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Fishing Deep

FISHING in over 200 metres of water is fascinating. In Queensland the snapper and pearl perch fishery is closed each year from the 15th of July until the 15th of August. Prior to this closure these species were the main target for winter anglers on the offshore grounds. While there are always a lot of other options on these grounds, in recent times a lot of locals have invested in electric reels and specialised tackle to fish in depths of up to 500 metres. Each different depth contour seems to produce different species, and most of the fish we have caught have been superb eating. As well as using electric reels, some of the keener anglers have been jigging in depths of up to 300 metres with good results, but it is a very long and quite exhausting wind to the top!

To fish such depths successfully requires a powerful echo sounder, minimal current and an enquiring mind. The range of fish species that can be caught in these depths is extensive, and it seems that every trip produces a fish or two that all on board are totally unfamiliar with! I first fished really deep water many years ago using 80 pound chair outfits and a brick for a sinker. Fishing the Canyons off Tweed Heads we caught a few cod, trevalla, nannygai and a stack of small green eyed sharks. We also caught some very strange looking puffer fish. But the reward didn’t seem worth the effort. I did hook one huge fish on a whole mackerel tuna that took a lot of line before busting me off, but I suspect it was a shark.

My mate Ross McCubbin, who runs the local charter boat “Lucky Strike”, found that deep dropping was a very successful strategy during the closed snapper season. Fishing in 200 to 300 metres of water he caught plenty of bar cod, flame snapper and big nannygai for his clients. Interestingly, some fish more associated with shallower depths were also caught in 250 metres. These include yellowtail kingfish, bonito, snapper and pearl perch. Using electric reels, 2kg sinkers and a multi hook rig baited with pilchards, fish flesh and squid produced plenty of fish. Different depth contours produced different species. Bar cod are one of the most popular targets in my local waters and occur largely in depths of 150 to 300 metres. These fish grow to around 30 kilos locally, but most of what we catch are in the 5 to 10 kilo range. They like deep water jigs and respond well to most baits. They fight hard on a jig for the first hundred metres or so, but generally have severe barotrauma on ascent and most of them have popped out eyes and bulging swim bladders when they reach the boat. They’ve now become one of my favourite eating fish, with delicious firm white flesh that can be cooked in a wide variety of ways. On the echo sounder they show up in small schools close to the bottom. Another similar species that is also excellent eating is the comet cod, a species that is more common the further north you go.

I recently went out on a trip on Lucky Strike with Kord Lucas who was testing some new deep dropping rods designed by Wilson Tackle. The sea conditions were perfect and we headed to a spot about 70 kilometres north east of the Gold Coast Seaway that had been previously quite productive. It was mid-week, but surprisingly there were already a few boats working the area when we arrived. Using a pair of Shimano Beastmaster electric reels on custom made deep dropping rods we were soon baited up and sending our rigs to the fish below. I hadn’t used electric reels before and it was an eye opener for me. This type of fishing was light years easier than winding up a brick on a heavy game reel from a chair! The current was running at about 2 knots, making it fishable but less than ideal. After a bit of coaching from Elliott I soon had the electric reel under control. I was quite surprised how small the baits we used were, and the hooks were heavy small 3/0 circle patterns, with a pilchard on a ganged rig at the top. The weight was around 2 kilos and was an old sash weight from old wooden window frames. This sank very quickly without spiralling and I soon hit bottom in around 250 metres. Both rods were soon getting bites but they seemed to be quite small fish. First drop produced a few ornate jobfish, a small but beautiful species commonly found in semi tropical deep water. These fish were around 700 to 800 grams and are very nice eating, but we were after bigger things. Deep dropping is like a lucky dip. On our next drop Kord caught a large nannygai, a very common fish in these depths, and my rig had a similar orange fish that was a highly prized giant squirrel fish. This species has very hard scales and a tough skin and while it looks similar to a nannygai it is armour plated with sharp scales that can cut your hands easily. They have a curiously small tail. Giant squirrel fish are a highly prized eating fish in the local Chinese community. Filleting it was like cracking a coconut! When I finally got through the skin the meat was as white as snow and when pan fried that night it was superb.

We moved a few kilometres to the south where Ross found a good showing on the sounder. My baits hit the bottom and were immediately slammed and with the rod bent over I hit the button and the reel began the long retrieve to the top. It is important to have just enough drag in place so the fish has a bit of give when it runs as this avoids pulling the hooks out. To my amazement I had a full string of bar cod around 6 to 8 kilos each. These are the ideal eating size for this species. Kord caught a couple as well as a beautiful flame snapper.

We moved around a bit and caught some more nice bar cod, nannygai and flame snapper. We lost a few good fish and soon had our bag limit of bar cod. We then started jigging in 300 metres. It’s a long way down, but we soon had quite a few hits. Surprisingly Elliott caught a big Australian bonito on the bottom in 300 metres of water. I then hooked a reasonable fish that I had under control and was making good progress with when it turned into something much bigger. I fought this fish for around 15 minutes on heavy braid and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a shark. It was fast and strong and opened up the assist hooks on the jig. A few days later Jesse Hill had a similar thing happen while using an electric reel and eventually landed a black marlin well over a hundred kilos. We persisted with the jigs for a while, but jigging in 300 metres of water in current is extremely hard work.

Flame Snapper are a fascinating species. I first caught them in Vanuatu many years ago fishing with Eric Festa, a local skipper. Using rocks as sinkers from an Alvey deck winch we caught quite a few of these beautiful tasty fish. Flame snapper are long and sleek with beautiful long tails and are a brilliant orangey red in colour. They grow to around 12 kilos in weight and are a superb table fish. They have quite a small mouth, which is why small hooks are more effective. Anglers get pretty excited when they see the tell-tale flash of orange down deep. Most of the flame snapper in my local waters are caught in 250 to 300 metres. In this area the average flame snapper is around 2 to 3 kilos in weight but fish of more than twice this size are relatively common.

We finished the day working some shallower grounds in around 150 metres but only caught smaller job fish. I learnt a lot that day and am now in the process of setting up my own deep drop outfit with an electric reel. Off the Gold Coast in even deeper water around 400 to 500 metres there are good numbers of blue eye trevalla and large bass groper. When the current drops a bit that will be our next challenge. It is important to not take more fish than you can use when deep dropping, as catch and release is not an option due to the severe pressure effects and barotrauma on the fish. It is a fascinating way to catch a feed of some of the best eating fish I’ve ever tasted, but you can end up with a lot of fish quite quickly when conditions are good. For charter boats with plenty of clients on board it ensures everyone can take home a good feed of tasty fish, but once that is achieved it is time to try something else.

The rigs used aboard Lucky Strike are quite effective. From the heavy braid a swivel connects to a leader of about 150 pound mono. In line crimps with a side swivel are crimped onto the mainline and short leaders of around 60 to 80 pound mono are tied to these swivels. Small strong in line circle hooks are snooded to these leaders, and a larger set of strong ganged hooks are at the top of the rig for attaching a whole fish bait such as a pilchard or slimy mackerel. From the bottom of the mainline a short length of breakaway mono around thirty to forty pound mono is attached to a heavy 2 kilo weight. This can be broken off in the event of snagging. This rig worked extremely well and we had no tangles despite the relatively strong current. I was really surprised at the small size of the hooks used but this is the best way Ross has found to catch flame snapper and these solid little hooks hold bigger fish very well. In deeper water chasing larger bass groper and trevalla the hook size is generally bigger and a bit more weight may be required.

Deep dropping requires a powerful sounder with at least a one kilowatt transducer. By setting it so you focus on the bottom 50 metres you can usually pick up schools of fish. There are also some great charts that map the bottom contours in great detail. Areas of interest are ridges and channels. Any structure found in deep water is worth a look. Some of the best spots have subtle rises of less than 10 metres with deeper channels running along the edges of these ridge. Large canyons and drop offs often hold large schools of fish but it can be tricky to stay along the drop off edge when the current is running hard. If you find fish, mark the spot and work around it. Some of the grounds are quite extensive and you can keep drifting for a kilometre or so. Snags can be a problem which is why it is important to have a breakaway system with lighter leader connected to the weight.

Deep dropping is becoming increasingly popular along the NSW and southern Queensland coastline. There are also plenty of commercial drop liners who work these areas chasing trevalla, gemfish, bar cod and nannygai. I follow a Facebook page called “Deep Dropping NSW” and find it to be interesting and very informative. In more southern waters trevalla, gemfish and large ling are common catches. There is a lot of interest in this relatively new frontier of recreational fishing. While this style of fishing isn’t for everyone, it is a great way to catch a fabulous feed and there is always the mystery of what will come up next! 

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