The ocean is an incredible source of surprises. Giant squid, white whales, odd-looking floaty clear things and fish with lights attached to their heads, just to mention a few. The Jules Verne novels and tales of deep-sea creatures that lurked in the inky black depths captivated me as a child, and to this day I often wonder what is still swimming around in the undiscovered ocean trenches and abysses.
When I think hard about what draws me to dropping baits 400-600m below the ocean surface, I think it is tied somewhat to those childhood stories and books. Being able to bounce a sinker on the ocean floor 600m below the boat is unique and whilst I will never get to see what that sinker sees, I am linked to it for those few minutes whilst I drift along the continental shelf.
The fish I chase live on the eastern continental shelf, and namely the edge, slope and floor of the shelf. In some parts this can be extremely steep and hold certain types of deep-sea species, whereas some parts of the shelf can be a gentle slope gradually leading to a muddy bottom.
Todays modern charts (Navionics and Blue Seas) have incredible detail of the shelf and picking a starting point is not hard – find an edge that looks good and drop some baits!
Getting to the shelf is probably the biggest limiting factor for most fisherman. Most ports along the Victorian coast and all the way up the east coast will give you access to the shelf, but some are easier than others. Lakes Entrance, currently in favour with fishermen chasing swordfish, is a relatively long run to the edge, with distances around 75km each way. This puts deep dropping out of reach unless your boat is extremely seaworthy and reliable.
Carrying enough fuel to get there and back is paramount, then there is dealing with the Lakes Entrance Bar, often in the dark of early morning and you can quickly be turned off the challenge.
Bermagui is the closest port to the shelf and many people chase deep-water species from here.
As I mentioned, any port that gives ocean access is an option as these fish are not limited to just one part of the continental shelf. It is not for everyone, but when the stars align it can be exciting, rewarding and the catch is always delicious. Our rule is that anything that lives that deep, tastes good.
Whilst there is quite a variety of deep-water species the most prized are hapuka, blue-eye trevalla and pink ling. We do get other species such as gemfish, knife jaw and ocean perch, which are all good to eat, but the first three grow big and tasty and tend to occupy most of my time.
Blue-eye trevalla inhabit the continental slope and I have come to think of them as sheep. They graze along the slope and can be found as shallow as 250m and as deep as 700m. Generally they will be 400-500m on the edge of the slope and any structure will help to keep them around. Current, bait and time of year all influence where they are, but just because they are caught at a spot one day does not mean you will find them there the next. They grow big and I have caught them up to nearly 40kg. Whilst this is rare, most fish are around 5-15kg, with a 20kg fish being a great catch. They love squid and oily baits such as tuna or couta. Blue-eye cook up incredibly well and would be one of the best eating fish in the ocean, with a firm white flesh that freezes very well too.
Hapuka are the dog fighters of the deep-sea world and a good one will nearly pull you over. They prefer steeper terrain and love structure if you can find it. Baits are similar to those for blue-eye and there is no need to skimp on bait sizes as they have bucket mouths. They also grow big and you just never know when your rod tip is going to be buried underwater by a huge ’puka.
Hapuka are also incredible to eat and would be my number one eating fish from the deep. The pink ling is confined to the muddy canyon floors and is often the cause of many swordfish phantom bites for those chasing the gladiator of the sea. They will often pick away at a carefully stitched-up sword bait, resulting in anglers getting a little bit excited! They are a little easier to find as they live in canyon floors and eat amazingly well, like their other deep-water mates. Baits and rigs are all the same as the other species listed.
Rigs and Gear
Let’s start with the bit that is going to be taking everything down half a kilometre or so! Sinkers need to be heavy, with my preference around 1-2kg. I keep a couple of 3kg on board for when the current is stronger or the wind picks up. Yep, BIG lead is the go. Sinkers must be straight and symmetrical otherwise they will spin and spiral on the way down.
My sinker is tied to my hook rig by 40lb mono as a break away – I would rather lose my sinker than 500m of braid.
There are plenty of off-the-shelf rigs available and I would recommend starting off with these as it is really as simple as opening a packet and clipping on the snap swivel. Once you get a little more experienced, have a go at tying your own.
My typical hook rig is 250lb mono with three paternoster loops tied about 70cm apart from each other. The dropper loops should be short, about 5cm, to keep them stiff and not allow them to tangle on the main line. A 12/0 SS circle hook is my favourite and whilst many people like using lumo tubing I have found that most lumo beads and tubing loses its glow after about 2-5 minutes. This means that by the time the rig hits the bottom it is not glowing anymore. I don’t use it any more, preferring just a single small light attached to the swivel. The rig is attached to a leader about 15m long made from 250lb mono and I FG knot this to my main braid line.
Rods and reels for this type of fishing are not cheap and you will be looking at 1-5k for a reel. An old bent butt 24-37g rod will do the job just fine, but I have just had a custom deep drop rod made and it has a very soft tip to absorb the big head shakes whilst retaining a super heavy-duty butt. Reels must be capable of holding 800-1000m of 60-80b braid. No need for colour-coded braid as most modern electric reels count your line anyway.
Shimano and Daiwa reels are robust and cost-effective, and with both offering long warranties and features, it is really hard to depart from these two brands for a good reel. Believe me, after an 80-knot run to your chosen spot, it can be really frustrating to have your gear fail! Buy the best you can afford as the opportunities to chase these fish in these remote spots are limited by weather. When the right weather window comes, you have to be ready to roll.
Finally, there is not much use heading to these parts of the ocean chasing these species if you cannot read the bottom in 350-500m of water. Moreover, you need to be able to pick up the clutter layer that is shrimp, squid and bait fish that these types of deep-water bruisers live on. If you find the bait, you will generally find the fish. Whilst technology has advanced a long way, a fisherman’s ability to use this technology has not. You will need to understand TVG, frequency and other advanced features of your equipment, as leaving it on auto is probably not going to give you the result you want. Low-frequency transducers of 1kw and greater are a good starting point, with many specialised deep droppers now using 3 to 5kw units in specific frequencies. My tip is get friendly with your sounder and learn how to extract the most from it. You don’t need to spend $20k on a set-up, you just need to be confident in using it to its fullest.
From Portland in Victoria to the Gold Coast in Queensland, the continental shelf of Australia is home to some huge, delicious fish that you will not find anywhere else but on the shelf. If you have an appetite for adventure and an appetite for the best eating fish, you can find then take the plunge and invest in some equipment that will put you in the zone.
When the stars align and you are sitting in the boat with a 30kg deep ooglie lying on the floor, it is an amazing feeling being able to touch a fish that has lived 500m under the water and make that connection from fiction to fact that Jules Verne wrote about in 1870. For me it is always exciting waiting for the next surprise to some up from the inky depths and I don’t think I will ever get tired of it.
Words and Images: Ben Donegan