by Mick Underwood •
Upon departing the beach at Cape Gloucester Resort on charter each morning, amongst the standard rituals that I go through with my clients – apart from safety briefings – I ask everybody on board what they would like to try and catch that day. A fairly common reply is ‘I’d love to catch a coral trout for my dinner, please.’
I then normally go on to say that it’s no problem at all. I suggest we have a crack at using some light spin gear and hardbodies on them. I should take photos of the looks on people’s faces when I make that suggestion, as a lot of people look at me with expressions of startled disbelief, as if I’ve been taking too many illegal substances.
There is definitely a belief amongst reef anglers that the only way to catch a coral trout is to be anchored up with a chunk of fresh pilchard or squid dangled over the side. This is not the case at all. With my operation I do a fair bit of conventional bottom fishing, but more often than not the best quality and biggest quantities of fish come aboard on hardbody lures. My clients are constantly amazed at how effective and simple it is and, most importantly, it’s piles of fun.
Why would I bother doing this when I know I can catch a fish by normal means? The answer is pretty simple really; when you’re anchored up trying to catch a trout by conventional means, you’re only working one coral bommy or one small section of a reef system at a time. When using hardbodies by either casting or trolling you are able to work an entire system quickly and efficiently, locating any hotspots where there are concentrations of fish.
Rods for this style of fishing need to be up around the 7ft mark. They need to be of graphite construction with a medium-fast to fast action and good lifting power in the butt section. Rods rated at around 6-8kg are ideal. Soft-tip style glass rods are not ideally suited to this application.
For line, I generally only use 12-15lb good quality braid. Most of my reels have Suffix 832 and I find it to be very reliable. You might think that using such light line to target big reef fish is a little silly but it isn’t. By using the correct rod and boat handling techniques, catching trophies on a regular basis is very doable.
Every now and again I’ll go up to using 20lb tackle and every time I watch the bite rate drop off, so I revert back to using the lighter gear. The lighter the line you to use, the more natural the action will be for your chosen lure and the more bites you will get.
Leaders are best at around 2m in length and use either a hard mono or fluorocarbon material. Occasionally a good fish will brick you and by using a hard leader material with a bit of length, you stand a chance of being able to get the fish up out of the reef. I normally use leaders of 30lb in strength and sometimes come back to 20 or 25lb if it’s a tough bite.
Lure selection is pretty straightforward – keep the colours light and bright and use only lures that can be worked at pace. Lures that have a tight, fast body roll definitely help to single the coral trout out from the rest of the pack. Barramundi-style lures around the 100-125mm length are perfect for this style of fishing. Make sure you select brands or models that will swim comfortably at up to 5 knots.
Hooks and split rings need to be strong enough to handle the required pressure to keep big fish out of the prickles. Most suitable Australian-made lures come out of the box with good quality hardware and can be used straight away. Be prepared to change the hardware on some imported lures before putting them in the water.
My go-tos are all good quality Australian-made lures. You need to be able to cover variety of depths for this style of fishing, so I carry a selection of lures on board that will dive to depths varying from 1-8m+.
WHEN AND WHERE TO FISH
The next few months are ideal to get out and get familiar with this style of fishing. Over the coming months there will be a lot of trophy fish up in country so shallow it surprises a lot of people; as the water temperatures begin to drop the bigger fish generally bite their heads off, particularly on the days leading up to the full and new moons. Most years the bigger fish will bite well up until May and occasionally, as was the case last year, we’ll have big fish biting right up until the end of June.
As I’ve already said, the fish will be up in shallow water and I expect to get my fair share of 4kg+ specimens out of less than 3m of water over the next couple of months. This makes them nice and accessible to small boat anglers and in some locations along the Queensland coast, you’ll be able to cast for them straight off the mainland. The edges of top coastal fringing reefs are an ideal place to start your hunt.
You don’t have to be too stressed out about locating patches of reef that have massive bommies or a lot of structure, as a lot of the better fish will be hiding on reef flats that only have a few rocks here and there, as long as there is plenty of weed around. Finding locations that have plenty of weed is integral to this style of fishing at this time of the year, as that is where the trout will be hiding during the day.
Drifting and casting or trolling are the only two ways to attack this and they are equally effective – it just depends on what you enjoy the most. On some days if the current isn’t flowing hard or the breeze isn’t around then trolling can be more effective to cover ground and locate the fish faster. Once an area of good fish has been located you still have the option to stop trolling and start casting.
When trolling, I will normally always have two lures out the back. The lures selected on any given day will be different from each other with regards to colours, brand/model and sometimes depth. At the beginning of a session it’s important to mix things up so you can find what they want on the day. As these fish are bottom dwellers, a key factor is to select lures that will swim as close to the bottom as you dare.
You have to be prepared to donate one or two to the reef here and there. That’s one reason I use Australian-made lures – they’re cheaper than most quality imported models. It’s important to separate the distance of the lures from the boat; this will help prevent the lures becoming tangled with each other when making tight turns or if one of the lures becomes a little bit out of tune. I generally keep my close lure at around 18-20m behind the boat and the long lure at approximately 25m.
Coral trout are an aggressive predator and they will readily eat your lure underneath the prop wash. The further you set the lures out the back, the further the hook-up will be from the boat and the fish will have a better chance to get into the reef and win its freedom. When selecting lures that swim at different depths, make the deeper lure the closer one to prevent lures and lines fouling when making tight turns.
Speed is another key factor. I’ve found the ideal speed to be 4-4.5knots and this is for a few important reasons. The first is that it singles out the coral trout from the rest of the pack. Most other reef residents aren’t as aggressive as trout and simply can’t or won’t attack a lure dragged past them at that pace.
The next reason is to get an instinct bite. As with all fish, coral trout aren’t always hungry and willing to eat, but when a bright shiny lure comes shooting past their noses at pace they can’t help themselves – they simply have to eat it. It stands to reason that the faster the lure is, the more aggressive the fish has to be in order to get it and a more aggressive bite means a better hook-up.
My last reason for a bit of speed is to help keep the fish out of the reef. Once a coral trout is hooked it will get back down into the safety of the reef by any means, so when a good fish is hooked on a lure doing 4.5 knots you’re instantly pulling the fish away from the safety of its home and giving yourself half a chance. To sum things up, keep them close and tow them fast.
As we are targeting big reef fish in shallow water on light line, once a good fish is hooked-up, both good rod and boat handling techniques are vital to ensure regular success. Don’t stop the boat upon hook-up, as this will allow the fish to drop its nose and dive down into the reef. Keep driving the boat at 4 knots and keep pulling the fish’s head upwards.
The direction of pull should be angled away from any nearby structure and into open water if possible. It normally doesn’t matter if you lose line during this part of the process, so long as you’re working the fish away from the reef. It’s not a golden rule, but in general if a fish is pulling line off the reel then keep pulling the fish.
Good rod handling technique is also critical to ensuring success. During the above-mentioned process it’s not that important to remove the rod from its holder, but once it’s removed and the job of angling the fish to the boat begins, it’s important that the angler keeps maximum possible pressure on the fish; keep the tip of the rod pointed at the sky. High sticking (as it’s called) isn’t normally a good thing, but in this case it’s necessary.
This is why I like longer rods up around the 7ft mark; they allow you to create good angles to help keep the fish out of the reef. If the angler drops the rod tip then the fish will get its nose down and off into the reef it will go. Once the fight is getting close to over and the fish is somewhere under the boat, it’s time to employ lower rod angles and get the butt section of the rod working in order to muscle the fish to the boat.
DRIFTING AND CASTING
This is a good, fun and effective technique and something that I personally get a few kicks from. It’s pretty cool to stand shoulder to shoulder with a good mate on a casting deck enjoying some idle banter and pinging a few casts out over a reef flat in search of a tasty dinner.
When using this technique, a key factor is to start your drifts far upwind or up-current, whichever is stronger on the day. When casting, cast in the direction of the drift. This is for a couple of reasons: first, it’s a hell of a lot easier to cast downwind than up, and the second is once you hook a fish you already have the boat moving in the direction of the fish, which shortens the fight.
If it’s a nice breezy day, don’t be tempted to cast the lure to the horizon. Remember, the further you hook these fish up from the boat, the better the chance they have. It’s pretty easy to wind up in a situation where you’re left standing on the casting deck scratching your head thinking, ‘that just cost me $20 and I’ve still got no dinner in the esky.’
When retrieving your lure it’s not important to use a stop-start or twitchy style of retrieve. All that’s required is a constant fast retrieve. While winding the lure in, keep the rod tip nice and low and upon hook-up, whip the rod tip up high straight away to lift the fish’s head. Make sure you do whatever you can to keep that fish’s head up.
As with trolling, select a lure that will work as close to the bottom as you dare. Every now and again when you hook that monster it may be necessary to get someone on the helm straight away and start working the fish away from any structure.
In conclusion, when some basic principles are adhered to, this is an awesome way to fish. It’s very successful and the rewards are damned tasty. So go on, get out there, have some fun and have a go.