Desert fishing in the tropics
  |  First Published: July 2004

TRADEMARK southeasterly winds have struck our coastline, making the fishing spasmodic. Hopefully by July the weather may have settled, providing plenty of opportunities for bluewater assaults.

Reef fishing is delivering good returns of nannygai, coral trout, cobia and Spanish mackerel when the weather is fine, but only with a bit of run in the tide. Our foreshore is providing whiting, swallowtail dart, flathead, queenfish and trevally in solid numbers, but again, only when the weather is calm and leading up to the full or new moon.

The rivers and creeks are consistently running well with bream, grunter, sicklefish, sand bass, queenfish, trevally, smaller mangrove jack and some reasonable estuary cod. Many angling pursuits in recent times have had to dabble in this arena. When the weather isn’t blowing the queenfish are of better quality and the trevally pack a bit more punch, particularly at the river entrances. In a nutshell we hang on the weather forecast at this time of year and when the fishing is good you can assure the weather is sitting below 15 knots.

However, the following is an interesting tactic which can be performed whether it be calm or blowing the dog off its chain. You can almost guarantee at this time of year there will be little rain, allowing you to fish more laterally.

The full moon period in July and August can open up a whole new world for those with a sense of adventure. The biggest low tides of the year occur  and the water on the coastline literally drops away into the deep blue ocean. The flats and beaches turn into deserts of sand and exposed coral reefs, and in certain locations this drop in water can go for kilometres out to sea. With some thorough planning you can walk out across these basins and find the fish in their droves.

The best locations for this are south of the Mowbray River, starting at Yule Point, and north of the Mowbray River, starting at the bottom of Four Mile Beach. The Four Mile option can take you farther out to sea, but you need to have your wits about you. You must know how the gutters drain and how the water will run back in. You’ll be in all sorts of strife if you get stranded on the turn of the tide, so don't make the attempt if you don't know the area.


Firstly some safety pointers: never do it alone, make sure everyone is wearing a watch, carry an EPIRB, a mobile phone, flares, first-aid kit and a torch, as you just never know. Before you set out, let someone know exactly where you’re going. Ideally, someone should wait for you on the foreshore – they can always pass the time reading a good book. They should bring a pair of binoculars to keep an eye on your progress and have a mobile phone for any emergencies.

Take only the essentials – one rod, a backpack with minimal gear, water and footwear such as diving boots or strap sandals. The footwear may come handy if you come across a bit of rough terrain, and if you need to move quickly on the return tide you want to have as little gear as possible.

Lastly, an old bike is very handy for travelling from the Four Mile starting point. The sand flats are firm, and a bike will allow to return in quick time.

Double check your tide tables in July and August but the best time to do this is around the full moon, and the lowest low tides bottom out in the early afternoons. High tides peak around mid-morning and the best thing to do is walk out with the tide as it drops – this way you can take note of how the water drains across the landscape so you’ll have an idea of how it will return. At the same time, flicking a lure or fly as you go in the draining gutters and channels can be very productive, especially for big flathead.

As you travel out with the water, make big marks in the sand every 20-30m. This will give you a quick route home so you won’t end up meandering across the flats. If you are super organised you could carry and place small flag poles which can be collected on the way back. Always keep looking back as you follow the tide out and always have your bearings back towards your starting point. It may take you a couple of hours to reach some serious gutters draining full of bait and fish life, and you should never cross these unless you are super sure they will drain out completely. They could become a trap.

At the deeper sections you will find explosive activity. At this time of year the sun is high in the sky so you need to use stealth. Lighter coloured clothing helps, and you should approach the water as if it were an oasis in the desert. Creeping up on the belly is always a good approach to a deep gutter or channel. With polarised sunglasses you'll be surprised at what you'll see below. Trevally, queenfish, tarpon, barracuda, longtom and flathead are just some of what you can expect to see carving up the scene.

Go for small lures and flies, as the bigger bait will have dispersed well before this caging in. What’s left is mostly small baitfish, which always hang as close to the sand as possible. Having said that, always carry a popper or slightly bigger lure just in case a big predator has hemmed in a sizeable school of garfish or mullet. I usually start with a gold Bomber if luring or a white Deceiver if flyfishing, and downsize or upsize as I see the bite occurring.

Half an hour before low tide is the time to start heading back. You could push it to the limit before you see the tide move back in, but this is careless. The tide rips back in at a rate of knots, and there’s no worse feeling than having to cross gutters or channels waist-deep in this neck of the woods. There’s always the risk of a run-in with a croc.

Leading up to these periods, I recommend making a couple of practice runs following out with the moderate tides to moderate distances. This way you will become more familiar with your environment and get a feel for this type of fishing. It's different fishing and is quite adventurous. It will fill in a full day if you’re organised, and you will see our coastline in a totally new light! Being a kilometre or two out to sea, looking back at our stunning sands and rainforest mountains, is a memorable moment. Hopefully, you'll have a fish or two in the bag as well.

1) Following the dropping tide can produce all sorts of goodies, such as this sharky tarpon.

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