Blue skies and balmy bay
  |  First Published: May 2013

May generally heralds the start of the cooler weather in Cairns and with it come the winter fish species. It also marks the onset of the dry season, which brings blue skies and balmy weather.

Nevertheless, in this land of contrasts it can also be blowing a gale accompanied by rain. On the upside, in recent years there have been significant periods of spectacular weather, with fishing to match.

The fish on most anglers’ minds are mackerel, especially the Spaniards. If early season catches are anything to go by, we are in for a great season with plenty of quality fish boated in recent weeks. It’s usually the rat pack that arrives first, with most mackerel under the 8kg mark, but this year has seen some trophy Spaniards coming aboard early.

It will be interesting to see if a lack of a real wet season will impact the mackerel, as far as quantity goes. There is a well established link between rain and fishing, so let’s hope the mackerel are an exception.

Early in the season, while the water is still warm, mackerel will generally hang deep, so use a strategy that covers the full range of the water column until you locate feeding fish. Obviously a sounder will give you a head start but they are not always feeding at the depth they are sitting at. Bait schools are a better indicator; always watch the birds and the surface for action, and the sounder screen for bait balls. If you find the bait you will invariably find the pelagics.

If trolling, try and cover the depth range by using super deep divers that get down 10m+ or use a downrigger. Have another lure swimming around the 5m mark and one just below the surface or even on it.

It is very easy to troll three lures without outriggers if you vary the swimming depth and distance from the boat. Having the deepest diver closest to the boat, the mid-water lure midway back and the shallow diver well back will allow you to turn to starboard or port in a fairly tight circle. You still have to keep pressure on the shorter two lines to keep the lures swimming and thus diving. It doesn’t matter if the shallow diver stops pulling and floats to the surface in a sharp turn when it is the furthest out, but you’ll get in to trouble if it’s the short line and it floats up and picks up other lines floating on the surface.

Many serious Spaniard chasers like to troll wolf herring early in the season but my preference is to troll live baits, and size isn’t the be all and end all. I have caught plenty of Spaniards over the 10kg mark trolling live sardines barely 100mm long. Bigger baits are preferable if you can get them, but not a necessity.

To swim livies at various depths, use either a downrigger or paravanes. Most tackle stores sell various sizes of lead weighted stainless steel/plastic paravanes. Always be sure to rig them with about 30cm of heavy-duty (100lb plus) stainless steel wire trace either side of the paravane. Pelagics will sometimes have a crack at the shiny object and they are not cheap. Swim the bait no more than 2m behind the paravane, as that uses the vane as a fish attractor and a hooked fish will be within gaffing distance when the paravane is at the rod tip.

If live or dead baiting, set your rig so it will slowly drift down the water column right to the bottom, if possible. If over reef country, knowing when the bait is close to the bottom is a bit of a challenge. Quite often the mackerel are in the bottom third of the water column, so you have to take the gamble to find the fish.

Fishing a paternoster rig with a long (1m+) leader is another approach to getting down deep, if there is a fair bit of current. You need to make sure the bait is not twisting and lower it very slowly. Otherwise it can wrap the bait around the main line and you will get bitten off.

May is also a great month for reds at the reef, especially largemouth nannygai. Quality big mouth in the 7-10kg range will be on the prowl in the deep water, with night fishing generally more productive. The most common mistake people make when chasing big reds is to have the drag set too tight. When fishing for trout in shallow water, having the drag almost locked up is a necessity but if you use the same tactic with big reds you will get busted off with monotonous regularity.

While quality big mouth will come easily in the first 5-10m, they habitually then turn and put on a powerful run and if the drag isn’t set to give line, it’s all over. Red emperor tend to go hard early, and all the way to the boat for that matter, but the same principle applies. Set your drag so they can take line under pressure, without going too light. Give them too much line and they will brick you every time.

There will still be the odd trout up shallow and spangled emperor at all depths, so don’t discount the shallow water. When it cools right off, red emperor can also be taken in the shallow water. It is not uncommon to get a mixed bag of red emperor and trout off the same bommie in less than 30m of water.

The inshore wrecks, reefs and islands, along with the Trinity Inlet leads, will be worth a look for school mackerel. The same rules apply to doggies as with Spaniards. They will predominantly be near or on the bottom early in the season, so work the whole water column until you find where they are feeding.

When using dead baits, like whole pilchards, mullet or sardines, use small (4/0) chained hooks and no wire trace for the mackerel. It will increase your strike rate significantly and more than compensate for the odd bite off. With live baits, you pretty well have to use wire trace, with light weight single strand wire the best. A 30lb wire trace is heaps and always use small black swivels. Just watch for kinks in the wire and replace it if necessary.

The main estuary players will be bream, cod, grunter, flathead, trevally and queenfish but the odd barra, jack and golden snapper will still be about as the weather cools. Always keep in mind that they still have to eat, so if you are prepared to put in the effort, you can still come up trumps on the tropical trophy trio.

Smaller live baits and lures are often a better way to go as the water cools, as it not only increases your chances of nailing a barra, jack or golden snapper but also increases the variety of fish that will have a crack at a small bait, rather than a 20cm mullet.

Mud crabs should be on the move, so drop in your quota of pots on the way out fishing, especially on the bigger tides around the new and, in particular, the full moon.

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