In a previous life, I used to work in the earth sciences field: making measurements of sediment transport, underground water levels, coastal erosion, rainfall, river flows and the like. One day, many years ago, I was suspended in a cable car above the Tongariro River near Turangi, making velocity measurements of the water flow with a device called a Gurley Meter.
From my lofty perch, I could see every fish holding in the clear waters of the pool below me (the Judges Pool, from memory) – and the activities of an angler nymphing up the pool toward me. Over the next 15 minutes I saw four individual fish tilt up and intercept her nymph, then decide it wasn’t food and spit the fly out after a couple of seconds. Each take went totally unnoticed by the angler, who proceeded up to the next pool in blissful ignorance of the missed opportunities.
Detecting the take of a fish is usually critical to hooking it, especially when using a lure or fly. On another occasion, I was fishing a small side-stream of the Waikato River on a hot summer’s day. The water was dirty but much colder than the main river, and the trout had stacked up in there.
The murky water meant I couldn’t see the fish move and I had no strike indicator. In the slow-moving water, the only way I could detect a take was by closely watching a small section of black binding that formed the loop on the end of my fly-line. At the merest hint of a pause or movement from the small black binding I would lift the rod, and most of the time I hooked a fish.
Of course, my eyes were a lot better back then. These days I find a small indicator of white or lime-green yarn critical to hooking trout when upstream nymphing.
A type of fishing that has some aspects in common with nymphing for trout is soft-baiting in saltwater, largely for snapper. Here, you must also get your artificial offering down to the level the fish are feeding at, while staying alert to any fishy activity and being ready to strike quickly enough to hook the fish.
Tackle and technique have changed a lot since I caught my first snapper on a soft-bait 36 years ago. Standard tackle back then was nylon monofilament line that would stretch by over 35% – and stodgy solid-glass rods didn’t help, either. It was like fishing with a giant rubber band. Add depths of 50m of water and it was a wonder I could detect anything biting the terminal tackle at all.
Things are a lot different now, with PE braid lines offering very low stretch, high sensitivity and thin-diameter-for-breaking-strain characteristics combining with strong, light and sensitive graphite rods to make strike detection much easier.
But even with these technological advantages, a lot still depends on the angler’s skills, and there are some fine points of fishing technique that can improve results. Sometimes soft-baiting is easy, with the fish slamming the lures and often hooking themselves. But it seems (to me anyway) that increasingly takes can be quite subtle these days, and if the angler is not really alert, the first hint that the lure has been molested occurs when wound back in and a disarranged or bitten-off tail is discovered.
This is especially true in the colder months, when lower water temperatures slow the snapper’s metabolism and they are not inclined to work very hard for their food. Soft-baits with a lot of action at slow retrieve speeds (such as grub-tail types) are a good way to go here, while the ability to detect subtle bites becomes more critical still.
I must confess that there are times when a nice day on the water sees me so relaxed that I start fishing in autopilot – phoning it in without really concentrating too much on my technique. My results suffer when this happens, and I find my buddies out-fishing me. If I want to put a few fish in the bin, I need to give myself a good mental kick in the bum and refocus.
Successful soft-baiting technique can vary from day to day, and sometimes hour to hour, as conditions like wind and tide change. Sometimes just dragging the lure behind a drifting boat works fine, at other times casting up-drift and working the lure back towards the boat is the system that produces the goods.
With a huge range of combinations of wind, tide and the boat’s drift characteristics being just some of the factors, it is up to the angler to work out the best method to tempt the fish at any given time.
First, choose a suitable jig-head weight for the depth, current and the lure’s tail size. Most of the time, unless fishing surface work-ups or mid-water schools, fish such as snapper are found on the bottom or just above it. Many species, including snapper, dory and gurnard, have eyes placed high on their heads and have good awareness of food items drifting down from above. This allows them to come up off the bottom and take the food before it reaches the seafloor. Consequently, use a jig-head that’s heavy enough to get down to the strike zone, but still light enough to give a reasonable presentation during descent.
In practice, a lot of strikes happen just before the lure touches down on the seabed, so it is important to stay in touch with the lure as it sinks rather than just blindly free-spooling it to the bottom.
My usual practice is to cast up-drift of the boat, but a little out to the side, so that the boat doesn’t drift directly over the line. Instead, the lure should work past the side of the boat then swing around behind as it drifts along.
After the cast hits the water’s surface, I drop 3-4m (if fishing around 15-20m) of slack line on the surface, then put the reel in gear. I slowly wind in the slack as the boat drifts down on the lure, keeping the line tight to the lure and feeling for a take or bump as the lure sinks to the bottom.
If the lure is not hit during the drop, I will watch for the line to suddenly slacken, indicating the lure has touched down, then start imparting a little action with the rod tip, still taking up any slack throughout as the boat drifts down and then past the lure. Once it is back behind the boat, start dropping back line to keep the lure on the bottom for a bit longer, before winding in and starting again.
Keeping the line tight, but still allowing the lure to sink, requires concentration and alertness for the lightest knock, extra tension, or even a sudden lack of weight as a fish takes the lure and moves towards you – a sort of ‘un-bite’. Keep the rod tip low and pointed toward the lure so you are ready to strike.
The latest light, sensitive tackle is a great aid to detecting takes, but you, the angler, need to be in sync with your tackle to get the best benefit. Watch the rod tip for any movement, and your hands and fingers are important in detecting takes, too.
Modern rod designs play a big part here; graphite is a great transmitter of vibration. Design features such as cut-away reel seats (allowing direct contact between the blank and your hand) and skeleton grips (which do likewise) further add to the sensitivity, as does minimalist binding and single-foot guides, both of which minimise ‘sandbagging’ of the rod blank’s capabilities. For similar reasons, I prefer cork grips to EVA as I think the natural material, besides being light, also transmits vibration better.
Harking back to the incidents mentioned at the beginning of this article (using the fly line as a strike indicator while nymph fishing), braid lines can act in a similar capacity when soft-baiting. But first, you must be able to see your line.
Much is made of high-vis colours such as fluoro orange or green, and they are certainly a help in many conditions, but they are not a universal answer. Rather, it is about contrast against the background.
White line (white is polyethylene’s natural colour), for example, stands out well against a dark sea but is hard to spot against surface glare. Dark colours stand out against a bright sky but are harder to see on dark water. I don’t think there is any ideal all-rounder, and in most cases PE lines lose their colour over time anyway.
When slack line is lying on a calm, glassy surface, its movement can be discerned by tiny riffle patterns running off it. This will tell you if your line is sinking or not, and you can also see if your line suddenly darts away, indicating a fish has grabbed the lure a bit more energetically.
In windy conditions, I often use a method I call ‘fishing the belly’. When conditions are blustery, wind will blow a belly in the line from where it leaves the rod tip to where it enters the water, and this can be an advantage. Use the curve of the line-belly as a strike indicator – it is very sensitive and will show any bite or tightening by straightening out the line curve. This allows you to detect the strike without alerting the fish.
Stay focused for any small changes in the movement of your line that indicate a potential take. Pay attention and you will catch more fish!
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