Planning a tinny mission

When the sun is setting and the ocean turns to butter, where would you rather be then out on the tinny?

by Michael Tropiano •

Despite the sore back, the endless salt spray to the face and the lack of hi-tech sounders and chart plotters, I still love taking the tinny out for a run. Of course, we all love the luxury and added offshore potential of a big solid boat, but I have to admit it’s hard to beat the feeling of landing a couple of solid fish from a little tin can of a boat. I’m not sure if this makes me a bad person or not, but the feeling is even more sweet when the boat parked next to you at the filleting station is worth more than 10x yours, but both know who had the better day on the water!

Bashing around in the tinny is something everyone should do at some stage, as it’s like the training school for boat fishing. When you are fishing from a small boat so close to the water you quickly learn the importance of reading and understanding what is happening with the ocean. Whether it’s interpreting what the ocean will be like on any given weather forecast, or working out how to catch quality bottom fish without a sounder, the tinny quickly hones your senses and allows you to develop the offshore skills, preparation and planning that is required to become a boat fishing guru.

After spending last year working in the Kimberley driving tinnies through some of the most rugged uncharted waters in the country, I am now based in Exmouth and my love for tinny missions has never been stronger. We all know that Exmouth has some unbelievable fishing, but one of the things that makes it so awesome to me is just how accessible this fishing is.

The massive Cape Range and the mega structure of the reef itself means that no matter the weather, there is pretty much always somewhere protected to fish. If the wind is cranking from the east, then the crystal clear waters of Ningaloo Reef are beautifully protected and spangos, mackies and maybe a few tasty red things in the deeper water could be on the cards. Then when the wind turns west, the unexplored mangrove forests and reefy ledges of Exmouth Gulf are sheltered from the weather and it’s time to chase bluebone, coral trout and maybe some big queenies.

To get into all this action, all you need is a tinny. I’m going share with you how a couple of recent tinny missions off my new home town in Exmouth went to hopefully inspire you to dust off the old tinny sitting out the back and remind you how fishing in it is just like getting your P plates when you finish school!

First mission breakdown

For my first tinny mission upon moving here, we had gotten the day off work on a stunning blue day, and there was no wind or swell. It was an easy decision to tow the tinny out to the west side and head out behind the reef! While the inshore areas around Exmouth offer great protection from the weather, to head out wide in the tinny you need to make sure you are confident you know what the weather will be doing throughout the day, have all the relevant safety gear and be sure you have a reliable boat and motor.

Depending on how decked out your tinny is, finding the right spot to fish might also require a little bit of pre-planning. While it’s common on most bigger trailer boats these days to have some pretty expensive echo sounders and chart plotters with all the reefs marked out, the tinny we had on this day had neither. If your tinny at home doesn’t have the latest and greatest on this front, by no means does this mean you won’t catch fish, it just means you will have to do a little bit of homework and come prepared.

If you are fishing a new location, do as much scouting as you can, and maybe even have a chat to the local tackle store owner for any tips on broad areas that are worth investigating. A quick look on Google Maps can give you a really great overview of any shallow water structure that might be present. It also gives you a really good look at the shape of the coastline. If there is a clear headland or change in the shape of the coastline it is likely to influence the way ocean currents flow through the area, which can concentrate food. Whether fishing for pelagic or bottom fish, this is a great starting point.

Once you have done this broad planning, you will know the general area of where the fish are likely to be. Then it’s a matter of downloading a charts app on your phone, such as Navionics, and this is a must for tinny missions. If you are planning to fish a bit deeper this will give you all the major lumps and reef systems. If you find some good structure in the area you have identified with your planning, then you are well on your way to catching some good fish.

I had done all of the above steps and from this had identified a little lump off the corner of the back of the reef that I thought would hold Spanish mackerel.

After a bit of a steam we got close to where we had identified the lump and noticed a bit of a colour change in the water, indicating shallower water. We had found our structure! Out went the lures and it was after about 20 minutes of exploring that we got our first strike. The reel made the noise only the run of a mackerel could make. A little tow in the tinny and soon we had our first solid fish in the boat. Don’t you love it when a plan comes together?

Rods, surfboards and a few mates... now to find the fish.
The biggest fish in the ocean, a whaleshark, swam past under the boat on a tinny mission out behind the reef.
You don't need a big boat to get good fish, as this spango was in 2m of water.
Careful planning went into Ross’s first mackerel, which was trolled up exploring a new lump.
Success from an awesome exploration day in the gulf!
This shot from the sky clearly shows how the reef twists and winds down the coast, and the tricky part is deciding where to start looking for fish?
Having a good boat dog can make the experience even better. Here is Mitch Randall with his best mate.
Cam lifts a shark mackerel into the boat that he fluked on his second cast.

A bit more trolling for no success and my buddy and I soon lost patience and decided to chuck a mask on, roll over the side and have a look if anything was happening underwater. Immediately a couple of grey reef sharks came up to say g’day. These guys are never too far away from their food source, so we were pretty sure there would be some more fish in the area.

Shortly after a nice mackerel cruised past in the distance, which confirmed there were more good fish to be had at this spot. I could see some larger reef fish cruising around on the bottom and decided to attempt a deeper dive to see what they were, and if it was worth dropping some jigs!

After breathing up I took one last big breath and descended into the blue. As I normally do on a deeper dive, I had my eyes closed for the initial stages and when I decided to open them half way down I was met by a wall of black! The immediate reaction of course was shock and my heart started racing, but as my eyes came into focus it was quickly overtaken by awe.

There about 1m from me was the most beautiful fish I have ever seen, a sailfish, with its sail fully extended and lit up with rich stormy blacks and purples. Being one of the top predators on the reef it had no fear at all of me as it looked me in the eye and tried to work out what I was. They are one of the fastest fish in the ocean and an animal I had always dreamed of swimming with. It circled me twice and eventually lost interest, dropped its sail and faded back into the blue. That moment was one of my favourite ocean experiences of all time, and it was from a day out in the tinny. Oh and to top the day off, on the way back in we stumbled across the biggest fish in the ocean, a whale shark. We turned the motor off and this massive animal cruised right under us. Truly unbelievable!

A change of pace

The second tinnie mission was very different. It was another day off, but this time we had a 2m swell and westerly winds. These conditions are normally disappointing, as it means a day on land, but this is not an issue in Exmouth. The tinny was towed to the marina and we headed out to explore the gulf where the wind was still offshore.

Admittedly, on this day the wind was still a nuisance, however we pushed on and crossed our fingers for some action. Despite the importance of planning I highlighted above, on this day we had no real plan in mind except to head in the direction of a little patch of reef a local had told us about.

We powered through the chop and eventually arrived in the area. The initial plan was to have a bit of a drift to work out what was around, and as I began rigging up, my mate decided to throw around a stickbait. With no surface action evident and no massive structure to suggest a stickbait was a valid option, his only real reason to throw it around was that it was still rigged up from chasing bait schools on the west side the week earlier! Despite this, he got lucky and claimed it to be skill. A couple casts in and his reel was singing with a solid fish, and in only 5m of water, the guesses as to what he had hooked were flying around the boat, but it ended up being a shark mackerel and was the first fish in the esky. Not as highly rated by many as the Spanish, they definitely can have a strong shark smell, but if bled and iced, the flesh is great and made a massive feast of crumbed fish tacos that night.

His next 30 or so casts weren’t quite as successful, and he soon realized how lucky he had got and changed to a bottom set up. In that time I had managed a nice spango, but the bite was slow and it didn’t take too much encouragement from my buddy to convince me again to see what was happening under the water. The ground was fantastic, with nice long ledges and coral, however, not as many fish as we’d hoped. There were some beautiful bluebone cruising around, however we weren’t really set up to target them, although I made note to come back with the right gear to try tackle some soon.

We did, however, manage to snag three beautiful tropical crays, which immediately made the swim worthwhile. Back in the boat we putted a bit further down the patch of reef and after a bit more exploring we spotted our first bit of real action, a couple of birds that were definitely interested in something in the water. Out went the metal slice, and I was winding in as fast as my little 2500 reel could handle.

I was stopped in my tracks by a fish that immediately turned and peeled off a heap of line. I saw the strike and it was something big and silver, a good start. The first aerobatics quickly gave it away, a beautiful big queenfish. Queenies are a fish I think is very underrated as a food fish, and is superb as ceviche. It also fries up really well and holds together beautifully, so is also a favourite of mine for curries.

They were thick for about five minutes, and in this time we hooked and lost a few more, keeping just the one for dinner. My experience with queenies has told me that while they quickly move while they are feeding, if you put in a bit of time to relocate the school they are normally still feeding, and often just moving very fast. With the wind building and a long back breaking steam back to the ramp, we decided we were pretty happy with our day at this stage, called it and headed home.

Get your tinnies out!

I know this is a very specific couple of trips, but hopefully it reminds you of all the little things you had to think about in your early days of tinny missions that made you the fishing guru you are today. If you are just starting out with your tinny, hopefully this gives you a bit of guidance on how to plan an ultimate tinny day. I also hope it gets you onto some of the best ocean experiences of your life, just like it did for me recently.

Stay safe and see you out on the water!

To find me on Instagram, search @tropi_the_local.