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The Great Pilchard Kill


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The full moon was approaching and it was due on a mid-week night, the beginning of Tailor season in Sydney. We've always loved Tailor fishing and the number one spot in Sydney is the Sow and Pigs Reef. The reef is situated almost right in the centre of Sydney Harbour between Georges Head in the west and Camp Cove in the east, is visible on all bar the highest tides and has a small wave break on the north-eastern side. Being both the first and also largest reef system that migrating fish encounter after entering the harbour, it naturally is the first location that most species stop at.

Typical of a large reef system, there are all manner of fish residing, add to this the migrating species stopping over and it is a really productive spot for fishers to try their luck. There are ever present schools of Yellowtail, seasonal Pilchards, Whitebait and Anchovy, abundant Octopus and usually plenty of Squid. Weed, cabbage and cunjevoi are also present on the exposed section, providing a virtual smorgasbord of different foods, which in turn attract all manner of species of fish.

The reef is best known for both Tailor and Trevally, the former being constant visitors and the latter for taking up residence throughout the winter months and can be found all over the large area of the reef in schools of similar sized fish. Other notable species found there are Bream and Luderick, but you are likely to encounter almost anything from Kingfish to Hairtail to Whiting, but for our trip, the focus was on Tailor.

In years past, any of the big moon nights from March until the end of June would see large schools of Tailor hunting the "Pigs" and catches of fish in excess of 100 were really common, in fact throughout the 60's, 70's and mid 80's some unbelievable catches were recorded. In organised competition, catches of 2-300 fish per angler were often taken and with no bag limits in those days it was wholesale slaughter for organised crews. This trip however, we needed some for a big BBQ and the target was about 3 dozen, not too hard a task normally on a big full moon at this spot.

Being a week night, it was a pretty easy launch from Rose Bay ramp and about twenty minutes later we were anchored up on our preferred south-eastern side of the reef in about 8 metres of water. Although the general consensus about fishing the "Pigs" is to normally fish back towards the hard reef, we've found just as many fish are cruising the shallower eastern side and less unwanted vermin species- especially octopus, which are quick to pounce on any whole fish baits that make it down to the bottom. There are plenty of other quality fish over this side also, not just the Tailor. The general rules regarding the Tailor are that the rougher the sea outside the heads, the more fish come inside and if you combine a big run in tide starting just before dark with the rising bright moon and a decent and consistent burley trail, it never took long for a roving Tailor school to take up station about 15-20 metres behind the boat.

All set up, a nice thin burley trail flowing and 3 Pilchards cast out behind the boat, swaying enticingly (we thought!) in the ever increasing flow of the big run in tide that was just starting to move strongly. Little chance of the bait making it to the bottom for an octopus tonight.

The rig is really basic- a short leader of 40lb mono tied to a swivel and a set of 3 ganged 6/0 hooks- hook size is really determined by the size of the Pilchards, occasionally 5/0's were used and even 7/0's at times. Reason for the large hooks?- they are heaps stronger than most "recommended" 3/0-4/0's, you only need 3 hooks instead of 4 to have the last hook sitting just in front of the Pilchard's tail and it's far quicker to bait up and the larger hooks are easily removed from the fish. The general idea is that you want to hook the fish on the last hook, rather than have them take a second hook- which makes it a slower process to take out of the struggling fish- the bigger hooks make the process far easier and any legal sized Tailor can be caught just as easily on the big hooks.

No lead is used and the baits are cast well back behind the boat, allowed to sink for a few seconds and then retrieved slowly. When the "rat-a-tat-tat" of a Tailor bite is felt, you don't strike hard with the rod, instead, just a short sharp lift of the rod tip combined with about a 3/4 turn of the sidecast reel is enough to set the hooks and the hooked Tailor is raced in and swung up under your arm for quick unhooking, then dropped into the waiting box. Most of the time the fish weren't bled due to them being caught really rapidly- if bled and thrown into the box together, the different blood types of the individual fish contribute to them going "soft" so natural rigor mortis along with the cool night air kept them fresh enough.

Having said all this about how good the spot is and how many fish and species are there of a night time, this night there were no takers at all and even the usual hordes of Yellowtail that sit just under the surface in the eddy formed at the back of the boat were nowhere to be seen. Highly unusual to say the least. 

At times, for reasons only known to them, the Tailor come through along the bottom, but this was usually more commonly encountered on the deeper south-western side of the Pigs, rarely on the shallower east side. A few pieces of sheet-lead are added on the leader under the swivel and this generally gets the bait down low enough to reach the take zone, so after no initial success, this was tried also. Same result- no bites on dusk, which is prime time. Disappointing.

The moon started to appear as it rose over the headland and Camp Cove to the east and expectation was high, the burley trail well established and the boat sitting perfectly where we wanted it, but no fish showed up at all. Then, as the moon rose higher, illuminating the water and almost turning night into day with it's brightness, we started to spot fish floating past us. First just a few, then within about 15 minutes, a constant stream of them. They were Pilchards and they were as large a Pilchard as we'd ever seen. They were floating pretty much on the surface and we started scooping them with the landing net. In only about 15 minutes we had about 1/4 of a box and we noticed that most of them had redness around the gill openings, they were so fresh looking, you could tell they were only recently dead. They were also almost "warm" to touch.

We put the rods in the boat's rod holders and concentrated on getting the floating dead with the net, but after discussing the sinister looking red marks around the gill openings decided that half a box would be plenty to keep for burley, because we didn't know where they'd come from or what had killed them. With this huge natural burley trail we wondered why there were no fish around and then tried using the dead ones instead of our frozen block Pilchards. This resulted in constant takes from Arrow Squid that suddenly seemed to be there in mass, pouncing on the new baits soon after they were cast out. We managed to get a decent catch of them, not hooked, they were simply hanging onto the bait and lifted aboard. Probably half the time they just didn't let go of the Pilchard, even when lifted from the water.

As it was a week night, with work beckoning the next morning and only the squid interested in our Pilchards, we decided to leave the Pigs and head to the ever reliable Fort Denison, where there were usually Tailor of varying sizes patrolling right in close to the north-western side, where they would attack any bait thrown into the lights that used to shine down from the Fort's round section. There were plenty there albeit only just above "chopper" size and we got what we needed and were careful to keep the Squid and Tailor away from our netted Pilchards- just in case the "redness" was poisonous.

I slept in the next morning and ended up having a day off work, so I rang State Fisheries to tell them about the Pilchards. They put me through to a biologist and the first thing he said to me was "haven't you seen today's paper?- the story is on the front cover" - it was and the headline said "Beaches of Death" - the Pilchards had washed up by the thousands and were piled high on the small north facing beach at Bradleys Head as well as Clifton Gardens and Nielsen Park beaches. He went on to say that there was a giant mass of floating Pilchards about half a km offshore and all manner of marine life were there gorging on them. He was involved with a research program monitoring Sea Gulls and explained that it was really eerie from a researcher's perspective, because although there are 2 major Gull flocks in each of both Sydney Harbour and Botany Bay, for two days the birds had failed to return inside and were just sitting adjacent to the floating Pilchard mass and gorging like all the other marine life. No birds in either Botany nor the Harbour.

Within a few days, there was news coming from all the way around the coast, South Australia all the way up to the mouth of the Hawkesbury, where the Pilchards were all dying of an unknown disease. It turned out to be a Herpes type virus, which fortunately only affected the Pilchard stocks and wasn't passed on through the food chain, or it would have been a complete ecological disaster. The year was 1998 and the "reasons" authorities declared blame on were the Tuna in pens on the Tuna "farms" were being fed cheaper frozen imported Pilchards and the Herpes type virus survived being frozen and was passed on to local stocks that are also found in the vicinity of the Tuna farms.

After managing by sheer luck to avoid a disaster from using imported seafood (albeit just as fish food) it's a shame some bureaucratic decision maker allowed the White Spot virus(which affects both prawns and marine worms) to be imported via frozen prawns into Australia, the virus is the reason that Bloodworms have been declared "Hazardous" and haven't been allowed to be sold for several years now. The worms so far haven't contracted the virus, but sadly the Southeast Queensland prawn fishery has been greatly affected and the potential for the worms to spread the virus is too great to risk. After witnessing first hand the Pilchard kill I can attest to what a waste of fish it was, if it had transmitted to other fish species and birds, who knows what could have happened.

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You truly are a fantastic story teller Waza. Your stories are always informative, well written (grammatically) and capable of drawing the reader into the actual reality of the topics subject matter. In fishing there's always a reason for the expected result NOT TO HAPPEN. We anglers have so much to learn about the "natural world" if we are to become better anglers. Your story relates a very unusual event that impacted the rest of the marine environment, for a short time, at least.

Thankfully the system (call it Mother Nature) has also found ways to overcome such events. Today we have sufficient pilchards to fulfil their purpose in the marine "big picture". It's a precarious balancing act that allows us to have the wonderful experiences which we all have when we venture out fishing.

Thanks for relating another of your very informative stories Waza. Hope you're keeping well. Cheers, bn

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Another great story Waza and I remember the pilchard kill well with masses of them washed up on the Beaches inside Jervis Bay.

As you know, a friend of mine owned a pilchard boat and this kill put him out of business, which was a real bummer for me because no more free pillies.

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5 hours ago, big Neil said:

You truly are a fantastic story teller Waza. Your stories are always informative, well written (grammatically) and capable of drawing the reader into the actual reality of the topics subject matter. In fishing there's always a reason for the expected result NOT TO HAPPEN. We anglers have so much to learn about the "natural world" if we are to become better anglers. Your story relates a very unusual event that impacted the rest of the marine environment, for a short time, at least.

Thankfully the system (call it Mother Nature) has also found ways to overcome such events. Today we have sufficient pilchards to fulfil their purpose in the marine "big picture". It's a precarious balancing act that allows us to have the wonderful experiences which we all have when we venture out fishing.

Thanks for relating another of your very informative stories Waza. Hope you're keeping well. Cheers, bn

Hi Neil and thanks for the high praise, I haven't been that well for the last couple of months and have had a few other problems to boot, however thought writing might re-focus my thinking, which it has.

Whenever something comes to mind fishing wise I'll post it up, glad you enjoyed it

Regards Waza

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3 hours ago, Green Hornet said:

Another great story Waza and I remember the pilchard kill well with masses of them washed up on the Beaches inside Jervis Bay.

As you know, a friend of mine owned a pilchard boat and this kill put him out of business, which was a real bummer for me because no more free pillies.

Hi Pete bummer for your mate, it was the second similar kill, the previous one was in 1995. 

After talking to the biologist I wished we'd loaded up on the Pillies as they were both super fresh and the largest I've ever seen- could have made our own blocks and I had a big bait freezer that was virtually empty!

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@wazatherfisherman

Hi,

Sorry to read you haven't been well.

Getting the float right for Blackfishing has been fun.

I bought an Alvey rig for beach fishing. This will be my next adventure.

Cheers.

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27 minutes ago, Rebel said:

@wazatherfisherman

Hi,

Sorry to read you haven't been well.

Getting the float right for Blackfishing has been fun.

I bought an Alvey rig for beach fishing. This will be my next adventure.

Cheers.

Once the float's right, when you finish fishing leave the lead tied to each float you use when you put it away- saves mucking around weighting each time. Most of my floats have the appropriate weight tied to the bottom float runner while in the float tube.

Great to hear you got an Alvey for the beach! You'll love it- especially when you can just dip it in the ocean to clear any pesky sand out! What size Alvey and what rod/line did you get?

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Just now, big Neil said:

Hope your health improves Waza. Cheers mate.

 

Hi Neil it is slowly- just age more than anything I guess, things take heaps longer to get better! It's a bugger when all of a sudden you're the same age as all the old feller's!

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47 minutes ago, wazatherfisherman said:

 It's a bugger when all of a sudden you're the same age as all the old feller's!

:074:

 

I know, not getting any younger any more, and funding the *^%#*@ doctor's retirement funds.¬†¬†ūü§£

Another good story, and I hope your health improves faster rather than slowly.

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49 minutes ago, Yowie said:

:074:

 

I know, not getting any younger any more, and funding the *^%#*@ doctor's retirement funds.¬†¬†ūü§£

Another good story, and I hope your health improves faster rather than slowly.

Hi Yowie and thanks!

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Waza. Another fantastic read, thanks so much for sharing the experience with us, almost felt like I was there with you.

I remember both the 95 and the 98 sessions but I wouldn't have been able to say what year they happened, one year is same as another for me. When I first heard of the 98 session I had great fears that it could have been the end of fishing as we know it, luckily the pilchards recovered. and things sorta got back to being normal, strangely though in my opinion the fishing in general has not been as productive since those happenings, and the rules and regulations has become more strict as the years past by.

Anyhow we have to move with the times and with all the new technology with fishing these days it's more about playing with toys than it is being the hunter gatherer as it was when we were growing up.

Cheers and we really should get together again for a fish OR just a tong-wag about days gone by.

Frank

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31 minutes ago, frankS said:

Waza. Another fantastic read, thanks so much for sharing the experience with us, almost felt like I was there with you.

I remember both the 95 and the 98 sessions but I wouldn't have been able to say what year they happened, one year is same as another for me. When I first heard of the 98 session I had great fears that it could have been the end of fishing as we know it, luckily the pilchards recovered. and things sorta got back to being normal, strangely though in my opinion the fishing in general has not been as productive since those happenings, and the rules and regulations has become more strict as the years past by.

Anyhow we have to move with the times and with all the new technology with fishing these days it's more about playing with toys than it is being the hunter gatherer as it was when we were growing up.

Cheers and we really should get together again for a fish OR just a tong-wag about days gone by.

Frank

Hi Frank that was my fear too! Sure was lucky the virus didn't pass on to other creatures/fish because it looked horrible around the gills of the dead. Glad you enjoyed the read

Love to catch up soon

Waza

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Thanks for reminding us of this Wazza. I actually remember those events and reading the news paper articles of the day... Concentrated farming of any type is never a good idea ecologically - nature had not evolved the animals to live in such confined concentrated situations - the rapid spread of a disease becomes inevitable and a catastrophe. 

Lets hope we have learnt - and your article certainly helps to keep this past experience in mind.

Cheers Zoran

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51 minutes ago, zmk1962 said:

Thanks for reminding us of this Wazza. I actually remember those events and reading the news paper articles of the day... Concentrated farming of any type is never a good idea ecologically - nature had not evolved the animals to live in such confined concentrated situations - the rapid spread of a disease becomes inevitable and a catastrophe. 

Lets hope we have learnt - and your article certainly helps to keep this past experience in mind.

Cheers Zoran

Hi Zoran I actually could of kept this story going on by talking about the great disaster of the White Spot virus- the Pilchard kill was indeed accidental and unfortunate, but there were plenty of warnings in regard to the White Spot being found in the prawns overseas and to risk not only Australia's large prawn fishery but everything else associated was just greed/stupidity/ignorance, "balance of trade" etc Scientists need to be involved with such decisions not politicians.

The poor old prawn fishers and worm diggers work by a fairly strict environmental ethic already, they more than anyone want their industries to remain viable and sustainable.

Another potential disaster and a good reminder to NEVER buy frozen imported prawns for bait

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1 hour ago, wazatherfisherman said:

Another potential disaster and a good reminder to NEVER buy frozen imported prawns for bait

Someone wants to make a quick buck, so **** everyone, just bend over and cop it up the shite shute, not my problem anymore. 

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9 minutes ago, Yowie said:

Someone wants to make a quick buck, so **** everyone, just bend over and cop it up the shite shute, not my problem anymore. 

I don't know the actual details behind allowing the importation of the infected prawns nor who the "brains" were behind the decision but they definitely knew about and were warned that the virus was a distinct danger if we started importing the prawns

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Brilliant recall Wazza, I¬†remember those cold nights at Sow and pigs (The North marker was my favourite spot, a quick run back to Rosebay ramp next to the floating Chinese restaurant and then home¬†filleting the tailor and ‚Äútrevors‚ÄĚ with frozen fingers - Those were the days.

thanks for the memories.

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2 hours ago, Pickles said:

Brilliant recall Wazza, I¬†remember those cold nights at Sow and pigs (The North marker was my favourite spot, a quick run back to Rosebay ramp next to the floating Chinese restaurant and then home¬†filleting the tailor and ‚Äútrevors‚ÄĚ with frozen fingers - Those were the days.

thanks for the memories.

Hi Pickles the Pigs was always really cold even on windless nights, the cool SW-W airflow kept you on your toes. I had a great old "Taft" jacket, it was rubberised and it kept you both dry and warm as it didn't breath. Great jacket for those huge Tailor sessions.

I wrote a post about fishing for Trevally there a fair while ago called "Reminiscing, Silver Trevally" and would always catch them in comps when the Tailor weren't biting. You pretty much had to use a hand line to do it the way I did, but you could catch heaps whenever you needed to. Also had a lot of fun  there out of competition using 4lb line, losing probably 2/3rds of them to the reef but the challenge was great!

The Pigs has a special place in my memory because it was the place I caught my first big catch as a junior (73 Tailor) and hooked my first Kingie and Hairtail, such an under utilised spot these days.

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Another great read Waza & highlighting¬†how¬†a quick buck & ‚ÄúPelicans‚ÄĚ(politicians) can create havoc to the the environment. I believe one of most pristine places in Australia¬†has major issues occurring in the bays & rivers where the Atlantic salmon are being farmed¬†

Hope you recover soon, must admit  mate some days I feel like one of those old blokes, 

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