SEAFARI was a Tasmanian cray fishing boat that originally had a home port in Bicheno. When skipper Joe Wilkinson moved to Queensland, he started exploring coral atolls well wide of the outer barrier reef. Joe had a great sense of adventure and these pioneering trips were before the advent of GPS. He navigated with maps and a sextant. I went on many of the early trips and we visited places like Wreck Cato, Frederick and Saumarez Reefs. It was a long time ago now. The gear was relatively primitive, the fishing was outrageously good and most of our lures disappeared in the mouths of monster fish and sharks. It was a steep learning curve, particularly when it came to using hard bodied minnow style lures targeting large pelagic fish. I remember having a few Rapala CD18s in my bag and a single larger CD26. At that time these were considered state of the art blue water lures. When there are a lot of dog tooth tuna around, these lures proved about as durable as a pilchard! The bodies got chewed in half and the entire internal frame was ripped out, often after a single fish. From this point on we all quickly learned how to toughen up our terminal tackle, and at the time there were very few commercial minnow type lures on the market that could stand the pressure. We had to make our own. The Yo-Zuri bonitos were an exception but the old Seafari could only go five knots so these lures were well below their optimal trolling speed.
These early trips taught me a lot about trolling hard bodied minnows chasing big pelagic fish. I commonly troll deep diving bibbed hard bodied lures, bibles minnows and stick baits and they all have a place in a trolling lure spread. The secret to trolling these lures is to work out optimal speed, appropriate depth and correct lure size. Most of the time I troll between 3 and 5 lures at once, and sometimes we mix up the spread using a mix of skirted trolling lures and hard bodied lures at the same time. It is important to understand that you cannot troll slow lures with fast lures. Each lure will have an optimal speed, and some are finely tuned so that any increase in speed above this will see the lure blow out of the water.
From small bonito, salmon and tailer on the inshore grounds, through to huge tuna and wahoo on the wider grounds, hard bodied lures are effective. Additionally, if you rig them correctly, they can be an effective billfish lure. The secret is to use multiple split rings and single hooks. Both little black marlin and sailfish will readily attack bibless minnows and stick baits but with the standard treble hook arrangement the hook up rate is very poor. The best hook set up depends on the species you are targeting. Sharp high-quality hooks are a good investment. In general, hard mouthed large species such as Wahoo are best targeted with single hooks. Diving minnows appeal to a wide range of species. Some anglers are doing very well chasing snapper on small deep diving hard bodied lures, either with a down rigger or by trolling shallow areas where the running depth of the lure will get it close to the bottom. There is a lot of room for innovation.
One species we often target using hard bodied lures is the Spanish mackerel. Lure trolling is fast and convenient, and when the mackerel are hunting the surface layers it is generally effective. I troll a spread of five lures. From the two corners of the boat, I troll the lures that are the closest to the boat. It is important that these two lures are deep divers so that they track down and do not interfere with the other lines when turning. Typical lures suitable to troll on the short lines include the deep diving Halco Laser Pro, the Samaki Pacemaker and the Nomad DTX. These lures run at a depth of 4 to 6 metres and will troll at speeds up to eight knots. The Nomad lures in particular pull a lot of drag so you may need to use at least a 15-kilo outfit with these expensive but effective lures. These lures are generally positioned between 20 and 30 metres behind the boat.
The next two lures can be run from the outriggers but with minnow style lures I prefer to run the lure directly from the rod tip, as it is easy to miss bites from mackerel due to the drop back from the outrigger. These lures are run at 50 to 60 metres behind the boat. My all-time favourite lure for this position is the Halco Laser Pro 190 with a two-metre bib. These lures are extremely well made and are very tough. They get a lot of bites and are one of the most popular trolling lures in the country. I find that by modifying these lures by using double and triple split rings I can increase my mackerel hook-up rate. These fish can be particularly difficult to stay connected to. If the fish are holding mid water or below this second pair of lures can also be deep divers as well. This year my best performing colour was orange with blue dots. I have no idea why this “coral trout” colour works so well on the Gold Coast as no Coral Trout are found here!
The final lure in this minnow trolling spread is positioned in the shot gun position, well back about eighty metres behind the boat. I like to use a smaller minnow or a stick bait in this position. Over the past 5 years I have caught marlin, sailfish, wahoo, yellowfin tuna and plenty of mackerel on stick baits trolled from the shot gun position. This lure skates along the surface and attracts a lot of attention. Stick baits get a surprising number of billfish strikes.
Minnow trolling is a very effective method to catch Spanish mackerel but this technique just doesn’t work well when you are fishing amongst crowds of other boats. Multiple sounders, too much engine noise and getting your lines run over all greatly decrease the effectiveness of minnow trolling when targeting mackerel. The secret is to find your own little patch away from the crowds and get on your spot before dawn. As well as mackerel, this type of trolling spread is very effective on mackerel and yellowfin tuna, wahoo and dolphin fish. It is a good way to fish when you are searching a new area, and in places where there is high reef and current can produce a wide range of species. I once caught eleven different species in a morning on minnows trolling the Nine Mile Reef off Tweed Heads.
As far as rigging is concerned, I generally use a short length of wire when trolling minnows. While the lure body offers some protection, really big mackerel will commonly swallow the whole lure, and these are the ones that you don’t was to lose! Fine forty-nine strand cable is extremely flexible and doesn’t kink if the lure jumps out of the water. The wire is joined to a length of 60-to-80-pound leader that connects to a snap swivel. In practice I make up these trolling traces prior to heading out. Our trolling outfits are pretty stand 10 and 15 kilo game fishing outfits loaded with nylon monofilament line. Braid is also fine, but it is an expensive option filling 5 game fishing reels with braid for no major advantage.
Once you’ve got your lines in the water you need to have a plan, particularly if you are targeting mackerel. You need to be on the water prior to sunup and work your trolls over reef and structure. Mackerel never stray far from bait, and you won’t catch many by random trolling. I like to find a decent pinnacle and troll it from different angles until I get strikes. If you see fish on your sounder and don’t get hit, change lures and running depth. Sometimes it is more effective to change methods and go to live baits or jigs, particularly if the fish are holding down deep. At times mackerel will hold just off the edge of the reef so it is important to search these areas.
Targeting wahoo with minnow lures is an exciting way to fish and in general I troll my minnows at 8 knots or greater. Fast action bibles minnows are excellent for wahoo, and a stick bait fished well back is another effective wahoo tactic. These fish are often quite boat shy, and it pays to troll your lures well back. While it is common to catch both wahoo and mackerel on the same trip, Wahoo are often in deeper water than mackerel and often bite well into the day. When targeting wahoo, you need strong terminals and on most of my wahoo lures I use single hooks. The strikes are quite spectacular and these fish really make a reel scream.
In summer I spend a lot of time trolling for marlin using skirted trolling lures. Wahoo can be quite destructive when trolling these expensive lures. A tip I learnt from local commercial charter skippers is to troll a Halco Laser Pro 190 in the long corner position rigged with a pair of single hooks. The aim of this is to have a lure more attractive to any visiting wahoo to prevent damage to the skirted lures. Over the years this lure has produced a lot of wahoos, and also quite a few black marlin that seem to hook up well on the single hook rig.
In tropical and coral reef areas trolling hard bodied minnows is one of the most effective methods you can use. Out on the reef edges deep running lures produce coral trout, red throat sweetlip, green job fish and a host of other species. In more isolated areas adjacent to deep drop offs dog tooth tuna, GTs and barracuda are all common. These fish rich areas really test your tackle. It is important to have strong leader and fight the fish on maximal drag as big fish commonly crash into the bottom at speed. Sharks can be a problem as well, particularly if you are hooking Spanish mackerel. Halco Laser Pros are a great benchmark lure in these areas, and some of the Zerek models such as the Speed Donkey work well and can take the knocks. The Zerek Zappelin is a great stick bait to troll and works well in the shotgun position.
Trolling the inshore grounds in Northern Australia with minnows produces a very wide range of species. Species such as mackerel, golden trevally, GTs, coral trout, queenfish, tuna and barracuda all love trolled minnows. At times small cod can be a pest and will come well off the bottom to eat a minnow style lure. This is a very versatile way to fish and is commonly used by commercial charter operators to provide plenty of action for their clients. In fish rich areas trolled minnows are probably the most effective method for big fish. In the Northern Territory, wide of the big tidal river mouths, metre plus barramundi are a major target on big shallow running lures like bombers.
It is important to store your trolling minnows correctly and wash them in fresh water after every trip. From time top time lures may need tuning if they swim to one side or blow out of the water at low speed. This is usually due to a bent eyelet. The rule is that you bend the eyelet in the direction you want the lure to swim, and sometimes it only takes a miniscule adjustment to get the lure on a straight track again. I carry a big box of minnow lures on my boat at all times, varying from small Halcos, Rapalas and Tilsans through to large minnows over 40cm in length. I’ve found that these lures are a reliable and effective option in a wide variety of places.