In dead of night comes the silver fright…
SECTION: Fish of the Month
Massive schools of hairtail move into the deep waters of the Hawkesbury River system each Autumn/Winter, schooling and feeding in a variety of locations including Box Head in Broken Bay and dozens of deep holes and bays in Cowan, Berowra and Coal and Candle Creeks.
Other locations that produce hairtail are deep harbours including Newcastle, Botany Bay and Port Kembla, where anglers fishing from wharfs and breakwalls at night can target these strange creatures using a variety of techniques involving long-range casting and ganged pilchards under floats.
True fish but eel-like in nature, hairtail grow to more than two metres and 5kg and use their mirror-like skin to blend in perfectly with their environment. This subterfuge, a wicked set of fangs barbed like fish hooks, and the ability to swim slowly forwards and backwards, make hairtail active and successful hunters. Attacking small bait fish in the still black waters of a moonless night, the hairtail, like its close relative, the southern pickhandle barracouta, are active hunters that will at times fearlessly chase baitfish to the surface before impaling their victims on their fangs.
Whether hairtail move from the open ocean and into the estuaries and harbours to breed or just to chase food is open to conjecture, but once holed up in water from six to nine metres they certainly know how to throw an all-night party. Hairtail have become an iconic part of the Sydney Winter fishing scene and provided sport and food for generations. During the Great Depression hairtail were one of the main sources of protein for families who camped on the banks and lived in the caves around Jerusalem Bay. In those days, the fishing was so good that yellowfin tuna were occasionally caught in Cowan Creek, although I wonder whether they were mistaken for northern bluefin tuna, which also have yellow fins.
Hairtail regulars have their favourite spots but, in general, deep water out of the main current, or possibly an eddy on the edge of the current, seem to be the best places to start looking. In calmer bays deep holes, drop-offs, rock ledges and concentrations of baitfish will tell you where to put the pick down and start berleying. Hairtail respond well to cut fish berley and many anglers mince old pilchards, fish offal and meat scraps at home, freeze a small piece of cord into the block and simply tie it off and allow it to defrost in the water while fishing.
On some nights berley is not needed but when the fishing is a bit slow, or when the average size of fish is down to around 1.2 metres and a kilo, those who berley the most consistently throughout the evening will get the most hook-ups and often the biggest fish. Whether the hairtail are attracted to the berley or to the schools of smaller fish the berley attracts is a moot question.
The most popular bait for hairtail is a whole pilchard ganged on four Mustad or VMC 3/0s with a 50cm ultra-light wire trace and Cyalume glow attached just above the top hook. This unweighted rig can be fished on line up to 6kg. With this rig you can set rods at various depths with some baits just off the bottom and others only a metre under the surface. Once hairtail come on the bite they will take baits at all depths, with a hot bite resulting in plenty of surface hook-ups and screaming drags echoing in the night.
Many anglers fishing ganged pilchards don’t worry about using wire as the length of the hook gang is often enough to keep the line away from the fish’s fangs. Pilchards are the best bait because they berley as you fish with them, they are the right size for a hairtail’s mouth and the softness of a pillie allows for the best possible hook set.
It’s amazing how tentatively they’ll take the bait, with often only the slightest movement enough to indicate a two-metre monster of the night has scoffed your bait. When to strike can be a difficult call but a good, solid hook-set is necessary to penetrate a mouth full of teeth and bone. Many anglers prefer to use chemically-sharpened hooks, although I reckon a well-sharpened standard hook will leave a CSH for dead every time. If you miss the initial hook-up, don’t worry too much as hairtail get really cheesed off when their meal is taken from them. They’ll often come straight back and have another go with more attitude.
Other baits include live baits yellowtail, mullet and chopper tailor, which are best fished with a tandem-hook rig with wire and two 2/0 or 3/0 suicides, one in the back the other in the tail. When the fishing is slow, livies draw the best response, particularly from big fish. Another popular bait is a long fillet of garfish, especially when the action is slow or the fish are spooky.
Hairtail are honest fighters with a good burst of speed and plenty of stamina, making them an excellent sportfish for Sydneysiders with Winter pelagic withdrawals. On any weight of tackle, landing a hairtail is never easy. Too long to fit in a net and too skinny to gaff, most anglers drag hairtail on board by grabbing the swivel or oversized ring attached to the top of the wire trace. With the ability to stand up in the water like a snake, it pays not to make your trace length too short – I’ve never seen the results of a hairtail bite but I’m told that the bleeding can go on for hours.
It’s also worth remembering that hairtail will often swim and feed through a circuit of a bay or deep channel. Just because lights, clanging, excitement and general mayhem are happening in other boats doesn’t mean that the fish have by-passed you. Keep berleying, keep fortifying the system with coffee and hot soup and wait your turn – if a school of big chrome fellas turn up, it will be a night to remember!
Hairtail grow to more than two metres and 5kg and use their mirror-like skin to blend in perfectly with their environment.
A ganged fillet of garfish can be very effective when the fish are shy.
Ganged hooks and light sticks work well on hairtail, with blue pilchards the best all-round bait.
This sounder shows a school of bait being herded together by hairtail in Cowan Creek.
Gaff, net, or lift? A big hairtail at the side of the boat poses plenty of dilemmas.