A guide to catching wild Saratoga

Saratoga banner Back in college I knew a girl named Sara. She was feisty, beautiful, thin and very very hard to catch, but in the end I caught my prize. The exact same words can be also be said of a Sara of another variety. The sara-toga.
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Absolutely made for slurping prey off the surface. Evolution has not changed these perfectly designed creatures for millions of years.

Such an elusive and exquisite catch, these fish are presently on the radar of many fisherman across the nation. Whether you reside in the top end, southern Queensland or central Queensland, saratoga are highly prized yet extremely accessible for those not scared to get off the beaten track. There is no doubt in my mind that saratoga (referred herewith as toga) are one of the most majestic, graceful and simply awesome looking freshwater fish of all. Prehistoric in appearance, they certainly would not look out of place swimming around with the dinosaurs. In fact they really do take on somewhat of a dragon-like look with their angry eyes, chin barbells and fiery orange pectoral fins. Over the last 3 or so years, I have spent serious time specifically targeting these fish around Mackay. They were never really on my radar until I unexpectedly hooked a cracking 76cm specimen whilst chasing sooty grunter. From that day, I made targeting them an absolute priority. Your first toga surface strike will be etched in your memory bank for eternity. They hit a surface lure with such force and aggression that they often get airborne. Is there any wonder why they are also known as “spotted barramundi”. I would like to share a few tips that I have picked up so far that have worked for me and hopefully may work for you too.

Be on the water early

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Good mate Rhys Albrecht with a nice specimen.

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Make sure you keep your fingers away from those teeth. Speaking from experience, they can inflict a nasty wound.

First of all, give yourself the best chance by getting to your chosen location early in the morning and utilising topwater techniques. Use google earth and find a secluded waterhole off the beaten track that would see a little less angling pressure. Presence of dense overhanging vegetation and/or large woody debris is imperative as structure and ambush points. Small stickbaits, poppers and even frog and lizard imitations between roughly 50-80mm will work well. Toga are built for surface feeding. They have large eyes, an upturned mouth built for slurping prey off the surface and those sharp teeth are just made for gripping onto things and not letting go. Throughout the heat of the day (like most freshwater fish) they will head to deeper water or hang out in the shade of dense overhanging vegetation, so little diving minnows or small soft plastics will work well when the sun is up. They will then become active on the surface again throughout the late afternoon when the sun loses intensity and the waterhole becomes shaded again. Whilst on the point of shade, make sure you aim your cast at areas that are shaded. Toga will hang out in this shade underneath overhanging trees, laying in ambush waiting for insects or small lizards to fall into the water. The closer you can get your lure to the structure, the better. If you are more than 30cm away, then you are wasting your time.

The ‘yak advantage

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A beautiful 76cm specimen caught on an atomic K9 bulldog from the yak.

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Classic toga water and no better way to cover it than on a kayak.

Launching a kayak not only gives an angler the advantage of stealth but also allows the angler to paddle right up the middle of the stream and cast at the shaded structure on each bank. Saratoga have excellent eye site and do spook very easily. You can cast for them off the bank as well but the same applies. Be stealthy, wear neutral/earthy colours, try and limit the amount of noise you make (ie talking/laughing with your fishing buddy) and make sure you obtain the property owner’s permission if you are walking a river bank situated on private property. Despite their feisty appearance, Saratoga aren’t the greatest scrappers. When it comes to fighting ability, they remind me a lot of a large flathead whereby they will have a couple of short, fast runs but then will come in like a bit of a “dead-weight”. However, their leap can be extraordinary. Rods around 2-4kg or 3-5kg are perfect for toga. That being said, I like to use a 3-6kg rod mainly due to the abundant large, hard fighting sooty grunter that dominate these locations as well. I also use a combination of my Shimano Stella 2500FI or my Stella 3000FE pending on the rod I am using on that particular occasion. These are matched up with either 8lb or 10lb braid and 14lb leader. It’s not uncommon for people to use leaders up to 20lb for them as well due to their very sharp, aggressive teeth.

Good news and the bad ….

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Matching the hatch between the Megabass Siglett and the real thing. The noise emitted by these cicadas was absolutely deafening on this day.

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This specimen ate an atomic shiner hardbody worked deeper in the water column throughout the warmer part of the day.

Whilst you are now prepped and keen to chase a few toga, here is the bad news. Be prepared for more than a little frustration as you will almost certainly hook many more toga than you actually land….Saratoga have a very bony, platy mouth full of teeth and it is actually very difficult for your hooks to find a bit of flesh to imbed into. For this reason, many people I know will run a stinger hook that trails back a bit further in a bid to try and hook the bit of flesh found just beyond the jaw area. You will need to ensure your hooks (trebles or singles) are razor sharp. Also, thinner gauged hooks will have a better penetration rate. It’s a fine art finding a treble hook that is thin enough to maximise penetration in a toga’s bony mouth, yet not compromise the strength for when a beefy sooty grunter takes your offering. These black footballs are very plentiful in these same waters, will occupy the same structure and will bend out an inferior or thin treble without much trouble at all.

Finally … let ’em go

Saratoga are very bony and are not good table fare at all. I strongly recommend releasing all of them, back to the water. Plus, they are way too awesome looking to catch just once. I hope these few tips may be beneficial when you take the time to target those tricky toga. Everyone has to catch one of these fish at one point in their lives. When you do catch one, I will guarantee that you will sit back for a few seconds and just look in awe at the beauty of these awesome fish.  

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