Targeting Surface Feeding Fish in the Seaway and Broadwater
Surface feeding fish make up approximately 30% of the fish caught in the seaway and broadwater. These can consist of Tailor, Australian Salmon, Giant and Bigeye Trevally, Tarpon, Yellowtail Kingfish, Lesser Queenfish, Various species of Mackerel, Bonito and Tuna. This article will go into detail about where and when to look, how to target each species effectively and what to look for.
Please make sure you have read Birdwatching - Observing Bird Behaviour to Find Fish as the concepts discussed in that article are integral to your ability to find surface feeding fish and are related to what is discussed in this article.
The reason why big fish push bait to the surface
Underwater picture of a feeding GT school
First of all why do the fish feed on the surface around the seaway and broadwater? The reason for this is that when large schools of bait(white, blue and frogmouth pilchards) enter the seaway and larger fish start attacking them they form into bait balls. When baitfish form into a bait ball the continuously changing ball confuses the predatory fish and makes it harder to chase a single or small group of fish. It is much easier for schools of predatory fish to push the baitfish to the surface flattening the school and attack from underneath. The way they do this is interesting, the bulk of the large fish swim below keeping the bait school near the surface while individuals within the school take turns in attacking vertically from underneath. Once each fish has grabbed a mouthful it will dive back down, swallow and join in with the driving school while other fish take their turn at having a feed. This cooperative method of feeding ensures every fish gets a chance at the food while still using only a little amount of energy, I have sent the camera into feeding schools of Tailor, Bigeyes, Tuna and Giant Trevally and they all use this method. What we see on the surface is only a very small fraction of the fish involved in the hunt. There can be many different fish involved in a bustup as well, I have seen Bigeyes and GT's feeding underneath a school of tuna and Kingfish feeding underneath a school of Tailor. These other fish are usually a bit deeper down and are picking up the stunned baitfish that the main school of fish miss.
While you can see surface feeding at any time during the year, there are two distinct seasons when the likelihood of surface feeding around the seaway increases. The first is from Mid February through to the end of May and the second is from the start of November through to the start of January. Both of these seasons coincide with large runs of baitfish, white pilchards from March -May, Frogmouth pilchards from November to January.
Surface Feeding Guidelines
Some guidelines when looking for surface feeding are as follows:
- Run-in Tides are best, be at the mouth of the seaway when the tide starts to push in(add 1-1.5hrs to official bottom of the tide).
- Find the Clean/dirty water line and follow it in.
- Look for large schools of bait, the cleaner the water the further up the broadwater the bait will be.
- Keep an eye on all Bird activity at all times.
- Concentrate on ambush area's such as the North Wall, Canyon and Pipeline but always keep an eye on other area's particularly the mouth of the seaway, the Triangle and Northern Channel.
- Tides that turn to run-in in the 2hrs after sunup or 2 hours before sundown are the best.
- Fish will feed on surface regardless of the wind speed or weather, flat calm, howling wind, sunny, torrential rain and everything in between will all see fish feeding on the surface.
There will be times when all the guidelines are thrown out the window. The fish will feed on surface at the bottom of the run-out tide in the middle of the day if it suits them, keeping an eye on bird activity will tell you if this happens.
Approaching and Where to Cast in a Bustup
There are two schools of thought when it comes to approaching a bustup. The full speed approach and the idle approach. The full speed approach is basically a full speed run to within casting distance(20-30m) then put the motor in idle while you cast. The Idle approach is a slow approach with the motor in gear and idling, this approach takes time and relies on no other boats using the full speed approach. While both approaches have thier uses the full speed approach is more useful. 90% of the time the fish will only feed for a short time(between 15 and 30 seconds) regardless if you are there are not. The full speed approach will typically get you into casting range in around 10 seconds leaving you time to get 1 or two casts into the school before they sound. The idle approach can take up to a minute(or more) to get you in position and the fish may well have sounded before that happens. When the fish are in feeding mode they don't care about boat noise, in the seaway and broadwater they are used to it, they do care about getting run over by boats so make sure you keep back a good casting distance. On the rare occasion that fish are super flighty and sounding due to boats getting close(I've only seen it a few times) you can use the idle approach.
Bustups can be made up of two stages of fish. The primary stage and the secondary stage. The primary stage is the first lot of fish to come up to the surface, this stage is usually the largest lot and getting a cast into this lot is usually your best shot at catching fish. As the primary stage begins to subside the secondary stage may begin. Secondary stage fish are more scattered and can be found in a wider area, the reason for this is that much of the baitfish are now split up and covering a wider area due to the primary stage fish attacking the bait. Secondary stage fish are more likely to spread out on thier own away from the group and chase a single baitfish along the surface of the water feeding more horizontally than vertically. It is these fish that may follow a lure to the boat. If the baitfish attacked by the primary stage fish do not scatter in a way that enables effective feeding then the secondary stage will not start.
When approaching the bust-up try and determine the right angle to put your cast through the thickest part of the fish, for example in the image below, if you were over to the right of the C you could cast right across the school and have your lure land on A, have it pass through B and C on the way back to the boat. That way you get a chance at the primary fish as well as the secondary fish. That all depends on whether you are in the right position when the fish surface.
The above picture gives you an idea of a typical bustup(in this case GT's). A and B shows you the primary fish and the thickest part of the bustup. Ideally this is where you should be aiming your first cast. If that cast comes back unmolested then aim for the secondary fish at C and D. Remember that the fish creating the splashes in the bustup have already fed and are diving back down and it is the fish coming up for a feed that you cannot see that you will likely hook. Much of the time the fish feed in a certain direction(either with or against the current), try and anticipate this and cast in-front of the leading fish. All that said, sometimes a wild cast in any direction can pick up a fish out of a bustup, so even if you miscast and the lure lands 5 metres off to one side, it's worth working it back to the boat.
This kingfish took a 15gm Gillies baitfish cast into a bustup near the canyon.
Yellowtail Kingfish usually feed in distinct sizes. There can be both large schools of 55-70cm fish and small schools of metre plus fish. Each of these feeds in different ways on the surface. The smaller fish usually feed as part of a large school, they will push the bait to the surface then most of the school will attack at once. These smaller fish are usually not fussy(though it usually depends on the size of bait) and will take small poppers and stickbaits, Twisties and Raiders up to 30grams in size. These smaller kingfish are quite predictable in their movements and behaviour once they have settled into a pattern, you can often sit and wait in one location for them to reappear on surface every 10-15 minutes and as long as you are in the right spot you can get a cast in there in the first 5 seconds.
The larger Kingfish are a much tougher fish to find, tempt and land. They can appear anywhere at anytime but have a liking for the Pipeline and the Canyon up to the first set of beacons north. There doesn't seem to be any stand out lure for the big Kingfish as they have been hooked on a number of different lures including the Skitterbait, Owner ZipnZiggy, 30gram Twisty, 60gram Raider, Halco Roosta Popper and the FishArrow Flash J soft plastic. Big Kingfish feeding behaviours can vary from a full on feeding frenzy(rare) to the more common mooching which is a slow methodical form of feeding usually on very small bait which also makes them very hard to tempt with anything. Your best shot at hooking a big surface feeding Kingfish is when the bait is large pilchards around 10cm long. When that happens they will take most lures thrown at them, but accuracy and timing are still important. If you find them feeding over a weedbed and they refuse lures, try catching a pike and throwing one at the school unweighted.
For finding both sizes of fish birds are the key, they will spot Kingfish pushing bait to the surface a long time before you do. Watch for false diving birds as these will indicate fish that are close to busting up.
See also the Those Troublesome Yellowtail Kingfish article.
This 77cm GT took a popper thrown into a bustup late in the afternoon
Giant Trevally are one of the main attractions for chasing surface feeding fish in and around the seaway. Size range can be anything from low to mid 40's up to 80cm+ monsters. Like most fish they tend to feed in distinct sizes but those sizes can change from week to week. As an example in 2013, the season started in March with most fish in the mid 40's and low 50's, by late April we were seeing some hit the Mid 60's, towards late May we were seeing some in the mid 70's -80cm range. From then on the size varied a bit between mid 60's and mid 70's. They stopped surface feeding in late July but showed up again briefly in November.
When GT's feed on the surface they do it as a group, the number breaking the surface can be as low as 1 or 2 but the amount of fish below can be in the hundreds. When all the fish come up to the surface at once it can be a sight to behold. GT's can and will feed in the middle of the day if the bait is thick enough and the tide is right but they can be a bit picky on those day's especially if it is sunny. Foul weather days see them feeding alot more aggressively and for longer, strong winds and rain don't
bother them at all.
The mouth of the Seaway, Pipeline, Canyon, Northern Channel and the Cross Channels are all long term proven area's for GT surface feeding but they can show up anywhere. Find where the baitfish are congregating and make sure you are there for the run-in tide.
Most lures will work for GT's when they are feeding, 20 and 30gram Halco Twisties, 25 and 40 Gram Raiders, Halco Roosta Poppers 110 Rapala Skitter Pop 70 & 90, River2sea Bubble Pop 70 & 90, Skitterbaits, Gillies pilchard 20 & 40g & baitfish 15 & 25g slugs are all proven performers on active GT's. When they are a bit fussier you can go to a baitfish profile plastic like the Fisharrow Flash J, Squidgie Flickbait or Keitech Shad Impact on 1/8 oz jigheads or using a splitshot rig.
The most important thing to remember with chasing GT's on surface is that they like a slow to medium speed retrieve, they don't want it moving flat out so if you are having difficulty getting a hookup slow down your retrieve and see if that works.
See also Giant Trevally in the Seaway - The Ultimate Guide
Bigeyes feeding at the end of the North Wall
Bigeye Trevally are the second most common species to see feeding on the surface around the seaway. This section will cover daylight feeding behaviour. The average size for a seaway bigeye is around 45cm but they can get up to nearly 80cm. These larger fish are rarely caught and do not usually get involved in surface feeding.
When Bigeyes are feeding they aren't fussy, 10, 20 and 30gram Halco Twisties, 15, 25 and 40 Gram Raiders, Rapala Skitter Pop 70 & 90, River2sea Bubble Pop 70 & 90, Skitterbaits, Gillies pilchard 10 & 20g, Gillies Baitfish 15 & 25g slugs are all proven performers but anything remotely looking like bait should work.
The most common area's for Bigeye Trevally surface feeding during daylight hours is the North Wall Tip, North Wavebreak Rock Wall, Along the South Wall, Pipeline and the Triangle though they can show up anywhere.
This large Tailor took a skitterbait cast into a bustup in the broadwater
Tailor the the most likely fish to find surface feeding in the seaway and broadwater. The best area is around the North Wall but you will also find them further in the seaway and anywhere within the broadwater. They prefer water that is slightly dirty so the first of the incoming tide with its clean/dirty water lines is one of the best times to find them. If the water at the mouth of the seaway is clean then they will most likely be caught further up the broadwater.
Tailor are not fussy, they will take anything when they are feeding, including slugs, slices, poppers, stickbaits, minnows, plastics and vibs. The lure that has caught more tailor than any other would be the 20gram Halco Twisty.
The average size for surface feeding tailor is around 35cm, but occasionally you will get larger fish up to 65cm particularly around dawn and dusk. You can also get runs of much larger fish that will feed on the surface around early december. Tailor love windy/rainy/overcast weather so get out there when the wind is gusting 20-30kts and look for the birds.
For more information on catching Tailor see the Seaway Tailor Fishing Overview
A typical surface feeding lesser queenfish taken on a 7gm sea rock.
Lesser Queenfish can uusally found somewhere in the seaway and broadwater. They are small with a maximum size around 60cm but the average is around 30cm. They seem to like feeding in dirty water rather than clean(though they will feed in both) and the runout tide will often see them feeding in the Northern and Southern Y's early in the morning but it is quite common to see them chasing bait around the end of the north wall as well. Due to the often tiny bait they are chasing they can be frustrating to catch, small slugs and metals like the smallest 7gm raider, 7gm sea rock, 5gm Rios are all ideal for chasing Queenfish.
Tarpon are an occasional daylight surface feeder in the seaway, you mostly see them doing it in March-April and only on the runout tide when the water is dirty. They do show up on the surface on a run-in tide occasionally but they tend to be very hard to hook. As a predator used to low light conditions it can hunt baitfish extremely well in dirty water. The key to catching tarpon is to throw soft plastics at them and give it a slow retrieve back to the boat, the fish will soon pick them up and start tapping at them. Any small soft plastic will work, but proven varieties are Ecogear Grass Minnow M, Squidgy Slick Rig 70 & 90, Zman Curl Tails all on 3/8th oz heads.
For more information on catching Tarpon see the So You Want To Catch a Seaway Tarpon Article.
This salmon was caught off the Grand hotel boat ramp
Australian Salmon are only an occasional visitor to the Gold Coast Seaway and broadwater. We had large runs of them in 2007 and 2011 but they were rare outside of those years. They usually turn up in winter around July and stay until spring(October). Australian Salmon love a run-in tide and will often feed according to a tight schedule. In 2011 for example they would feed about 2 hours after the start of a run-in tide. Australian Salmon love pushing bait into shallow areas and for this reason you will often find them feeding in shallower area's than some species. Good area's for them include Horseshoe Flats and the area directly south, the North Wavebreak Flats up to The Elbow, North Wall Flats, The Dredges on the spit and Curlew Island opposite that. They will turn up in an area and stay for a few weeks, in 2011 they loved feeding in and around the Grand Hotel Boat ramp and up as far as the mouth of Loders Creek.
Soft plastics work the best on Australian Salmon due to their prodigious jumping ability, but they will also take slugs, metal, poppers and minnows. When they are chasing specific size bait then a small minnow type plastic will work the best like the 3" Berkley Hollowbellies, Fish Arrow Flash J 2 & 3", Berkley Gulp 3" Minnow in any colours that look like the bait they are chasing. In terms of action not much is needed, cast in there and give it slow twitching retrieve.
Mack Tuna caught in the triangle casting a pearl slider into a bustup
The various varieties of Tuna mainly hang around the entrance of the seaway but occasionally they will enter the seaway and broadwater. I have seen Mack and Striped Tuna up as far as Crab Island. They usually don't do it for long though and as a result they tend to be there one day and gone the next. Best lures for the Tuna are small slugs and metals like the Gillies Baitfish 15gram and 20 gram Raider. They can also be caught on plastics though and any of the baitfish profile plastics will work as well as the Pearl Slider.
Tuna feeding over the pipeline
Like the Tuna's the Mackerels are a bit hit and miss, but school Mackerel will often hang around for a couple of weeks around the ends of the walls. They tend not to feed on surface as much as the Tuna's around the seaway but when they do a slug or metal in the 15-20gram size will work, as will minnows and poppers.
This bonito took the skitterbait cast into a bustup
Bonito are quite a common visitor to the seaway and to a lesser extent the Broadwater. You will often find both Australian Bonito and Watson's Leaping Bonito around the North Wall for weeks at a time. They aren't fussy and will take most slugs and metals worked quickly as well as poppers, stickbaits, plastics and minnows. Occasionally schools will work their way into the broadwater on the run-in tides up as far as Crab Island.
Chasing Surface Feeding Schools Etiquette
Chasing surface feeding schools of fish is top fun and it can get very popular especially on the weekends with 20+ boats all trying to beat each other to the fish. However tempers can get frayed if you are doing the wrong thing and abuse(and lures) can start to fly so here are a few helpful hints to make sure everyone has a good time.
- Don't drive into the feeding fish - Now this may seem like commonsense but I've seen quite a few boats do this. Drive up to them within casting distance(20m is close enough) then put the motor in neutral and cast into them from there. Sometimes the fish will be moving and your boat will drift into the feeding school. That is fine, as the fish will quite happily feed around a drifting boat. Just don't drive into them at full speed, that will put the fish down every time.
- Don't troll through a surface feeding school if others are casting into it. Similar to the first one and again commonsense, but I've seen a few boats do it. If you are the only boat around then go nuts do whatever you want but trolling rarely works on surface feeding fish. If you continue to do it with lots of boats around, expect to get some abuse.
- Don't drive over someones line who is already hooked up. If you arrive late to a bustup and someone is already hooked up don't drive over their line in your hurry to get to the action, they won't thank you for it.
- Accept that crossed lines will happen. With multiple boats casting at a school of fish there are going to be crossed lines and tangles, most people just accept it and move on, a small minority get pissed off and abuse you. If you can't handle it don't chase surface feeding fish.
- You don't own a piece of water. - Some people will see some action then anchor up right in the middle of it and abuse anyone that comes within 100m. Sorry to say this but you don't own it, if you anchor right in the middle of where the fish are feeding expect to get lures thrown at your boat.
- Don't wait over the top of a suspended school. If you are between bustups waiting for the fish to surface again and see them on the sounder, move off to one side. The fish are waiting for another bait school to come through that they can push to the surface and that won't happen if your boat is right over the top of them.
Targeting surface feeding fish is one of the main attractions of fishing the seaway and broadwater, if you can find them. There will be days when everything is right and the fish still don't feed on the surface. I have spent many days focusing on surface feeders only to find nothing, on the other hand some days I've found them straight away and have had some truly epic fishing sessions. Using observation there have been times when I have been right within casting distance when a school of fish has come to the surface for the first time. Pay attention to what is going on around you, look for birds, bait schools, schools of fish on the sounder and above all have patience, the fish will only feed when they are ready.
A school of Tailor herding white pilchards, a few fish would attack every five minutes or so while the majority of the Tailor would help to drive the school of bait