I GREW up fishing the lakes and estuaries of the NSW Mid-North Coast. There were amazing times as a kid with family and friends catching bream, whiting and flathead as well as the odd jewfish in lakes and estuaries.
While many lake and estuary anglers are content with this style of easily accessible fishing, many want more. Some dream of the huge tuna and billfish found in distant waters. Unfortunately, this is something some recreational fishos will never experience due to the size of their boat or the price of a charter or fuel bill.
There is a solution… Longtail tuna are exciting to catch and accessible to almost anyone if you live north of Sydney on the East Coast. Unlike their yellowfin cousins, they’re not found out wide. They patrol the beaches, headlands and even far into lakes and estuaries when in season. Longtail fishing is accessible for anyone, regardless of the size of your boat. The fuel bills and gear used can be very modest and you can be home within minutes after experiencing the fight of your life. They’re amazing fun to catch and pull like a freight train. The power of these fish will leave you with sore arms and shoulders and a memory you won’t forget.
This article provides the “who, what, where and how” of longtail tuna fishing.
The “why” to target them is pretty simple? They are awesome fun and it’s not hard to see why some estuary anglers get itchy feet with the promise of screaming runs and stretched arms.
Longtail tuna are a pelagic fish that hunt in packs. The larger the size of the fish, the smaller the pack they travel in. Generally, once they get up around that 25kg mark they tend to cruise around in groups of 5 or 6 patrolling the beaches and headlands. They are a travelling fish that are always moving and will do a lot of kilometres per day destroying bait schools in their path. They are a hungry and extremely fast growing fish that follow the warm water currents down the East Coast of Australia. Depending on where you live, will obviously depend on when they show up in your area. For me on the Mid Coast of NSW they tend to show up in late March and will hang around until June. Generally Late April/May is the prime time for me around the Newcastle Port Stephens area. The further north you live in NSW or Queensland they will show up earlier. Getting some local knowledge or keeping an eye on social media is a good indication if they have shown up in your area. When there is one, there are always plenty more. Fishing headlands, close inshore islands, or even tips of breakwalls is the ideal place to find longtails when in season. Usually around that time of the year the light westerly winds start to blow. This makes fishing off the stones a lot easier. In a boat, it means you can generally take very small boats offshore and tuck right in against the headlands and anchor up even in very shallow water. The back end of the boat will face the open ocean and this is ideal. Longtails also enter estuaries and harbours and find their way several kilometres from the ocean right up into the far reaches of the systems. It’s definitely a sight for old Gary and Barbara when they are on the sandbank in their 10 foot tinnie catching winter whiting when a school of 30kg tuna start busting up around them!
Longtail can be caught all throughout the day but I have had most success in the first hour or two from sunrise. The added advantage of this is that you might have some quality fish in the hutch and you can either head home happy or try another form of fishing as the day has just begun. Another bonus of fishing this early morning time period is that there is generally no wind. It makes baitfish easier to catch and sight through the water a lot easier. If you come from a background of fishing in lakes and estuaries for bread and butter fish, the thrill from wrangling a huge longtail and see it gliding through the top of the water is an awesome sight. I can still remember one fish a friend Robbie PK hooked on a beautiful morning as it surged through the water right next to the rocks in the crystal clear water. It was cruising in and out of the water like a dolphin only metres from us after taking the live bait. He yelled at me “Get the Gaff”. About 45 minutes later I got the gaff…
Alternatively late afternoon and dusk times fish arguably fish just as well in the areas mentioned. Often I’ll head out after work. It can be dead and quiet when the sun’s up but then the glory hour arrives just before dark. That period can turn it on and can be frequent to hook up several times for that two hour period before dark whilst enjoying an icy beverage.
There are several proven ways to catch longtail tuna. Dependent on the area, some may prove to be more popular than others. The technique that I generally try is anchoring or using an electric motor and tucking right in close to a headland or even inside the estuary if they have been spotted. Remember that these fish hunt in packs patrolling the coastline. I will anchor the boat as close to the rocks as possible that’s safe and comfortable depending on the conditions. If you don’t have a boat, no worries, you can do this from the rocks, but make sure you have a lifejacket. Generally, the best spots will hold bait. As soon as you get to your destination, berley up and as soon as you get a slimey or yakka, pin it through the shoulders and send it out the back of the boat on a float or balloon. It is a bit tricky as the baitfish do have a mind of their own, but if you can have them 30 – 40 metres out the back of the boat that is ideal. I find that the bigger the slimy or yakka, the better. They are stronger and generally swim away from the boat a lot easier and are more visible to a longtail. Once you have got your floats or balloons where you want them, just sit back and wait. As longtail hunt in packs, you may wait for a while for a bite, but often when they come through, both rods will go at the same time and mayhem unleashes. The added bonus to this technique is that you are anchored and not using fuel and once the baits are set can be nice and relaxing. It’s a simple technique that can really reward not just with longtail but with several other species. By-catch can include kingfish, cobia, big snapper or even an inshore black marlin. You may also choose to have a flick on lighter gear for a snapper, tailor or squid as headlands generally hold a lot of species. Another technique is slow trolling. This time you will need to get a few slimies or yakka in the live well. This time pin them through the nose on a strong hook, kick the motor over and slow troll only just in gear. The livies will wriggle out the back and pelagics will swim up and belt them. This technique allows you to cover some area and stay on the move a little more. Another technique is what I call “The drag or drift”. This involves once again pinning the baitfish through the nose and casting out the back of the boat and letting about 40 metres of line out on nothing but a hook. Once the boat starts to move in the current or wind, the baitfish will be “dragged” along slowly by the momentum of the boat as it drifts. The great advantage of this is that it allows you to flick soft plastics for snapper on the shallow reefs or if you are up in an estuary flick for flathead etc out the front of the boat whilst your livebait is being dragged out the back. The livebait will swim along with the boat and stay alive the whole time whilst you fish for other species. If a pack of longtail swim past it won’t last long.
The final technique is stickbaiting. This is by far the most exciting, frustrating yet rewarding technique chasing longtail. Often longtail if they are in a decent pack will start to hit the surface which will be visible, especially on calm days or in the estuary. If you are in the vicinity of a bust up flicking a stickbait, plastic or metal along the topwater on lighter gear the longtail will often take the lure. It’s an amazing and rewarding sight when seeing a huge longtail stalk a stickbait and belt it in the clear topwater. The only problem with this technique is that longtail move very quickly and chasing after them in the boat can be very frustrating trying to get a lure in front of them. Often you will travel 500 metres to a bust up only to get there and see that they are busting up back in your original position. Often patience is needed to just hold in a good position and wait until they come to you. In studying their movements, especially in the estuary, you will know that they often appear in the same places dependent on tide and time of the day.
When livebaiting and fishing for longtail the most important factor to remember, which many people find out the hard way, is to have a reel which holds enough line. The runs of the fish are very long and powerful and can leave you spooled before you know it. I choose to use 500 yards of Platypus Platinum braid loaded onto the Okuma Azores reel and Okuma Pressure Point 8’3″ PE 4.0-6.0 rod. This rod allows you to flick stickbaits a real distance and is a great sporting outfit when livebaiting. I have never had any issues with this gear and have given it a good flogging over the years. They are well balanced outfits that give you an excellent cast and the grunt you require close to the wash. Leader is very important when fishing for longtail. Too light and your no chance, too heavy and they won’t play ball. The platypus stealth FC Flurocarbon 50lb is ideal. Use about two metres of leader to your hook when livebaiting or tied directly to your stickbait. Stickbaits from FishInc are excellent. I have used them all and have an excellent action. It’s hard to say which will work best as it just depends on what entices the fish on the day.
Safety and Ideal Conditions
Safety first. Always. Fishing near headlands in small boats (or any boat for that matter) can be dangerous, but when an angler chooses ideal conditions, there is very limited risk and epic fishing and great fun can be had. As a rule of thumb however I never go near the headland areas when the swell is at two metres or more or when particular winds are heavy depending on the location. In choosing an ideal fishing location there should never be breaking waves. Often the swells will surge up the rocks but breaking waves shows the swell is too big or the location is to shallow, so avoid these areas for safety concerns. It is hard to say what winds or swell size are appropriate and safe because every location is different and can react differently to weather patterns.
My best advice is to get as much local knowledge as possible from talking to experienced anglers and asking their advice on what winds and swells suits particular spots. Once out there in a new spot for the first few times sit 100 metres off the spot and just watch. If the swell starts to peak or looks like breaking avoid these areas. Once you have watched the wash zone for over 20 minutes and are satisfied that it is safe then you can go in for a closer inspection. Keeping an eye on your sounder that you’re in at least 8 metres of water. Often you can tuck right into headlands and be completely safe. This just takes time to learn and know the spots you are fishing first.