Building A Hot Bite On A Neap Day! Lee Brake

It’s not often you fluke one of those perfect offshore days – those days when the wind is soft and gentle like a good proctologist; the sea is calm with a glassy finish like it’s been sipping single malt into the early hours; and even the tides are restrained.

On this day, more than restrained, they were neap – 1.1m of run to be exact. To put things into perspective, our king tide off Mackay has up to 6.5m of run…

In fact, just a few weeks before we’d undertaken a similar trip on a day with almost 6m of run and the results were not pretty. Two broken Brakes, a near empty sinker container, a near empty fuel tank – from travelling against the current and a 15 knot breeze – and only a few decent fish, which came over the lull of the tidal change.

As you can imagine, when we did nail this perfect day, we weren’t alone. Boats that hadn’t been on the briny in years had their spiders’ webs dusted off and emerged from their sheds. It was sweet, beautiful mayhem at the Mackay marina boat ramp. But we missed all that… The 4.85 Streaker Tournament had gone in the night before and was tied up in a mate’s birth in the marina. However, just because we dodged the ramp crowds, didn’t mean we dodged them on the water. Heading to some marks we had sou-east of Penrith Island, we were just through commenting that heading south was wise “because we’d miss the crowds in the Shipping Channel” when dots started appearing on the horizon. The area of broken ground in around 50m of water had no less that nine boats scattered around it – a veritable flotilla!

Luckily, we had more than a few marks in the area – enough that we actually found one without a boat on it. This rocky, rubbly rise of about five metres was also topped by pink speckles on the sounder, something that from past experience has usually indicated nannygai. The first drift confirmed this, with the old man landing a nice largemouth just under 50cm. Personally, if you are after a feed on nannygai, the fish around this size are my favourite – not tough, with sweet, clean flesh. But a feed was still far from certain. A few sweetlip came in, but the bite was slow and timid. I was using a soft plastic, a 7” prawn, with little success. My first drop had produced a decenttake and a run, but just as I got the fish’s head around, it spat the hook. From there, I couldn’t get a touch. With little run and pristine water visibility, the fish had clearly been spooked. Maybe if I’d have landed that first fish, things might have been different, but after trying a few different sized plastics and heads, I surrendered to the call of the bait.

Well, not completely. I decided not to abandon artificial attraction completely. I pimped up my 8/0 octopus hook with an octopus – a pink Madeye Octo Skirt to be precise. If you haven’t seen them yet, these things are 6cm of near unbreakable, stretchy, knobbly tentacles. You can fish them on the top of your plastics, as a teaser on the end of a spinnerbait, as an extra/replacement skirt on an octo jig or knife jig and just about anywhere else you think that some extra movement and colour will help.

I simply added a split tail herring under the skirt and coupled them with a three ounce teardrop sinker (yep, three ounce in 50m!) and the paternoster rig pulsed, flashed and shimmied. It didn’t explode as soon as it hit the bottom, but it did draw interest. The bites were the “thump, thump” of nannygai, but they were far from ravenous. I persisted and really let the fish take the offering before applying any pressure. Success. A nice school size nanny. More followed, and with each fish came an intensifying of the bites. They were getting worked up. Action breeds actions!

With the icebox starting to look healthy, the old man decided it was time to up the ante. His motto is “big, flappy flesh baits catch big fish”, so out came the little 4000 Shimano eggbeater and 5-7kg Samaki Zing Extreme with a nice light tip. This outfit was sporting his home made bait rig – a four hook paternoster rig on 15lb leader. Each hook is a small heavy duty, ultra-sharp jigging hook with a lumo bead in front of it. The joy of using jigging hooks is we have oodles of them – most octo jigs you buy have the dinky little assist hooks on them that might hold in the firm mouths of snapper and kingfish, but pull out of the softer lips of nannygai and reds. For that reason all ours get upgraded to 8/0s and we end up with a surplus of little, albeit heavy duty, hooks that are perfect for no-nonsense bait rigs.

Getting bait was a mixed success. Two more nice nannygai followed on the bait rig before an iodine bream and a small catfish turned up. They joined a legal sweetlip – the smallest in the box – as a sacrifice to the big fish gods. So, with some big flappy baits prepared, we headed off to explore some other marks in the area.

Some held fish, but nothing was feeding hard, and we really noticed a stark comparison between the mark we’d left where the fish had been coaxed into action by our persistence and the new marks where the fish were still largely wary and disinterested. One interesting titbit did turn up though – literally. I’d dropped a strip of catfish with the tail still attached over one mark, lost it to a solid bite and a missed run. Then, on a mark about a kilometre away,less than half an hour later, I landed a nannygai with that exact bit of catfish in its mouth! So, that’s interesting, and indicates nannygai move around patches of bottom a lot more than you’d think, likely circling around patches of structure-littered seafloor in a constant search for a snack.

And speaking of searching for a snack, we were just about done exploring the marks in this area. The call was made to head north, to one of our other mark that’d payed dividends in the past. But of course we didn’t make it in one go. We stopped twice to punch in new marks on the way. Personally, finding a new mark gives me as much pleasure as catching a quality fish. Each new spot is another weapon in your arsenal when fishing offshore. With angler pressure ever growing, you won’t get by with just a handful of hot spots any longer – exploration is the key. Give yourself enough options and eventually you will find fish on one of them. It’s also worth noting that I’ve often had my best sessions on fresh marks that we’ve just found. One way to tell if these marks are relatively unfished is by the resident fish. Big cod and big trout will make a home out of a spot, whereas nannygai,as an example, use isolated marks as mere stepping stones in their journeys. Therefore, if on your first drop on a new mark you have a double hook-up on two dominant, resident predators, you know the mark is almost untouched.

And that’s just what happened on the second new mark we picked up. It rose like a spike on the sounder as we zipped over it at speed, but a quick backtrack revealed solid, rocky bottom and some fish life. We both deployed big, flappy flesh baits and neither of us made it to the bottom. In fact, I had a moment of panic as my line started looping up around my thumb when I was still 20m from the bottom. Something had charged upwards and smashed my strip bait. The battle was on and the fish was heading straight down!

Had the fish smashed the bait near the bottom, I doubt I’d have stopped it, but because I’d hit so high up, I was able to apply enough pressure to slow its charge. That didn’t stop it finding some hard bottom though, and I had a momentary worry as I felt its head dive into something solid.

Meanwhile, the old man was also bent over the gunwale. He’d been playing with something small that had finally found the hook and was in the process of coming up when something engulfed it. And whatever it was, it had him hurting!

Luckily, my fish had come free of the bottom and I was now making line. Soon a chunky 70cm-plus trout materialise from the depths, the bit of flesh bait and octo skirt hanging from the side of its mouth. The old man was also making line, but the jury was still out on what his was. While not a shark, it also wasn’t another trout – instead revealing itself to be a big cod. These two fish pretty much filled the esky, so we decided to have one more drop and then head for home. Another trout, one that was the perfect size to bake whole, and a nice red emperor resulted – the icing on the cake.

All up it’d been a top day with a very comfortable trip out and home. Interestingly, others I spoke with struggled on the same day. They just couldn’t find fish biting, and most blamed the lack of run in the tide. Like all trips, there’s a lesson our two in that. For my mind, the keys one is that when the fish are off the chew, trying new things helps. Then, if you can get them to bite, even timidly, stick with it, because sometimes you have to start a hot bite will a small spark.

Fish hard and stay safe.