I have been fortunate enough to enjoy a wide range of fishing experiences, but when someone asks me which form of fishing excites me the most, the answer is easy.
In 1957 I was holiday in Sydney with my father on my way to Taronga Park Zoo. Arriving at the Taronga Park wharf on the ferry I glimpsed the fishing action that would captivate me for the rest of my life. I was determined to find out what was going on at the wharf and nothing was going to stop me from being on the Taronga Park ferry early the following morning. The same crew of anglers were there again and in the hours that followed, I had a fishing education that started my greatest love – blackfish fishing.
Maybe I expected to see non-stop action on the wharf that morning, but this was not the case. As each ferry would arrive and depart the water would be churned up releasing small fragments of algae from pier supports, and it was only then and for a short time after that the blackfish would be feeding.
The time between ferries was dead, and the experienced anglers didn’t even bother to wet a float. The guys on the wharf on that February morning were fantastic – keen to share from their own experiences.
It may not surprise you to learn that my Taronga Park experience didn’t end there. During the next 20 hours I managed to borrow a reasonable rod/reel combo from friends we were staying with. A nearby bait and tackle shop provided a couple of floats, some splitshot, number 10 French hooks and a handful of green weed. A short train ride to Circular Quay and I was on board what was becoming a rather familiar ferry.
I didn’t exactly load up with fish that day – just four nice fish to feed our hosts – but I certainly loaded up with experiences.
I haven’t had the opportunity to return to the ferry landing at Taronga Park so I have no idea whether blackfish are still taken there, but I remember it well for starting me off on what was to be my affair with a fish.
Luderick, Girella tricuspidata, or blackfish and parore, range from Hervey Bay to Victoria, Northern Tasmania and Kangaroo Island. They are also well known in New Zealand around Coromandel on the North Island.
Luderick have a number of close relatives, members of the genus Girella, which includes rock blackfish (G. elevata) and bluefish (G. cyanea).
Luderick are found in a wide range of environments including rocky headlands, estuary and river training walls and breakwaters, jetties and wharves, and along the deep snaggy banks of lower estuaries. In the larger rivers of NSW, luderick travel upstream where they are often taken in good numbers. Commercial fishing records indicate that large catches come from shallow seagrass flats, areas that are seldom fished.
The late Jack Alvey once told me how he had watched anglers on the Californian coast using floats baited with green peas catching fish that looked like luderick. These fish were opaleye (G. nigricans), and Californian anglers chase them around ocean headlands and kelp beds. They use bobber rigs similar to those used by headland anglers here. Opaleye anglers usually visit ‘slime ponds’ to collect green weed on the way to their favourite spots and it’s common for them to take along a packet of frozen peas as alternative bait.
So on my next trip to Short Island at Jumpinpin, I was armed with some pristine Redcliffe weed and a couple of pods of homegrown peas. To my delight, the peas worked well but luderick still preferred the weed. It was also difficult to keep the peas on the hook.
Marine plants make up the bulk of a luderick’s diet so recreational fishers often use some form of plant life as bait. Green weed, black weed, sea lettuce and sea cabbage are the most popular, but in some conditions yabbies, worms and prawns will also produce. I remember when the hole near the bridge at Hastings Point was a outstanding luderick hot spot. When luderick were on, on the late ebb tide, fish would devour yabbies. As soon as blue oceanic water arrived on the flood tide, the fish would immediately switch from yabbies to green weed.
When it comes to choosing the most suitable marine plant for bait, choose the one that the fish are naturally seeking in that environment.
The broad leafed sea lettuce and cabbage thrive along the edges of rocky headlands and river-mouth breakwaters. In rough conditions, lettuce and cabbage fragments break away and become good baits. In calm conditions, blackfish will move into the headland face or rock wall’s algal growth and catch rates will decrease as they have little interest in free-floating baits. The best times to fish from headlands is when there is enough sea running to form a wash loaded with algal fragments.
The green weed (filamentous algae) comes in a variety of forms, from flat ribbons to fine filaments. Ribbon weed is often found on headlands and is as good as cabbage in that environment. An important part of the ‘trade’ of a luderick angler is to know where to find good quality green weed.
In NSW you can usually purchase weed at most bait shops when it is available, but I understand that its sale is now prohibited in Queensland. Quiet estuarine foreshores, particularly where there are rocks, shells or mangrove roots for the weed to cling to, are good places to look.
In Queensland, the Redcliffe Peninsula, Sandgate, Nudgee Beach, the mangroves at Wynnum North, Victoria Point and Redland Bay have been good weed producers for me over the years. It’s also worth checking out any shallow pools that have formed between the land and mangrove forests, and also rock pools on headland platforms, especially if they get some freshwater run-off.
In Northern NSW there can be an abundance of green weed in the brackish channels that drain sugar cane fields near the lower reaches of major rivers. Cool, dry winters are best for weed in the cane drains as small amounts of nutrients from farm fertilizers reach the drains. If there is a big fresh in the system, weed can be very difficult to find so it’s best to have a contingency plan. Green weed works well across a range of habitats but isn’t as effective as cabbage is around the headlands and breakwaters. It comes into its own a little further upstream along training walls and snaggy banks.
My first encounter with ‘black magic’ was on my first visit to Collis Wall in the Clarence River at Iluka. Armed with the very best silky green weed from Clontarf, I expected to have a ball with big spawning fish that were supposedly on fire. They were certainly on fire, but only for those who had this uninviting-looking black weed. Anglers with the black weed were making a killing; it was embarrassing to leave the wall with only two fish. So finding some black magic became a priority. The top guns on the wall weren’t too helpful, but I eventually managed to find some in a quiet mangrove-lined backwater farther upstream.
Clarence River black weed is the most uninviting looking bait but it works in river systems. Its springy nature makes it difficult to use, however. One experienced angler explained that you need to roll some as tightly as tobacco would be and then to weave the hook in and out of the roll.
After experiencing how productive black weed can be, I decided to try a few different varieties. The yellow-brown alga that hangs in lichen-like growths around the bases of mangrove trees in south Queensland appears to be closely related to the black weed of the Clarence. Its colour ranges from yellow through brown to black. It’s slightly coarser than the weed I used in the Clarence and just as difficult to use. I have had success with this variety, particularly under the bridge across the boat passage near the mouth of the Brisbane River. Here you can collect enough weed for a day’s fishing less than 100m away in five minutes.
Although there are lots of local variations, the equipment and terminal gear used along our East Coast has a lot in common. My starting point was the set-up used at the Taronga wharf, but since then I have adapted it to suit the wide range of locations and conditions that I have come across while chasing luderick.
The classic luderick outfit includes a light rod of about 3-3.5m with good tip action but no shortage of strength down below. This is usually matched with a light centre-pin reel. In the right conditions, and in the hands of a well-practised angler, this outfit is a delight to use.
A great variety of other reels are used in luderick fishing. Among these is the range of purpose-designed fixed spool and side-cast models produced by Alvey. The side-cast blackfish reels can be used as traditional centre-pins with the flexibility of distance casting when it is needed.
Other anglers prefer to use light spinning reels and baitcasters, and this is fine – the important thing is that the angler has complete control over the balanced outfit. The rugged conditions of open rock platforms and breakwaters often demand more robust equipment to control the more specialised terminal gear as well as being able to lift fish without the aid of a net.
The illustration shows the elements of terminal gear for luderick. Basically, a running float keeps the bait suspended at a determined depth, that setting being controlled by a movable line stopper mounted on the main line. For years we fiddled around with bits of wool and other twines, tying movable knots around the main line. Thankfully, synthetic float stoppers are now available in tackle shops. They come in batches of 10 or a dozen, each being mounted on a fine wire loop. Then it’s just a matter of running the main line through the loop and easing the stopper onto it. Cheap as chips! When required they will pass through runners with ease without movement. Once mounted, a single stopper could easily outlast a busy blackfish season.
The choice of main line depends on the territory you’re fishing. Rock fishers would probably prefer 5-6kg mono while anglers fishing the quiet estuaries will go for 3-4kg. My choice is for one of the reputable brands in a soft and subtle variety. Except when fishing open rocky platforms, it’s unlikely that the main line will need to be extremely abrasion resistant.
Floats come in a variety of sizes and shapes, from fine pencils to large, bulbous and very buoyant models. As a general rule, the lighter the conditions then the lighter the float should be. A good float should be streamlined enough for easy casting and for easy movement through the water when a ‘down’ (a bite) is observed.
The float should also have a long upper stem that allows fine weight adjustment and can be easily seen. Most commercially produced floats have fluorescent upper stems, while some of the larger floats include a weight wrapped around the bottom of the lower stem. Many ardent luderick anglers gain a great deal of satisfaction from crafting their own floats.
After passing through the float, the main line is attached by a small swivel to a top (or weight) trace. Many anglers use a small piece of plastic tubing between the main line and this trace to act as a shock absorber and to prevent a knot jamming in the lower float eye.
The weight trace has the important function of setting the float so that when fishing, only the top stem, or part of it, is above the surface. I use a good quality abrasion-resistant mono of breaking strain similar to the main line.
Weight traces can be made up in advance, complete with weights and two swivels, if you know the weight that is needed to set the float correctly. I prefer to use splitshot because the various sizes allow precise adjustment and splitshot is well behaved when longer casts are required.
The float and the weight trace must be correctly matched to each other and matched to the fishing conditions. When fishing from the ocean headlands and outer breakwaters, the rig should be balanced so that the float remains quite high in the water. If the rig is too delicately balanced in those turbulent conditions, the float will dip frequently in the currents, giving the false impression of downs.
Successful luderick fishing requires the bait to be in the feeding zone for as long as possible. In fast running water, a reasonably buoyant float needs to be used so that it can be balanced with a heavy weight trace so that following the cast, the baited hook will drop into the feeding zone quickly. This is particularly important when fishing a steep bank between two sets of snags. If the float is only lightly weighted, the drift could be finished before the bait reaches the required depth.
The lighter the conditions, the lighter the float and weights should be. In almost still water, fish tend to be very tentative so large floats and heavily weighted traces just don’t work. In water conditions that would normally warrant very light floats, a strong wind can really wreak havoc. Using a larger float makes control of float and trace more manageable as a larger proportion of the rig is under the water and under its influence, rather than being dominated by the wind.
The bottom trace consists of a length of line with an attached hook, maybe with a small splitshot clamped about 10cm above the hook. There is no ideal length but 25-30cm is a good way to start.
The breaking strain of the bottom trace should be significantly less than that of the main line and weight trace. For most of my luderick fishing, I use 3.5kg main line and 2.5kg bottom trace. If snagging occurs or if a hooked fish heads for the sharpies, it is most likely to be the bottom trace that will give up. With the adequate supply of bottom traces, a new one can be tied on quickly and little fishing time is lost.
In recent years I have been using fluorocarbon for the bottom trace. Its transparency pays off when fishing very light conditions and when fish are fussy.
Until recently I used a Mustad 542 hook in size 8 for my luderick fishing. Since this became unavailable I have been on the hunt for alternatives. Last season I used SureCatch nickel size 8 suicide hooks which lived up to all my expectations.
The hook can be attached by using either a simple locked half blood knot or a loop passed through the eye, then over the barb. The loop is particularly useful when using green weed. A fine strand can be passed halfway through the loop, then each half wound around the shank with a tail of filaments hanging below. This usually solves the problem of having a clump of weed gathering at the bend of the hook.
I should stress, however, that the loop method should be discarded if fish are very fussy, particularly in very quiet water. Although the loop can be used with other baits, there is usually little to be gained.
Anglers will often need to make a few local adaptations to their terminal gear configuration. In a few of the top blackfish estuaries that I visit, the string of splitshot of the weight trace is replaced by a single ball sinker or perhaps small pieces of sheet lead. In other locations there is no separation of top and bottom traces, or anglers place floats with highly visible spheres as part of the stem. Interestingly, in a particular spot, most of the locals and long-term visitors use identical terminal arrangements. It’s easy to pick the outsider by what they have on the end of their line.
Next issue: techniques and locations!