Toga Tales – Andy Pennell 2017

We are fortunate in this country that we can still go to certain areas to target a species and more often than not encounter the fish we set out for. Sure there are still those trips that leave you wondering if golf would have been a better pastime, but generally with dedication and a little nouse the rewards will come. The latest thing on fins to steal my attention was the Saratoga.

Id read a bit about these ancient looking fish over the years and was keen to see one in the flesh. There are two distinct species of toga in Australia the Gulf Saratoga S. jardiniiand the Queensland Saratoga S. leichardti. Theleichardtistrain was the one I zeroed in on due to its accessibility to the south- east Queensland region. This species of Saratoga has been stocked into numerous well-knowndams. With that being said Cania, Borumba,EwenMaddock and Hinze dam on the Gold coast are the most reliable impoundment fisheries if you wanted to tackle one of these fish for yourself. If river fishing is more your style the Saratoga can be successfully targeted from the bank or a yak in the Fitzroy river system and its tributaries. The Saratoga tops out at around 90cm in length and 6 to 8 kilos in weight, which represents a solid fish in anyone’s language.

As with any new venture I embark on I read online forums and articles until I got square eyes and eventually lined up a trip and hit the water. We arrived mid afternoon to Lake Borumba and after quickly setting up a basic camp I launched the boat in search of the prehistoric Saratoga. After a quick scout around we settled on a likely looking point that had a mix of weed, trees and a gently sloping earthen band and began deploying our chosen offerings. After 20 minutes of throwing the tried and tested Jackal TN 50 with out so much as a nudge I grabbed an 8Wt fly rod and tied on a dark green foam surface fly tied by a mate of mine. At around 30mm long I figured a slightly more subtle approach might be just the ticket in a lake that receives its fair share of angling pressure. My third cast was met with aspectacular strike and leap. Surface feeding is truly the specialty on this unique species and upon closer examination in the net I could see why. The Saratoga sports large eyes and their positioning at the top of the head reveals a fish that has evolved its diet around surface and shallow water prey. On its lower jaw are two stubby filamentous feelers that assist it in sensing terrestrial targets like frogs, mice, grasshoppers and small water birds. After reviving the 60cm fish for a minute or so I couldn’t help but note their physical similarity to their South Americanrelative the ginormousArapaima. Upon release my decky noticed the fish throw its sensory antenna directly forward as if being ultra cautious following itsout of water encounter. All Saratoga should be released in my opinion. Firstly they are just too special to kill and secondly I am informed that they are bonier than Kate Moss after a long stretch on ‘survivor amazon’. After I released that first fish I thought the next one would come shortly after. Oh how wrong I was. We fished and fished and fished. I had several rods rigged and systematically rotated through them all to no avail at times. Long periods without so much as a bite were intermittently broken by a fish here and there however and some of the missed strikes were enough to straighten our spines and encourage us to push on. During one particular fishless session a maimed bony bream came bobbing towards the boat on the light easterly afternoon breeze. Just as my buddy looked over a toga of around 80cm rolled on it lazily. This got me thinking. In a lake that is absolutely chock full of food these fish probably aren’t forced to exert a great deal of energy in order to stay in good condition. I slowed my retrievals down as much as I could and a few larger fish began to come aboard. Large bladed spinner baits that could be rolled ultra slow and hardbodies that could stop on a dime and suspend became the weapon of choice. The bony nature of the Saratoga’s mouth meant that firmer fast action rods were necessary for good hook sets, but even so fish were lost. At one point I advised my fishing partner to cast her spinnerbait down a thin channel between some weed beds no more than a 50cm deep. The bait was crunched and the toga proceeded to do two forward summersaults in succession before throwing the wire and lead contraption free violently. I looked at her expecting that disappointed look every fisherman knows, instead she grinned and muttered “how awesome was that”. I recon she probably had a point. The old toga is by no means a brawler, while they give a fair account for themselves their allure to me is their fondness for smashing lures and flies off or from very close to the surface. The initial strike of the Saratoga is something to behold and their fondness for going aerial is a big part of what makes them so worthy of targeting.

I talked to various fisherman coming and going and the variety of presentations they spruiked as the go to lure was huge, which further emphasized the opportunistic nature of the Saratoga’s diet to me. I normally have a top lure for a species at a given time but I came away from my toga sojourn with about 15 top picks, which is a first. My tip would be to play it by ear and let the ‘toga tell you’ by changing presentations until you crack a pattern. While these fish certainly get weighty there is no need to overkill it in the rod, reel and line class department. Standard bass fishing gear is more than adequate and I went down as low as 4 pound braid on my bream gear without any bust offs. As I mentioned earlier the Saratoga is readily accessible to much of south-east and central Queensland so I recomend hitting an impoundment or creek near you to test your metal. My few trips after these iconic fish did leave me wanting more and as I sat reviving my last good Saratoga for the trip, admiringthe intense pink dots adorning its armor plate like scales I couldn’t help think about how many thousands of years they had been cruising the lilied verges of our waterways as top dog or there abouts. They are really worth the effort to witness up close, so make a plan, have a crack and Ill see you round the ridges.