Cracking the pelagic pattern
  |  First Published: December 2004

Middle Harbour has just had the biggest freshwater flush in years, which is perfectly timed for the coming season to push much-needed nutrients down to the baitfish fry and fingerlings.

Those tiny baitfish currently sitting around the river and harbour mouths will soon move further into the system, bringing the salmon, trevally, kings, tailor and bonito with them. At the moment salmon and trevally are giving them a hard time at the Heads and all along the coast. The baitfish are so tiny that they lack mobility and are at the mercy of the currents and tides but by the time you read this, they will have grown sufficiently enough to seek the relative shelter and warmth of the inner harbour under their own steam.

At this stage they stay near the surface so all the feeding action will be on top and very visual. So these are the peak months for fly fishos. The bait will remain on the surface until early January but then will be big enough to go deep. Later in the season, the action all happens down deep so it’s harder to find. Trolling and your sounder become your prime fish locating tools.

Here are a few hints on luring up a few pelagics this season.

Pelagic fish require a continuous turnover of sustenance because they are constantly on the move and burning energy at a high rate.

Just because you are not catching flathead, for example, does not mean that they are not there. They can go for a while between feeds. With pelagics it is reasonable to assume the opposite.

If you are actively fishing for pelagics for more than a few days and not catching them, then they are probably elsewhere.

Even within the pelagic group there are variations in the types of food and the quantity required. The tunas, with the exception of bonito, appear to never stop swimming whereas the likes of kingies, tailor and trevally (and to some extent bonito) will need to swim to 'hold' in the water. It appears that these less active pelagics can 'switch off' for short periods when conditions are not favourable.

The Harbour’s true tunas – northern bluefin, striped and mackerel tuna, and frigate mackerel, are always swimming and always looking for a feed. If things become unfavourable for them they simply move elsewhere.

Bonito and salmon are somewhere between these two. They are always swimming but often only in low gear. Tailor and kings for example, will swim just enough to hold their position in the current. Bonito and salmon will hold in an area, say along a reef edge or around a hole, but they rarely hold stationary.

If conditions are bad enough for long enough, any of the pelagics will move.

What does all this mean to us fishos? When things turn bad for the tunas you are probably wasting your time persevering with them. They have moved to another area and probably won't come back until conditions are good again.

It is generally no good deciding that you are going to work hard for these fish because if they are not there then you can't catch them. With the fish that 'hold', perseverance will eventually pay off --- they are still there waiting for more favorable conditions. Even in bad conditions these fish can be tempted with the right bait or lure put in the right place. The fish are still in the system and as long as they are there you have a chance of catching them.

All the pelagics will readily accept lures. Trevally are not regulars on artificials but when they do switch on, the same rules apply.


Trolling lures is a great way of finding some species. Trolling works exceptionally well on bonito, tailor and spotted mackerel. It’s only average on salmon, stripies, mack tuna, frigates and trevally. Its success rate on kingies is poor.

Trolling the headlands, particularly North, South and Middle heads, is the preferred option when the fish or the baitfish cannot be visually or electronically located in open water.

Different species prefer certain locations. North and South heads produce lots of bonito but we hardly ever get tailor there. Tailor are much more common along Middle Head and the run between Grotto and Dobroyd points.

Of course, with their highly mobile nature, any of the pelagics can be expected to turn up anywhere.

Trolling is best done with minnow-style lures. Metal baitfish profiles and skirted lures the likes of Christmas trees are good when the fish are high up in the water. Those types of lures will ride high at the trolling speeds required for pelagics (four to eight knots).

Minnows offer deep-diving capabilities or at least reliable depth control. My favorites are Storm Thunderstiks. A trolling pattern must be established to locate the concentrations of fish. This usually involves a run close to the rocks first and then moving a little wider on each run after that.

Troll both directions on each run because it’s common to find fish biting in one direction and not the other.

Most people I know would rather cast to pelagic fish than troll for them. What do you do, though, if you want to cast a lure or fly to pelagics but can't visually or electronically find them? Troll until you find them and then cast.

Elitist fly anglers who refuse to carry conventional gear on principle are doing themselves a disservice. Trolling is a legitimate fish-finding method, even if you do not like or intend to catch them this way. Hoo-ha aside, it’s just a smart tactic for practical fly fishers who won't let elitism get in the way of a few more fish.

You can locate fish by blind casting to likely-looking spots but, on average, it will be a slower process.


All the pelagics at one time or another, even silver trevally, will work bait on the surface. At these times they can be visually located, often kilometres away, by looking for the accompanying flocks of seabirds cashing in on the left-over baitfish. Not every surface-feeding school has birds but even they can be located just by looking for the surface disturbance. Obviously, good sea conditions make the job a lot easier.

There even are times when the erupting schools will be heard before they are seen.

When the time comes to approach the school, there are a few things to keep in mind. Don't charge right up to, and never into, the feeding school – this will almost certainly put them down.

There exceptions when a rapid approach is essential. Certain species will, at times, feed in very short bursts and if you are not there quickly you will miss your shot. You must approach fast but keep your distance. The obvious distance to pull up is at the extremities of your casting range.

A classic example of fish that feed in quick bursts are northern bluefin or striped tuna. A common mistake in this situation is for anglers to take a slow, cautious approach to these schools.

Most fishos conclude that these fish disappear when their boat approaches as a result of the fish being spooked by the boat. Occasionally this is probably true but if you sit back for a while and just observe their feeding pattern, it soon becomes apparent that they are feeding in short bursts regardless of whether the boat approaches or not.

It’s generally just coincidence that the time you take to get to them is roughly about the same time as their feeding bursts.

This short-burst feeding pattern could be the result of the fish trying to avoid becoming prey themselves to sharks, billfish or larger tuna, or it could be linked to loosely-schooled baitfish or even a herding tactic.

When they are feeding like this the slow, cautious approach will gain nothing but frustration. Drifting in the general area and waiting for the fish to come by the boat occasionally pays off.


I’ve found the best approach is to get just within casting distance as quickly as possible and let fly. Speed is the essence.

You must also consider your boat shadow, as this will put fear into your school long before the engine noise. Shadows are the early warning sign of a large predator where engine noise is unfamiliar and fish have proven to be to be far more wary of dangers that they are familiar with.

The basic rule is to never get between the sun and the fish. The lower the sun in the sky, the more this applies.

Try to anticipate the direction that the fish are moving and be sure not to put your boat in their path.

In windy conditions you can use the wind to make a quiet approach on a school but position your drift to take you alongside the school and not over the top of it.

With experience it becomes possible to identify the species by the manner in which they are feeding. This aids in lure selection and rigging. For example, you don't want to throw your favorite soft plastic at frenzied tailor.

You might decide to rig a short length of wire ahead of your fly if you know you are dealing with tailor but I would definitely steer clear of wire if you knew they were mack tuna.


Lure selection in these situations is more a matter of size than type or colour. You are all familiar with the concept of 'matching the hatch' but how do we determine the hatch?

The term arose on the trout streams where an insect ‘hatch’ was quite obvious. It was probably airborne and tangling in your big moustache or tweed hat. It’s not always that easy when your ‘hatch’ is under water.

Seabirds help a lot. They won't even show up unless it’s worth their while. A birdless patch of feeding pelagics usually indicates that the prey is very tiny. And at the other extreme, the bigger the patch of birds the bigger the prey.

Tiny bait inhaled whole leaves little to interest a seagull but a 10cm pilchard chopped in half by a tailor or stunned by a crushing blow from a kingie provides an easy and worthwhile target for a gull or tern.

If you are lucky you might even see the prey as it showers from the water in an effort to escape. If all else fails, start with your smallest lure and work your way up.

Fish homed in on a certain size prey will regularly eat something smaller but rarely anything bigger.


It is generally accepted that a high-speed retrieve is essential for pelagics, which is true if you are using weak-action lures like metal slugs. Strong-action or slow-sinking lures like flies, spoons, minnows and soft plastic stickbaits do not require the same speed to entice a strike. The problem with metal slugs is that they are so un-lifelike on a slow retrieve.

Never assume that the fish you are seeing on the top are necessarily the fish you are catching. In these situations it is not uncommon for fish of different species to layer, i.e. salmon on top, bonito under them and then trevally under them.

Your first few casts should be retrieved immediately but later casts should be allowed to sink to varying depths before the retrieve. Many pleasant surprises have come from this technique.

Silver trevally rarely feed right on top but are quite common below the Winter salmon. They will take lures at these times, often on the fall.

Kings are regulars below tailor and bonito. The first sign of them is when one follows a hooked tailor or bonnie up to the boat.

Kingies are the easiest of all the pelagics to locate but usually the hardest to catch. Their biggest downfall is their love of shade but, to some extent, it’s also their saviour. Structure creates shade. Structure is very easy for us to locate but it also gives the kings something to wrap us around. They will face into the current when they are holding.

Avoid lures that rattle for kingies and that includes anything with trebles and split rings. The Slug-Go or other large soft plastic stickbait is No1 but you will occasionally get away with poppers as the splashing sound helps mask the rattling of the hooks and rings.

Trolling eyes

You need as many eyes as you can for trolling for pelagics because you need to keep an eye on:

• Your sounder for baitfish concentrations

• Other boats trolling to see where and what they are catching and so you don't run into them

• Birds working the surface, current lines and, most importantly,

• Gnarly waves, bommies and other hazards.

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