With water temps well down its time to turn attention to some of the more traditional winter species. For me, no other fish conjures up an image of the Sydney harbour winter fishery than the John Dory. They have shown up in good numbers this season. Luderick, another winter icon, can also be relied on to save a ‘shut-down’ day when the water chills off.
While smaller flathead are most active in the warm water, early winter is prime time for lunker lizards. A lot of these bigger fish will be breeding females so please consider limiting your take.
There are three things to look for if you want to target the big fish – mud bottom, deep water (40ft plus) and big concentrations of baitfish. These attributes tend to be found in the mid to upper reaches of the harbour at this time of year. There are two ways to target them, either big soft plastic lures or large live baits. The larger shad/paddle tail plastics in the 4 to 6 inch, 3/8 to ¾ oz weights tend to be the best. The most important aspect to this style of fishing is to ensure that your lures are staying in touch with the bottom all the way back to the boat.
Large live baits are very effective. Mullet, yellowtail and slimys are the best but they will eat almost any small fish. The mud in the prime areas can be deep, so use a long leader of 1.5 to 2 meters to ensure that your bait can keep itself above the murky silt. Pin your bait near the tail, below the lateral line if you are going to fish them on the bottom. This allows your bait to keep its head up and out of the mud. Alternatively suspend your bait off the bottom by letting your sinker to first hit the bottom and them raise it up about a meter. Be prepared to hook both Dory and jewfish as by-catch using this method.
Dory are caught rarely and most of the few that are caught are taken accidentally. The main reasons for this is that the number of fishermen venturing out at this time of year are dramatically reduced and the few that do bother, don’t specifically target them.
Dory are almost exclusively taken on live bait but very occasionally one will be fooled by a pilchard aimed at tailor or even more occasionally a cut bait aimed at bream or trevally. A fair percentage of these incidentally caught dory are taken after they inhale an undersized bream or reddie that have themselves been hooked on a bream line.
Most bream fishos usually fish three or four lines, one in the hand and three in the holders. A small reddie picks up one of the baits on the set line and goes unnoticed or gets left there for a time while other chores are attended to. In the meantime, the dory that has been lurching around the area, attracted to the boat by the swarms of bait fish that have been attracted by the bream burly, zeros in on the struggling reddie and scoffs him. Usually the fisherman will assume that the dory has taken the bream bait but those who dispatch and dress their dory immediately will discover the truth of the matter.
I suppose all of this has led to the belief that dory are only an incidental catch or even that they are an uncommon species. They are actually quite common in season and from about May through to September there’s no reason you shouldn’t average at least one every time you go out. Just like jewies or whiting they are common enough to make them a feasible proposition but to do so they must be specifically targeted.
In Sydney harbour they will be found in deep water. They spend most of their time off shore in very deep water so when they come inshore they also feel more comfortable in the relatively deeper locations. Twenty feet is a good starting point.
They aren’t the most energetic fish in the sea so strong currents are unfavourable. The still deep bays and the eddies of the lower harbour, middle harbour and particularly north harbour are good spots to start looking. A final requirement on habitat is clear saline water so the upper reaches are usually unsuitable, except possibly, after long periods without rain.
With that whopping great eye the dory could possibly be nocturnal but I’ve never chased them at night, so I can’t say for sure. One thing I do know is that they love a bit of shade and the low light conditions of early morning and late afternoon. Jetties and moorings are a big favourite as are under water structure.
As with most species, the turns of the tide seem to spark a feed with high being the favourite and low not far behind. The new and the full moon are good times though I’m not sure whether this is related to the moon phase or the fact that the turn of the highs ,around these phases, occur early morning and late afternoon. Probably the later.
A rapidly falling or a stable high barometer are also peak times. The biggest problem you will face is timing your day off with all the above-mentioned factors.
Baits must be alive. If you chose to use live yellowtail or slimys, which I might add are most inappropriate, then make sure you trim the tails to slow them down to dory speed. More natural pray are the slower reef dwelling species like mado and sweep.
How you fish these baits is just as important as where and when you fish them. Dory will pick a bait up off the bottom, but they much prefer it if it is suspended a meter or so above the bottom. I find it much easier to set the depth without the bait on the hook. Once you have set the depth put the rod in the holder, pull the line up by hand and place the live bait on the hook. This way, although the bait will swim frantically for a few minutes, when he finally settles down you will know that he will be at the right depth. You cannot set the depth accurately with a frantic bait charging all over the place.
The rig is very basic. A 40gm bean sinker is placed free running on the main line stopped by a swivel. Then a 10kg trace, about a meter long is finished off with a 4\0 to 6\0 Mustad Big Red chemically sharpened hook.
You can get away with ordinary tackle with dory as they really aren’t the toughest fighter but keep in mind that whenever you have a live bait out you risk hooking a kingie or jewfish.
Finally, shore based fishos are well in with a shot at dory. Jetties provide shade and swarms of baitfish and fishing straight off the rod tip amongst the pylons or a little further out under a bobby cork often produces more Dory than the boats fishing out wider.
By — Craig McGill