It was New Year’s Eve when everything really kicked off. To be honest, the season had started slowly, with few marlin reports, but suddenly things exploded.
One minute we were all wondering if it would be a late season. But soon everyone was scampering for Port Stephens as reports started filtering through that the infamous Carpark was going nuts. It was too good to ignore and, within a day, we too were heading north.
Driving two-and-a-half hours for a day trip can only be described as madness, but that is what marlin do to you. When the bite is this hot you don’t waste any time talking about it. You go.
That quick decision proved worthwhile and we tallied three fish from three bites on the first day of the year. Not just an awesome way to start 2016 – better yet, it set a precedent for the rest of the season.
WARM WATER FEAST
Next stop, a few days later, was Kiama as we followed the East Australian Current south. The southern edge of this current is where all the action would take place.
This convergence of cooler southern waters with warm tropical waters creates a fertile environment that is rich in life. Baitfish like slimy mackerel stack up in massive shoals that can be measured by the ton.
The marlin know this, too, and can’t resist a free smorgasbord. When it’s on, they gather in massive numbers, taking advantage of an easy feed. They say if you find the bait, you’ll also find the predators, and nowhere is this truer than around schools of slimy mackerel.
On day one we cracked two fish; the next day it was three; then five. We moved south to Ulladulla for more of the same.
It didn’t seem to matter where we went – there were fish everywhere. But what was truly amazing is that it wasn’t just us – everyone was getting into the fish right along the coast.
For some reason, this year has seen super-hot water pushing down (up to 27ºC), and this has brought unprecedented numbers of fish with it. In the first four weeks of the year, we notched up more than 30 in just 12 days. I can’t remember another season when marlin were so widespread and snapping their heads off.
On New Year’s Day, we took my nine-year-old son Cooper out with us. He was desperate to catch a marlin and surprisingly, everything went like clockwork – he cranked up a very angry 50kg black marlin.
There is something very special about any kid catching a marlin, more so when it’s your own son experiencing a dream coming true.
This got me fired up and I vowed to get as many people as possible their first marlin. Boy, did I pick the right season to do it.
A few days later, out of Ulladulla, my friends Jake, Shannon and Rach all ticked off their first marlin. Next trip out, it was my eldest son Tom with his school mate Myles.
Fishing off Sydney is a tough gig at the best of times, but especially so when you have just two slimies for bait. I briefed the boys on how hard marlin fishing can be, so as not to expect too much. I had just finished my speech when the first bait went off.
Less than 15 minutes later, Tom had landed his first marlin and the next bait gave Myles his first. Not bad for someone who had never been marlin fishing before …
ALL ABOUT BAIT
When it comes to catching marlin on the East Coast, the best technique is natural bait, both skip-baiting and livebaiting. Lures work, too, but are best suited to blue marlin, which are found out beyond the shelf where you need to cover more ground.
Fortunately, black and striped marlin tend to congregate around the huge bait shoals inside the shelf and this is where the most consistent fishing is. When the bait stacks up, lures rarely produce anywhere near as many fish.
There is a real mixed bag that makes up these vast shoals, including everything from leatherjackets to cowanyoung, yakkas to redbait and even pilchards. But there is one species that stands out as number one on the marlin menu – and it’s slimy mackerel.
Slimies are perfect in every way. Firstly, marlin love them, but they also stand up to the rigours of livebaiting much better than other species like yakkas. Best of all, they form massive slow-moving schools, which are perfectly suited to slow-trolling livies around.
Livebaiting is the most effective technique and it’s also really easy, because all you do is swim the baits around the bait schools. Skip-baiting is probably more fun, because with the bait skipping across the top, the bite can be spectacular. However, as I mentioned, this season has all been about towing livies.
Even when there was no bait present (often the case off Sydney), when we should be skipping, livebaiting still worked best. Three days in a row, I drove out to 30 fathoms, right off Sydney with absolutely no bait around, and hooked up in a matter of minutes.
IMPROVING THE ODDS
When it comes to livebaiting techniques, I like to maximise my chances by running three baits. On Strikezone, the spread is very simple and fuss free – I run two flat lines from each of the riggers and one deep bait.
This includes a short and long-rigger, set well apart to reduce any chance of tangles. This is really important because, not only does it allow you to make tight turns on the bait, but also greedy fish will do their best to eat both baits, which can be a real issue at times – so keep them apart.
The third bait has a breakaway lead attached and is used to sink a bait down if we mark a fish. I run a Stella loaded with multi-coloured braid, which is colour coded.
If a fish marks at 50m, all we need to do is drop five colours down and you are right on the fish’s nose. It’s a deadly technique, but it is essential that the crew are on the job and send the bait down the moment the fish marks up.
The best technique is to slow-troll the baits around the bait school. I am always watching the sounder, too, ensuring we are on the edge of the school, but also looking for any fish that may show.
If there is a bit of current, I like to drift over the school, often reversing up to hold the baits in the strike zone for as long as possible and then, once we drift off, I turn around and walk the baits back up to the edge and repeat the drift.
To get the drift right, you need to use your electronics – not only the sounder to monitor the bait, but also the plotter to line the drift up precisely. If you are not on the school, then your chances are diminishing.
Yet another approach is to drift over the school as slowly as possible. Keep reversing the boat up to compensate for wind and current and to help hold your position directly over the school.
Once you lose the school on the sounder, use your GPS (zoomed right in) to realign yourself for the next drift. While drifting, the baits on the outriggers will naturally swim down and then hold position at various depths, which, in effect, means you are covering a majority of the water column.
PROBE THE DEPTHS
When it comes to livebaiting, the fishfinder is arguably the most essential tool for the job. You can spend some serious dollars on electronics. On Strikezone, I have invested $35K – a substantial investment for a 6m trailerboat, but it’s essential for this style of fishing.
Of course, spending money is one thing; you also need to know how to use the unit properly and interpret the image on the screen correctly. I spend a lot of time at the wheel and, as a result, get the opportunity to really study bait and how it shows up on the screen.
Usually, the higher the bait school is in the water column, the more likely you are to pull fish off it. As you work a bait school, monitor it with your sounder. The moment a fish turns up on the scene, you will suddenly notice the school’s behaviour change.
The school will start to become more dense, showing up as a more intense red colour on the sounder. Being observant and watching your sounder intently will help you catch more fish.
Given that they’re a large fish, marlin show up well. How they appear on the screen, however, varies considerably between different units. On my Furuno, marlin appear as distinct red marks. Learning what a fish looks like on the sounder can only be achieved by putting the time in on the water.
When it comes to gear, there is only one hook for the job – a non-offset circle hook. Not only is this best for the fish, but it will also give you the best hook-up rate. Avoid J-hooks at all costs. They damage the fish and have a habit of ripping out, costing you a catch.
Another point worth mentioning is light leaders. I have long been a fan of fluorocarbon and, while I don’t think it gives me a huge advantage, it definitely does increase the bite rate. Even if it equates to one more fish in six, that is still an extra fish.
Always take note of the tide change, because bait will commonly rise up towards the surface for the change in tide. Why this occurs is unclear, but the best bite time occurs as you come into the tide change.
With this in mind, you have to be on the mark for the bite period over a tide change. The best days for livebaiting are those that have two tide changes, one in the morning and one in the afternoon.
When you do get a bite, don’t retrieve the other baits – leave them out for as long as possible. By leaving your gear in the water, you immediately have the chance of turning your single hook-up into a double, or even a triple.
Using heavy tackle means you can control the fish you are fighting, while still continuing to fish with the other rods. It can be a hassle to do two jobs at once but, believe me, at least one third of the fish we catch have bitten while we are fighting another one.