How to

Finding Fish

OVER many years of fishing I’ve discovered that the secret to consistent catches of just about any species usually comes down to one thing. The best tackle? A well organised boat? The best lures money can buy? Good braid and leader? Time on the water? No, no, no and no again. You can spend all the time on the water you like with the best gear and sharpest hooks but you’ll catch very little unless you actually find the fish to start with. I’m not a mathematician or numbers man but I reckon 70 or 80% of good fish hooked and landed by sportfishers are usually caught by 20% of anglers. Some anglers just consistently get results. Yes, they fish hard and they are very talented anglers who know what they are doing, but you’ll usually find that they catch fish because they can find them. We’ve all done it and I’m as guilty as some. Head out for the day with high expectations and go searching. Find bait or what you consider to be “fishy” or “fish holding” water and flog it death with every lure in the tackle box and return home empty handed. A negative result is easy for most of us to explain away as the fish not being around or playing the game. That’s not necessarily the case in most instances. The fish could have been around and feeding for part or most of that day. You just didn’t find them. If you don’t find the target species you’ll do a lot of casting and come up empty handed every time.

Finding fish these days isn’t easy but it is the key to catching them. I’ve spent thousands of hours over the years fishing water that looked good but just wasn’t holding the fish I was chasing. I just kept plugging away and hoping that a fish would turn up to change things around. That happens occasionally but I don’t count on it these days. I’ve fished all day with guides who couldn’t find fish. If I fish any area for half an hour and don’t mark any fish on the Lowrance or get an eat, I’m moving and looking elsewhere. Over the past few years I’ve become more inclined to find the fish before I start fishing rather than hope they find me. That can lead to a lot of looking and very little fishing but at the end of the day the results are nearly always better. I also do a lot of research before I hit the water in the hope of working out where the fish will be and why. Let’s take a closer look at how it works.

A lot of work can be done to find fish before you even leave home. We all do this subconsciously to some extend by using previous fishing experience. If you caught fish at a certain location on a particular tide and time of year you’re inclined to go there again. That works and is the basis of how many of us plan a fishing trip but it’s not a guarantee of finding or catching fish. I’ve got a heap of reliable locations but none of them can be guaranteed of producing the target species. I know the fish will be in that general area, when in season, because there’s a food source there and they’ll be feeding. That includes mulloway, flathead, snapper, bream, whiting, salmon, blackfish and squid. I know, based on years of fishing experience, that those species will be available and on the chew on a certain tide and time of year. In most cases I even know why they will be there which is very important. Learning and understanding their feeding and breeding habits is a big help here.

But what about pelagic species that travel long distances and need to continuously feed? I know that the Hervey Bay longtail tuna will be around and available from February to May and feeding on large schools of baitfish. I can’t predict the exact location that they’ll be feeding because that all depends on where the bait is. It could be in close or out wide but it’s easy to find the bait and the fish by simply looking for surface activity in the form of bust ups and circling birds. Birds are a dead giveaway when searching for pelagic species. They’ll hover over fish just waiting for them to round up a bait ball and give you an indication of exactly where they are. Sadly, the local shark population is even more honed in on finding the bait and tuna.

When we’re chasing yellowfin/bluefin tuna and marlin down south we use a few techniques to find fish. The main one is the local fisho’s grapevine. Tapping into this is a Godsend but being part of it takes a lot of trust and friendships nurtured over many years. If we go chasing yellowfin or bluefin tuna we can usually rely on covert reconnaissance from the previous few days with GPS co-ordinates and even lures that are working. My young bloke usually gets intelligence from a couple of long line skippers that he grew up with. That sort of information is crucial and saves a heap of time and fuel but it’s only ever shared by close mates who know it will go no further and never see the light of day on social media. The other method is studying SST and ocean current charts. If read correctly, they should give you a few clues on where to start looking. It’s certainly worth looking at that information and finding temperature breaks before blindly heading out and dragging lures around all day.

So how do you find fish out on the water on any given day? Well most of that comes down to observation. Looking for baitfish scattering, finding bait or a food source. Looking for surface swirls. It helps to think like a fish which sounds weird but put yourself in the fishes place. Where is the food? Where is a good place to locate out of a strong tide or current? Are cormorants working on baitfish? Where is some structure to hide amongst? What about overhanging tree branches that are dropping insects into the water? Where is a flat drop off that will see bait moving into deeper water on a falling tide? What about a large flat full of nipper beds or mullet schools? Most fish species have a schooling nature. Find one and you’ll often find a few. They’re all in that location for a specific reason and it’s usually food related. It may also be spawning related at particular times of the year. It could come down to water temperature. Learn how to find that location where they congregate and your catch rates will increase dramatically.

If that location isn’t obvious or isn’t holding fish, your best friend is your sounder. Anglers who consistently catch fish all use their sounders intelligently. Most of us use our sounders to locate structure, bait and fish but many of us start fishing when we find structure and baitfish activity. That doesn’t always mean that the target species is present. I know many switched on anglers who use their sounder side scan to actually locate the target species. This may be impoundment barra in amongst sunken timber, mulloway sitting in a deep hole or snapper hugging a reef edge that’s holding some food source. Seeing those target species on side scan or sonar is a dead giveaway that they’re present and it’s time to start seriously fishing. A well set up sounder will pin point the fish and even give an indication of their size, numbers and depth. These days I try to avoid getting serious until I’ve located the target species on the sounder. I’ve spent too many hours fishing structure or bait schools to know that they don’t all have predators in attendance.

Even the best sounder won’t help you locate fish on flats of if you’re land based. This is where observation and polaroiding comes into play in finding fish. Polaroiding is a learned art and takes time to master but once you get the hang of it you’ll find fish by covering ground and looking. My sounder is invaluable in the boat but I do a lot of polaroiding. I polaroid luderick when rock fishing. I polaroid whiting, bream and flathead on the flats and I polaroid trout in rivers. I’ve even polaroided tuna, golden trevally and cobia when boat fishing. Having them on the sounder and seeing them under the boat or out to the side is the greatest thrill in fish finding I reckon. Sight casting them with lures or flies is the ultimate in my fishing world.

Some forms of fishing and finding fish involve berley that is used to attract the fish to you. If you’re a lure or fly angler, berley is probably considered a sin but it is very effective if you baitfish. Berley will often get fish feeding and even when there is no natural food source available. It’s not really a fish finding technique but it will bring fish to an area and get them feeding. I’m a dead keen fly and lure fisho but I do use berley now and then. We chase snapper using pilchard cubes in a trail and fish whole pillies back to them. I kick a bit of sea lettuce in when chasing luderick from the rocks – even if I’m fly fishing with weed flies. I’ve even been known to berley up carp and mullet with bread and fish bread flies.

One thing I’ve learned over the years is to be hesitant to leave fish once you have found them. I see it quite often in Hervey Bay where anglers spend hours searching for golden trevally, cobia and longtail tuna and finally find them schooled up and feeding. They don’t mark the spot with a waypoint and drift off them. They stop getting eats and assume the fish have either moved on or stopped feeding. They go searching again without realising the fish and bait are still where they were originally. If you find fish and it goes quiet start searching the immediate area with your sounder until you find them again. Unless a tide phase or relocated bait school has put them down, they will probably still be in the general area and probably feeding. These days I make very sure they’ve moved or stopped feeding before I go searching again.

Some days it can take hours before you eventually find fish and hook one. There can be a lot of looking, searching and casting involved before you finally mark the quarry and cast to it. Don’t waste all of that valuable information by forgetting it and not learning from it. Mark the location and give it a name. There is no guarantee that it will produce fish the next day or even in a month’s time but it gives you a starting point next trip to look at. It should also give you an idea of the type of terrain, depth and bottom structure that you caught fish on.

Many years ago, I used to document all of that information in a comprehensive fishing diary. Weather, tide, moon, water temperature, etc. I’ve still got that diary but a lot of it is for fishing that I don’t do a lot of anymore. It was invaluable and helped me and a few mates work out beach mulloway, drummer and estuary flathead. It took several years of documentation to work out a pattern and make our results predictable but it was certainly worthwhile. When I got married and had kids I struggled to get out fishing each week let alone document it all and the diary was put away. Now that I’m semi-retired, I’ve started a new diary that will store all of that information on trips, locations and conditions.

Not everyone has the time or inclination to run and organise a fishing diary. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea and that’s fine. A diary can work against you at times I’ve found. When you tabulate a heap of information on catching fish it can lead you to believe that you won’t catch fish on a certain moon or tide phase or that a rising barometer is not conducive to catching a certain species. Sometimes it’s just worth going fishing and finding out for yourself. We all know how fickle fish can be and trying to document when they’ll be feeding, and where, is an exercise in futility. You should however, try and remember the successful trips so that you can use that information in the future.

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