Lee Brake from Fish & Boat looks at some common mistakes many new anglers make when chasing big reds.
Chasing big red emperor and nannygai is a type of fishing all in itself and it all too often gets lumped in with ‘reef fishing’. The thing is, you’re not fishing the Barrier Reef. You’re fishing deep water, isolated structure and using completely different methods.
This is probably the root of many anglers’ problems when it comes to targeting these crimson hulks of the deep. More and more anglers are working out what to look for and where reds should be hiding, but many are still stuck with that reef fishing mentality. Let’s look at a few key mistakes that this can result in.
1. Not being proactive
The old saying “There’s no use being where the fish ain’t” is undoubtedly true when it comes to reds. It’s not like being at the reef where you can anchor near a channel that you know the fish will go past and wait. If you’re not seeing fish on the sounder and you have had a good drift with no enquiries, then move. Ninety per cent of the time when we’ve caught good reds, they have been visible on the sounder. The other ten per cent has been times when we’ve picked up one or two big fish but nothing else. A feeding school always shows! That’s why having a list of marks to try is so important. If the first doesn’t hold fish then keep searching; eventually one will! If you do find a show of fish and they aren’t feeding (usually they will be holding close to the bottom if this is the case), then it can be worth coming back and trying again once the tide changes or on dusk or dawn.
2. Using broomstick gear!
The amount of times I’ve seen anglers using short, stump-pulling rods and big reels with 80-100lb braid for reds does my head in. Sure, it might be ideal for reefing big trout out of their holes in the reef, but in deep water all it achieves is a lot of current drag, a loss of feeling and finesse, and sore muscles. Both red emperor and nannygai have relatively soft mouths that your hook can tear free of easily.
You need a rod that can cushion those hard runs and brutal headshakes. You definitely want a fast taper and many anglers are even going for longer 6’6” rods when bait fishing to give that extra softness in the tip.
Weight is also a key factor. If you’re pulling big fish up 50m-plus all day then you don’t want thick, heavy rods; thinner graphite is the way to go. Also be mindful of your reel’s speed. When the faecal matter hits the rotary device those slow gear ratios and small spools can equal long, exhausting struggles.
Braid-wise, 50lb is plenty. Most reels are lucky having half that in drag pressure anyway and if you’re fishing locked up then you’ll just pull hooks. It even pays to have a reel with 30lb on if for when the run picks up or fish get spooky. Often we’ve found that if you can fish just one size lighter sinker, that can be the difference between bites and nothing. The diameter of your line makes a big difference to how quickly you get to bottom as well. Nothing robs you of feeling like a dirty great bow in your line!
3. Using inferior hooks
It seems simple, but make sure your hooks are sharp, strong and big! I’ve seen anglers try to catch reds with 7/0 bronzed hooks that you couldn’t push through a marshmallow! Picture a 10kg red and think how fat those lips are. You need a hook that has a wide enough gape to fit over that lip and penetrate the jaw. Those 8/0 Octopus or Suicide hooks are the staple, but never be afraid to use 9/0 or 10/0 models. Chemically sharpened is a must. I personally use both Gamakatsu and Mustad. A key way to test if your hook is sharp enough is to test it on some flesh bait. If it can’t easily be pushed through a scaleless part of the skin, then you’re going to miss all but the hardest strikes.
Normally you won’t straighten hooks, because the drag you’re using shouldn’t be enough to. However, if you’re using a double hook rig, then occasionally expect a double hook-up. Can two big reds pulling against each other straighten weak hooks? Is the bear Catholic? Does the Pope shi— The short answer is yes! Buying quality pays off, so don’t be cheap. The same goes for swivels if you use them. I’ve seen blokes use 80lb line and join it to 100lb leader with a rusty 60lb swivel… Guess what part breaks?
4. Bait presentation
Reds can be a bit pickier than other reef species and often need something to get their attention. The old defrosted pilchard or squid doesn’t always get the job done. Big, shiny, colourful baits are ideal. Whole fish like herring, mullet, slimies, goatfish, gar etc. can do the job, especially with a little added colour like a PE Tackle Fly. Otherwise strip baits and wings are probably the most productive. A nice strip of hussar or stripey wafting in the current almost always gets a look! However, it needs to be presented right. The big mistake many people make, and this goes for all bait fishing, is to push the hook through the bait repeatedly so that it resembles a blob or cube. It looks unnatural in the water and usually hides the point of the hook, making hook-ups almost impossible. Instead, push the hook through the narrow end of the fillet once – which should be easy with the right hook – and pull it all the way through. Then, at the wide end of the fillet, push the point and barb of the hook through to the bend in the hook and, if you can, half hitch your line around the tail of the flesh to hold it flat. The idea is to make the bait waft and flutter in the current with a hook point exposed and waiting.
5. Overfishing a mark
This goes away from the technical side of things and more towards the conservation side. Once you’re on a good bite, it can be soooo tempting to just stay until your esky or bag limit is full. Then, next time you return to that spot, you might even do ok again, but you’ll note the size of the fish is down a bit. Next trip, it might be shut down completely or only yield pickers. This is due to the nature of offshore, deep water structure which is very different and much, much smaller than a reef system.
The Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) calls these little bombies, rocks and rubble patches “isolates” and tells us that fish use them as service stations during their life journey. A school of fish will hang around as long as there is food and shelter, until a seasonal or atmospheric change causes them to migrate, or until they begin to grow larger and braver and head further offshore. What this means is that isolates that have been over fished can take a lot of time to rebuild and will often never return to their former glory. The answer? Take a few fish from a mark and then move on to the next one. Spreading the pressure over multiple marks keeps your marks healthy and full of life. I believe that the presence of fish attracts other fish. In fact, I was looking at underwater photos of different marks in 50m-plus the other day on Wicked Fishing’s facebook page and one was covered in well over a dozen big cod. I noted John Boon asked a key question in the comments – why cod on this mark, reds on others, etc? The photographer pretty much summed it up as, “A simple theme is fish attract fish.”
They are a schooling creature – there’s safety in numbers – so by leaving your marks full of life they rebuild easier by drawing in more fish and the schools can maintain themselves. Also, you will be more likely to find a feed next trip, and the trip after, and the trip after… (Note: never give GPS marks to anglers who don’t share the same philosophy!)
6. Not looking after your catch
I’ll never forget being on a game boat in my younger days and seeing the skipper chew out a decky for throwing a fish on the deck. The skipper was good mates with the owner of a local Asian restaurant that specialised in cooking whole fish and an after-trip traditioninvolved a big feast at said restaurant. This chef rejected any fish that looked battered or bruised and he was pedantic about how the fish was killed, bled and frozen.
It’s not hard folks and when we are talking about some of the best eating fish in the sea, it’s very worthwhile. Firstly, don’t drop the fish on the deck and let it flap around for ten minutes before you dispatch it. Buy a kill bin or box, brain spike and/or bleed the fish straight away, drop it into the bin until it has bled out and then place it straight into an ice slurry made of saltwater and ice. The resulting brine is so much colder than a normal eskies temperature! I’ve actually seen the eyes of fish freeze over once immersed. Oh, and it makes the fish a lot easier to fillet too!
Well, those are just some of the more common mistakes I have seen made by anglers chasing reds. I’m certainly not perfect myself and always appreciate when someone more experienced points out something I should try or something that could be costing me fish. After all dear readers, when we stop learning, we’re dead!
Based in Mackay, Lee Brake is the Editor of Fish & Boat Magazine, Queensland’s fishing bible since 1978.
For more great articles on specialised fishing tips and techniques visit www.fishandboat.com.au.