Presented from Issue 108, February 2014
Blue Eye Trevalla is the name most used by Tasmanians to describe Hyperoglyphe Antarctica, a fish species found in all southern oceans and like most widely distributed fish they have come to be known by a variety of different names. Blue Cod, Antarctic butterfish, Bluenose Warehou, Deepsea Trevally, Blue Nosed Sea Bass or Deep Sea Trevalla, are all names used to describe one of Tasmania’s finest eating fish. It is regularly seen on restaurant menus — and as a line caught fish it is unlikely it is overfished.
Blue Eye can grow to 50kg and 1.4m in length with females of this size producing over ten million eggs in a season. They reach maturity at 8 to 12 years of age in a size range of 62cm to 72cm. Juveniles of 10cm have been found living in association with masses of floating seaweed and as their size increases they become semi-bottom dwelling. Once fish are around 50cm they form schools over rocky bottom in depths of around 300-450 metres along the continental slope. Larger adult fish will live and feed in water as deep as 1500 metres.
Commercial fishermen generally target them with long lines or drop lines but blue eye can be targeted by recreational fishers. Recreational anglers in Tasmania use a variety of different methods including drop lines retrieved through pot haulers, hand reels such as the Alvey deep see deck winches and more recently electric reels. I had never contemplated targeting them, considering them to be the bastion of big boats with costly specialist equipment that would have to be used regularly to justify the expense but by chance I came across two boats fishing a lump about one kilometre off the edge of the shelf while trying to locate some late season albacore. I figured they were targeting blue eye and the encounter got me thinking. Not my forte I know!
So I knew where the fish were and at a depth of around 400 metres, but a lot of questions rattled around in my brain. Was it possible to feel a take in that depth of water? How much weight would I need to hold the bottom? Was it even physically possible to wind a fish up from that depth on conventional gear without having a heart attack? There was only one way to find out, give it a go. I gave Craig Rist a ring and lined up a trip the next weekend, a man in love with anything epic. I dropped into see Jamie at St. Helens Bait and Tackle for, strangely enough, some bait and tackle. He makes up some heavy duty bottom rigs with big circle hooks that are very durable. I bought some of his largest sinkers and a few big packs of squid as well.
Craig arrived on the Friday afternoon and we set about prepping the boat. The only reels I had with enough space for 600 metres of braid were a couple of venerable 330 GTi Penns that were about half loaded with 25kg Fireline. We left the 25kg in place and added some 37kg/80lb braid I had sitting in a drawer. Both reels were loaded with as much line as we could get on them without hindering the level winder. With all the pre-made rigs and new sinkers packed in a box we were ready for the water. We dropped the boat in the water the next morning about 7:30 and headed for the mark slightly north of dead east of the St Helens Point just towards the bottom of the steepest part of the shelf. The run out was a pleasure in the windless conditions which were forecast to last most of the day. As we approached the mark I noticed we had it to ourselves, a good thing as the last thing we needed was a peanut gallery for this possibly flawed venture. We dropped off the plane, I popped the motor in neutral, grabbed a rod and turned to old mate and said “where did you put the box with the bottom rigs and sinkers?” I thought you grabbed it?”
After the ardent profanity, we set about searching the boat to see what we could find. We came up with a dozen or so 4/0 bait hooks, a handful of snapper leads and a reel of 60lb trace. Two three hook drop rigs were soon made up with double sinkers on each. We had managed to bring the squid and we didn’t skimp on applying that.
While we rigged up the boat had drifted southeast off the mark so we motored a couple of hundred metres northwest of the mark and started our first drift. I dropped the sinkers and baits over the side, clicked the reel into free spool and waited and waited and waited some more. It was about now that it started to dawn on me just how deep 400m is. That sounds like a funny thing to say, but to see that much line disappear off your reel when you’re used to fishing for flathead or trumpeter is something else. I touched down a bit before Craig, gave the reel half a dozen winds to clear the bottom and dropped the rod in a rod holder. We had a southerly swell of about a metre slowly rolling through that gave the rod tip a slow bowing motion.
After a few minutes my rod suddenly loaded up with what appeared to be a solid take. I grabbed it out of the rod holder and was surprised at how easily I could feel the fish fighting and head shaking even at that depth. Only having standard open gape bait hooks I couldn’t risk taking the weight of the fish so I started a pump and wind retrieve. With only a few metres back on the reel the line suddenly gained more weight as fish hit the other baits. By this stage Craig was also hooked up and retrieving.
At first I tried to use the rise and fall of the swell to assist in the pump and wind retrieve but it just didn’t have much effect. So it was just a matter of slow and steady retrieve and try not to think about the burning in my rod arm. Also what ever you do don’t look at the amount of line on the reel as you’re going, it’s the fastest way to lose heart. Eventually we got colour on fish as they rose out of the depths! I had managed two Gemfish and Craig got a Gemfish and our first blue eye.
Gemfish are a bottom dwelling (100-800m) fish from the same family as the barracouta and just like them have a formidable set of teeth but thankfully taste a lot better.
It was a great start, except that we had both lost a hook, bitten off by Gemfish. The fish were quickly bled out in the kill tank and put on ice.
I took the time to tie up a new three hook rig with longer droppers to help keep the Gemfish teeth away from the main line, also to give me some length to replace a hook if I lost another. I baited up and sent it back to the bottom. With a bit of a forage through the side pockets I also managed to find two cheap plastic gimbal belts I received with the GTi 330 Penn combos when I had bought them 12 years before. They would help save some bruising. One good thing we both noticed very quickly was that the fish at that depth don’t stuff about, they just swim over to the bait and inhale it. That was certainly the case on the next drop, with the line going slack when the sinker hit the bottom, clicked the reel into gear, wound it up tight and the fish was already on. No rest for the wicked.
This time I managed a blue eye but old mate retrieved a fish all the way up to within five metres of the boat only to have it fall of the hook. Craig didn’t have the energy to get upset he just sat there shaking his head. We re-baited and got ready to reposition the boat for another drift when we both noticed a bird land on the water about 20 metres away and start picking at a floating object on the water. We motored over to find Craig’s lost fish, a nice blue eye laying on its side unable to swim back to the depths due to its distended swim bladder. Now it was my turn to shake my head as he grabbed the net and collected his fish.
That’s pretty much how the day went, we missed the fish with a poor drift a few times and had to do a retrieve for nothing but also managed a triple hookup. The biggest impediment proved to be the light 60lb line we had for the droppers. We had hooks bitten off quite a few times and I lost two hooks and sinkers on one occasion when a Gemfish went through the main line at the second hook. The hooks also weren’t great with fish getting off well into the retrieve. Overall we did well, with a good feed of blue eye and Gem fish for us both. I had a bit of a count up and as far as I can tell we both had either 11 or 12 retrieves for the day, boy did I sleep well that night.
Since the first trip went well we decided to get set up a little better, we both purchased a big spinning reel and a new rod each. I opted for a Penn Spinfisher V 10500 on a Wilson 5’6”, 15-24kg stroker spin rod. The Penn has a huge line capacity with well over 800 metres of 50 lb braid loaded on it. I resisted the urge to go heavier, surmising that I would prefer more length than strength. Lighter braid will have less drag in the water and if you’re breaking 50 lb you’re doing something wrong, that simple.
The weather wasn’t the best on the next trip, with a gusty NE wind that persisted well into the morning meant we had trouble holding the bottom on the first drift, so we retrieved for nothing on the first pass. We repositioned for another drift, deployed a drogue and added an extra sinker. Craig was using a three hook stripey rig, I had a five hook drop rig, both with large commercial circle hooks. We both found fish very quickly when we got to the bottom on the next drop. I left my rod in the rod holder for a few minutes longer to let the fish have a chance to find all the baits. On the next retrieve Craig was pretty quick to get his fish on board, a Gemfish. I on the other hand was having a bit of trouble. I had some serious weight but eventually four nice blue eye came aboard. I spent quite some time unhooking and bleeding the fish as I told Craig all about it. He just removed his sinkers from the bottom of his rig tied on a second two hook stripey rig, put his sinker back on, baited up and sent it back down. Yes, the inevitable happened within 15 minutes, he had five blue eye on the deck in one hit. He told me all about it on the way home. We had close to our limit of fish within one hour of arriving. A great morning on the water.
Fishing with conventional rod and reel for deep sea fish is not for everyone. However, it can be done as long as you have a reasonable level of fitness and you take it easy on the retrieve. If you are using good quality circle hooks you don’t have to rush it, the fish shouldn’t get off.
Blue Eye aggregate in waters around Tasmania in Autumn to spawn and are best targeted at this time as this also coincides with our most settled weather. The less wind the better, as your line needs to be as vertical as you can get it. Too fast a drift or insufficient weight on your line will mean you are going to need to use 600 metres plus of line to reach the bottom in 400 metres of water. That means you’re retrieving your catch over 600metres. That’s pain I don’t need! Use a drogue if you have one and you’re better adding more weight than you think you need just to stay as vertical as possible. Be meticulous with the setup of your drift so you don’t miss your mark.
Blue Eye suffer badly from barotrauma when brought to the surface due to the massive pressure change, a condition that is fatal in most cases. The bag limit is 5 fish per angler, so if you’re getting close to your limit and want to go for all five maybe only bait up enough hooks on your next drop to get you limit. Keeping more than your limit isn’t worth losing your boat, your fishing gear and a large fine. Use good quality squid, octopus and fish baits for the best results as you would with most bait fishing. When you get your catch on board bleed them and put them in an ice slurry as quickly as you can, these are premium table fish and should be treated as such. Blue Eye costs over $40 a kilogram in my local supermarket so that puts a bag of five fish at around $400. Get the picture? I also have it on good advice that they make fantastic sashimi due to their firm flesh and great flavour.