A recent soft plastics fishing trip to the reefs close to Cape Moreton opened my eyes to something that had been under our noses for some time. It all involved a sequence of events that saw the penny finally drop.
Firstly, we’ve been having huge success lately using soft plastics, predominately white, for all manner of reef species. These soft plastics have been straight-tail shad style lures in the 5”, 6” and 7” range. To be more specific, we classified several different colourations in the white colour group, including pearl, alewife, crystal shad, opening night, some baby bass variants, ‘head-dipped’ versions of these colours as well as bleeding varieties of the white lures. These lures have caught a variety of fish including emperor, sweetlip, snapper, pearl perch and others.
As a side note, we’ve only recently started using 7” and 6” straight tailed shads more seriously for snapper. The major reason for this is that it took us a while to get the colours right, work through the colour options and to sort out the colour types that we needed. There are not that many 6” to 7” SP lures on the market and their colour ranges aren’t as vast and varied as the 4” and 5” sized softies so it took a while to track down the right ones. Fortunately that is solved now with a special selection Aussie range of colours now available.
Prior to our recent focus on these bigger plastics we’ve happily used 5” shads around the offshore using this experience to fine-tune a lot of our colour preferences. These 5” lures worked well, and we’ll continue to offer them to the fish. It’s just that as we’ve gone to the bigger lures, the ‘match the hatch’ equation ticks another criteria in that the baitfish we are imitating are also 6” to 7” in length.
Secondly, I’ve always been reminded in over forty years of fishing that whiting are a secret snapper bait. One dictum is that an afternoon’s bay whiting fishing is finished off by cleaning the diver whiting at sea. This involves fillets into the cooler, innards and offal in the berley bucket with some bran/grain berley extender and whiting heads (complete with the frame still attached).
The third piece that completed the puzzle occurred out at Smiths Reef. The sounder on our 29’ walk-around showed a school of baitfish that were hugging on the bottom. Aboard was family friend, young Trevor Foote, who experimented and jigged half a dozen whiting on a small Sure Strike 40g metal lure to this bait school.
Eric Grell and I caught a couple of big reefies at this spot from the vicinity of the whiting school. Both our fish came on alewife coloured 7” Assassin shads. An alewife is an American baitfish, and yep, it is white. When Trevor had a 6” to 7” whiting wiggling off a lure about to be unhooked and released, while at the same time both Eric and I soft plastics to remove from the mouths of a snapper and an emperor, the penny finally dropped. We were matching the hatch to the very popular baitfish, in colour and size, to the humble Aussie whiting. No wonder the white lures and their variants have been doing so well for us.
Looking at one of these deep-water whiting and comparing it with the lures made the ‘match the hatch’ connection obvious.
If it wasn’t for Trevor catching and releasing all those whiting on his tiny metal jigs the penny may never have dropped. Trevor always likes to try something new and experiment, which makes it a joy to take him fishing. We rubbish him good-naturedly for it, such as when he hooked a longtail tuna on a bream spin rod and we had to chase it all over the bay. But we learn stuff too from his radical ideas.
Alewife lures are all right by us, and now we know why. As we’ve moved up to bigger lures, with more meat on their bones, it has become common for us to catch three or more fish on the one individual lure. That’s good value for money from a soft plastic lure with so much action.
I just love the way these deep-water reef fish slam the lure and strip a serious length of line off your reel under heavy drag. The fight lasts long enough for the anticipation and excitement to build, but not so long that your muscles start to hurt. Then out of the blue you see colour, then there’s even more excitement. Your heart is in your mouth as the net slips under your catch. And of course, the fish tastes great on the dinner table. Perfect!
To get a strike from the fish, the approach is pretty simple. With the skipper of the boat calling out the depth at which the fish were showing on the sounder, I cast forward with the bail arm open. I kept an eagle eye on the line as it left my reel so that I was sure of being at the depth that the fish were showing on the sounder. Colour coded line can help in this scenario. When the plastic was at the right depth in the strike zone, I flipped the bail arm closed. Action was then imparted to the lure by working the tip of my rod with a jerking action for a few seconds followed by a few seconds of just letting the plastic rest. My technique involved a more aggressive lift, a strong lift if you may, rather than the rod tip shaking that some of my friends use. This I guess means that as long as you are in the strike zone and thinking about what you are doing then you are in with a chance.
I repeated this technique off and on, until the line had completed its arc past the back of the boat. I only took up any slack when I absolutely needed to. If there was no hit on the drop, I reeled in and repeated the process. I had the plum position in the stern corner, which is a position that suited my cast out and sink arc-around-the-back coverage of the water column. On some boats, such as half-cab cruisers, the team of anglers will walk around the cockpit with their lures as they drift around in the arc, such that the team is in constant rotation, volleyball style, until there’s a hook-up. Using this approach means every angler gets the longest possible drift.
With the sweetlip and the emperor on this trip, their strikes happened just as I started to reel in. The snapper often hit as the soft plastic dropped into the zone where the fish were holding. At other times, it only took working the rod tip a few times for the snapper to strike. From everybody’s experience the two most likely times for you to get a strike from a reef species are either on the drop or immediately after you’ve just started to retrieve the lure.
Our boat is a full walk-around so we can fish four anglers down one side, with both the stern and bow anglers able to work these long arc drifts. Also the walk-around can fish a fifth angler who drags their lure out the opposite side, behind the drift, using rod tapping and tip shaking techniques.
Having five anglers fishing at once in a boat under 8m is really only achievable in a walk-around or big centre console. It is great fun with lots of interaction, lots of action and lots of banter, a great social outing as well as a great fishing trip.
My tackle is similar to the stock standard modern day South East Queensland kit including an Egrell S10 (the high modulus blue ones) with a spin reel spooled with 30 or 40lb braid and running a 40lb fluorocarbon leader. I’ve been using a Pflueger 050 Medalist spin reel and it has handled the tasks just fine. As far as rods go, I’ve got a life’s collection worth of Moreton Bay Spin Sticks. Many of them bring back great memories but the newest of them, my Egrell, is by far my favourite. I just wish I had one of the new breed of Egrell’s 20 odd years ago. It startles me how much better these rods are compared to those that I’ve used in the past. The rods are very versatile across a wide array of techniques.
Checking with Grant’s Guide To Fishes, we were able to confirm that the whiting that were coming from 70’ of water were stout whiting. Grant indicates that stout whiting have a maximum length of approximately 11” (28cm). Under Queensland Regulations stout whiting have no legal length and no bag limit.Reads: 4280