Estuary reds + the usual suspects

The plan was to get up early and head out wide in the Fisho Bar Crusher for striped marlin. Close study of weather patterns on the internet revealed a series of ridging highs would be generating strong onshore winds. Combined with a decent easterly swell, conditions would be messy to say the least. A phone conversation with Fisho writer and regular fishing partner Sami Omari resulted in us choosing discretion over valour. Our planned marlin expedition was postponed until a more favourable weather pattern become established. I somewhat despondently stopped organising my game gear and resigned myself to spending a day in front of the computer.

Then the phone rang. Long-time buddy Greg Reid runs Bay & Basin Sportsfishing charters and he’d been catching good numbers of snapper in a local estuary system. Did I fancy heading out to catch a few? Hell yeah!

My 15-year-old son Jack and I met Greg and his 13-year-old son, also named Jack, at the ramp at 5.30 next morning and were at the spot less than three minutes later. We were drifting over a fairly flat bottom in 3-4m of water. Greg explained that this area was a plateau with drop-offs to the north and east into deeper water of 5-7m. The fish were feeding on cockle beds and the screen on Greg’s HDS 8 sounder/plotter was criss-crossed with trails showing his drifts over the productive ground during the past few weeks. Multiple waypoints listed as S, B, T and F marked where he’d caught snapper, bream, tailor and flathead.

A busy Christmas season had seen Greg regularly fishing this spot, with big numbers of quality estuary snapper to 41cm, plenty of 40cm bream, flatties to 80cm+ and more than a few enormous tailor being caught and released.

We started out fishing 3-inch Gulp Peppered Prawns with a quick flick and hop retrieve and Jack Harnwell (aka Jack 1) hooked up first on a feisty little red of 36cm. A procession of similar sized reds, along with a couple of sizeable silver trevally to 45cm, pan-sized lizards and a weird-looking fan bellied leatherjacket, followed as we made a series of drifts over the cocklebeds.

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Greg Reid (top) with a typical pan-sized estuary red and (above) a brace of trevally for Greg and Jack Harnwell.

A number of short strikes saw Greg rig a stinger hook set-up on the plastics and soon after I got a thumping hook up on what I initially called as a serious snapper. After a couple of scorching runs, the line angled towards the surface and I swiftly revised the ID to that of a solid tailor.

I cautiously worked the fish to the boat and we all got a good look at an impressive tailor in the 65-70cm range before it bit through the trace and escaped, literally feet away from the net.

Greg had caught choppers to 65cm (3kg+ fish!) while chasing the reds and told me about a monster tailor he described as “looking like a dolphin” that he’d seen come up and actually try to eat a hooked snapper boatside. The profusion of bait in this system, and the fact that commercial netting had been banned here for the past decade, was no doubt the reason for the size and number of tailor now available. Juvenile choppers were flicking and busting up all over the place, which is a great sign for future fish stocks.

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Greg Reid with a solid bream caught near a creek mouth on a Sammy.

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A nice trev and fan-bellied leatherjacket for Jack H (left) and bream release.

But it was the snapper we were all interested in catching and discussing. Most estuary systems are home to large numbers of baby reds, commonly called cockney bream. But the snapper we were catching were all legal fish of between 35 and 38cm. They certainly weren’t hump-headed monsters but on 3lb braid they fought well and at this “pannie” size they make great eating.

Rumours of snapper in this particular system had been circulating for some years. Like most local fishos, I’d previously caught quite a few reds here while targeting lizards on plastics and blades. Most had been just on legal size but were a by-catch as opposed to a target species. Anglers fishing small reef systems, mostly at night with bait, had been catching quality fish. I’ve heard unconfirmed reports that fish to 5kg have been caught here. I haven’t seen any evidence to support this, and to be honest I’m pretty dubious that such big snapper would inhabit what is essentially a fairly featureless estuary system with only a shallow entrance to the open sea. But there’s certainly plenty of food there and who’s to say that the reds don’t become resident? It wouldn’t take long for a cockney bream to become a fully fledged snapper given the profusion of prawns, shellfish, hardiheads, mullet and juvenile tailor that abound in this system. And if there’s so much food, why would the fish want to leave?

Since he’s established snapper as a legitimate target species in this system, Greg’s keen to instigate a tagging program to see if these fish stay in the system or move out to the offshore reefs. This would make a pretty interesting research program, I reckon, and is something NSW Fisheries should definitely look at.

As it stands, however, these estuary snapper are part of an evolving sportfishery that’s developed and improved in leaps and bounds since the net bans instigated by former NSW Fisheries minister Eddie Obeid back in 2000. The success of the recreational fishing havens in NSW, and the vast ncrease in fish stocks and general biodiversity that comes about when commercial nets are banned, is an issue that governments around the country need to look at.

There is no doubt that removing commercial effort and replacing it with well managed recreational sportfishing results in healthy and diverse systems with loads of big fish. Sorta makes you wonder why we need all these alleged “sanctuary zones”, doesn’t it?

Regardless of the politics of the situation, we had a ball caching the reds on plastics and blades before the sun rose and the bite slowed. A move to the mouth of a nearby creek resulted in some champagne surface fishing for bream with fish rising like trout all around us. A solid bream of 38cm rose to, and finned around, my Sammy surface walker three times before it crunched the lure and was firmly hooked up. Jack Reid (aka Jack 2) also hooked up on and landed a good bream, his first on a lure, on a stickbait.

All up our morning session saw us catch and release probably 20 fish (we kept a couple of reds and flatties for dinner as well). The snapper were slower than Greg was hoping – most likely due to a falling barometer – but no-one on board was complaining. Catching snapper on lures with ultralight tackle in flat calm water only minutes from the boat ramp is pretty cool stuff, not to mention all the other species hooked as by-catch. This sort of fishing may not be a hard-core or exciting as catching marlin but when the conditions make it tough offshore it’s a pretty bloody good fall-back position!

For info on fishing NSW South Coast estuary systems for snapper and a host of other species, contact Greg Reid at Bay And Basin Sportsfishing. Ph: 0413 610 832. Email: Website:

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