Moreton Bay’s Northern Bluefin – a Flyrod Challenge (Words and Photo’s by Steve Morgan)

After speaking to Steve Morgan and reading about his recent success catching Northern Bluefin Tuna on fly, Steve shared the article below which he wrote for the 1997 Flyfishers’ Annual.

AFTER a morning of light sou’wester scuffle, the day had glassed off to very unMoreton-Baylike millpond. Surrounding us and audibly obliterating the massed frogmouths were hundreds of northern bluefin tuna.

`Northern blues’,`blues’ or `longtails’ are a reasonably common fish in Moreton Bay, and indeed in most of Australia’s warmer waters and they offer one of Brisbane’s best chances of taking a large fish on fly. Casting flies to surface feeding fish is not only the most exciting method of targeting northern blues, it’s without doubt the best way of catching them in certain conditions.

When a pod of longtails `balls up’ bait, it means that the predators have herded prey into a tight mass on the surface. What you see is a concentrated mass of jumping and slashing tuna intent on feasting on as many baitfish as possible before the prey scatters and no longers offers guaranteed pickings. Exciting stuff. If the day is not glassy, as it often isn’t and the attentions of the tuna are lost in the chop (pardon the pun), there’s usually an easy alternative to spotting schools of fish. Look to your eyes in the sky. Look for the birds.

Birds are vitally interested in the activity of feeding pelagics. When the baitfish are herded against the surface, they’re the easiest of pickings for seabirds – just fly along, dip your bill at the appropriate moment and there’s lunch. A happy commensalism. Of course, of great disappointment to both the angler and the birds is the fact that longtails in particular and pelagics in general don’t keep the bait balled at the surface incessantly. Maybe in a perfect world?

For a lot of Moreton Bay’s sportfishers, techniques for extrapolating bird behaviour to the movements of target pelagics are refined to a fine art. After spending time observing their behaviour while following pelagic fish, you can learn to decipher the birds’ movements and translate the knowledge to more hookups.

As is often the case, spotting a school of the Bay’s longtails only gets you into the front door of the longtail on fly club. Catching your first is not always easy. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule. Sometimes you can crash and bash your way up to a pod of feeding fish, flail a flathead fly into the fray and everything comes up tight. As I said, this is mostly the exception. Often, the hasty approach of a outboard powered boat to within casting distance will see the longtails stop breaking the surface and cruise off. Adding to the potential frustration is the selectively erratic feeding moods of pods of fish from tide to tide and day to day. This is where the birds are a real asset.

Anyway, back to the action ….

….Lead casting to cruising fish has more in common with tricking trout or tempting gullible goldens that it does with taking tuna? Wrong.

From your shallow angle, you can’t see which way the fish went and you don’t know how far they are under the surface. The birds, as they have the prime vantage point, can. Longtails will take flies offered while they are not visibly slashing on the top, but only if you `lead cast’ to them. That is, ensure that your fly crosses their nose and is in their line of sight. Sensibly guessing the path of a pod and laying a line across it can also bring results.

Hold your fly line in, and we’ll follow the pod. I know where they are and which way they are travelling – just look at those terns – bobbing, weaving, feigning crash dives and hanging around in a competitive group. We’ll keep pace with them and see what happens….

….Although lead casting to cruising fish is well worth a shot if the opportunity arises, your chances of a take are magnified if you can deliver your fly into a surface feeding frenzy.  I defy any fly angler to keep a steady heart rate as they nose in on their first surface-working ball of northern blues. It’s an experience that I’d rate right alongside stalking tailing trevally or being dahlberg-clobbered by an angry Clarence bass.

A lot has been written about approaching longtails and a keen lure angler will be familiar with the assumption that these fish primarily feed into the wind. Well, it sometimes happens and when it does it makes an approach from “uphill” quite an attractive option – wind favours the cast and when the presentation lands correctly, you can strip the fly to swim it away from the feeding fish – a powerful attack trigger.

Remember, however, that longtail lore was logged largely by lure fisho’s. The average fly fisher (myself included) can barely cast an entire fly line and has even more trouble doing so in a rocking boat on a breezy day. Even a super sized casting arm or similarly proportioned ego will only get you a few extra yards – about half as far as a hefty popper or metal lure will travel. The fly fisho then must devise a way to get even closer to the target and when a shot is had, to make it last and make it count….

….By keeping pace with the birds that we just know are over fish, an opportunity arises. The tuna encounter a pod of bait and stop travelling to slash into the school. Thirty pounders clear the surface in their pursuit of the tightly packed baitfish and you can hear the crashing and slashing of the carnage.

When the boat idles into casting range I swing it side on and a few seconds later you take a shot. It’s hard to control the adrenaline and the flyline simultaneously and as you strive for the longest cast you’ve ever done – right to the far edge of the school…. Back … forward … back … forward. The fish stop feeding. Your line lands a second later. Too late. Your fly pulses back through a glittering veil of scales and aerated water. There’s a chance it will get hit, but it doesn’t. We idle off again in pursuit of the birds….

…. I’ve been there before. So close yet so far. There are a few tricks to making the most of the shots you get.

Naturally, you should have enough line stripped off the reel to cater for the longest cast that you will be likely to make (be honest!). Have this line stored in a position where it’s not likely to be stepped on or tangled. Protruding boat bits and wind are the biggest culprits of this, so be conscious of where your spare line is at all times.

Keep six or eight metres of line trailling out of the rod tip and drag it in the water as you approach. When the time comes to blast off your forward cast will be nicely loaded from the drag of the line in the water. Shoot some more line on the next backcast – enough to ensure that the main head is clear of the tip. The next forward cast should be your delivery. It’s as simple as 1-2-3, but takes a little time to perfect. Try not to be tempted into extra backcasts for only a few feet of extra distance. In that time the fly could have been in the water for those extra seconds and as we’ve seen, that may be all you get.

If your first cast doesn’t get hit, and the fish are still working, pick up the line and deliver it again. Remember to keep the fly IN THE WATER as long as possible. I haven’t yet seen a tuna yet jump out of the water and hit a false cast.

If the school moves but is still in casting range, pick up the line and deliver it to the new target. Yes, of course, with the minimum of backcasts.

That’s one of the most important pieces of advice I can give….

…. After a few hundred metres the school again pins a pod of bait across the surface. A slow and careful approach means an easy fifty foot cast to the edge of the school. One, two, three and you’re away. You can see the small white deceiver with a wickedly sharp 4/0 hook gliding through the water as it follows the pattern of your unhurried strips. It happens. Out of the depths rockets a longtail and engulfs the fly in full view! You strike to drive the hook home and at once check your line to make sure that the line isn’t fouled around the boat or underfoot.

The fish shakes it head a few times and after a few seconds, panics and speeds off. Line whips through the runners and springs off the deck. The reel jolts into life and screeches like a feeding tern. Hookup!….

…. Longtails aren’t forgiving on second rate tackle. You’ll need a rod that not only can deliver a fly line a workable distance into the wind, but also deal with between fifteen and forty pounds of tuna when it sounds under the boat. Reels must hold at least 300 metres of 20 or 30 pound backing plus your line. Their drags must be smooth and the spools counter-balanced.

Lines are important. I believe that the purchase of a clear, intermediate WF line is the best money you can spend in pursuit of longtails. Outdated methods of chasing these fish with heavy, fast sinking shooting head lines will produce fish, but the techniques I’ve outlined combined with a clear line will produce many times more. On certain days, a shooting head landing in a feeding school will put the fish down. Like a trout, tuna can definitely be “lined”. Scientific Anglers’ Monocore and Airflo’s Clear Glass series are both saltwater tapers and suit the job admirably. Clear lines are nicknames “slime lines” due to the fact that they become slippery and shoot extremely well. It makes the old 1-2-3 just so easy.

As the lines are clear, no butt leader needs to be used. Tie a short Bimini Twist in some of your test tippet and loop it to the line. It’s that simple.

Flies should match the size of the baitfish on which the fish are feeding, but remember that your hook shouldn’t drop below about 3/0. No matter how sharp they are, small hooks just keep falling out. Gavin Platz of Tie-n-Fly Outfitters on the Sunshine Coast produces an excellent range and is happy to supply flies, materials or advice to keen first-timers….

…. After two hundred metres the fish slows. While not matching the speed of a large mack tuna or mackerel, the longtail’s stamina means that if you land him in anything less than half an hour, you’re technique’s superb. Fighting the fish from a dead boat means that the fish is dragging a whole lot of line around and that will make him tired. Granted that darn small 1:1 fly reel will have you cursing before the battle’s over, too….

As the fish nears the boat, you can lead it. Pull its head towards the boat with side pressure opposite to the swimming direction. When it changes direction, change your direction of pressure. Don’t pump and wind the fish at all. Use the reel as a winch to gain those tough yards of line. If the fish bolts, don’t worry – six kilo tippet will drag the reel handle from your hands every time.

If the fish is stubbornly circling under the boat, drive away from it and plane it to the surface. The next rod I break by trying to move a circling fish too early won’t be the first….

….Forty-five minutes later you’ve got colour. Looks like over a metre of blue – nice fish. Cutting one of its tireless circles short, I tail the fish and swing it aboard. Fly out, tag in, quick photo and its swimming free. The heavy tippet means that it powers off and hopefully survives. Congratulations all round. Northern blues aren’t easy in the bay and the quality of the experience matches more popularised species. Let’s go and catch another….

Look out for a longtail fly tournament in the bay in the near future. Moreton Bay offers a fishery comprable to some of the best that Australia has to offer. It’s an experience that differs from flats fishing, trouting, or billfishing but combines important aspects of all three of these. Try it. Get frustrated and try again. When it all comes together it’s well worth it.

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