Safe sportsfishing in small boats
  |  First Published: December 2005

Regular readers of QFM will be aware that most of my fishing takes place from a small boat. To be precise, a 4.4m Stessl tinny powered by a 50hp Mariner outboard.

So far, the Stessl has had everything from bass and yellowbelly to Spanish mackerel and snapper come aboard and it has proven to be a very versatile craft. The fact that it has been successfully used everywhere from the upper reaches of Cania Dam to the numerous reefs off the coast of Bundaberg and 1770 gives you some idea of just how much I ask of the boat and how much confidence I have in its performance.

Now before you go questioning the sanity of taking a small open boat into offshore waters, you have to realise that we don’t do that every day. It doesn’t happen very often, except when conditions are perfect and we are able to plan the trips and all but eliminate the chance of getting caught out by the weather. There is always a danger of course, but we do everything possible to minimise the likelihood of our offshore trips going pear-shaped.

That said, it does illustrate that with some simple planning and the relevant safety precautions, a small boat can open up some pretty amazing sports-fishing options for central Queensland anglers. While a big boat is nice, a smaller, more versatile boat makes a lot of sense. It also costs a lot less to run in these days of exaggerated petrol prices.

Safety First

Before you take a small boat, or any sort of boat outside the safety of sheltered waters, you need to make sure all the relevant safety gear is onboard. Life jackets, flares, V sheet, signalling device, a waterproof torch, anchor and rope, bailer (bilge pump), drinking water and oars (or an alternative means of propulsion) all apply, but you also need to have an EPIRB if you are going to be more than 2nm offshore. You must also carry a compass and chart of the area.

Some form of communication is also a valuable bit of equipment. We don’t regularly go more than 6nm offshore, so we find that we still get mobile phone coverage in most of the places we fish. Unfortunately, once you start going any further out, you run the risk of losing the signal and there are many areas along the coast, even tucked right in against the surf breakers, where a mobile phone won’t work. As it would be dangerous, not to mention downright stupid, to head that far offshore without some form of communication a VHS radio should be considered compulsory. VHS units are very competitively priced these days and there is simply no point putting your safety at risk for as little as a few hundred dollars. Make sure you get the relevant training and qualifications needed to operate marine radios too. It will save your life one day.

Your boat and motor should be in first class condition before even attempting a trip offshore. Outboards are like cars, they need to be tuned and serviced regularly to perform at their best. They also run best when being used on a regular basis. My advice is to never go far from home in a boat that hasn’t been used for some time, as something is bound to go wrong. For some strange reason, rust and corrosion seem to develop much faster when boats are left sitting on a trailer! It is also a good idea, where possible, to make any trip offshore in the company of other boats, if only for the peace of mind an extra craft provides.

Finally and most important of all, you need to know your own limitations as a skipper. The best boat and all the safety equipment in the world are only as good as the person in charge of the boat. Once you are on the water, the skipper is responsible for the safety of all onboard and only a fool would put their boat and crew in a position beyond their capabilities. If in doubt, don’t go out is a good motto to go by and I would discourage anyone from taking their small craft offshore until they had gained plenty of experience in more forgiving circumstances or had professional tuition.


One advantage small boat anglers have here in the Bundaberg region is safe, all-tide ocean access thanks to the Burnett River. As the Burnett is used by large container ships, the mouth is kept deep and clear and there is no bar of any sort to negotiate. This makes for safe access and it’s reassuring to know that even if the wind does get up, getting back into the sheltered water of the river is never going to be a problem.

Other places are not so lucky and there is usually some form of bar to negotiate. I normally stick to the easier entrances like the Elliot River, Round Hill Creek (at 1770) and the Burrum River. These rivers are all no problem in reasonable weather, however, there are other places I balk at.

For example, Baffle Creek mouth for is shallow and littered with snags making it only really navigable around high water. This restricts your fishing time to a couple of hours either side of the high tide, and leaves you with that uncomfortable feeling in the back of your mind that if you miscalculate or are late back, you could be stuck outside at the mercy of the wind and waves until the tide comes in again.

Local knowledge

Local knowledge is one of the best assets any small boat fisho can have. Local knowledge lets you know when you can get out there safely and when you should be staying off the water. It can also keep you fishing when most people would expect it to be too rough to go out.

Take the Elliott River for example. After doing a few trips and taking careful note of the conditions, I built up an understanding of how wind from different quarters affects the bar at the river mouth. I also know at which stages of the tide I feel safe coming and going. I’ve found that in certain conditions, even when it’s too rough to go out across the bar, I can still sneak out through the shallows behind Dr May’s Island.

This last option is particularly good for westerly winds that can mess up the main entrance and make a crossing quite uncomfortable. When this happens, the waters along Coonar Beach are quite sheltered and still fishable, if you can get to them.

In these circumstances, I wait until there is enough water in the river to sneak out across the flats on the southern side of the river. As my boat is quite small, I have no trouble running through a couple of feet of water, however larger boats would find sneaking out like this a lot more challenging. While this is only one example of how local knowledge can give a sensible small boat operator the upper hand, I’m sure if you look around you’ll be able to find situations you can make the most of in your own area.

Tackle time

One of the biggest tips I can pass on to other small boat anglers is: don’t take too much gear out. If, like myself, you are a walking tackle store, make sure everything is safely stowed out of the way. Small boats are already crowed enough by the time you put a couple of anglers and their gear in them. The last thing you want is for somebody to trip over an extra rod left lying around and get hurt.

You also need to learn to look behind you when casting. Otherwise, you might hook something far bigger than you expected. Let me tell you that unhooking humans is a lot more challenging than releasing fish is. It also tends to involve a lot more blood and swearing.

Satisfying fishing

Despite all the precautions and planning required, there is a great deal of satisfaction involved in catching good fish out of a small boat. In many ways, taking game species like mackerel, tuna, cobia and even small marlin is a lot more rewarding out of a small boat than it is from a larger craft. Even bottom fishing for snapper can be a lot of fun and there are high fives and a lot of celebration every time a 4.5kg snapper comes over our gunnels.

Best of all, small boat fishing means even a big day’s running around offshore in our boat uses less than $40 worth of fuel. When you factor in the ability to take that same craft up the rivers and dams, you end up with a versatile craft that spends more time in the water and less sitting around on a trailer.

Provided you take appropriate safety precautions and apply a bit of common sense, you could be doing a lot more fishing than you have in the past!

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