Trolling for inshore pelagics with hardbodies

A bit of stamina can be handy when tackling fish like this. Poor old Chris was out of the action for a whole hour after winning a monumental battle with this queenfish.

by Mick Underwood •

Imagine this: it’s a stunning day. The sky is cloudless, the ocean is sparkling in the sun, and you’re hooked up to a monster fish. Your knees are pressed hard against the underside of the gunnels to stop you being pulled over the side, and the 12lb spinning outfit you’re grasping in your white-knuckled hands is screaming in delight as line disappears at a breakneck pace. Then, a hundred metres out in front of you, a massive queenfish leaps well clear of the ocean’s surface, and every person on board hollers in delight. The fish then throws in a somersault and a half pike before re-entering the water, and continues its seemingly unassailable quest for freedom.

This is light tackle sportfishing at it’s finest, and it’s something that occurs multiple times a day for the guys and gals that board my boat. And you know what, you can do it too, because it’s dead easy. Over the following paragraphs I’ll explain to you the what, where, why and how of this style of fishing, so you can get out and indulge in some adrenaline-packed light tackle fun.

During the cooler months here on my home fishing grounds of the northern Whitsundays, we get to enjoy extended periods of cool and clean water. This normally combines with vast shoals of baitfish moving inshore to inhabit our local grounds. As the bait moves inshore, naturally the pelagic predators do as well. Typical combatants to be found are multiple species of tuna, mackerel, trevally and some XOS queenfish. These are all big, fast and shiny turbo-charged critters that have a never-say-die attitude, and will regularly tire out even the most seasoned of anglers.

With the exception of giant trevally, the majority of the abovementioned species are clean fighters, and as such they make perfect light tackle targets. Using light gear not only increases the fun factor but also allows a wider range of anglers to become involved, as you don’t have to be a weight lifter or footy player to be able to handle the tackle used (a bit of stamina can be handy though). And there’s the old adage ‘go light to get the bite’, which is often true.

Line

I use outfits rigged with either 12lb or 15lb braid for this kind of fishing. You can go heavier, but the heavier you go, the fewer bites you will get. I find that the main reason for this is because it affects the action of the lures. Most of the lures I use for this style of fishing were originally designed for barramundi fishing, and as such they are in the small to medium-sized bracket. When you tow these guys around on heavier line, say 30lb or more, they won’t swim as naturally as they do on lighter line, and a lot of brands won’t swim to their prescribed depth either. It’s only a small difference in the action of the lures, but it counts.

You can also go to the super light end of the scale and fish 10lb or less, and it will provide you with entertainment all day long. However, unless you intend to put the majority of your catch in the ice box or you’re specifically fishing for records, this can be an irresponsible tactic, as the mortality rate of your fish will climb through the roof. Species such as queenfish, mac tuna and longtail tuna can be nearly impossible to revive if they have been on a hook for too long.

Leader

There’s nothing too complicated here; around 2m of either 30lb or 40lb mono or fluorocarbon is fine. I like to keep the leaders of a decent length because when you get a big green fish playing up all merry hell next to the boat, it’s not always easy to remove the fish from the water as quickly as you would like. Having a long leader gives you something to hang onto to be able to steer the fish towards the landing net, lip grippers or whatever you choose to use.

Unless we are getting pack attacked by school mackerel or some other toothy critter, I don’t like to use wire in my leader set-up as the bite rate noticeably drops off. Some days though it is necessary to use a bit of wire in order to save a fortune in lost lures. On such days I like to use a short piece of mono wire (around 25-30cm) connected to the lure with a haywire twist and then to the leader with a seven-turn Albright. Try to avoid using snap swivels here because they create a bubble trail which will attract the attention of every school mackerel in the vicinity. The mackerel will attack the snap swivel instead of the lure, continually biting you off. As well as being frustrating, this can get expensive fast. Far better to double the wire back on itself and connect the leader with an Albright.

Rods and reels

I use spin reels in the 4000-5000 size range for this kind of fishing. Smaller reels don’t hold the required line capacity, and larger reels won’t balance correctly with the light graphite rods used for this application.

All of the target species for this style of fishing are legitimate line burners, so the reels that you choose to use should have a solid, reliable drag system. Inferior equipment will not stand up to the punishment dished out by these fish.

I use spin reels as opposed to overheads, mainly because of the higher gear ratios found in most spin reels. It’s a common scenario for any of the above mentioned species to turn and swim at the boat mid-fight, and you need to have the ability to get line back on the reel quickly and maintain pressure on the fish.

The rods that I choose to match to the reels are of graphite construction, of medium to fast action and around 7ft in length. You can use shorter rods, but I find that in closing stages of a fight when the fish is getting closer to the boat, a shorter rod makes is harder to dictate angles to the fish, which prolongs the fight longer than necessary. The same applies with soft actioned fibreglass rods.

It’s not hard to get someone to smile for a photo when they’re holding up fish of this calibre. Monster queenies are a great sportfish.
Golden trevally are the perfect fish for introducing novice anglers to the sport. Once a hook penetrates those big blubbery lips, it rarely falls out. This allows anglers to make a mistake or two and not lose the fish.
There are times when you can’t catch a single queenie under 1m!
It’s not often you come across turrum (gold-spot trevally), but when you do it’s always a beauty.
Here you can see predators lurking beneath the bait. The author was running a 5m and 7m diver, and both got smashed every pass. You don’t have to put your lures right where the big fish are, just run them where they’re focusing their attention.
This sounder shot depicts a solid layer of bait, undisturbed by any predatory activity. Keep searching, especially around the ends of the school, and look for areas where the bait is more dispersed.
Because of the size of the tackle used, anglers of all ages can get involved. Reef Underwood was stoked to hook and land this golden trevally all by himself.
It’s well known that tuna ignore any lure that’s bigger than the bait they’re eating, and unfortunately on this day the tuna were eating tiny whitebait. However, a couple of juvenile longtom were spotted in the mix, so a large mackerel lure to imitate the longtom was deployed, and success was instant. The lesson is to be aware of everything that’s going on, not just the obvious.
Stephen Alessi getting it on with a big golden trevally that just didn’t want to come up. The smile says it all.
These bread and butter lures get the job done every time.

Lures

My prerequisites for a lure for this style of fishing are pretty simple. The lure must be light and bright in colour, about 80-125mm in length and able to swim comfortably at up to 5 knots. I carry three trays of lures on my boat Reel Addiction. The first is full of 1-1.5m divers, the second 3-4m divers and the third, 5-8m divers.

I’m a fan of using lures produced by well-known Australian brands. Halco, Killalure, Classic Lures, Reidy’s and Lively Lures are the dominant brands that you’ll find in my lure trays. They all perform admirably and, as opposed to some imported brands, they all come straight out of the packet with good quality hardware, so no retro-fitting of hooks and split rings is required.

FINDING THE FISH

There’s no rocket science involved here – find the bait shoals first and the predators won’t be too far away. If the bait is sitting high in the water column then they’re fairly easy to find. Any flickering, shimmering or birds working will give the show away straight away.

Unfortunately, I’ve haven’t seen much surface activity recently and so have had to work harder and use a little more nous to find the bait. Your sounder is your best friend here, and life is lot easier if you have the transducer set up correctly so that you can sound while you’re on the plane in order to save time.

I don’t waste time looking for the bait in areas where there is any form of structure on the bottom. The baitfish don’t like to hang on these areas as they know that they will be open to predation from any fish living in the reef or rubble. The poor little buggers have got enough to contend with trying to survive against the pelagics, let alone adding reef fish into the equation.

I instead search for the bait in open water where there is a featureless sea floor. Initially this process can take a bit of time, but once you know your own backyard and have an idea where the regular bait haunts are, it will become easier.

Once you have located a nice school of bait, the next step is to find out where the predatory action is. The pelagics typically don’t feed all over a school of bait, rather they work together and feed on just one small portion of it. Most of the bait shoals that I’ve been working lately are 1-2nm in length so they’re quite large, and the predatory activity is normally at only one tiny part of each shoal.

Areas where your sounder is showing a solid layer of densely-packed bait are generally not the go. Search around the fringes and on the ends of any school, and look for areas where the bait is more dispersed and spread right through the water column and the big fish won’t be too far away. When the baitfish aren’t packed tightly together it’s because they either have been attacked by the pelagic brigade, or are still being attacked.

Righto, the hard work is done: you’ve found where the big boys are and now it’s time to get them on a hook.

TECHNIQUE

Lure selection and how to use them. Here at Hydeaway Bay on my local grounds I typically find all the bait action in 12m of water or less, which allows the effective use of hardbodied lures. If I happen to find the fish any deeper, I keep the hardbodies stowed away and bust out some jigs or use my downrigger.

When selecting which depth of lures to put out the back, study your sounder screen first and look at what level of the water column the predatory fish are sitting at in relation to where the bait fish are sitting. It is not important to run your lures at the same depth that the bigger fish are sounding at. You have to set the lures at the depth where the fish are focusing their attention. If say the bigger fish are sounding at five metres and the bait is sounding huddled near the bottom at ten metres then the predatory fish will be looking downwards towards their prey. Putting out a couple of three metre divers will normally be out of the game as that is not where the fish are concentrating their attention. In this situation put out a couple of seven to eight metre divers and they’ll get smashed all day long. The rule applies in reverse, if the predatory fish are sitting under the bait then select lures that will swim above them.

When selecting which colours to use don’t get too stressed. These fish are turned on, active and ready to eat, so long as you put the lure where they’re focusing their attention then it will get eaten. I don’t have any favourite colours, I simply select the lightest and brightest ones in the tray.

Lure distance from the boat is not critical either as long as you keep them far enough back so that they can swim correctly at their prescribed depths. I normally run two lures at a time and stagger the distances of the two lures to prevent them becoming fouled with each other when making tight turns. If I’m running lures that swim at different depths then I make the deeper of the two the close lure for the same reason, to prevent them becoming fouled when making turns.

Troll speed is not of major importance either (this really is simple fishing) as long as you’re going quick enough to get the lures down to their appropriate depth. If I could point out a sweet spot, between 4-4.5 knots is ideal.

TRY IT YOURSELF

There you go, that’s the ins and outs of a simple and highly effective form of sportfishing. As long as you’re on the fish, it will provide hours of non-stop, action-packed fun for you and all your crew. Although I have discussed my experiences in the Whitsundays, what has been said applies to all of us who fish along the Queensland coast. Wherever you are along this expansive coastline of ours, at some point you’ll get to enjoy fishing around shoals of bait, whatever they may be. And you can bet next week’s wages that if the bait is there, the pelagics will be too. Make the most of it and claim your fair share of the booty that’s on offer!