Not Just Trevally

Rick Stuart-Smith presents six trevally species that demand attention from fly fishers

The sun was high in a blue sky, a light breeze ruffled the surface and the flat was lit up. The visibility was so good that I could see a large crab walking along the bottom 70 metres away. A fish appeared in the distance, rapidly coming towards me and then turning side-on to grab something near the bottom — an unmistakable silhouette. I quickly started peeling out line in preparation for a long cast. I was in New Caledonia with Tim and Bones, a couple of mates who lived on my street when we were kids. A local guide had brought us to this flat and was wading slowly with them about 40 metres away from where I stood. As I was about to cast, I saw the guide say something to Bones, who immediately yelled in a condescending tone, “What are you doing? It’s just a trevally!” Okay, so the main attraction of this area is bonefish, and no one would question the sense of achievement when Tim caught his first bonefish that day — a 12 lb monster. But to scoff at a good trevally and not make a cast? I admit that I often find myself on ‘blinkered missions’, where a particular species or size of fish is sought, but trevallies are always among the priority targets when I am on the flats. As a family, the Carangids (which includes not just trevallies, but also permit, kingfish, queenfish, amberjack) have all the characteristics that make perfect fly targets: they look great, live in beautiful habitats and fishing destinations, offer sight-fishing opportunities, and can be challenging to get to take a fly, and to land. They tick most of the boxes for more species than any other family I can think of (the salmonids clearly also worth a mention in this regard). So, in an unashamedly biased manner, this article presents six trevally species that deserve a spot in your flats target list — including where and how to find them and how to distinguish them from similar species. The aim is to help build a better appreciation of the diversity within the family, and hopefully encourage you to keep your eyes peeled specifically for trevally next time you are on the flats. Silver Trevally (Pseudocaranx species) One for the temperate anglers. They may not grow as big as many of the tropical species, but they hold their own amongst the other targets in temperate coastal Australasian waters. Classic fly fishing opportunities include when they are ‘breezing’ for plankton, small fish and krill near the surface (mostly in New Zealand and sometimes in Tasmania), or when they are lurking under jetties and near structure in shallow estuaries and bays. But silver trevally are also legitimate flats targets for good polaroiders. Searching the edges of drop-offs and the sand edge with other habitats like seagrass or seaweed-covered rocks is usually best, and fishing from a boat can be a big help. There are multiple species collectively referred to as silver trevally in Australasia, including Pseudocaranx georgianus (the most common around southern Australia and NZ), P. wrighti (southern and Western Australian coasts), P. dinjerra (WA only), and one in the Tasman Sea (at Lord Howe, Norfolk and the Kermadec Islands) which remains undescribed (it is currently considered the same as the Atlantic Ocean species, P. dentex). These species differ only slightly, including in the shape of the rear margin of the upper jaw and in the relative size of the black spot on the rear of the cheek. Golden Trevally (Gnathanodon speciosus) This large species is found in tropical waters across much of the world — from the far eastern Pacific around northern Australia, and across to the Red Sea, mostly associated with continental waters (as opposed to oceanic islands and atolls) where riverine inputs result in finer sediments. It is a prime fly target and can be found in a large range of habitats. Much has been written in FlyLife about how this species can be found tailing on the sand or seagrass flats, which is clearly the prime attraction, but big schools of the black and gold juveniles can also sometimes be polaroided from shore, patrolling shallow sheltered beaches and providing easy access opportunities. The race amongst members of the school to be first to a fly put out in front can be phenomenal. This species is best identified by the rubbery lips and narrow black bands on the body (which become faded with age, and almost disappear in the largest individuals). Turrum/Gold-spotted Trevally (Carangoides fulvoguttatus) Turrum are true generalists and can be found in many habitats in a range extending from the SW Pacific and Japan across to the Red Sea. They are particularly plentiful in inshore Australian waters, along reefs and over flats. Although probably most often caught when launching into baitfish schools on the surface in slightly deeper water, turrum frequently find their way onto the flats. They often follow large stingrays or feeding golden trevally, pouncing on fish and shrimp that try to escape. They are particularly aggressive and are not usually fussy, being quick to attack any fly stripped fast. Turrum can be easily confused with a few other species. They have more ‘plastic-like’ lips than golden trevally, while the similar bludger trevally (Carangoides gymnostethus) has a narrower body shape, doesn’t have yellow spots and tends to not venture on the flats as much. The orange-spotted trevally (Carangoides bajad) can also look quite similar but is not common in Australia and not as often encountered by fly fishers. Turrum frequently form mixed schools with goldens and/or bludgers. Another useful feature for distinguishing members of the genus Carangoides, such as the turrum, from the Caranx species (including those below) is that they usually don’t have the obvious row of sharp raised scutes along the side of the body towards the tail. Giant Trevally (Caranx ignobilis) Peter Morse wrote about trevallies in FlyLife #28 and referred to them as an ugly family of boys raised on the wrong side of the tracks. I suppose if you think brutish behaviour is ugly, then you would probably classify the GT as the ‘ugliest’ trevally. Flats fishing for GTs is the ultimate challenge, and if you haven’t yet seen a really big GT on the flats, you should probably be a little smarter in planning your next holiday. The outer atolls of the Seychelles and Christmas Island (Kiribati) are renowned for GTs on the flats, but there are also plenty of opportunities in places like New Caledonia, the Cook Islands, French Polynesia and even parts of the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea. If you are exploring new water, studying Google Earth always helps find good flats with deep drop-offs close by. GTs particularly like eating fusiliers, which tend to hang around bommies and points in strong currents (with lots of plankton), and mullet, which like shallow basins with slightly deeper ‘pot holes’ to shelter in at low tide. So looking for flats with a deep channel on one side and one of these features on the other is a good place to start. Brassy Trevally (Caranx papuensis) Easily confused with GTs, brassies are probably the most-often misidentified of all the trevallies encountered by ang-lers. Like golden trevally, this species is usually associated with continental areas rather than oceanic islands and atolls. It is particularly abundant around wrecks and reefs in the Gulf of Carpentaria and along the NT and northern WA coastlines. In QLD, NT and WA, this species is far more common than GTs around inshore reefs and river mouths, while GTs dominate along the outer reefs of the GBR or ‘cleaner’ reefs like Ningaloo. Although they differ slightly from GTs in body shape (longer) when large, they are very similar when smaller — the best way to distinguish the two is the white edges of the lower lobe of the tail and anal fin on brassies. Like many of the species in this article, brassies can turn jet black in an instant. If you see a shark on the flat and notice something slightly different about its shadow (like having a strong shadow on the dorsal fin, or a ‘shadow’ on the sunny side), cast! Brassies, GTs and turrum often follow big sharks up onto the flats and turn black to help them hide in the shadow. It is almost surreal to see part of the shadow detach from the shark as soon as your fly hits the water and become a silver shape engulfing your fly within a split second! Bluefin Trevally (Caranx melampygus) It is a scientific fact that the bluefin trevally is the most beautiful fish in the sea (and by extension, the most beautiful animal on the planet). It is extremely widespread, across the entire Indo-Pacific and Red Sea, but is solely found around oceanic atolls and offshore reefs and islands, rather than coastal areas of continents with large rivers. It is very easily confused with Carangoides orthogrammus (thicklip, or blue trevally; which is found in coastal waters), but can be distinguished by the row of dark, sharp scutes (as noted above). Bluefin trevally are common around coral bommies and outer edges of coral reefs, but the most exciting fly fishing is on the flats. The key to finding them is working along the outer edges of lagoon flats, where channels in wave-washed coral platforms allow bluefin to enter and leave the lagoon. Be prepared to lose your fly or line if fishing for big ones, as they know where to go once hooked. Sometimes it seems impossible to strip the fly fast enough to get a take, but cruisers on the flats will often take a small bonefish fly twitched slowly on the bottom. The memory will be etched into your mind forever if you see the glowing iridescent blue tail of a 10–20 lb bluefin break through the surface as it tilts to suck your fly off the bottom, and it will be followed by a rooster tail of water coming off a bright blue dorsal fin as it takes off almost as quickly as a bonefish. This article didn’t cover many worthy trevallies found on the flats, nor other members of the family that are not strictly trevallies, but which also prowl the flats and take flies. But spotting and catching any one of those featured in these pages will hopefully be enough to make you think twice before saying, “It’s just a trevally.” Like Bones, who had to eat his words when a big brassy flew past his legs at the speed of light after snatching my Gotcha off the bottom in a foot of water.

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