by Ben Knaggs
Nothing gets a fisho’s blood pumping like the sight of a big school of fish actively feeding on the surface. It’s a full-on feeding frenzy scenario, as the hyped-up predators blast through the surface, gorging themselves on small baitfish, while screeching seabirds dive-bomb from above to also cash in on a free feed. Exciting stuff!
Mackerel, like this big broad bar mack, will also get in on a bust-up, although the bigger fish tend to hang down beneath the surface frenzy
Along WA’s north-west coast, right now is the time for some of the most reliable ‘bust-up’ action to be found. As water temperatures start to cool, schools of pelagic predators like longtail tuna, queenfish, Spanish mackerel and various trevallies push in to the north-west’s inshore waters, where they can be seen smashing into baitfish on a daily basis.
The tried and true technique for finding surface feeding pelagic fish is to simply follow the birds. It’s often been said that seabirds are the fisho’s eyes in the sky, and can signpost even the most subtle of bust-ups from miles away. It’s a pretty poor fisho that can’t recognize a big mob of birds all cannoning into the water probably means ‘fish here!’
Longtail tuna are the staple of bust up fishing in WA’s north west. These fish are usually most active of a morning or late afternoon
Of course, not all surface feeding schools will have birds circling above. Plenty of times you’ll spot pelagics on the chop with not a feathered helper to be seen. To lock in on fish in these situations you need to use other observation skills.
You’ll rarely spot schools of surface schooling pelagics by looking for the fish themselves. Rather, it’s the movement of the fish through the water that gives away their location. Many times just a splash or two from a slashing fish is the only thing that alerts you to the location of a school, so any splash, no matter how seemingly insignificant, is worth checking out.
Schools of fish that aren’t actually feeding often create what is commonly referred to as ‘nervous water’ or sometimes a ‘breezer’ (the latter particularly with tuna). A decent school of fish swimming right on the surface creates a very distinct ripple that a trained eye can actually spot quite easily.
A stealthy approach to the feeding school of fish is the key to this fishing
Once you’ve located surface feeding pelagics, the worst thing you can possibly do is charge straight into them with your outboard roaring. Do this and ninety nine times out of a hundred the fish will scatter as soon as you reach them. So whenever you approach a surface feeding school, do so with as much stealth as you can muster.
You’ll usually have to get to them quickly, lest the frenzy ends and the school goes down, so the trick is to get the boat up and racing toward them, and cut the motor the moment you’re almost within casting range. The momentum of the boat will then carry you close enough to fire out a cast, and hopefully the feeding fish won’t even notice you coming.
A pack of big longtail tuna tear into a bait school
This doesn’t always work though, particularly when we’re dealing with fast moving and very spooking targets like longtail tuna. These fish often pop-up for just seconds at a time, which can be frustrating as you end up spending ages racing from school to school without ever getting to one in time to fire out a cast.
In this situation, try positioning your boat in the general area the fish are feeding and waiting for the school to come up within casting range. This ‘sit and wait’, silent approach can often work really well, especially if the terrified baitfish the fish are chasing decide your boat’s hull looks like a good hiding place!
This style of fishing is really a lure fishing scenario. Metal lures like slices, slugs and spoons, and soft plastic stickbaits are the workhorses of bust-up fishing, but surface lures like poppers and floating stickbaits are also worth carrying (mostly because they’re so much fun to fish with!), but tend to work best on fish that aren’t being really fussy.
Most of the time actually getting the bite is a piece of cake, as the fish are all hyped up and willing to hit anything that even remotely resembles a small, frightened baitfish. Yet at other times these same fish can be ultra-picky and very frustrating.
This tear-your-hair-out experience usually only occurs when the fish are totally focussed on a certain type of baitfish. Much lure swapping is usually the order of the day if this is the case, but what you will find is that lure size is usually the most important factor. If you can see the baitfish the fish are feeding on, try to use a lure that matches their size almost exactly.
Casting to hyped up schools of surface feeding pelagic fish rates very highly on the ‘enjoyability’ scale for most fishos. It’s sportfishing fun you can just never tire of, and WA’s north-west coast is one of the best areas of the country to find it.