WE ALL love heading out for a day on the reef, particularly when it’s so accessible in our part of the world. Most anglers bottom bash, mainly with the intent of catching a feed and this does provide some brilliant moments on the end of a stick.
Recently though, myself and Rosco Sheehan (writer in the local Line Burner publication) set ourselves a different task and to set out onto the reef to test a little theory or two. It entailed not one scrap of bait, just some lures, slices, soft plastics and flies. We were investigating a telltale sign on the water which we learnt while fishing the Lizard Island Game Tournament late last year.
We headed out to Tongue Reef some 18 nautical miles offshore, which is all so popular with the local fishing fraternity because of its quick accessibility and consistent fishing. We could have picked any reef but we chose this for its shallow grounds and the expansive area it covers with brilliant coral reef systems.
As we approached the edge we searched for activity on top of the reef and in particular for those little white birds, called terns. There are 30 odd varieties known to inhabit the area, and certain species turn up at various times of the year and inhabit sand cays for certain periods. Slight colourings under the wings and speckles can branch them into all sorts of categories. I’m not a bird expert but I do know that birds feeding on the surface means there are fish below. In this case, the little white birds feeding alone on top of the reef, or just on the edge of it, can mean only one thing: queenfish!
The next question is, what sort of queenfish are they? There are four types in the area that look similar but in this case it was narrowed down to either needleskin or double-spot. Both are found in similar sizes, roam in schools and can display the magnificent silver flanks with a vibrant backbone meshing together an amazing array of aqua blue and greens. The trick here is to look at the blotchy black spots on the sides. The needleskin has a single row of six to eight dots above the black lateral line with four to five dots just touching this distinctive line when first caught. The double-spot has a double row of six to eight spots, one above and one just below this lateral line. I talked to renowned guide Jamie Bietzel of On the Daintree Charters, who suggested the needleskin were more likely to be found inshore. So after all this we were sourcing the double-spot queenfish which, for some unknown reason, are followed by the white terns alone when close to the reef.
Why just these dainty birds and not the others, including dark varieties? I've asked the fishing experts and they have no real answer but that’s the way it is! Here are a few theories (the bird experts out there may be able to shed a bit more light too!):
• The white tern is camouflaged when hovering against a white cloudy background or bright blue sky above the shallow water;
• Due to their small size they don't need a big run up to plunge into the water – they can just duck in and out in quick spurts. Darker birds such as the booby are normally deep sea birds of opportunity and descending at a hundred miles per hour would see them with a broken beak as they ploughed into the coral only a few feet below;
• The terns may be the only ones with capable eyesight to pick up the camouflaged backs of the queenfish which would blend in so beautifully against a vibrant coral backdrop; and
• Possibly these species of queenfish feed close to the reef knowing potential bigger birds of prey cannot touch them.
These were just a few theories tossed around but by only those who had noticed this slight subtlety occurring on top of the reefs. The issue of the bait source was raised but I've seen these fish and the accompanying terns home in on bait from 1cm up to 8cm, so I believe this is not the reason why these two work in tandem.
Learning of this connection between terns and queenfish has really got me going. If only I could live on the Great Barrier Reef 24 hours a day, fish and really watch and take note on this topic!
On the day in question we caught and enticed a number of fish over a few hours on slices and fly rod. It was hot work in the in the blistering sun and humidity but it exceeded our expectations. These double-spot queenies are great value and they can gather in their droves when on song. They won’t jump but will strip your line at a good rate of knots. Speed is the key when retrieving. They are challenging, stunning to hold for a camera shot, and sensational to eat if bled first, iced and eaten that night.
Furthermore, always carry a light spinning rod with a 20-30g slice in the boat; it's the first thing I pack when heading anywhere offshore. So many reef fishermen come back and say they were within arm’s distance of a boiling surface – whether it be tuna, mackerel or queenfish – but they were armed with rigs meant to drop to the bottom. If only...!
Oh yeah, the reason why I first came about this experience initially was because these queenies make for the best swimming marlin baits as well!
1) The Little Eye in the Sky - check out the theory on top or near the reefs!
2) Watching the terns is a great way to get onto some queenfish.Reads: 740