Category: High Risk
SAMSON FISH are frequently frowned upon by anglers who catch them by accident when chasing tastier targets such as dhufish and snapper. Charter boat crews are frequently frustrated by samson fish tangling up multiple lines while being retrieved. However, for an increasing number of anglers they are a much sought after species, available in reasonable numbers and capable of putting up a great fight. The recent deep water jigging revolution has elevated the status of samson fish which has resulted in this species rocketing up the angling popularity charts.
International anglers now travel to Western Australia to experience what can best be described as a very thorough workout wrestling samson fish to the surface in 100 metres-plus of water. Hard work indeed, and even harder without the right equipment. Some older anglers may still call samson fish sea kingies but these days they tend to be referred to as sambos. Fortunately for samson fish they are not the most tasty fish in the sea, but promptly killed and kept on ice they can provide an appetising fish dinner.
Samson fish are one of the most confusing species to identify, given that at times they keep company with yellowtail kingfish and amberjack, of which the latter is quite similar in appearance. It is even harder to distinguish juveniles of these species, all of which have similar colouration at one stage in their development.
Ultimately the best way to be sure that you have caught a samson fish is to count the branch rays on the first dorsal fin Ė 23-25 on a samson. This fin tends to drop against the back of the fish in death.
Size is what itís all about with sambos. They have been recorded at more than 53kg in WA and in recent years fish up to, and over, that size have been caught off the back of Rottnest Island. For WA anglers a good sambo is considered to be 15kg and a big fish 25kg or more. Anything above 30kg would be well worth crowing about.
Samson fish are found in waters anywhere south of Shark Bay and are normally encountered around various types of structure. Wrecks provide great habitat for them in deep water, and inshore reefs, jetties, channel markers and bommies are also popular locations.
Breeding and migration
As with so many popular angling species, very little is known about the breeding and migration of samson fish although currently there is a Westag tagging program being undertaken by ANSA WA and the Department of Fisheries. It is hoped that this program will fill in some gaps in the movement of samson fish. It was quite recently discovered that samson fish congregate in very large schools at times, quite likely for breeding purposes. However, the majority of time bigger fish tend to form small groups of up to half a dozen fish.
Samson fish are generally not targeted by commercial operators and there are currently no readily identifiable threats.
Tackle and bait
Although some land-based anglers chase sambos off the rocks in the southern parts of WA the majority of fish are caught by boat anglers, so I will confine myself to talking about this aspect of fishing.
For bait fishing short rods that provide good leverage against the powerful runs of a sambo, with solid overhead reels, are generally favoured. Monofilament lines up to 24kg and braid as high as 40kg b/s are used at times if fishing in difficult terrain.
Popular baits for sambos range from live herring and slimy mackerel for anglers targeting bigger fish through to standard fare such as mulies, squid, octopus and cut fish.
For deep water jigging you will need a strong jig or heavy spin rod up to 2.2m in length. Reels must withstand enormous strains when loaded with braid up to 24kg and even 37kg b/s at times. Some anglers prefer overheads for this job, whereas others prefer big spinning reels. But whatever you choose, it must be tough. On more than one occasion I have seen reputable reels rendered inoperable and put back in the rod rack for the rest of the day.
Targeting sambos on shallow inshore reefs is best done on the pick, near a dropoff or bommie, using a berley trail to get them going. Sambos love a berley trail, as do many other fish. A floating bait or a livie out the back of the boat will normally be the most productive rigs, although in deeper water baits nearer the bottom can prove successful at times. Keep the berley trail flowing and if theyíre around the sambos will find you.
At times trolling lures along ledges and dropoffs produces fish but this is generally not the favoured approach.
For me the best, and most exciting, way to target sambos is jigging. Generally undertaken in water between 100 and 200 metres deep, jigging is definitely not a passive way to fish. Just jigging and winding the lure back to the surface is tiring enough, but 20-odd kilos of sambo soon tends to put some perspiration on an anglerís brow. But it is great fun, believe me.
I fish a 24kg very heavy spin outfit with two metres of 50kg hard mono leader tied off to a heavy barrel swivel and split ring which connects to a 200-300g jig. The hook is attached to the eye of the lure via a short kevlar trace, and provides a very good hookup rate (see Takle and Tactics).
Once a bottom feature has been found, preferably with fish showing on the sounder above it, jigs are dropped to the bottom and worked up using a range of active retrieves. Some days only energetic retrieves are rewarded, but on other occasions an occasional short jab is enough to elicit a strike. Sambos will even hit a lure on the drop when they are in the mood.
The jigs used are generally slim, flat-sided things that have little or no action of their own so itís necessary to create lure movement to attract a strike. At times sambos can be felt hitting and bumping the lure on its way to the surface, and just when you think you have missed out on a hookup your rod will load up and you will be dragged to the gunnels of the boat.
If you give deep water jigging a try, remember to bring your fish up the last ten metres or so quite slowly to give it time to vent expanding gas naturally. And if youíre releasing a fish, support it with two hands while you lift it from the water, take photographs quickly and then spear it back in. If we handle the samson fish we catch responsibly, this recreational fishery should have a long-term future.
References: Sea Fishes of Southern Australia by Barry Hutchins and Roger Swainston.
Text: Ian Stagles
Art: Roger Swainston