It's early December and Jack has finally put in an appearance at his favourite North Coast of NSW haunts. Around these parts the old timers call them "red bass" although the term "red bastard" is often heard, usually after a favourite bass or bream lure has been snatched off the surface and dragged back to the "Red devil's" lure locker. When I first started to lure fish for jacks around these parts, there were several questions that remained unanswered, interestingly knowing which rivers and creeks jack makes a regular appearance in wasn't one of those questions. Arrive on the North Coast and ask around a few garages with decent bait and tackle ranges and you're sure to get a useful answer, ask the same question around any of the tackle stores and you may, or may not, come up with the goods, it all depends on how much they love, or hate their jacks.
Over the last few weeks there's been some mighty big jacks landed, the first of the 50 cm plus monsters was landed by Mike Colless, he was up near the tight end of a river to the north of Kempsey when he saw a sizeable surface boil, well off the bank and down river. Assuming it was a good trevally, he cast his lure past the boil, dragging it back through the disturbed zone, the unknown fish wasted no time engulfing the lure, smoking him towards the bottom and then bank. Assuming it was a really big GT fighting without the normal sizzling surface runs, Mike got the surprise of his life when the gold hue of a monster jack materialised out of the tannin stained water. At 50 cm it was a big fish, the size of which are at times almost impossible to pull up when hooked amongst the snags.
A few days later and about a hundred kilometres further north, Deception lure maker Paul Kneller had a similar experience, with an even bigger jack! Rounding a bend in the river, Paul and his regular fishing partner, Brett Young, heard an almighty splash towards the middle of the river, sounding much like a kangaroo jumping in to swim to the other side, they cast their lures at the still disturbed water and within a few turns of the reel Paul was locked up to an open water jack, a huge fish that was giving him absolute curry, as it madly made a dash for the bank. Keeping his drag locked up at Glenbawn level and then some, he put his heavyweight bass rod through its paces, eventually getting the better of a jack that went 56cm and over 6 lbs in the old scale.
Three days later Brett and myself ventured up yet another North Coast creek, landing 2 jacks each for the afternoon. Brett took a 35cm fish off the edge of a boulder bank, I took the next 40cm fish off a submerged log, Brett got the next 35cm fish off a bank side log, and I got the final 39cm fish off the same boulder tumble near to where Brett got his first.
After two seasons of successful jacking, most of my original unanswered questions are a little bit closer to being resolved and even in such a short period of time, there are some patterns that are starting to emerge. Being in the right river, but picking the area were jack lives is a skill that you will develop with time on the water. Start catching jacks with your eyes wide open and you'll start to notice a fairly common range of bank side and underwater structures that reflect the stage of a river that jack likes to call home.
There's no doubt that jack pushes right up and into the upper reaches where the water has become brackish, but not fresh enough to support summer time bass populations. Jack likes solid, dead timber that's lying in deep and shaded water, jack doesn't like snags that have rotted away below the high water line, jack likes to hold up on snags that provide cover at all stages of the tide.
Areas of heavy rock bar are fairly uncommon in most North Coast jack creeks, although when you do come across a deep and rocky section it can produce good jack fishing. Interestingly I haven't had that much success on deep rock shelves, but have had good success in areas with random boulders tumbling down mud banks into deep water. Pin point casting in these boulder areas will produce immediate hits from fish that are lying in ambush underneath and beside the boulders.
Jack also likes deep mangrove root systems particularly at high tide, parallel casting mangrove banks can be a very dangerous exercise. Much like mulloway, jack feeds actively after heavy rainfall, the muddier the water, the better jack likes it. The low after a large high tide can also make for excellent jack fishing, particularly on larger fish which take up very predictable feeding stations on the really serious snags that are still covered with water.
When in jack territory it pays to keep your eyes and ears open, jacks have a tendency to leave cover and feed well out and into open water. Most good jack creeks also have sizeable GT populations that feed aggressively, assuming all surface activity is trevally-related can be a mistake. Once you're into the skinny and deep top end sections, the whole width of the channel is fair ambush territory for a hungry jack.
For this reason if you're not sure what deep snags lie ahead, it can pay to do long speculative forward casting: a lot of our jacks come from forward casting. In skinny water, jacks can be easily spooked and there's nothing more annoying than watching the best snag of the day glide by under the boat, having never had a lure thrown at it, because you didn't know it was there.
It's fairly well accepted amongst the crew I fish with that gold is by far our most successful jack colour. Lure choice is a more personal thing, but regardless of the rivers or creeks we fish, the type of lure that stands out is a shallow diving bait fish pattern, from 10 to 20 cm long, a lure with a small bib and a loose action, a lure that allows us to "stick' it back to the canoe or boat, in a short, sharp, and erratic rod action.
For my mind jack fishing, to actually land fish, is all about getting in tight, getting the hookup and then getting out as quickly as possible. Jack is a fish that is easily excited, sometimes it can pay to let him miss the first strike, allowing for a hookup once you're slightly further out from cover. Sometimes that extra metre can make all the difference, regardless of the weight of tackle you're using, a 50 or 60cm jack if a hugely powerful fish, he'll move a boat metres into a snag on the first hit, in a canoe you're at his mercy.
Jacks are a fish that will only be caught regularly if you target them, the water you're fishing is generally too deep for flathead and the lures are too long for bream and bass. Tackling up for jack requires a similarly single minded approach, using a bass system of 15lb braid and 8 to 10 kilo leader will land most jacks in the 30 to 40cm range. But, if you want to have some chance, when mixing it with the 40 to 60cm monsters that inhabit the majority of our creeks, then 30lb braid and 15-20 kilo leader would be a good place to start.
Depending on the type of river you're fishing, the chances of landing a jack after hookup will vary. Yesterday I fished one of our bigger creeks with Paul Kneller and he hooked a monster jack from the base of a mangrove system. The fish smashed the lure on the way out from the tangled mess of roots and then made a beeline back for cover. Digging his heals in on maximum drag, Paul stood his ground and with the boat gunned to the middle of the river on the electric, he managed to keep it all together long enough to have a decent crack at the fish.
With the mangroves now out of reach, the big lutjanid turned its attention to the boulders that were strewn across the bottom and proceeded to try to bury Paul's lure underneath one. Looking much like the fight of a big fin in deep water, the straight up and down tug-a-war made for good viewing.
Eventually angry upwellings began to make it to the surface and the "eye of death" was staring me out as I slid the Environet under a huge North Coast jack. At 54 cm fork length and about 3 kilos in weight, it was Paul's second 50 plus in as many trips and testament to the quality fishing you can expect if you're prepared to be single minded in your approach.
On this trip we also mixed it with tarpon to 45cm and giant herring to about a metre, but that's another North Coast story.