When I found myself on Fraser Island and heard stories of its excellent reef fishing, I was a tad sceptical. The bottom fishing around my home waters of Central Queensland is varied and productive, and I figured Fraser Island was too far south for most of the species I was familiar with. The people who praised Fraser’s reef fishing, I told myself, were probably just easy to please.
Talk about having to eat humble pie…
My reality check began when I stopped to yarn to a party of blokes on Orchid Beach who were cleaning fish. On the cleaning board was a very sizable venus tuskfish and a nice red-throat emperor that I would be very proud to catch back in my home patch. Closer inspection revealed a bin almost full of assorted reef species.
The fish cleaners didn’t appear overly excited by their catch; my suggestion that they’d had a really top day was met with a grunt and nonchalant shrugs. They weren’t having a lend of me either. It turned out that this was just an average sort of catch by local standards. A good session, I learned, is when you catch big emperor or coral trout.
I soon discovered that offshore from Waddy Point there are significant areas of scattered hard and soft coral reef country and a couple of uplifts known as the Gardner Banks. These areas are home to just about all the species you’d expect to find on the Great Barrier Reef proper. About the only popular northern reefie that I haven’t heard of being caught off the Gardners is large-mouth nannygai. However, this is more than compensated for by the overlap of southern species like snapper and pearl perch.
A major contributing factor to the quality of fishing offshore from Fraser Island is the difficulty of accessing the area. You can’t just hook the boat onto the family car and drop it in at the local concrete boat ramp.
The first hurdle is getting your boat from the mainland to Fraser Island. Getting there by water is an option only for the largest trailerboats, and even then it’s not something I’d recommend. If the weather should suddenly turn sour, it’s an awful long way back to shelter in Hervey Bay.
So all boats need to be barged over to the island, then trailed across the island and up the ocean beach. But that’s the easiest part. One you reach Indian Head, you have to negotiate the infamous ‘sand blow’ and sand track through to Orchid Beach. That’s where many a planned trip has come to grief because of poor preparation and equipment.
Unless you are a seasoned 4WDer, willing to let your tyre pressures right down and have plenty of grunt under the bonnet and preferably a diff-lock, Indian Head may well be as far as you get. That’s a story in itself, however. Suffice to say, you need to do your homework if it’s your first time trailing your vessel over there.
If you finally get to Orchid Beach, don’t expect to find a nice concrete ramp. The only launching option is to drop your boat straight into the surf gutter behind Waddy Point. Extendable drawbars are recommended and you need to be prepared to completely drown your trailer. Bear in mind that even on calm days, there can still be quite a swell and shore dump to contend with. Teamwork, timing and speed are the essence of successful beach launches.
Those who know the Gardiners area well refer to it in two parts – the ‘North’ and ‘South’ Gardiners. The North Gardners is a large bank that starts about 14km offshore from Waddy Point. A bearing of 78 degrees will get you to middle of it. The banks come up to around 23m, so you'll know when you're there. On a clear day you can actually see the bottom on top of the banks.
The South Gardners lie roughly east from Indian Head and run south from there. The centre of the South Gardners is on a bearing of about 122 degrees and 22km from Waddy Point.
The east-west dimension of the Gardners varies depending on where you are, but it probably averages about 5km wide. The gap between the north and south banks is only about 500m, so it’s probably all the same bank. I assume there’s a sunken ridge of hard rock that the banks are built on.
The banks have patches of rubbly bottom interspersed with the coral, and these produce tuskfish and lippers in numbers.
Inside the banks proper, the depth drops down to around 35-40m and your sounder will reveal consistent areas of reef with patches of what I call ‘fern country’. This fern country is soft coral, often red in colour, and it can be a few metres tall even though it lies when the current is strong. Colour sounders show fern as a distinct colour (generally green or orange in my experience, but that probably depends on the brand of the sounder) and it’s easy to recognise once you know your sounder.
There are a few lumps and bumps out there as well, which are most likely pinnacles of rock covered in coral and fern. Most of these lumps are only 1-3m higher than the surrounding bottom, but we did stumble over one or two that were much higher. One in particular claimed a couple of my rigs as we drifted across it. These features attract fish just as they attract rigs, however, so it’s well worth taking the risk.
I’ve never fished out wider where the ‘shelf’ drop-off is, but locals tell me it’s a distinct line running south-north and is the eastern edge of the continental shelf. Now you're starting to get into some seriously deep water. Out there toward the drop-off, I’m told the depths are between 60m and 120m, and once you go over the edge – well, you can forget about trying to reach the bottom. The shelf is only about another 8km further east for the North Gardner, and the relationship between deep water and large fish seems to hold true. Some of the larger fish at each year's Toyota Fraser Island Fishing Expo come from out at the shelf.
The range of reef species taken from the Gardners and adjacent areas is equal to what you’d expect much further north. The quality of red emperor that come off these southern grounds is second to none. Fish better than 10kg aren’t that uncommon, and you’d have to be awfully hard to please if you thought that wasn’t right up there.
The average venus tuskfish is better than those I catch in Keppel Bay, and the largest specimen I’ve ever seen – close to 4kg – came from the Gardners. Red-throat emperor are a regular part of the catch, averaging better than 1kg and sometimes over 2kg.
But what sets the place apart for me is the relative abundance of huge green jobfish, weighing in at around 10kg.
Jobfish are ruthless predators and are therefore are susceptible to overfishing. In those areas along the coast that are relatively heavily fished, it’s rare to catch a decent jobby, so their presence on the Gardners is a good indicator of the relatively low fishing pressure in this area.
Coral trout aren’t in the numbers you’d expect on the Barrier Reef, but those caught are at the large end of the size range. Coronation trout, however, feature fairly regularly in catches off Fraser Island, in spite of the fact that they are a species which few people are keen to release.
Top all that off with a few big snapper out from Indian Head and from patches of bottom north of the North Gardners, plus rosy jobfish and pearl perch from out at the shelf, and your table will be graced by some of the best eating fish in the world.
The pelagic fishing off Waddy Point is noteworthy as well.
If you like wahoo fishing, you need go no further. These razor-toothed speedsters frequent the waters off Fraser in numbers, and fish around 20kg will test your skills and gear to the limit. Good Spanish mackerel also patrol these waters, and one of the favoured spots is not too far off Indian Head. The species list also includes cobia, monster amberjacks and billfish.
When planning a trip, winter is your safest bet. During summer it’s less likely that you’ll get a window of favourable weather, especially for boat launching. It’s a big effort just getting to Waddy Point, and you don’t want to arrive only to find the sea conditions are too rough to launch safely and fish in the exposed offshore waters.
During the winter the chance of getting a period of offshore winds is pretty good. The launch gutters behind Waddy Point are protected from the prevailing winter southwesterlies and the offshore sea conditions won’t be too bad, especially in the afternoons.
These days there is quite a settlement behind Orchid Beach, with numerous comfortably-appointed houses for rent. If your budget stretches to renting, one of these houses is the way to go.
If you’re happy to camp out on the beach, however, there are a couple of excellent camping options. Just remember that National Parks and Wildlife oversee the area and you’ll need a camping permit. Permits are available on site or on the mainland before you depart. You can camp right on the beach, or in the dedicated camping area near the ranger station at Waddy Point.
I rate Gardner Banks and the adjacent reefs as one of the better offshore reef fishing locations in Queensland. It does require a real sense of adventure and a well-planned expedition just to get there, but that’s why it’s still so good.
If you’re thinking about going to Waddy for the first time, try to recruit a mate who’s been there before, and go with another boat for safety. I wouldn’t recommend taking a boat any smaller than 5m because you’ll be fishing in totally unprotected waters. I’d be starting at 6m or bigger.
Fuel is available at the store at Orchid Beach but naturally it’s expensive. You'll need to compromise between dragging excessive weight in and buying supplies once you get there.
Overall, Fraser Island is a wonderful place, not just because of the quality of fishing but for its breathtaking scenery and remoteness. For a fishing holiday with a real difference, it’s hard to top.
1) An average red emperor from just inside the North Gardners.
2) Launching into the gutter at Waddy Point.
3) An impressive purple cod – a great tablefish.
4) A few of the many species of reefies caught off Waddy Point.Reads: 6171