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Chopper Time!

Species Guide: Tailor

Hard-fighting, aggressive tailor are a real blast, offering accessible and affordable sportfishing action in a variety of locations. JIM HARNWELL reports.

TAILOR, aka choppers, are one of the gun sportfish that keen anglers just never seem to get tired of. I’ve had a love affair with these gleaming silver predators for years. Along with kings and snapper, they remain one of my favourite inshore sportfish, especially when they get to reasonable sizes. They also taste great – as long as you bleed them immediately upon capture and ice them down.

Tailor are a predatory species – anyone who’s seen a pack of choppers demolish a school of terrified baitfish will attest to that – and this highly aggressive element of their nature dictates the most effective ways to fish for them.

There are a number of fishing methods that work on tailor. I’ll detail a few of
my favourite tailor tactics, plus a few tips and techniques that I’ve learnt over the years, to help you catch more of these fantastic sportfish.

Beach & Rock
Tailor frequent washy areas like rock ledges because that’s the sort of location that baitfish, namely garfish and pilchards, tend to gather in. The bait hides in the stirred up water along the rocky drop-offs and gutters and the tailor haunt the edges of these wash zones, nailing any small fish that pokes its nose out of hiding.

In the right conditions, rock ledges are great places to lure fish for tailor. Metals like Halco Twisties and 40 and 65 gram Raiders are dynamite, being both inexpensive and effective. The key is to get the lure out past the wash (which can sometimes require a fairly lengthy cast) and then wind it through or along the whitewater. You can skitter the lure across the top with a fast retrieve or let it sink down and bring it back with a stop-start action. I like bright chrome metals with blue or pink highlights. It’s a good idea to remove the trebles that come standard with these lures and replace them with a single hook (I preferthe Gamakatsu Siwash hooks in a size that suits the lure). This reduces the risk of snagging and also makes unhooking the fish easier, an important point to consider if you plan on releasing the tailor you catch. The other benefit of using single hooks is that they are less likely to be thrown when the tailor jumps. Treble-armed lures are notorious for coming unstuck on leaping fish. What happens is the weight of the lure swings around like a pendulum and flicks the hooks out of the fish’s mouth. A single hook tends to be less affected by the pendulum effect of a swinging lure.

Suitable tackle for this sort of work would be a graphite spin stick of about nine feet in length matched to a 3000-4000 size threadline reel and 15-20lb braid. Attach a 1.5m length of 30lb trace to your braid via a Double Uni Knot and tie the lure on with a Lefty’s Loop Knot. No matter what some people tell you, you don’t need wire trace when using metal lures to catch tailor.

The key times to target tailor off rock platforms and beaches are dawn and dusk, although they will bite all day if conditions are overcast. Good rock platforms to try are those abutting a beach or those with distinct washy areas fronted by deepish water. A bit of swell is needed to create the washy conditions tailor love so always remember to take great care when fishing off the rocks.

If you plan on beach fishing for tailor you again need a bit of swell but you also need to find a gutter, which can be best described as an area of deeper water along a beach. Tailor tend to patrol along beaches and zoom into gutters, especially after a set of waves has gone through, in order to zero in on baitfish trying to hide in the foamy water.

You can spin with metals for surf tailor but I reckon a more productive way is to fish with bait. You can use either a Running Sinker Rig or a Paternoster Rig to target surf tailor. If conditions are relatively calm you can get away with the Running Sinker Rig but if there’s a bit of surge and cross-current the Paternoster Rig with a star sinker or grapnel sinker will help you hold position. You can use cut baits or fillets when surf fishing for tailor but probably the commonest method is to use a pilchard rigged on gang hooks. Check out a very informative video on the Fisho website (full details are in the Fact Box on this page) for instructions on how to rig a pillie with gangs, as well as how to tie all the knots and rigs mentioned above.

Adding berley – chopped up pillies and a squirt or two of tuna oil – can help bring tailor on the bite. The key elements, however, are the presence of bait, low light conditions and, usually but not always, a run-up tide. If fishing a dawn session, the action is generally over by mid morning, if not earlier. If you hit the sand in the arvo, however, don’t leave once the light fades. Tailor will continue to bite well after dark. In fact, evening is probably the best time of all.

Boat spinning
If you’re lucky enough to own a boat or a decent seagoing kayak you can enjoy some excellent fun casting metals, poppers and even soft plastics for tailor. You do the opposite to what you’d do if fishing off the rocks or beach. Instead of casting your lure out past the wash, you cast in towards the shore and bring it out through the foamy water. This is probably my favourite way to target tailor and I’ve caught some crackers doing so.

I tend to use lighter gear when fishing for tailor out of my boat or from my ’yak, mainly because I don’t need to cast quite as far as when I’m fishing from the beach or rocks. A quality seven-foot 4-6kg spinstick matched to a 2500 size reel and 10lb braid is an ideal tailor weapon. You obviously have to be very careful when positioning your boat close to breaking waves and rocky ledges – it’s a type of fishing that requires a fair degree of boat handling experience – but once you get the hang of it, it’s safe yet exhilarating. The key is to set up a drift that takes you along the rocks you plan to fish. You only fish this way when the conditions are on your side – swell not too big, wind blowing you away from the rocks. Always keep the motor running and keep a weather eye out for any lifting waves. It’s a good idea for one person to fish and the other to keep at the helm. You can swap around on each drift.

Spinning beaches from boats is equally productive. The goal here is to get in close so you can pepper likely gutters and holes but far enough out so you don’t risk getting swamped. This sort of fishing is restricted to calm days with low swell and zero or offshore winds. Always position the boat so that the bow is facing out to sea and keep the motor running. Again, it’s a good idea to have someone dedicated to driving the boat while others on board fish.

I’ve caught some quality tailor fishing washes and beach breaks out of various boats over the years and have recently started getting some good fish doing the same in my Hobie kayak. It’s good fun and very productive but always remember that safety comes first.

Trolling is a very easy and productive way to catch tailor. A wide variety of lures will catch choppers – I’ve trolled soft plastics, metals, pink squids, diving minnows, small white flies, bibless minnows, poppers and small skirted lures, and caught plenty of tailor in the process.

Minnows like 7cm Rapala Magnums. Tilsan Barras and Halco Laser Pro 120s rank as personal favourites for tailor.

I’ve also caught a lot of fish trolling Spanyid Maniacs (they work a treat), pink and white plastic squids and white Lefty’s Deceiver flies.

The keys, I reckon, to catching tailor on trolled lures are to:
• Troll the lure a long way behind your boat;
• Troll it at no more than five knots;
• Match the hatch (i.e. troll lures that look like the food the tailor are eating); and
• Focus your efforts close to likely tailor habitat.

Surprisingly enough, tailor can be relatively cautious, especially when trolling in shallow water, so putting the lure back 50 or even 70m can make a big difference. While they are a pelagic predator, they’re not in the same league speedwise as, say, bonito or kingies. They will definitely hit lures trolled at faster speeds but I’ve found more hits come at the five knot range, and sometimes even slower.

I am an advocate of “matching the hatch” when trolling lures for tailor and thus prefer lures that match the size and colour of the available bait. In my home waters of Jervis Bay, the main bait is small pilchards so I tend to use blue lures between 7-12cm long. Different areas will have other preferred baits, small slimies or garfish, for example.  Tailor, like most predatory fish, will often whack any lure they see but I’ve found that closely replicating the local bait will generally get you more hits.

As far as focusing your efforts close to tailor habitat, I can honestly say that in all the years that I’ve trolled for tailor I don’t recall ever catching one far from a wash zone, beach or some form of structure, be it reef or man-made habitat such as bridge pylons or mooring buoys. Tailor, like bass, snapper and cod, are very structure orientated. They really love washes, as I’ve mentioned, but they also hang around reef and other features that provide shelter for baitfish. Sometimes, however, they don’t seem to care exactly what that structure is. One spot I regularly fish features a patch of reef not much bigger than a dining room table surrounded on all sides by featureless sand. The tailor, some quite big at 45-50cm, are often stacked up on this obscure patch of weed and rock. What attracts them to this area? There’s no visible bait or shelter from predators. Why do they stay there? Not being a tailor, I have no idea. While being close to their primary food source is probably the main reason tailor congregate around washes and major reef systems, it could be that the choppers themselves feel more secure around cover, any cover, even tiny little reefs like the one mentioned above.

Sum up
Tailor are hunters. Big or small, they are a baitfish’s worst nightmare. You’ve got to think like a hunter yourself if you want to catch them. That, to me, is one of the main reasons why I like these fish so much. They are predictable to a certain extent – active at certain times, just about always highly aggressive – but they can also be pretty challenging. Quite a few things need to come together if you want to catch good sized tailor on a regular basis. Time on the water will help you tune into your local tailor hotspots and figure out the conditions that equate to red-hot fishing. And a red-hot bite from a school of big choppers is right up there as prime sportfishing action, let me tell you!

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