Breaking the bait ball code

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The author with a solid GT caught from around a bait ball.

The bait ball phenomena is one that often has to be seen to be believed. It’s one of those rare moments in nature when land, air, and water species collide,relying upon on each other to hunt. To many fisherman casting around bait balls is one of the most exciting, adrenaline pumping aspects of the sport as Dan Kaggelis explains. Put together birds such as terns, cormorants and gulls, fish like tuna, trevally, mackerel and finally man in the form of the bait ball fishermen and you’ve got a recipe for food and fun for all parties. All bar one. The humble baitfish stuck in the middle of the melee and the key ingredient which draws all three together. Often no bigger than a five cent piece, bait fish can congregate in their millions and follow ocean currents right up and down the east of coast of Queensland feeding on brine and krill which also rely on these currents to access suitable breeding grounds. Due to the tiny size of bait fish, they have adopted the ‘safety in numbers’ strategy which sees them ball together tightly with the hope their seemingly larger physical presence will allow them to escape predation. Unfortunately for them this survival strategy makes them an easy target for all three species above especially when they work together. It is the larger predatory fish which kick off the process by rounding up the bait fish into these tight-knit balls and force them to the surface. Once at the surface, the baitfish become prey to ocean going birds who can spot these tightly-packed balls and feed on them by plunging head first straight in. The third chain in this cycle is the most important and this is the fishermen. Not only does it make it easy for fishermen to find these balls of bait due to the sight of diving birds but they can also target the feeding fish easily due to feeding frenzy which is taking place. Add to this the fact that bait balls often hold some of the most diverse and hardest-fighting sports fish along the east coast of Queensland and you have a recipe which will put a smile on any anglers face. Whilst bait ball fishing may appear quite simple to understand they can be quite tricky at times to fish. This feature will explore the ins and outs of bait ball fishing, target species and techniques to allow you to break the bait ball code.

Understanding a bait ball

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A wonderful sight for fishos, birds circling above bait at sea.

The first step to understanding the bait ball code is to realise that the success and failure of this fishing is to synchronise your casting with the behaviour of the feeding fish. Remember these fish are not cruising by or just hanging around, they are in this spot because they are feeding in a pattern behaviour. Understanding this pattern behaviour is the key to success. The pattern is governed by the action of the bait fish. When the bait fish are being forced to the surface this is when the fish are feeding the hardest. Therefore when you see fish chopping on the surface or slashing away this is when you need to have your lure in the water and in their faces. There is little point in casting lures to where the fish just were or after the fish have been on the surface as by this time the bait would have dispersed and the fish would have dived back down in to once again begin the balling up and forcing to the surface action again. This is where anticipation and readiness is essential. Trying to pick where the fish may surface next can be difficult but not impossible and this is where the birds come in handy. Not only are birds are able to show you where the bait schools are but they can also give you clues as to when the baitfish are beginning to be forced to the surface by the fish below. Once the baitfish have sounded the birds will stop diving and take up a holding pattern in the sky waiting for the fish below to round the bait up again. With a birds eye view however they will be able to spot them surfacing early and quickly move to that spot essentially providing an early warning system to the fishermen. Sometimes the schools of bait will not dive at all but run across the surface at an alarming speed and trying to keep up with them and the target feeding fish is extremely difficult. To achieve the best results, anglers need to be positioning lures in front of the feeding fishes mouths so keeping up with the pack is absolutely necessary and heading them off or positioning the boat ahead of the moving pack is a very good strategy.

Arming yourself for bait ball battle

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An assortment of lures ready for a bait-ball battle.

When fishing bait balls anglers have a couple of different options. The most popular tackle tactic is to use reasonably long spin gear and cast either metal slugs, plastics or stick baits into these feeding schools and retrieve them as quickly as possible. Retrieval speed in bait ball fishing is absolutely vital as the predatory fish are feeding on bait which is moving at high speed and if the angler can’t match this speed during the retrieve the target fish will mostly ignore it. Spin outfits which can cast light lures a long way and retrieve at least 6:1 ratio is a very good starting point. Casting offers the bait ball angler the most versatility as well as it allows them to move around with the schools as they feed. The other option which is trolling can also be effective however if the schools of fish are not staying up for long it can be very hard to keep your lures in the strike zone. In cases where the bait is heavily condensed and staying on the surface for long periods of time trolling can be extremely effective however it is important to work around the schools of fish not drive straight through them. If you drive straight through them this will cause the bait fish and target fish to scatter and dive and can sometimes split the bait fish school. This can disrupt the entire pattern and will mean that the angler will have to wait for the fish to ball the bait up once again and drive them to the surface. Bait balls also offer anglers a wide array of target species though some are a little less obvious than others. The most common species targeted by bait ball fishermen are tuna as they tend to move with the bait fish. The most common type of tuna found feeding on bait balls especially in inshore areas is the mack tuna. These fish are characterised by long dark striped down their back and resemble a mackerel from the surface. Whilst consider excellent sport and a top bait source they are very poor on the plate due to their deep red flesh. Next in line is the northern blue fin or long tail tuna which is similar to the mack tuna but grow a little larger and have a much more edible flesh. These fish are renowned for their impressive strength and powerful runs which can strip line very quickly. Further off shore yellow fin tuna are also found feeding on bait balls and these fish can grow to huge sizes. Mostly located in far offshore areas they are considered one of the most powerful bait ball species out there. In southern waters they are more common in closer water but still grow to impressive sizes. Outside the tuna species, mackerel are generally the next most prevalent bait ball target species. Spotted, grey and doggie mackerel are quite common bait ball feeders and will also feed off the surface like tuna.

An all-species brawl

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Spanish mackerel are often found around bait balls, this one fell to a popper cast towards the bait.

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The author with another prime bait ball caught species -a northern bluefin tuna.

When trying to identify which species are feeding on the bait the main indicators bait ball anglers can use is to identify the style of surface attack which is taking place. Long tail tuna will porpoise full body out of the water when feeding off the surface whilst mack tuna tend to only rise mid body out of the water and rarely leave it at all. Mackerel on the other hand are slashers of the surface and can be easily identified by the spraying of water and baitfish. Smaller fish like ribbon fish and bonito which also feed on bait balls can be identified by small boils and flashes of silver throughout the water column. Being able to distinguish species by surface feeding action is very helpful when determining factors like whether to use wire or not. I prefer to use a strong fluorocarbon leader like Sunline FC100 over wire even when chasing toothy pelagics as the wire can often put the bite off in a very big way. The surface of a bait ball is certainly a top place to fish however there is also one more element to consider when bait ball fishing and this is the sub surface action. Beneath the surface of the bait ball frenzy lie larger sub surface predators which are not feeding on the bait fish but the ribbon fish, bonito and even mackerel and tuna. These fish include fish species such as Spanish mackerel, trevally of all descriptions, cobia and the ever undesirable shark.
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Perfect weather and sensational fishing – A happy angler with a bait-ball caught Spanish mackerel.

This brings a whole new dimension to bait ball fishing as these fish require a different approach to be targeted successfully. Firstly these larger sub surface predators are obviously going to be below the surface so sinking lures such as weighted plastics, jigs or metals are a better option. You can use the same style of lures, plastics and metals adopted for fishing the surface of bait balls however you need to allow them to sink down and work them at speed more vertically through the water column as opposed to horizontally when chasing the surface fish. Because you are chasing larger fish, it’s also important to use larger lures, metals and plastics as well. Sinking stick baits are an excellent option for both Spanish mackerel and trevally as these large hard body lures can be worked at any depth and provide the perfect profile in the water. When targeting these fish trolling can sometimes be a better option as you can work areas around the bait balls more consistently at the sub surface depth. To target these larger fish from the surface then you need to be using a lure which will draw them to the surface. Large cup faced poppers are really good at achieving this as they send plenty of spray and surface noise which will attract the larger fish to the top. The large profile of the popper is also important as matching the hatch is vital. The final attraction of bait ball fishing is the ability to successfully and consistently fish bait balls with saltwater fly fishing tackle. Bait ball fishing is perfectly suited to fly as the surface and sub-surface action provides a well-suited and highly visible target. Floating and intermediate lines are best suited for top water action and sinking lines are better suited for chasing those sub surface predators below. Fly fishing would have to be the most successful style of fishing bait balls as small fly patterns provide the best imitation of the bait fish and tend to float and present better than metal lures and plastics. Bait ball fishing is an exciting fast-paced style of fishing which really gets the heart beating and drags screaming. It offers a wide variety of fishing options and target species both large and small. In most areas it is often a seasonal occurrence as the presence of bait fish is the key ingredient. Learning when these bait fish visit your area is the best way to become an effective bait ball fishermen. Witnessing the water behind your lure suddenly explode in a violent frenzy of white water and fins is an unforgettable experience and there’s little wonder that most anglers class a single surface snared fish just as good as multiple sub surface captures.    
Dan Kaggelis

About Dan Kaggelis

Born in Tully, North Queensland, Dan cut his fishing teeth in the region’s freshwater rivers chasing the tropical triumvirate of sooty grunter, jungle perch and barramundi. With fishing running thick in the Kaggelis family, Dan was fortunate to experience many extended trips to the Western Cape and Gulf of Carpentaria from a young age. This instilled a deep affection for the sport. Living so close to Great Barrier Reef, offshore fishing was also very much included in recreational activities as was free diving and spearfishing.

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