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The days are short and the air is cold, but Australia’s East coast has a red hot winter fishery if you take the time to adapt to the different species on offer and employ a few different techniques. Read on for a few tips and tricks which will hopefully help you find something worth catching when you’re itching to put a bend in your rod but the toothies aren’t around!
Species on offer
This varies a bit from location to location but generally speaking, winter is a great time in most places from the northern end of NSW up to the Sunny Coast to target solid fish in kayaks. Most of the shallow offshore reefs within paddling distance tend to attract good numbers of fish like snapper, mulloway, kingfish cobia, as well as a smattering of other reef fish and the odd tuna, so these are the fish which I’ll be focusing on when presenting rigging options for targeting them from your ski. Although some areas will get a late run of mackerel well into winter with Spaniards being known to show up well into August, specifically targeting mackerel at this time of year can be a hit-and-miss affair so keep this in mind and don’t spend your entire time on the water burning around with wire traces and deadbaits if you want the best possible chance of catching a feed.
They don't last all year... Usually!!!
Like with any kind of fishing, knowing what you’re chasing and whether or not it will be in the area that you’re targeting is a pretty important first step to take! In winter, a working sounder comes into its own and can be used to find bait, structure and individual fish anywhere in the water column which is extremely handy at a time of year where the colder water can slow surface activity and make finding fish just with your eyesight and intuition a bit tricky.
The key to finding any of these winter species is to find bait, and lots of it. Winter often sees large numbers of yakkas, slimey mackerel, pike and even pilchards coming in over our fishing grounds (in SEQ at least), and pretty much any predatory fish that you could want in your hatch will enjoy chowing down on a few of those options from time to time. When you next head out to your chosen fishing ground, pay attention to exactly where and when good numbers of baitfish are hanging around. If you target places with a good amount of bait, you can be sure that the predatory fish won’t be far behind.
If you’re looking for quality fish, it really is hard to go past using the livebait that you’ve hopefully found by now. A nice small slimey or yakka will tempt just about anything into taking a bite, often when not much else is working which makes livebaiting a go-to technique for many at this time of year. Drifting or slowly paddling along with a livey behind or beneath you is also a great way to cover ground and find fish as even when the big ones are few and far between, they will almost always be able to find and smash a well presented livebait.
To catch slimeys and yakkas, do your best to locate schools of fish on the sounder then drop sabiki rigs down to them. They usually feed harder early in the morning and can be kept alive to varying degrees of success in a livewell, bait tube, or collapsible bucket. For a long day’s fishing, nothing quite compares to the ease of use and effectiveness of a livewell, but you shouldn't struggle to keep 5 or 6 baits alive in a bucket or tube. If on the other hand you don’t have any of these options available, tend to use your baits immediately and are lazy like me then each of your footwells will keep a small yakka alive for a short while.
Rigging made simple
How you rig up will be influenced primarily by the bait’s size, how quickly you’re drifting and exactly what fish you’re targeting. Here are a few of my favourite rigs which, by adjusting your leader, hook and sinker size, can be adapted to effectively target just about any winter fish in a kayak.
I personally use braided mainline on all of my rods, tied with an FG knot to about 3m of leader depending on what I’m chasing and whether I'll be casting. Also worth noting is that lures including plastics and deep-diving hardbodies are also great options on the right day and can be an incredibly effective and hassle-free way of racking up a feed.
Surface Livey rig
My go-to livebait rig for any pelagics that won’t bite through a mono leader is pretty simple as it turns out.
Yep, that’s it. Just a hook on the end of your leader. Using circles or J-hooks comes down to personal preference and target species, but remember if you’re using circles not to strike at fish or you’ll pull it out of their mouth. This goes for all of the following rigs. Trolling with your reel in or near freespool and the clicker on can be a good option for this one if you want to make sure that fish swallow your bait before upping the drag and starting the fight.
Pin it through the nose of your livebait (I prefer sideways) or bridle it if you prefer, let it swim out and sit it in your rod holder. Any self-respecting fish feeding near the surface will be in serious trouble.
Although not always necessary, if your livebaits aren’t quite so lively and you’re worried that they may die and start spinning or you wish to add a sinker, adding a swivel to your livey rig will help to stop line twist. Make sure that you still have a bit of leader above the swivel too for extra strength and shock absorption when big fish get close
One of the best bits about this simple surface livey rig is the ability to whack a snapper lead onto your line with a rubber band. Simply wrap the rubber band around your leader (ideally above a swivel to avoid tangles) a few times before passing it back through itself to lock it off, then use the hanging loop to attach it to your sinker and you’re in business!
This can be used for a few different things depending on the size of your weight. If you want to target the middle section of the water column, try using a relatively small sinker and letting it out behind your yak while drifting which will achieve a similar result to a running sinker rig. Alternatively, my favourite way to fish the bottom with livies is to use a nice heavy lead, then drop everything straight down to the bottom, wind up maybe one or two metres to keep it above the snags then stick the rod in the holder. This way, it’s possible to paddle around slowly or drift over a large stretch of ground and your livebait should tow behind your sinker nicely, keeping it happy and in the zone.
Running Sinker Rig
The running sinker rig is another super simple option which is great for getting your livebait down below the surface without restricting its movement or increasing its chance of dying prematurely. One of the biggest positives of a running sinker rig is that when it’s weighted correctly, this is an extremely versatile rig that’s also deadly with deadbaits like whole baitfish, fillets or a nice big slice of squid. On days with minimal wind/current, this is an awesome way to fish as you can get your offering to slowly and naturally waft down which makes the snapper in particular really fire up.
Knocker Rig (sinker below swivel)
This works very well using fairly heavy ball sinkers in snaggy country for fish that sit right on the bottom like coral trout, cod or mulloway. Due to the sinker being able to run to the bait’s nose, this rig is highly snag resistant and allows you to get to those fish that live right in amongst the reef, but some people worry that it puts fish off and it can restrict the bait’s movement to the point of a premature death. That said, it’s certainly well worth knowing if you’re fishing extremely snaggy country.
With these basic rigs and with a bit of thinking about how to personalise them to suit your target species and area, you’ll be able to nail just about anything swimming that doesn’t have stupidly sharp teeth! Below are a few basic tips for how you should be adapting these to chase of most of the prime targets in my local areas at least. This isn’t a definitive guide and most fish are not certainly not completely predictable or consistent, but it should give you a good place to start!
Will take both surface and weighted baits, dead and alive. Slow sinking deadbaits in particular are the undoing of many good fish. Minimum leader size = 60lb (in flat terrain— on hard reef consider going heavier). Their big mouth makes large (8/0+) circle and single hooks ideal in most situations. Will take lures, but definitely not the best option for specific targeting as they can be very fussy at times.
These fish generally prefer to take offerings in the bottom 2/3 of the water column, but will rise to eat when they're in the mood. Slowly sinking deadbait rigs, weighted livies and lures (both deep divers and soft plastics) are all effective. For most fish (up to about 3-4kgs), 20lb leader is ideal for plastic fishing but consider upping to 40-50lb when chasing the larger models using livebait or fishing in reefy areas. Hooks need to be strong as these fish have powerful jaws and can crush anything too light.
Suckers for a surface lively or quickly retrieved lure if busting up on the surface. Go heavy on the line class (30lb+ mainline, 40lb+leader) if you want to target and land these guys quickly as they put up one hell of a fight! Alternatively, feel free to take your time if you are keen on a sleigh ride. It really is up to you as unless these fish get sharked, they fight cleanly and predictably making them pretty hard to lose.
Will take baits and lures up on the surface or sent down deep. Will often form large schools, and they’re suckers for a live slimey or squid if you can get your hands on them. If targeting kingies it really is a case of go hard or go home crying. They pull extremely well and they generally live around some pretty nasty reef so it’s quite necessary to stop them before they make it home when they bite. Heavy gear (~50lb line, 80lb leader) and a tight drag are probably what you’re after if you’re chasing the bigger fish. Fortunately they have big, relatively soft mouths with plenty of areas for hooks to grab so just about any type will work, provided that it’s strong enough to take the pressure of the fight.
Nathan Rogers picked up this cracking Yellowtail Kingfish in Northern NSW just as the water was starting to warm up in October
Possibly one of trickiest targets on shallow reefs in winter, in my experience nothing says ‘eat me’ more to a jewie than a livebait kicking just on or above the bottom. If you can present a lure or a fresh deadbait straight in front of them when they’re actively feeding, jewfish have certainly been known to fall victim to these approaches but I wouldn’t call it the easiest option— especially in a yak. Jewfish are notorious for refusing to feed when conditions aren’t right, but liveys can tempt even fussy fish so are an essential tool to have in your arsenal. Try and make sure that you’re slowly covering ground with your line down or are dropping directly on fish that you’ve marked on your sounder for these guys, and fish around tide changes or in areas where they can hide from any current. The less they have to swim to chase a feed, the better, so if you can restrict your livebait’s movement with a big sinker then plop it in front of their noses, I’m of the opinion that this will give you your best possible chance.
Mulloway have cavernous hard mouths with a few good fangs, so around 50lb leader is about the minimum that I would use when targeting them. Again, if fishing over hard and shallow reef they do know where they live so consider going heavier if you know you’re likely to run into a seriously large fish. That said, they’re certainly less difficult to fight than a similarly sized kingfish or cobia. Hook size is almost entirely bait dependent and circles, in my fairly limited experience, tend to do a great job of keeping these guys hooked.
Mark Woods with a cracker of a jewie from Palmy- definitely a special fish!
If you have previously tended to get a bit less excited over the prospects of paddling out and having a crack in the so-called ‘off season’, hopefully this has served as a bit of inspiration and guidance! If you do head out and get stuck into a few, be sure to send in some pics or tag us on social media!