by Peter Fullarton •
The Australian herring (Arripis georgianus) is more commonly called herring or ‘hezzas’ in Western Australia, and known as Tommy ruff in other states. Although they grow to a smaller size than their sportfish cousin the Australian salmon, they still have attributes of a sportfish, being an aggressive hunter that readily takes lures.
They are quite athletic for their size, putting up a good fight on correctly matched gear. They can be a challenge to land, with strong lunges and head rattling jumps as they attempt to shake free the hooks, often successfully.
They are an ideal species to teach children the technical aspects of angling, and help give them a whole lot of fun in the process. Some of the techniques needed to land a hezzas are no different to other more iconic sportfish such as barramundi. Many skilled anglers spent their youth honing their skills on the local jetty with herring.
Herring are found nearshore or in protected waters, so they are a perfect target for land-based anglers or the trailer boat community.
Whether you fish from boat, beach, pier or a rock wall, do yourself a favour and go out and buy a appropriate light outfit to chase them with. Light tackle will allow the fish to show you how much fun they can be. On light gear they will use their body side on to make it difficult to pull them in, and if they get their head around they will make lunges, pulling some string before doing some tail-walking head-shaking leaps in an attempt to throw the hooks.
A perfect outfit is a 2-4kg rated fishing rod with a soft tip and a nice little 2500 spinning reel spooled with some 2-4kg line. Herring have soft mouths and can quickly tear a hole large enough to shake the hook free. The soft tip rod makes it less likely to tear a hole and the spring in the tip helps keep the line tight during those head-shaking jumps. Line of this strength has plenty of guts to handle any herring and gives you a good battle if a larger skippy or tailor takes a bait.
A short 2m rod is perfect for fishing from boats and piers. On rock walls you will be better off with a larger 3-3.5m rod to help lift fish clear of the rocks and on a surf beach you may need to keep the line clear of the breakers.
Using berley is very important for herring fishing. The fish travel in schools, so if you can keep a school interested you should be able to catch a good number of fish. Cages and floats can be used to dispense the berley right where the bait is. Use berley sparingly once you have the herring interested, otherwise they will gorge themselves and go off the bite.
You can buy cage berley mixes in tackle stores that can have extra flavouring, like aniseed and shrimp meal. These are mixed with a little seawater to make a paste consistency that will hold in the cage. I recommend you add some fish oil in the mix as well. Alternatively you can just use a straight pollard, water and fish oil as your berley.
When fishing from a boat you can use a berley basket and hang a rag soaked in fish oil over the side. It saves having to use any berley within the rig, keeps your hands clean and gives a more direct fight with the fish. The best berley for a basket would be store-bought pellets, or you can make your own by mincing or boiling up fish frames and mixing them with some fish oil. Another alternative berley is powdered milk. It keeps the fish interested but gives them nothing to eat, so they don’t lose interest in the bait, which sometimes can happen when the fish start eating the berley. The fine powder is best applied when you have the wind behind you, so it is perfect for sitting on anchor in a boat.
Herring mainly feed mid-water, although they will take baits and lures from the surface or off the bottom, so a range of rigs will work depending on the situation. To help stop the fish throwing the hook, I recommend using a no. 2-1 circle style hook. It may look a bit big for the size of the fish, but herring do have a pretty big mouth for their size.
Herring can be very aggressive and active feeders, but at other times they can be frustratingly fussy. This is why I use a light 3kg fluorocarbon leader just in case they decide to be difficult on the day. Rigging the hook with a short length of thin lumo tube will help attract bites, and often the fish will still take the hook even after the bait is gone. Winding in slowly may help too, as often moving baits will get more bites than stationary ones.
In a boat, when the berley is in a basket, a simple swivel from the mainline to a leader of 3kg fluorocarbon direct to the hook is all you need to get amongst them. You should be able to flick the bait with a little wind assistance 4-5m away from the boat where the fish will be less timid. Just remember to give it enough slack to sink a little, before starting a slow wind of the reel. The swivel should be enough weight, however if the boat is moving around a lot in the breeze, or if there is some current, you may need to add a little split shot to get it to sink correctly. Alternatively, you can use a float to keep the bait suspended a meter from the surface.
When fishing a pier or rock wall I would use a berley float with a 1-1.5m leader to the bait or a berley cage with a shorter 50cm leader. If using a float, cast out and watch to keep the line with as little slack in it as possible to be ready when the float sinks, indicating a hook up. When using a cage, cast out and allow it to sink a meter or two and start to slowly wind in.
If beach fishing, you can use the berley float rig with offshore conditions, if there is not too much swell. With an onshore breeze or with lots of shore surge, use a paternoster style rig with a berly cage sinker. Don’t worry about the bait being near the bottom, as the herring will follow the berley down and you won’t catch any less fish than a float rig would.
Baits and lures
Herring will readily take a wide range of baits. Prawn, squid, octopus, beef or lamb heart, worms, maggots or even some fresh fish fillet is all great bait to use. Cut the bait to a size the herring can swallow easily and don’t bury the hook point within the bait. Pull it all the way through so the point is free for easy penetration. If the fish are fussy, sometimes a smaller bait and hook may get them bitting.
One classic lure that works incredibly well on herring is a 3-4cm piece of drinking straw or lumo tube cut each end at 45° and threaded down the leader so it sits over a small treble hook. Tow this about 1.2m behind a berely float.
Small soft plastic baits work very well too. The Berkley Powerbait Minnow 3” in casper clear is a favourite, and small curl tails grubs are also irresistible to herring. On different days you will find different retrieves or colours work better. Try a mix of a lift and drop, a fast flat wind or you could even get the rod in a short rolling rhythm as you wind the bait in giving a wounded baitfish look. If you are not getting many bites, mix up the colour tails you are using to see what is working best.
Sometimes they may only be grabbing the tail of the soft plastic and not engulfing the hooks. When this happens, you can’t go past a 5-10g metal lure. They find it pretty hard to avoid the small rear treble and your landing rate will dramatically increase.
Have your drag set relatively light so the herring doesn’t tear its mouth, making it easier to shake the hooks free. When one does a strong lunge it should be able to take a little line. Hold rod at right angles to the fish and low to water. This will keep a good bend in the rod to take up any slack during those head-shaking leaps and the low angle of the line will pull the herring back down to the water each leap. Don’t rush it and keep a steady pace on the fish. Tight line and keeping those jumps low right until the end of the fight are the two main things to remember.
A landing net is a good idea. Many fish are lost just as you lift them out of the water, as they shake and rattle their heads and flick themselves free. The best technique is to have the front hoop of the landing net in the water and swim the fish towards the net, scooping it up as it swims into the net. It is quite common to have skippy and other fish turn up in a berley trail intended for herring. The landing net will come in handy if you hook a larger fish by chance with the light line.
Herring have an oily flesh and a strong flavour. It makes them very good bait for some larger species like large tailor, mulloway or dhufish.
Nothing quite beats a breakfast of fresh caught herring after returning from an early morning fishing trip. Fillets can be battered, crumbed or simply tossed in some seasoned flour before cooking. The oily fillets are also popular for smoking and pickling.
I hope this encourages you to go and try your hand at catching one of the most available sportfish in the south! It really is a great way to spend a few hour, especially with the kids.