Nothing beats time and experience when it comes to successfully targeting gamefish. Fisho’s DAVID GREEN has spent a lifetime on the water and offers the following expert tips to help improve your results out on the big blue ocean.
WHEN I was a kid catching bream and leatherjackets from a jetty I dreamed of a time when I’d get out to sea and chase marlin, mackerel and all the other big fish that lived in the wide blue ocean. Over the years I’ve been fortunate to live that dream. From early apprenticeships in small tinnies chasing black marlin to now regularly fishing wide of the shelf targeting big blue marlin, it's been a great ride. I’ve been able to watch the ocean in all its moods, and in more than 35 years at sea in a wide range of boats I’ve observed a lot of fish behaviour. The ocean can be a hard book to read, and the clues can be tiny and discreet messages. However, if you’re observant, these messages, or signs, will often lead you to fish. Over the ensuing pages are 10 tips I’ve picked up over the years. These snippets of info have helped me get better at catching the big predators of the open ocean. With the warm blue currents of summer upon us, now is the best time of the year for you to start hunting the big blue ocean for the fish of your dreams.
(1) Bait Is The Key
Gamefish are apex predators and as such are at the top end of the food chain. There are always fewer predators than prey species and popular game species such as tuna, billfish and wahoo are dependent on a constant food source.
All gamefish have a very high metabolic rate and need a lot of fuel. In the open ocean there are often wide voids of nothingness and thus the fish need to maximise their energy intake in areas of plenty. This is the reason a blue marlin will demolish your lure. The fact is, that fish will have a go at eating every creature it encounters. Anything that will fit in its mouth is on the menu. This can range from flying fish to a 10 kilo tuna or even a toadfish. The message here is that you can't afford to ignore even a seemingly insignificant flick of a baitfish on the surface. Bait is like an iceberg – for every fish on the surface there are often thousands below. The art of finding bait can at times be tricky, especially when there are few birds. A good sounder is an essential tool, but you will only see what is directly below you. The scanning eye that picks up a small flash in a swell, a different kind of rippling of the surface or a small oil patch in a rough sea will lead you to find bait. Tiny little clues can lead to big fish.
In general terms, get in the mindset of finding the bait as your most important priority. Always track over to any small clues, even if from a distance they seem totally insignificant. I’ve caught marlin by following a single small flying fish. No bait is too small.
(2) Troll With The Sea
Ocean swells provide a free ride for travelling gamefish, and any sea will have a dominant swell direction. It takes a lot less energy for a big fish to swim in the same direction as the sea, and in summer off my local coastline in south-east Queensland it's common to see marlin “tailing” in an afternoon northerly sea breeze, cruising the swells using minimal energy. As this is the main direction of travel, it’s much easier for a fish to chase a lure or bait trolled with the sea rather than against it.
While it’s generally impossible to spend all day trolling with the sea, maximise the time your boat is travelling in the same direction as the swell. In summer this may mean heading north in the morning when it’s calm and trolling home when the sea breeze picks up in the afternoon with the sea behind you. Regardless of the species you’re targeting, you generally get twice the hits trolling with the sea than you do trolling into it.
(3) Never Leave Fish To Find Fish
An oldie but a goodie. If you crack a decent bite, find a bait school and then find that things go quiet, don’t leave unless you’ve got a really good reason to. Most of the open ocean is actually devoid of life, and I’ve learnt the lesson over many years that leaving a good bait school to try and find another often fails. Stick with the one you’ve found and work it hard. Track it on your GPS, work around it, probably up to a kilometre or so away, but don’t leave for bluer pastures. If you’re lure trolling and not much is happening, troll dead baits or catch some livies. Vary your methods, not your spots. Be patient, work out when your next tide change is and hang in there.
Fishing a decent bait school is the best card in the pack. Random trolling in search of some unknown dream spot is the least effective method of all.
(4) Learn About Birds
Birds that live on the open ocean are the best clues you have when it comes to finding fish. They all use different methods to find baitfish, and some use incredible ingenuity. Even more incredible is the fact that some fish use birds to help them find their prey. There is an ancient Japanese method where a white handmade imitation bird is attached to a long pole by a couple of metres of cord. While one hunter is poised with a harpoon, the other person works the bird in constant figure eights over the water. In time this attracts the attention of predators, usually Spanish mackerel, that investigate the circling bird and can be speared.
Shearwaters, aka mutton birds, locate fish by sensing the fish oils in the surface layers. This is how they can locate schools of slimy mackerel that are 20 fathoms below the surface. Some species, such as frigate birds, scan the ocean from a great height looking for travelling predators like marlin that then lead them to the baitfish. If you see a frigate bird (they have a very distinctive silhouette) there is a very good chance there is a marlin or shark directly underneath it. Gannets are extremely capable animals that can dive well below the surface and catch their own bait and generally indicate schools of pilchards or slimy mackerel. There is a lot to learn about birds and it isn’t always simple. If all the birds are flying in the same direction then that is the way you should head. Despite the best sounders and GPS, we actually know bugger all about finding baitfish when compared to birds
(5) Current Lines Are Highways
When swirling masses of current intersect, they create compressive forces between the water bodies that create lift and force the two bodies of water to form a series of tiny back eddies that collect debris. In summer these collect dead algae and plankton that is often incorrectly referred to as “coral spawn”. These current lines create a food chain and also often have a distinct temperature and colour change between the two bodies of water. They make a great place to troll along, particularly for dolphin fish and marlin. The actual biomass in a current line can be huge and trolling along the edge of debris is a time proven method of catching a wide range of pelagic gamefish.
(6) Record Your Clues!
GPS has made gamefishing a lot easier, but a lot of anglers fail to record those small clues that, when you put them all together, add up to give you a lot of useful information. Most GPS units come with “event marks” as well as dedicated waypoints. This is your white board on which you can put a lot of seemingly insignificant events, from a circling bird to a flying fish, into a recorded form. By constantly adding little snippets of information you’ll often find you start to mark out productive areas where fish often return to day after day. I find, even when trolling a relatively lifeless piece of water, that the spots you got a “blind” strike on often produce more bites in the future. Sometimes these spots mark an unknown eddy in a current or there is a big bait school somewhere in the vicinity that you haven’t yet found. Regardless of exactly what it is, repeatedly plotting small events shows you the areas that mark productive patches of ocean. Similarly, migrating fish often track down distinct contour lines and repeated mapping can show you where these depth contours are (the 46m contour off the Gold Coast has been very fertile in summer for me). The more notes you keep, the better results you'll have in the future.
(7) Troll Over Reefs
If you’re trolling but can’t find bait or fish make sure you track your troll over patches of reef rather than bare sand. There's a lot more life over reefy bottom and this often results in a lot of pelagic activity in summer.
Sometimes you will find patches of deep bait on reefs and at times a lot of pelagic species feed close to the bottom. In addition, high reef causes upwellings when current runs over it which pushes food into the surface layers. We catch a lot of marlin in summer trolling over the same spots we catch snapper in the winter. Try to avoid trolling between spots where you spend too much time over sand.
(8) Use Radios Carefully!
Radios transmit and receive. Some of the best skippers listen to everything but talk little, and if you leave your VHF on scan you can often tap in on useful conversations, although it must be said that a lot of radio babble is unreliable. Some guys start rabbiting on as soon as a ratchet clicks, blabbing to all and sundry about the billfish they’ve hooked or dropped. Often these billfish turn out to be 3kg striped tuna. Despite this, you will, if you listen carefully, get a few clues as to the depth where the strikes are coming from or the general area of activity.
(9) Moving Bites
Most gamefish, especially billfish, dollies and wahoo, ride the summer currents. At this time of year the East Australian Current runs from the Great Barrier Reef down to the NSW South Coast at a speed of up to three knots. If, in your local waters, there was a hot bite to the north of you, you will often find in a few days that the fish activity has moved south. It often pays to calculate the next likely hot spot down the coast where the fish will find bait as the current pushes them south. So if the bite last weekend was 10kms to the north of you, next weekend it will likely be 10kms south. Always consider this when planning your trips.
(10) Patience Is A Virtue
Gamefishing is all about converting opportunities into fish. It’s common to spend 12 hours trolling for marlin without a sniff. It’s a game of persistence and self belief based on experience, preparation and careful thought. Be prepared for many fishless hours, they are just opportunities to plan better and think.