Dealing With Slow Bite Blues – Lee Brake July 2016

Not every offshore bottom-bashing trip takes you straight to red city in riot mode.  Sometimes the nannygai and reds just aren’t schooled up.  Sometimes the top of the food chain is a little off their game or simply spread out and not easily targeted.  What do you do when it’s coming up to lunch time and moths fly out of your esky every time you lift the lid?

Well, lately we seem to find ourselves in this situation more times than we’d like to admit.  Usually we look for something to blame – westerly winds, no run no fun, or our recent favourite, “seasonal change adjustment”.  It might be a figment of our imagination, but we always seem to struggle during periods of seasonal change.  Maybe it has something to do with the barometer?  Maybe it’s a case of the warm water fish going off the bite while the winter species haven’t quite arrived in numbers?  Who knows, but I’m claiming it’s a thing.  Whether it is or not, there is always something you can do to overcome a slow start to the day, so here are a few tricks that have worked for us.

What follows are five easy tips to bring your trip back from the brink and salvage your hunter’s dignity.

Trip saver one: stay on the move

Anyone who thinks they can pull off a slam dunk trip by sitting on a single spot all day is either very optimistic or just plain lazy.  Bottom-bashing might seem like a simple prospect – the line goes down, you get bites, hook fish, wind in and repeat… right?  Sure, if you are on a charter operation where the skipper is constantly repositioning and moving to get you onto the fish!  But, if it’s up to you, then you’ll probably spend a good part of your day looking at the sounder screen and travelling.  Remember that a good sounder never lies.  If you’re looking at one of your marks are there’s no signs of colourful life sitting about the structure, then it’s likely not going to change your fortunes dramatically.  By all means give it a drift just in case, but don’t waste too much time.  Keep moving until you at least find some signs of life!  If you run out of marks to try, go searching for new ones!

Recently we had one of those trips where the fish just weren’t chewing.  It was glassed out and every man in his dog was fishing the paddock country.  You could hear people on the two-way complaining about how the fish weren’t biting, and how it was dead.  We ended up having a good day and had our main esky full by 1.30pm.  It wasn’t because we hit a patch, it was simply because we just kept moving.  Most marks would yield one or two decent fish and then we’d move on.  They added up.

Trip saver two: look for a bite period  

Once you’ve exhausted your usual haunts which have produced before, it’s time to start thinking that maybe the fish are there, but they aren’t chewing.  After all, we don’t eat 24 hours of the day, and neither do fish.  Usually it’s worth having one more throw of the dice and picking your most promising spot for a serious assault over the next key bite period.  That may be the first kick of a tidal change or dusk (or dawn if you’re out overnight).  In fact, one of our best trips was a two day adventure that we ended up cutting short due to the fish simply refusing to bite.  All day we’d going from spot to spot and tried every trick in the book for very, very little.  Combined with some storm clouds building on the horizon, we decided that spending the night at sea was about as appealing as a gluten-free tofu burger.  We decided upon one last throw of the dice.  We’d fish the dusk bite on an isolated rock we had marked in 50m of water and then travel home in the dark before the storm hit.  Every drift was mayhem – nannygai, reds, fingermark, jew, grunter, red-band snapper and sweetlip on steroids.  It just goes to show that you just need one successful bite period to turn a day from one of the worst, to one of the best!

Trip saver three: get better bait!

This usually works in two ways – either by delivering a better presented, more appealing bait, or delivering a bait with more “life”.

The percentage of anglers who travel offshore with some livebaits in their tanks is very low, but it’s probably a big oversight on many of our parts.  It’s not that hard to pack a cast net and have a few quick casts around areas where bait schools congregate on your way out.  Places like pylons and pontoons are worth a quick prospect.  Alternatively, a quick jig with a bait jig can produce some bait-size morsels that tempt top level predators.  Just be careful of minimum size limits on some species.

The reason to use live baits is usually to target a better class of fish and to also draw attention from a wide area.

Usually predators like prey that flees – hence why lures and jigs work so well – and they can also detect a fish in distress over vast distances.  A fleeing, wounded prey kicks their predatory instincts into overdrive, and no matter how full they already are, they’ll usually have a crack.  This means a live bait is the ultimate in big predatory attraction.

However, there is a catch – sharks can pick up distress signals too.  Save your livies for your less “sharky” spots.

As for dead bait offerings, the old squid and pilchards get things started, but are often not enough to bring shut-down fish on the bite.  Sometimes it becomes necessary to put your trophy fish dreams on hold and actually go looking for some bait to jumpstart a bite.  Switch to light gear and see if you can pick up some small trevally or stripeys, or grab out the spin gear and hunt down a tuna school.  Oily flesh is best and nothing starts a feeding frenzy like big shiny, oily strips of fresh tuna.  Alternatively, the flesh of some other slimy critters is also highly effective.  Oceangoing catfish for example are premium flesh baits for reds.  A good friend of mine recently turned a trip around when out of desperation he filleted up a catty for slab baits.  He reported that while they didn’t have a fish in the esky before lunch, they had eight reds by stumps that day with all of them coming of catfish strips.  Worth remembering!

Just remember that there is a big difference between a strip of shiny flesh wagging and wafting as it flutters down through the depths and a hunk of meat loaded onto a hook until it looks like something a cat would cough up.  Pin you strip baits near the top, pass he hook through and secure them neatly.  The bait should always lay flash, shouldn’t bunch up and the hook point should always be exposed!

Trip saver four: chase the grazers

While it might not be 100 percent accurate, I believe top tier predators feed less often than lower tier species.  Large demersal predatory species like coral trout and red emperor tend to preserve their energy and only exert it at key bite periods or when the offering is too good to refuse (see above).  Lower tier species, however, seem to feed more continuously.  Think of species such as sweetlip, redthroat, parrot fish, spangled emperor and even grunter.  These fish find a lot of their food by grazing along the bottom around rubble for morsels like shrimp, crabs or little fish.  By their very nature their feeding patterns are very different and this allows them to be specifically targeted.  It’s also why they are excellent alternates when the day is slow.

Grazing species are often referred to as “finicky” and this can be true, especially around the slack of the tide etc.  However, unlike the more top tier predators, they will still bite during these periods – just slower and less aggressively than they will during a bite period.

And if they’ll bite, you can hook them.  You just need to be strategic about it.  Try downsizing everything – gear, leader, hook size and even bait size.  Try smaller strip baits or squid heads to ensure the fish can get the hook down with minimal effort.  Remember that during lulls they will take their time before they commit and can be spooked easily.  This means slack line is your friend.  Anchor up if you have to, but make sure you are getting to the bottom with as little lead as possible and are constantly feeding the fish slack line to encourage them to take it and run.  Using a running sinker rig is a good way to do this, as it allows the fish to pick up the bait and move off without instantly feeling the weight of the sinker, like they will with a paternoster rig. Just don’t be surprised if small, barely distinguishable bites turn into hard fights once the hook slides into place!

Trip saver five: switch to pelagics

This is especially true of days when excessive tidal flow is making it difficult to hold bottom and target finicky fish.  Often on days like this it’s simply better to stow the bottom rigs and either go for a high-speed troll, jig, or do some popping and stick-baiting around some bombies or reef edges.  Fast flowing water funnels bait, so if you can find choke points or areas where bait school are sheltering (i.e. the lee side of bombies, wrecks etc) then you are in with a real chance of napping fish like Spanish mackerel, giant trevally and even cobia (especially on deep bombies).  The other thing to note with pelagics is they never stop swimming, so they are always burning energy – this means they constantly need to be consuming food, even on days when the bite is slow.

All in all, there’s usually something you can do to turn a trip around.  Just as fish don’t feed 24 hours a day, they also rarely fast for long periods.  They have to eat, so you just have to make sure you are in the right place when they do.  You won’t always get it right – that’s fishing, but by following the above tips you’ll give yourself the best possible chance.  Not every day will be the trip of a lifetime, but if you fish smart, you can almost always bring home a feed and stretch a few rods.

Until next time, fish hard and stay safe.