February is a great time of year up here, with the barramundi season opening and the fingermark and mangrove jack feeding actively in the heat.
In addition to this, pretty well every offshore species worth chasing is on the chew. Anglers who have made the effort and copped an ordinary trip in the chop have been reaping the rewards.
The wind usually gives us a caning in February, but sometimes if you bite the bullet and head out when it’s a little rough, the fish can be waiting. There are fewer boats on the water and the fish don’t seem to worry if there is an average sea running. Just don’t be silly, make sure your rig will handle the conditions and pay attention to forecasts for local waters. You should leave home well before daylight for best results and a better trip.
Big cod are being caught in numbers, but it’s best to release these big breeders as they play a large part in maintaining the health of the reef ecosystem. There are much better eating fish around anyway. Smaller cod in the 4-6kg class can taste great when treated properly. Bled on capture, filleted and skinned with the bloodline removed, they are up there with any of the better eating species. Cod are the vacuum cleaners of the system, removing the bigger lumps of dead fish, and they’ll take just about every bait thrown at them. Unfortunately, this makes them an easy target for overfishing.
There have been trevally caught in many areas of late, up the beach and around the islands. The Keppels come to the fore in summer, with a host of species easy to find and probably a little harder to land. The clear waters make the islands perfect for anglers who want to sight fish for the big queenfish and trevally (golden, bludger and tealeaf) that haunt all the beaches around the Keppels.
The schools of bait that usually hang around the beaches of the islands have been more spread out than normal, but if you can find the bait schools you can bet that the queenies and trevally aren't too far away.
These shallow water speedsters will take livebait and lures. They hesitate at dead bait, although fresh dead hardiheads can work if nothing else is available. Livebait consists mainly of greenback herrings and hardiheads, both of which can be caught in a cast net without too much trouble.
Hook your baits through the eye socket just above the eye without poking it out. They will stay on the hook and struggle like crazy, drawing the attention of passing predators. If the herrings and hardies are too small, try putting two or three at a time on about a 3/0 suicide hook below a 40cm 10kg leader and a pea sinker.
Virtually any chrome lure has the potential to snare one of the chosen species. Pegrons, Flashas and Bumpa Bars are as good as anything around. Varied retrieval and jigging techniques can nail these critters when livebaits aren’t available.
We’ve been getting an extraordinary amount of squire (small snapper) in the bay in areas unheard of in previous years. It could be because the yellow zones are stopping the trawlers from working the coastal rubble patches, or because the banana boats haven’t nailed all the prawns. Anyway, by next year we’ll know for sure.
There’s also a heap of redfish at many of the reefy patches right in very close and out near the islands. Red emperor and red jew have been coming into depths of less that 12m, which is something not seen until recently. Many of them are just legal or just undersize, with a quite a few bigger quality fish among them. Make sure you have a measuring device, tape or sticker on board. The legal length of red jew (small-mouth and large-mouth nannygai) is 40cm, and the bag limit is nine fish per person in possession, not per day.
Red emperor are 55cm with a bag limit of five. The quantity around at the moment means you don't have to wait long between bites or throwbacks before the keepers move in.
Prawns, squid, pillies and strips of flesh baits are the choice of reds, and these fish definitely prefer fresh over stale. The amount of fish is giving us the chance to try more methods. Wobblers and rubber-tail jigs draw in the fish when the school is feeding. Berley will hold the fish in the right area long enough for you to work lures past their noses. Even little fellas put a great fight on 4kg mainline until the dolphins arrive.
Places like Rita Mada, Iron Pot and Forty Acre Paddock have shown an amazing transition over the past month or so and are continuing to turn out more reefies than ever.
Tuna and bonito have been thick in the bay at times and the bait schools are everywhere. The majority of bait is small 35-40mm whitebait, so finding the right lure can be an effort. After trying just about every chrome lure ever made to nail a tuna we found that small white and red feather jigs did the job.
When chasing tuna, sneak out wide of the school in the direction they are travelling and wait for them to pass. Another ploy is to let the jig down close to the bottom before retrieving, as this gives them longer to pick it up. We found that tuna don’t fall for jigs unless you’re using a high-speed reel.
Some of the tuna in our waters at the moment are as big as they get; one northern blue that left the water next to the boat was over 1.5m (5 foot).
Mack tuna are also in big numbers around the Keppels, and these little buggers fight like steam trains on most size tackle outfits. Again, the hardest part is getting them to take a lure when they are feeding on very small whitebait. Keep a mack tuna for bottom bait. With their deep red oily flesh, they work better than most other flesh baits and stay on the hook pretty well.
As for northern blues, they taste great on the BBQ when you cut them thin, remove the bloodline and marinate the flesh in a typical BBQ-style marinade.
1) Simon Meehan with a cod from Keppel Bay
2) There are plenty of nannygai and red emperor at many of the reefy patches in close and out near the islands.
3) Scott Rice with a northern bluefin tuna.
4) James Bell caught this early season doggie mackerel in Keppel Bay.Reads: 747