How to

When the name of the game is Mr Big

The story below was originally published in The Australian Angler (Fishing World) VOL. 2, No. 3, 1971.

THE high speed spinning craze has enjoyed phenomenal growth in the past two years along the central eastern coast of Australia, attracting fishermen like a magnet. Far from being the expert’s field of operation it had been considered in the past, the high speed game attracted all sorts of anglers including junior and senior newcomers with very limited experience at any kind of rock fishing. That statement, by the way, is not offered as a criticism – merely an observation.

I may be wrong the next time won’t be the first time but it seems to me that the basic attraction the sport holds for most anglers is the lure of the BIG fish.

All things are relative, and to the man who has been catching half pound whiting and one pound bream, a 17 lb. mackerel tuna or a 20 lb. yellowfin is going to be big. But these don’t seem to be the kind of fish that are putting stars into the eyes of the new wave of spinmen-they are talking in terms of fish from thirty up, even if they are not “catching” too many fish of this size.

If the name of the game is “super fish”, then in my opinion most people are going about it the wrong way. I consider spinning to be one of the most enjoyable and exciting forms of fishing I have ever tried. The tackle used is a lot of fun to fish with, and with fish up to 30 pounds or so, one of the most sport­ing forms of fishing I know. But I just don’t think it’s the best way to take truly big fish. 

Let’s consider what these big fish are likely to be. In the geographical sphere considered by this article, the tunas will be yellowfin and northern bluefin. There are some huge king­fish right along the coast, and in the northern quarter spanish mackerel must be considered. When more in­terest is shown way down south we may get to hear of some spin men getting wired to some of those big southern blues, but this is still to come. The southern blues wander­ing into the most active spinning regions are mostly under the 20 lb. mark. The only other fish to con­sider is the marlin, and they have to be considered after so many spin men came to grips with· them in early 1971 when the marlin ‘plague’ hit the New South Wales coast. 

In other parts of the country big trevally will come into the picture, but these are pretty rare in the regions where the majority of spin­ning is being done at the moment. 

All of these fish have been the prime quarry of gamefishermen for a long, long time, and it’s inter­esting to have a look at the situation on the game scene. With the excep­tion of marlin and mackerel, which are trolled for, the other species arc fished with live baits. Even in areas where considerable catches of larger than average fish are made, com­paratively few large specimens are taken by trolling – although the areas are trolled. The standard bait is yellowtail, but more big fish are taken on larger baits such as nanny­gai or snapper. 

It should be mentioned here that bait fishing is also a most productive method of fishing for both marlin and mackerel, and it might be difficult to establish the relative effectiveness of either method. The whole point of all this is that the marlin and mackerel are generally regarded as being surface fish, whilst the larger tunas and kingfish seem to be found working well beneath the surface. 

Consider then a tuna of some 50 pounds working his way along the coast, perhaps 30 to 40 feet beneath the surface. As he ap­proaches the rocks where the spin men are working, what are the chances of a lure passing within his line of vision in a total depth of, say, 100 feet of water? If it does pass somewhere within his range of detection, what are the chances of his busting a crank case to wind up, get after it, and catch it before it comes too close to the rocks? 

Compare that situation with an­other where a live bait, preferably a large one, is struggling like the dickens on the end of a 9 /0 bait hook, sending vibrations out in all directions like an amplified dinner bell. When the big fish does sense it, he has all the time in the world to casually move over, see an easy meal of real live fish, and take it at his leisure. 

To my mind there’s no compari­son. The smaller fish tend to move in much larger concentrations than the larger fish, and also seem to move closer to the surface as a rule. They are lively, and actively com­peting for every morsel of food they get. A lure placed anywhere in the water when the school is about stands a good chance of being seen, and once seen, an excellent chance of being hit by one of a dozen eager takers. 

The live bait also has a tremend­ous advantage in terms of actual productive fishing time in the water. As long as it is in the water it is fishing-and that’s all the time. A lure on the other hand spends some­thing like two-thirds of its total time in the fresh air, and perhaps 50 per cent of its productive fishing time in areas where it is least likely to be seen by a large fish.

For my money, the chances of hooking up the big fellow on live bait are at least ten times as good as on the spinner. 

The next consideration is tackle. Spinning tackle is primarily design­ed to cast a lure. The sticks are long and comparatively soft, and the reels are light with line loads limited by the necessity to minimise spool momentum in casting. Three hun­dred yards of 19 lb. would be the average load, but most fishermen I have observed at work are com­mitting the grave error of fishing with reels filled to only half or two­thirds of their capacity. 

Landing big fish from the shore is a highly specialised business, and if you want to have any hope at all of coming up with anything like a reasonable percentage of success stories, you need specialised tackle and a specialised approach.

Fishing this way, considerably more luck than skill will be required to stop anything over 30 pounds. The average casting rod won’t allow anything like 25 per cent of the breaking strain of the line to be applied in terms of pressure, and that means that the fish has to be run out-which takes line capacity that just isn’t there. 

If the line capacity is there, allow­ing for the fact that the last third of the line on the spool is going to see daylight for the first time since it was wound on-what shape is it in? Are there a couple of loose coils neatly embedded down into the load to be chopped off as clean as a whistle when you get down there? Are there knots down there that haven’t been checked for a while? How about the drag? When was the last time you took it down and cleaned the washers? If it isn’t per­fect, a long run, heating the washers up will soon render it next to use­less. 

This is why most big fish hooked from the rocks are lost-the tackle simply isn’t up to the fish. And most big fish hooked from the rocks are lost by the way. Most people you meet have an endless repertoire of lost fish stories … how many have a photo album full of the proof of success? 

Landing big fish from the shore is a highly specialised business, and if you want to have any hope at all of coming up with anything like a reasonable percentage of success stories, you need specialised tackle and a specialised approach. 

I have already made my opinions clear on what I believe to be the best way to get hooked up on a large fish, so let’s take it from there and work our way back through the tackle. 

One of the major advantages at­tached to bait fishing-apart from the obvious one that it attracts more fob-is the fact that large hooks can be employed. When a big fish takes a live bait he generally takes it right in, and the 9/0 bait hook that goes in with it has an excellent chance of finding a good solid bite well back _in the mouth or throat. 

Try and think of the hook as your contact point with the fish. The hook is really the only thing that is keeping you and the fish together. If a big hook is in solid back in the mouth, then you’re in solid. If one barb of a 4/0 treble is just in the lip, as is often the case when spinning, you don’t have much hope of keeping it there for the prolonged fighting period required to land a big fish. 

Trace length should be at least 6 ft., but it is a good rule to use as much trace as is practical. A.N.S.A. allows a trace length of one and a half times the length of the rod. In my case this amounts to 15 feet, and I generally use that much. 

There’s no doubt in the world that even the big fish will baulk at heavy trace material on certain days, but for rock fishing I would suggest standardising somewhere around the 60 to 80 b/s mark. With 12 to 15 feet of trace, this means that a helper can grab that trace and hold a fish for gaffing, which is a darned sight easier than trying to get the pick into a fish bouncing around on the slack afforded by a springy rod tip. 

Unlike the trace used on a spin­ning rig, this one never needs to come back through the rod tip, so a swivel may be used to make the connection to the main line. 

The float comes next, and here comes the old question of “How far do I set my bait under the float?” I set it right at the top of my trace, because I’m darned if I can find a practical way to fish any deeper from the rocks. 

The only practical way to fish a deep bait off a float is to use a run­ning float, and I won’t use a run­ning float on a live bait. Running floats are fine when there is little or no current, backwash or wind, but when there is you are faced with the choice of standing there all day feeding slack to allow the bait to sink down, or having the pull on the bait force the float down the line and drag the bait to the surface back­wards, drowning it in the process. I like to fish at least one bait well out from the rocks, and I use the backwash to get it out there, so running floats don’t appeal to me at all.

I generally stand the rod up some­where with the reel on ratchet, drop the hooked bait into a pool to keep it fresh, and then pull some line down off the rod tip. The bait is then cast by hand far enough to get involved in the backwash, and from there on it’s just a matter of feeding line until it’s where you want it. 

Now we come to some points of contention. The first is float size, and the second the matter of leaving the reel on ratchet or strike drag. 

I don’t care to be adamant about either point, so I will just give my version and why I do things that way. I use large clumps of styrene foam for floats. I attach these to the line by using a long strip of plastic sticky tape. The end of the strip is squeezed together on the line then wound around the float a couple of times and squeezed tight on the line again above the float. This can be set at any depth and will usually loosen up and slide free along the line when the water pressure ap­plied by a running fish breaks the initial grip. 

I like the foam because, being so buoyant, it is pulled along easily by a backwash or offshore wind. It will support a lot of weight and can be easily seen considerable distances from shore. The larger the live bait, the larger the float, and you may have to go to small plastic bottles attached by a short length of fine line if you want to use blackfish, trevally, etc., for bait. Balloons are very good when the winds blow off­shore, and a lively tailor under a balloon makes a very fine bait that will stay on the go all day. 

You can stand around and hold the rod if you wish, but you can hardly expect very large fish to be as plentiful as smaller ones, so the rod is usually left set. Some rocks have fine natural holes that serve beautifully as rod holders, but I have developed the habit of carrying a couple of three-foot lengths of plas­tic pipe around with me. These sections of pipe can be jammed between rocks or into crevices, and then the rod is dropped in. 

As long as there are fishermen to leave set rods laying about there will be a dispute as to whether the rod should be left in free spool with the ratchet set to allow the fish to run, or whether it should be set with the reel in gear on a reason­ably light strike drag. 

I leave my reel in gear with the drag set right where I want it to fight. I do this for two reasons. The first is that I have seen too many fish spit a bait out when they are allowed a free run with it. I think that most of these fish gulp the bait on the run, and that’s the time to hook them by letting them run smack into a solid drag. 

The second is that it is impossible to set correct drag on a star system once a fish is under way at speed. It is so easy to apply too much drag it isn’t funny.

Let’s face it-there’s always a lot of slack in a set line, and if he hasn’t taken the bait in by the time he gets to the end of that he’s probably playing with it anyway. Jewfish are another bag of bolts altogether, but we’re not talking about jewfish, we’re talking about fish that move fast and feed on the move. 

The amount of line you will need and the size of the reel are, in a way, related directly to the scope of your ambition, but once you start throwing live baits in the sea it is only going to be a matter of time before you get the big hookup, and that’s probably the fish you want to land more than all the others put together. 

You may spend a lot of time fishing for that first big tuna, but when the reel goes off and you rush to your rod to feel the incredible power plant tearing off at the other end, you know the wait was well worth while. 

My choice is for a reel some­where around the size of a 4/0 Penn Senator. It needs to be a good reel with a very good drag system and a decent set of gears. The 4/0 size works well because it takes a lot of line, yet is still not a big enough reel to require a harness. Actually, genuine game fishing tackle would be even better still, but if you can afford game fishing tackle you prob­ably won’t be fishing off the rocks. 

To get started, line should be a minimum of 20 lb. b/s, and 30 would be even better. I have heard fellows, who are still to land a big fish from the rocks, burbling on about 12 lb. line. I think they are in for a lot of set-backs. 

I think you need at least 500 yards of line, even more if you have a reel that will take it. Not that you have much hope of landing any fish that can get 500 out, but a spool that still has plenty of dia­meter after a fish has stripped 300 is a big advantage. 

You don’t need to cast off a bait rod, so you don’t need a long rod. You can come down to a short butt that will fit into a bucket without making you reach up for the reel. You can shorten the rod and come down to something with enough power to really let you work hard on your chosen line class. You can even fit a set of roller runners. AFTCO rollers aren’t that expen­sive, and they’re a whole lot better than the dearest conventional guides money can buy for this sort of fish­ing. 

The reel seat needs to be fitted with double locking nuts, and these should screw up from below. On top of the reel they will just be working loose under your hand and annoy­ing you when you should be con­centrating. 

As far as maintenance goes, make it a rule to sharpen every hook you ever use every time you put a bait on. Your drag washers should be pulled out after every trip, soaked in thinners for a day or two to re­move every trace of oil, then re­placed when the reel is oiled, greas­ed and reassembled. Every knot in the terminal rig should be re-tied after a big fish is landed and the trace checked for damage. Extreme precautions? I don’t think so. After all, the idea is to catch the fish, not add another story to the already overcrowded reference library of lost fish, and there are no second chances at all with big fish. 

With tackle as foolproof as it can be made, there are still about nine thousand different ways the angler can goof and blow the fish. Landing a very large fish from the rocks is the most completely challenging angling experience imaginable. It requires experience, luck, and com­plete concentration. In this regard, a mate or two who prance about offering advice are best helped into the sea with the sole of a well-placed boot in the tail. 

At the beginning of this article we nominated mackerel, marlin, yellow and bluefin tuna, and king­fish as the most likely opponents. Sharks were excluded intentionally, although you have to expect a few to chew you up from time to time unless you want to go to heavy wire traces. 

Mackerel are easy. They have one heck of a tremendous run to stop, and then it’s a matter of winding them in. The run of a big mackerel is a good one though, and your tackle needs to be in good shape to take it. 

Kingfish are the tough guys. They have all the advantages, they know it; and they fight dirty as all get out. They are almost impossible to catch if they don’t want to be caught and they nearly always don’t want to be caught. They have been taken from the rocks up to 70 lb. in ‘YVeight, but as the gamefishermen say, “I guess you can always strike a sick one.” 

The first marlin is yet to be taken fmm the rocks-but it’s not im­possible. The first man to catch one will need a number of things going for him. He will need to be fishing bait to get a hook in deep that will stay put throughout the gymnastic performance. 

He will need the tremendous luck to strike a small, silly marlin that want to jump all over the sea and wear itself out. If he strikes a run­ner he’s dead – reels just don’t carry that much line. 

He will need to strike one that will fight until it can’t fight any more, but not fight enough to kill itself and go to the bottom. Most of all, he will need to be fit enough to fight for a long, long time, and ex­perienced enough to nurse his tackle and himself for that time, and not even once make a mistake. 

Considering that very few men even hook one marlin from the rocks in a lifetime of fishing, that first man will really deserve, and earn, his fish. 

This leaves us with yellowfin and northern blues, and of the big fish mentioned, these are the ones we have the best chance of hooking and landing. 

The northern blue is not gener­ally considered to be one of the big tunas; its maximum growth poten­tial being put somewhere about 50 lb. It is most commonly found in the northern latitudes, but reason­able numbers of strays seem to move down to at least the far south coast of N.S.W. Those that do make the long trip south seem to be larger fish, and quite a few in the 30 to 40 plus bracket are taken by rock fishermen each year. 

The yellowfin are the bread and butter big fish of the central eastern coast rock fishermen. Long liner records show the capture of a 265 lb. specimen, and it is believed that they probably grow considerably larger. However, yellowfin of 100 pounds or so are enough to make most gamefishermen of the region do hand stands. 

It would be hard to estimate just how many big yellowfin do travel close in along the coast each year. Considerable numbers in the 20 to 25 pound bracket are taken by spin men, but their efforts give little indication of the true big fish poten­tial.

The yellowfin is one fish that has clearly established his preference for live baits, and whilst only a handful of large fish are taken each year on troll lines, boat fishermen working the same areas with bait catch considerable quantities of big yellows. A few yellowfin over the 100 pound mark have already been taken from the rocks, but I believe that a concentrated effort with live bait may produce a sur­prising number of these big fish at certain times of year. 

You may spend a lot of time fishing for that first big tuna, but when the reel goes off and you rush to your rod to feel the incredible power plant tearing off at the other end, you know the wait was well worth while. 

A lot of big fish are lost right then and there, in the middle of that first run. The temptation to try to clamp down is almost irresistible as you watch the spool blur and the line level fall away without any apparent weakening of the fish. To try to clamp down however is to court disaster, and most of the hard luck stories come from muscle men who tried to stop that big run prematurely. 

Providing you don’t run out of line, he will slow down sooner or later. The big run will taper away, and you can try thumbing the spool, but he’ll still be moving away slow­ly and eventually you’ll have to give him the rod and let him take a few more yards. You get the rod upright again and thumb the spool, letting him load the rod all the way and then bowing to him as he keeps going and then you back off and he takes line again. 

You may keep this up for a long time as he just settles down to a steady chug, chug, chug out there, and you’ll feel each beat of the tail quite distinctly through the rod. But eventually the time will come when you hold.him. and that’s the time to get the heck away from the spool and leave it alone. 

The job now is to tum him, and you’ll have to do it through a tre­mendous amount of stretch in the line. You will find he’ll just hang out there like a great tone in the sea, and you’ll be able to lay all the way back on the rod and then bring it down again to find you haven’t gained an inch of line -you’ve just exercised the stretch in the mono. This is another point at which a fatal mistake can be made, and that is trying to wind this stretch back on to the reel under pressure. That’s one sure way to blow up the strongest spool! 

All you can do is to keep leaning back against that weight, rocking backwards and forwards with the rod loaded to the hilt (so much for the 12 pound line) and trying to apply some pressure to a fish sulk­ing anything from 200 to 400 yards away. 

Sooner or later one of two things will happen. He’ll either turn side on to you and begin a beat, back­wards and forwards across your position, or you’ll find that the great weight will give a fraction. 

When he gives it’s time to get cracking. He may be just making life a little easier for himself and taking a rest, but more than likely you’ve started to turn him, and you need to keep the pressure on. Just take whatever line you can and get the pressure back on with the rod again. Bend the line between thumb and forefinger a little to give your­self a shade more purchase over the reel drag and put it on him. Get every inch of line he gives back on that reel and keep him feeling the full weight of the rod all the time. 

With a northern blue there’s a distinct chance that you’re fighting a dying fish at this stage. You may feel like dying too, but it’s essential that you keep him moving or he’ll go to the bottom like a stone and that will be the end of that. 

These northerns put an extra­ordinary amount of effort into that first run, and will continue to lug hard against the direct pull of the line until their strength is com­pletely gone. The job is to turn his head while he’s still swimming and get him back to the rocks before he dies. 

On the other hand, yellowfin seem to pace their fight a lot better, and getting a yellow near the gaff the first time may only be round one with a lot of fighting left to be done. 

All gamefish employ their own individual fighting style, but the one rule applies to all big fish-let them go under reasonable pressure when they want to go, and put it on them just as hard as you can when they give a little. But always be ready to give way quickly when they come to life again. 

Gaffing from the rocks is always a problem, and many good fish are lost right at the end when they’re well and truly beaten. This is why I believe that more rockfishermen should adopt the gamefisherman’s practice of taking the trace in hand at gaffing. 

As long as a fish has his head down he can keep swimming. The system is to grab the 80 pound trace as soon as it comes within reach, and get the fish’s head up and immobilise him. Get the first gaff in at this stage and then a second as quickly as possible if he is to be lifted. 

I know it isn’t always possible to take a trace by hand around the rocks, but the system is a good one and should be used wherever pos­sible. When it’s not possible, then you need to. rely on a darned good gaff man, a razor sharp gaff, and some luck. 

Fishing the big fellows is very much a waiting game. Long periods may go by when they are simply not there at all, and then another time you may get .two or three major hook-ups in the one morning. 

In the first three months of this year, for example, I struck nine days when weather conditions allow­ed me to use live bait. More than half of these days were completely wasted because I was going about the business half-heartedly with ill­prepared gear. I lost a number of very big fish before I finally had a stern talk with myself and settled down in earnest. 

Catching the bait is often the major hangup. Recently I went quietly insane beside a gutter that simply teemed with yellowtail stub­bornly refusing to bite. They were perfectly happy to eat the berley, but anything with a hook in it was just not on. There is no doubt that yellowtail are easier to catch very early in the morning before the sun gets on the water. 

Whenever possible I set my live bait lines out and then move away from them to spin. This passes the time and allows me to enjoy the best of both worlds. On those occasions that I am fairly sure that the big fish are around, I leave the spin stick alone. 

That mean-eyed woman “Lady Luck” was very hard on me this year when she gave me two marlin hookups-both on spin tackle, and I wasn’t in the hunt either time. That may be my lifetime ration of marlin from the rocks, but if it isn’t, I’ll sure be in a better position to argue next time when they en­counter the bait tackle I’ve brought up by way of reinforcements.

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