The classic fishing story is, of course, the one where the angler stretches out both arms and says “it was THIS big!”
In 2014, it is typically followed by a digital photo presented on a phone. Tales about the ‘one that got away’ can be equally dramatic, although they rarely have photos to accompany them. While disappointing, losing a big fish can be a valuable learning experience. Firstly, we can learn from what went right. Where was the fish caught? During which part of the tide? On what lure or bait and under what conditions? This is all good info to file away for next time. And then there is an opportunity to learn from what went wrong. So perhaps I can save you the heartache of losing a really special fish, because a couple of weeks ago I had one on the line and it WAS this big, but you’ll have to take my word for it.
I was fishing in one of my favourite south coast estuaries in a hole around nine metres deep. Still conditions meant the boat was drifting very slowly and the soft plastic lure could reach the bottom before I either drifted away from it, or straight over the top of it. The tide was running out and schools of bait fish and mullet – tasty snacks for predatory fish – would occasionally pass under the boat. I was playing with a nipper imitation soft plastic and it was working wonders. Several smaller flathead were coming to the net and everything seemed to be going according to plan. I was basking in the sun and having a great time.
For whatever reason, I switched to a more traditional flathead plastic that I had pre-rigged in the tackle box. A 65mm paddle-tailed fish in silver and black. I made a cast and waited several seconds for the lure to reach the bottom. The water here is deeeeep, I thought to myself. I gave the rod a sharp flick upwards, before winding in the slack line and letting the soft plastic fish swim back down. A substantial tug on the line suggested something had just swallowed the lure and settled back on the sand. My heart skipped a beat as I raised the rod tip and felt several kilograms of apparently immovable weight. The rod, now bent over double, started to pulse in time with the tail beat of a huge flathead. My heart, now beating again, had instead starting racing. I tried hard to calm myself and it worked – for a little while. After a few minutes and two laps around the boat however, I was starting to lose my nerve.
As anyone who has the distinctive tears and cuts on their thumb from putting it inside a flathead’s mouth knows, these fish have small sharp teeth to prevent their prey from escaping. It was these teeth that were playing havoc with my fishing line and my nerves, grating and sawing against the leader every time the fish changed direction. I had to make a decision, keep playing the fish slowly and calmly with a modest drag setting and risk it chewing right through the weakening leader, OR, tighten the drag a couple of clicks and try to get this fish in the net quickly. I chose the second option. From nine metres down I was firmly lifting the beast up through the water column, retrieving a couple of feet of line with each motion. The net was poised on the side of the boat. The huge creature was almost in sight when… <pink> the line snapped.
Always trying to be the optimist, I started thinking, what can I learn from all this? It was a very deep section of the estuary with plenty of tidal flow and the last of the falling tide. It was also late in the afternoon. Good to know for next time I suppose. The soft plastic was a paddle-tailed fish in black and silver and 65mm long. What went wrong? The fish chewed through the line. So the obvious solution would be to use heavier line than the 10lb leader I was using – 15lb would have been better. An alternative solution would be to use a longer lure, say 80-120mm, with a similarly long hook, so the fish would be more likely to bite down on the body of the lure, rather than on the line tied to it. The bigger lures will limit the number of smaller fish I might catch, or the chance of catching a bream or trevally, but so too might the thicker and more visible line. At the end of the day, I guess it’s a trade-off between more fish, or a big fish. On the drive home it also dawned on me that once the line was weakened I probably should have put as little pressure through it as possible, rather than trying to get the fish to the net more quickly to prevent any further damage. I also thought about using the electric motor to gently coax it into shallower water.
These are the lessons learned from a lost Leviathan; I sincerely hope that you too don’t have to learn them the hard way.