Subtropical ring-ins turn up
  |  First Published: March 2008

For Sydney fishos, and most of NSW for that matter, the start to the Summer fishing season was rugged. We are experiencing a la Niña weather event which should bring lots of rain but the Weather Bureau reckons it should now settle down by.

Overall, it’s not a bad thing because the floods and big seas will boost the food chain and should equate to excellent fishing in Autumn and Winter.

Water temps have come back up to their normal levels of about 22° as I write and the fishing is improving daily.

We have seen a run of subtropical ring-ins in the form of cobia, samson fish and the very rare maori rock cod. Until recently I had seen only one of these beautifully painted tropical visitors to Sydney Harbour and, not knowing what it was, let it go.

A more recent capture of two in one day prompted me to keep one, get it identified and see what they were like on the plate. I sent a pic to a marine biologist mate who confirmed its ID and that they were edible. As for their culinary qualities – well, let’s just say that I won’t be releasing too many in the future.

I was lucky enough to spend a day on the water with Test cricketer Matt Hayden and world renowned chef Tetsuya Wakuda (rated in the top 5 internationally). Matt’s a bit of a foodie, recently releasing a couple of cookbooks himself, so most of the day was spent exchanging spanner crab recipes and discussing how we were going to cook our catch, rather than the controversial Test match the day before.

Tetsuya opened the innings on Middle Harbour with a beautiful flattie of about 3kg jigged up in deep water on a Tsunami plastic. The fish was later eaten raw after being filleted, skinned, thinly sliced, washed in icewater and dipped in soy, wasabi and plum paste.

From here we moved down the Harbour, where we picked up some squid, before anchoring on some structure near Shark Island. The kings weren’t too far away and Matt was first to hook up on a soft stickbait, despite our live squid baits swimming nearby. It was a nice fish but just under the new legal size of 65cm so we released it.

We ended up with six kings, including two keepers, before heading back to Tetsuya's restaurant in Kent Street where he converted the catch, including the fresh squid, into a culinary treat beyond description.

On other fronts, the king fishing has been spectacular. Stacks of gar extending from South Head to Watsons Bay have lured in hordes of kingies with some whoppers to 10kg among them.

Fresh and live squid are still the No 1 bait for the big fish but because the kings are generally chasing gar, 6” and 9” soft stickbaits are working a treat.

Most of the deep reefs including Dobroyd, Tailors Bay and Quarantine Bay are producing plenty of samson fish on cut squid. Most of them are being picked up as by-catch of king fishing but if you let your baits fall closer to the bottom (not on the bottom ) then you stand a better chance of picking up a samson.


The use of downriggers has increased in popularity dramatically over the past few seasons but from what I am seeing on the Harbour, most fishos have misinterpreted the purpose of a downrigger.

When it comes to finding fish like kingies, a downrigger combined with a GPS ,a good colour sounder and a live squid is the most effective combination available. You can cover a lot of ground with your bait presented at the right depth.

But it is a poor fishing technique per se. It’s loud, cumbersome and clumsy. The wire sings in the water, there’s slack line after the strike, time is wasted setting up again after a strike, you’re usually limited to two rigs, there’s almost inevitable tangling of the wire round the prop and you have to stop the boat and retrieve the weight while dealing with the hooked fish at the same time.

Unless you have a very expensive electric-retrieve downrigger, it’s really a two-person job. As I said, a rigger is a top fish-finding technique and all the drawbacks are justified when it’s used for this purpose. Unfortunately, this is not what I am seeing it being used for on the Harbour.

I’ll give you an example of what I have witnessed at least a dozen times this season.

I’ll be anchored on structure that I know to be holding fish because we are catching them. The downrigging brigade, for one reason or another, become alerted to the fact that fish are sitting on the structure. Within 15 minutes there will be anywhere from one to six boats circling my boat like Indians around a wagon train, easily within casting distance – believe me, I’ve been tempted.

I’ve had them pick up my anchor rope and my bait lines. The wire noise, commotion and boat shadow of even two boats continuously downrigging a specific area will shut the fish down quickly.

In the end everyone loses out. I’m hearing similar complaints from other guides on the Harbour and old-time locals on Pittwater, so this is not just limited to my experience. I know that Justin Duggan of Sydney Fly Fishing tours has had a number of hot sessions ruined under similar circumstances.

So here’s the rap: Down rigging is a great fish-finding technique but a poor and even detrimental method for fishing once the fish are located.

When you have found the fish, drop the anchor, retrieve the downrigger and fish straight under your boat as normal.

If you keep hauling that wire and bomb through a school you will shut them down. Your moving boat shadow and engine noise are contributory.

If you decide to go against my advice, that’s your choice but at least have the courtesy to keep plenty of distance between yourself and the boats that are doing the right thing. I’m talking at least a 30m clearance and preferably 50m.

Thank you in advance for your consideration.

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