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Hervey Bay’s inner secrets
  |  First Published: March 2012



Hervey Bay has a well-deserved reputation for fishing that most serious anglers would love to explore. There are plenty of opportunities for catching a variety of reef species as well as bream, whiting, flathead and a number of visiting pelagics. And all of which can be found in the secrets of the Bay’s inner reefs.

Hervey Bay boat harbour at Urangan has two excellent ramps, each with four lanes and an adequate vehicle park. A small pontoon is provided near the northern ramp, and a new longer pontoon between the ramps is under construction. This should make launching and retrieving boats a much more enjoyable task.

In good conditions, offshore craft can head for the prolific reef and game fishing grounds north and west of Fraser Island. Other crews can even contemplate the run through the Sandy Cape Spit to the shoals, or even the Gardner Banks. The not so adventurous can set their sights on popular spots such as Meringa Pinnacles, Moon Ledge, Outer Banks or Bogimbah Ledge. Smaller and less powerful craft, can leave the harbour knowing that within five minutes, ten at the most, they will be fishing.

The Inner Reefs
The Channel

Just minutes from the harbour entrance, the main channel covers an assortment of rocky ledges in up to 10m of often swiftly flowing water. They extend from a little south of the harbour towards the Urangan Pier and across to the shallow waters to Round Island where they become part of the shallow reef system.

There are no particular hot spots here although many anglers, myself included, tend to return to the same marks on each outing. It is just a matter of sounding the area and picking up a good ledge or other interesting feature, and anchoring suitably up-current. For the record, my regular mark is at 25º 17.58’ S, 152º 54.6’ E, a good starting point that is regularly productive.

This main channel experiences strong currents, particularly on spring tides, and although some good catches are made throughout a neap run, the best plan is to work each side of either the top or bottom of a tide. I prefer to fish over the bottom of the tide, as I prefer to fish some of the more shallow reefs over the high water. On occasions, working the last of the ebb will produce plenty of action, then when you expect fish to really fire on the flood, all goes quiet. Of course, exactly the opposite sequence of events often happens.

The full range of reef fish is available here and I will address species and tactics further on.

Round Island

As an extension of the rocky ledges of Round Island, a coral and rock reef extends north to a point about 200m west of the yellow buoy. Small boats travelling from the harbour need to keep this buoy to port, and not wander too far to the east particularly at low tide.

There is plenty of tidal flow on the flood tide but on the ebb, particularly close to Round Island, the flow is minimal due to the current deflecting effect.

A lot of this reef is made up of very heavy coral and rock structures, and can be very hard on terminal tackle. My preference is to fish along the reef edges or areas where the coral structures are more scattered. On very low tides, the reef bares close to Round Island and close to its northern extremity.

Woody and Green Zone

North and east of the Round Island system, is a broad area of shallow reef that extends from the shallows towards the red beacon and north cardinal beacon with a prominent blind gutter bisecting it. Tidal flow tends to be greatest before and after the top of the tide while on the lower ebb tides there is less run off the shallows to the south. While most of the reef is made up of scattered rock and coral, there are some very heavy patches.

The western boundary of the Green Zone (refer to Fig.1) runs close to the edge of the reef, but it is still possible to sound out some good country there.

There is also plenty of shallow reef available close to the red beacon, towards the blind gutter. Although much of the blind gutter is off limits, its mouth where the reef yields to a sandy bottom, is particularly popular with a number of keen locals.

The most popular part of the reef is north of the zone, extending towards the north cardinal beacon, and dropping into deep water around the beacon itself. The shallows south of the southern boundary have plenty of scattered structure grading up towards sandy flats. Although not fished to any great extent during the day, this is the place to be at night when big blackall move in to the shallows to feed.

The Graves

Southeast of the north cardinal beacon, and extending along the eastern coast of Woody Island, is a narrow band of shallow reef that fringes the rocky shoreline. This extends well south, almost continuously to the southern end of the island.

The reefs here have much the same characteristics as those already mentioned, but they have the added attraction of having a sharp, almost ledge-like interface with the deep water beyond. This section of reef, or at least part of it, is locally known as The Graves in recognition of the graves of families of lighthouse keepers who lived on Woody Island. The Coral Patch, a section of brilliant marine growth, is located offshore from the bluff at the northern end of Woody Island.

Apart from conventional bait fishing, these reefs are popular for trolling diving lures targeting coral trout and cod. The edge of the drop-off lends itself to 3-5m lures. Sadly my collection of barra lures don’t see what they were intended for very often these days, but they work well here.

Shallow Reef Fish
Grassy sweetlip

When I see catches of 5-6kg grassy sweetlip (coral bream) coming in from well known grounds like the Northern and African gutters, I come back to the realisation that most of the local Hervey Bay fish are mere juveniles, rarely exceeding 1.5kg. With a legal minimum length of 30cm, it is common for two fish out of three to be undersize. Nevertheless, anglers can improve on this by being selective about where, and more importantly, when to fish.

The larger grassy sweetlip feed best just on dusk, and again in the first few hours of the morning. Fishing the same spots during the day usually produces undersize specimens.

Grassy sweetlip don’t like to come too close to a boat, particularly in shallow water, so a good cast down current with the lightest possible terminal gear is the way to go. I like to start a session using half pilchards, then as the bait breaks up, it doubles as a berley trail. I then change to whole large hardiheads, a tough proposition for all but the larger fish. Cuttlefish, squid, cut baits and whole small herrings also work well.

The grassy sweetlip has a bag limit of 10. The closely related spangled emperor is often taken in their company and has been mistaken as the same fish and brought ashore at 30cm. This can be a very expensive mistake if the catch is examined by a Fisheries Officer as the minimum legal length for spangled emperor is 45cm (with a bag limit of 5). The easiest way to distinguish a spangled emperor is presence of lines of bright blue spots along its upper body.

Another potential trap lies in another close relative, the lancer, also known as paddy in Hervey Bay. As an emperor (genus Lethrinus) it is required to have a minimum size of 25cm, and a bag limit of 5. Hervey Bay paddy rarely reach this length. They are often prolific in areas just off the main reefs and over shallows frequented by diver whiting. The lancer is also a coral reef fin fish and resembles a small grassy sweetlip but can be distinguished from its larger relative by the black spot above the shoulder, and by the long second dorsal fin. I am yet to hear of anyone being written up for having one of these but it is in the book of rules.

Blackall

Blackall, aka slatey bream or morwong, is very plentiful across the shallow reefs and gives small boat anglers the opportunity of bringing in a prize fish, possibly in excess of 5kg. Although some are taken in daylight hours, the best fishing is usually well after dark. They are widespread across all of Hervey Bay’s inner reefs.

Unlike the wary grassy sweetlip, blackall are often taken close to the boat. Yabbies are in a class of their own when it comes to bait but they are closely followed by cuttlefish, squid and prawns. The elderly gentleman whom I regard as the local blackall guru, uses a shandy of a fine squid strip and a yabby on the bottom of the hook. Blackall need to be a paltry 25cm and have a bag limit of five.

Many anglers will know the blackall somewhat unfairly as ‘mother-in-law fish’. I understand that in some parts of Queensland, they can take on a somewhat strong flavour. However, although they do not rate 10/10 for edible quality, Hervey Bay blackall are well accepted on the plate. Of all the reef species, this is one that must be bled on capture, with the fillets later skinned.

A closely related species, the brown sweetlip or blubberlip bream, is occasionally taken here but are more common in local rivers.

Black spot tuskfish

Huge black spot tuskfish, locally known as blueys, are taken a little further out into Hervey Bay at spots like the Artificial Reef, Moon Ledge and Sammys. On the inner shallow reefs, the occasional big fish causes havoc. These are the brutes of the reef as they exhibit their incredible power when hooked.

Blueys are targeted in daylight hours, right through until the last glows from the setting sun. Although they will take baits of cuttlefish and squid, serious bluey anglers use small rock crabs almost exclusively. Paddler crabs are also worth using but for the class of fish expected (up to 3kg), they are a little too big.

As blueys are particularly partial to crustaceans, there is every reason to think that soldier crabs, yabbies and prawns would work as well. The problem is that when fishing for blueys, there are usually plenty of pickers about and these might demolish these baits with ease. The small tough rock crab usually stays on the hook long enough for a bluey to find it. Take away that tiddler factor, and any of these baits would do the trick just as well.

The only other bluey bait that I sometimes use is green coral prawn. These armour plated little crustaceans can also resist the attention of the pickers.

The closely related purple tuskfish, or greasy as we know it, inhabits the shallow reefs, sometimes in plague proportions. Although they have a preference for crustaceans, they will eagerly take just about any offering. Unfortunately, few Hervey Bay greasies make it to the 30cm minimum.

Both tuskfish have a minimum legal length of 30cm with a combined bag limit of six.

Sea perch

Moses perch and stripeys are abundant on all the reefs and are mostly taken during the late afternoon and evening.

They will eat just about any offering and, like the mangrove jack relatives, will pounce on well worked plastics.

Each has a minimum length of 25cm and a bag limit of five.

Coral trout and estuary cod

Coral trout and estuary cod are mostly targeted using trolled or cast lures and by live baiting.

They both need to be 38cm, with cod not exceeding 120cm. The bag limit for trout is seven and five for cod.

Snapper and other reefies

Only occasional snapper in excess of 4kg are taken on Hervey Bay’s inner reefs. However juveniles are in abundance, so much so that the undersize fish are a hindrance when targeting other species.

A few make it to the 35cm limit and the best chance of picking one up is in the channel outside the harbour, and near the north cardinal beacon. The bag limit is four.

Sand bass (reef barramundi), barred-face spinecheek (reef rainbow) and, of course, bream and tarwhine turn up in catches regularly.

Not so welcome

Black spinefoot (happy moments) can be in plague proportions on the inshore reefs. They are particularly troublesome during daylight hours and sometimes the only solution is to move. Fortunately, they usually disappear after sunset.

They swarm on just about any bait and obliterate it, sometimes without the angler’s knowledge. Occasionally one will be hooked and brought to the boat. I have heard it said that an angler only gets stung by a happy moment once, he never provides the opportunity for a second!

These fish need to be given respect when handling. All of its spines can inflict extreme pain, even to the point of nausea. The most dangerous spine is the leading dorsal which points forwards.

Recent years have also seen an influx of salmon catfish in Hervey Bay and they make themselves right at home in the channel near the harbour, and around the shallow reefs. These are seriously big and mean fighting fish! Salmon cats up to 10kg are not uncommon.

As most anglers are on the reef targeting the species already mentioned, they do not always welcome the intrusion of catfish peeling line off the reel. There is often the temptation to think that it might be a big blackall but after the fish has circumnavigated the boat a few times without a sign of giving in, it might be time to think of some suitable adjectives for it. On a positive note, salmon cats are reported to be great eating, I’m just not game enough to test it!

Tackle

The ideal rod is long enough to produce a good cast but powerful enough to do the job on some seriously tough fish. I use an 8’ UgliStik that has been in my stable for many years. It has a fast taper with the required sensitivity in the tip to handle the softest bites. This applies particularly to blackall whose initial bite is little more than a suspicion.

The reel of choice also needs to be up to job. I use a 650 Alvey spooled with 10kg mono, one of the many brands that claim superior abrasion resistance. The only exception is that I go up to 25kg when fishing for blueys. There is nothing harder on terminal line than fishing around coral and rock reefs. Some anglers use a heavier leader of up to 2m to minimise the abrasion.

For terminal gear, I recommend the simplicity of a sinker on the hook, with the lightest possible ball for the conditions. For general reef fishing I use Mustad 540 or Mustad 542 in sizes 2/0 and 3/0. For blueys I find Mustad Hoodlum in 2/0 up to the task of dealing with these hard hitting brutes.

Trolling hardbodies and casting lures and plastics suggest more specialised equipment.

Techniques

As mentioned earlier I prefer to anchor close to but off the main reef. There is a common misconception that the fish are only going to be in the heaviest country, however, they are just as likely to be scanning the edges of the reef looking for food.

Once anchored, the cast should be directly down current so that there will be little movement of the terminal gear and bait. In heavy country, casting in any other direction will inevitably result in snagging. By casting down current, the self-berleying effect of the bait will soon bring fish into that area.

To avoid snagging, it is best to allow the bait to remain at rest even if a slightly heavier weight needs to be used. Allowing a reasonable amount of slack between rod and terminal tackle also helps to account for the movement of the boat, so reducing snagging further.

Hooked fish need to be dealt with deliberately, within the limits of the gear, as most reef fish will look for the first opportunity to head for cover, and that often means no fish and no gear.

Leaving the reef

Throughout the year there are plenty of opportunities for targeting other species. Waters to the north of the reef, fish well for school mackerel particularly during August and September.

Trevally of various species are likely to turn up around the north cardinal beacon at just about any time of the year.

During the winter months, there is often a run of tailor around the northern end of Woody Island and at Round Island but I emphasize that these cannot be relied upon.

Flathead are in good numbers throughout Hervey Bay and are worth targeting wherever sand and rocks mingle. Round Island, the northern end of Woody Island and much of Woody Island’s shoreline on its eastern and western coasts hold good flathead.

Sand whiting are available throughout the year. The sand spits running off the northeastern side of Round Island account for some good fish, particularly from August to December, and again, in March and April. I like to put the boat ashore and work the banks on the flooding tide.

The diver whiting season usually kicks off in April, and one of the first areas to fire is 1-2km southeast of Round Island. In the last couple of seasons, the overall quality of these early fish was excellent. Later in the season, around May and June, there may be still enough to maintain interest, but most would have headed further south by then.

The rock ledges at the northern end of Woody Island play host to spawning bream from May to August. Spots like this have all the characteristics that bream require for spawning; fast running water over shallow rock bars with enough wave action to keep the water stirred up. The best catches are made at night with yabbies and prawns bringing the most success.

During the day, there are still plenty of opportunities but bait fishing can be made difficult by the unwelcome hordes of happy moments. One way to overcome this is to use whole hardiheads or small herrings. Better still, this is a great place to work plastics effectively. With jigheads down to 1/16oz (no.1) and a variety of small grubs and minnows, you can hardly go wrong.

Winds and tides

There is so much variability in the conditions that are ideal for targeting different species in a variety of locations, that it would be impossible to do justice to it here. However to generalise, any wind out of the north or west, much greater than 12 knots is enemy number one! There is almost no escape in the inner areas of the bay, except perhaps close in to the Graves. The best winds are light and preferably out of the southeast or east when Woody Island affords plenty of protection.

Generally, I prefer the bigger than average tides across the board, with a reasonable run of water for most species. Although some locations fish well on the ebb, most of the reefs are more productive on the flood.

Map text

Fig.1

Green Zone

The green triangle represents the totally no-take Green Zone, which covers a big part of the best reef. However, there is still plenty of good country outside the Green Zone boundaries.

All of the waters shown on the map outside the Green Zone are zoned Yellow, meaning that only one line with one hook attached may be used by the angler. Nevertheless, much of the area south of the Green Zone has a special designation allowing anglers to use up to three hooks.

If your GPS does not have the zones already marked, the best plan is to create a route from W (western mark) to E (eastern mark) to S (southern mark) and back to W. Activating this route will show you whether you are inside or outside the zone. The eastern (E) and southern (S) corners are marked with white buoys while the western corner is slightly north west of the red beacon.

This is not an exact map so please refer to the website below for exact details.

Green Zone Coordinates:

Eastern 25° 16.1’ S ; 152° 56.4’ E

Southern 25° 16.683’ S ; 152° 55.666’ E

Western 25° 16.0’ S ; 152° 55.6’ E

Zoning details: www.derm.qld.gov.au/register/p02653aa.pdf

Facts

Size and Bag Limits

SpeciesMin. cmMax. cmBag limit

Grassy sweetlip (Grass Sweetlip)30-10
Blackall*25-5
Spangled emperor*45-5
Purple tuskfish (Greasy)*30-6#
Black-Spot tuskfish (Bluey)*30-6#
Snapper35-4
Estuary cod*381205
Coral trout*38-7
Moses perch*25-5
Stripey*25-5
Sand bass (reef barramundi)---
Spinecheek (reef rainbow)---
Whiting (sand)23-30
Whiting (diver)--50
Flathead40755
Bream25-30

0

* Designated coral reef fin fish. As well as adhering to the individual sizes and bag limits in the table, the bag limit for the total of all designated fish is 20. Coral reef fin fish no longer need to have pectoral fins removed.

# Indicates a combined limit for both species.

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