Winter pattern fading
  |  First Published: August 2012

The final month of what passes for winter in north Queensland is upon us, and the southeasterly trade winds are still the dominant weather feature. When the trade winds abate the fishing can be quite exceptional, especially offshore.

In the Cairns area, August is the start of the transition from winter to summer species and, depending on the prevailing conditions, can start early this month but sometimes not at all. There is usually one final cold snap caused by an east coast low forming off New South Wales and directing Antarctic air into the north, before the spring birds start singing and the summer fish stir. Water temperatures will then quickly rise and before we know it, the north is back in summer mode.

While the water temperatures stay low, pelagics, especially mackerel, will be the main blue water players, although the reds will also be on the chew down deep and the trout in the shallows. Once temperatures start climbing, coral trout will start to move in even shallower and feed up ready for spawning.

Spanish mackerel will continue to be the number one trophy fish sought after in August, with some monster fish raising heart beats from the inshore wrecks to the outer reef. As the month progresses Spaniards will become scarcer inshore as they move out to the reef for their annual spawn. Those that have been fortunate enough to witness a spawning congregation at the reef will tell tales of a carpet of Spaniards under the boat that at times will take anything that moves and at other times ignore all offerings. The large majority are smaller fish in the 6-10kg range, which is ideal eating size.

I have never considered mackerel of any species to be a good catch and release prospect, as they tend to get knocked around too much in the heat of battle. So, if you luck onto a feeding school, catch your limit or limit your catch and leave them to breed in peace.

The bigger trophy Spaniards will tend to be in smaller schools or solitary and are more challenging to target. Well presented trolled baits like gar, wolf herring, mullet and pike or live baits trolled, drifted or under a float, will increase your odds but plenty will still fall for the good old drifted or floated pilchard and lures trolled or cast.

Often it’s a matter of having a few options rigged and ready to go and work your way through your arsenal until you come up trumps. Keep a close eye on other boats in the area to get an early indication of what’s on the money at any given time.

The lesser mackerel, especially doggies and spotties, will predominantly be found around the inshore reefs, channel leads and islands and, at times, will be chased by flotillas of anglers when word gets out of a big bite. This tends to happen more to the south of Cairns, especially in the Kurrimine Beach to Mission Beach stretch, with small armies of grey nomads and locals converging on the area for the annual mackerel run.

Numbers of grey drifters have been down post Yasi but this year should herald the return of them in droves. They are a huge boost to the local economy but can be detrimental to fish stocks and local sentiment when a greedy few get carried away.

For those looking for a bit more fishing solitude and challenge; all the inshore reefs, wrecks and channel markers that attract bait will hold mackerel at times, so go in search of the natural sign posts of birds working, surface action, dark patches of bait down deep, current lines and pressure points. Leave the search for schooling boats to the masses and enjoy the perfect isolation. The catches won’t always be sensational but the experience will be far more rewarding than fighting the flotilla.

While mackerel are the main pelagic players, there will be plenty of northern bluefin tuna, mac tuna, yellowtail tuna, giant trevally, golden trevally and even the odd marlin on the menu as incidental by-catch or targeted trophies, especially out towards the Shelf.

The flat calm periods between the southeasterly blasts can be to die for, with bottom fishing at an all time high. Overnighters will be nailing trophy red emperor and large-mouth nannygai in the deep water, while day anglers will be targeting coral trout in the shallows. There will also be a good sprinkling of other table fish like reef jacks, Moses perch, sweetlip, spangled emperor and small-mouth nannygai to add variety to the esky.

The only thing likely to upset the picture-perfect postcard will be sharks, which have been ferocious during August over recent years. They seem to have similar taste to humans, with mouth watering reds and trout getting nailed before the boat, while the lesser species like trevally and ‘odds and sods’ sweetlip seem to get through the gauntlet unscathed.

The best thing to do when the sharks take over, is pull anchor and move a few kilometres at speed, to find a new hunting ground. There has been enough anecdotal evidence from boaties and planes to be sure that sharks, especially big ones, will readily follow a boat from spot to spot unless plenty of speed and distance is put into the move.

Estuary summer species like barra, mangrove jack and fingermark will stir from their winter slumber with the first sign of rising water temperatures. Just a degree or two increase is enough to trigger a bite. While the temperatures linger in the lower range, queenfish, trevally, bream, cod, flathead, grunter and sicklefish will be the main takers.

If you match your targeting of these two groups with the water/air temperature, you should be on the money.

Don’t forget the crab pots, as muddies will still be on the move, especially in the upper reaches.

When the winds are really howling, head to the upper reaches of streams, out of the wind and away from the dirty ocean water at the mouths. Switch to targeting the tropical trophy trio of barra, jacks and fingermark when the jumpers come off and it’s back to t-shirt and thongs. Keep in mind that I’m talking local attire, not southern and international visitor wear, as they think our winter is eternal summer. The fish are locals and notice the cold just as much as those who feel anything below 25ºC during the day and 20ºC at night, calls for jumpers and Ugg boots.

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