Fishing almost on a daily basis these days, I often take some of the finer points for granted.
A classic example of this occurred when I took some old mates out for a kingy fish recently.
After my usual early start at about 8.30 (the need to chase kings early in the day is a fallacy), we headed out. With the Honda purring, we powered out with a tank full of liveys. As we made a bee-line for one of the reefs I normally target, I explained the game plan for the day – first we were going to check out a couple of reefs, then run up to a wreck in deeper water, before coming in close to a ledge that has been productive in the past. In the deeper water, we were going to drift liveys on heavy tackle and work jigs as well, while in the shallows we were going to troll a livey on my Strikecam video camera and work surface lures.
The first couple of reefs were quiet, but then we found fish marking up well on the Furuno at the third spot. Feeding two slimies down, the guys failed to get a strike on the first drop. Knowing there were fish there, I sent a livey down on the next drift and hooked up immediately.
Okay, so what did I do differently? Well, first it was attention to detail. I watched the sounder and saw the fish were holding deep, but my mates’ liveys stopped well short of them, obviously unwilling to go any further. While the others misinterpreted this as the bottom, I wound in the line and added a bit more weight to get the bait fish down into the strikezone. Secondly, when the fish struck, I gave it ample line, realising that the big slimy was going to be difficult for it to swallow. One of the other anglers finally got into the strikezone, but then missed two fish because his drag was too tight and the fish simply spat it out.
This example shows that it’s the small things that count and, by paying attention to detail, you will dramatically improve your results. Remember, no matter what you are chasing, you will only get limited opportunities so you have to make the most of them. This was emphasised on another trip when, as we ran to the kingy grounds, I spotted a massive school working on the surface. Racing over, I instructed everyone to cast in, but turned around to see them all still rigging up. My rod was the only one ready and, as it turned out, I was the only one to pull a fish.
Fishing has changed dramatically in the last decade. Fish stocks are declining and the only way we are still maintaining reasonable catch rates is because of dramatic improvements in tackle, technology and technique. No longer is fishing simply a matter of cruising around and hoping to luck onto something. Instead, we now need to focus our efforts and utilise our skill base to ensure success.
There is no doubt that recreational fishermen are becoming far better at catching fish. Not only are they utilising technology, but they are becoming more target-specific and, for the first time ever, anglers are starting to share their knowledge utilising resources like the internet.
Working as a professional sport fisherman/photo journalist, I rack up around 200 days on the water every year. As they say, practice makes perfect, but fishing is something you never fully master and every day on the water I learn something new. Having said that, over the years I have learnt there are a number of key elements that are paramount to success, irrespective of what fish you are chasing.
Tip 1: Be prepared
Preparation starts well before you hit the water and includes everything from regular boat maintenance to servicing reels and inspecting all your terminal gear. Basically, you should go through everything – run your engine, check the battery and electronics are operating, reels are working smoothly and so on. How often do you see someone at the ramp with engine troubles or your mate, who discovers that his reel has seized just as he hooks a fish? These are classic oversights that happen far more often than many of us would care to admit.
Basically, everything should be set up and ready before you hit the water. A couple of hours’ preparation can turn a fishing trip around. Do it right before you head out and you won’t waste valuable time setting up when you should be fishing.
Tip 2: Attention to detail
Good anglers, like tradesmen, don’t blame their tools for their mistakes. At the end of the day, you only have yourself to blame. It’s a matter of thoroughly checking all your gear before you put it in the water.
When it comes to tackle, it’s paramount in my book to regularly replace mainlines on all the reels. I should point out this is particularly so for monofilament, which stretches and wears quickly. Braid, on the other hand, can last more than a year, but should still be inspected regularly.
As a rough guide, I inspect my leaders by running my fingers over them as well as visually inspecting them for wear or nicks. Then, I test all knots and finally have a quick look at the hooks. Don’t be afraid to really test your knots, yanking on them to make sure they are one hundred per cent right. If there’s any doubt at all, redo them. If I have any doubts about any part of my terminal tackle, I replace it.
Tip 3: Pick your target
Fishing really has changed over the years and as anglers get more and more proficient, their approach has become more specialised. These days, if you want to catch fish, you have to choose a specific target species and set yourself up accordingly.
Even casual anglers head out chasing specific species, be it spinning for bream in an estuary or cubing for tuna offshore. Focusing all your resources and efforts on one species, rather than using the ‘shotgun approach’ and hoping for anything that happens to be around, will make you more effective.
Tip 4: Do your homework
Once you’ve decided what species you’re after, the next step is to get in tune with what is happening. Now, I am guessing that most Club Marine readers are experienced enough to know the seasons for the most common species – barra at the end of the wet, Victorian snapper in the spring, NSW marlin in autumn and so on. But even in season, the fish may be snapping their heads off at one spot and dead quiet at another, so it is crucial to know where they’re on the bite.
The best way to keep up to date with what is happening is through your fishing buddies. Over the years, I’ve developed a great network of friends up and down the coast, who share information on what’s happening. As a result, I know exactly where the tuna are firing or which reef is producing snapper. This information is vital and, to be honest, it is paramount to my success. Obviously, it’s a reciprocal relationship and has developed over the years. We all share what we know and, by doing so, save each other a lot of wasted time, money and energy.
Fishing mates aside, internet chat forums, charter boats and tackle shops can also be good sources of information. Having said that, if you don’t know or trust the source, then ask questions. Don’t be afraid to interrogate your source. Which boat? Who was the angler? What time of day? What was the current doing? There is a lot of rubbish out there – it’s a matter of making sure your information is correct.
These are all avenues that will help you form a picture of where the fish are and give you the heads-up as to where to head.
Going one step further, anglers can also employ technology for particular species. These days, all my offshore fishing revolves around real time satellite images of the sea surface temperature (STT charts). Downloaded off the internet from subscription services like Seasurface.com, I can get a clear picture of the SSTs and identify fish-holding temperature breaks. I can also check out long-range forecasts and even view 3D images of remote seamounts. The internet can be a wealth of knowledge once you know where to look.
Tip 5: Plan your attack
Now you know the general areas that have been producing fish, the next step is to get more precise and develop a game plan for the day. This really is a key to becoming a better angler. It doesn’t matter how good you are, you have to fish where the fish are, because you simply can’t catch them if they aren’t there.
There are daily variables that need to be added into the equation, like tides and weather. Tidal information is essential and dictates the movements of nearly all saltwater fish. Basically, irrespective of what you chase, you are better off fishing around the tide change. Therefore, if there is an early morning tide change, it is well worth getting up extra early to catch it.
The weather plays a huge role in fishing, too, especially for the boat angler. If I’m running offshore for the day, and there is a strong noreaster reported for the afternoon, then I will generally fish north so I can come home with the wind. Alternatively, if I’m going fishing for bass in one of the impoundments and there is an afternoon thunderstorm rumbling in, I’d be on the water in a flash, because natives always come on the chew before a storm.
Obviously, different variables come into effect, depending on where you are fishing and what you are chasing, but if you add them all into the equation, your chances of success are greatly increased.
Tip 6: Keep on moving
If you’re serious about your fishing, then there’s no point in heading out for a relaxing afternoon with your mates and a few beers. Instead, you have to be proactive and keep moving to find the fish.
For instance, when chasing snapper in Port Phillip Bay, I may pull up the anchor (a lowly-paid hack like me can’t afford an electric winch) a dozen times while searching for feeding snapper. Believe me, it’s no fun hauling a huge anchor off the bottom every few minutes, but by moving regularly I’m covering more ground and will ultimately find the fish.
Not only should you keep moving, but you should also know the lay of the land. GPS plotters, with mapping cards, are loaded with information and that, coupled with a good sounder, like a Furuno, means you can quickly find any distinguishing features such as reefs, wrecks, drop-offs or bommies that are likely to hold fish. One thing I do is to keep my sounder going while I’m underway, so that if I see anything interesting I can mark it for later investigation. Some of my most productive kingy spots off Sydney have been found this way.
Tip 7: Interpret the signs
The sea often looks like an empty expanse of blue, but in reality it’s loaded with signs that will point you towards fish. One of the most obvious is the presence of seabirds. By knowing a bit about each species, you will be able interpret their behaviour.
A classic example happened while chasing monster bluefin tuna in Victoria a few years back. Along with two other boats, we were chasing a patch of birds that were working over the tuna. The fish were blowing up sporadically, making it difficult to get the lures into position. At one stage, the larger albatross kept flying forward, while the more agile terns and gannets suddenly did a one-eighty. The other boats continued to follow the albatross, while I spun around and positioned the lures exactly where the tuna erupted on the surface. This tactic resulted in an 87kg tuna – the only one caught that day.
Our success hinged on the fact that I knew which birds were more agile and I was also aware that the terns and gannets opportunistically feed over the tuna, while the larger albatross are more likely to feed at night.
Seabirds are not the only signs – whales and dolphins can also help to pinpoint fish. Over the years, I’ve caught countless tuna under whales and found marlin around dolphins. There are also less subtle signs that indicate a temperature break or current edge. Blue bottles ride the ocean currents and, like foam in a stream, they get caught on the edge, so a build-up of these stingy critters can signal a current edge or temperature break.
Tip 8: Maximise your electronics
Like it or not, we are in the age of electronics and they are becoming increasingly important for serious anglers. The technology utilised in GPS and sounders these days is amazing and, when used correctly, can dramatically improve your fishing. Believe it or not, some commercial sounders can now estimate the weight of a school of fish and then track it using side scanners and an autopilot.
Remember, your sounder is like your eyes underwater, so the more you spend on your initial purchase, the better the unit and the clearer your picture. These days, I’m so reliant on my sounder that if I went to sea and discovered it wasn’t working, I would simply turn around and go home – it really is that important to my fishing.
With a thorough understanding of my sounder, I’ve found it possible to identify target species, such as kings, and even distinguish them from other less desirables, like sweep.
Every sounder is different so, while I can tell you the tricks that work on my Furuno, the best approach is to really get familiar with your own unit and use it to the max.
GPS units can be even more important than sounders as they put you exactly on a mark and have really changed the way we fish. Always make sure you have a back-up record of all your waypoints, either by writing them down or downloading them into your computer. These days, waypoints are becoming more important than just about anything else in fishing.
Tip 9: Be ready for anything
Fishing is unpredictable at the best of times and you simply never know what is going to happen next. With this in mind, smart anglers have all their gear rigged and ready for a wide range of options. A classic example happened a few years back, while fishing for kings on an inshore reef. Without warning, a marlin free-jumped a hundred metres away.
Luckily, I had a 50-pound outfit rigged and ready. Racing over to the spot, we fed a livey down and within seconds were hooked up to a marlin in just 20 metres of water in winter.
Tip 10: Go hard and don’t go home Cubing off Sydney a few months back had produced zilch for six hours of fishing. But as tempting as it was to pack it in and head for home – as most of the other boats had done – our persistence was rewarded with a heap of tuna right on dark, including a ripper 48kg yellowfin. By staying out for an extra hour, our long and hard efforts had paid off.
These days, with leisure time becoming more and more limited, it really is essential for anglers to put the hours in and fish hard. At the end of the day, the more time you spend on the water, the better your chances. Don’t make excuses – just get out there and give it a go, because every day on the water you learn something new and that makes you a better angler.