Temperatures vary catches
  |  First Published: May 2012

May usually heralds the completion of the switch from summer to winter species. The tropical trophy trio of barra, jacks and fingermark will still be active until the first cold snap and then will become hard to entice.

Winter species, especially mackerel, will be on the increase and reds will be the main players at the reef. On the freshwater scene, barra, sooties and jungle perch will be quite active as the streams clear but will fade with the dropping water temperature.

Water temperature will be the key to the estuary action. While it stays on or above 26ºC, the tropical species will remain active. After the first cold snap barra in particular will have lock jaw for a week or two until they adjust to the change or the weather warms up again.

After the first chill, focus your barra efforts at warmer times of the day and in warmer patches of water. Shallow areas, especially rocky ones, are great on the afternoon rising tide, on still sunny days, as the warm rocks are immersed and disperse the heat into the water.

Rock walls facing the sun are also great on the rising tide for the same reason. The water only needs to be a degree or two warmer to trigger barra to feed more actively. Otherwise it’s a matter of getting the bait on their nose by deep water trolling areas of structure or dropping live baits right into the cover.

Jacks and fingermark will be a bit more consistent but will eventually give way, as the winter species such as bream, grunter, flathead, estuary cod and sicklefish kick into gear. The bigger tides will see the more mobile species like trevally, queenfish and even school mackerel move into the entrances chasing the bait schools. If the bait, especially sardines, are thick and the water clears then expect to see these species tearing into the bait around river mouths and inlet entrances.

The beaches and flats will hold a few salmon, flathead, grunter and even the odd barra at times. The occasional trophy permit will also be prowling the flats and are well worth targeting on fresh peeled prawns. While they are few in number they put up an awesome fight. Fresh peeled prawns will also attract most other species.

Mud crabs are on the move in May and are generally in excellent condition. It’s well worth setting the pots as you head for a fish and pulling them out on the way home. Even better is leaving them overnight but be prepared to lose a pot or two to crocs.


Mackerel will provide the main action this month. There will also be plenty of trevally, mac tuna and the occasional yellowfin tuna mixed in with school, scaly and Spanish mackerel.

Some of the Spanish mackerel will be over 15kg, so make sure your equipment can handle the big ones or you will come home disappointed.

A floater out the back when reef fishing is a must. If specifically targeting mackerel, trolling dead baits like gar, mullet and wolf herring or, even better, live baits, will put you in the action. Occasionally, lures will out perform baits, so it’s always worth having one in your spread. Try and cover a wide depth range until you find out what level they are biting at. As a general rule, mackerel tend to be high in the water column early and late in the day and down deeper in the middle.

Spaniards will often be patrolling the perimeter of bait schools that are being hammered by bonito or tuna, so investigate any surface or bird action.


May is traditionally a great month for the red species, especially big-mouth nannygai. Big-mouth are usually in the 5kg+ range and mostly on the isolated bommies or rubble ground in 40m+ of water.

Mixed in amongst the nannygai schools will be red emperor, spangled emperor, cobia, mangrove jack and trevally.

In the shallower water, coral trout will be starting to come on the bite and the odd red emperor will also start to appear.

Provided the strong southeasterlies are on the wane, May is a great for over-nighting at the reef. Dawn and dusk are ideal to chase trout and mackerel and the reds tend to bite better through the night. With modern technology it is quite safe to move around at night, with care, so it pays to keep moving if the fish aren’t biting within half an hour or so. It can be a long night sitting on the one spot waiting for the fish to come to you.


The bigger streams are usually starting to clear and it’s an ideal time to head to the sweet water, especially if the high pressure systems are marching in line across the Great Australian Bight and ridging up the North Queensland Coast with monotonous regularity. The resulting strong southeasters tend to keep the air temperature on the warmer side, preventing a cold snap which will slow the freshwater action.

Any of the east or west flowing streams within a day’s drive of Cairns are worth a look for sooties, jungle perch and barra. The eastern flowing streams, like the Mulgrave, even have mangrove jack well up into the freshwater reaches. An ideal way to fish these streams is in a canoe or specially fitted-out fishing kayak, which are becoming very popular in Southern Queensland.

Estuarine crocodiles are always an issue in the north, so investigate the area you are targeting thoroughly to find out if they are present. I often fish in crocodile country out of a Canadian canoe but wouldn’t be as comfortable in a sit-on kayak. The reality is a sit-on kayak is probably more stable and readily rightable should you turn turtle, but they seem to leave your bum a bit too close to the water for my liking. A small punt is even more stable and secure but a bit more restrictive when it comes to moving from hole to hole.

Flicking lures around snags or rock structure, especially at the top of holes where there is a good water flow, is a great starting point. I have also had a great deal of success trolling behind a canoe, especially when travelling long distances. It keeps you in with a chance all the time. Stopping to work the top of a hole, then trolling the rest, is the perfect combination.

In the western rivers, in particular, trolling can result in a disproportionate number of catfish coming to the boat. If this happens then concentrate on flicking. You will still get the slimy monsters but they will be a smaller percentage of your catch. For this approach use 20lb braid with 20lb leader, and if you are in barra country it’s worth going up to 30lb leader. There is nothing quite like catching a quality sooty, jungle perch or barra and cooking it in the camp fire coals that night.

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