft plastics on sharp toothed species like mackerel is the attrition rate, which can be daunting. Surprisingly, this wasn’t as much of an issue as I thought it might have been. A lot of the smaller school mackerel seemed to hook-up on the outside of the mouth and at one stage I caught three small mackerel in a row with the same plastic. I seemed to damage more lures while unhooking them than with pliers than the fish did.

I did try some longer plastics during the day and found that the damage rate was much higher. The fish tended to hit the waving tail of the lure, missing the hooks. Of course, they took most of the lure with them as they went. But on the 3” lure the hook seems to be in just the right place, so that the fish were hooked on the strike. I hardly had one short take or missing tail without getting a hook-up.

So is it worth the trouble and expense of using soft plastics on pelagics? I believe it is. I never mind going through a packet of plastics if I’m catching fish. The fact that the fish ate them so freely was also a bonus. Pelagics on plastics is here to stay and I reckon I’ll be doing a lot more of it in future.

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