HUNTING PELAGIC FISH IN NORTHERN NSW
by Gavin Smithers
I do most of my diving in Northern NSW and especially at the Solitary Islands off Coffs Harbour where I live. These are rock islands between about 1.5 km and 10 km off the coast. There are also many areas of reef on this coast. The area is a Marine Park and visiting divers need to familiarise themselves with the zoning plan. There are some great places for a snorkel in the sanctuary zones, especially at the split through 'the mouse' north of North Solitary Island.
The Solitary Islands are the home of the famous Blue Water Classic, a pelagics only spearfishing competition.
Northern NSW is subtropical with water temperatures ranging from about 18c in winter and spring to 25c in summer and autumn. Winter mornings are often cold and warm clothes are needed. Diving here is probably more challenging than in the tropics due to frequent low visibility, strong currents, swell and lower numbers and diversity of desirable species.
Some of the fish I have seen here include: Spanish Mackerel, Wahoo, Jobfish, Yellowfin Tuna, Northern Bluefin Tuna, Sailfish, Marlin, Dolphin Fish, Kingfish, Samson Fish, Snapper. While hunting any of these species your chances are improved by presence of baitfish, current running from the north, and warm water for the time of year.
Spanish Mackerel are found around most of the Islands and many of the inshore reefs. Inshore is often more productive than the outer Islands in peak season of March and April. Locate baitfish and dive near the schools. Baitfish will be up current of shallow areas or Islands.
Berley or flashers can be used but berley can create shark problems. Also the numbers of mackerel are not what they once were and I often prefer to simply dive a likely area for bottom fish etc. and if a mackerel comes along well and good. Hovering at midwater or lying on the bottom is a better technique than trying to dive on fish seen from the surface.
If a Mackerel approaches close enough take the shot. They often come closest on their first pass and are more difficult to bring back to you after this. Shots are often taken as the fish are angling away from you. As with all game fish aim for the shoulder or mid body where there is plenty of flesh.
Dolphin Fish are becoming a fairly popular bluewater species in NSW. The fish are often taken around wave recorders, offshore fish attracting devices, and trap floats. Yellowfin Tuna and Marlin are always a possibility whilst hunting dolphins. Brett Vercoe and I have a GPS list of fish trap locations and we can work a number of traps on a good day. If two divers jump in and one takes a dolphin immediately, big fish will often come in to check the activity and present a shot to the second diver. The longer you work a trap the more shy the fish become. Flashers and berley have little effect on dolphins but berley may raise spectacular sharks if you are unlucky enough! Take ice as the fish spoil. Smoked dolphin is good.
Wahoo are found particularly at Nine Mile Reef off Tweed Heads and North Solitary Island. Autumn is a good time to hunt Wahoo. They are often found in open water and hunt Alligator Gars. Scan the surface for Wahoo but when heavily hunted they become shy and may run deeper. Allow Wahoo to approach you rather than chasing the fish.
Berley can work but wahoo and sharks go together and I have had problems more than once. When waiting for wahoo hover 3 or 4 metres down near baitfish. If a fish approaches move slowly and place a shot in the head or mid body where there is some meat. Wahoo are soft and easily tear spears out. Fight them gently and make sure you have some bungy in your rig. Wahoo deteriorate rapidly in storage so take plenty ice.
Black Marlin can be hunted in Northern NSW in February- April. This is when the annual run of smaller fish occurs. I have encountered them on fish trap floats or wave recorders offshore and on reefs with baitfish closer to shore. Seal Rocks, South West Rocks, North Solitary Island and Tweed Heads are places to look, or speak to line fishos in your area.
Flashers work well on billfish but they are curious and will check a diver out anyway. If a fish comes in to look at you take the shot if possible as it may be your only chance. With flashers you may have more time.Of one marlin and two sailfish I have speared without flashers all had a look at me then angled off. All three shots were taken at fish moving away. The marlin was lost as the reel on my gun jammed. By contrast a marlin which came in on a Rob Allen flasher presented an easier shot. Place a good holding shot in the shoulder as spears can work their way out especially on smaller fish.
Marlin and other pelagics can also be taken offshore where schools of baitfish are found. Look for bird and fish activity in water near the 100 fathom line. Striped and Blue Marlin are possible under these conditions.
Sailfish are similar to Marlin in terms of habits and locations and similar techniques work. They are a little tougher and less likely to tear off a spear than small marlin. Look for sails near alligator gars. The billfish that I have taken have all fought in a fairly manageable fashion. None have screamed off into the depths as one might expect. One sailfish did stop and face me early in the fight but did not charge. Nevertheless be aware that this could happen.
Small Marlin are good eating. Sailfish not quite as good.
Kingfish (Yellowtail)appear to be increasing in numbers after trapping was stopped. In northern NSW kingfish are found more readily offshore than on headlands. Late spring and early summer are good times. Look for kings along dropoffs where bait is found, and up- current of features.
Kingfish are curious and will often circle a diver soon after he or she enters the water. They get more shy after checking you out. It is better to look for kings near the bottom than on the surface. They are attracted to flashers and berley. If you shoot a big King hang on! They are tough fighters and will bend spears if they reach the bottom. They never give up and I have had a spear pushed into my arm while trying to subdue a 15 kg fish. Fortunately my eyes must have been shut whilst grimmacing and I didn't even see the 10 ft hammerhead just behind me! I don't shoot the real big Kings.
Smaller kings are better eating than big ones, especially in subtropical areas where big kings often have mushy flesh.
Samson Fish and Amberjacks are very similar to kings in habits, seasons and techniques but are better eating.
Jobfish are an interesting catch in northern NSW. Most offshore reefs or islands are likely to have Jobfish on them occasionally. In tropical waters Jobfish respond to berley and flashers. They are usually found in summer in warm water. Jobfish swim nearer the bottom than the surface. They will check a diver out but often don't offer an easy shot. Lying on the bottom can bring them in closer. Jobfish are attractive and good eating.
The gear I use for pelagic species is a standard Rob Allen 130 cm gun with two 5/8 rubbers at 3-1 stretch and standard 7mm spring steel spear. A foam filled 11 litre float by Rob Allen and bungee rig completes the outfit. The RA gun is light, tough and reliable and this outfit is versatile enough to use on bottom species as well.
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