Fishing World, August 2003
Cold winter nights see an invasion of fanged silvery creatures into the dark waters of the Hawkesbury system, an annual event providing anglers with a rare opportunity to tangle with monsters from the abyss. Robert Adamson describes an evening spent chasing the mysterious hairtail.
IT was a July afternoon last year. I’d been preparing for a night of hairtail fishing. My fishing mate had to work that day so I was getting the boat ready to leave as soon as he got back. We knew we could make it to Waratah Bay and anchor up before dark. My wife usually comes to take photographs but she had to attend an art gallery opening that night, so we’d have to make do with my automatic Nikon F60. Then my seaphone rang, it was John, he had to cover someone’s shift. The boat was ready; I had the bait and rigs; the tide was perfect; there was absolutely no wind. Okay, I’d go alone and if I caught any hairies I’d have to use the Nikon’s timer and take self-portraits, balancing single handed a fish that looked like a ribbon of liquid chrome, with huge predator’s eyes and a mouth full of cutthroat razors.
Hairtail come to live in the river every winter. Locally they’re called hairtail, but in other parts of the world they have other names: ribbon fish, cutlass fish, frost fish. My grandfather, a Hawkesbury fisherman, called them “hairies” or “ribbon fish”, depending on his mood.
During the years of the Great Depression, families moved from Sydney and came to live in the caves at Jerusalem Bay. There are old photographs of men standing in sepia mist, holding up hairtail as tall as the humans who lived on their catches. On the shore at their feet are huge piles of fish, their silver bodies entangled. You catch glimpses of eyes, the great wide pupils of a nocturnal predator. Hairtail have teeth up to three inches long, with backwardly directed barbs, so their prey has no chance once it’s been seized. The catches suited the times. Hairtail flesh was highly favoured over other available meats such as rabbit or feral pigeons.
Taken straight from the river with their colours all lit up, their reflective skin is silver, shot through with emerald and crimson hues. They have a delicate, filmy dorsal fin running the full two-metre length of their body and ending in a slender thread. When they’re feeding they swim vertically, like great ghostly seahorses suspended amid reflections.
Full-grown hairtail are around two metres long and weigh about five to six kilos. These fish can be great fun on light gear. Sometimes hooking up with a big one feels like you’ve caught a huge squid, they move off with a strange pulsing motion that’s not quite a dead weight but then they can really perform, sometimes slashing around on the surface. If there’s no moon and there’s lots of phosphorus you see their shapes outlined as other fish follow them to the boat. They can be very cannibalistic, slashing at each other on the way up.
The bays in Cowan Creek and Coal and Candle are like great bowls of fishy soup. Some nights with mullet plopping around you, a jewie snapping its great bucket mouth shut as it rounds up its dinner just across the bay, it’s hard to take when all six hairtail rods are out and their baits are soaking without a peck.
Hairtail are attracted to all forms of light. They come in from the abyss beyond the continental shelf, moving up and down the water column, searching for translucent or iridescent food, their long dorsal waving gently as they hover beneath the schools of whitebait and yakkas in the Cowan system.
This is why light sticks are so effective when incorporated into a hairtail rig. There are lots of different colours these days. I’ve tried them all: green, blue, yellow and red. I find the reds work much better when there is a moon and the greens on the dark of the moon.
Some writers have opined that hairtail don’t swim vertically, that it’s just another component of the hairie myth. It’s true that they don’t swim upright when they are searching for a feed or just schooling up for travelling or breeding. They do, however, swim vertically when they are taking a bait. I’ve actually seen them swimming upright. The water is so transparent at times in Smiths Creek at Cowan that when the light’s right, just after dawn when there is absolutely no wind, and if you don’t make any noise at all, you can berley them up around and under your boat. If you throw out a light line with no trace you will be able to watch them as they take a bait.
One morning last winter I had this happening. I threw out one of my usual rigs, a set of five ganged hooks on a wire trace four inches long, and they wouldn’t touch it. They were hovering and latching onto the pieces of pillies. As the little hunks of oily flesh floated down the water column the hairies swam up and gently grabbed the flesh and moved off, but they just wouldn’t take the bait on the line with a wire trace. Then I threw out a light line with no trace with a whole pillie on it and one of the hairies sailed over and held it and then went into this extraordinary vertical position. As soon as I saw this I understood the famous hairtail bite. In every story ever written about hairtail you’ll come across variations on the theme of their strange manner of taking a bait. The first thing you notice is a light weight on the end of the line, very similar to a squid or a small crab. Then you wait. Sometimes I have had a hairie bite go on for five minutes. Just a gentle tug that doesn’t even move off. This bite has been described in many ways, there has been so much written about the “mysterious” and “horrible” hairie bite it can be confusing until you actually experience them when they are really on the chew. It was a revelation to actually see a hairtail acting this way and it explains all those weird “bites” we have felt in the dead of a freezing night. They can just hang there for five minutes without moving, they hover in the water with the bait in their mouth held delicately between their fierce looking teeth.
If you pull the bait away slowly it activates a response and they will start to gradually move the bait into the back of their mouths. When this happens wait until there is some tension on the line and pull a bit firmer, then they usually start to swim off. I let them take out two metres or so then hit them firmly. Sometimes hairtail will hit the baits hard, especially when you are using live bait, sometimes they swim with the bait in their mouths towards the boat and the lines go slack as if you have been bitten off. Other times they rise up to the surface and swim away horizontally. It takes a bit of experimentation, it’s a matter of finding out how they are feeding on the night. Bear in mind that they very rarely hook themselves so set rods aren’t that effective. In fact, if you have trouble hooking up and get too frustrated a handline will outfish any rod every time. The thing is when they are timid, you have to use light line: thin handlines and hairies mean burnt or cut fingers. A very light spinstick with a good threadline reel and a smooth drag is the most fun.
The most radical innovation I’ve come up with to get around these nights when the bite is timid is to do away with the traditional wire trace. I use chemicallv sharpened Gamakatsu hooks especially designed for ganging. These hooks, called Gangsters, have been around for about a year now, you might have to ask your local tackle shop to get them in but they’re worth the extra money. There was another brand of chemically sharpened hooks around but these were very brittle and one out of every four snapped as the eyes were clamped shut. The Gamakatsu Gangsters are a thin gauged hook and this helps them slip into the bony hairtail jaw and down in between those incredibly prehistoric looking teeth. I use five hooks in each set of gangs, which gets around the problem of doing away with the wire trace. I always make up my traces before the session, so that I have at least 20 traces in those snaplock plastic sandwich bags. I make half the traces up using 401b Black Magic tough trace line and half with a very small wire trace, only four inches. This helps the bait float down the water column in a more natural manner.
I arrived at Waratah Bay about an hour before sunset. There are about six public moorings there and if you tie up to any one of them you’re in as good a spot as any in the bay. The other bays in the Cowan system have these public moorings as well. Other top hairtail spots in the Hawkesbury, system are Smiths Creek, Jerusalem Bay, Cottage Point (opposite the restaurant) and Illawong Bay.
It was a perfect night, a full moon, no wind and high tide at 8pm. This was a night when all the factors that you usually need to catch hairtail had come together. The tides aren’t as important here as in the main part of the Hawkesbury but the hairtail usually come on the bite around the top and bottom of the tide like most other fish. Berley is important because the hairtail are attracted by the hoards of baitfish that hang around the moorings and once you get them going the predators start working them as well. I often catch beautiful school mulloway here among the hairtail.
It’s important not to use any weight. The baits must float down as naturally as possible and usually the lighter your line the more fish you hook.
I caught a few yellowtail and set out a livie. I set another two rods out with pilchards on the gangs. Then just after dark I got my first hairtail bite, the light weight on the line at first, then the line started moving out. It meant they weren’t playing around, they were hungry. I stood up and set the hooks. It was a hairtail; they are pretty unmistakable when you’re using gelspun line. They were biting the pilchards and not touching the yellowtail. I had my first hairtail in the boat within an hour of tying up to the mooring. Often in June and July there can be up to 15 boats with 15 hairie crews all pulling in fish.
I wince every time I hear someone laying into one of these beautiful creatures with a huge catfish donger. Although they look fierce, once out of the water hairtail are very feeble fish, all you need to do is hold the trace in front of you and then grab them behind the head with your thumb and forefinger. This calms them down straight away. You can feel straight away how little strength they have once they are taken out of the water.
As soon as I had the hairtail in the boat, the rod with the livebait went off. It was a jewie. In this still water, on a line without a sinker, an eight-kilo school mulloway puts on quiet a show. I was only using five-kilo braid and on the little Ugly Stik the jewie was great fun. I caught another two hairtail and then spent the next two hours taking pictures with the camera on a tripod and the timer set on 30 seconds. There were three other boats of very serious looking hairie fishos that night in Waratah Bay. They must have had a good laugh at the weird sight of me running from the tripod back to pose at the stern of the boat, with the flashlight bouncing off a ribbon of shimmering chrome.