As an ex-Brisbanite, I can tell you that the fishing offshore from Townsville puts SEQ offshore fishing in the shade. Head out from Townsville and you can encounter emperor, coral trout, fingermark (golden snapper), grunter, gold-spot cod and a variety of sweetlips. You can also catch trevally, yellowfin tuna, mackerel, billfish and more. If you’re interested in sampling it for yourself, read on!
When I lived in Brisbane I used a 15-24kg, 7’0” Live Fibre and an overhead spooled with 50lb braid. Although this rig works fine up here as well, I prefer a 5’6”, 10-15kg short stroker with the same reel and braid. I find I can pull the trout out of the coral better with this rig, and it’s ample for the red emperor and nannygai, too.
Both floating rigs (running ball sinker) and paternoster rigs work well, and 80lb leader should be ample. If you’re keen to try plastics, a strong baitcaster or spin rig is the go. I use baitcasters (6-8kg and a 50lb impoundment rod) loaded with 30-50lb braid. With these rigs I have landed nannygai to 10kg and cobia and gold-spot cod to 17kg. It’s hard going holding onto these smallish rods with such big fish and hard drags!
On the reefs the prime target is trout. These fish are daytime feeders, and often the best bite period is early to mid morning, but the most important aspect is to fish the ‘pressure side’ of the reef (the reef area that faces into the tide/current). Sound around these areas and pinpoint the bait schools, as these are what the trout feed on. Once you’ve found the baitfish, anchor up in such a way that your bait wafts down into the school.
Like a jack in the snags, a trout will brick you in a flash so a hard drag on hook-up is a must. Once you’re off the bottom you can ease up on the drag to avoid pulling hooks. If you do get bricked, give the fish some slack before trying to get it back.
One thing to note is that the pros fishing for live trout don’t like deeper water because of the risk of barotrauma. To maximise your chances it’s best to fish in 30m+.
Red-throat emperor, spangled emperor and a stack of other reefies will also be caught close to the coral. They can be caught on the usual pillies, squid and flesh baits, as well as soft plastics, octopus imitations and vibes.
And if you like Spanish mackerel, put a bait out under a float while you fish for the reefies. A live fusilier is a great for Spaniards, but so is the humble pillie.
If you want some sport you can also chuck poppers around the pressure sides of the reef where the bait is schooling up for GTs.
Sounding out the open expanses away from the main reef structures is where you will find the rubble and isolated rocks that attract red emperor and nannygai. While I have caught good nannies in as little as 25m and reds as shallow as 35m, the ideal depth range is 50-70m. Set your sounder up to return a clear image of the bottom few metres or so while cruising to give yourself a good chance of spotting isolated patches of bottom and fish. Amassing a number of good patches in the deeper water is wise as the fish like to move around, so one spot that’s firing on a particular day can be a desert the next. If you like you can troll some lures for mackerel while you’re watching the bottom.
Alongside the red emperor and nannygai you will find good-sized trout, sweetlip, jacks, jobfish, cod and more.
All of these fish can be caught year-round; the main limiting factor for anglers is wind. Autumn and winter are very pleasant but also very windy. Spring is possibly the best time of year to plan a trip. It’s not too hot, there’s less wind and there are lots of species willing to play the game.
Summer has lots of calm weather, aside from the odd cyclone, but you’ll have to put up with some serious heat. The fish also feel the heat in the shallows in summer, so you might want to fish a bit deeper on hot days.
The Coast Guard ramp on Ross Creek is the only all-tide ramp in the immediate Townsville area that caters for larger vessels. There are two ramps, both with 4 lanes and one has a pontoon. There are public toilets but no cleaning tables. Unfortunately parking is limited, so during good weather windows you really want to get there early. To ease congestion, the Council is constructing another facility at South Townsville, which should hopefully have some lanes open at the end of this year. There may be a fee to use it.
If the weather is great and you don’t want to get up at sparrow’s to secure a park at the Townsville ramp, you can drive north and launch at the Dungeness ramp at Lucinda. The ramp has 4 long lanes with a central pontoon. There’s a large parking area with wash-down bays, along with public toilets, a playground and BBQ area, and a general store with bait and ice. Although it’s a fair hike from Townsville – around 1.5 hours or so – you will have a shorter run to some productive reefs and shoals.
If you’re happy to work around the tides you can launch at the Morrrisseys Creek ramp. It’s a concrete ramp with 2 fairly narrow lanes, and a pontoon. Be wary of the drop-off at the end. There are septic toilets available and covered table areas. This is a good place for smaller boats to launch to access the famous Cape Bowling Green billfish grounds.
Before you set out, be sure to check the GBRMPA website for the location of green zones, as hefty fines apply if you stray into the wrong area. You have been warned!
There are plenty of productive reefs and shoals to choose from. In close there’s Middle Reef near Magnetic Island, Paluma Shoals and Salamander Reef, but unless you’re restricted to a tinny you’ll want to go further afield. Good outer reefs include Lodestone, Keeper, Rib, Bramble, Trunk, Big and Little Broadhurst reefs and the Slashers. Just be prepared to travel a long way; the nearest outer reefs are roughly 70km from the Townsville ramp. From Lucinda it’s not as far; you can almost halve the distance to the nearest reef.
I would have loved to give you tons of in-depth info in this article, but there just wasn’t room – so it’s up to you to do some extra homework before you commit to a trip. I recommend you check out the regular Townsville fishing reports at reports.fishingmonthly.com.au, and you can also look up past magazine articles at www.fishingmonthly.com.au. To pick locals’ brains you can suss out online forums, and local tackle store staff are very helpful as well.
Best of all, if you have the spare cash, do your first trip with a guide/charter to learn the ropes before you fish from your own boat.
Just be careful though, or you might find yourself moving up here like I did!
GREEN ZONES AND CLOSURES
Out from Townsville there are certain areas designated as green zones (no fishing) and yellow zones (one rod per person, 1 hook per line). You can see detailed maps at www.gbrmpa.gov.au/zoning-permits-and-plans.
Coral Reef Finfish Closures
The Coral Reef Finfish Closures change each year to coincide with the new moon in October and November, which is when key reef species tend to spawn. The closure applies to trout, emperors, nannygai, cod and other key reef fish. You can find out more at www.daff.qld.gov.au/fisheries.
There is one Coral Reef Finfish Closure left this year, and it runs from 19-23 November.