Deep fingermark, shallow grunter
  |  First Published: November 2003

INSHORE fishing in November is a great month to target fingermark. As the summer progresses big fingermark are found more in all of the local estuaries and deep holes of our river systems. One theory is that these big fish come in to spawn in November.


In the Cairns Inlet there are many fingermark (spotted scale sea perch) locations, including out from the sugar terminal, out from tropical reef slipway, opposite the navy base on the eastern side of the inlet, deep holes of Smiths Creek, the entrance to Redbank creek and of course the deep water up towards the bark hut. Any of the deep water in other local waterways like the Daintree River, Russell Heads, Mourilyan Harbour, Kings Point and the Cairns Harbour Entrance Leads are worth a try. I’ve caught fish at the latter two spots on the full moons, while most of the other spots fire up better on the smaller tides associated with the neap tides after full and new moons.

In the rivers and estuaries, if you’re not sure where to fish just find the deepest water you can and look for patches of soft coral with your sounder – or any deepwater snags such as sunken trees or old ballast heaps. In the old days the ships used to come into port and often unload ballast (weight) from their hold. This ballast and other unwanted material often consisted of rocks or iron, and when it was dumped in the deep holes it eventually resulted in small artificial reefs and corals which make good holding structure for fish.

Fishing these deepwater spots with good live baits is sure to eventually nail a fingermark or two. You can catch them night and day, although for night fishing I prefer nights with not much moon about. The smaller neap tides definitely produce better, so work the quarter moons for these fish. The best times are on the tide changes. Quality fish are captured on both low and high water changes – just be in position well before so that your baits are in the right position an hour either side of the change.

Bait and rigs

Live baits like mud herring, prawns and feather bream work a treat for fingermark, as do mullet and large greenback herring. If you can catch live squid they are also perfect. Don't forget that these fish are Lutjanids (the same family as large-mouth nannygai, red emperor, mangrove jack etc.) and will also take quality dead baits.

The rig used to present the bait can be either a running ball sinker onto a swivel above a mono leader, say 50cm of 45lb Schneider, with a 5 or 6/0 hook or a dropper rig. The usual rule of just enough lead to hold bottom applies, and of course hook size also varies according to the size of bait. One rule definitely applies to fingermark and that is ‘the bigger the bait the bigger the fish’. Take the trouble to use quality sharp hooks. Fish your reel in strike drag and don’t strike until the rod has buckled over. I prefer the running sinker method and recommend a medium to heavy 2m fast taper rod with a soft tip.

Fisheries biologists have found that the fingermark (Lutjanus johnii) is a very slow growing fish and around here they do reach their maximum size of around a metre. Research has shown that these large fish are about 30 years old and during November and December are quite likely breeding. Astute fishos who catch these big breeders will get a quick picture before putting them back to do their breeding thing.


Grunter are another excellent eating fish which can be readily taken at this time of year on our tropical coast. The grunter here aren’t as big nor common as their cousins in the Gulf but they’re still the same fish. The Cairns Esplanade flats are well worth a try, particularly the shell grit patches over near the mouth of Saltwater Creek. Your best chances on grunter are to fish either side of the top of the tide and preferably the making tides leading up to the full and new moons.

Fresh or live prawns and yabbies and fish fillet strips work very well, although the bigger fish will readily take a live bait such as a mud herring or a sardine. Grunter have small mouths and can be gentle on the bite and tend to suck the bait in, so allow the fish plenty of time to swallow the bait before you strike. Use a 1/0 or 2/0 hook with about 50cm of 15kg mono leader below a swivel and just enough lead to hold bottom for the tidal run. I usually use 4-6kg mono on a quality spinning reel with a smooth drag when I’m grunter fishing, and a rod with a soft tip is desirable. Big grunter up to 70cm will test your tackle, so be patient and make sure you have your drag properly adjusted.

The warm weather has hit with a vengeance to prolong the draught-like conditions we’re experiencing up here in the supposed wettest part of Australia. Once again we’re pondering the consequences of another failed wet season. If this occurs it will be the third year in a row in which our fish stocks haven’t experienced the rejuvenating effects of summer flood rains.

The water levels in all local reservoirs continues to fall, with Tinaroo Dam now getting closer to the record low of 28% capacity it reached in 1991. It is pretty scary to think about what it could be this time next year if we have no significant summer rains.

Till next month, see you on the water and let’s pray for rain. Send her down, Huey!

1) David Mayes shows off a fine grunter. These are one of his favourite fish both on the table and on the rod and reel.

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