Hard fighting, good looking, tasty, and often taking a bit of finesse to catch, Sam Mossman reckons trevally are close to the perfect inshore opponent.
I love fishing with lures and sometimes wish we had a wider range of medium-sized sport-fishing species available in New Zealand. But, then again, many overseas anglers rave about the quality of our fishing, so I guess we can’t grumble too much. After all, thanks to modern lure techniques, a great many species that were once considered only able to be caught with bait are now regularly taken on artificial lures of one type or another – snapper is a prime example. As most fish survive by eating other types of marine animals, it is really only a matter of finding the right buttons to press.
Alongside snapper, one of my favourite sport (and table) fish is trevally. White or silver trevally is a slow-growing, long-lived species, with some large specimens being aged at over 45 years via the annual growth rings in their ear bones.
Back in 1995 I photographed and witnessed the weighing of the current national all-tackle record trevally of 11.53kg. That was a gnarly old fish from Great Barrier Island, approaching a metre in length, but it was exceptional. Usually, anything between three and four kilos is thought of as a decent fish, with anything over 5kg considered a trophy.
Because of this slow growth and their surface-schooling behaviour, purse-seiners have had a huge impact on trevally numbers. Starting around 1970 and going through to about 1983, net boats hit trevally hard. Gone now are the shining acres upon acres of trevally surface schools I can remember seeing during visits to the Bay of Plenty as a child, with only smaller, scattered groups of spooky fish encountered nowadays, mostly over areas of heavy foul where the net boats cannot operate.
Rocky headlands and points that concentrate currents also concentrate plankton and krill, and are good places to look for schools of these fish.
Sometimes larger individuals are mixed in with other school fish, including snapper or kahawai, feeding on sedimentary bottoms (unfortunately making them vulnerable to bottom trawling). During the colder months trevally can be found up in harbours and estuaries.
Trevally are a handsome fish. Colour schemes can vary a lot between individual fish in shades of silver, gray, olive, blue, gold and white, sometimes with pale vertical stripes when fresh. Like their cousins the kingfish, trevs are powerful fighters, and will often head straight for cover if any is around (those anglers who have tried to extract a decent trev from near a kelp bed or around oyster-studded wharf piles will know what I mean). They get that broad silver flank side-on and slug down to the obstruction. If you don’t have the fire-power to stop them – and often you must go to light line to achieve a bite in the first place – it’s all over.
Trevs are a relatively common catch on baits. A ledger rig with a small bait of squid, shellfish or pilchard cube – or a flasher rig (particularly when sweetened with a sliver of bait) – will do the job, as will small, lightly-weighted or unweighted baits drifted down a berley trail (trevally are real berley hogs), but they can be challenging fish to take regularly on lures.
I have caught plenty from surface schools on small flies, and also from out of berley trails. Fly-rodding for this species provides great sport, but those who cannot cast a fly often put lure fishing in the too-hard basket, reverting to ripping huge treble hooks through the schools if they want a trevally in the bin, sometimes only to use for bait.
I think the perception of trevally as baitfish dates back to the days when packets of Watties Trevally Bait were one of the very few bait options commercially available to recreational fishermen. These days people are much more appreciative of the trevally’s eating qualities. Personally, I love them as a table fish, preferring them to snapper. They are firm, well-flavoured and highly regarded for sashimi when fresh.
Seasonally, trevs can be found feeding on the surface in schools during the warmer months, usually taking krill (small shrimp-like creatures) or sometimes larval fish. Small shrimp-like flies of the ‘Crazy Charlie’ type are a good approach in this situation, but if you’re not a devotee of the ‘long wand’, light spin gear can also be effective.
Correct presentation of a very small lure is the trick if spin fishing. One of the reasons for needing light gear (3-4kg) is that the small lures required for this fishing are difficult to cast any great distance with heavier tackle – and you want to stay some distance away to avoid spooking the school.
The other side of the coin is that heavier, thicker line is easy for fish to see in well-lit surface water and trevally can be line-shy at times. It is noticeable that they are easiest to hook, especially on heavier lines, either early or late in the day (when the light and visibility is low), or deeper down in the water column where light levels and visibility are reduced.
Around 30 years ago, while casting small (10g) metal jigs for kahawai, I discovered that in some circumstances these lures could be pretty effective for schooling trevally, too – but only using a certain type of presentation. Surface schools feed in one direction, so the important part is to cast your little lure in front of the leading edge of the school and retrieve at a medium-fast pace. The ideal situation occurs when the lure intersects the school’s leading edge as it feeds forward, so your lure appears to be fleeing from them, not charging at these fish. Pretty regularly this results in a trevally hooked fairly in the mouth.
On the other hand, if you just fire your lure into the middle of the school, or over it, the fish will usually spook and submerge, or you will foul-hook a fish, making handling it on light tackle difficult and often leading to the hook tearing out. This method still holds good with modern fine braid lines and the latest in miniature metal jigs. Baby stick-baits also seem effective if fished in this way.
I have caught a few trevally on metal jigs in the Marlborough Sounds, and they are reported as far south as Foveaux Strait, but the best numbers are to be found in the northern half of the North Island.
There are not many surface schools of big, old, hump-headed trevally around these days, with commercial pressure resulting in these groupings being mostly smaller, younger fish, but one of the more dependable assemblies of these old warriors is at White Island, where many of the national record captures have been made.
There are some good sized trevs around the Three Kings Islands too, where, like White Island, a good berley trail can be the key to bringing them in to where they are easily reached with flies. (‘Globug’ type berley flies work well in this scenario.)
Some large individual fish are also taken around offshore islands and headlands in the Far North, especially by LBG fishermen who tramp in to more remote locations – but extracting these tough fighters from rocky terrain is, as mentioned, not particularly easy. Sometimes a light line and small hook are needed to get a bite, and if you match this against a large, hard-fighting fish with a soft mouth, the odds are often in the fish’s favour.
During the autumn, large individual fish seem to spread out, bottom-grubbing for molluscs, shellfish, worms and whatever else they come across. This is where soft-baiting is particularly effective. I don’t have any way of specifically targeting trevs with soft-baits, as it can be a generalist method (during a recent trip I caught a mix of snapper, kahawai, trevally, gurnard and john dory, for example), but there are usually some decent trevs amongst the other species.
A four-inch grub or five-inch paddle tail in ‘natural’ colours fished along the bottom is a good place to start. And the best part is, when you hook a monster trev on an open sedimentary bottom, you have every chance of landing it, even on very light tackle. The lighter tackle forces you to take it easy when playing these strong fish to avoid a bust-off. In turn, this ‘softly, softly’ approach helps avoid pulling hooks on this soft-mouthed species and provides a very satisfying fight.
Having a decent growth potential, these hard-fighting, goodlooking and tasty fish often take a bit of finesse to beat. I reckon that trevally are close to the perfect inshore opponent: you can have your sport – and eat it too!
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