Bait Ballin’ WA Style

Bradley (3 of 8)

The classic baitball feeding frenzy situation – churning whitewater thrown up by hard feeding fish and a whole flock of birds signposting the action.

There are not too many fishing situations as exciting as a baitball feeding frenzy. As Western Australian based kayo contributor Ben Knaggs explains here, these chaotic events are a regular sight for fishes along the north-west West Australian coastline.

It’s pure Attenborough stuff. The soap opera of life and death, played out in frenzied actions as swarms of individuals acting as a single entity desperately try to evade much larger predators intent on their demise. We anglers call it a bait ball, and its a fleeting event we all crave to be party to.

Approaching a frothing bait ball would have to be one of the most exhilarating aspects of the sport.

Approaching a frothing bait ball would have to be one of the most exhilarating aspects of the sport.

Few fishing situations are as deliciously chaotic as a full-on bait ball. While the stakes for us as almost inconsequential participants in all this activity are far lower than those of prey and predator, it’s still adrenaline pumping stuff for an angler right amongst the thick of it.

One of the best sights in fishing

Baitball feeding frenzies are a major mechanism of the natural marine world along the north-west coast of Western Australia. For whatever reason – be it the generally dry, arid climate or simply just the huge diversity of life in these waters – sudden or seasonal localized influxes of baitfish, prawns or other small prey species are very common, to the point where many predatory species of the north-west have adapted their behaviors and even body shapes to take advantage of these short lived bonanzas.

Bradley (7 of 8)

Queenfish are perfectly adapted for feeding on baitfish schools and adore baitballs. They’ll swim a long way and occupy quite deep or very shallow water to get in on a baitball bonanza.

With this in mind, baitballs are something all fishos should be constantly on the lookout for when fishing this exciting stretch of coast, or anywhere else around our impossibly large and diverse Aussie coastline for that matter. Finding a baitball under attack can be as simple as stumbling over a blatantly obvious patch of churning whitewater, or as demanding as spending hours scanning a large swath of ocean via sonar. A bit of know-where-to-look nous will help either way.

The first thing to do when seeking out baitball feeding frenzies is to know your local baitfish and their seasons. Many species of baitfish make regular ‘runs’ at certain times of the year, and keeping this info in mind gives you a major leg up to finding bait balls right from the get go.

Cue the bait and the fish will follow

For example, here in my home base of Exmouth, the Exmouth Gulf sees a regular run of a small herring species colloquially known as ‘gulf mulies’ around September or October each year. When these baitfish rock up in their thousands, we can expect big mobs of sailfish to follow, resulting in some world class sailfishing that may last for months or just a short burst depending on the movements and abundance of the gulf mulies.

Bradley (5 of 8)

Wherever possible, try to match your lures to the size and profile of the baitfish in the baitball. This lure wasn’t drawing much interest from the longtail and mack tuna working the baitball, but a quick change to the same lure in a smaller size produced instant results.

The next step is to work out when and where the baitfish schools are likely to show up over the period of a single day, or even a single tide phase. Time of tide often plays a big part in this, as the movements of the baitfish/baitballs are heavily influenced by tide and current. This might mean the change of tide period bringing bait schools to the surface offshore, an incoming tide seeing baitballs accumulating along a beach inshore, or even a run-out tide forcing baitfish out of the mouth of a creek in an estuary setting.

Tide lines are also good, tide generated spots to look for when seeking baitballs, as these demarcation lines of different bodies of water are prime feeding grounds for the baitfish themselves as well as the predators that hunt them.

Following the birds

Bradley (4 of 8)

Longtail tuna do most of their feeding on baitballs, but can be very fussy about what they’ll eat in this scenario. Matching your lure precisely to the size of baitfish they’ve feeding on will often trigger a bite.

Then of course there’s the natural signs such as bird activity, water displacement and subtle water colour changes beneath the surface – the old school fundamentals of fishing that are as important now as they were before the technological age took fishing by storm. The skills to read these cues will always be essential.

On the modern front, sonar will put you onto plenty of baitball action over the journey. After all, not all baitball feeding frenzies take place on the surface. Plenty of this feeding happens right down in the water column, particularly where larger predators like marlin, big tuna and various trevallies are concerned.

Aside from helping to locate the bait balls in the first place, your sounder can also tell you what that bait is up to (soundings of baitfish that are tightly compacted or show very flat edges along the side of the school are usually under attack), and where to best place your baits or lures to have them right in harm’s way.

Bradley (2 of 8)

That characteristic extravagant dorsal fin of a sailfish is a physiological adaptation specifically for the purpose of rounding up baitballs. No surprises then that these fish are prime targets around offshore baitballs in the north-west.

It’s also well worth using GPS to log areas where you’ve found big baitballs in the past. It is amazing how often baitfish will return to the same exact places offshore, even when there’s no apparent reason for them to gather there.

Once found, the first step to actually fishing a bait ball is to assess what’s going on. If there’s no obvious signs of predators and the bait school is looking happy and stress free, don’t immediately discount it. There still may be the odd larger fish stalking it, and even if that’s not the case, big bait schools don’t go unnoticed for long so it may be worth hanging around or at least marking the spot and checking it out again at a later time.

Cast in and hang on!

Cobia will often lurk around beneath a baitball. Sending a bait or lure down below the main action is a top tactic to pick them up.BU 6 - On this day the birds gave away the presence of a bait school and we hooked a sailfish off it the moment a live bait was pitched into the fray. Exciting stuff!

Cobia will often lurk around beneath a baitball. Sending a bait or lure down below the main action is a top tactic to pick them up.BU 6 – On this day the birds gave away the presence of a bait school and we hooked a sailfish off it the moment a live bait was pitched into the fray. Exciting stuff!

If it’s all happening though and the baitball feeding frenzy is on, there’s nothing left to do but make the most of it. When the predators are tearing into the baitball, the fishing is sometimes very easy, but surprisingly, can often be fairly challenging on almost as many occasions as well.

‘Match the hatch’ is the oft quoted, and just as often bastardised mantra fly fishing for trout, but it does apply to any sort of feeding frenzy situation. Perhaps instead we’ll call it ‘imitate the bait’ in this fishing scenario that’s about as far removed from trout fishing as you could find! Predatory fish so often ‘lock-on’ to the specific type of baitfish they’re feeding on in a baitball situation, to the point where they will ignore all other offerings that don’t precisely replicate those baitfish. So getting this mach right is important.

When fishing lures, I’ve found that size and profile is a key to this, perhaps even more so than colour, so choosing a lure that is as close a size and shape match to the bait the fish are feeding on as possible is a major step toward coming up tight.

When bait fishing, the obvious smart move whenever possible is to try to catch and use the very bait that’s getting monstered. You’d scarcely believe it, but I’ve seen baitball occasions when live baits of the exact same baitfish species, only caught in a location well away from the baitball frenzy, have been totally ignored by the gorging predators. For example, slimy mackerel or yakkas caught on the inshore bait grounds can sometimes be almost useless next to the same species jigged on location out of school under attack. So if the fish are picky but you can catch your live baits in situ, do so!

A who’s who of species

Finally, remember that even in a classic, surface churning, out of control baitball situation, fishing lures or baits down below all the action can produce some big surprises. Cobia, sailfish and black marlin are but a few larger targets notorious for working below baitballs that may be chiefly harassed by less prestigious predators like small tuna. The only downside here is that you can expect plenty of sharks to nail live baits or hooked fish below baitballs, but then that’s an inescapable facet of fishing the north-west almost regardless of fishing style!

For a red-blooded fisho, there’s not many situations that widen the eyes wide and shrill the voice quite like a baitball feeding frenzy. All the more reason to get out there and track one down!




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