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Posted 29th April 2022

How to Catch Tilapia: A Complete Guide

How to Catch Tilapia: A Complete Guide
How to Catch Tilapia: A Complete Guide

By Bob Thornton

Australians have a long history of introducing species to our unique environment without foreseeing or even considering the ecological consequences, and one such species is the tilapia. While often overlooked or even tossed to the side as a fishing prospect, these colourful and hardy imports have a lot to offer bait, lure and even fly anglers. They can scrutinise delicate presentations like a trout, fight hard and dirty like a bass and offer sight-fishing opportunities for those who are that way inclined. They certainly look good on paper!

In this blog we will examine the biology of these fish and their history in Australia. look at how to catch tilapia, discussing some known techniques and a selection of suitable tackle.

Out of Africa

Tilapia is merely a common name for dozens of cichlids native to Africa and the Middle East. Introduced to Australia in the 1970s as an ornamental fish, they soon found their way into many of our tropical and sub-tropical freshwater and tidal waterways. It’s likely that not all infestations were deliberate; some instances may have been accidental or natural. It’s been theorised that many are spread as eggs, usually still inside recently dead fish. Garbage trucks, irresponsible anglers or birds of prey can distribute the unhatched eggs.

While Mozambique and spotted tilapia are the two most common species found in Australian waters, other species have been reported as well. Their rapid spread is thanks = to their resilient nature. Tilapia can tolerate in a wide range of water temperatures, have a highly adaptable diet and can survive in near stagnant environments with low-dissolved oxygen, as well as high-saline environments. On top of this, cichlids are mouth brooders, which means they carry the fertilised eggs and young in their mouth for a few days and this leads to a higher rate of survival for the hatchlings.

In Australia their breeding usually happens in spring and summer, with males constructing a crater-like nest 2-3ft wide in the sediment. This is where the female eventually lays her eggs. The eggs are guarded and monitored closely by the doting parents to prevent predation and to make sure the eggs aren’t too warm or cold. The eggs are then fertilised when the time is right, before going into the mouth soon after.

These characteristics are the reason they’re so widely cultivated and farmed across the world. They’ve also allowed them to proliferate in alarming numbers in parts of Australia.

Once established they can outnumber and outcompete native species, and are deemed an invasive species because of this. If caught, tilapia must be destroyed and disposed of away from the water’s edge by law, and even transporting them dead or alive from the catchment they came from is illegal.

With that said, these fish are a worthy challenge for any angler who likes a challenge, and are even considered decent table fare – although they need to be consumed at the sight of their capture to comply with the law.

Where are they?

Tilapia can survive in a wide range of environments, though they are a tropical fish at the end of the day, so this rules out most of Victoria, ACT, South Australia and Tassie.

As a general rule, any place where the water temperature regularly drops below about 15C is not favourable.

Beyond that, other environmental factors matter less to tilapia, with running streams, lakes, dams, still backwaters, ponds and even big post-flood puddles sufficient habitat for these fish.

The presence of aquatic weed and other vegetation, as well as a fine sediment for nest building, are good signs there are tilapia around, but aren’t necessary. Usually if an area holds tilapia you’ll see them. Often they can be seen cruising in shallow water, sitting motionless near the surface or guarding a nest.

Identifying them isn’t tricky. While their appearance may vary depending on the location and the exact species, their long dorsal and anal fins, as well as flecks of blue, green and red on their on their body and fins give them away.

Catching tilapia

For a fish that breeds often and can eat practically everything, you might be surprised to know that catching these fish isn’t always easy. There are a number of things to consider when setting out to catch tilapia, as well as area-specific factors that you’ll need to figure out for yourself.

As a highly adaptable species like carp and trout, tilapia can be best described as omnivorous. Being the robust travellers that they are, they need to be willing to try all sorts of things if they are to survive. From my own experience, however, I have noticed that the more established a population is – i.e., the longer they have been there – the more likely they are to focus on specific food sources.

Another observation of mine is that tilapia in large waterways like lakes, dams, major rivers and large lagoons tend to be more generalist feeders. Big waterbodies often host a variety of plants and prey items thanks to their natural variation of depths, temperatures and bottoms. Conversely, fish in smaller environments like streams and ponds tend to become fixated on the specific food sources that exists in these specific environments. Carp are known to exhibit the same tendency.

On this latter point, tilapia can become so focussed on a particular prey that when presented with something else they may not even recognise it as food. For this reason, it pays to be observant and look for any clues when exploring new water.

Common food items for tilapia include (but are not limited to) worms, maggots, beetles, nymphs, small fish, shrimp, crayfish, berries and aquatic insects. With that said, they are also known to eat things like bread, meat offcuts and even pieces of fruit, though usually in specific scenarios.

One of the easiest times to catch these fish is during their spawning, with the crater-like nests often visible from above the water. The aggressive parents will defend the nest from intruders, and virtually anything that enters their domain during this time will be either chased off or eaten. 

How to catch tilapia on bait

These fussy feeders can turn their nose up at a lot of baits and lures, though one of the best allrounders is earthworms. This generic prey item can be found in most systems and should work well for bait wherever you go. If not, you may need to do some research to find what the local tilapia are eating. Of course, if they’re eating bread thrown in by people or are chasing baitfish in the shallows, it makes sense to match the hatch.

The best rigs depend on your location, with heavily-weeded or snaggy terrain better fished with a finely-balanced float, and running sinker or paternoster rigs suited to muddy/sandy areas without too weed or snags around.

Small hooks between no. 6 and 1/0 in either a long-shank or baitholder style are ideal for rigging the small baits they prefer, and traces don’t need to be any heavier than 10lb for this sharp-eyed species. J-Thread FC X-Link is a high-quality fluorocarbon well suited as a trace material for tilapia, as it’s nearly invisible in the water and very supple, resulting in a very natural presentation.

Depending on their mood, the bite can range from tiny nibbles as they examine the bait, to a simple ‘grab-and-go’ that can drag an unattended rod and reel into the drink.

How to catch tilapia on lures and flies

Getting these fish to eat lures and flies consistently can be something of a headache, with very little written about Australian tilapia and the techniques that work best. I’ve had a tilapia chase down and eat a buzzbait ripped across the surface while chasing bass, however later the same day I presented a lightly-weighted soft plastic to multiple cruising fish in shallow water, with each one of them flatly ignoring it. I was left scratching my head.

One thing I do know is they are more willing to eat artificials in warmer water, which includes they’re nesting periods. At cooler times they still have to eat, however like a lot of fish their metabolism slows down during winter, and they therefore tend to prefer small presentations that move slowly if they do eat.

Lures like Rollin Cranks in DR and MR, Steez Metal Vibe, SilverCreek DR Minnow II 42S and soft plastics like the Bait Junkie 2.5” Grub are ideal for searching out a waterway during warmer times when the fish are active. They can also be swum through or even allowed to sink into the nests to provoke an aggressive response.

When the temperature drops the key is to downsize and slow down. Small suspending lures like a Double Clutch 48 and plastics like the Risky Critter and 2.95” Flick work well when long pauses and slow, natural presentations are needed to trigger a bite. Small flies also shine when things are cold and clear, with Woolly Buggers, bead-head nymphs, leech patterns and even trout dry flies getting the job done.

Here to stay

Love them or hate them, extermination and population control efforts have shown us that these fish are nearly impossible to eradicate completely. These African imports have been here for around 50 years and like many of the places around the world where they have turned up, they’re here stay – at least for the foreseeable future.

We might as well make the most of this resource. At the very least, catching a few tilapia and removing them from the water way is one way we can help to control the population and slow the spread. Don’t knock them back as a sportfish though; I’ve seen trout anglers beaten by frustration as a tilapia refuses their carefully manicured fly, and bass anglers left speechless as a 40cm+ model buckles their bass rod to the cork.

The idea that tilapia are less desirable than other sportfish and not worth chasing only exists because of mindset. More people chasing these fish will only help to reduce their numbers and take pressure off native fish in more ways than one.





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