Blue Water Trolling

Small boats + billfish action = happy days

Through the year my species compass spins wildly in all manner of directions – like others I chase many types of fish with a variety of techniques and tackle for months on end. But come September all focus shifts to just one aspect of the sport and that, my friends, is blue water trolling.
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Jono Shales with a quality Hervey Bay black marlin caught from a 15 foot boat virtually off the beach!

[s2If current_user_is(s2member_level1)] In my home waters of Hervey Bay, September is the start of the summer run of one of fishing’s most exciting species – juvenile black marlin that visit the inshore waters adjacent to Fraser Island. Most trolling is done in less than thirty meters of water and indeed often under ten meters. This is where the juvenile blacks of Hervey Bay spend a lot of time feeding upon the bait-rich sand flats and ledges that run between Wathumba Creek and Rooneys Point on Fraser Island. For this reason fly fisherman from across the world venture to the region to sight cast black marlin virtually just off the beach! This is considered by many ‘swoffers’ to be the pinnacle of their sport. But trolling is more my thing. I’ve spent nearly twenty years towing lures in these waters and like any style of fishing it comes with its good and bad days. In this article I will endeavour to shed light on what works best for me. This will help minimise your bad days and quash the notion that you need a 40-foot boat and a million dollars of tackle to go game fishing.

Setting up a small boat for big fish

Trailer boat game fishing can be as cheap or expensive as you want to make it. To get started all you need are a few outfits that hold 600 to 1000 meters of 6 to 10 kg line. Add a handful of lures, a tank or two of fuel and you’re away. Invest a bit more of your ‘hard earned’ and you can buy a set of outriggers along with a few teasers to have a good spread of lures in your wake. Teaser lures, commonly referred to simply as ‘teasers’, add splash and flash behind your boat and come in many different forms. I’ve tried most over the years and like to run two diving teasers – a Boone Sundance and a Witchdoctor. I also like to use two daisy chain surface teasers. Daisy chains are made of plastic squid, flying fish and pushers. Individual components are cheap to buy and can be self assembled. Running four teasers can result in added work when you hook a fish but when trolling from trailer boats it makes a difference especially if other boats are trolling the same area. Lure selection and placement is a topic that has a thousand theories but a rule-of-thumb is run your biggest lures close to the boat, your smallest farthest away and everything else in between.

Time to set the lures

Here she comes - a small boat billfish nearing the boat at the end of a battle.

Here she comes – a small boat billfish nearing the boat at the end of a battle.

Another lovely billfish hooked up close to shore in the lee of Fraser Island.

Another lovely billfish hooked up close to shore in the lee of Fraser Island.

The most common mistake people make when starting out is running lures too far back from the boat which in fact is the biggest fish attractor you have. To game fish the silhouette of a hull resembles a school of bait and the prop wash imitates fish being fed upon. For this reason keeping lures close to the boat keeps them in the strike zone. I set my spread of lures about 6 to 8 meters from the boat, finishing up at around 20 meters. I always run my darkest coloured lure closest because it stands out in the prop wash. A lumo green is next, a little further back. My preference is to place a pink lure on one rigger and a blue/silver on the other. When I’m out on the bay the fifth and final teaser rod always has a rigged swimming garfish set farthest back in the middle of the wake or the ‘shot gun’ position. These days I won’t troll without a swimming gar in the spread for the simple fact it catches fish. Many days the gar is the only thing that catches fish. I’ve found when a marlin is a bit shy to hit a lure they tend to not hesitate hitting the gar. Hervey Bay attracts a lot of school and spotted mackerel and the gar is usually the first thing to get hit which is good for the mortality rate of the skirted lures and the reason I rig my gars with a tail hook to stop baits being chopped in half. Once you have set your spread of lures and teasers check that the lures are sitting on the face of a wave and surfacing regularly or ‘taking a breath’. This surface position will help ensure the lure is creating a bubble trail as it swims. A few meters closer or further away can make all the difference and if all else fails change the lure because you need them to breath. The two lures closest to the boat need to be just behind the teasers – exactly how close will depend on sea conditions but make sure their is enough room to avoid tangles. On the rougher days you may need to reduce the amount of gear you run to make things easy on everyone, after all it’s supposed to be fun and nobody wants to hear a cranky skipper.

The outrigger difference

Scott Bradley

Scott Bradley with a solid Hervey Bay long tail tuna – great by catch when the marlin go shy.

Outriggers make trolling so much easier by simply spreading lures far enough away to give the ability to make tighter turns around bait schools or known fish holding features. They also help to set lures on the edge of the prop wash. I use tag lines which hang back off the rigger to reduce the amount of slack line when a fish strikes. On the end of the tag line an elastic band connects the lure to the tag line via a snap swivel which breaks upon a strike. There’s no need to get too technical – I use the thinner common elastic bands from the local newsagent. They are way cheaper than so called ‘game fishing bands’ and I prefer the longer bands to keep the line further from the swivel. Remember to always check tag lines and rod tips when trolling. Line twist is unavoidable. A change in pressure on the line from turning the boat or in rough weather your line can easily cause line to wrap around the rod tip or climb up the snap. If you get a strike at this time it’s all over red rover. Lures are not exactly cheap these days and no one likes to lose a fish. This happened to me once – I learned from the unfortunate experience and now check all lines regularly.  

Game, set, match … now for the fish

Scott Bradley

A hetfy mackerel caught near Fraser Island.

Now that the spread is sorted and lures are working as they should the next thing is to find fish. Many anglers will tell you fish are where you find them but it’s a big ocean that can look rather featureless on the quiet days. In a perfect world the sky would be constantly full of birds, dipping and diving on vast schools of bait with fish busting up as far as the eye can see. As we know, that’s not always the case. Even when all is going to plan and fish are around predatory fish can be reluctant to lock in on a specific sized baitfish. If you don’t match the hatch you won’t get a strike. In Hervey Bay this can be a real problem with tiny baitfish of just a few centimetres in length being common. In this situation moving on to the next school or finding new water is best option. I have had many strikes after moving just a short distance from the action. When the surface action is dead I like to work the contour lines, ledges and sand spits keeping a watchful eye for concentrations of bait close to the surface. When you find bait work the area ensuring you change your angle of your approach before moving on. Never leave bait to find bait unless you’ve thoroughly worked the school. Reef structures are always worth a look. This country usually holds bait so pelagics are generally around and an added bonus is that many reef species will also smash a lure. It’s always nice to bring home fish for the table and it’s not all about billfish. With tuna, mackerel, dolphin fish, cobia, wahoo and countless other species on offer trolling is a very productive and thrilling way to fish. The billfish itch is one I never seem to be able to scratch. These thrilling fish keep me coming back year after year and trolling for days on end, just to see another marlin carve up the ocean as only a billfish can. Never tried trolling for light tackle game fish from a trailer boat? Why not give it a go and see what all the fuss is about. But be warned – it’s a highly addictive habit. [/s2If]
Scott Bradley

About Scott Bradley

Scott Bradley was born in Hastings Victoria and grew up fishing for King George whiting, snapper, sharks, Australian salmon and flathead. At 15 years of age his family moved to what he calls ‘God’s own country’ for the fishing and lifestyle that Queensland’s Hervey Bay is famous for. At 19 he bought his first boat and started to properly explore the fish-rich waters adjacent to world-renowned Fraser Island. “I carved my teeth chasing pelagics and to this day find it hard to go past a boiling bait school without firing a slug or popper into the action,” said Scott. “Longtails and spotted mackerel were all I chased until age 20 when I caught my first marlin trolling in 10 meters of water, 500 meters off Fraser Island and I was hooked.” From then on Scott has spent years chasing marlin inside Fraser Island. On the good days he says 5 to 10 shots at marlin are not uncommon. Now 37-years-old, Scott maintains that game fishing is his passion. “But I'd also fish in a bucket of water,” he said. “September to March is when I chase Marlin leaving the rest of the year to stalk the flats for flathead and bream. I also hit the reefs for snapper, reds, cod and coralies plus also throw the net for a feed of prawns or shoot up a creek if the wind is up.”

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