When you fish pretty much every day, you sometimes get consumed by it all, so when I was asked during a fishing seminar what my favourite fish to catch were, I couldn’t answer. When I thought about it, there wasn’t a single fish that stood out – instead, a pile of fish came to mind, with the reasons why I liked them varying greatly.
Every species is unique in its own way and offers different attributes – some, because they are so hard to catch, others because it’s all about the bite or even the places they take you.
Over the years, I have caught just about every sportsfish there is this side of the Atlantic. To be honest, I love catching them all, big and small alike. Picking my favourites is tough, as they’re all fun for different reasons and I can choose from the biggest, meanest and coolest fish that swim.
Here’s my list of top-six fish, each with its own unique blend of characteristics.
Endemic to Australia’s east-flowing rivers, the Aussie bass is an iconic species with a cult following. While they certainly don’t grow very big (40cm is a good fish and 50cm is a monster), don’t let their size fool you – they are pocket rockets. The strike from a bass is impressive enough, but the fight is crazy for such small fish and they can smash you up in the snags before you know it.
Every spring, bass migrate up into the freshwater after spawning in the river estuaries. This annual migration is the best time to chase them – they’re hungry from all their ‘activities’ and are super aggressive, eating just about anything that comes within striking range. This makes them the perfect target for lures and it doesn’t matter whether it’s an Icon spinnerbait, a Tilsan deep diver or a plastic – they will hit it like a ton of bricks.
The most exciting technique is without doubt fishing surface lures, with the best time during the warmer months, especially when the cicadas are screeching. With cicadas filling the overhanging trees, the bass take up position in the shadows and wait … anything that falls into the water is instantly gone. Throw a little popper in under an overhanging tree at this time and the response is explosive. The bite is almost more exciting than the fight.
As exciting as bass are, there is another reason I love chasing them so much: because of the country they take you into. In most cases, the best way to reach the most productive bass country is by canoe and there’s something very special about fishing the remote backcountry with no company except your solitude and nature. It takes fun to a whole new level.
Marlin will always rate on the fun list, but if I had to narrow it down to an actual species it would have to be striped marlin. Not only are they prolific in NSW, they’re a year-round option, with autumn being the peak period. As the East Australian Current pushes south to meet the cooler southern waters every autumn, it forms a fertile environment. Striped marlin converge on this zone in huge numbers, providing some of the hottest fishing in the South Pacific.
You can catch stripers by trolling lures and baits, or walking livebaits around. These techniques are all okay, but the most exciting way to catch stripers is on bait balls. No other marlin species works the bait the way stripers do – it’s one of nature’s true spectacles. Pulling up beside a bait ball with striped marlin glowing almost neon blue as they whirl intensely around the bait ball is mesmerising. Sometimes, you don’t even need to catch them … just watching the hunt unfold is enough. Hand-feeding them a livebait isn’t bad, either.
These apex predators are experts at rounding up baitfish and holding them tight against the water’s surface, where they pick them off with ease. What makes this all the more spectacular is that it only occurs in a few places around the world, with the NSW south coast arguably the most reliable location. Hot spots like Jervis Bay, Batemans Bay, Narooma and Merimbula see bait ball action on a yearly basis.
Catching a striper off a bait ball is easy – all you need is a live slime mackerel rigged on a circle hook and the action is pretty much guaranteed once you toss it in. However, the trick isn’t the hook, it’s actually finding the bait ball in the first place. Unlike tuna, marlin eat their prey whole, so there are few scraps to attract birds and without the airborne spotters, finding the action is much harder. The only way around this is to keep a lookout at all times and employ a decent pair of binoculars. Apart from searching for the obvious splashing on the surface, the ever-opportunistic albatross will often hover over the action, so a circling albatross is worth investigating.
Catching a striper is one thing, but if you want to take it a step further, then jumping in and joining the action is nothing short of amazing. I have been fortunate to do this a few times and watching how graceful striped marlin are in the water is a sight to behold. It’s a great way to observe and learn about them.
Why on earth would I pick a species that is so prolific and easy to catch? Well, that’s your answer! Sure, there are some amazing species in exotic locales we all want to chase, but sometimes you don’t have to travel far to have fun.
The dusky flathead is the largest of the flathead clan, which includes 40-odd members. Their big attraction is that they live right on our doorstep in estuaries and bays around the south-eastern coast. Living in Sydney, with the harbour, Botany Bay and Hawkesbury River close by, I could catch flathead every single day of the year. At times, they’re so thick that it’s a fish per cast, especially when they’re spawning. One of their biggest drawcards is that they’re easy and accessible for both boat- and shore-based anglers.
What I love most about flathead is that they’re always aggressive. You can catch them by drifting a bait, bouncing a metal or flicking a plastic – they really don’t care. I regularly cruise down the Parramatta River with the kids after school, flicking lures as we go, and we always catch flathead. They’re perfectly suited to kids wanting to hone their fishing techniques.
The key to fishing flathead is to remember they’re ambush hunters, so you have to put your lure right in front of them to get a bite. If you’re not bumping the bottom, you’re not in the zone.
The added bonus with flathead is they’re great on the menu – I would even go as far as to say there are few things as good as beer-battered flathead tails. I grew up on the shores of Port Phillip Bay and with the scallop dredges destroying the bay, there were no snapper in those days. Instead, all we caught were heaps of small flathead. But what they lacked in fighting quality they more than made up for on the table. To this day, I still go out to catch a few flathead and beer-batter them for dinner.
There is only one way to describe GTs and that is: brute force. Everything about them is hardcore and mean, from the bite to the fight. I have caught thousands of GTs and never have I had one come easy … in fact, looking back over my encounters with these beasts, I have actually come off second-best way more times than I care to admit.
GTs never used to be popular because they were simply impossible to land and hooking one was a misery all anglers avoided. With today’s advancements in tackle, particularly braided lines, we are turning the tables. Super braids, like Sufix 832, have further evened the playing field … mind you, the fight is still in their favour.
Admittedly, fighting a GT isn’t that much fun because it’s so painful. Their brute force is unequalled in the sportsfishing world but, thankfully, it normally doesn’t last long. The pressure they put on your tackle is absurd and if there are any weak spots they will find them. GTs can decimate your tackle, busting 100kg leaders, snapping thousand-dollar rods or straightening unbreakable hooks all too easily. But while they can bring an angler to their knees, that rewarding feeling you get when you win makes it all worthwhile.
Fights aside, GT fishing is all about the bite. Few fish in the sea can rival the ferocity of a big GT as it climbs all over your lure … they are truly a force to be reckoned with. What they do to your popper is indescribable! But it’s not the damage that is fun (that’s just expensive) – instead, the sight of a GT charging in and exploding all over your lure is nothing short of spectacular. I love it so much that I have taken the hooks off my Roosta popper and just tossed it around to enjoy the strikes. Even doing that I’ve lost a few lures!
If GTs rule the tropical domain, then kingfish are the coastal bullies of the south. Since I was a kid, I’ve had a fascination with kingies, because not only do they fight like a runaway train, they are a great-looking fish and make excellent sashimi to boot. To make it even better, kingfish numbers are enjoying a resurgence and we’re seeing increases in NSW, with a spill-over effect into Victoria and even Tasmania, much to the delight of anglers.
Kings can be caught on every conceivable technique from fly to jig, bait to poppers. And they live everywhere, too – from bays and estuaries, to offshore reefs.
There are few things as fun as loading up and hanging on. This is especially exciting when slow-trolling livebaits; one minute all is well when, suddenly, there is weight on the line … no dramatic strike, just solid weight. This all changes the moment you load up and the circle hook finds its mark, then – holy moly – it’s game on! The big kingy charges back toward the reef at full pelt while the boat accelerates out toward deeper water, with you hanging on to the rod like grim death. It’s an adrenalin rush like no other.
Trying to land big kings in shallow water takes real teamwork, which heightens the excitement when you catch one. It is white-knuckle stuff and more than a few times we have come unstuck. Most impressively, we use the same gear that we use to catch 100kg marlin and tuna, yet we struggle to land a 12kg kingy with it!
Small kings are just as much fun. There is no better way than chancing them on top, where they turn up in huge numbers to feed on the surface for everything from garfish to whitebait, often making a real commotion in the process. Flick a lure into the mix and suddenly a whole pack of kingies will be fighting each other over it. Better still, because these fish are often well away from structure, you can scale down the gear and really have some fun.
There is no doubt in my mind that yellowfin, with their big yellow sickles slicing through the water, are the prettiest tuna. I have caught just about every tuna species there is but, for size, looks and especially fight, yellowfin are number one in my books – and the bigger, the better.
Australia once had a great inshore fishery for yellowfin but, after heavy fishing pressure, they vanished in the 1990s and have never really come back. Recently, trolling has been the best technique here in Australia, but the most exciting way to catch them is on the cube, especially when they are right at the back of the boat. I was so keen to chase big yellowfin that I flew all the way to Ascension Island in the middle of the Atlantic just for the opportunity.
Seeing them eating cubes in the trail is one thing, but actually getting one to hook up is often really hard. They don’t get big by being dumb and will often reject all but perfectly presented bait. It’s interesting that the smaller fish will eat anything, but as soon as they get to jumbo size they’re a lot more switched on. The trick is to outsmart them and the best advice I can offer is to really conceal the hook. A visible hook seems to deter them even more than leader size does.
I have been lucky to spend a bit of time in the water with huge tuna to observe how they behave. While I learned a lot, it was also one of the most mesmerising experiences ever and, in the end, I didn’t want to catch them, just swim with them.
When it comes to fighting, big yellowfin aren’t so much fun. It’s like a GT fight, just longer. It’s hard work, but the rewards are so great that the pain seems to be worthwhile. The moment that huge barrel of a tuna breaks the surface, with its sickles stretching down to the tail, is simply as good as it gets. It’s something you can’t describe – you just have to do it!