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Pelagic Tragic!

IT’S easy to see why pelagic species are such popular sportfish. All that muscle and explosive power enables them to hit hard, run long and occasionally destroy your best attempts at capturing them – all the makings of great sportfishing action. That’s why there’s nothing I enjoy more than targeting these piscatorial powerhouses in shallow water, sight fishing using high speed luring methods.

Hours of adrenaline fuelled effort, kilometres of coast, hundreds of lures and thousands of metres of line have been consumed by myself and a few like-minded mates in the pursuit of pelagics such as Spanish mackerel, longtail tuna, kingfish and cobia. Only a “pelagic tragic” fully understands why we go to such lengths to target these fish – the breathtaking strikes and mind-blowing fights make all the blood, sweat and beers worthwhile.

When targeting these prime sportfish it’s vital to be prepared to adopt a variety of different fishing applications. This means plenty of gear! Like most keen fishermen I own a lot of tackle. Well-maintained tackle means more fishing time and thus more fish (in a perfect world). Terminal tackle including wire traces, leader material, hooks, swivels, split and solid rings should be of premium quality and high strength, as fish like Spaniards and longtails will expose any weak links in your fishing arsenal.

There’s no question that being mobile pays dividends when you’re chasing pelagics. This applies equally to land based or boat based situations. Tuna and mackerel are constantly moving, travelling long distances to feed on shifting bait schools or to move with changing ocean currents. While they are known to frequent areas at certain times of the year, the presence of fish at known hotspots depends on conditions such as water temperature, visibility and available food. Surface explosions and hovering birds are key signs to pelagic activity, thus watching the water can be the most important part of successfully locating and landing pelagic speedsters. Needless to say, quality polarised sunglasses are a necessity when spending long hours on the water.

Spanish mackerel
Once prolific as far south as Barries Bay on NSW’s Mid North Coast, the Spaniard is generally regarded as a Queensland, Top End and West Australian species these days; but the past few seasons have proved Spaniards are still a viable target on Northern NSW’s inshore waters.

It’s no surprise that Spanish mackerel have remained one of the most exciting inshore prospects for genuine pelagic tragics. With lightning speed and ferocious feeding instincts, Spaniards are a prized catch and represent one of the trophy inshore sportfishing and land based game targets.

Locating Spanish mackerel can be quite difficult and it seems sometimes they’re out to elude you. Dawn is without a doubt one of the best times to find feeding Spaniards. Trolling chin-weighted or downrigged whole baits like slimy mackerel and bonito and lures such as Halco Laser Pros and Classic Lures Bluewater F-18s around bait balls and isolated patches of reef is a great way to get a bite from one of these toothy predators. Generally 30cm of seven-strand wire from 50-90lb is used when trolling baits and lures and is preferred over single strand wire because of its flexibility, which enables more swimming action. Short on stamina, Spaniards expel most of their energy on the first run, which generally produces a drag-burning scream from the reel you just have to hear to believe. Medium spinning outfits will knock over most Spaniards and also enable you to easily cast metal lures and retrieve them from the depths, which is an exciting and effective way of catching Spanish on lures. Similarly, drifting flies with a sinking fly line deep in the water column and stripping back to the surface is great way to hook up on fly, but be careful! I once came close to breaking a Sage 12wt fly rod (along with my left hand!) when a solid Spaniard hit the fly so hard the fly line became wrapped around my hand and clean snapped my 40lb fluorocarbon tippet!

Longtail tuna
With a less impressive dental display to mackerel, this inshore tuna species offers great light to medium tackle sportfishing opportunities topped off by sizzling speed and a mind-blowing power to weight ratio. Longtails, or northern bluefin, have long had a cult following from both fly fishermen and land-based anglers. Stalking bait schools in large bays during the day and covering large expanses of water in little time, longtail have evolved into powerful and enigmatic predators. Preferring warm clear waters, they are quite reliant on suitable conditions, however, I’ve seen them tearing up and porpoising through large schools of baitfish in brown floodwater.

Close to the coast, garfish are generally harassed by longtails from the north of NSW as far down as the Central Coast. In the right conditions and water temperature, large schools of these slender and flighty baitfish are the prime attraction for travelling longtails, and are easily imitated via pencil poppers, surface stick baits and metal lures. Quite often you’ll catch other exciting sportfish such as mackerel tuna, trevally and queenfish casting into these busting schools of gar.

Quality high speed spinning outfits with a line capacity of at least 300m of 20lb line will maximise the fighting capabilities of longtails in shallow water. At times while surfing, diving and fishing around northern NSW I’ve been completely surrounded by longtail tuna in feeding frenzies. This proved to me that they’re definitely not afraid of water under 2m of depth, and that there are more than just a handful of locations that produce these inshore gamefish. Whether land based or boat based, take the time to explore different locations, instead of following the crowds. There’s a lot of coastline that still remains fairly untouched and who knows – you might just come across your very own “Spot X”!

Kings & cobes
Kingfish and their darker look-a-likes, cobia, are not as fussy as macks and longtails when it comes to ideal conditions. I’ve caught kings in 17 degrees of water on the Central Coast and at Fitzroy Island in the Coral Sea in 23 degrees – at the same time of year.

Kings and cobes lurk around inshore reefs and patrol heavy structure in water of various temperatures and quality. Medium school sized kingfish of around 5-10kg make excellent sport on lighter tackle. The land based locations I fish make targeting them possible on the 10kg overhead spin gear I usually use for longtail and Spaniards, which is considered dangerously light for most kingie locations. Most dedicated kingfish spinmen who sling big poppers and surface lures opt for heavy threadline gear in the 24kg (PE6-8) range, depending on the size of fish and surrounding underwater terrain. At the other end of the spectrum, probing the depths with jigs is a great way to catch these fish, but be warned, big kings make short work of feeble gear. In deep water, conventional stand-up tackle and threadline jig rods and reels need to be of high quality if consistently targeting these fish on high-speed vertical jigs.

Most king battles are packed full of punch and are generally short and sweet. Some people prefer to go hell for leather and apply as much pressure on the fish as possible while others prefer a softer approach. After witnessing both fighting styles, I can honestly say there’s no defined winner as each fish is as different. I generally match my drag pressure to the terrain I’m fishing: that is, heavy in rough structure and lighter in safer, more sandy terrain.

Cobia are not as predictably bottombound as kings and are manageable on lighter line classes. They also make a great fly fishing and spin target; either sight casting with Raiders or bibbed and bibless minnows or fly fishing deep with a sinking weight forward and suitable fly pattern to match the bait source. However, make no mistake, cobia are as unpredictable as our current Australian cricket team. Every cobe has acquired its own fighting habits:some cruise along the surface and remain fairly calm while others will scream along the bottom the entire fight.

Cobia can also be very frustrating feeders. I remember on one occasion being caught out attracting a cobia on fly of around 7-8kg to the boat. The cobia would circle the fly and almost nudge it with its head before sharply turning and fading to the depths. I spent about an hour trying to hook this fish as it followed my best attempts time after time. I tried changing fly patterns and dropping my tippet to lighter fluorocarbon, all to no avail. My fishing partner also tried almost every lure we could find. Needless to say we lost interest and reluctantly gave up. This is rare behaviour for cobia, which are renowned for being opportunistic feeders and eating almost anything in the ocean; but at the end of the day if they’re not hungry enough they won’t eat. Having said that, if you prefer bait fishing, livebaits such as squid and slimy mackerel are rarely refused. Generally, heavier leader is required for cobia and kings as opposed to mackerel and tuna, from 40lb up to 100lb depending on the structure and size of fish you’re targeting.

Focusing on this style of fishing is a great way to learn about several factors in the marine environment. Targeting pelagics in their natural environment leads to a greater understanding of not only the effects of the ocean currents, wind and swell but of the importance of these magnificent sportfish.

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