Tips When Fish Aren't Biting

Putting a feed of fish on the table over the holiday season is not always easy. Sam Mossman suggests some tips and techniques to help achieve one of the iconic aspects of the Kiwi lifestyle.

The sun and the sea, camping, swimming, fishing and diving at Hawkes Bay’s Clifton Beach form a large part of my happy childhood memories.

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A great many other Kiwis have grown up with similar experiences in different parts of the country and it is now that time again: the summer holiday season when Kiwis migrate to beaches and bachs in huge numbers to get a break away from working life.

An important part of all this, to right-minded holidaymakers (i.e., those who share my particular life view), is kicking back and consuming fresh kaimoana and a few cold beers, or, if you are so inclined, a chilled pinot gris.

The booze is the easy part, assuming there are a few bucks tucked away for the purpose, but catching fresh seafood during the holiday break can sometimes become a bit difficult. Full moons, weak tidal runs, cold water temperatures (these are becoming less of a problem), rough seas, algae blooms and southerly winds are some of the environmental factors that many anglers consider can cause poor fishing. These aspects can have their effects, and it is also useful to have something to blame for a poor catch other than yourself.

Trevally are berley hogs and fine eating.

Trevally are berley hogs and fine eating.

There are other aspects to consider, too. Often, over the Christmas break, snapper have finished or paused from their spawning (in northern regions, at least) and many inshore areas fill with little undersized ‘goldfish’. Many kingfish, too, seem to be away spawning offshore, and those that made an early start are back, skinny and hungry – easy to catch, but not great to eat.

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Another major contributor to the sometimes-tough fishing over the holidays is the great increase in fishing pressure and boat traffic as everyone heads for the rocks, beaches and fishing grounds or just out on the water for general recreation, at once. The fish don’t vanish but with all this zooming around can get pretty toey and hard to catch during the day.

The good news is that, with the holiday break many people have plenty of time to concentrate on their fishing, and to work around any dodgy Christmas weather. By also adjusting their tackle, techniques and tactics, it is normally possible to ensure a feed of kaimoana for the table.

Bling it up - flasher rigs can improve your results.

Bling it up - flasher rigs can improve your results.

Low light and tide run

When on a family holiday, with all that this entails, it is common to see family groups heading out in the middle of the morning – usually about when savvy anglers are heading home. Likewise, the same crews are often on their way back to the ramp as the more successful fishos are heading out for an evening fish. It is a fact that when times are tough, fishing the change of light – first thing in the morning or late afternoon through to dusk – is often the best. The 10am to 3pm period is often dead, even in deeper water.

Fish feel more comfortable feeding in low light conditions and predatory fish, including many of the ones we like to eat, use the low light to their advantage when hunting. Terminal tackle is much less obvious in low-light conditions, as well – more on this topic later.

There are other advantages, especially to fishing in the early morning. In populated areas, finding a park for your car and boat-trailer combination at popular launching areas during holiday periods can be a mission later in the day. Likewise, areas where there is a lot of boat traffic have had a chance to quieten down overnight and the fish will be less spooky before the on-water traffic starts. It also pays to fish away from the areas that have a lot of boat traffic for best results, especially in busy regions like the Marlborough Sounds and the Hauraki Gulf.

Areas where there is a lot of boat traffic have a chance to quieten down overnight and the fish will be less spooky before the on-water traffic starts.

Areas where there is a lot of boat traffic have a chance to quieten down overnight and the fish will be less spooky before the on-water traffic starts.

Tides are another thing that can make a great difference to fishing results. Different spots fish well on various tides, depending on the geography and the type of fish, but there is one truism: ‘no run, no fun’. While you will catch the odd fish on the slack of the tide, the best bites come during decent tide movement. I think this is because fish use smell as a major sense when hunting their food and this includes the scent that your bait and berley put out. Without a current flow to distribute these scents, the fish will find it harder to locate the bait. If lure fishing, you need a bit of current to move the boat along so you are presenting to new fish all the time.

Keep it quiet

When fish are under pressure, particularly in shallow water areas, a stealthy approach can make all the difference – especially when fishing from boats. When coming up to shallow-water spots, cut the engine well short and make the final approach with oars. If this is not feasible, allow an extra half-hour for things to settle down before expecting much action. Sacking, marine carpet or tube mat on the deck helps deaden noise, especially in tinnies - and keep your voice down while fishing, too. Lower your anchor (especially the chain section) carefully to avoid clanking. I know some guys who fit old bicycle tubes over the chain to keep it quieter.

Stealthy fishing techniques can involve lighter tackle, too. Except when trying to drag big fish out of heavy foul (when a bit of firepower is needed), light lines with minimal trace and terminal tackle can often make a difference. Use light lines, the minimum amount of lead you require to get down to the fish and the thinnest leader you think you can get away with (I favour 10 to 20kg Tough Trace for most table fish). Fine wire hooks will set more easily with light tackle.

Light tackle can produce better when the fishing is tough.

Light tackle can produce better when the fishing is tough.

Add flash

In some ways, this is the opposite of stealth fishing, but worth trying if the going is tough. The theory is that your rig should incorporate items that make it easier for the fish to find your bait and help excite them to bite. These may include: lumo (which absorbs then re-emits light), fluoro (which reflects light brightly), and UV (which reflects UV wavelengths) materials such as beads, tubing, squids, painted sinkers and the like. Many of these products are available from specialist tackle stores. If you want a ready-made rig with all the bling built-in, ‘flasher’ rigs, such as the Black Magic range, are the way to go.

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Vary your approach

Vary your approach if your usual techniques aren’t working. Sometimes lures will produce when baits won’t, and vice-versa. Vary your bait (and lure) types. Sometimes the fish prefer one over another, or, if fish are picking at the baits, something tough baits like salted skipjack or mullet may last better than soft pilchards, for example. The standard bought baits are skipjack, pilchards and squid. If you catch your own, jack mackerel are often available on the spot, and fresh kahawai or ‘couta can also be successful. Others, like piper (garfish), mullet, blue (slimy) mackerel – even yelloweyed mullet (herrings or sprats) – can have their day. Shellfish, crabs or crayfish (although crays are hard to come by in my neck of the woods and I would rather eat them myself than use them for bait) may open the door to species not usually caught on fish baits, such as blue moki or spotted dogfish.

It pays to always have a ‘big’ bait out too – a whole or half fish such as a mackerel or mullet, or a livebait. Often this will produce something substantial – maybe a big snapper or a kingfish – and one decent fish can be a day-saver when times are tough.

Vary your approach - sometimes lures work better than bait, and sometimes the opposite is true.

Vary your approach - sometimes lures work better than bait, and sometimes the opposite is true.

Variety is the spice

If your favourite table fish, such as snapper, blue cod, tarakihi, puka/groper or gurnard are not on the go, then target other species. Small livebaits often turn up a few john dory, and these are prime-eating fish. Don’t turn your nose up at jock stewarts (sea perch) either. Even leatherjackets, which are sold commercially as ‘creamfish’ are tasty on the plate.

A surface berley trail will often entice fish like blue maomao, piper (garfish) and herring (yelloweyed mullet); all good eating and easily caught on small hooks with light line. Kahawai and trevally are other chum-trail hogs, even if they are out of sight back down the berley trail. Both are firm, well-flavoured fish and great on the plate, smoked or fresh (kahawai are improved by bleeding). A flounder-spearing trip after dark or dragging a net can provide a feed of these fine table fish, too. Don’t be a species snob: many less favoured species make great eating.

Persistence pays

Stick at it, even if the fishing is not on fire. The fishing itself is rewarding and I find it satisfying to assemble a feed when conditions are difficult. Persistence usually pays, and often a couple of fish are all that is needed for a feed if supplemented by vegies, salads, bread and so on.

Even one modest snapper can feed a family with side dishes added.

Even one modest snapper can feed a family with side dishes added.

Care for your catch

And finally, care for your catch and use all of it. Kill it, bleed it if necessary, and ice it down to keep it in prime condition. And if times are tough, make the most of what you have – perhaps considering dishes that involve cooking the fish whole and eliminating wastage, for example.

There is a lot of flesh left behind by conventional filleting. Smoking or cooking the throats of larger fish produces some delicious flesh, and separating the frames at each vertebra, dusting in breadcrumbs and spices, then frying in oil for a couple of minutes, makes for great finger food at those memorable summer holiday barbeques.


January 2023 - Sam Mossman
New Zealand Fishing News Magazine.
Copyright: NZ Fishing Media Ltd.
Re-publishing elsewhere is prohibited

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