Cairns Inlet
  |  First Published: December 2003

– getting on the right track!


LIVE baiting the Cairns Inlet in the cool of night can be great in December. I've been fishing ‘The Inlet’ for over 20 years and people often ask me about how to fish or where to fish the area, or they even tell me there are no fish there! However, while the Inlet is no Weipa or Karumba or Princess Charlotte Bay, I have caught (and seen other people catch) fish that are the equal in size of any of those remote destinations. Applying some basic techniques on a regular basis will soon bring you success and the development of your own ‘local knowledge’.

If you want to ‘wire’ the Inlet there’s no substitute for time on the water. If you fish often you can get a pretty good handle on the place in about a year. On every trip there’s something to learn and the more trips you make the sooner you’ll get results on a more consistent basis.


I’ve encountered around a hundred different species in the Inlet over the years and the key to catching quality fish like barra, fingermark, jacks, queenies, GTs, grunter and salmon is collecting good live bait or using fresh dead bait. It’s a must to be fairly proficient at using, say, a 7ft cast net to collect live prawns, sardines, mullet, mud herring and feather bream (silver biddies). Rinsing your bait frequently before placing them in your live bait tank is a good way to keep them alive and healthy for the duration of your trip.

When you’re planning your fishing trip decide whether to fish the flats or the mangrove snags, or perhaps the deep water structure in the many gutters and holes that make up this intriguing waterway. A sounder is essential!

A sound knowledge of fish habits only comes with experience but, to get you started, if you’re chasing grunter and salmon look for them on the flats, and work the mangrove snags and drains for jacks, barra, and pikeys. A general guide is to fish the Esplanade flats on the bigger tides and in the deep water for fingermark, salmon (occasionally) and many others. Fish the deep water on the slow moving neap tides and in particular the tide change periods.


Lure fishing in the Cairns Inlet can’t compare with some of the more well-known remote waterways of the tropical north but there aren’t many other places where you have such a nice fishing venue on the doorstep of a city the size of Cairns. My fishing clients were often amazed that within 5-10 minutes of leaving the city precincts at the Marlin Marina they were fishing and enjoying the tranquillity and scenery of this special mangrove wetland.

If you’re the sort of angler who desperately has to take home a meal each time you go fishing, baitfishing will probably give you a better chance of catching a feed. Lure fishing obviously has other challenges apart from a meal and the thrill of enticing a strike on a purpose-placed cast keeps you coming back for more. The strike to cast ratio may not quite be up to Weipa standards, but the same trophy-size fish are available here.

Lure fishing targets

First up mangrove jack and when in season barramundi are the two main targets. There are also trevally (GTs), queenfish, estuary cod, flathead, tarpon, pikey bream, fingermark, barracuda, Moses perch, catfish and occasional salmon. Many of these may be incidental to your intended target of jack or barra and indeed if you are chasing jacks right now then be prepared to release the odd barramundi. It would be fair to say that when luring this waterway you will return home empty handed often enough but if you fish regularly you will also enjoy enough success to keep your interest level satisfied.

Which lures work?

This is a subject that’s never-ending because lure technology continues to be refined and new brands emerge. I’ve taken fish on dozens of different kinds of lures and I recommend that you discuss this further with any of the excellent tackle stores in the area. To get you started, some successful shallow diving lures include Leads Highjackers, Gold Bombers, B52s and Husky Jerks. Some floating deep divers that I recommend are YoZuri Crankin’ Shads, Rapala Shad Raps (SR5 and SR8), Tilsan Bass and Barra, and 3in and 4in Leads Lures. I prefer small lures here as they have a higher strike rate.

The many different prawn variations such as Rios and Prawnstars are also becoming popular for jigging and flick-jigging. Lure selection is important but the way the lure is cast and retrieved is even more so.

How, where and when

Accurately placed lures right under the overhanging mangrove branches and up tight against the bank or any timber at the water’s edge is a good place to start. In short, get your lure as close to the cover as possible and keep it there as long as you can while working it in a slow twitching retrieve. This requires a lot of wrist action and I recommend braided lines for the extra control you get over the lure as well as the added advantages of its strength when fighting the fish in the structure and also retrieving lures caught in the branches.

A good starting plan is to cast lures to the upcurrent side of any snags or fallen branches lying in the water. We usually stealth along with an electric motor and work a bank, anchoring up and working the best looking structure with up to 20-30 casts.

There are hundreds of capture points in this waterway. Your best plan is to work a shallow mangrove bank to begin with. Choose a bank that’s no deeper than 5-6 feet at that time of the tide. When your techniques improve you can try working deeper lures on the steeper banks and snags. The eastern side of Admiralty Island on a neap tide or halfway down on a making tide is a good place to start. Slowly drift the edges with wind and tide.

I prefer luring the neap tides up to three or four days after the full and new moons in the Cairns Inlet, but the bottom half of the run-out and the first half of the run-in tide of any making tides leading up to a full or new moon are also worth a try.

It’s important that the current isn’t moving too fast, and also remember that noise and boat traffic will work against you. Try to choose a quiet area or get out extra early.

I hope these tips help you to pin a few fish. Till next time, Merry Christmas and good fishing.

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