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A Beginner’s Guide to Northern Moreton Bay Pelagics
  |  First Published: November 2006



Moreton Bay is predominantly shallow and sandy area with few fish holding features. There is very little reef structure within the bay, with the exception of a few patches of coffee rock reef, some islands and several artificial reefs.

To successfully fish the bay you need to know how to make the strong tidal currents work in your favour. It can become rough quickly with winds in excess of 15 knots, but Bribie Island provides some protection from westerly/southwesterly winds. Similarly, Moreton Island blocks the southeasterly and northeasterly winds. It is also important to remember that large container ships use the main shipping channels in Moreton Bay. They may throw up a large bow wave, and cannot slow down or manoeuvre easily, so keep well out of their way.

Moreton Bay Pelagics

The predominant pelagic species of interest are tuna (mackerel and northern bluefin) and mackerel (school and spotted). There are a few others, but these are the most common and easiest to get started on.

Mack tuna are the most common pelagic, with an average size of 2kg, but they are often caught over 6kg and can grow to 12kg. Longtail tuna average about 6-8kg, but larger specimens of 15-20kg are quite common.

School and spotted mackerel average 2-3kg and have minimum size limits of 50cm and 60cm respectively. It is quite common for the less experienced anglers to confuse these two species, as both have spots. Check out Qld Fisheries’ rules for additional information on size and bag limits.

Bait collecting

Yellowtail scad (yakkas) and slimy mackerel (slimies) can be collected using commercially available 6-hook livebait jigs around the channel markers. Use size 6 hooks. These are rigged with a 1-2oz snapper sinker on the end and dropped down along side the beacons to the depth the bait can be seen holding at on your sounder. Jig up and down and the bites should come. Yellowtail or striped sea pike and herring are also good baits, and whiptails can also be used if required.

Finding Fish

Birds are your eyes in the sky and are the most obvious sign of feeding pelagics. Look for flocks of terns hovering over the water and frequently looking down or diving into the water. They are feeding on the baitfish that have been forced to the surface by pelagics. The splashes of fish feeding under the birds can often be seen, and the species of pelagic can usually be picked by their characteristic feeding action.

Birds higher above the water indicate that fish are deeper, and birds close to the surface are hunting fish close to or on the surface. Occasionally, birds may be feeding on bait without accompanying pelagics. Your sounder will also find baitfish under the surface.

Large tight bait balls are worth dropping a metal lure or soft plastic to the bottom and cranking back up or jigging up and down. Eddies on the edges of banks and ripples where a strong current changes depth are also worth investigating. You might also see fish jumping or slashing when no birds are around. The message is to keep a sharp lookout at all times and investigate anything unusual.

Fish Highways

The major shipping channels are the fish highways, and the beacons marking the edges of the channels are the roadhouses. Pelagics are attracted to eddies behind and in front of the major shipping beacons as they attract bait and offer shelter from the currents. This is particularly true for school mackerel, cobia and yellowtail kings. The best beacons are those in deeper, clearer water (15m+) with plenty of bait, but all beacons are worth a drop of the lure. Be considerate of other boats that may already be anchored next to a beacon (it is illegal to tie off the beacons), and be aware that boat noise tends to put the fish off.

If after a few passes you have not raised any fish, move to the next beacon - you can always come back again in an hour. The technique involved in fishing the beacons is to position the boat up current so that it will drift within 5-10m of the beacon. When you are near the beacon, drop the lures from the rod tip straight down to the bottom then crank them as fast as possible back to the surface.

High-speed threadlines such as the Shimano TSS4 are ideal. Short lobs are fine, but long casts are a waste of time in the strong currents. Avoid casting your lure to the opposite side of the beacon to which your boat is drifting; there are sharp barnacles on the beacons that may cut your line.

My favourite lures for this style of fishing are the Javelin Laser 35g and 50g in chrome silver. Raiders are also good. Most hits come within the first 5m of the bottom, but fish can also take the lure next to the surface. Be careful to stop winding before the lure reaches the rod tip! I have also caught a number of snapper to 4.6kg that have all taken the lure on the drop. Any sudden increase in speed as you drop the lure in freespool should be investigated by striking. You can also anchor up current and fish weighted live baits and/or pilchards.

Tuna

Tuna feed on small baitfish in the major shipping channels and along the edges of the sandbanks. These baitfish are usually 20-30mm, but can be larger. Tuna are finicky feeders so it is usually necessary to use a lure that resembles the fish they are feeding on. The use of a snap swivel will reduce bites by ten-fold, so tie your 2m leader of 20-40lb mono directly to the lure. Tuna generally feed into the wind and will usually sound if approached too closely by a boat, so boat positioning is a critical skill.

Small metal baitfish profiles (BPs), in the 10-20g size, are most effective on mack tuna and there are many varieties available. The idea is to cast beyond the school in the direction they are travelling, let the lures sink for just a second or two, then wind flat out until you get a hit. Usually speed is the key, but occasionally other approaches may work better, such as an erratic retrieve or letting the lure sink deeper under the visibly working fish.

Given the small size of the lures and the difficulty in approaching schools closely, it will be apparent just how critical your casting ability is to catching tuna on lures. I use 3-6kg mono for this style of fishing and a quality graphite rod around 7-9ft is also an asset. Lighter tackle definitely gets more hits, casts the lighter lures better, and with a good drag and some patience, most fish can be subdued. The stretch in mono can be an asset in keeping the line tight whilst avoiding pulling the hooks out.

Livebaiting is another very effective way to catch longtail tuna. A yakka or slimy pinned through the nose or bridled and set under a balloon is a sure way to get hooked up to a longtail. I use the Mustad Big Gun hook in size 4/0 to 8/0 to suit the bait and 2m of 40-60lb mono leader. Tuna are available all year round in Moreton Bay, but best numbers are found from January to June.

Mackerel

Mackerel also feed on baitfish on the surface, but it takes an experienced eye to differentiate them from tuna. Unlike tuna, they don’t seem to mind a snap clip or swivel, which will help to reduce bite offs, and the same lures used for jigging the beacons are the go. Cast your lures to the edges to avoid being bitten off by other fish in the school. Anchoring near some structure (shipping beacon, reef area), berleying cubes or putting left over bait through the berley pot is effective and will produce a variety of species. Pilchards and livebaits can also be trolled when rigged correctly, either unweighted as flat lines or using a downrigger.

Wire is not required when using lures or pilchards for mackerel. You will lose the odd fish, but will definitely get more bites. On the other hand, wire is essential when livebaiting for mackerel. Use the brown single strand wire; 38lb is OK for the smaller mackerels, but use 58lb if targeting Spanish mackerel. Hooks are tied to the wire using a haywire twist. Use about 40cm of wire from a swivel to the first hook (big gun 4/0 or 6/0) and then about 15cm to the second hook (big gun 6/0 or treble 1/0). The top hook always goes through the nose so the bait faces into the current. I have also caught longtail tuna and cobia livebaiting with wire for mackerel.

School mackerel are available virtually all year, although there are seasonal variations in different parts of the bay. Spotted mackerel are best in January to June. Mackerel should be gaffed and quickly subdued with a priest/donger. All mackerel have extremely sharp teeth which I’d steer clear of. They make excellent eating if bled out and properly iced down.

Facts

Some GPS marks to get you started:

Western Rocks off the NW end of Moreton Island near Yellowpatch in 10-12m of water. This is a large area of coffee rock reef which can hold cobia, tuna, snapper and sweetlip. S 27 01 230, E 153 23 160

Curtin Artificial reef established in 1969 and located on a drop off from 15-25m. Contains about 20 wrecks and other materials on a sand bottom. Attracts a variety of pelagics. S 27.06.600, E 153.21.750

Four Beacons just to the south of Tangalooma now contain two tripod beacons and one pole-style beacon. S 27.13.868, E 153.20.146

More GPS marks are available at http://www.fishnet.com.au/information/gps.html.

Facts

Boat Ramps

Here is a brief guide to the boat ramps I use to access the Northern Bay.

Spinnaker Sound: 3 lane ramp with sand either side. Protected from wind and waves and suitable for large trailer boats.

Nudgee: Double lane ramp with pontoon. The channel that leads out into Moreton Bay is narrow and can be shallow on the bottom of a big low tide.

Fisherman Islands: Double lane concrete ramp with plenty of parking. There is room to beach a boat on all but the top of the tide. Larger boats may have difficulty getting under the Captain Bishop bridge to access the river at high tide.

Caloundra: There is a steep and narrow ramp next to the Coast Guard with a pontoon. Alternatively, there are two single lane ramps with beach either side at the Power Boat Club about 3km up the passage. The Caloundra bar is shallow and frequently breaks all the way across. It is not a difficult bar to cross, but like all coastal bars, it can be dangerous and local knowledge and experience with crossing bars is required.

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