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Jackets at the Gate

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Everybody has experienced Leatherjackets, some hate them, some love them, but nobody can deny that they aren't too bad on the plate. For outside fishers, they can be a real pain, biting off any (and sometimes all) of your tackle, bait and even eating hooked fish before they can be brought to boat. There were horrifying images on the social media pages last year, of what was left of hooked fish after these 'piranha's' of the coast attacked them prior to being landed. 

The worst picture I saw was of two decent sized Flathead that had been brought up from the bottom on a regular 'Paternoster' rig; in the image all that was left of them were their heads and skeletons- there were just two heads on the two hooks after a 'cloud' of Jackets swarmed the retrieved fish- you sure wouldn't want to fall out of the boat! Outside fishers often have to leave their chosen fishing grounds as soon as the Jacket's turn up, mainly because they are so ravenous and will eat virtually anything, including coloured line and braid, it can quickly become a really expensive exercise.

Inside fishers however, commonly chase them for a feed as they are fairly easy to catch and don't necessitate expensive outfits to ensue success. Shore fishers target them around kelp beds and from wharves, where they can often be seen feeding off the marine growth of the wharf, right up close to the surface. When you find them like this, usually by dropping a strategically placed bait in their field of vision will result in a bite. These 'inside' Jackets are quite often either the 'Fan Bellied' or 'Six Spine' variety and aren't usually quite as 'piranha-like' as their oceanic kin the 'Chinaman' Jackets.

Fan Bellies in particular, are often spotted swimming in amongst the kelp or bright green seagrass beds and also seen commonly, feeding against structure such as pylons and the floating sections of wharves and pontoons. They are distributed right throughout Sydney Harbour and it's shoreline and are a realistic target for daytime fishing. Most young land-based fishers would have encountered them and although not a sports fishing target, are always happy to catch a few to take home for the pan. For many, a few 'Leathery's' have meant the difference between taking home a nice feed, or the dreaded 'donut', when the target species hasn't eventuated.

To get a feed of Jackets from the south side of the Harbour, we used to have a few favourite spots. Walsh Bay from the wharves, fishing 'straight down' the pylons was good, as was the eastern side of Lady Macquaries Chair. Elizabeth Bay was extra good if it was a really big high tide and Rushcutters Bay had them in numbers as well. All four of these spots required different techniques to achieve a good bag.

For Walsh Bay and most wharves, fishing straight down alongside a pylon with a Paternoster rig was the go. Elizabeth Bay you fished a running float set about 3 meters deep and Rushcutters, the rig was just a piece of split shot about 20cm above your hook and you sight-cast to fish spotted as you walked along. Lady Macquaries rigging was either the float rig or the split shot method, depending on which exact spot there you fished.

These were all good spots, but there was another one that stood head and shoulders above the rest. As you walked around into Farm Cove from the Opera House, just before you got to the old iron gates which marked the start of the Botanical Gardens, there's a spot we considered the best in the harbour and we called it "The Gate". It didn't look any different to pretty much all of the shallow waters of Farm Cove, however, there is a small area along the retaining wall bordering the bay, where the water slightly undercuts the wall above and there were always heaps of Jackets there.

The beauty of fishing at the Gate was, you needed minimum gear and good old green prawns were the only bait to use. It wasn't too far to walk from Circular Quay railway station, which made it easily accessible and if you decided on a spur of the moment trip, you could get there, catch your fish and be home again by train to Croydon all within a few hours. You could even buy prawns for bait at the Quay, even if they were the dearest bait shop around.

After initially fishing there with handlines, using a rod proved far better, not because you needed to cast, you didn't cast at all, rather, just dropped straight over the side of the wall, but the rod came into it's own for both hooking and quickly lifting the hooked fish up.

When we first started fishing there and discovered the amount of hungry fish that lurked below the wall, we originally used a large split shot about the size of a pea, squeezed on about 20cm above the size 8 long shank hook. After a couple of trips there, a better rig became a hook tied directly onto the main line with a ball sinker about the size of a 5c piece tied about 30cm below it. It wasn't a Paternoster rig as such, because the hook is tied onto the line without using a loop of any sort to sit it on.

Reason for this being, that a loop of any size, prevented as direct contact with the baited hook- might sound a bit strange, but once the fish became 'activated' there were so many there that your bait would be gone within seconds of it being dropped over. Same reason for the larger sinker- you had to keep constant direct contact with the bait or you'd lose it in a flash. Usually, within only a couple of minutes the fish became so tuned in to anything coming over the side, that they were 'on' and we'd catch them one after another. The technique was simple, you'd put about a 1cm piece of prawn on, drop it over about 2 meters and just do a slow, continuous lift. When weight was felt, a short strike and you had one hooked in the mouth, dragged up and dropped in your bucket-easy fishing.

Normally when fishing like this, you'll get a few other species like different Wrasses, Parrots and small Brown Groper in amongst your Leatherjackets- not at this spot, there were just heaps of Jackets and they beat anything else to the bait every time. One small handful of burley in the form of just prawn heads and shells was enough to get them going and then it was action aplenty and you could fill your bucket really quickly, in fact, in less than two hours fishing, you had as many as you'd want to carry back to Circular Quay railway station and then home. Being up on the roadway adjacent the wall also meant there was nowhere to access the water in order to clean your fish, so fish were taken home to be cleaned, luckily the old metal garbage bins were emptied twice weekly in those days!

There was though, one real drawback to fishing the Gate and it was in the form of an unfriendly security guy who worked at the Opera House. In the 70's, the division between the Opera House and Botanical Gardens was basically where the gate (our gate) was. On the Opera House side, the grounds were patrolled by their security, on the other side, by Park Rangers from the Botanical Gardens. 

Most of the time, whenever any security patrols were done or Rangers came by, they were only interested in how we were going and what we were catching and were generally pretty friendly, but when this one particular guy was on, he'd make us pack up and leave the spot and usher us to the other side of the gate- which wasn't any good for fishing, albeit only about 40 meters away from our spot. He was the only one who did it and was genuinely "over zealous" in his approach. Problem with this was, we never knew if he was on duty or not, and although we weren't visible from the Opera House, neither was he and he'd do his patrol 'circuit' every half an hour, almost like clockwork he'd appear and chase anyone fishing off.

As a kid I couldn't really understand why he wouldn't let us fish there, because there were nearly always people fishing the wharf at 'Man-O-War Steps' and he never seemed to make them move, the other security guys and the Rangers also never once asked us to move on either, nor did the police.  We needed a plan if we wanted to keep going there.

My old mate Steve G (who is a Raider also) and I came up with an idea that we thought would work for when this security guy was on duty. Firstly, we wouldn't walk past the Opera House, but instead go over the hill and access via the Botanic Gardens, then on arrival at the gate, simply wait back in the gardens until we saw who was on duty- if it was old mate, we'd just wait for him to wander up, about face and walk back off out of sight, knowing he wouldn't be back for half an hour. Then we could race over and fish for about twenty minutes safely, before again retreating to the gardens until he had done his next round.

As fishing time would be limited to about twenty minutes each time, we'd prepare our gear and even our bait at home. Preparing the prawn bait meant shelling the prawns and cutting them into 1cm long pieces- that was all that was needed to put on your hook- we even salted the peeled baits in an attempt to keep them on a bit better and then put them in a Chinese food container each. We figured that we only needed to see off about 3 or 4 patrols and we'd have enough fish.

Worked fine when we put it in practice, the Gate spot would live on! Just for the record, I don't advocate breaking rules or incite others to do the wrong thing, but this was more of a personality clash with someone who just seemed to like throwing his 'authority' around and after talking to other security, Rangers and the Police decided it was actually OK to fish there, regardless of old mate.

These days, I don't think you can fish there, but if you could, I'd bet there's just as many Jackets as there used to be because it was one of those "unlikely" looking spots




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Yes some people just like to be officious and never use their discretion.  Mentioning Leather jackets, takes me back to the mid 70s, when I used to fish at Wangi Wangi.  We targeted the Jackets and our method was to use prawns as baits.  They were placed on a two hook rig and we would throw the lines in count to three and retrieve the line.  Nine times out of ten we would have two fish.  If we waited any longer then the three seconds then our rig would bitten off.

Great memories, well written Waza.:clapping:


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Great story Waza!

I sometimes wonder if us fishos don't fish for leatheries as much anymore. I for one have little memory of intentionally targeting jackets since the age of 12. My interest in lure fishing has probably caused this.

Maybe a trip to get a feed of leatheries might be warranted when the COVID lockdown ends.

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Another great read Waza. Thanks for sharing.

'Jackets were Mum's favourite and I used to fish for them regularly over the ribbon weed beds in the Crookhaven as a kid.

My rig was a handline (the coke bottle), a paddle pop stick as a float, a pinch of sheet lead and a small long shank hook baited with prawn.

The float just had a knife cut in either end to wedge the line on and lightly weighted so it would sit flat on the surface. When you got a bite the float would either pop up vertically or disappear totally.

On days when the 'jackets were really timid or the garfish were around, I remove the paddle pop stick and replace it with a matchstick, clove hitched to the line.

Fishing was such a simple affair way back then.



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Those damn yellow ones in the ocean can bite through a 4/0 hook, when they are thick, you just can't fish, any rig is gone in seconds, and when they come up to the surface in "clouds" you're Day is done!

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Another great one Wazza, bringing back memories of fishing for Jackets.

Dad was a keen Luderick fisherman and before I got into that(as being a very small kid you would get bored easily) we he would fish a spot up at Brisbane Waters called the Ballast Heap and he would fish for Blackfish and I would fish for Jackets and I got pretty good at catching them on the Yo Yo technique.

Caught so many at times you would take the skin off the tips of your fingers pulling the skin off when cleaning them.

Edited by Blackfish
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Another good story Waza.

A trick I find with the timid jackets that just nibble the bait (still use a handline) is to allow the bait to drop about 6 inches, the jacket will then swim downwards to the bait and there is more of a chance his mouth will be pointing down over the hook. Lift up and hopefully hook him. Used to use prawn, but now use small pieces of squid strip.

Regarding the chinamen 'pirahnas' outside, I have pulled up flatties missing chunks of meat. One day in Bate Bay, the jackets were around the 40cm mark, so definitely worth keeping. Kept a few, lost hooks and sinkers, then headed home with a nice feed.

I reported this before, but when I skinned and cleaned the jackets, inside one I found the tail of a blue spotted ray, looked like the whole tail with bite marks along it every few inches. Inside another jacket, I found parts of the blue ray, including a whole eye, no bite marks on the eye. 

The ray pieces were very fresh, so I concluded that the ray had been sitting on the bottom and a plague of these 'pirahnas' swam up to it and ate it alive.ūüė≤

I used to spearfish as a youngster off Jibbon Point, never getting a lot but enough for a feed. My spearfishing mate told me about his mate that speared a large chinamen jacket off the point. He took it home and it weighed 5 pound.

He was using a speargun, hit the jacket in the middle, and the bloody thing swam straight at him and bit him on the upper arm, the spear still attached. He was lucky to have a wetsuit covering that part of the arm, though the jacket's teeth went through the suit and into his arm. 

The suit saved him from a severe bite, but the scar remained forever. With the spear attached, he was able to wrestle the jacket off his arm.

Edited by Yowie
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Hi Waza, hope you're well mate. Thanks for the in depth story of fishing for Jackets. As you know I haven't had as much ocean fishing experience as some Raiders but I have had some experiences with Leatheries, both intended and by accident. Best by far was a trip to Narooma and a trip round to the back of the island. Caught plenty of fish and hit a spot where there were some huge jackets (few kgs each). Have to say that they were very good on the plate and real easy to prepare too. 

Keep safe buddy, bn

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Wazza, your reminiscing of times gone by, in relation to officious people, brings to mind the late 60"s and early 70's.  During that period of time I was still at Primary school and every school holidays my family would travel up to Newcastle to stay with some of my Mother's family.

I had a male cousin the same age as me and every day we would take our cork hand lines, a  vegemite sandwich each, and a bottle of cordial.  We would have frozen some fish we had caught before and this became our bait  Well we traveled to Newcastle Harbor and promptly went to the Harbor Pilot"s wharf.  Over a period of time we had started fishing near the wharf and slowly edged our way further and further along the wharf.  Well, the fishing was better out along there.  No one else fished there so we knew that the fish had to be bigger and better.

The Pilots watched us over a number of days and said nothing to us.  So we became bolder and we ended up fishing next to their boats.  The Harbor Master came up to us one day and asked what were we catching?  We told him mainly Bream and we got more when the boat left the wharf and the water was stirred up.  He inquired about our names and where we lived.  Being respectful boys we told him, he asked what our Fathers did and did  they know where we were.  Both of our fathers were Service men and when he found out he told us his name and informed us that we could fish there whenever we liked.  The only rule was that we had to wind our lines in when a boat was docking or leaving.

We spent many days fishing and got to know a number of men that operated the boats.  They could never do enough for us and they allowed us to put our sandwiches and cordial bottle in their 'fridge.  Wow! we got to drink cold cordial, not ambient  red hot cordial.

I do remember, one day, the Harbor Master have a talk to us about our fathers and he found out that my father and his brother were in the RAAF and flew fighters.  He asked where, well I had to have a talk to my father and he came along to the wharf with us one day and he and the Harbor  Master had a great talk and it worked out both had served in Korea, the Harbor Master in the Navy and my father in the RAAF.

The point of my rambling narrative is not all officials are  over the top, but unfortunately, those that are come to the forefront of our memories and remain there.   We need to look beyond the officious ones and remember the good ones.  They were great times and have left me with many great memories.  

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ūüĎŹ¬†thanks again waza.

Some people just have to 'use' what little power they have provided to them.

Have had similar encounters over the years and thankfully equally as many, if not more, of the type bessel described.

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Gee I used to fish around there too. More often though we'd climb around the gate and fish further around the cove and around Mrs Macquaries Chair. Just before there, inside the cove, was a real hot spot for most anything when there was a big blow on. Other times a cast straight out from the chair was good and all around the cove was pretty good for jackets.

Well that was if we stopped mucking around and actually concentrated on fishing. 

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