Targeting pelagic speedsters north of the Tropic of Capricorn.
Whatever your typical piscatorial persuasion, there shouldn’t be much doubt that the idea of chasing hard-fighting pelagics in the tropics will get the heart racing.
Those that haven’t had the pleasure of fishing tropical waters sometimes tend to head north with unrealistic expectations. While the fishing up in Australia’s Top End can certainly be exceptional, the fish don’t just jump into your boat of their own accord, well not most of the time…
The waters offshore from tropical north Queensland, the Northern Territory and the Kimberley region of Western Australia are home to some of the best fishing grounds in the world. Some of the most prized species of gamefish frequent these waters, including schools of northern bluefin and mackerel tuna, wahoo, Spanish mackerel, sailfish, cobia and giant trevally.
It’s possible to target and catch all these species and more when fishing offshore in the tropics, but it’s important to go in with a plan and to adapt your approach to the conditions.
TARGET THE REEFS
No matter where you choose to wet a line around the country, you’ll struggle to get a result if you don’t go in with some sort of a plan.
Whether you’re fishing your home waters or an unfamiliar tropical archipelago, the first step is to head towards a reef that supports some sort of a food chain. Reefs provide structure that can provide cover for demersal fish and schools of baitfish, which in turn draw in larger predatory species.
When fishing wholly unfamiliar waters, a quick Google search can turn up the names and GPS coordinates of some popular or productive reefs in the area.
It’s a great idea to base your plan around local knowledge where possible, so if you can team up with a local angler or employ the services of a fishing guide, you’ll have a much better chance of starting your search in the right areas.
If it’s not possible to hit the water with someone armed with home ground knowledge, it’s sometimes possible to get some useful pointers at the local tackle shop, or even post-session at the boat ramp or cleaning tables.
FIND THE BAIT
The whole point of targeting your search around reef and structure is in order to find the bait. Find the schools of baitfish, and you’ll find the predators that you’re after.
Scan the ocean’s surface for rippling schools of baitfish, which give the surface a puckered, windblown look. Baitfish showering from the water’s surface are a dead giveaway of predators harassing the school, and a strong indicator that it’s time to get a bait or lure in the water immediately!
While balled up bait schools swimming just under the ocean’s surface are dead easy to spot, oftentimes a bait school can be harassed by predators from above, and will be swimming several metres beneath the surface – thus almost impossible to spot from within a boat.
This is where depth sounders come into play. A properly set up and tuned sounder is the most valuable tool in the arsenal of an angler exploring new waters.
Apart from being able to keep an eye on the water depth and bottom contour, the screen of your sounder can point out schools of baitfish swimming mid-water.
Keep an eye out for bait schools that are spread out and then stop in a clear line, this is an indication that the school is being harassed by predators from that side, and means it’s time to get a bait or lure down amongst the bait school quickly.
EYES IN THE SKY
While a good depth sounder might be the handiest bit of tech the travelling angler has at his disposal, his best friend when searching out schools of feeding pelagics are the flocks of local seabirds that are already getting in on the action.
Keep an eye on the horizon for gulls or other seabirds circling over specific spots or dive-bombing the water’s surface. Many seabirds have excellent eyesight and can see schools of baitfish well below the ocean surface.
When pelagic predators start feeding on a school of baitfish close to the surface, seabirds will close in and join the fray, diving below the surface to pick up dead and maimed baitfish.
Flocks of birds feeding or actively circling are a great indication of where you need to be. Remember not to drive your boat through the middle of a school of feeding fish, as this will often spook them and cause them to sound. Rather, pull up alongside the school and fire casts into its midst, or otherwise troll lures or baits alongside the action.
The most effective techniques when targeting tropical pelagic fish are trolling lures live baiting and spinning lures. Trolling lures is a great technique to use at the beginning of a session when you’re trying to cover as much ground as possible while finding the fish.
Depending on the size and setup of your boat, you’ll be able to troll between one and five lures at varying distances. A lure out of each side works well for most smaller trailer boats, but it’s possible to fish another two lures out wider on larger boars fitted with outriggers as well as another lure directly behind the boat’s wash on a shorter length of line known as a shotgun.
Rubber skirt style lures fitted to pusher and bullet heads are designed for trolling and work well on big pelagic species like tuna, mackerel and marlin.
These lures are designed to be trolled quickly and to create a bubble trail when trolled along the surface.
Bibbed minnow style lures generally have to be trolled slightly slower, but are capable of sitting several metres below the surface and attracting fish from deeper within the water column.
It’s often a good idea to start out trolling a mixed spread of divers and skirts, and if one lure style seems to be getting noticeably more hits, you can rig each rod up with that style of lure.
Live baiting is popular when targeting fish such as Spanish mackerel, yellowfin and northern bluefin tuna over reefs.
Generally baitfish such as slimy mackerel or garfish are lightly pinned and fished beneath a float or balloon out of a stationary boat. It’s also possible to pin livebaits lightly through the nose and to slowly troll them over the top of reefy structure or alongside bait schools.
When schools of fired up pelagics are found in feeding mode, casting and retrieving lures into their midst can be the most effective and efficient tactic to employ.
Metal slugs and slices are perfectly suited for this type of fishing, but heavy poppers, stickbaits and soft plastics can also work well when cast amongst a frenzied school of feeding pelagics.
A medium weight 15kg trolling outfit is a great starting point when targeting a range of tropical pelagic species. An overhead reel loaded with 500m of 15kg braid or monofilament line matched to a 5-6’ short stroker style rod is perfect.
A large threadline reel loaded with a similar capacity of 15kg braid and matched to a short jigging rod will work equally as well for this style of fishing. If targeting particularly big fish, or sharks are a problem, it might be worth beefing up your gear and selecting a 24kg outfit.
For spinning and livebaiting purposes, a large threadline reel loaded with either 15kg or 24kg braid and matched to a heavy spin rod around 7’ long should work well.
It’s generally a good idea to have two outfits set up per angler, so that one rod can be rigged up for trolling, while another rod can have a metal lure or popper rigged up and ready to cast should a school of feeding fish be located.
Remember to keep plenty of spare leader material on hand, as well as some single strand wire to rig short traces if you’re targeting sharp-toothed critters like wahoo or Spanish mackerel.
A sturdy landing net or gaff does wonders when trying to boat large fish at close quarters, and a good set of long nosed pliers will make hook removal a breeze.
Doing battle with hordes of line burning pelagic fish in the tropics is about as much fun as fishing gets, but it can also be a humbling experience if things don’t go your way.
Hatching a good plan, alongside meticulous rigging and tackle maintenance, paired with a little bit of luck, will ensure you have the time of your life out on the water and are planning your next tropical vacay before the boat’s even back on the trailer.
TROPICAL FISHING CHECKLIST
- Single strand wire for rigging traces
- Short handled gaff or robust landing net for boating your catch
- Plenty of spare lures and rigs to ensure your day is not cut short after losing a few battles
- Camera to document your epic catch
- Lots more drinking water than you think – at least three litres per person on board
- An icebox loaded with ice to keep your catch chilled and fresh
- Long nosed pliers for quick and safe hook removal
- First aid kit to quickly deal with any emergencies at sea