A dream scenario in just about any form of angling is the overwhelming and exciting visual where we are able to ‘spot’ our prey. Those moments where you have seen a fish actively feeding and ‘tailing’, or even simply cruising towards you, before presenting an artificial are adrenaline-fuelled occasions. It can also create feelings of anxiety and downright nervousness. With the added realisation that you may get only one shot at your target after possibly waiting hours for such an opportunity, frustration can be the end result. When things do come together, however, sight casting is as good as it gets for many anglers and even that one special moment can be worth years of dedicated effort. Along the journey a whole new level of understanding about your chosen species can also come to light.
The land-based equation
Chasing larger gamefish from our ocean rock platforms comes with many challenges and even dangers. The constant battle against the elements has us paying close attention to factors such as wind and swell, while the often overlooked details of oceanic currents and water temperatures also play a huge role when discussing ‘species availability’. Time of year, rain events and even factors such as the dreaded red or ‘snot’ weed in the water can haunt anglers as they plan to be on their favourite rock platform.
But if you endure conditions that can be physically and mentally draining, the flip side is a stunning scenario where blue water is licking your rock ledge and baitfish are herded up in fear of the pelagic hunters ready to make their assault. Sight casting for big tuna, cobia, yellowtail kingfish, trevally, queenfish, mackerel and many other smaller species happens each and every year and captures are often well earned and highly prized. What is very quickly learned by those in pursuit of these trophies is that these fish behave VERY differently when encountered in clear shallow water, and getting that all-important bite on any artificial can be incredibly difficult.
Various factors are at play here and we are discussing fish with phenomenal eyesight in clear water where they also have a very highlighted feeling of ‘wariness’. At times a well-placed lure will seemingly do nothing more than ‘spook’ your target and you will simply be left watching a potential trophy cruise back into the comfort of deeper water. Then there are those spectacular moments where a torpedo-like tuna goes completely airborne on your lure and you find yourself in battle with a fish hell-bent on reaching the horizon. This is what creates a passion that quickly becomes an obsession.
What I am looking for?
Sight casting may sound simple but there are many key indicators that can be easily overlooked and I have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with anglers over the years who simply do not see fish swimming right past their noses – true story.
To begin, you need a quality pair of polarised sunglasses and there is no compromise on this as without them you’ll see absolutely nothing. Even better, photochromic glasses really cut out the sun’s glare and pierce the water, changing not only your lighting but also landscape. Rocks, patches of reef and close-in bomboras are now in clear view and when water conditions are favourably clean it is simply amazing what can be seen with the aid of quality polarised sunglasses.
Your number one enemy now becomes cloud cover, and when the sun is behind thick grey cloud it is as though the lights have been turned off. A clear sky with the sun high above gives you beautiful sight casting conditions, and you are now able to see big torpedo-like shapes coming towards you. Longtail tuna will appear rather dark and can often be seen as solo fish or in a school of up to, say, 50-odd, while other fish such as cobia may appear brown to even grey in the water. Yellowtail kingfish may often also vary in colour and there are times where it can be difficult to identify what it is you have seen in the water. The point, though, is to pay attention at all times and cast at whatever you have seen.
Other often overlooked indicators are baitfish and what you may think are rather uninteresting stingrays. Bait such as garfish and small flying fish that are often encountered along our rock ledges are there to seek shelter in the calmer water and what can be easily missed (to an untrained eye) is these fish taking to the air, or ‘showering’ . This occurrence is much like a neon sign on a dark night and these fish are fleeing in fear of their life. Showering bait never simply ‘just happens’ without a reason and in many instances it will be big tuna or kingfish hot on their tail.\
Other occurrences can be cobia swimming with stingrays and although often short-lived, this can be seen as a ‘parasitic’ type relationship. Stingrays such as large eagle rays will very often pick up ‘passengers’ in the form of cobia and the only real beneficiaries of this are the cobia. As the eagle rays glide across sand and gravel patches they will quite often disturb sand crabs and other crustacea and the cobia simply move in on any such meal opportunities. Having an eagle ray swim towards you can be a fantastic opportunity and it pays to keep a close eye as there are times where a cobia can swim very neatly alongside or even underneath a cruising ray.
What can’t be emphasised enough here is while you stand on your chosen rock ledge, keep your eyes open constantly and aim to earn yourself the flattering nickname of ‘hawk-eye’.
What lures to throw ?
This is a fairly tricky and complex question as in many instances it will come down to two main factors: your location and target species. I can honestly say, after fishing much of our east coast, that locations can differ dramatically and although your target species may be the same, your location can often determine behaviour. As an example, the rock ledges along much of Queensland’s Sunshine Coast feature a combination of shallow and crystal-clear water, which often makes larger pelagics incredibly difficult to hook. Very wary fish are often spotted but their ‘caginess’ and senses are on such high alert that a lure cast in their direction will do little more than spook the fish. In a reversal of this scenario, our deeper-water ledges will often see fish feed far more freely as they relish the comfort of deeper water.
Lure choice is critical and I will carry a range of metals, soft plastics, skipping pencil poppers and diving minnows that can be cast a good distance.
A common weight range is metals from 60-85g, skipping poppers up to, say, 85g, and divers and plastics, which can be lighter still. Across shallow clear-water scenarios, soft plastics are my preferred choice and it is often the super-realistic profiles and actions that will bring that all-important hit. Presentation is important, so try to anticipate the swim path of your sighted target. Upon your lure landing (which can either gain attention or spook fish), a medium to fast retrieve that imitates a fleeing baitfish is your best approach. This need be no more than a steady to fast wind and it is imperative that your soft plastic swims both straight and true.
The alternative approach, of casting a lure ‘right on the fish’s head’, will commonly see your target hit the afterburners and bolt for the comfort of deeper water. Yes, there are exceptions to this, when a longtail or cobia can quickly turn and smash your lure out of sheer aggression or maybe hunger, but in general landing a lure on your target’s head is not the best approach.
Skipping pencil poppers are lures that also deserve a special mention. These often slimline profiles can look incredibly realistic and generate a fantastic skipping action across the water’s surface, creating both noise and a very enticing ‘bubble trail’. In imitating a fleeing garfish, these lures can often generate some serious excitement and tuna in particular can get airborne in their attempt to crunch one of these lures. These amazing sights are what anglers crave and hold on to for a lifetime.
The gear box
It must be first stated that gear selection is very much a personal thing. Certain anglers I have had the pleasure of fishing with over the years are absolute experts with overhead reels and rods to match, while others prefer the ease and versatility that spinning reels offer. There is no right or wrong here and you must fish what you are confident and comfortable with. I fish with a rod around the 8ft 7in to 9ft range and a 6000-size spinning reel, which forms a very well balanced casting outfit. While some guys prefer a longer rod, I do not. Yes, there are casting advantages with a longer rod and you can often achieve greater distance, but when it comes to the actual ‘fight’ of your fish, the shorter rod is far more comfortable and enables you to put hurt on a fish when necessary. This can be of particular importance along rock ledges where sharks are problematic.
Another huge benefit of a rod in this range is that it is far more effective when casting soft plastics as it still retains that all-important sensitivity and much desired responsiveness.
You should give considerable thought to reel selection as you will need one that features a large line capacity, but is also smooth in operation. Bigger pelagics such as a tuna hitting the afterburners will make short work of sticky drags and inferior gear, and it is these tragedies you must avoid. In recent times I have run a 6000-size reel from the Penn stable and one feature I have seriously enjoyed is the ‘deep’ spool, which allows excellent line capacity. Monofilament backing of near-150m of 8kg, topped up with a full 300m of 30lb braid has been possible, which is comforting should a big fish be on the cards.
Leader is an often overlooked but crucial factor and, while we are often greeted with shallow clear-water scenarios, I find it hard to go any lighter than 40lb fluorocarbon material. I have fished as light as 30lb but it can be a risky business on larger fish and it really comes down to how daring you may feel. You may achieve the initial hit in clear water but possibly cost yourself a good fish as it wears through your leader over an extended fight, or a fish punishes you into some neighbouring reef. You must assess the risks and also your target species.
The seasonal realism
Absorbing as much information about your style of angling and target species is always beneficial. However, it must be stated that – depending on your geographic location – certain species are viable targets only at certain times of the year. Your ‘season’ if, say, on the central coat of New South Wales will commonly fall from February to May. Anglers living further north may get this period plus ‘extended’ months as warm-water currents begin to recede. It is very much for you as the angler to be in tune with your local waters and pay attention to warmer currents creeping along our coastline.
Sight casting for big pelagics is a skilful form of angling where captures will always be earned the hard way. But this brings far greater satisfaction and will lead to one very severe addiction that is sure to last a lifetime.
Words and Images: Peter Morris