Pelagic Playground
  |  First Published: February 2003

FISHING at this time of year is usually pretty slow in these parts, especially if we get that stuff called flood rain. However, the one bright spot is always the offshore pelagic scene.

Bait schools should be turning up in Keppel Bay, closely followed by a range of surface feeders, including mackerel tuna in huge numbers, the hard-slugging longtail tuna, Spanish mackerel and cobia.

Depending on the amount of freshwater in the bay (assuming we get more rain), the bait will hang just east of the discoloured water. That line of water can be just to the east of Great Keppel Island in a normal year, or out around Barren Island in years of big Fitzroy River flooding. If it fails to rain the bait will move quite close inshore – even coming inside the Keppel Group of islands – and the big fish will be right with it.


The most targeted and most likely catch at this time is Spanish mackerel. Spanos frequent Keppel Bay all year round, but increase in numbers in Summer. The average size is generally a little smaller than during the Winter months, but the odd monster always comes along just to keep you honest.

The most popular and accessible spots for Spanos in the bay are the series of islands east of Great and North Keppel Islands. East of North Keppel Island you’ll find Outer Rock, which consistently produces good Spanos. The current line that forms off the south-eastern tip of the island is the pick of the places, but fish also hang along the northern face from time to time.

Ten minutes out from the northern end of Great Keppel Island are the Man and Wife Rocks, which are nearly big enough to be called islands. The narrow passage between the two rocks is quite navigable, and I troll through it on occasions. The most reliable areas for Spanos around these rocks are along the eastern faces and off the north-eastern end, where a fairly large bit of bottom comes up a few metres from the surrounding country.

Around 10km east of Great Keppel you’ll find the impressive granite monolith of Barren Island. Just separated from Barren by a deep channel to the east is Child Island. In this article I’ll treat these two as a single entity.

Barren has traditionally delivered larger fish than the other two locations, but the downside is that it’s also home to a pack of Spaniard-eating sharks. On some days it’s impossible to boat a hooked fish around Barren, and the smart angler will stop fishing at this point and try somewhere else instead of killing more fish just to keep the shark pack fed.

The best locations are the channel between Barren and Child and the area immediately east of Child Island. There’s close to 30 metres of water around Child – the deepest water in the bay – and that’s probably why the larger fish tend to frequent the area.

If you look further south from Barren you’ll see another lump on the southern horizon: Egg Rock. This is a Green Area (no fishing) under the Marine Park Zoning, so keep clear of this rock unless you want to have a great dive.

Spanish Tactics

Most people have cottoned onto trolling big baits for Spanos, and common baits include Watson’s bonito, ribbonfish, yellowtail pike and big three-by-two gar. Rig your baits on a series of ganged hooks and troll at absolute idle speed. Depending on how deep the fish are hanging, you’ll need to weight your baits to get them down into the strike zone. Watch the trolling patterns others are using, and slot into a place that won’t interrupt them. Otherwise you’ll soon find out how expressive Spanish fishers can be!

The tried and true method of floating out pilchards from an anchored or drifting boat will also get you hooked into Spanos, but it tends to target a smaller range of fish. Trolling lures works well on occasions, but it’s not the done thing when there are other boats working the same area. Trolling lures generally requires a speed of between four and five knots, so only give it a go if you have the place to yourself.

The other very successful (but physically taxing) method is jigging. This involves dropping a big heavy metal lure down to the bottom and winding it madly back to the surface. When the Spanos are thick or lying close to the bottom and ignoring other baits, jigging can get them going. It’s a great way to have a workout while fishing, and is certainly a buzz when a fish nails the speeding lure on the way up.


These incredibly hard fighting fish can turn up almost anywhere, often swimming right up to your transom to check you out. But there are spots in the bay where you’re more likely to find cobia than elsewhere.

Outer Rock accounts for cobia regularly during the hotter months, and I’ve seen some absolutely unstoppable monsters out there. Lisa Jane Shoals towards the southern end of the bay is also a cobia hot spot. These fish will take a lure, but they much prefer a large bait. If you’re set up to fish big live baits, you’re almost guaranteed to connect to a big cobia at Lisa Jane or up north around Flat and Perforated Islands.

Smaller versions often show up around the Keppel Islands, with places like Forty Acre Paddock and Square Rocks being reliable spots for fish weighing up to 5kg.


Both mackerel tuna and longtail tuna frequent the bay this time of year in large, visible feeding schools. Many inexperienced fishos get very excited at the spectacle of surface-feeding tuna and report that ‘the bay is full of mackerel’.

These tuna are feeding on schools of silver anchovy-type things between 20-30mm long, and will ignore a conventional lure tossed at them. If you want to get connected you’ll need to use a small chrome lure the same size as the baitfish. You’ll also need a very high speed reel capable of skipping the lure across the surface. When you have the right equipment it’s a major adrenalin rush to see the fish crashing your skipping bit of metal as it jumps back across the water.

The tuna schools are constantly on the move following the bait schools, and they pop up and down all over the place. You can burn an awful lot of fuel chasing them all over the ocean on some days. The best trick is to try to work out the general direction they’re working in, then quietly manoeuvre your boat into their path a few hundred metres ahead and cut your motor. If you get it right they’ll feed right up to you, and then it’s simply a matter of hurling your lure into the middle of the foaming frenzy and crank like hell!

The same technique applies to feeding longtails. The most important thing is to match your lure to the bait they’re feeding on.

A day on the pelagics is great fun, and if nothing else it will teach you how to ‘lift and wind’ properly. I recommend you use at least 10kg breaking strain line for targeting pelagics, or even 15kg braid – but remember that braid has zero stretch and you might find that you wished the line had some stretch after 10 minutes on a big longtail. Better than a heavy weights workout at the gym!


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