by Lee Brake
This week Lee Brake helps you decide how best to beat those winter doldrums in North Queensland. He tells you what species to chase depending on what the weather and tides are doing so that you can effectively plan your next weekend on the water.
Queenfish will show up in numbers in the winter months. Look for bait getting busted up around river mouths and cast a popper in the area. Then, just wait for the acrobatics!
A chill ran through me as I jumped out of bed this morning. I shuffled to the lowest draw and dug out my collection of football jerseys (the closest thing most North Queenslanders own to winter attire) and then made my morning brew and practically rubbed myself on the steaming cup like an affectionate feline. It was cold! When did that bloody happen? Well, I suppose it's been coming...
An array of high speed minnows for trolling up Spanish. - So many winter options!
You see, in the north we seem to have a fairly awkward transition period where you just don't know what to chase. It's still hot in the day, but the nights are cool and on the piscatorial side of things it's an irritating limbo between chasing warm water species or cold, with neither being completely 'on the chew'. So, now that it's finally cold and the transition is over, anglers can throw themselves wholeheartedly at those cold water species and tactics. What follows is my winter game plan and it is a rough guide. Take from it what you will.
Calm Days, Neap Tides
When the seas are flat and there's minimal run, it's time for some winter finesse fishing offshore. Around the offshore islands, shoals and reefs, sweetlip school up at this time of year. Grassy sweetlip are the most common, but you'll also find plenty of spangled emperor and redthroat emperor (especially further out towards the reef) as well. Ranging north to about Mackay, you also have the chance of snaring a snapper during those really cold weeks.
The key is to achieve maximum sensitivity. Rods need to be graphite and no heavier than 15kg – I like an 8-10kg fast action baitcaster – and line should be no heavier than 30lb braid with a 60lb leader. Sinker or jighead weight should be the lightest you can get to the bottom with! I like to anchor for lipper and slowly let out lengths of rope so that the boat drifts back in intervals allowing baits to be fished along the depth gradient beside a shoal, rock or reef. Start by anchoring on the shallow edge and work your way into the deeper surrounds. Prawns, squid and fresh strip baits are ideal offerings.
Calm Days, Spring Tides
'No run, no fun', they say, and this is particularly true for pelagics in winter. Tuna and mackerel are prevalent offshore during winter and Spanish mackerel are high on everyone's 'to catch' list. These toothy terrors are best chased around current affected structure like the points of islands, the pressure points of bombies and pinnacles, and around reef edges.
Trolling baitschools stacked on isolated pinnacles can land you plenty of school size Spanish like these two taken by Graham and Mitch. The lure used was a Reidy's Judge. - So many winter options!
Trolling, jigging and floating baits are the three most popular techniques. For more information on jigging, check out my recent column on Going Vertical on Mackerel. If trolling is more your thing, then I recommend starting with a spread of simple, fast swimming minnows like the Reidy's Judge, Halco Laserpro and Rapala X-rap Magnum. Try to cover the depths that your sounder is indicating action at.
For example, if a baitball is holding 15m down then you'll be wanting you troll Crazy Deeps and 30+ Magnums, but if it's closer to the surface, then 2-3m divers are ideal. As for bait, fresh and shiny is best: big pilchards or gar on gangs, or whole fusiliers rigged with a twin-hook wire rig.
Rough Days, Spring Tides
When the wind picks up and offshore pelagics are out of the picture, it's time to chase... inshore pelagics. Sorry, no surprises there. Queenfish and small trevally will appear in rivers and along rocky headlands at this time of year and will follow bait balls as they move with the tide. Most times you can see some surface action that'll give away their presence, but other times it's a case of using your sounder to find bait balled up near likely structure. Bridges and jetties are prime examples and if you sounder around the backwater created by the pylons, you'll often locate tight bait concentrations being hammered by pelagics. Vibes like switchblades and Threadybusters are ideal for this scenario and metal slices are also a good choice.
Flathead are reliable winter fallbacks. They are great on the table, but larger females should be released. - So many winter options!
Rough Days, Neap Tides
The neap tides in winter are perfect for flicking lightly weighted soft plastics up the creeks and along beaches. Flathead, bream and even big whiting will take a softy wafted into their strike zone. Winter is the perfect time to break out the 1-3kg tackle. Flathead are normally in size and numbers with big female fish regularly taken around drains and sand gutters. Flicking 3-4 inch curl tail or jerk shad softies is the best bet, but shallow running minnows work well too.
Whatever you go, slowly twitching your offering along the bottoms of drains, gutters and drop-offs. Also, consider letting fish over 50cm go. Most of these are egg-carrying females and represent the stocks of years to come. Instead, take home a few smaller fish and try their tales baked whole on the BBQ with lemon and salt!
For bream, downsize even further to the smallest, lightest jigheads you can and pepper snags and rock bars for the first of the run-in with two inch plastics. For thick snag work, consider trialling weedless hooks.
Worst case scenario, if this all seems a bit like hard work when you're inner winter sloth has kicked in, take the kids down to pump some yabbies, grab a floppy tipped rod and some long-shanked hooks and have some fun. Pumping yabbies will warm you up and all bread and butter winter species love these tasty baits – plus, it's great fun for the kids!
Graham Brake with a rare Mackay snapper. Local Mackayites call the coldest week of the year "snapper week" because it usually represents the limited run of these fish. - So many winter options!
A nice grassy lipper taken on an offshore shoal by Jason Horton (foreground). Note the author's trout. Trout are a welcome bycatch when chasing lipper over rock or reef. - So many winter options!
Spanish mackerel fight hard and taste great. This one fell to a stick bait cast into the pressure point of an isolated offshore bombie. - So many winter options!
Till next time, fish hard and stay safe.