Offshore fishing the Macleay
  |  First Published: May 2015

The offshore fishing from Crescent Head in the south to Stuarts Point in the north can't be described in just 1 word, as a single superlative doesn't do it justice.

This stretch of water, roughly 45km in length as the crow flies, would have to rate as one of the best light tackle sportfishing, game fishing and bottom fishing areas in the world. Why? It’s due to two things. The first is the continental shelf is at its closest point to the coast, a mere 15km or so offshore.

This is mainly due to the fact that this short length of coastline protrudes further out to sea at Smoky Cape and Hat Head than the rest of the surrounding land mass, and the shelf dips in a bit at this point.

The second is due to the headland poking so far out that during summer when the East Australian Current (EAC) pours south and smashes right into the rocks at these two points, it forms a large eddy that rolls down the coast.

This ensures that every fish travelling down from the tropics passes close by and, even better, all this action can be easily accessed from small trailer boats launched at the various nearby points along the coast.

The choices can be endless, with nowhere near enough hours to cover the options available on any given day.

Fishing Seasons

There are basically two seasons; south flowing current with warm to hot water, and north flowing current to no current and cooler water. The hot water usually rolls in around mid December and lasts until June. Sometimes it may not show up until late January and finish in May, but as a general rule of thumb, the first 6 months are hot water and the second 6 are cool.

Cooler months

When the cooler months arrive and the current slows right down, this is the time to hit the reefs, which are many and varied. These run all along the coast, with the ones in shallower water inside the shelf targeted for teraglin, mulloway, snapper, kingfish, morwong and nannygai. If you drift off onto the sand, there are numerous flathead about if you wish to chase them.

Out in the deeper water you will find bar cod, monster blueye trevalla and large hapuka. Live baits or squid dropped down into the depths work well on these denizens of the deep, but then you have to get the fish back up and some of them are very big.

For the sporting fishos, there are yellowfin tuna, striped tuna and striped marlin in the cooler waters, and some monster kingfish along the rocky headlands. Fish Rock and Black Rock are standouts for this species on poppers, live baits and jigs.

The yellowfin show up all year round, but the cooler months see bigger concentrations of larger fish from 30-50kg. The good thing is they can be found from only a few hundred metres offshore right out to the shelf, so putting a few lures out while heading to the cod grounds is well worthwhile, with a few smaller lures included to grab some striped tuna for bait.

The shallower reefs off Grassy Head and South West Rocks are a special in the cooler months for big snapper and mulloway.

Warmer Months

Now this is when it all happens and the current dictates fish activity. It can run south at over 5kts and make the FAD look like a water skier, but with it comes the fish. With water temperatures reaching 28°, just about anything is possible.

First to arrive in late December to early January are the mahimahi and black marlin, and they come in swarms.

The legendary triangle out from Trial Bay Gaol can see up to 40 boats chasing the marlin, and even with this many present, catches of 20 fish a day are not unheard of. Large schools slimy mackerel gather over the reefs here, and the marlin have a picnic, with almost as many billies as baitfish on some days.

Most are smaller fish in the 20-50kg range, with bigger fish coming in at times, generally a bit further offshore.

They are not just limited to this one spot, but will be scattered along the coast and can last well into March and April during some seasons.

As for the mahimahi, they are all over the FAD and the numerous fish trap buoys along the coast, with some of the bigger fish taken as bycatch when chasing marlin. It is not unusual to get bulls to 25kg on a regular basis, and they last right into May.

As the water gets hotter, so does the fishing, as with it comes the tropicals down from Queensland and the wider Pacific areas. There’s Spanish mackerel, spotted mackerel, cobia, sailfish, wahoo, rainbow runners, giant barracuda, amberjacks, yellowfin, longtail, mac and striped tuna, bonito, trevally of all types, and the already mentioned black marlin and mahis.

The tropicals might not be for everyone though, but there are still plenty of solid snapper, yellowtail kingfish, mulloway and teraglin about over the reefs not too affected by the current. If it does back off a bit, the deepwater cod and trevalla are still there too.

The mackerel can be found hunting over all the shallow reefs off the coast and the point at Hat Head, and they hang about right into June. Some of the biggest fish up to 35kg are captured then. The reefs out from Grassy Head can hold masses of spotties, or snook as the locals call them, from February right into late May, with a generous amount of bar-ees among them to keep you on your toes.

Live slimy mackerel are the gun bait, but when they are on, pilchards catch just as many. You have to get there early though, as 40 boats or more will be out chasing them when they are on the bite.

Cobia move in during late January and, being quite a mysterious creature, they can pop up just about any where at any time, which is what makes them such a fascinating species. Both live and dead baits work on cobes, which more often than not travel in schools, so when you hook 1 you often hook a fish on every bait in the water.

You’ll find them over all the reefs and pinnacles, but they will turn up just as much over the sand at the back of the beach and are most often caught when chasing other species. Black Rock is a good spot to look for them. They reach up to 35kg, but most are in the 5-20kg bracket and they do fight hard.

Now the close-in shallow reefs hold Spanish and cobia, but 1 place that is like a magnet to both fish and fishermen alike when the current runs is the aptly named Fish Rock.

At times, the current hits it so hard that the water at the front of the rock is several metres higher than the back, and it leaves a massive eddy that swirls for several kilometres behind.

This is where just about everything gathers at 1 time or another. Kingfish are always here and some of them are well educated destroyers of 30kg, but they average out at about 8kg.

Small to medium yellowfin tuna sit at the northern side of the rock in the current, picking up the baitfish as they come down. Schools of mac tuna mix with them and sailfish and marlin will sit in the same position, picking up an easy feed in the current.

Long toms gather here by the thousands and are a good food source. It looks amazing as dozens of them take to the air as predators below spook them into flight. Rainbow runners hold close to the rocks on the eastern side and monster tailor to 10kg can be found in the rough and tumble of the washes early in the morning.

One surprising fish you may encounter are mangrove jacks. Some of the largest jacks ever caught in Australia have been taken here, while mulloway and snapper gather in numbers throughout the seasons as well.

Lures cast into the washes could pull a GT or bigeye trevally, and amberjack visit too, while the outside edge of the eastern wash is a drawcard for wahoo when they are about.

With more boats working the shelf over the past few years, 1 thing has become apparent and that is there is a world class blue marlin fishery starting to develop. Ten strikes or better a day is not unusual, with fish to 250kg taken for granted, with much larger fish destroying the lighter 24kg tackle commonly used.

The serious anglers are now using 37kg tackle as standard practice. It makes short work of the big mahimahi and wahoo encountered, but gives the angler a chance on the bigger blues.

As late summer arrives and autumn gets into gear, the longtail tuna start to arrive en masse. They rarely swim more than a few hundred metres from shore, so they are available to everyone. Large schools can be seem cruising the coast just off the headlands and along the backs of the beaches, showering garfish in all directions as they churn the water to foam and launch into the air. Fish from 15-25kg are the norm, and respond well to live baits and lures.

The fish are obviously out there, but how do you get to them? There is a boat ramp at Crescent Head, but it is onto the beach and into the surf, so mainly used for smaller boats and not really suitable for larger vessels.

Hat Head has a great 2 lane ramp into the calm waters of Korogoro Creek that allows the launching of larger vessels, but you have to work the tides. The amount of water your vessel draws dictates when you need to head home, and no one gets in at low tide unless you pull your boat out off the beach with a 4WD.

Being a creek, it has a bar, so the relevant rules apply to wearing of life jackets, but for the most part it is a very safe crossing and larger vessels of 6m plus use it regularly.

The next ramp is at Trial Bay below the gaol and is the safest ramp at South West Rocks, but can be closed by National Parks at their discretion — usually on holidays and long weekends…

It has limited parking and is popular when it is open though.

Back Creek is the next ramp, a dual lane number that has you launching into calm waters, but again you have to work the tides as it gets very shallow at the entrance. It can be quite tricky getting in and out on the lower parts of the tide if there is any swell. There is a dredge here that works to keep a channel open, but even with this you still must use caution.

The main ramps are in the Macleay River about 2km from the river entrance. There is ample parking and pontoons for easy launching and retrieval, but you do have to negotiate the river bar. If new to the area, walk out on the breakwall and watch how the locals do it before your first trip — it can be helpful.

Now that you are out there, you have some of the best fishing in the world at your fingertips, so go get ’em.

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