Previously, we discussed the principles of straylining, what gear to use and where to fish. Now it’s time to get into the mucky stuff...
You are decreasing your chances by an order of magnitude if you don’t use berley and chum. You’ve heard that 90% of the fish are caught by 10% of the fishers. Well, in straylining, 100% of that 10% use chum as well as berley.
Burley is the fine-minced stuff that you want to waft down current and bring fish to you. I subscribe to the view that this brings in little baitfish whose presence in numbers calls in the bigger predatory fish, like snapper, that we are chasing.
If you’ve been out catching, get an old kitchen mincer and deal to all the bits and pieces of fish you don’t keep to eat. Scrunch up, together with your left-over baits. Freeze it. If this isn’t available to you, buy any old commercial berley. I really don’t think it makes much difference what exact one you buy. Just make sure you have plenty. I usually disperse about 3kg of burley in a morning’s fishing. Don’t bother unfreezing it the night before you go out. Enough of the surface will unfreeze as you travel, the rest soon enough when in a bag or berley pot in the water.
A weighted bag – something like an onion sack with say 500gm of sinkers in it – will do to put your berley in and hang off the side of your boat or into the water if you’re fishing from rocks. Even better is the sort of berley pot you can buy from the tackle shop. Most times, a metre or two up off the bottom is where you should position it.
Chum is larger chunks of fish (say 3x3x3cm in size) that you chuck out from time to time in the berley trail. Using chum can make the difference between catching good fish and catching fewer and smaller. Leftover pilchard baits – or even pilchards bought for only this purpose – are ideal. But the idea is chunks of oily fish flesh. Chunks of fish guts work for this purpose, as well.
Berley brings in baitfish whose presence in numbers calls in the bigger predatory fish, like snapper.
I prefer to use whole fresh dead baitfish as the only bait. There are three core reasons. Number one is they’re what our targets in the area are eating anyway. Number two is that they’re a whole lot more robust than thawed frozen products (except for squid). And number three is that by using whole fish with no perforations, not even sliced on the sides, small fish cannot get a purchase on them and so you’re well on the way to targeting the bigger fish only.
Preferred species of fresh baitfish are jack mackerel, blue or slimy mackerel, and yellow-eyed mullet. All can be caught on the cheap sabiki rigs sold in every tackle shop and a lot of seaside grocery stores. Castnets work well for this purpose. Tip: get the children or grandchildren to catch these for you off the local wharf or jetty before you go out fishing. Fresh is best, but snap-frozen in the home freezer they don’t seem to end up as smashed mush in the same way much commercial bait seems to.
But if there’s no alternative, buy whole frozen baitfish. Pilchards, mackerel, or mullet. Just be aware they won’t survive many attacks by biting fish and your rate of return is not much; you’ll spend a lot of time re-baiting. You can retrieve the sad situation by wrapping bait cotton around these baits to try and keep them whole, and by tying a half-hitch in your line around the bait, but half-hitches make points of weakness in the line when you do hook bigger fish.
Frozen squid from the tackle shop or grocery has the advantage that it lasts well on the hook. If it has a pink colour, it won’t work as well as squid which is more nearly a cream or white colour, something to do with freshness. Some days, however, fish are suicidally keen on squid.
There’s an old truism, true nonetheless: ‘Big baits catch big fish’. My old mate, now departed, Geoff Stone told me of huge snapper at North Cape regularly swallowing kilogram-plus-weight kahawai sent out as baits for kingfish.
Making bait – whole fresh jack mackerel are appealing and tough baits.
After much experimentation, I have presently settled on using single 8/0 circle hooks in straylining. Many fishers swear by a two-hook rig. For me, two-hook rigs do not significantly increase fish hook-up rates, but they do significantly increase catching weeds and kelp. And weeds and kelp are prime snapper territory.
There are good reasons for using recurve or circle hooks rather than the straight-shanked “J” hooks, in many sorts of fishing including straylining. Quite apart from the animal welfare reasons for the fish you decide to put back in the tide, there is another major advantage – hooking the fish is easier. You don’t strike; you let the fish run, and just ease tension on the line to hook up.
Tie the line tight to the eye of the hook, because recurves are designed to work by the hook being tight to the line. Any number of knots will work for this, but I like to snell the hook to the line in order to keep the hook’s shank as straight to the line’s run as possible.
Often you pull back baits, including whole mushy unfrozen pilchards, after an unproductive bite to find that their guts have been eaten out, the rest of the baits being untouched. My theory is that the guts are the most nutritious part of a baitfish. Occasionally, you’ll pull one in and find its back has the same chunk taken out. My theory for that is that the chomping party mistakenly got its meal upside down – it was still aiming for the guts.
That forms my reason for positioning the hook as I do. I thread the hook in through the mouth of the baitfish, out through the gills, and then drive it through the gut positioned so that the hook’s eye is just held outside the gill opening by the gill cover itself. I’ve learned since I started doing this that some commercial fishers in the Atlantic tuna fishery place hooks in exactly this way.
Another hook placement method is to push the hook through the middle underside of the jaw, right up through the bait’s head and out the top of the head. This works a treat for a big voracious feeder ramraiding its food source, but not for the more tentative epicurean. It is, however, just right if you’re using a whole fresh kahawai head as your bait.
There are plenty more – for example, if you need to tie a mushy pilchard on the line, you’re best to drive the hook all the way through the gill plates and tie your half hitch down near the tail of your bait.
Much advice for recurve/circle hooks using big slabs or fillets advocates running the hook through one end of the bait just once. I see problems with this approach. The main problem is that the exposed flesh invites little fish to pick at the bait. That is, lots of little fish, all at once. Their combined efforts tear the bait off the single perforation. Piercing a slab bait twice with the hook reduces this problem.
Little baits catch little fish. This is even more true than ‘big baits catch big fish’.
PJ’s theory is that baits’ gut sections are commonly attacked by snapper because they are the most nutritious part of a baitfish.
Cast the bait as far down your berley trail as you can. If that’s 50 metres, all to the good. If that’s five metres, fine, but let it run out a long way. The biggest fish tend to be caught way down the trail, though there are often exceptions. Sometimes you’ll get bites off to one side of the berley trail. All this reinforces my thought that the big fish are not themselves following the berley trail in the water, but shadowing the baitfish that are doing so.
Once the line has stopped running out after your cast, leave the reel in freespool (if using an overhead reel), or the bail arm open on a standard fixed-spool reel, or in very lightly-set bait feed mode if using a bait feeder type fixed-spool reel. Keep your thumb very lightly on the spool so you can tell exactly how the line is running out. An even more delicate refinement, for detecting the tentative winter takes, is to lift the line slightly over your fingers between the reel and the first guide eye on your rod.
When you have a customer, sometimes it’s a smash-and-grab raid. The bait gets grabbed, and the line whistles out at a huge speed. Other times, it’s the merest slight pull. These slight pulls often happen in winter. It seems that at those times fish such as snapper crush down on the bait so as to squeeze the flesh out, rather than biting and running.
In either circumstance, you need to be vigilant as to what’s happening on your line. Count, anything up to 10 or 15 as line rolls on out faster with the take. Then engage the reel into gear and lift the rod tip. Especially for circle hooks, but even for J hooks, you don’t need to do a big dramatic strike – that is more likely to pull the hook away from the fish than set it.
PJ likes to thread the hook in through the mouth of the baitfish, out through the gills, before driving it through the gut.
August 2023 - Peter Jones
New Zealand Fishing News Magazine.
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