The art of honing your hunting skills to catch more fish
The best captain I ever worked with, John Batterton of the Hook ‘n’ Bull fame, was very critical of so called “laptop skippers”, too focused on the screens in front of them to notice the building bait ball half a nautical mile out the starboard side.
“Don’t forget to look out the window”, was his repeated advice. “It’s amazing how many fish you’ll see before you catch them, if you’re paying enough attention.”
Sage words, and not just for billfish. Almost every species of sport fish worth sharpening a hook for can be caught from clues on the surface.
All fishermen know experience matters, yet in a world where a complete newbie can pinpoint aremote remote rock with a GPS chartplotter and fish there precisely with an autopilot, it can be hard to explain why.
The secret is the experienced fisherman’s ability to recognize patterns in a range of stimuli so subtle it may be difficult for the old sea dog to quantify, or even knowingly acknowledge these clues have been observed.
Use the (fishing) force
With offshore gamefishing as the best example, it’s the unconscious compiling the data that leads the best fisherman to confidently declare they are in the right spot in an otherwise featureless blue desert. When quizzed as to why, most skippers would honestly answer that they aren’t really sure, the spot just intuitively feels good.
We can’t magically transfer an experienced fisherman’s intuition in these one dimensional pages. Instead, by wrapping a few tangible observations around the concept we hope the process of building your own instinctive mind map of a fishing zone will be greatly accelerated.
Observing the currents
In the previous issue of NZ Fishing World, we talked about the importance of current flow to the overall fishing picture.
Clues to current movement are surprisingly easy to spot. If it is moving over or against structure, there will be disturbed water patterns on the surface. Look for ripples and wavelets out of sync with the general water area. Particularly strong currents can form a boiling water-like appearance on the surface.
Most readers will be familiar with the phrase wind-against-tide, mainly because it is blamed for sea-conditions more turbulent than the weather would suggest should be occurring. It also works the opposite way, where if the wind and current directions are closely aligned, the sea state can be significantly calmer than expected.
On calm days it is not unusual to see highways of current on the water, bound by lines of algae or other debris, often including small seabirds like white-faced storm petrels (Jesus birds) skipping along plucking plankton from the current margins.
High current on surface structure is also very useful for targeting kingfish, especially if there is some swell involved.
Colour and clarity
Understanding how a target species is likely to respond to a particular water colour and clarity will go a long way towards a successful day when fishing with your senses.
Mooching snapper love greener, murkier (but not brown) water when hunting in the shallows. Relying more on electroreception and a powerful sense of smell to find prey items, than sight, such fish prefer the cover of low visibility when snooping the weed beds of the shoreline. Such camouflage works in the fisherman’s favour as well, mitigating the effect of fish spooking shadows which, on clear sunlit days would otherwise send wary snapper bolting for the depths.
Sight hunters like kingfish do prefer clean water and are seldom found of any size in less than optimal conditions. Cover is still important to them and they are remarkably adept at using white-water to their advantage when hunting, so much so that most of my best kingfish days have been in very poor sea conditions. Please do not use this as an endorsement to chase kingfish in unsafe conditions like those below, it’s just an observation from days running charter boats when I seldom got to pick the weather we worked in.
Marlin and tuna
Much is said about turquoise blue water and its importance when fishing for pelagics such as marlin and tuna. In fact, I would say too much is said on the topic, the result being well intentioned gamefishermen trolling ever wider from the coast in search of perfect purple water in belief that "here is where the big fish will be found". Occasionally one of these wild blue wanderers will get lucky, perpetuating the myth. Most, however, will miss out, having driven past the fish hours ago on their way to the distance horizon.
Photo source: Aaron Levien
Clean, blue water is important to marlin, but so is food. Food tends to be found in the convergence zone between cooler, slightly greener water and the warm blue stuff coming down from the tropics. Smart fishermen know that if you hang out in the food zone, it’s only a matter of time before you get a bite.
Many of the best fishing spots are subject to strong currents. This can cause the water colour to change during the tide cycle. The King Bank is a great example of a spot that might be green and fishless for a few hours only to become blue and red hot with hungry billfish with the change of tide. Observation and patience is key to success here.
Fishing the birds
We cover the “fish the birds” topic repeatedly in NZ Fishing World, and for good reason. No other signpost is more reliable for the instinctive fish hunter than the feathered fish-finder.
Most readers will already be familiar with chasing gannets. The only comment I would make is to align the behavior you are observing with a Solunar bite time table. Fat, lazy gannets sitting around on the water an hour or so after the bite time has past are a sure sign action awaits the patient fisherman. Note the next bite time and aim to return to the area for the next feeding session if nothing productive is found in the interval.
A real favourite of mine, particularly when chasing snapper or kingfish close to a shoreline. Find this bird species working a concentrated area and you will find the fish. My best ever snapper session was signposted by white-fronted terns working a rocky outcrop in near Cape Brett.
Together with two of New Zealand’s most successful pro-gamefishing exports, Andy Lyon and Marty Bates, we enjoyed several hours casting unweighted pilchards into a rock awash catching countless 20-pound snapper on bites on seconds after the baits hit the water, with a few kings thrown in for good measure. It was one of those days never to forget.
The presence of White-fronted terns in the upper reaches of many North Island harbours is a sure sign the snaps have made their way up into the shallows in good numbers.
Shearwaters and petrels
Both these families of seabirds can be used as general indicators of life, although many fishermen agree too much credence can be given to them as very strong signs of immediate action. Unless I actually see fish, such as trevally or kahawai with these birds, I do little more than make a mental note of the activity, earmarking the area as a possible spot to return to should little else of interest be found.
Other pelagics and marine mammals
While presence of other pelagic fish species like sunfish and manta rays is never bad thing, large plankton eaters like these will only be present if there is a food source I caution enthusiastic fish spotters from getting too excited upon spotting them. Both species frequently jump, often in a series, creating huge splashes and often a crescendo of radio calls from those convinced they’ve spotted free-jumping marlin.
Some other species like marine mammals and whale sharks, on the other hand, do get me excited. Many species of baleen whale including Brydes as well as whale sharks feed on small fish species such as sardines, pilchards and smaller mackerel species, and as such, frequently compete directly with marlin and tuna. Many great fishing days have been signposted by these giant ocean wanderers.
Do not ignore your sense of smell
Fish oil smells like fish, no surprises there. But it doesn’t get released from fish unless the fish gets crushed up, or in layman’s terms, eaten. See where I am going with this? If you’ve spent enough time on the open ocean, you’ll know it doesn’t smell like fish oil very often so if you do smell it, look for the corresponding oil slick on the surface. Obviously, it will be upwind. Look for signs of debris on the surface or bait on the sounder. If you are lucky the action could still be in progress.
The only false positive to this sign is the presence of whales; their blow will smell like fish. But as mentioned above this could be a good sign anyway.
Last but not least, height
There’s no real substitution for height. The higher your vantage point, the further you can see over the horizon.
The best fishermen I know all rate height as the number one tool in the arsenal for finding fish from a distance. It also helps hugely when hooking tricky species like marlin, tuna and kingfish. The ability to see when the fish has physically swallowed a bait can change the game when the bite is picky.
NOTE: A closing word of caution
Tuna towers are the easiest way to add height to a vessel but any attempt to add an elevated viewing platform to a vessel should be treated with caution. Always employ a qualified marine designer as a consultant BEFORE attempting such an alteration. Adding weight up high radically and potentially dangerously changes the vessel’s behavior and can easily cause a capsize.