Mangrove jack are a brutal hard hitting fish that pull way above their weight in a short but brutal tussle. They are worthy opponents on any tackle and often pull line from near locked drags as they hit a potential meal and run back to the safety of structure. Targeting jacks on conventional gear will test any angler’s abilities at one time or another, however, throw in some fluff and a fly rod and the challenge takes it up a notch or two. When tackling this iconic brute on fly gear one can expect line burns, blisters or dusted knuckles as part of the norm. Hopefully this article will help those starting out in salt water fly or those wanting to make the transition over to fly to connect to a jack on the magic wand.
Mangrove jack are found throughout the northern half of Australia and are most commonly targeted in an estuarine environment with lures and bait. In South East Queensland they are a highly prized estuarine species but no matter where you’re situated within their existence they are always a welcome and a worthy opponent.
The best place to find a jack is around structure. Rock bars, snags, mangrove lined creeks, marinas and other man made structure is where they are most commonly caught. The majority of fish are taken in the saltwater limits of the estuary but they can be found far up into the freshwater reaches and I have on many occasions caught them in the same stretch of river as bass and jungle perch. In built up urbanised environments I like to target jacks around jetties, bridges and rock walls and in more natural environments I prefer to head up mangrove lined creeks looking for structure whether it’s sunken rock bars, large deep snags or deep over hanging mangrove banks. The easiest way to scout an estuary is to head out at low tide as much is revealed when the water drains. The larger snags that are still submersed at low tide will generally be the better producing snags. Drains leading deep into the mangroves are easily spotted and are great to target when the water is filling or as it is starting to run out. Shallow rock bars should be noted and fished on top of the tide and first of the run out. Large rock walls that line river banks are a great place to target jacks especially in the cooler months when a few consecutive hot days beam down in winter. Jetties are well known jack hot spots and with experience you will learn which particular jetties regularly produce. If you put enough time in casting at jetties sooner or later a jack will show up. Bridges and pylons are also superb jack haunts that regularly hold residential fish. At night when they are lit up decent fish are often produced as they gather to prey on schooling bait fish.
Getting set up
When I target jacks on fly I use two basic outfits, surface and sub surface. The fly gear you will require varies for both methods of fishing so for this reason I usually have two outfits onboard to cover both bases although one is set up with interchangeable lines and a variety of buoyant and sinking flies will also suffice.
When surface fishing for Jacks a “floating” out fit is required. I like to use a fast taper 8/9 weight 9 foot rod with a light small capacity reel that will hold at least 50 yards of backing. It’s rare that a jack will peel you to the backing and usually if he does in the vicinity of structure its all over anyway. A 90 foot, forward taper floating line to match the rod is required. I prefer to use loops to connect the backing to the fly line and fly line to leader as it makes interchanging or alterations much quicker. Leaders should be around 8-9 feet of 20-30lb monofilament from fly to the fly line. For this species I don’t use taper leaders as a neatly rolled outcast isn’t so important and the pros are out weighed by the cons. I don’t use bite tippets for this style of fishing as it just adds another possible breaking point to the set up. Monofilament is my preference as it sinks slower than fluorocarbon. The disadvantage of using heavy leaders all the way through from fly to the fly line is that they are extremely difficult to bust off when snagged. Fly lines are usually rated from 35-50lb breaking strain and I have seen lines or loops break instead of the leader when trying to bust of a snagged fly.
When sub-surface fishing with a fly rod for jacks I use a 9/10 weight fast tapered 9 foot rod with a small capacity reel with at least 50 yards of backing. I like to use a shooting head forward of an intermediate sinking fly line to bring the fly down into the depths although any fast sinking line will work. There are many brands of sinking lines and shooting heads on the market ready made however I prefer to make my own using a cheap 6 weight intermediate line put on backwards with 10 feet of T14 fast sinking line attached to the end. I have found this combination sinks quickly and bellies in-between the angler and the structure thus pulling the fly down steeply in front of structure. This is a big advantage when using lightly weighted or neutrally buoyant flies like DK Dancers and things. Leaders should be of 20-40lb fluorocarbon depending on the type of structure and around 8-9 feet long.
As with any surface fishing you obviously need a fly or lure that will float. There are many types of flies tied for this purpose although I have had more success with popper flies, crease flies and Dahlberg divers.
For sub-surface fishing the better producing flies for me have been pink things in a variety of colours, gold bombers and DK dancers. The size of the weighted eyes attached to flies like pink things will vary the decent speed just as a conventional jig head will when using plastics. I prefer to use lightly weighted eyes to 1/32 of an ounce so that the line pulls the fly down the face of the structure rather than the fly sinking first into the structure. In thick snags I will use flies with weed guards. If you are not a very accurate caster or when learning, one should always go weedless as it helps to pull flies over all sorts of obstacles such as ropes and timber.
For surface and sub-surface flies I use patterns tied on a 2o-4o hook. Colour selection is a personal choice but the basic rules of bright in dark water and natural in clear waters are a safe place to start. I tend to start with bright colours in both scenarios. On some days colour will make a huge difference and experimentation will be required to make a connection.
If you wish to seriously target jacks on fly, a method of keeping you on target and in the zone is required. If you are walking the banks your feet will position you, in a canoe or a yak obviously you have paddle power but if you are using a boat as the majority of us do an electric motor is imperative to control your speed or hold you in position. Drifting will not cut it and anchoring is too time consuming to be viable. Line management and having a clear deck to fish from is also crucial as the last thing you want when connecting to a jack is your line becoming tangled around something lying on the floor causing a bust off. When a Jack does a hit and run a short amount of line disappears extremely quickly.
I love snag bashing wether it’s with poppers, plastics, hard bodies or flies. It’s a great test of ones skill and usually when there are a few anglers fishing together the more accurate fisherman is duly rewarded. Snagging up in the trees and sunken structure is all part of it and working through this and persisting will improve your fishing dramatically in many aspects. Whilst wielding a fly rod the snags can be worked both on surface and sub-surface. Once a brute takes a fly it’s a matter of trying to stop it in its tracks. Thinking quickly and hopping on the electric motor to pull you out from the structure whilst giving the fish no line can sometimes make the difference between loosing and landing the fish. It is near impossible to snap leaders of 20lb plus over a bent 9 weight rod without foreign aid like barnacles and such. Many fish will make it back to the snags and when they do it is a matter of keeping pressure on and slowly trying to work it back out. Going to the extent of breaking a snag up is sometimes required to extract the fish and there are always going to be the ones that are irretrievable or bust you off. That’s just part of the game.
For snag bashing with surface flies you will need to use your floating outfit. I like to work the snags a lot closer than I would with conventional gear or a sinking outfit. About 4-8 metres off the snag line is ample. Casting needs to be short and accurate to get amongst the thick of the structure. Long casts are a disadvantage as you lose accuracy and jacks are given the upper hand to brick you as more line is available for them to run with. Flies should be cast into the nooks and crevices of the snags and worked back over the structure making surface commotion. The amount of commotion required will vary but it is all about making a little splash and noise to temp a big red dog to take the bait. Once the surface fly is retrieved past the hot zone, which is usually 1-2 meters past the outer most point of the structure, the fly can be cast again back into the next good looking lair. One big advantage fly has over conventional gear is that it can be pulled up, back cast then quickly redirected into an area without retrieving all the line if a “chop” is heard nearby. On occasions I have seen jacks sight the fly and rise in the snag on the precast and then hit the fly as it returns and contacts the water. Surface fishing definitely works better in low light scenarios and around the tide changes. If you time the tide change with first or last light you have the best chance of raising a jack.
When snag bashing with a sinking line I like to sit approximately 6-9 meters back from the snags. This gives the line ample length to belly between you and the structure which will aid in bringing the fly down the face of the structure and then into the bottom part of the water column keeping it in the zone for longer periods. Casts should be made as far into the structure as possible and glided back over the timber and sunk down the snag face. Keep the fly moving with short strips until it is half way back and recast into the next likely looking lair. One habit I had in North Qld was to bring the fly slowly over the snags followed by a few quick strips on exit of the hot zone just in case other species like small GT’s or Queenies were about. Flies should always be guarded to help avoid snagging, particularly on the structure in which you can’t see. For those who have used weedless plastics in the snags it’s much the same principle of attack, although flies need to be fished a lot slower than conventional lures to get right down into the depths. Patience is required! Tide changes and working towards the low tide are my favourite times to snag bash. Low light is great coincided with these changes but when working down deep jacks can be active throughout the day.
Rock Bars are classic jack haunts that fish considerably better with sub surface fly. When fishing over sunken rock bars I like to throw long cast up current and patiently let the fly line sink down to the required depth which should be as close to the bottom as practically possible, I then strip back over the rocks with a varied slow technique similar to slow rolling paddle or curl tail plastics. I like to slow drift over the rocks concentrating on the mass of structure and once past, head back and drift over the area again repeating the process. Casting down current should be avoided as the resistance from the water flow against your line will raise your fly too quickly in the water column and bring the fly out of the zone. Play the fish out aggressively as even in relatively open water you can never afford to give a jack the upper hand.
I like to work steep rock walls that line riverbanks almost parallel to the bank rather than casting from the deep into the shallows. I tend to concentrate on the area where the rocks are deepest or if man made where the natural bottom meets the rock wall constantly throwing big casts up in front of myself and into the current allowing the fly to sink and retrieving it slowly until it starts to raise at the boat and then recasting. If a wall sinks over 4 meters I would concentrate on the 4-2m depth range. Working the deeper sections gives you quite an advantage to play out the battle when a jack strikes, although if they have a hidey hole amongst big boulders they will usually make it back to it. All you can do when this happens is keep the line as taught as possible and patiently wait for it to come back out or bust it off. In daylight hours Jacks usually like to sit in water that is shaded or deep enough so that they can’t be seen from the surface. Even if they are residing in the shallower areas on the rock walls they will eagerly swim deeper to take bait if in the mood to chew. Once again the best time to target jacks is when the water slows around the tide changes. Ripping currents are really hard to fish with sub surface fly but still possible by drifting at the same speed as the current. In the colder but still viable months (April, August, September) they really seem to fire up on an afternoon high tide after a few consecutive days of warm weather when the rocks have had a chance to heat up under a blazing sun during low tide.
Bridges and jetties
Bridges usually hold good fish and if worked enough or when everything aligns will produce the goods. Bridges that are not so mainstream or tucked away up stream in waters less than 4 meters will generally be better producers simply because they will endure less angling pressure. When working bridges I like to use heavily weighted flies to 1/8th of an ounce. Casts should be made up current and bought back past the ambush points starting down current of the bridge and working up stream. I work flies at a moderate pace around these areas to entice a reaction strike as the fly comes into a jack’s sight. You should work every pressure point and back eddy of the bridge but don’t waste your time continually flogging it. A jack will hit a fly fairly quickly if it is in the mood.
Jetties are a fantastic place to target jacks with surface and sub surface flies. Some jetties are regular producers and some will only have a show every now and then. In an unfamiliar area I usually pick a line of jetties and work the lot although in my home waters I tend to jetty hop and bypass the unlikely haunts to increase my chances in a short period of time. The only way to work the better jetties out is to put time on the water. The better producers tend to have more growth, shade and structure. In these shaded areas a jack can be in quite shallow water so flies should be cast right up into the shallows and stripped back until past the last point of structure. To save repeating myself, surface flies should be worked in the same way as described for surface snag bashing concentrating around the structure making varied surface commotion.
Sinking flies should be worked similarly to bridges and that is looking for a reaction strike at ambush points with a slightly faster retrieve. The main difference is obviously that you will be fishing from the water back toward the bank that the jetties are secured to. Casts should be made up current of the structure and allowed to sink as far into it as you dare before stripping back. The strength of current will dictate how far ahead of the structure you are required to cast and extra allowances for sinkage must be made with the flyweight. Fishing the tide changes is always preferred although may not be so imperative when fishing a lot of canal systems particularly the dead ends as most have little tidal flow.
Flats and drains
Some of the best jack fishing I have experienced has been on the surface in water less than a metre deep on the muddy mangrove flats of North Queensland. On the flats anything deeper than 1.2 meters is basically a slim chance zone when it comes to raising a jack on the surface. Areas that have small drains leading into thick mangroves consistently work in the summer months when fished at the correct times obviously providing the fish are there. Low light is the most important factor to get right so fishing anything but the first two hours of light in the morning and last two hours in the afternoon is a waste of time. As soon as the direct sunlight hits the water it’s all over. The best tides for the flats are by far the neap tides. I believe neaps are a standout as the water stays at the required depth for much longer periods and the fish have much more time to feed amongst the shallow mangrove systems. If the high of the neap lines up with the low light hours it’s usually game on. Surprisingly, there are usually only eight or so prime days on average in a month best suited for this style of fly. Tactics are basic and that is to carefully work an area casting the surface flies as near to structure as possible making lots of surface commotion. Most of the hits will occur near the structure although on rare occasions I have seen jacks run down a surface lure and hit it at the boat. A fascinating occurrence that I noted whilst fishing the flats was that jacks occasionally partially jump out of the water to eat purple crabs that are sitting on the mangroves just above the water line. After discussing this with a friend of mine he gave me a purple crab fly to try and after a bit of persistence I was rewarded. The fly actually hit the snag and as it bounced off and onto the water it was immediately engulfed and the rest is history.
Remember if you wish to become a good fly fisherman you must be prepared to leave your conventional gear at home and persevere through the tough times. In time you will be duly rewarded with a new experience.