Categtory: High Risk
TROLLING for coral trout is never dull. The shallow, coral-strewn water where they are commonly encountered is a challenging angling environment. A coral trout's smashing strike is generally followed by a hard dive back down to the sharp coral ledges from whence it came. The struggle that follows - if you have kept your coral trout from its coral haven - is always tough. At times there's more fight in a trout than a drover's dog.
Last Easter I experienced the fun that is to be had fishing the shallows of the Abrolhos Islands where coral trout are quite abundant.Though the fish there are not big they give a strong account of themselves and, knowing this from bitter experience, I fished 35kg braid. A bit over the top, perhaps, but I find it increasingly difficult to live with the loss of a coral trout (and probably the lure too), especially if I'm cooking dinner that night. After all they are very tasty indeed.
A couple of seasons back I revisited Rowley Shoals where, probably because of the trout no-take rule, the fish are big and even more brutish. Casting poppers and lures at shallow coral bommies for trout at the Rowleys is a very vigorous workout. And there are some absolute bruisers on the outside of the reef too.
Being red and spotted you would think that it should not be too hard to identify the common coral trout, but there are a couple of closely related lookalikes in the same genus. And just to throw you off track little more, some are occasionally referred to as cod. The coral trout is distinguished by numerous round spots on the head and body, whereas its cousin the polkadot trout has dark-edged round spots. The bar-cheeked coral trout has fewer spots and those on the head are elongated. The vermicular trout, which is usually found on offshore atoll reefs, is bright pinkish in colour and has blue spots, many of which are elongated. As well, the vermicular trout has a higher second dorsal fin. The common name "coral trout" is also used generically for all members of this genus.
Marine Fishes of North-Western Australia (Gerry Allen and Roger Swainston) lists coral trout as growing to 15.5kg - which is one huge trout. At most locations around WA a fish over five kilos is very acceptable. I have seen a coral trout (but I don't know which species) at Rowley Shoals which would give 10kg a nudge, and that's a very serious fish. My biggest so far is much smaller than that.
The most southern distribution of the coral trout is thought to be Dongara, and the northern limit is Dampier Archipelago. The farther north you fish the more likely you are to encounter the bar-cheeked variety in coastal waters. As mentioned, the Abrolhos boasts the most southern concentrations of coral trout. Northwards from there they are generally not as prolific, though I'm sure some anglers have a few well-kept secret locations where they find them regularly. Coral trout generally inhabit water less than 100 metres deep and prefer the outer reef dropoffs. But they are most commonly encountered by anglers in water shallower than 20 metres.
Breeding and migration
Coral trout are protogynous hermaphrodites, which means the same animals function first as females and later in their lives as males. They form breeding aggregations in spring and summer and their eggs float just below the surface. The pelagic larval stage of coral trout lasts three-to-four weeks until they are around 20mm long, when they settle on coral reef to feed on small fish and invertebrates. Maturity as females occurs from two years of age and from 3-4 years in males. Migration, over just a few kilometres, is not a factor - coral trout prefer small territories with structure and only occasionally roam a bit farther afield to be part of a breeding aggregation. These great fish are stay-at-homes.
Without doubt the biggest threat to coral trout populations is over-fishing, both commercial and recreational. They are one of a few species that actually benefit from area closures, as has been shown with polkadot trout at Rowley Shoals (though catch-and-release is allowed). I suspect that commercial trawl and trap fishing has an impact on coral trout stocks, but I have not seen any catch data on this. These fish are also very vulnerable to spearfishing - they have an unfortunate tendency to sit and stare at the speargun! This fishing method is covered by bag and size limits, but it's still far too easy to take the larger resident specimens selectively with spearguns.
Tackle and bait
I like to troll for coral trout with deep-diving minnows which worked along the outside of coral bommies and dropoffs. I can't emphasise strongly enough the need for adequate tackle when fishing rugged country for coral trout. My gear of choice would be a shortish 8-10-kilo trolling rod and overhead reel loaded with 15kg-plus braid. A short 24kg mono trace with 30cm of No.8 mono wire to the lure is the business end of my outfit. Given the way they grab the lure so savagely, I always use either locking snap swivels or split rings. Alternatively I attach the lure directly to the mono wire with a Haywire twist - I don't like leaving anything to chance with these critters! Coral trout will take baits quite readily and leadhead jigs adorned with a strip of fish or a mulie will often succeed when jigged enticingly around dropoffs.
Choice of trolling lures is always down to personal preference but most of my favourite coral trout lures are pink or red, though lately metallic finishes have won me over. I have done well trolling with Killalure River Rats, Halco Lasers, RMG Scorpions, and Rapalas, all of which can dig in deep to knock on Mr Trout's door. When trolling around bommies and dropoffs you will often have to live dangerously and troll very close to the structure to entice a strike. Faint heart never won a fair maiden, nor a coral trout. Jigging leadheads, especially those sweetened with bait, can be very effective, especially at dusk when the fish seem to become more adventurous. If you, too, want to live dangerously, try casting small bibless lures, such as the smaller Tremblers, along the dropoffs. Beware that hits come on the drop, so hang onto your rod tightly and take a bag full of spare lures and a hankerchief.
References: Kailola, Williams, Stewart, Reichelt, McNee and Grieve Australian Fisheries Resources 1993. Hutchins and Swainston Sea Fishes of Southern Australia 1986.