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Tough Customers

Family Lutjanidae is amongst the toughest group of fishes worldwide. These fish are highly sought after for their brutality and aggression. In general, they are a stocky, broad shouldered fish with prominent canine teeth. They’re basically the pit bulls of the marine environment.

There aren’t many species of fish that can smash and bury you quicker than a Lutjanid in an estuary snag.As their body profile would indicate, they aren’t marathon swimmers, more a short-distance powerhouse of muscle. They prefer to use the safety and stealth of structure to wait in ambush before striking.

Lutjanidae are a fairly comprehensive family of fishes, comprising some 120 species worldwide with 61 species found here in Australia.

Notable Lutjanids in Australia include hard fighting mangrove jack, golden snapper (fingermark), red emperor, red bass, Moses perch, the subset family of jobfish, plus many more lesser-known species.

Looking abroad we have the undisputable king of the Lutjanid family, the Papuan black bass, together with the spot-tail bass.

There are many more recognised species of Lutjanid on offer abroad, including the South American cubera snapper which are like giant reef dwelling jacks, but in this feature we’ll take a quick look at some of Australia’s popular Lutjanids, and give a rundown on distribution, fishing and table qualities.

Mangrove Jack
Lutjanus argentimaculatus would have to be Australia’s favourite Lutjanid. They are generally a brick-red to ochre colour, with shades of grey. Jacks from tannin or freshwater river systems tend to be darker in colour, sometimes almost black across the dorsal region.

Distributed from northern NSW in the east, mangrove jacks can be found right around the tropical coastline of Australia to Shark Bay in the west.

Although individuals are caught in sub-tropical river systems, the best jack fishing is seen in the coastal river systems of northern Queensland, throughout the NT and in the north-west of WA.

Jacks are a fairly diverse species of fish. They tolerate low salinity levels, allowing them to range between freshwater river systems, throughout tidal estuaries, in bays and harbours, rocky points and out to offshore reef systems.

Most estuary jacks are in the 0.5 to 1.5kg size range, with large adult jacks occasionally taken from offshore reefs. These offshore jacks can weigh up to 10kg, with the national record weighing 11.7kg – that’s a serious mangrove jack!

From river systems though, a 50cm jack is considered a top fish. In a tight mangrove and snag-studded river system, a good jack can be a real handful. Expect a few dustings from the bigger fish.

Casting diving lures in the 90 to 120mm size range is effective on jacks, but you have to cast right into the timber – jacks will rarely venture too far from structure to chase a lure.

Flicking soft plastics around timber offers more hang time, but you have to be ready to lock-up and drag the fish out before you get buried. Some of the bigger river jacks are taken on live baits at night, fished right in amongst the timber.

Jacks are a great table fish too, adding to their popularity, with delectable white flesh.

Golden Snapper
Lutjanus johnii, also known as golden snapper or fingermark, are a popular northern species of Lutjanid, and form an important target for recreational and charter operators in the north.

Fingermark are golden bronze to silver in colour, with juveniles displaying a distinctive black spot on their rear flank.
Golden snapper are distributed from the Great Barrier Reef in Queensland around to the north west of WA.

Juveniles are commonly seen throughout coastal estuaries, with larger fish caught on structure ranging from inshore reef in just a few metres of water out to a depth of 80m.

Goldies caught in estuaries are generally smaller fish in the 0.5 to 1kg size range, with the larger fish caught from reefs outside of these estuary systems.

A big golden snapper will be in the 4-5kg size range, but they can grow up to 11kgs. Goldies are a super-tough fish – especially the larger models – but they are relatively clean fighters.

In estuaries, fingermark are commonly caught around mangrove-lined shores and around snags on diving minnows and plastics around the 90 to 110mm size range.

From the clean-water reefs, golden snapper can be caught on larger soft plastics such as 145mm Flick Baits and 5” Gulps, but most fish fall to baits of squid or fish fillet. Golden snapper are one of the best eating fish in the north.

Red Emperor
Rated as one of our best eating fish, red emperor (Lutjanus sebae) are a stunning looking Lutjanid caught in and around coral, gravel patches and reef shoals around our tropical coastline.

They are found from the Abrolhos Islands in WA around to Moreton Bay in southern QLD. The majority of larger fish are found over deeper drops in 40 to 80m of water, with smaller reds found over shallower reefs closer to landmass.

Juvenile red emperor have three distinctive bands, which fade to become faint bands of crimson red on the adults. They are capable of growing to around 23kg, but a 10kg red emperor is considered a trophy fish, with the average size around 3-5kg.

Most red emperor are caught while bottom-bouncing baits over deeper reefs, but they can also be caught on larger stickbait style soft plastics when the tide allows.

Expect a lot of by catch of other Lutjanids and emperors when targeting reds. Red emperor don’t necessarily hold over heavy structure, with many of the larger fish found over localised gravel beds away from the main peaks of reef systems.

As mentioned before, their flesh is amazing – white, sweet and delectable.

Red Bass
Lutjanus bohar, or red bass, are a tough Lutjanid living around shallow coral bommies and shoals around our northern coastline.

Red bass are a powerful fish. This, combined with the shallow environment that they are commonly found in, makes them a highly sought after sportfish.

Although the flesh is reported to be good eating, red bass are a no-take species on the East Coast as they are a known ciguatoxin carrier.

Red bass are deep reddish-brown along the dorsal and head region, fading to a silvery pink below. The dorsal fins are dark red, sometimes even black. Although they look similar to a reef mangrove jack, their snout is more pointed.

Red bass are found on reef systems in the north west of WA, and again over reef systems in Queensland from the Barrier Reef area.

Moses Perch
While Moses perch may not be as highly sought after as other Lutjanid targets, they remain popular recreational species from NSW mid-north coast around to Shark Bay in WA.

Moses perch, Lutjanus russelli, do not grow as large, nor are they as menacing as their aforementioned Lutjanid brethren, but they are a fine table fish and common inshore angling target.

Moses perch have the same body profile as many other Lutjanids, with juveniles displaying five horizontal body stripes and a distinct black spot on the rear quarter that fades with age. Adults are generally grey to pinkish in colouration. Growing to a maximum size of around 50cm, this species rarely exceeds 2kg.

Coral Lutjanids
There is a host of other Lutjanidae sp. living around our tropical reef systems which are welcomed by recreational fishos but not necessarily targeted specifically.

Some of the more popular coral Lutjanids include crimson snapper (aka small-mouthed nannygai), saddletail snapper (aka large-mouthed nannygai), darktail snapper, brownstripe snapper and Spanish flag (aka stripey seaperch).

All of the above species are considered very good eating, with the exception of Spanish flag which are considered as a fair to reasonable table fish.

I hope you enjoyed the summary of popular Australian Lutjanidae species. As you can see, the family encompasses many more species than most would realise. They are an exciting (and tasty) family of fish in general, and deserve their powerhouse reputation.


This story was first published in the Fishing World September 2013 issue.

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