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After the rain: One Flooded Summer

The out-of-control weather events that devastated Queensland earlier in the year caused untold misery and cost our economy billions. But the good news is that all the rain has definitely got the fish on the chew! By DAVID GREEN.

FOR many of us in Queensland, fishing has been far from our minds as the weather in the past summer has been a tad out of the ordinary. Floods and cyclones have dominated most of the news, and the rainfall has been quite phenomenal. For many fishos it was a summer of high anticipation that soured when the constant wind, rain and floodwaters made fishing very hard. But out of every disaster there is opportunity, and when things slowly returned to normal, a lot of the fishing experienced was very good. Looking back in history, the next few seasons after the 1974 Brisbane floods produced record prawn catches in Moreton Bay, and the fish were similarly in very good numbers. The huge flush of fresh water brings a lot of nutrient into the estuaries, bays and inshore grounds. Like the land, the ocean can bloom after heavy rains.

My daughter’s house in Brisbane was inundated with floodwater during the recent Queensland floods. It was a depressing mess of brown gravy tide that enveloped the low level housing of Brisbane. As the water fell it sucked a vast muddy floodplain of foul smelling water into the Brisbane River that permeated far out to sea. When the wind turned northerly a lot of this floodwater moved south to the Gold Coast, where I live. At one stage I was fishing more than 40kms offshore and still in dirty brown water. The magnitude of the Brisbane floods was hard to get your head around unless you actually experienced its effects first hand. The smell stays with you.

As the water slowly cleared and the cyclone swells from the far north eased back, life slowly returned to normal for most of us and the waters of southern Queensland became fishable again. In the ocean the sky was full of birds and there was plenty of bait around on the inshore grounds. There were a lot of Spanish and spotted mackerel to be caught but there were virtually no marlin on the inshore reefs. I think they bypassed Queensland this year on their way to the central and southern coast of NSW. So far it has been one of the few years where almost no black marlin have been caught. Out on the continental shelf there have been quite a few decent blue marlin, with a few over 200 kilos being caught on trolled lures.

At the time of writing in mid February the water is now blue and the fish are biting. I’ve learnt quite a bit about my local mackerel grounds this summer and, surprisingly, even in water muddy enough to chase barra in, we’ve caught some nice Spaniards and spotties. We had one trip to Palm Beach Reef and the water was so filthy you could only see the fish to gaff them when they were flopping on the top. This was quite unusual as mackerel are normally a fish of clean blue water. Perhaps the floodwater sat in a layer above the clean stuff underneath.

Mackerel fishing in Queensland is highly regulated with strict bag limits. The fish must have a pectoral fin clipped if you are keeping them, and there is now a bloody big no-fishing zone off South Stradbroke Island that serves no useful purpose (in my mind at least) but stops local fishos trolling for macks. There are no reefs in this area, and the bottom is sand. This exclusion means all mackerel fishermen are forced to fish south of the Gold Coast seaway, which makes the crowds at Palm Beach even worse. Unlike my mate Aykut, anchoring up in the middle of 80 other boats isn’t my favourite past time. When lots of boats are crammed into a tight space fishing becomes tricky as boats often troll over other boats’ lines and anchor in other blokes’ berley trails. Also, speeding mackerel on braided line cut anchor ropes like butter. Palm Beach is a productive spot but you have to like crowds.

To avoid this chaos and keep my sanity, I concentrated my 2011 mackerel efforts on trolling, jigging and casting less crowded spots. These reefs don’t hold as many mackerel as Palm Beach or Mermaid Reef, but in general you are only working with one or two other boats and the odds can be better. Mackerel fishing is very much an institution all along the Queensland coast with a long history and tradition, and is also a very important commercial fishery. Mackerel are great to eat, fight well, look brilliant and tend to hug the coastline pretty closely, giving small trailer boats easy access to good spots. The run each year tends to be highly variable. Some years no mackerel show at all, in other seasons such as 2011 there are plenty.

What I like about catching Spaniards is the multiple methods that can be used. We catch them on jigs, minnows, pilchards, trolled baits, soft plastics, skirts and metals. When there are plenty around and they aren’t fussy I like to troll lures, and over the 27 years we’ve been doing this some lures have remained as perpetual favourites, others have gone deep into the dark corners of the tackle box and some types, such as minnows, have improved in a slow and constant fashion. One all time great mackerel lure is the pink squid. There are many varieties of these, but a pink squid skirt over a feather or tinsel underskirt is a cheap yet extremely effective lure to troll. I always put a small skirt out about 80m back when trolling, and this 9cm long lure often catches the biggest fish. I like to troll these at 7 or 8 knots. Trolling a mix of minnows and squids or small skirts used to be problematic, as the speed needed for the skirts often caused the minnows to blow out. Bibless minnows can be used, but don’t run deep. I like to troll a couple of fast deep lures if I can that will tolerate around eight knots. Three beauties are the deep running Rapala X Raps, the super tough Halco Crazy Deep 160 Laser Pro and the 190 two metre model. If you rig these lures with big singles they will tolerate even more speed but get a slight decrease in hook-ups. This season the Spaniards have been very variable in their tastes. Some days the small pink squids get all the bites, on other days they hammer the minnows. This year, the deep lures were effective in some pretty filthy water.

When the blue water pushed in closer to the coast as the floodwater slowly dissipated, there was often a very distinct demarcation line, with blue oceanic current pushed up against the dirty water. This line varied between 10 and 40kms offshore depending on wind and current, but provided a great area to troll along as the predators hunted this edge, which was often full of debris and baitfish. This produced both wahoo and dolphin fish in good numbers, but like all current lines it was quite fickle, producing well one day and being strikeless the next.

Further out to sea, beyond the continental shelf, the water was up to 28 degrees. This very warm water produced quite a bit of blue marlin action for the boats venturing wide. Quite a few boats caught three blues in a day and there weren’t many days without a fish being sighted. There were also plenty of small wahoo out wide and some huge dolphin fish up to 25 kilos.

This year was the first trial of a six-week closed season for snapper, pearl perch and teraglin, between mid February and the end of March. It seems likely this will be extended next year, but it is a very divisive issue for fishermen and fisheries managers. With this in mind we thought we’d try a different type of bottom fishing. On a day with minimal current, using electric reels, six kilo sinkers and miles of braid, we fished a couple of the deeper canyons and caught a couple of large deep water cod. I’m not sure of the exact type of cod we caught as they were severely blown up by water pressure when they finally hit the surface. We were fishing in about 380m of water. It was an interesting experiment and the fish were beautiful eating, with firm white tasty fillets. If snapper and pearlies are off the menu for periods of the year, this is a definite option for the future.

In the estuaries the large amount of freshwater created some opportunities with a few species. We enjoyed some sensational mud crabbing after the big blanket of brown fresh water forced all the muddies to move to the deeper holes. In the thick of the crabfest we ate 23 in one week and exhausted our repertoire of traditional recipes, but discovered that muddies are excellent when hot smoked with hickory chips!

There were also quite a few nice mulloway to be caught around the river entrances. Mulloway are one of the few species in these parts that eat lures in very dirty water, and with a lot of baitfish congregating around the river entrances due to the fresh, there were quite a few nice jewies around, which is a bit out of season for this species in southern Queensland. The best session produced four fish, a rat to me and an 83, 86 and a 100cm jewie to my mate Mitchell. He caught these three on 130mm white Squidgy Fish on a 1 1/2 ounce jig head. Mitch uses white Squidgy Fish for nearly all soft plastic work as it saves him getting confused choosing lures. These are a great soft plastic. The big flathead were also still around in reasonable numbers after the fresh, with quite a few fish around 80cm being a welcome surprise on the flats on the run in tide, which was again very unusual for mid summer. The estuary mouths at Jumpinpin and the Gold Coast Seaway fished well throughout the wet, but further north it will probably take the Brisbane River a few months to stabilise. It was an amazing contrast to see how little the Gold Coast was affected by the floods in comparison the Brisbane region. We had similar rain but the small river catchments meant far less run off.

This summer has been one of the most unusual I have ever experienced during my years living in Queensland. The monumental rainfall, the catastrophic Brisbane floods and the cyclone that decimated North Queensland a few weeks later have been incredibly tough for many people. But as a fisherman, when things settled down, the water created many opportunities, and the rivers and oceans soon bloomed with life. While going fishing almost seemed quite frivolous early on as houses disappeared in a rising brown flood tide, only a month later the fish were on the bite.

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