THE East Australian Current starts to run south along the NSW and Queensland coast in early summer and brings large numbers of pelagic game fish with it. At this time of year the water temperature increases to over 25 degrees and big schools of slimy mackerel and pilchards hold on many of the inshore reefs. These large bait schools attract a wide variety of predators including black and striped marlin, Wahoo in the north, dolphin fish and a variety of tuna.
Game fishing is always dictated by water temperature and prevailing currents. As the current swirls its way south along the continental shelf it creates enormous twisting eddy currents that push close inshore. If the wind is from the south east the blue water is pushed in close to the coast. If the blue water stays well offshore it can pull the inshore water north and pull colder water up from more southern areas and it is not uncommon to see cool green and relatively lifeless water on the inshore grounds in summer due to this effect. Last week I headed out and for the first 10 kilometres the water was green, dead looking and only 21 degrees. As I pushed out further I hit a raging southbound current that was blue and 26 degrees. When I was trolling baits heading north I was going backwards at over 2 knots! I’ve never done well in extremely strong current and out of the six boats fishing around me only one small marlin was caught.
Sometimes currents have a distinct edge, often marked by a brown scum line many people refer to as ‘coral spawn’. These lines mark the intersection of two moving bodies of water and often collect floating debris and small baitfish. These “corridors in the sea” are always a point of interest and are particularly good spots to chase dolphin fish and juvenile black marlin. These spots can be fished by trolling skirted lures or rigged baits. It is important to cover plenty of ground along these current lines and in general it is more productive to troll with the current behind you rather than heading into it. I generally work my lures around 50 to 100 metres wide of the current line concentrating on the warmer side. The larger the temperature break is, the more effective these spots are as the predators always seem to stay on the warmer side and stay out of the colder water.
Finding bait schools can be tricky but there are a few general rules. Bait schools turn up in the same places every season, and while they may move around a lot I always go to the spots where I have found bait on previous trip. In general bait schools are more common over reefs or gravel patches. In my local waters yellowtail tend to be close to the bottom, whereas slimy mackerel schools often hold mid water. If you do find a good school of bait, don’t leave it. Lure trolling over deep bait schools is often very ineffective when it comes to chasing marlin, as the fish are feeding at a deeper level and may not rise to the surface to chase a lure. While it is frowned upon by many, catching live baits and fishing them deep is generally the best way to get hooked up to a marlin. I fish two live baits from my outriggers with the release clips set lightly and the reel drag set just above free spool. The current in summer can make it hard to keep your bait near the bait school, so I tend to drift down current and then slowly troll the baits back to the school. If marlin are present they are pretty easy to see on the sounder as a single line hanging just off the bait school. For reasons unknown, bait schools often move towards the surface on high tide, and this is the best time to get bites. This method is also very effective on dolphin fish. In my local waters Wahoo often chop off baits rigged on mono traces and are much more effectively chased by trolling lures.
The second method, when you can’t find good aggregations of bait, is to troll skirted lures at around 7 to 9 knots. Lure trolling is an exciting way to fish and very visual, but the hook-up to strike ratio can be quite poor, particularly with striped marlin and sailfish. These species ten to play with the lure by bashing it with their bills, and getting them to eat can be frustrating. In these situations trolled baits, hookless teasers and switch baiting is generally far more effective. When switch baiting the fish is raised on a hookless teaser, often being a lure with the belly strip of a tuna sewn under the skirt, and then a live bait is fed back to the fish as the teaser is wound in. This requires an experienced crew and you need a few people on board to do it effectively.
On the inshore grounds I like lure trolling, it’s something I’ve always enjoyed. I troll a spread of five lures from my six metre boat, plus a mirrored Witch Doctor teaser. The longest lure is positioned from the rocket launcher and on light tackle I like to put a small lure in this position, around 15cm long. While I use a range of lures, the small Black Snacks Hotlips has worked very well for me in recent seasons. This small profile lure pushes a lot of water and has a great action and catches a lot of fish. I position this lure about 80 metres behind the boat. From the outriggers I use various lures according to the conditions. In smooth conditions I like the lure to have a narrow profile, and my favourite colours for the rigger lures are purple and pink, blue and silver or lumo white or green. Fish preference varies from day to day and the best lure is the one you caught your last fish on.
The two closest lures to the boat, trolled about 20 to 25 metres back, are often the most productive when it comes to marlin strikes, and I find the lure positioned behind my Witch Doctor teaser raises more marlin than any others in the spread. I use slightly bigger lures in these positions and by the use of rod holder inserts I can position these lures so they run in clean water wide of the prop wash. Darker coloured lures are often more productive in these positions. For small to medium black marlin I like to use 20cm long pushers that put out a good bubble trail making them more visible to the fish. It is not uncommon to raise a marlin on the short lures only to have it drop back and strike the outrigger lures or the shot gun lure. I’ve never seen a marlin hit one of the longer lures and come forward to eat the short lure. If that happens you usually have more than one fish in the spread.
There are a few tricks that can improve your hook-up rate on small billfish. The first important point is to use fine sharp hooks. The Gamakatsu SL12 is a great hook to use on tackle up to 10 kilo, and 15 at a stretch. Position the hook well back in the skirt. These days I generally only use one hook in my skirted lures and find that this actually improves the capture rate. Set your lures on very light drag, around 1.5 to 2 kilos. This lets the fish take some line on strike and head away from the boat. It is almost impossible to hook a marlin on a lure when it is swimming towards you. The hook usually goes in as the fish turns and runs, and ideally locks in the corner of the jaw. We use a very similar system when chasing blue marlin on heavy tackle out past the continental shelf. Use just enough drag so the hook point holds on the strike and sets when the fish turns. This is a very inexact science and despite all our best tactics and rigs it generally takes two bites to securely hook one marlin. I find my hook-up rate is much better when the sea is a bit rough, it seems to make the bites a bit more desperate!
Another useful tactic is to run one hard bodied minnow in the trolling spread, such as a Halco Laser Pro 190. Rigged with single hooks, this lure catches a surprising number of marlin, but its main advantage is that it catches wahoo well and keeps their toothy mouths away from your expensive skirts. With a pair of strong fine single hooks this lure tracks straight at 9 knots and is also a very effective lure for yellowfin tuna. Similarly, I’ve had quite a bit of success trolling a large stick bait from the shot gun position, where it almost seems to slide across the surface of the water. On inshore grounds this is a good way to catch Spanish mackerel.
Despite sometimes having the best conditions, fish can be hard to find and there can, at times, be many hours between bites. Rather than persisting in a bait free area, it is often better to wind in all the gear and head out to a deeper trolling line. Don’t get stuck in a trolling rut! Look for birds, dolphins, floating debris and the flick of bait on the surface. Change your lures if you aren’t getting bites, adjust your spread of lures and be active. Tide changes are the best times to get bites, and if you get a strike but miss it stay in that area and circle the bite spot repeatedly. Unless you really sting the fish they often come back and strike again.
While I target marlin on both heavy and light tackle, I am always keen to find a wahoo, dolphin fish or tuna for the table. These by-catch species generally respond well to the same trolling tactics we use for marlin, but there are a few little tips that can increase your by-catch. Dolphin fish have a passion for brightly coloured lures. I have an old Pakula Zipper in the ‘Blue Hawaii’ colour pattern and it draws dolphin fish to it from long distances. I’ve seen a blue neon flash zoom in on that lure from over 50 metres away and this colour of blue, silver, yellow and gold is a big winner when it comes to dolphin fish. Similar colours are effective on my bigger blue marlin lures and wide of the continental shelf we often get big dolphin fish, some well over 20 kilos.
If there are Wahoo in your area, it is important to rig the hook so it sits well back in the skirt and is rigged on a short length of wire. A school of wahoo can decimate your best lures in an instant, and more than once I’ve seen the whole five lures chopped to bits in only a few seconds. It pays not to get too emotionally attached to your favourite trolling lures in this part of the world. Wahoo tend to like lures running in clean water wide of the prop wash and they strike better at a faster trolling speed of around 10 to 12 knots. A locally made lure called a Hex Head is specifically designed for wahoo. The heavily weighted head tracks straight at high speed and wahoo love these lures. Black, red and white is the most popular local colour.
Catching fast fish such as marlin is an adrenaline rush. There’s no finer sound than a screaming drag and a leaping fish, and now is the time to chase them. Early indications show that there are good numbers of juvenile black marlin moving south at the time of writing and there have been plenty of dolphin fish about. Out wider blue marlin have been in reasonable numbers and the coming months should see some great fishing.