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Blackfish basics

I DID my fishing apprenticeship chasing blackfish from the rocks. My grandfather and father were both blackfish enthusiasts so it only stood to reason that I’d follow in their footsteps. I was about 10 when I first fished the rocks around Kurnell on the southern side of Botany Bay in the late 1960s and early ’70s with my dad and brother.

Back then the reels of choice were Steelite centrepin reels made of Bakelite or, if you could afford it, an Avon Royal made in England of diecast and pressed aluminium with a hammer tone painted finish. You were looked on as a “proper” blackfish fisherman if you had an Avon Royal, so as a keen 12-year-old I spent a year collecting bottles and aluminium cans and saved up the $24 needed to buy one from John and Ken Bruce’s tackle shop at Taren Point. Teamed up with an old Conolon blackfish rod, it was my pride and joy for several years and caught a heap of blackfish along with the odd drummer that I managed to stop on 6lb Tortue trace.

About two years after I bought that reel a bad thing happened. We met a guy called Norm Folks who lived around the corner from us at Peakhust in Sydney’s southern suburbs. Norm was a very keen blackfish angler and we bumped into him most weekends on various platforms out at Kurnell. Norm was an innovator and way ahead of his time when it came to chasing blackfish from the rocks. He’d been there and done the centrepin and float thing and had lifted the bar up a notch or two when it came to tackle and technique. Norm’s Avon Royal had been retired several years earlier and replaced with a threadline reel. It was matched to a rod that was 14 feet long and he fished with hand-made bobby corks that he fashioned from surfboard foam and fibreglass resin. Standing amongst a dozen other blackfish specialists with their Avon Royals, floats and 12 foot rods, he stood out like a sore thumb. Only problem was that he usually out fished most of them.


There was a theory behind Norm’s choice of blackfish tackle. The bobby cork was much lighter and less buoyant than a traditional stem float, which meant less resistance when a blackfish ate the cabbage bait. He couldn’t cast the light bobby cork off a centrepin reel so he used a threadline. Norm also reckoned hooking blackfish was difficult because you always had slack line in the water. Trying to lift that up and get tight when you got a “down” was only made more difficult with a centrepin which was very limited when it came to quick line recovery. The 14 foot rod and threadline reel eliminated that problem. It didn’t take much persuasion on Norm’s part to have the Finneys converted to threadline reels, bobby corks and long rods.

I fished like that for the next 40 years and caught a heap of blackfish. Over a long period I refined the technique a little further. I ended up using a Shimano 3500 Baitrunner, had a 15-foot rod custom built using an extended Sportex blank and started using hi-vis Platypus Pre Test line. Being able to see your line and have it float when drifting a cork or float out is vital for line control. I even experimented with braided lines at one stage to see if they offered any advantage over mono for float fishing. We custom made bobby corks in balsa because they were less buoyant than styrene foam. We ended up with blackfish tackle and techniques that were far removed from how I learned to fish on those Kurnell ledges back in the 1970s. I can remember writing several articles in Fisho in the 1990s promoting the technique and believing it was a natural progression that all forms of fishing have experienced over the past several decades. There was never any doubt that the technique worked. I’ve out-fished many traditionalists over the years. Many turned up with their centrepins and floats and assumed the idiot (me) fishing for blackfish with a threadline and bobby cork had no idea.

Over many years we refined the art of blackfishing to the point where we were using the latest technology in graphite rods, fluorocarbon traces and chemically sharpened hooks. We caught a heap of blackfish on that tackle but we got to a point where the graphite rods and gel spun lines eliminated any forgiveness and stretch in the connection between angler and fish. After a few years we realised we’d probably taken the technology a bit too far. The gear we were using was far better suited to sport and lure fishing than it was for chasing blackfish from the rocks. We’d fallen for the trap of taking things too far just for technology’s sake and it wasn’t working. The equation had just become too unforgiving when it came to fighting blackfish, which are renowned for thumping and kicking violently when hooked. A serious rethink was obviously required.

About five years ago I did a re-evaluation of what worked and what needed to be eliminated from our blackfish tackle. First to go, in an effort to soften the connection, was the braided line and graphite rods. That combination was just too harsh for blackfish. I went back to using mono and an old Sportex fibreglass rod that was 13 feet long. I also went back to using Tortue trace line instead of fluorocarbon traces. I love the pale green colour of Tortue, although it offers no distinct advantages over three-kilo fluorocarbon. There was no way, however, that I was going back to traditional Sneck or Suicide hooks as I was very happy with the Daiichi 2171 No. 8 chemically sharpened hooks I’d been using for a decade. I continued using bobby corks and the threadline reel for 90 per cent of my fishing from the rocks.


I fished that tackle and technique for a few years and it got further refined here and there. We found that the bobby cork had limitations in rough and choppy water or if the fish were a distance away at the end of a wash. The cork was difficult to see. Maybe it was my eyes getting older but I could see other guys’ floats and not my cork in some situations. The solution was fish a float in choppy water or if the fish were out wide. I hadn’t fished a float in many years and it was quite a novelty to watch it disappear when a blackfish ate my cabbage bait. By this stage my blackfish tackle had almost done a complete circle back in time to 40 years earlier when I first started chasing them at Kurnell. The only remnant of the technology boom was my Baitrunner 3500 reel.

Just for a change I decided to fish my old Avon Royal III one day. It hadn’t seen the light of day in over 30 years but with a quick clean up, some oil on the spindle and a new spool of line it was ready for a day out. It brought back some fantastic memories and I had an absolute hoot using it. It was a bit slow on line retrieve compared to a threadline but I enjoyed using it immensely, both for the nostalgia and the experience. For some strange reason I decided to keep on using the old centrepin and stem floats and I must say I’m enjoying my blackfish from the rocks more than ever. The centrepin is just so direct that you feel every kick and thump of each blackfish and there’s definitely an art in casting it and fighting a fish on it.

After talking to a few other blackfishermen I learned that centrepins are a big ticket item these days. In Australia they are really only used for blackfish from the rocks and in the estuaries, however, in Europe and the UK they are used extensively for coarse fishing with floats. They are also very popular with Spey fishermen in the US – you can spend upwards of $1000 for a handmade centrepin reel. My two old Avon Royals were looking a little tired and had some mild corrosion so I invested in one of Alvey’s CNC machined aluminium centrepin reels in a silver grey. This is a beautiful reel which has rekindled my love affair with blackfish. My only concession to the new age of tackle these days is that I fish Dango Wax floating mono off the Alvey. This is an orange line that floats and it makes line control very easy when float fishing.

I’ve given up on the blackfish many times over the past 40 years but I’ve always gone back to them. I gave them away to chase gamefish from the rocks in the 1970s, I gave them away to sportfish from boats in the 1980s and I gave them away to chase gamefish out wide in the past decade. It’s been a great experience and learning curve over the past few years to get back on the rocks and fish with some old school tackle. If someone had suggested a year ago that I’d be reliving my youth by chasing blackfish with the same tackle that I used 40 years ago I’d have told them they were crazy. But you know what?

Standing on a rock ledge with the water running past knee deep and waiting for a float to disappear is as good as it gets. The feeling of feeding line out off a centrepin and seeing that float go down, striking, then coming up solid to feel that fish kicking with a direct drive centrepin and no drag is quite a novelty – even after so many years. Don’t get me wrong – I still love my lure and fly fishing, and my new boat – but I’m out on the rocks every chance I get these days and the feeds of fresh blackfish go down great at home so there are no complaints from the family!

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