WHEN BARRACOUTA come thick and fast it’s a free-for-all for anglers, as STEVE COOPER reports:
DURING THE Second World War, the Bass Strait barracouta fishery fed a large proportion of southern Australia. Couta in the Strait can be as thick as the pilchard schools they follow to feed on.
Fortunately, this fish ranges much further than Bass Strait and can be found right around our southern coastline, including Tasmania, and up the east coast north of Sydney and the west coast as high as Shark Bay. But the farther south you go, the greater your chances are of catching them.
Couta can be ravenous and relatively easy to hook when they come on the bite. Just about any lure or bait will suffice, and when couta are hungry, bare, shiny hooks will bring a result.
No southern fish is more co-operative towards the recreational angler than this wolf-eyed specimen with its canine-like teeth. Having said that, a couta is not always an easy proposition.
The summer months herald the second seasonal mass migrations through Bass Strait and into our bays and inlets of many species. In the first migration, which occurs during the spring, southern calamari (squid), snapper, and Australian salmon and somewhere mixed in with them come pilchards, sandy sprat and krill.
It is the second migration that sees the appearance of barracouta, along with arrow squid and blue sharks. All three are species that for the most part prefer to stay in deeper water offshore. It is difficult to draw a demarcation between the arrivals of the different fish. Suffice to say the prime motivation for some species, such as snapper and calamari, is spawning, while for predators such as Australian salmon and couta their motivation is food.
When a couta run shapes up well, big schools of big fish are in the Strait and, as anyone who has fished for couta can vouch, when the couta are on they can be as thick as the pilchard schools they follow to feed on. Anglers can expect the couta run to last through until mid-autumn, although there are no guarantees as to how well their numbers will last.
Despite a willingness to take a bait, lure, or fly, the couta is not a fashionable sportfish, but it should be. Just because a fish is easy to hook doesn’t mean it isn’t worth catching. It’s a bit like designer clothing, why pay $100 for a name-tag product that is not necessarily any better than a similar product with a generic brand that sells for half the price?
And regardless of how you feel about this wolf-eyed fish with its canine-like teeth, they are fun to catch, which is important to me. Nor are couta the piscatorial simpletons some self-proclaimed fishing purists will have you believe. Like most fish, when they have been worked into a feeding frenzy courtesy of some berley, couta will go off the planet. In this scenario they are so easy to hook that just about any lure or bait will work and even the shine from a bare hook can be enough to entice a strike.
Those are the good days, and couta are not always an easy proposition. Some days they don’t want to co-operate. The sounder on the boat will just about black out with schools of fish, and you may even see them follow the lure, but when they don’t want to feed, they won’t. And that’s all there is to it.
The easiest method of catching couta is by trolling, followed by drifting with a trail of berley behind the boat, and then casting lures through the berley when the couta show. For anglers who prefer to use bait, a light sinker to get the bait down to the fish, a 4/0 hook, and a wire trace will fill the bill. If you are fishing from a pier or similar structure set up a bobby cork and allow the bait to sit about two metres under the surface.
Some of the best fun with these fish comes from salt-water fly-fishing. They are ideal for fly fishers wanting to get started. The basic outfit is an eight or nine-weight rod, a sinking line and leader of about two metres. Again, use wire where the fly joins the leader. Don’t go too flash with the flies; tie them yourself using basic material such as wool or deer hair because the couta will make short work of them.
For those who prefer to spin, then any chrome lure is okay. Again, you will need to tie on a short wire trace. A basic 6kg outfit is fine for even the biggest couta you are likely to encounter. The problem with couta is that when they are feeding properly it can be a frenzied affair. Anything that reflects light, be it brass swivel or ring, or even a bubble trail from your line, will attract a slash from those long, needle-sharp teeth.
A point worth making is that when you hook up, leave the fish in the water. Couta invariably travel in schools and a struggling fish in the water often attracts other fish from the school. Consequently, when the fish rise, your fishing buddies get a chance at some action.
One point about holding couta is to warn against putting your fingers in through the gills. There are thousands of small, spiky bones on the gills that tend to stick in fingers and can be irritating and annoying. Oh, and watch the fangs; they are sharp and easily penetrate skin.
For bait or lures, a rod about 2-2.3 metres long matched to a threadline or overhead reel, depending on your preference and balanced to suit lines in the 3-6kg ranges.
Fly-fishing: 8 to 10 weight outfit with a sinking line.
Wire trace is necessary for all outfits, try and avoid using a swivel as a joiner between wire and line as couta will attack it.
Best lures are heavy metal, painted white or else chrome. For trolling, skirted lures work well, but these are easily shredded. The old timers used to simply attach a hook to a 10-15cm piece of painted dowel.
Most flies will account for couta. If you have to work for your fish then you may want to work a valued fly, but if the couta are hot to trot, a piece of rag or wool on the hook will work just as well.
Author: Steve Cooper
STEVE COOPER won two Walkley Awards for investigative journalism but his great love is fishing and he is renowned as one of Australia’s foremost writers and broadcasters on the subject.