It has been a pretty mediocre mackerel season the last month or so! The promise shown by a couple of intermediate runs never reached the potential. Intermittent blows at the wrong stage of the moon left the bay heavy with sediment and deterred the larger bait schools from taking residence, and with them the big schools of pelagics.
However, September is normally a month of change where the summer species and the winter species both have their moment. Leading the way on an average year is our biggest run of spotted mackerel as a rule. They hit Cape Capricorn and Quartz Rock first and slowly spread up through Keppel Bay and up to Corio Heads, hitting all the local hotspots on the way.
Spotties are one of the most popular eating fish on the local coast and when eaten fresh they rank highly. There are a few methods that work for spotties, including lures and baits. The location of the fish and the amount of boats trying to catch them will determine which method to use. When we have a spot to ourselves (early morning week days) we prefer to drift casting mid-sized Flashas.
Time and time again I get asked about whether to use a wire trace or not, and I generally give the same answer: it depends. There is no doubt that lures with mono leaders attract way more strikes than wire, but the downside is the amount of lures lost over a season through bite-offs. If the fish are timid and the water is clear, I recommend using a heavy hard mono. If the water is a little cloudy or there are plenty of fish chewing their heads off, use wire trace.
The length of your leader should depend on a few other variables, including the species you’re targeting. Take a species like wahoo, for example. They can get worked up into a frenzy, biting everything they see including each other. In this situation you’ll need a short, low-visibility trace with a black swivel and tidy knots. That way, the fish will be less likely to bite the swivel and chop your main leader.
With Spanish mackerel we use the same low-vis gear and a trace longer than the average fish size in the schools we are after. This theory came in response to frequent break-offs on the main line; the old pros reckoned the breaks were caused by the action of the tail rubbing the line in the same place for the duration of the fight. I never questioned it and over the last 30-odd years it just became a habit, as the results seemed to show. Brown piano wire is the best. The fish can’t bite through it and it doesn’t break very easily, so long as you change it when you notice any kinks.
When you’re ready to cast, make it a long one and let your lure sink down to or just above the bottom before retrieving at a quick pace. The retrieve can be varied to suit the mood of the fish, and sometimes an erratic, slightly slower pace can do the damage.
Spotties respond very well to berley, and with a slow constant stream they can be encouraged to crowd the back of your boat around the berley bin. If you freeze your berley in solid hand-sized lumps using bread bags, each portion will last up to three hours, producing the perfect amount of controlled release. Little bits released often will draw and hold the schools of mackerel, so make sure your pre-made berley is frozen rock-hard to get the best out of it.
Spotted mackerel often mix with doggy and grey mackerel, or even ribbonfish (wolf herring). I think the spotties are a bit lazy, letting the others do the hard yards crowding the bait schools. Then the spotties can cruise through underneath picking up scraps and baitfish that get separated from the main bunch. Sometimes, particularly at places like Ironpot, you can’t get past the other species on the surface to the spotties waiting below.
Word has it that the grey mackerel population has copped a flogging by netters around Stanage Bay and the decimated schools have not made it here when they normally do. The reports mentioned that the majority of fish killed never made the shops as the fish were left too long and spoiled in the nets. This report is from a reputable source, indeed from one of the most respected people involved in the Queensland fishing industry.
It is any wonder that the quantity of fish shown to be taken by the professional effort never seems to read like the total amount slaughtered?
On a more positive note, Cave, Pelican, Quartz and Little Quartz are all the most consistent spots in the southern bay and the locals say that when you can’t get a mackerel in the top end of the bay at places like Farnborough, Bangalee or Findlays they will be on the chew off Keppel Sands.
Rita Mada is the midway spot just down from Ironpot and the harbour. It is an amazing place at times, producing the odd XOS Spaniard down to bonito and ribbonfish. In winter evenings around the full moon it not surprising to get big black jew. During the day schools of blue salmon following the bait can be black in the water, smashing any small silver Flasha, BumpaBar or Taipan thrown in their direction. Rita Mada is the litmus test before taking the chance to travel north or south to find the mackerel, whether they are doggies, greys or spotties.
One of the other fish I keep getting emails about is the much-prized red emperor. There are a lot of ideas on the best ways to catch them but I think finding good country is just as important. They love the deep red fern areas. The best place to find country for big reds is in depths of 50-60m this side of the shoals or the patches along the contour lines, the other side dropping off to 100m or more.
Tides play a much bigger role in the feeding activities of the bigger fish and they are more likely to be caught when the current is slowing either side of a tide change. This pushes against the fern letting it stand up a bit, giving the reds cover and holding lots of baitfish.
The red fish have a range in territory so we often drift the fern and rubble spots and keep moving until we get some solid hits. Then we mark the spot and work the drift patterns to suit the bottom shows. With reds or the big nannygai it pays to only do short drifts so you don’t spread the school over too big an area.
Reds like very big baits, whether it is whole fish live or dead, large fillets or the ever popular cocktail of a whole pilchard and a squid on each hook. Don’t worry about hooking the pilly perfectly because it is just a sacrificial attractant. The squid stays on better and gets the fish to swallow the hook. Basically, you’re using the pilly as berley to draw the fish in to the more durable squid bait.
Most time we hook reds on the top hook of the standard snapper or paternoster rig. That may be because the top bait is usually more visible over the fern and growth than the lower bait sitting just above the bottom.
The other offshore species worth considering this month include coral trout, cod, parrot and red-throat emperor (sweetlip). The estuaries are in the change-over period where you can still get the bream and whiting of winter while enjoying better fishing for barra, fingermark and mangrove jacks.
Flathead have reached the climax and are congregating for spawning. It is not uncommon to catch two or three smaller fish (males) and a big female in the one spot. It pays to double check your sizes and release the big females so they can provide us with plenty more fish in the coming years.Reads: 2397