Inshore Pelagics

Peter Morse rounds up Australia’s pocket rockets

Pelagic fish are defined as wanderers, fish without borders, and they swim the open waters of the world’s seas — the largest single habitat on the planet. But that’s not to say that pelagic fish don’t come inshore, and its not to say that some of them don’t inhabit structure for a time as well. Pelagic fish swim wherever the food takes them. Following the coastline on their migrations, they feed along the rocks, beaches, and enter the bays, estuaries and harbours herding schools of baitfish. The timing of their migrations is influenced almost entirely by ocean currents. The salmon run of south-west Western Australia is just about the most predictable: most years you can write ‘Easter off Perth’ on the calendar and be pretty safe, but then in some years, when the warm Leeuwin current pushes south, the salmon fail to appear. Some pelagics travel vast distances, with tropical species being found a long way south in those years when the warm currents oblige, and conversely salmon can be found far north of their normal range when big southerlies drive cold water up the coast. Some pelagics such as kingfish don’t wander far, have a wide tolerance of water temperatures, and tend to be more associated with structure. So, as with most things in fly fishing, any statements about distribution can be qualified by ‘it depends.’ With a few minor adjustments we can catch small pelagics on our everyday fly tackle. Not all are serious line burners, in fact many are lightweights and clean fighters — some anglers even pursue smaller ‘pocket rockets’ with 2 and 3 weights just for fun. They might run a long way, but there’s little urgency in stopping them — the fly line will usually do that. Modern GSP backings make a huge difference to a reel’s capacity, though the smaller the reel the more cranking you’ll have to do. One thing you can be certain of, is that these fish are going to make that reel spin, so a counterbalanced spool is critical. If I were buying a rod for a range of inshore pelagics it would probably be an #8, with a large-arbor reel capable of holding 200 metres of 30 lb backing, counterbalanced and fully anodised, with an excellent drag and a rim control. THE LINEUP Starting in the south, salmon (kahawai in New Zealand) are by a margin the most significant, widespread and prolific species. They’re found from the coastal waters of Perth right around the southern coastline and Tasmania to as far north as the Gold Coast in some years. The east and west coast populations are different species with the west coast fish growing far larger. Tailor are not as common or as large as they once were, but their ferocity makes them second to none for getting a bend in your rod. On most of these fish your standard trout gear is going to be adequate most of the time. Yellowtail kingfish grow much larger, fight much harder, and they fight dirty, but are not as common on the surface. They also carry a lot more status points. Small kings can be silly and manageable, but once they hit that 60–70 cm mark, the smarts seem to go up considerably and your trout gear is definitely going to be found wanting. In summer, bonito and frigate mackerel can be found a long way south of the tropics, as can mackerel tuna, longtail tuna and spotted mackerel, and at times even striped tuna come inshore. On the west coast, shark mackerel come a long way south to Rottnest Island, but salmon don’t often travel far north of Perth. In the tropics, in terms of availability, mac tuna, longtails, and queenfish are the most frequently encountered of the surface-breaking pelagics. At times trevally species and mackerel — especially spotted, school, and shark mackerel — are seen in surface bust-ups too. TALKING TACTICS Despite the diversity of species available around the continent, some things remain consistent. Tactically you have to get your fly in front of the fish, and you’re probably going to be dealing with wind. With experience you can identify the species before you get to them, but invariably they’re moving fast. As in so many forms of fly fishing, reading body language and feeding pattern will determine the type and size of fly, how to present it, and how to retrieve it. Slow sipping fish are invariably feeding on very small baitfish, or down south, even on krill. You have all the time in the world to get a fly in front of them, but of course at slow speed they have time to detect fakes and the bait is invariably minute. At the other extreme are scattered breaking individuals, feeding at pace. They’re usually targeting larger, fast-moving baitfish — flying fish and garfish come to mind. Getting a fly in front of them is really tough. Sometimes blind casting over a feeding area is a better tactic, especially when using a Crease Fly. Learning how to double strip, with the rod tucked under the arm, is an essential skill to get the fly moving as fast as possible. Then you can get huge mix ups of species, especially when the bait has been in an area for some time. In Sydney Harbour we’ve encountered tailor, salmon, kingfish, bonito and frigate tuna all on one patch of bait. So expect anything to happen in and around baitfish, and if it’s not working be prepared to change whatever you’re doing — going smaller with the fly applies as much to this fishing as any other. One of the keys is hitting the hot spot with your fly. When a school of predators drives bait to the surface there’s initially a concentrated frenzy, creating a densely packed ‘frothy’, like the head on a beer. These are invariably mac tuna; they round the bait up, push it to the surface and attack. This frenzy is brief and we’re usually too far away to take advantage of it. By the time we arrive the bait has broken up into smaller patches and the predators follow suit, cleaning up. This is when the hot spots of activity appear, and we need to hit these quickly and accurately with our flies. The ability to pick up and re-present the fly with one cast is second only to being able to cast far and accurately. For this reason I’ve switched from full intermediate lines in recent years to intermediate-tipped floating lines and even full floaters. Sydney Harbour guide Justin Duggan put me on to this tactic. These lines also let us fish surface flies. Spotted mackerel and school mackerel often cruise just under the surface and leave a wake. They can feed hard, with their slashing splashes visible from a long way off, or they can cruise and just subtly sip bait with swirls. Their teeth usually demand a wire bite-tippet. Fine single strand wire is okay, but keep it short — no more than 5 cm — but you’ll still get fish shying away. A hard fluorocarbon bite tippet in 30 lb will get you a lot more bites but you’ll also get bitten off. I’ve landed six spotties in a row on one fly and then lost the next six flies. Apart from becoming a better caster, leader construction can play a big part in getting that straight turnover, and it’s why I always fish a tapered leader, even on pelagics. If I were fishing an #8 line I’d be using a metre of 40 lb butt section, followed by 50 cm of 30 lb, 50 cm of 20 lb, and a metre of 15 lb tippet. This should unroll fully, and when the fly lands you’ll be tight to it. (See FL#79 for more thoughts on leaders.) Without question, Surf Candies are the best flies for almost all of this light pelagic fishing. They’re durable, remarkably natural looking, easy to cast, and can be made in a wide range of sizes and colours. Favourites are tan and olive over white as these so closely imitate the bait in general. Small Clousers are effective, and for surface action Crease Flies have no peer in my view as they present a small face to the air and are relatively easy to cast on lighter rods. MORE SUBTLETIES As they sometimes feed together, a tightly packed bunch of mac tuna can have a few larger longtails circling the school, picking up bait at the edges. Look for their big black backs in the sun and you can sight-cast to individual fish. This in my view is as good as pelagic fishing can possibly get. Another subtlety is the importance of being tight to the fly the moment it touches down — you don’t want to have to strip even a metre of slack out of the line to get the fly moving. An exception to the rule would be the small tropical mackerel, which will often be feeding on sinking, damaged baitfish. If you get follows and refusals try fishing the fly dead, sinking it into the hot spot. Boat positioning is critical. Whatever you do, don’t drive into the school. Approach quietly. There’s a fine line between being too slow or too fast and noisy, and if possible approach from the upwind side. Turn the boat broadside on — the driver should let the caster know which side the fish will be on. Only have as much line stripped off the reel as you can cast, or the rest will give you grief. Cast to the edges — fly lines can spook these fish — and never cast at an angle where the boat’s momentum negates your retrieve. Regardless of where you live, from southern Tasmania to Darwin, this diverse selection of mostly smaller inshore pelagic species forms the backbone of Australian saltwater fly fishing. As well as being widely available, and just a whole heap of fun, they also provide an experience pathway to bigger fish. For many they remain a lifelong target, providing localised seasonal opportunities to get their knuckles whacked and backing wet. With very few changes to tackle you too can score some line burns on your fingers.

Current FlyLife Subscribers can login to read the full article.
To access this article, back issues & more Subscribe to FlyLife today.