Red Denizens of the Deep
  |  First Published: April 2003

THE MIDDLE of autumn isn't usually one of the most prolific times of year as far as fishing goes. Summer species such as barra, jacks and fingermark slow down at this time and it's too early for our winter visitors like snapper and blue salmon to make an impact. But all is not lost!


One area that does fish quite well this time of year is the wide offshore reef grounds, locally known as ‘Red Country’ or ‘The Ferns’. It's not a specific piece of water, but rather a description of the type of bottom favoured by prized fish such as red emperor and large-mouth nannygai. This sort of country extends over a very large area off the coast once you get east of Keppel Bay. There's a large expanse of good bottom east of Cape Capricorn, and then scattered patches all the way heading north until it gets more constant again north-east of Flat Island and Cape Manifold.

The average depth of water in which you can expect to find fern is 40m to 60m. Sometimes your sounder will show rises off the bottom of a couple of metres that seem to come and go, and can be a real trap for young players. What you're seeing is the red fern soft coral standing up when the tide is slack, then being pushed over as the current increases. Hence the ‘there one minute, gone the next’ effect.

Scattered across this vast area are individual ‘prickles’ – rock outcrops covered in fern. These outcrops can be up to 5m high, and if you find one you'll usually find some fish. A colour sounder will show you whether the bottom you're over is red fern or something else, and a GPS is handy for revisiting your favourite prickles.


There are two ways to fish this type of country – anchoring and drift fishing.


Staying put is easier said than done in such deep water when you're trying to position yourself over an area no bigger than a house. If you use a reef pick and succeed in hooking it onto the prickle itself, by the time you let out enough rope to hang on you'll find you're sitting 10-20m off the prickle – well away from the concentration of fish.

Some folk risk using a large Danforth-style anchor and try to anchor ahead of the prickle so that they’ll end up hanging right over the top of it. Things can be very productive if the anchor grabs into the sandy bottom around the prickle, but if it doesn't get a hold and drifts on to the prickle it's often bye-bye anchor.

Drift Fishing

The more common method is to pinpoint the desired spot and immediately drop over a marker buoy. Once you've got the prime spot marked with the buoy it's fairly simple to figure out the drift, taking into account wind and current, and to position your boat so that it drifts right over the top of the prickle.

On each drift there’s only a fairly small window of opportunity as the lines pass across the strike zone. However, when you get it right, you can pull a couple of fish on each drift. It sure beats trying to heave a heavy anchor up out of 50 metres of water! That's when it's good to be the skipper, not the deckie.


The really serious fern fishers have their boats decked out with Alvey deck winches, which make fishing in deep water much easier on the fisher. Some other anglers still battle with 80lb handlines, while the more sporting-minded use overhead rods and reels.

The terminal end of things can vary a lot. Some people prefer the dropper or snapper rig with the sinker on the bottom, while the more conventional rig – hook on the bottom with sinker either directly on top of the hook or up the line a bit above a big swivel – is still the rig of choice for others.

Bait is also a matter of personal preference. Good old frozen squid is a reasonable standby, but fresh bait will always outfish frozen bait. Big red emperor are very partial to a meal of fish and prefer a large bait that they can wolf down. Big baits also tend to put off the inevitable little ‘pickers’ (or ‘piranhas’, as I like to call them). A slab of fillet from a whiptail or iodine bream will do the trick, but a live whiptail will get their attention too. Both red emperor and large-mouth nannygai (red jew) will take a pilchard, but that wouldn't be my bait of choice.


Both red emperor and large-mouth nannygai are members of the Lutjanus line of fish. Others in the family include mangrove jack, hussar and red bass. Pretty well all of these species favour night time hunting, but they do feed during daylight as well, especially in deeper water.

Local anglers make excellent catches of reds regularly on the fern country during the daylight, but those willing to sit it out at night beyond the sight of land often get to experience the real, wild action.

One negative this time of year though, is the high risk of long periods of strong south-easterly winds. Official records show that autumn in Central Queensland is the windiest time of the year – so even though the fish may be out there waiting for you, the weather may have other ideas!


There have been some huge red emperor being caught out wide recently. I've seen fish around the 15kg mark both in recreational bags and among commercial catches. A red this size is a very imposing fish and packs a hell of a punch on the end of your line.

While populations of many of our favourite species are in decline, the red fish seem to be holding their own. Catches are remaining solid, and there are good numbers of juvenile reds on the shallower inshore reefs. What’s saving the red emperor is probably the fact that they often forage in very open tracts of ocean floor among the sponges and scattered soft corals where anglers seldom fish. That habit seems to afford them a fair amount of protection from being targeted relentlessly, and hopefully should see these fish survive in good numbers well into the future.

1) This XOS red emperor was taken on the Fern Country by Brian Fleming from Sea Breeze Marine on the Capricorn Coast.

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