Smack the Jack Attack
  |  First Published: December 2010

Over the previous month Cooktown has been saturated by rain, which has ensured that only the keenest of anglers are out on the water in the wet and windy conditions.

While the weather around Cooktown (and most of Cape York) has not been ideal, there have been numerous standout fish being caught from the estuaries and rivers surrounding the small coastal fishing town.

During the last few weeks over 30 barramundi have been landed by tourists and locals fishing off the public wharf. One standout fish tipped the scales at 15.6kg at 1190mm and was landed on a cheap baitcaster combo spooled with 6kg mono.

The Annan River has seen a late burst of crabs around the mouth in the Esk Creek with most crabbers scraping up the possession limit of legal bucks without too much trouble. The resident croc that basks on the right hand bank leading into the Esk has taken a fancy to punters floats and bait holders so take care when setting and retrieving your pots.

The lure fishing for jacks and barra has really hotted up with the visual aspect well and truly catered for, with crystal clear water allowing anglers to see the amazing initial strike of a hungry fish in gin clear water. Small poppers and fizzers cast deep into the shadows of overhanging mangrove and melaleuca branches have often been getting engulfed before anglers have realised what is going on. Punters that have been flicking hardbodied lures over the flats have been rewarded with nice queenfish, barra and tarpon taken over the flats with gold River2Sea Jerk Shad being the standout lure.

Jack attack

The increased water temperature and rising barometric pressures have ensured an increased presence of 50cm+ mangrove jacks around the river mouth. I am unsure of the exact breeding schedule of mature jacks; however I assume that the congregation of large schools of these fish around November to December each year is the result of some kind of spawning situation.

Around this time of year, schools of over 100 fish can be seen holding around the river mouth and headlands of Cooktown and are often over the 2.5kg mark. Once mangrove jacks reach the 55cm size, they are rarely encountered in Cape York rivers and are usually found on inshore reefs. I am unsure if there is any golden rule regarding the age and size that they stay in rivers and creeks as I have landed 30cm jacks from rubble patches 10nm from any river or creek.

Another point that I find interesting about this fantastic species is that on less fished rubble patches, I have landed fish that are from very different ends of the pecking order. On the last reef trip that we did, we fished an area of light rubble and mud bottom in 28m of water and landed eight mangrove jacks from the same mark, with the largest going 76cm and the smallest measuring a mere 31cm, which raises questions about their growth patterns.

The general consensus about jacks is that they inhabit rivers and creeks until they are breeding age, then head to inshore reefs and coastal headlands to reproduce. It is believed that the newly hatched jacks then begin their way back into coastal rivers and creeks until sexual maturity around 50cm. I have caught numerous undersized jacks from offshore reefs and rubble grounds, which make me wonder whether these undersized fish have failed to return to their typical inshore environments or are these actually 12 month old juvenile fish that have increased growth rates due to the abundance of food and year round warm water temperatures?

Mangrove jack are well known for their inshore fighting abilities and dirty tactics, however, after fishing most of Australia I am yet to find a fish that can stitch anglers up time after time after time like 8kg+ jacks can. These fish pull like freight trains, fight throughout the entire water column and have the ability to find the smallest bit of structure to rub through 110lb Schneider leader like cotton.

Big jacks do not grow to that size by being reckless feeders and although they are at the higher end of the food chain they can often be finicky feeders and tricky to tempt. Good bait presentation is usually needed with large flesh baits of hussar and spangled emperor being hard to go past.

One thing that I have noticed when targeting these big jacks is that they are rarely ever caught in the first 10-15 minutes of fishing. I am unsure whether they are holding on the mark and just being cautious or whether they actually swim to the area from other ground by being drawn into the commotion and vibrations of the other fish coming aboard. One thing for certain is that you will well and truly know when you hook 9kg of a rampaging red.

I do not rate XOS jacks as a table fish so please only keep what you need as these monsters are the future of the smaller, tastier and more frequently captured estuary specimens.

I am not one for rubbishing other species however after living down south for nearly eight years I thought that catching snapper on soft plastics and light gear was sporting. Snapper have a great reputation in southern states as a hard fighting fish but I have lost more fish on 50lb braid and 80lb leader off Cooktown then in any other area of Australia.

I used to think that anglers were usually over gunned in these areas, as 15lb braid and 30lb leader has landed me quality snapper in the 6-8kg size. Nevertheless, if you fish less than 50lb tackle in summer with water temperatures over 31ºC in water over 30m deep, you will struggle to turn fish and get them back to the boat before sharks, barracuda, groper and cod maul your fish. Whether you are fishing for the table and want to catch your bag limit or merely for sporting purposes, a half eaten and bruised fish is no good to anyone.

Until next month, stay safe on the water and only take what you need for a feed.

If you have any questions on Cooktown and the surrounding areas, please feel free to drop into The Lure Shop at 142 Charlotte Street, Cooktown or give us a call before you leave on your trip on (07) 4069 5396.

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