Skip Casting For Jacks – Nathan Johnston 2018

Remember the first time you saw someone skip a stone across the water? Perhaps it was watching the old man, a sibling or a mate. If you are anything like me there is also a distinct memory of the first attempt resulting in a big single splash! But you kept trying. Before long and with a bit of practice those stones were skimming across the surface for as far as the eye could see.

It was a similar experience the first time I gave skip casting a crack. On the first go, the lure was shot out towards the mangrove line only to drill into the water several metres shy of the target. The next one wasn’t any better, landing deep in the trees and resulting in the kind of recovery mission typically set aside for experienced commandos. But after a while, those lures started skittling across the surface of the water to land in beyond tiger country and deep into red dog territory.

Mangrove jack are a member of the well-respected Lutjanus cohort including red emperor, golden snapper and red jew to name a few. They have striking red and maroon colourations, with large canine teeth that make short work of baitfish, lures and human fingers alike. These angry punks often hunt in packs and will chase down and attack their prey or anything else that wanders inside their mangrove yards.

It is this tendency to protect their patch and attack with aggression that exposes one of the weakest links for the keen angler looking to land a few jack. These red dogs don’t usually bother engaging with prey unless it lands well inside their mangrove lined fence and the problem for sportfishers is it can be near on impossible to get deep inside the perimeter! Traditionally one of the strategies to turn the odds in favour of an angler is to select bigger tides and fish across the low, when water drains away and compresses fish at the edge or just inside the mangrove line. With skip casting the technique allows you to get further into the dense mangrove forest where fish are holding in cover without waiting for the tide.

Now some will be reading this and thinking about all the jacks landed in the more accessible deep timber and rock bars. There certainly are good fish to be caught in this niche and until recently this is where most of my red dogs had been extracted. Dozens of jacks have hit the deck over the years after being hauled away from deep timber and rock bars, with very fond memories fishing places like Jenny Lind Creek for jacks as a teen with good mate Adam Michael.

The point being made is this – more than half of the jacks in a system with overhanging mangroves will be sitting up behind their mangrove fortresses and that represents a lot more fish to be unlocked if the skip casting technique is learnt. Some may feel they are too old to learn new tricks, but let the lure of more red dogs be your motivation! It was only mid last year when I first stumbled across this addictive form of fishing on a video posted on Facebook by Thomas Ragh. After watching it I couldn’t wait to give it a go. If you haven’t seen this clip yet then look it up! This guy makes my skip casting look elementary.

The first time I had opportunity to try this technique was with Shaun Manthey at the Hinchinbrook fishing expedition last year. Shaun is a top bloke and current president of the Kingaroy Sportfishing Club who had also travelled to Cairns for the celebration. A social multiday fishing outing had been organised as an opportunity to unwind after the 50 year Sportfishing celebration. After several days talking about sportfishing in Cairns, a good number of attendees then descended upon Cardwell with boats in tow and chomping at the bit ready for a fishing session or three. Cardwell Sportfishing Club had kindly offered for us to use their clubhouse as the campgrounds and fishing headquarters.

We fished together for five days out of Cardwell. Two of these days were spent over at Missionary Bay skip casting. This place is God’s own country for estuarine anglers and it’s time to organise a visit if you haven’t been there yet! Missionary Bay is on the north-western side of Hinchinbrook Island, about 20km from the port of Cardwell, which was in dire need of dredging.

As a side note, if you are a politician reading this article and are looking for an easy way to win some votes at the next election, then organising dredging to the public ramp at Cardwell is a sure bet. Get on it!

Missionary Bay has numerous mangrove lined creeks that have grown out and over the water providing perfect habitat for mangrove jack and mint country for skip casting. The first day we spent more time hanging around in the mangroves than fishing. This is where an electric motor comes into its own. Why? Because it’s not a matter of IF, but WHEN the lure gets snagged up! When it does, it’s a lot easier to slowly motor over with the electric to try and extract the lure, particularly after the 20th time for the day!! Another lure extraction technique for the cashed-up, brave and foolish is to use a slightly stiffer carbon rod, wind the line to the lure and push the lure back off the mangrove when the lure is caught up well inside the mangrove line. Do this at your own peril as there is a chance the rod will break if too much force and the wrong angle is applied at the same time. Better still, use a rod that won’t be upsetting if it does break and then use this as an excuse to buy a new one if it does! Alternatively for the risk adverse, consider carrying one of those pole style lure retrievers.

The biggest problem with Missionary Bay is that there are too many creeks to explore! For reference, creeks are numbered 1 to 8 from east to west. Shaun and I tried our luck up creek 3 on the first day, bumping into some black spot cod first up that were sent back sporting pink tags for Hinchinbrook Sportfishing Club’s fishery monitoring plan. We picked up a single jack in the low 40s before hitting a school sitting at the base of a deep drain covered heavily with mangroves. Another two jacks were pulled from this productive honey hole and sent back with pink plastic piercings before we moved. Little drains that empty into a deep bank with overhanging mangroves are one of the apex habitat niches for jacks. Don’t motor past these! We picked up another jack a bit further downstream on our way out before calling it quits and exploring some of the coastal islands close by on the way home.

Early on the first day standard j-hook jig heads were used along with soft plastics in the 70-80mm size bracket. Later in the day these were swapped over to weedless presentations and this reduced snag ups while retrieving. The next day Matt Leavy joined us and we headed to creek 6 after chasing a few mackerel earlier in the day. We picked up another six jacks in a good little session and the results confirmed that skip casting the day before wasn’t a fluke. I was hooked!

The next opportunity to skip cast presented itself when fishing the North Queensland Championships earlier this year. Around 80 competitors descend upon the township of Halifax on May Day long weekend every year to spin a few yarns and try their luck on the water. It was a family affair for the Johnston clan, with the three brothers joining me for a weekend away fishing and socialising.

One of our best sessions for the comp was skip casting for jacks in a shallow sandy creek. The tides were neap, which the locals don’t seem to like as much as the big tides because the drains don’t empty. However this isn’t an issue when skip casting as the fish being targeted are up in the mangroves anyway. In fact, neaps may suit skip casting for jacks better, particularly when fishing in shallow creeks. This is because neaps offer smaller tidal variation so there is more water in the creek at low. As a result the fishing window in shallow sandy creeks is extended before a decision needs to be made about leaving or getting stranded across the low. The draft of my 4.8m side console is about 30cm so these kind of tides are even more beneficial than for those who are fishing out of larger estuary boats.

We spent four hours up a creek that day which is double what could have been achieved with bigger spring tides. During this time we bumped into a dozen jacks, with several double hook-ups. Jacks are schooling fish, so where one is found there are often more and it is worth paying particular attention to a patch where one is extracted. One certain stretch had very fishy looking deep snag country on one side of the creek that produced a trevally and a cod. However, several jacks were pulled from the opposite bank where the mangroves hung 2-3 metres out over water a metre deep. This really drove home to me the benefit of skip casting as a technique that can be used to unlock previously unfishable water.

A trip to Cooktown for a Queensland Sportfishers executive meeting in June also delivered the skip casting goods and consolidated the learnings. One of the golden rules for our executive meetings these days is that if we are going to talk about fishing then there needs to be some fishing mixed in as well! Two fishing sessions were organised with a focus on skip casting. Nine jacks came out of the Endeavour River in an afternoon fishing session and this was followed up by seven from the Annan River in another morning session.

If not already a convert I encourage you to give skip casting a go to help overcome the symptoms of red dog fever!

The Skip Casting Technique!!

Face the side of the creek that is being worked and if possible select the front or rear of the boat that allows an open cast low over the end of the boat when the rod is held by your favoured casting arm.

• Fishing with a mate that is opposite (left/right) handed to you means that both anglers are given the best chance.

• This will be less of an issue for better anglers as they will usually be able to cast backhanded or non-dominant handed easier.

• Wind the line in so the lure is only 10-20cm from the rod tip

• Wait for a gap in the mangroves and visualise how you want the cast to be executed

• Waiting for a few seconds can result in a better cast and less chance of sending your lure around the timber

• Get the rod tip low to start with and punch the lure out reasonably flat, so that it runs parallel to the water. Boats with casting decks make this easier, otherwise a boat seat or other high point can be used.

• Actively think about aiming for the centre of the gap as the lure is sent out

• The lure should start skipping a bit before the mangrove line. Sometimes the first skip rebounds high and hooks up, so get it started early so that it flattens out earlier

• Once the lure reaches the back of the mangroves start slow rolling the lure back to the boat and get ready for the strike!

• Getting the lure moving earlier rather than later reduces the chance of it hooking up on submerged timber

• Inevitably casts will go wayward and hook up to the mangroves. Sometimes it feels like every second cast ends up in the snags! Mentally prepare for the fact that using this technique means a good part of the fishing session will be spent in the mangroves extracting lures and don’t crack the shits when it happens. It will happen. You have been warned!