Saltwater, sleepies and sooties show promise
  |  First Published: June 2008

The cooler weather is finally here and with it the barra are now thinking about hibernating for the winter. Of course there are still barra about and they still eat every day, it just takes a little more effort to latch onto them as they go a little snoozy with the lower water temperatures.

This slowing down applies equally to the lakes and the saltwater estuaries but on sunny, calm days barra can often be found over sand in shallow water down in the creeks where the water is warmer. Some anglers believe it is impossible to snare a barra in a lake when it’s cold, but keep in mind that surveys have returned barra captures for MAFSA at Eungella Dam when the water was a chilly 14C.

If you want to chase a barra in the lakes, get into the shallow water out of the wind and look for any rise in water temperature – even as small as one or two degrees and you might just find you have a chance at the fish of a lifetime.

Saltwater Options

Winter sees the annual run of spawning snapper reach our waters and they can be caught from the far offshore islands to the close in reefs. Some trips can involve 40-plus kilometre trips to the close inshore spots like Flat and Roundtop islands just out from the Pioneer River. On calm days these areas can be reached in a 4m tinnie on calm weather days, unfortunately these days are fairly infrequent most years. Still there are enough opportunities for the anglers to catch what is usually a southern reef species.

Talking to fellow QFM contributor, Wayne Kampe, recently revealed some tips on using soft plastics on snapper. Chasing snapper here in the north is best done in 10m or more of water, a little bit different from southern Queensland where opportunities come in very shallow water. Despite the slightly different conditions, it will be interesting to try Kampe’s techniques out and see if they are successful around Mackay. If the weather stays good with lighter winds, I will be chasing these nobbies and will let you know how the soft plastics go.

I think some of the larger plastics we use on barra should work on snapper and a host of other species as well. Common shad types, should also work sufficiently on snapper. Although a fair lump of lead may be needed to get the plastics down to the fish, with our fierce tidal runs. Alternatively a berley trail could be used to get the fish up from the bottom and in range of unweighted plastic offerings.

Other species around the salt at this time of year include Spanish and other smaller mackerel, trevally, snub-nosed dart (aka oyster crackers or permit), and the odd cobia and tuna. There are also opportunities for reef fish, like parrotfish, sweetlip, cod and trout, all of which can be found in the close inshore waters.

The pelagics are more likely to turn up with calm weathers and preferably north to northeast winds of less than 10 knots. Such conditions bring schools of small bait right in close to the shores and the pelagics follow. Look for them around the harbour walls, inshore spots around Slade, Flat and Roundtop Islands as well as those around Sarina.

Most of the reef species, including some unstoppable fish, will be caught in close to the islands around rocky reef areas. Tony Martin tells me he had a bluey close to 1m long come right up under his boat to take the bait. It then proceeded to bury him in the reef so quickly he had no chance to even turn the fish. This is fairly typical of the blues in shallow water and is the reason most anglers choose heady handlines between 25-35kg strain.

Moving into the mangrove creeks and estuaries, anglers will find plenty of action with species like whiting and flathead. Bream are on their spawning run and are plentiful in close to the mangroves or around rock bars. Pikey bream are heaps of fun to catch and yield a nice thick-shouldered fillet compared to a normal silver bream.

All of these bread and butter species will respond well to fresh yabbies, prawns, cut baits, worms and frozen baits. As always fresh is best and my pick of the bunch is freshly pumped yabbies. Lures, particularly small plastics, will also work although I have never caught a whiting on a lure yet.

There are some more exotic fish caught in the creek and estuaries during winter, including queenfish, snub-nosed dart, grunter and fingermark.

The queenies and oyster crackers can usually be found hunting upstream with the tide. A favourite spot is over yabby beds, which seems to be what the oyster crackers are feeding on. Obviously the areas are very shallow so it pays to approach quietly.

The grunter and fingermark can be found right up almost to the top of the tidal influence. Grunter are more of a grazing type that move around with the tide. While fingermark are more likely to find a suitable rock bar or snag and hole up there. Both species can be found in local creek systems, but watch the legal lengths on grunter as often many are caught just under legal size.


In winter the freshwater angler also has some good options, although not as varied as saltwater anglers.

This winter I have planned a trip over the Sarina range to chase saratoga in the Conners River. While we don’t have saratoga in our dams they are right through the creeks and rivers up over the range. Most of the fishable water is on private property, so make sure if you want to try this option, get permission from the owner and do not leave any rubbish behind.

Saratoga were actually stocked in Eungella Dam about 30 years ago, but I have never seen one. I have heard of a few being caught but not for several years. They would have undoubtedly bred in the dam but as they were only stocked in very low numbers, perhaps they are no longer there. If chasing a toga I would not count on scoring at Eungella. If any readers have recently seen or caught them at Eungella Dam, contact me via the mag or email.


One very tasty option for the freshwater angler is the sleepy cod. Sleepies can be found in Eungella and Kinchant Dams, and grow to a reasonable size fish. The largest I have seen was approaching 60cm and at that size, they smash a lure hard and provide some lovely white fillets for the pan. This type of cod are well named and don’t fight much after the initial hit. They usually come to the surface with a tight drag and then roll and loll about while being cracked to the boat.

In Kinchant Dam the best places to find the old sleepy is along the rock walls or near the spillway. They have also been regularly caught in the old quarry. These fish will take small lures, plastics and a wide variety of baits. While they are not the most handsome fish, there are very few that taste better than a fresh fillet of sleepy cod.

Sleepy cod can be found in Eungella Dam along the wall near the quarry and in the shallow water where there is cover like rocks or fallen timber lying out into the water. We usually run across the sleepy while chasing sooty grunter, and they are a welcome change and good addition to the icebox.

Recently, my son Lachlan and I had a late afternoon mini fishing trip on the Pioneer River near Mirani. We were chasing sooties and I was surprised to hook and land a 44cm sleepy cod, which smashed a Fat Rap beside a log. This is the first sleepy I have ever caught in the river.


My old friend, the sooty grunter, is possibly the most likely target for the freshwater angler during the winter months. While sooties are definitely more active during the summer spawning times, they do feed all year round and are happy to smash a lure that comes within range.

It is critical to cast within range of a sooty when lure fishing as they do no seem to come far from cover to hit a lure. When using plastics, hardbodies or poppers, you have to get right up close to the sooty’s lair to entice a strike. I think this is what makes sooty fishing so much fun. Try to punch the lure in tight within 15-30cm of cover.

Spinnerbaits are an exception to this rule, as they seem to have the ability to draw the fish well away from cover to strike the lure. Sometimes the sooty will have several hits at a spinnerbait before hooking up.

Spinnerbaits with gold narrow willow type blades seem to work most effectively, although the colour of the skirts is not a huge issue. Perhaps they make a different noise to the rounder blades, which stir up sooties more, provoking them to strike out of aggression.

Almost any colour lure will catch sooty grunter, but my preference is for gold colours with some contrast like red or black. Gold Flat Raps and gold rattling spot type lures are essential tackle box items when chasing sooty. Another old favourite of mine is Reidy’s Little Lucifer in gold and red. However any lure about 7cm with a strong action that can dive about 2m will work. For deeper waters use the rattlers or small deep divers.

Soft plastics have also proven popular with sooties, which are known to take just about anything from works, to minnows and small stickbaits. Colour is not really important with plastics, but keep in mind sooties feed on small bony and other baitfish as well as shrimp. If you try to match the hatch, you won’t go too far wrong.

The sooty populations around Mackay have received a good boot this last summer with MAFSA’s hatchery pumping out about 150,000 fingerlings. These fingerlings have been released in Kinchant, Eungella and Teemburra Dams and will provide great sport in the future.

The success of MAFSA’s stocking program was prevalent at the recent Sooty World Championship competition held at Eungella Dam. A total of 63 anglers presented 115 fish to weigh in after three sessions. Daniel Grech was the champion angler with 1709 points and four fish over 40cm. The tournament was a great success despite angler and fish numbers being slightly down from last year. There will be a full report of the competition in the next issue of QFM in the tournament section.

Until then, see you at the ramp!

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