Bait Ball Primer – Preparing for your first time

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The cooler months of winter may not mean ‘bait ball action’ to the majority of Aussie fishos but for the lucky ones who head north to destinations such as Cape York, the Territory or the North West, we are closing in on prime time for serious bait ball action. As those who have fished bait balls know, the experience can be likened to an all-in piscatorial brawl as Justin Duggan explains here.

What a sight ! A bait ball frenzy with all manner of species in, above and below the thick of it.

What a sight ! A bait ball frenzy with all manner of species in, above and below the thick of it.

Don’t be late for the ball

To many anglers, the sight of a bait ball being harassed by a frenzied gathering of predators is about as good as fly fishing gets. Dive bombing birds, explosions of bait and white water, bait leaping on top of other bait in a futile effort to get away from mouths, beaks and teeth. This is a David Attenborough Documentary unfolding before us, you would think that any fly hitting the water would be eaten and you’d be mostly correct but how do we maximise what’s on offer when a whirlwind of bait and predators is before us?

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Carnage, a longtail tuna launches an attack through a sardine ball.

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A broadbar mackerel taken on a dead drifted fly below a bait ball.

The Anatomy of a bait ball
A Baitball is simply a defensive gathering of bait under duress from predators. They are common in both offshore and inshore areas and are more often than not associated with tuna, although not always.
Bait balls can comprise many species of fish, both the bait and the predators chasing them. Sardines, Anchovies, fusiliers, mullet, tailor, hardiheads even Australian Salmon and Kingfish can become a baitball if the predators are numerous enough to cause the last ditch defensive measure of schooling in a spherical mass.
Some species of predator will herd bait schools in such a way that the school will move at great pace through the water, constantly trying to stay as one mass. These fast tracking bait masses can be very hard to get a fly to.
When predators such as Tuna find bait schools they tend to encircle the bait using their speed. It is this behaviour that tends to bamboozle the bait and since the bait feels surrounded it will form a tight mass where individual baitfish fight to get to the centre of the school, away from danger. These schools are very easy to target on fly and will often seek shelter under a boat making successful casts almost stupidly short.
Once a bait school forms a spherical mass each predator will have different attack methods and its possible to target different species by picking where and what flies you present. Tuna will use speed to swim directly through the school with mouths agape. Many species of trevally, tailor and larger fish like Kingfish and Cobia will lurk on the deeper, outer margins looking for easy pickings like wounded bait or even smaller predators. Mackerel often pluck bait from the margins whilst billfish swim through the mass using their bills to disable and separate bait. I have observed larger sharks like bull sharks literally devour a whole ball of sardines in one gulp.
Often when bait is being attacked for a lengthy period of time it can draw in a host of non-pelagic species such as Flathead and Jewfish and I have personally experienced extraordinary flathead fishing in areas where baitball activity has taken place for several days in a row.

Making the most of it

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A solid tuna hooked on fly from a bait ball.

Bait balls can last hours or seconds depending on the ratio of bait and predators. There are a few key factors to making the most of a baitball frenzy. As a starting point I always try to use a fly that is a reasonable match for the bait. I would always advocate placing a cast to the edge of the bait rather than in the middle. Placing a fly in the middle of the bait will only serve to hide it amongst the baitfish. Anything placed on the edge of the schools is easy prey and rarely lasts long.
When predators chew through a bait school their bodies, teeth and tails disable and stun the bait which see’s their bodies fall through the water column where they are mopped up by various fish. For this reason one of the most effective retrieves is to actually do nothing, just let it fall below the school. By varying your retrieves between “do-nothing” and fast you can actually catch different species.
Changing your flies from matching the hatch to much larger flies as well as varying the retrieve can single out individual species. Spanish Mackerel can be suckers for a white deceiver sunk dead drift off the side of the bait frenzy. Tuna will wallop a fast- stripped candy as it appears to make a break for it over the surface. A large fly with wafting fibres can be deadly slow stripped under the bait to undo bigger fish like Kingfish or Cobia and of course a weighted fly bounced across the bottom near the bait ball always has the chance to yield a flathead.

Gear and Technique

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Twitching a fly past the outer edge of a Cape York bait ball.

There is not too much technicality to chasing fish in baitballs but a few tips on technique and gear will help increase your catch.
With the frenzy so often associated with baitballs it is absolutely imperative to be ready for a bite the minute your fly hits the water. For this reason you should maintain full control of the flyline at all times when casting. Try stripping the fly as soon as it touches the water to remove slack. Sinking lines should also have no slack so you can get instant hook-sets when your fly is taken on the drop.
Intermediate or full sink lines will maintain good water tension for better hook-ups and will allow you to cover far more water than a floating line.

Shooting the Breeze

I like shooting heads for this style of fishing as I often lose lines to mackerel or toothy fish that bite through the lines and connections. Shooting heads are far cheaper than full lines and can be re-rigged more easily on the boat. Try and avoid braided loop connections when mackerel or the like are around as they often mistake these for bait and bite through them. The old trick of colouring them black with a permanent marker can also help.

Whilst there are no hard and fast rules and bait balls can come in a huge array of shapes, sizes and locations you’ll find the tips contained here will give you a great starting point for your approach…………….go get em!

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