Taming The Trout – Dan Bowater 2017

Another summer has passed and those cruel mid-year trade winds are now relentlessly hammering the coast. The frequency of calm forecasts is now much less inspiring leaving most bluewater hopefuls to contemplate past results or maybe to forget about them in favour of a session on some winter macks.

My most recent offshore expedition occurred during a spell of flat seas in the lead up to cyclone Debbie. My mate Paul ‘Teabag’ Tetley had earmarked a section of shallow rubble in-between two prominent reef systems off Cairns. Our Plan A involved jigging this passage of water ranging from 25-30 metres for ‘tasties’ (i.e. coral trout, sweetlip and nannygai). In previous expeditions this plan has sounded great over a beer or on the phone but in practise invariably things always change! Whether that’s due to the jigs/plastics yielding no results, or being distracted by foaming schools of tuna or even bee-lining it for deeper water at last minute for bigger trophy reds.


Breakthroughs and Bommies

For one reason or another very few of these trips initially aimed at using vertical artificials have been fully followed through. However, as I will explain, for once plan A proved a winner! The trip was a blur of continual hook-ups, dust offs, and tasty rewards. Moreover its one of only a few trips where we have actually had to cease fishing and leave the agro buggers alone for their own good!

The first and most significant breakthrough was the reef structure- or lack thereof. When I think of species like coral trout I immediately associate prominent bommies like massive brain or thorn coral. It surprised me to see that a large expanse of broken ground could serve as a sanctuary for so many trout and other species.

For years I had followed jigging enthusiasts from Townsville who have improvised their methods to suit less abundant or damaged inner reefs. Some of those blokes have these jigging methods sussed down to a tee. While beautiful big bommies littering the main Cairns reefs are obvious fish magnets broken ground is much better in its own unique way. The fish may be more scattered but the country is also better suited to drifting methods. The more open ground quite simply allows for continual unhindered jigging. Locating this ground through some earlier strategic troll runs was definitely a huge part of our success.      


Depths N’ Drifts!

Another important factor is the proximity to main reefs; they certainly weren’t far off, and acted as a passage way for mooching predators. Finally the depth proved ideal for the target species and subtle presentations. Its one thing to locate good spots but to get it sussed out in ‘edge country’ (say 20-35m) is even better. Not only does this depth range produce possibly the biggest variety of reef species but also allows for very effective use of lures like jigs, soft plastics and vibes. Some great stories have been written covering the approaches to reds in much greater depths however there’s plenty to investigate in shallower. Without that huge belly of braid in the water you can get more responsive actions on your lure, place more repeat casts and eliminate the arduous nature of lugging up huge jig heads from a dark abyss.

Traditionally our approach totally defied logic by removing stinky bags of bait and whipper snipper cord handlines. I bet some of my past fishing mates would have condemned our trip as sacrilege! The sneaky modern tactics proved their worth with each thumping trout swung over the gunnels. It was incredible how aggressively the plastics/jigs were chased down. I figured our perfect drift speed aided by a light easterly wind and neap tide helped the lures dance with minimal weight. Gone are the days of massive snapper leads and constantly aching arms- all energy was saved for the inevitable killer fights. On the issue of tidal movement I felt this could have also attributed to the presence of trout in open ground. It was kind of like doubling the stakes by having them showing in numbers on the sounder, plus being able to offer a very convincing lightweight dancing lure. No baits were touched!

Going Light for the Bite

‘Open ground’ jigging offers another very clear advantage in landing trout and other dirty fighters notorious for mercilessly taking lines downstairs into structure. While we did lose quite a few fish it was nowhere near the casualty rate you’d experience on typical Cairns reef habitat. What’s more Teabag had set up some light jigging gear to really get the most out of some of our lighter 40 gram micro jigs. It would be something like fishing suicide to attempt this tactic near a big bommie. On open ground the odds are far more in your favour and soon enough this small 5000 sized Shimano Sustain combo had something of a catwalk appeal when things got crazy. The light jig stick would get the lures into ‘the zone’ that tidbit quicker, the lighter leader allowed for a better action, and the sensitivity of the combo worked the lure more convincingly…the response from below was undeniable. The basic ingredients for attaining hook-ups consisted of a short cast ahead of the boat’s line of drift (perhaps 15 metres), free-spooling until the lure was positioned vertically (and on the bottom), and completing up to ten subtle jigging movements within a few feet of touchdown. Once the angle of the line became too awkward (i.e. well under the boat) we would simply retrieve and repeat!

A Second Incentive

As hinted on earlier, most of my previous attempts at using plastics offshore on big reef systems had failed only to be replaced by a pack’o pillies and dropper rig more synonymous with bottom bashing. From my trip with Teabag l I observed something that I had already experienced whilst targeting fingermark with lures. A soft plastic or jig has a special ability to bring out a secondary reaction type response from a fish rather than simply a feeding response. It was obvious going by some of the strikes that these were indeed those brutal territorial type hits rather than slobs slurping down a feed. The lures getting the attention also seemed to exhibit vivid two tone colour schemes that surely would have aroused a response too. It seemed fluoro circusy type colours red/white, yellow/blue and even the ever faithful nuclear chicken got a few scalps. By the end my five pack supply was completely spent but thankfully captain Teabag had a few extras to go around. We ended up placing two Plano ‘liqua lockers’ on the raised bait board area near the transom. It became named the ‘plastics station’ rather than the bait board! This way we could get continual easy access to the Gulps particularly in the jerkshad pattern.

Horses for Courses!

In past articles I have stated my penchant for this style of Gulp ‘SP’ and the intermediate depths suited it perfectly. In other depths exceeding 30 metres I find curl tail presentations tend to work better. Manipulating a jerkshad correctly becomes exponentially more difficult with that increase in depth. Obviously there is also an issue of plastic brand names (or brand ‘nameZ’?) with the popular 10x stretch plastic material being highly regarded for durability. I guess over time I have developed a massive amount of confidence from the Gulps as first choice for prior success with fingermark, cobia and other inshore targets. With lures confidence is such a massive factor, but in hindsight going to the dark side could have saved us a few bucks. The Gulps certainly broke apart pretty easily when under constant assault. With the micro jigs we tried a couple of different types namely Asari slow pitch varieties. It was just one of those magic days when everything turned to gold (or pink trout?).

So to summarise, here’s some of our key tips to capitalise on jigging for trout on broken structure:

         Prospect and ping. If you get the chance to set up some mackerel troll spreads this will give you a chance to locate the right ground. Conveniently the best target depth for trout and macks is very similar, usually contours in 20-35 metres off and in-between main reefs.

         Take the plunge. Changing over to soft plastics is a massive step for species traditionally commonly associated as ‘bait only’. Allocate time to experiment with jig head weights to get some nice combinations going. I often find a 1.5 oz head matched with the seven inch jerkshad will be a good starting point.

         Go light for the bite! Use minimum 30lb braid and 60lb fluorocarbon leader initially or your best fish may escape. If you feel confident by all means go light but be ready for a donation or at the very least a mega arm wrestle!

         Spin or Overhead. Again this is a bit of a break with tradition. You won’t need a big lever drag reel for this caper. Instead reach for a medium PE 2-4 or 3-5 spin outfit from 6’4”-7’ in length. We find the deadly nature of an easy short cast, unhindered free-spool and fast retrieve gives spin gear a significant edge.

         Break it up. If things don’t go to plan there are plenty of great alternate options near main reef systems like popping for GTs, casting to tuna schools and even trolling for macks (or …marks?).

         Respect the reef. Once you have the techniques sussed it’s obviously possible to load up with crazy numbers of trout and other species. In the excitement it’s even possible to take far more than is sensibly needed. The days of stockpiling massive catches have already taken a heavy toll on our reef. The emphasis should be based around the fun rather than just the fillets.


All this talk of jigging up thumper trout is getting me excited. Let’s hope for a dip in these trade winds!


Dan Bowater