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Charter fishing the Swain Reefs
  |  First Published: September 2004



WHAT DO a dozen or more blokes do on a boat for a week over 100 nautical miles off the Central Queensland Coast?

Fish, of course!

Since the 1960s, parties of enthusiastic recreational fishers have been chartering boats out of Gladstone predominantly, but also Rosslyn Bay and Mackay, to fish the most southerly section of the Great Barrier Reef – the area officially known as the Swain Reefs. This massive expanse of coral reefs in the middle of nowhere is usually just called ‘The Swains’.

Prior to the 1960s, the Swains hadn’t been fully explored, apart from the strip of bordering reefs along its eastern and western flanks. The early pioneers like Yeppoon’s Wally Muller ventured into the area very cautiously and basically had to draw their own charts of the internal structure as they went.

Those intrepid explorers found a vast maze of coral reefs stretching as far as the eye could see, and bristling with every species of reef fish imaginable. Catching a bin of coral trout in an hour was as simple as tying a piece of red cloth around a 6/0 hook with a bit of lead to give it some weight and dragging it around behind a dory on the end of a heavy mackerel troll line.

EARLY CHARTER

I reckon some of the early charter operators were commercial fishermen who figured it was just as easy to make money by taking other people fishing than to bust their backsides catching fish themselves.

In 1973, a mate and I heard about a deep sea fishing club that was looking for a couple of blokes to make up numbers for a four-dayer over Easter, and we put our names down without a second thought. We were both 17 years old.

The blokes from the club were typical deep sea exponents of that era. The first thing we noticed when loading our gear onto the boat at Auckland Creek Wharf in Gladstone was there were no rods, only 80lb breaking strain handlines. It didn’t take long for the old salts to line us up and lay down the law.

“We’re here to catch fish and everyone is expected to pull their weight. You better put as many fish in the bin as everyone else or we’ll toss those silly bloody rods overboard.”

That was pretty clear and we sheepishly replied, “Don’t worry. We will.”

Back then the majority of fishing was done by drift fishing from the big boat as they only carried one or, at best, two dories. There was a strict roster of who went in the dory and when, but everyone got a turn. We did take a handline each and dutifully used these when our turn came to go out in the dory, and we did catch as many as anyone else.

However, when we fished from the charter boat, we climbed up on the roof and fished with our rods over the top of the other blokes lining the rails. We had brought a few bags of frozen yorkie herring we’d caught in Rosslyn Bay Harbour and rigged them on ganged 4/0s with just enough lead to get to the bottom about 20m below. Every time the baits got near the bottom a trout or a big red-throat emperor would slam them. The blokes below kept seeing fish after fish being hauled up onto the roof.

Funny – pulling our weight wasn’t mentioned again.

When we figured we’d met our quota, we took the sinker off and floated the baits out the back. Yep, Spanish mackerel for the taking.

By the end of the trip the boat’s plastic bins were overflowing with fish, mostly coral trout averaging 1.5-2kg.

more recentLY

During the 1980s, the Swains charter industry really took off. Anglers came from all over the state and even New South Wales to fish this near pristine mass of reefs.

At the same time, there was a relatively small but active band of commercial reef line operators regularly fishing the Swains supplying the fillet trade.

Little had changed in the numbers of fish caught in the 1980s when compared to the 1970s. The majority of fish were still good-sized coral trout.

Reputable fishing magazines don’t normally publish photos of masses of dead fish because it’s not the fishing ethic we should be trying to promote. However, I have included one photo with this story dating back to 1983 of the sort of catch the Swains used to provide. It’s important for everyone to realise just what we’ve done to the resource in a relatively short time.

In the 1990s, someone discovered that some Asian countries would pay almost anything to get live reef fish, especially coral trout. Suddenly a just-legal trout, which was worth only a couple of dollars as fillets, rocketed to anywhere up to $60 as a live fish!

Many in the recreational fishing sector tried to raise the alarm with the state’s fisheries managers, saying we should be capping the effort before it got out of hand. But the response was, “No need to worry, the live fish trade will result in a decrease in total fish numbers caught because the individual operators won’t need to catch as many to make a lot more money.”

They couldn’t have been more wrong!

2003 TrIP

My most recent charter to the area was in October 2003. I was one of a group of 17 anglers, predominantly from Brisbane, who boarded the charter vessel in Gladstone for six days fishing at the Swains. For many in the party, it was their first experience at the fabled location and the anticipation and excitement was obvious.

I was pretty excited too, as there is no more wonderful place than the Swain Reefs. The lines of breakers on the horizon revealing the presence of one of the hundreds of individual reefs comprising the Swain Reefs, the calm lagoons inside many of the larger reefs where a vessel can shelter from the worst weather in relative comfort and safety and the occasional glint of sunlight reflecting off a mound of white coral sand on a cay, make this a unique and special place for me.

Most charters leave port in the late afternoon and steam through the night, so that when you yawn and stumble out on deck the next morning, there are those telltale breakers on the horizon heralding your arrival. We were very fortunate because the weather was near perfect and the trip out was as comfortable as it gets. I can assure you though that when it’s rough, it can be a very long night before you finally reach the calm waters inside the Swains.

We fished from four dinghies, with one roster fishing each session off the big boat doing drifts across the deeper water. Most of the party were very keen fishers and the dinghies worked morning and afternoon sessions every day for the six days. On most days we moved at lunchtime so we could fish a new location in the afternoon. At night after the evening meal, half a dozen of the fanatics lined the back rail of the big boat and fished for another couple of hours. This tactic did yield the only big red emperor of the trip, so if you did want to get a trophy red, that was how to do it. I was happy to sit back with a cold one and watch.

As far as other boats sighted went, we saw one live trout boat and three other charter vessels during the six days, but we did spend most of the time on the eastern edge of the reefs away from the crowd.

Rods, reels and gear

On this trip, none of the party fished with a handline – a massive change from what I’d seen previously. Everyone had a couple of rods on board and the only hand reel I saw was wound with leader material.

We fished three people to a dinghy, using pilchards, squid, yakkas and some yorkies I’d bought with me. Sets of two ganged 4/0 hooks were the most popular, though three ganged 4/0 hooks worked fine when using pillies.

The variety of rods and reels was enormous. Some of the inexperienced blokes found out the hard way that some of their outfits weren’t up to the task. The troops using spinning reels coupled with rods designed for casting found they had huge problems stopping the fish bricking them in the coral. We tended to fish the edges of the reefs in from 5-20m of water and unless you had the equipment to stop the fish in their tracks, the results were in favour of the fish.

A quality overhead reel matched with a stiff rod no more than 2m long is the most practical outfit. Those using lines with breaking strains of 10kg or less weren’t in the event.

I was surprised to see that I was the only one using braided line. I have religiously used 15kg braid for reef fishing for the last five years and there’s no way I’d go back to mono. My reasoning is that I can feel the bites much better and hook the fish early, giving me an advantage in getting them that critical couple of metres off the bottom before they realise what’s happening. Also, the zero line stretch with braid can be the difference between a fish using the stretch in mono to reach its hole and not making it, especially when fishing deeper water.

Rigs

When reef fishing, I use dropper rigs most of the time. I noticed most of the other blokes on the trip used either a sinker directly on top of the hook or a sinker above a half metre leader. Part of the organisation for that trip was a communal supply of terminal tackle that everyone used. They had 4000 hooks (4/0 and 6/0 for ganging) and buckets of various sized sinkers, mostly balls. I expressed the idea on the trip out as we ganged hooks together, that we had enough tackle for 10 trips. My remark was met with a polite smile from Greenie who’d done the organising.

The dinghy roster was designed to match different people together over the week. It was a good idea for social reasons and it also provided the opportunity for the less experienced fishers to watch and learn from those of us who supposedly knew what we were doing. It wasn’t too long before I figured out why they’d bought so much terminal tackle.

The snag bust-off rate of some of the blokes had to be seen to be believed. The combination of inappropriate outfits, very snag-susceptible rigs and inexperienced fishers conspired to see them snagged on every second drop. I reckon some of them spent more time re-rigging than fishing. Commercial reef fishers will tell you that ball sinkers are bad news in coral and they generally use bean-style sinkers. I agree with them.

My dropper rig consists of the standard snapper lead on the bottom with two hooks up the line. My snag rate during the trip was minimal; I went for a day and a half at one stage without losing a rig to the coral. Even on my worst day, I probably only lost three or four rigs to snags and one or two others to fish. The braid also helped me to keep in touch with what was happening down there and I was able to lift the rig off the bottom before it snagged most of the time. You might want to bear that in mind if you’re lucky enough to go out there.

Just for the record, after the first three days, we’d run out of small ball sinkers and at the end of the trip there were virtually no 4/0s left and only half a dozen boxes of 6/0s. I find that an incredible statistic, but obviously Greenie, who’d organised a few such trips before, knew what would happen.

I wouldn’t personally use ganged hooks out there because they are very snag-prone and I really don’t think their hook-up rate is any better than single hooks. Again, if you look at what the pros are using, it’s single 6/0s or even 8/0s in most cases.

Trip catch stats

We had 17 blokes on the trip who all fished every day for the six days available – 102 fishing days altogether. Under the new bag and size limits introduced in December 2003, that would have allowed a charter like ours to catch a maximum of 40 fish per person for the trip, or a boat total of 680 fish of the designated species.

Most members of reef charters want to take home a nice bundle of fillets, and view the success of the trip largely in terms of fish caught. Our total catch for the trip was 557 fish from the eligible species list. Averaging across the entire party, each person caught 33 fish for the trip, or a meagre 5.5 fish per person per day.

When you look at it that way, it’s hard to argue our catch was excessive. Back in the 1970s, I would have expected you'd be able to catch five fish per hour, every hour – even if you didn't know how to fish.

On the surface it appears that our party was well below the new catch limits, but when you look at our individual species catches, the picture changes dramatically.

Under the new rules, the bag limit per person for extended trips for coral trout is 14 fish and 16 red-throat emperor (lipper). So for a six-day trip like ours, we would be allowed to take 238 trout and 272 lipper. Our catch stats reveal that we actually caught only 87 coral trout in total, but 428 lipper. Theoretically, in the future on a similar trip, we we’d have to throw back 156 lipper to remain within the total bag limit for that species. That would reduce the total catch from 557 fish, back to 400 – or 3.8 fish per day each.

Coral trout were actually our prime target, but you can't catch them if they aren't there!

The future?

The Swains is nominally divided into three sections – the northern, middle and southern sections. Charter operators out of Gladstone and Rosslyn Bay generally fish the southern and middle sections, while Mackay boats tend to concentrate on the northern end. The easternmost edge gets fished only when the weather allows, and that isn't too often, so you'd expect those reefs to still hold better populations of fish than the more accessible ones. On our recent trip we managed to fish the eastern edge for three and a half days. So while our fishing wasn't great, I assume it was probably a lot better than if we had fished the central parts of the reefs.

The new reef line plan finally imposes a catch cap on the commercial sector, but I reckon it’s still pretty high and I believe we won’t see a coral trout recovery in the foreseeable future, given the low stock base that currently exists.

A lot of charter customers who visit the Swains are still primarily focussed on taking a lot of fish home. One charter skipper I know tells me he still gets phone calls from prospective clients who state quite openly that they want to "pay for their trip in fish". The skipper reckons he simply replies: "You'll need to find another boat to take you, then. We don't operate on that basis."

The same skipper tells me he is seeing an increasing number of parties focusing on sportfishing rather than ‘meat fishing’. These anglers are looking for a variety of fishing experiences, including trolling, jigging and popping over the bommies and reef edges. They still like to bring home a decent pack of fillets, but that's secondary to having a good time.

Another thing you absolutely must do if you go out to the Swains is to slip over the side in a reef lagoon with some snorkelling gear and swim around marvelling over the reef and its creatures. It really is underwater paradise out there. But if everyone else in the party just wants to fish all the time, it’s difficult to get the opportunity to snorkel. The solution is to organise the trip yourself and pick your companions who you know like to do similar things to you.

The cost of a Swains' charter isn’t cheap though; prices start from around $200 per person per day. Many potential starters baulk when they calculate that a six-day trip will cost them close to $1500 by the time they include some drinks and tackle.

I predict that catch controls and relatively low fish stock numbers will end up deterring many of the traditional ‘meat hunters’. In the short-term, that will hurt a lot of charter operators as bookings decrease, but the smart operators will actively promote a change of focus and start attracting a new clientele. Maybe some of the old salts running some operations may have to step aside for younger skippers with a different mindset regarding what the Swains has to offer.

[TABLES]

RAP green zone areas covering the Swains Reefs

MNP-21-1149Southern Swains including Wade (21-588), Jenkins (21-584) and Littles (21-589) Reefs
21° 55.461' S152° 36.615' E-21.92435152.61025
21° 55.461' S152° 40.435' E-21.92435152.6739167
21° 59.468' S152° 40.435' E-21.99113333152.6739167
21° 59.468' S152° 39.516' E-21.99113333152.6586
21° 59.841' S152° 38.853' E-21.99735152.64755
21° 58.815' S152° 37.789' E-21.98025152.6298167
22° 02.991' S152° 32.409' E-22.04985152.54015
22° 02.172' S152° 29.400' E-22.0362152.49
22° 01.191' S152° 25.794' E-22.01985152.4299
21° 58.776' S152° 25.794' E-21.9796152.4299
21° 56.994' S152° 27.601' E-21.9499152.4600167
21° 56.994' S152° 35.475' E-21.9499152.59125
21° 56.391' S152° 36.615' E-21.93985152.61025
MNP-21-1145Southern Swains: including Recreation (21-501), Detour (21-514), Small (21-517) and Turtle (21-519) Reefs
21° 31.422' S152° 31.320' E-21.5237152.522
21° 31.422' S152° 35.889' E-21.5237152.59815
21° 38.985' S152° 33.614' E-21.64975152.5602333
21° 40.704' S152° 33.614' E-21.6784152.5602333
21° 40.704' S152° 32.500' E-21.6784152.5416667
21° 44.954' S152° 31.893' E-21.74923333152.53155
21° 44.954' S152° 32.450' E-21.74923333152.5408333
21° 46.167' S152° 32.450' E-21.76945152.5408333
21° 49.758' S152° 27.645' E-21.8293152.46075
21° 52.035' S152° 22.536' E-21.86725152.3756
21° 52.692' S152° 20.058' E-21.8782152.3343
21° 55.019' S152° 16.922' E-21.91698333152.2820333
22° 00.001' S152° 14.354' E-22.00001667152.2392333
22° 00.001' S152° 12.000' E-22.00001667152.2
21° 58.734' S152° 12.000' E-21.9789152.2
21° 58.734' S152° 00.633' E-21.9789152.01055
21° 56.943' S152° 00.633' E-21.94905152.01055
21° 51.731' S152° 07.716' E-21.86218333152.1286
21° 46.938' S152° 12.411' E-21.7823152.20685
21° 45.258' S152° 14.058' E-21.7543152.2343
21° 44.295' S152° 15.000' E-21.73825152.25
21° 43.652' S152° 21.453' E-21.72753333152.35755
21° 42.563' S152° 24.402' E-21.70938333152.4067
21° 38.079' S152° 26.245' E-21.63465152.4374167
21° 38.079' S152° 30.072' E-21.63465152.5012
21° 34.188' S152° 30.072' E-21.5698152.5012
MNP-20-1122Eastern Central Swains
20° 19.700' S150° 59.121' E-20.32833333150.98535
20° 21.000' S151° 00.000' E-20.35151
20° 34.899' S151° 13.899' E-20.58165151.23165
20° 34.899' S150° 55.235' E-20.58165150.9205833
20° 31.929' S150° 50.688' E-20.53215150.8448
20° 24.754' S150° 50.688' E-20.41256667150.8448
MNP-20-1124Central Swains: Hardline to Marine Park boundary
20° 23.151' S151° 50.320' E-20.38585151.8386667
20° 59.910' S152° 55.060' E-20.9985152.9176667
21° 08.978' S152° 57.798' E-21.14963333152.9633
21° 08.978' S152° 48.000' E-21.14963333152.8
21° 08.978' S152° 41.656' E-21.14963333152.6942667
21° 04.777' S152° 41.656' E-21.07961667152.6942667
21° 04.777' S152° 35.843' E-21.07961667152.5973833
21° 09.048' S152° 35.843' E-21.1508152.5973833
21° 09.048' S152° 27.000' E-21.1508152.45
21° 14.977' S152° 27.000' E-21.24961667152.45
21° 14.977' S152° 07.788' E-21.24961667152.1298
20° 59.100' S152° 07.788' E-20.985152.1298
20° 59.100' S152° 18.300' E-20.985152.305
20° 52.178' S152° 18.300' E-20.86963333152.305
20° 52.178' S151° 25.200' E-20.86963333151.42
20° 55.777' S151° 18.000' E-20.92961667151.3
20° 59.337' S151° 16.200' E-20.98895151.27
20° 59.337' S150° 49.452' E-20.98895150.8242
20° 53.317' S150° 49.452' E-20.88861667150.8242
20° 53.317' S150° 41.448' E-20.88861667150.6908
20° 48.000' S150° 41.448' E-20.8150.6908
20° 48.000' S150° 48.000' E-20.8150.8
20° 48.000' S150° 49.681' E-20.8150.8280167
20° 48.000' S150° 51.630' E-20.8150.8605
20° 48.000' S151° 02.400' E-20.8151.04
20° 42.000' S151° 09.000' E-20.7151.15
20° 40.800' S151° 13.800' E-20.68151.23
20° 38.802' S151° 17.802' E-20.6467151.2967
MNP-21-1140Central Swains: adjacent to T-Line, including Riptide Cay Reef (21-172)
21° 07.716' S151° 37.206' E-21.1286151.6201
21° 07.716' S151° 52.842' E-21.1286151.8807
21° 16.818' S151° 52.842' E-21.2803151.8807
21° 21.597' S151° 45.003' E-21.35995151.75005
21° 21.597' S151° 42.009' E-21.35995151.70015
21° 17.422' S151° 37.206' E-21.29036667151.6201
MNP-21-1142Central Swains: north-east, including unnamed reefs 21-256, and 21-294 to 21-300
21° 15.871' S152° 36.292' E-21.26451667152.6048667
21° 15.871' S152° 38.950' E-21.26451667152.6491667
21° 23.040' S152° 33.720' E-21.384152.562
21° 24.840' S152° 30.720' E-21.414152.512
21° 21.720' S152° 26.040' E-21.362152.434

While every attempt has been made to ensure this information is correct, anglers planning to visit The Swains should still obtain a copy of the new RAP.

[CAPTIONS]

1) A coral trout catch from a trip to The Swains in 1983. That’s a lot of dead fish, but fishing ethics – and fish numbers – were different in those days.

2) Every morning and afternoon anglers were allocated their dories to allow better access to the reef edges.

3) A double hook-up of red-throat emperor taken on our charter trip in October 2003.

4) The author with one of half a dozen coral trout he caught on the trip.

5) The change from 300lb handlines to rods and reels has taken 30 years, but is now firmly entrenched.

6) Fishing off the mothership at night can produce sensational red emperor such as this.

7) The Swains is a massive complex of reefs and bommies, and small tenders allows access to better areas

8) The biggest red-throat emperor for the trip. It was taken on a live pike at night off the mothership.

9) Curly Button from Brisbane with a nice Swains red emperor.

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