Happy Hour: GT Popping Mayhem

Chasing big GTs on poppers is right up there as one of the ultimate sportfishing experiences. JIM HARNWELL reports on a recent expedition to New Caledonia, one of the world’s premier GT locations.

FEW fish attack surface lures with the same ballistic aggression as an angry giant trevally. The spectacular smash and grab tactics employed by these reef-dwelling tropical sportfish go a long way towards explaining why this particular species is regarded with such awe by die-hard popper fanatics. GTs take no prisoners, give no quarter and will do you over big-time if your gear or angling skills aren’t up to scratch. They are the ultimate no compromise fish.

For many anglers, the unique challenges offered by GTs make them an iconic target.  Seeing the hole left in the water after a big trevally inhales a popper, and then feeling the sheer power and strength of the fish as it screams off towards its coral-encrusted home, is one of the defining experiences in modern sportfishing.

Another factor that makes GTs such an appealing target species is the fact that fishing for them is an active, even energetic, affair. Compared to a fairly static activity like trolling for marlin or tuna, casting big poppers, bloopers and stickbaits for GTs around coral reef is hard work. But the burn and ache in your shoulders and arms is well worth it at the first sight of a massive bow wave that rises up behind your lure and then turns into a surface explosion that seems to tear the ocean apart.  

A number of locations around Australia are known for producing consistent big GT action. Probably the best known is the Coral Sea, east of the North Queensland coast. The coral cays and bommies that dot this pristine reef system hold some mega GTs, with Damon Olsen’s Nomad Sportfishing Charters operation being an ideal way to experience some of the world’s best tropical sportfishing. Olsen and his crew have caught GTs in excess of 60 kilos – truly massive fish – and regularly catch & release multiple fish between 20 and 40 kilos.

Queensland’s Shoalwater Bay is another noted big GT hangout, and is again serviced by the Nomad operation.

Over to the west, the Pilbara region of WA, along with the extensive Ningaloo Reef system near Exmouth, holds plenty of whopper trevally. The fish here congregate around offshore reef systems but can also be encountered on the flats between the reefs, meaning there is potential for some amazing shallow water action.

Big GTs can be encountered all around the northern coastline, ambushing lures meant for other species on offshore reefs and rock bars and even up in creeks where anglers fishing for barra can get a nasty surprise. Take it from me, you know about it when a 20kg GT whacks your Bomber or Scorpion in a metre of water.

Creeks aside, the real action for GTs takes place in blue water around coral reef. New Caledonia, located just two flying hours out of Sydney, boasts plenty of both. This tropical island, which comes under French rule, is surrounded by a ribbon of reef which creates an encircling lagoon. I fished New Cal a few years back with a group of locals who were looking at establishing a guiding operation. We travelled to the very northern tip of the island to fish flats for bonefish, but had a couple of memorable encounters with GTs. One involved a sizable fish smashing a Clouser I’d cast into a channel for bones – it pulled me inside out on my 8wt for 30 minutes before it got eaten by a big shark which was patrolling the edge of the flat. The other fish was a monster which ate a stickbait I cast into a coral bommie. It smashed me up in seconds.

In the ensuing years I saw plenty of images of big trevally coming out of New Cal and talked to anglers who’d had some blinder trips. When the chance came up to head over there to specifically target GTs on poppers I had no hesitation in accepting. My buddy Riley Tolmay, who works for Evinrude, was heading over to do a photo shoot with Fabrice Faure, from Almarine, the distributor of E-TEC outboards in New Cal. Myself and Fisho staff photographer Shane Chalker would come along to help out with the photo shoot and spend a couple of days chasing GTs. Sounded like a good plan, which was upset only by a case of food poisoning that left me delirious and bed-bound for the first day’s fishing. Shane managed to latch onto a solid 40kg fish on that first day, with Riley and the French guys also catching and releasing some decent trevally. I recovered enough to fish the next day, which was lucky because we enjoyed an intense bout of GT action that I will remember for a long time.

We were fishing with Cedric and Oliver Daulee, a couple of locals who are obsessive GT specialists. They had all the gear – Stellas and Saltigas spooled with 100lb braid, Fisherman GT popping rods, highly refined terminal systems and a bevy of poppers, including a range of high-end Japanese models plus a nifty home-made one constructed, believe it or not, out of a Red Bull can.

We’d be fishing out of Oliver’s boat, an Aussie-made Tournament 1900 centre console fitted with a 150hp Evinrude. Australian boats are very popular in New Cal – I spotted several Quinnies plus numerous Tournaments and other well-known alloy and fibreglass brands during my quick trip.

Significant delays meant we didn’t leave the capital Noumea until midday. We headed north and were on the water by early afternoon and well into the swing of casting big poppers around coral bommies not long after that. Cedric and Oliver had only slightly better English than my French. However, fishing is a universal language and it’s amazing how much info you can share by saying not much at all.

As often happens, things were quite slow initially. The location was amazing – I’ve rarely seen such fishy looking water. We were only a couple of hours north of Noumea, yet there was no one in sight, only endless miles of reef, lagoon, flats, bommies and drop-offs.

A variety of cod, coral trout and emperor species inhabit the many bommies littering the island’s crystal clear lagoon. On my previous trip to New Cal I spent a fun couple of hours casting small plastics at the bommies on light tackle, hooking up continually on solid red-throat emperor. I did the same during the photo shoot out of Noumea the following day, catching the same species. According to Fabrice, these fish are very common throughout New Cal. The fact that I easily caught one on a plastic less than five minutes from one of Noumea’s main ramps indicates the overall health of the fishery. Riley had caught a big coral trout the previous day, and I hooked a couple of decent ones on my GT gear. If you downsized the poppers, and maybe deployed a few five and seven-inch plastics, I reckon you’d get eaten out of the boat by trout and cod.

However, Cedric and Oliver weren’t fussed about chasing any species other than GTs. Despite the lack of surface action, the boys kept plugging away, casting their monster poppers, and muttering continuously about the imminent arrival of “happy hour”. Shane and I found it hard to concentrate on the GTs, however, as large Spanish mackerel kept leaping out of the water all around us. Some of these fish looked to be around the 20 kilo mark. But the boys just weren’t interested – they had GTs on their minds.

Well, happy, or “appy” as Oliver and Cedric pronounced it, hour eventually arrived. We started hooking up on a few small GTs and all of a sudden a switch was flicked and the water was alive with huge fish. I’ve rarely seen such sustained surface mayhem. I caught three 25-30 kilo GTs in the space of three casts and both Cedric and Oliver were constantly hooked up on rampaging fish. The surface smashes and boils as the crazed trevally chased down our lures were amazing. Shane was snapping away like a madman, capturing many of the great images you see over these pages. Anywhere you cast around the boat resulted in a big GT chasing down your lure and smashing it in a welter of spray. Many of the takes failed to hook up – a common scenario when surface fishing – and even the missed strikes sent up fountains of white water and left great boiling holes in the water. When a GT found the hooks, it left a huge swirl on the water and then the rod would load up, the drag would howl and you’d be dragged to the gunwales.

I weigh 95kg and one of the fish I hooked pulled me from one side of the boat to the other, I kid you not. Amazing fishing action, which I’ll keep stored on my mental database of memorable bluewater action.

GT gear
When it comes to GT gear, it’s obvious that you need purpose-designed tackle in order to effectively battle it out with fish of this class. High-end Shimano and Daiwa threadline reels, teamed with specialist popping rods and heavy braid, are used by serious GT men like Cedric and Oliver. Although language barriers made it hard to communicate, both French guys explained that they considered it a waste of time to use less specialised gear.

I used one of the new Ryobi Carnelian reels, a mid-priced threadline with a similar drag capacity to that of more upmarket products. Loaded with 80lb braid, and with a DIY twisted leader of 100lb fluorocarbon, I found the reel performed faultlessly, even with the drag cranked up. I teamed the Ryobi with one of Riley’s custom Samurai popping rods. Rated to 100lb, this rod was most definitely a dragon slayer yet was easy to cast and not as brutal as some other specialist GT sticks I’ve used. In my view, there’s no point going excessively heavy with your tackle. As you can probably see from the images, Oliver is a very fit young fella. He trains in a gym to specifically build up his arms and shoulders so he can popper fish all day and really put the wood to big GTs. I could feel my muscles and sinews really starting to stretch when I applied pressure – probably about 10-12 kilos – to a couple of my fish. I doubt I could have fished much harder and thus the really serious GT gear that’s available would be wasted on a relative weakling like me. Also, I think there is a maximum amount of pressure you can put on a fish before hooks pull. I often hear people talking about putting 25 or 30 kilos of drag on a fish – I seriously doubt that’s possible, at least if you’re not in a game chair. Even if you could physically handle that much drag, it seems unlikely that a fish’s jaw could. Regardless, the New Cal GTs pulled as hard as GTs anywhere in the world and would certainly give any serious sportfisherman a good run for his money.

While Cedric and Oliver preferred their Japanese and Malaysian poppers, I stuck with the trusty Halco Roosta. These Aussie-made poppers create a massive bloop and bubble trail and are nowhere near as hard to work as some of the OS lures. I find my back and shoulders give out fairly quickly if I’m using a less efficient popper but I have no problems putting in serious casting and popping time with the easy-to-use Roosta. The French guys were concerned that the standard terminals on the Halco wouldn’t last the distance – if I were going to be spending more time specifically targeting really big GTs I’d probably upgrade all my terminals to Owner and Shogun hooks and rings.

Even with the strongest terminals, the GTs sometimes proved just too tough. A pic on page 17 shows Cedric with a mangled popper. This had been connected to two big GTs at the same time and the torsional forces applied by the fish proved too much. The terminals on this lure were rated at 200lbs and the fish simply tore them apart. This gives you an idea of just how brutally strong GTs are … Another popper that was used with great success was the Sebile Splasher 152 – Shane used this weird looking surface lure to catch his 40kg fish and Riley also caught several GTs and a big trout on it. The Sebile cast well and boasted a great splashy action. Moreover, it comes standard with tough Owner terminals. Take a look at the “tackle shop” section at for more info on these innovative lures.

Almost as soon as it started, our GT “happy hour” was over. Whatever had switched the fish on had stopped and the trevally returned to their reefy hangouts, no doubt biding their time to unleash their fury on whatever hapless baitfish – or poppers – came their way.

We had to thread our way through the reef in the semi-dark, arriving back at the ramp in the pitch black. The drive back to Noumea was punctuated by excited chatter in a mix of French and English as we recounted the action and recalled particularly spectacular strikes and hook-ups. There’s something special about catching fish on the surface – the image of the strike – whether it hooks up or misses – remains burnt into your mind. Those massive New Caledonian GTs will certainly live long in my memory. If you get the chance, book yourself a trip with one of the outfitters listed opposite and experience one of sportfishing’s truly great locations.

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