Craig Worthington finds exciting opportunities await salt-fly anglers able to identify suitable habitat for winter trevally.
It’s been a fairly mild winter, but warm northerly winds have often heralded the approach of yet another downpour. Sometimes, a whole lot of muddy run-off follows. Too much of it forces me out of the harbours and away from the pipilined channels, where I spend a bit of time chasing trevally at this time of year.
The fish are probably still in there somewhere, amongst all that murk, but it’s no place for a fly fisher. Even an eel would need some sort of underwater radar to find my fly in that chocolate soup.
So I move to cleaner water – out to the open coast where shallow reefs and headlands give some protection from the worst storm swells and there are not so many rivers and streams spewing freshwater into the sea.
In this area there are sand patches. Some of them are small and insignificant, while others are large and conveniently positioned near fishable rock ledges. The biggest are relatively safe playing fields into which I can cast my flies. Without them, I wouldn’t have much chance of landing any but the smallest of the local trevally.
It’s not a foolproof system though. Rocks and weed lie quite close by, and trevally make a beeline for these natural underwater structures the minute they’re hooked. It’s really only the biggest patches of sand that put me in with a chance.
You could say, “Why not just fish a beach?”
The answer is because trevally frequently prefer broken-reef habitat interspersed by frequent patches of sand. There’s food in there and plenty of places to hide, so add a strong tidal flow over the top and you have all the ingredients for a monster trevally hotspot.
In the Far North, the ‘sand with mixed reef’ habitats are immense and the currents flowing over the top are strong. Big swells are frequent and the shellfish beds found directly off those long beaches are massive. In short, this is trevally heaven, with some of NZ’s biggest trevs found here.
Up north, the Aupouri Peninsula blocks and accentuates the natural flow of coastal water from west to east. In doing so it creates ocean rivers that roar around the top, which in turn makes the northern tip of New Zealand a gathering ground for monster trevally.
Unfortunately, my regular spots at home are not quite as blessed with similar tidal flows. The multitude of reefs and islands in the Bay of Islands disperse coastal currents and dilute their intensity. At my local trevally hangouts there is little more than a gentle sideways drift. However, it is better than no current, and trevally are still abundant here – they just don’t grow quite as big as they do up north.
Possibly this is just as well. On most days I have my hands full stopping anything over two kilos from making it into the rocks and weed. Even over a big sand patch around 20 metres across, they only take about three nano-seconds to get to the kelp edge.
Stopping them is very much a test of how fast you can react and how high you can hold you rod. Keeping their heads up is an important part of the game.
Adding to the problem is the fact that trevally demand relatively light leaders and small flies. They are well known for being leader shy. I fish with 8kg/16lb fluorocarbon tippets and size 2 Gamakatsu SL12s flies. It’s about as light as I dare to go; the mantra is: fish light, fish over sand, react fast.
To draw them into the middle of a sand patch, I throw rounded balls of mushed pilchard right into the centre. I squeeze the pilchard ball tightly in my hands to remove any air and make the berley ball sink down as quickly as possible.
I fish it quietly, not immediately thrashing the water to foam, allowing plenty of time for the trevally to make their way to the berley from the wide reaches of the surrounding reef. Indeed, I often put the rod down and let the fish come in undisturbed. This way, if you find a suitable rock with an appropriate sand patch in front of it, you can milk it for several hours.
In some fly-fishing circles berleying is frowned upon, but it is really the only way you can fish for trevally in this heinous mixedreef habitat. Wandering around while fishing a natural fly over kelpcovered reefs is a system that can work well, but asks for trouble. Berleying the sand patches is a much easier way to play it safe.
One sand patch I’ve been doing well off lately was initially found while snorkelling. I noted the thick shellfish beds and schools of goatfish and baby snapper during a summer swim, and made a mental note to return with a fly rod and a bit of berley during trevally season. It has turned into a great little winter provider.
I also tried a beach edge around the corner with clean white sand and an occasional good surf break, but it produced nothing. The sand was too clean and too mobile in that highly exposed location. It was lacking in life. The more sheltered sand patch was the winner, resulting in trevally on nearly every visit – along with plenty of snapper and kahawai to boot.
A recent visit on a dark afternoon produced four trevally hookups in quick succession, but they all managed to shed the hook before ending up in my landing net. Another big hit from a large unseen fish was successfully cracked off on the strike. That was stupid. I went home with only a few kahawai to show for my efforts and a burning determination to get back there quickly in order to even the score.
That’s the beauty of this sand-patch fishing: it’s easy, local and accessible – and a whole lot of fun. And there’s always plenty of hard-fighting trevally over the sand patches to keep you on your toes. They’re a great place to hang out in winter.
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