Ask Dr Dazza | Swallowtail Dart

Ask Dr Dazza | Swallowtail Dart

The humble swallowtail dart is one of the mainstays for beach anglers in South East Queensland with the surf beach of Moreton Island and the northern beach between Combuyuro Point and North Point being great places to catch them.

They are a fantastic sportfish on light gear and good on the table when filleted and skinned. They are fantastic smoked.

The common dart that is caught is the swallowtail dart (Trachinotus coppingeri) however the species typically found further north, the black spotted dart (Trachinotus baillioni), does straggle down as far as the Gold Coast. It is easily recognisable because instead of the series of five to eight relatively large green spots, there are only two or three small black spots.

A long time ago, I was privileged enough to do my PhD studies on the species.

They are a schooling fish and schools can consist of a few dozen fish, or many thousands. Small dart do not move around much, the little ones are scattered throughout the surf and semi-surf zones of the entire South East Queensland region and well into northern NSW. Larger, mature fish do move around and I recorded movements from tag returns of up to 275km. Fish certainly move between the offshore islands and one adventurous tagged fish swam from Fraser Island to North Stradbroke Island. Generally, dart do not migrate as such which explains why there is not a specific dart season in South East Queensland. In saying this, larger, mature fish do use the semi-surf locations more during the warmer months.

The reproductive period is from October to April with a peak in the summer months, which coincides with the time when larger fish use the semi-surf beaches more. They reach maturity about 35-36cm.

The feeding ecology of swallowtail dart is opportunistic. They eat what they can find in the surf zone and do not overly discriminate. It makes sense. They can’t sit around and think about whether they are going to eat something or not. When the winds are from the west after rain, they eat insects (such as flying ants).

Other times they eat a tiny planktonic copepod that is about the size of a pinhead. These get concentrated by water movement and dart gobble a lot of them at once. At night they often eat some planktonic animals that glow in the dark. This was an important finding because it means that the addition of a small soft green bead directly above the hook can greatly increase catch. They will also eat baitfish (frogmouth pilchards) at times. On the northern beaches of Moreton Island, it is a very different story. In the area around Yellowpatch, they mostly eat whole small pippies about the size of a finger-nail. They push up with the incoming tide across the shallow banks there to get them.

There are two approaches for finding them in the surf zone during the day. You can find a good surf formation, or you simply learn how to see them in the waves when the conditions are right. Dart are distinctive in the waves, they are rarely in very tight schools, but you look for a small number of fish that are high up in the breaking wave and are roughly equidistant apart. Ignore the shore break because that is where the small ones are.

If you keep watching, you will often find that the first few fish glimpsed are part of a much larger and dispersed school. If you get good at it, you can even start to pick out schools of much larger fish to target rather than the run of the mill fish.  

Even if you haven’t learnt to spot them, or conditions are not optimal to do so even for a trained eye, you can still just find the right formations for them. A lot of inexperienced surf fishermen in the surf simply find the deepest and widest gutter they can. This is generally not the optimal habitat for dart. I prefer a gutter where, with effort, you can lob your bait in the vicinity of the outer bank, or even on to it. This is the area where dart are frequently hanging around. You should also look for gutters that are likely to be suitable for high tide and low tide.

Also, at and around low tide it often pays to find a location where you can (safely!) get out towards the outer bank, with the best locations being a spit between two gutters. In very calm conditions, I prefer to target outer banks rather than the gutters themselves. At night, dart can come into the corners of very shallow gutters, so it pays to alter your casting distance to find them then.

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