Road travellers tend to gravitate to water and for me it’s the natural thing to do as waterside stopovers give an opportunity to break out the fishing rods. The tug on the end of a line is the drug and you never forget fishing water that produces trophy fish.
A common dilemma many anglers face is what to fish for. Waterways like estuaries host resident populations. In southern Australia you can always count on species like mullet, luderick, flathead and bream. In the tropics the likes of barramundi, tarpon and mangrove jack tend to dominate.
It is a similar story in bays. There are resident fish, but also seasonal fishing where fish migrations come into play. Surf beaches and rock ledges are different. Fish come and go along the coast, and knowing the optimum times gives anglers a head start.
In the freshwater, rivers and lakes host populations of fish that stay put for obvious reasons.
Many anglers waste precious hours wetting a line for species that are out of season, and then wonder why they don’t catch anything. Time is finite. The key to quality time is to fish wisely, and when possible, find out the possibilities in advance.
One way to achieve better returns for hours is time management. Divide your fishing year into species-relevant seasons, and plan trips that suit. It is a basic system employed by successful anglers. When you are Johnny-on-the-spot, seek local knowledge through a fishing club or the local tackle store.
Most of us know when certain fish run. There are the obvious: snapper in spring, southern bluefin tuna in autumn, barramundi during the wet season run-off and during the build-up to the Wet. Lake trout tend to fish better from late March through to October on the mainland, but in the Tasmanian Highlands where the water can be cool in summer, trout can fish well. Native fish like golden perch thrive in the heat. An anomaly in this is a European import, English perch or redfin. A tasty fish and declared noxious species, redfin often bite well in the summer.
There are seasonal closures to be considered. It isn’t straightforward as species like Murray cod and trout have closed seasons at different times in New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania. To be safe, read the various State Fisheries’ regulations.
Here is a run down of some popular species, and seasons. The list is subjective and may vary in different areas because fish follow a primordial urge not the calendar as we do. What follows are generalisations that will help plan your trip. All species can be caught from shore-based locations such as pier, beach and rock. For travellers who are carting a small dinghy or inflatable boat, there is more scope. There is no provision in this for anglers wanting to go offshore.
As you head north to warmer climes, the fish most wanted is the barramundi, and these days you do not have to go too far north to catch them. Lakes like Awoonga at Gladstone, and Tinaroo on the Atherton Tablelands west of Cairns, are well stocked, along with a dozen or so impoundments across the State. A Stocked Impoundment Permit is required for lake fishing. Here is some trivia: barramundi are born as males and spend their early life in the freshwater. At some stage they move downstream into the salt water, and after a couple of spawning seasons, change sex and become females.
Another favourite of discerning anglers is the saratoga, a territorial fish that tends to work a beat, and guard an area. There is a couple of varieties, and some have been stocked into Queensland and Northern Territory lakes. Like all freshwater fish, they are about in the same water all year, but their range is sub-tropical to tropical.
Mangrove jack is an estuary favourite. Noted for fighting tenacity, jacks can be caught in most northern estuary systems from Exmouth across the top and as far south as Coffs Harbour. It is abundant in places like the Gold Coast waterways, where bream anglers often find themselves being busted off by a feisty jack that has taken their line through a dumped supermarket trolley.
Australian bass can be caught in rivers and some dams from southern Queensland to Victoria. A spooky fish at times, in rivers and streams Australian bass will guard their territory and sometimes the best way to get a strike is to leave a lure sit in a pool and jiggle it, wait a few seconds and jiggle it again.
The giant of Australian freshwater is the Murray cod, and it is distributed throughout the Murray Darling Basin. Cod seasons and regulations vary between the three home states: NSW, Victoria and SA. Cod can be caught year-round. In my experience the best time for big cod is late autumn and winter. Winter cod tend to be bigger on average than their summer counterparts. Peak bites occur the day before a rise in water level, or a barometric rise.
When trout are floating belly up due to lack of oxygen or warm water, golden perch (yellowbelly) are in their element. Distributed through the Murray Darling Basin and as far north as Urangan in southern Queensland, yellowbelly can be caught year-round. The biggest specimens are caught in spring, when they are roed up for spawning, but the most consistent bags are in the autumn. Similar related fish include the silver perch and sooty grunter. Silver perch are caught in the same waters as yellowbelly; sooty grunters are found from the Kimberley across the top to Mackay in Queensland.
Redfin is a year-round species that is regarded as noxious by fisheries authorities. My preference is summer evenings and autumn, but it doesn’t seem to matter, as redfin are hungry most days.
Trout fishing is controlled by regulations, and again the seasons and regulations differ between States. In lakes, trout can be caught all year, but summer heat can turn them off the bite. Late autumn through to spring, when the fish forage in shallower water, is the best time. On hot days in rivers, the angler needs to seek them out in cover or near oxygenated water, such as you find at the end of riffles and runs.
Snapper move inshore across southern Australia from spring through autumn. Port Phillip Bay’s annual snapper migration is well documented and major fishing competitions are run to coincide with this. It is a similar story in South Australia and the southern parts of Western Australia. This isn’t to say you won’t catch snapper in winter; you can. Winter fishing for snapper is commonplace down south. In places like Wollongong, snapper runs coincide with the cuttlefish spawning, and this can be a winter experience. Move farther north, and you find snapper are fewer, but more co-operative on a year-round basis.
Australian salmon range from Tweed Heads on the east coast, south and west to WA where they are caught as far up as Kalbarri. The best surf fishing for salmon is from mid-autumn to spring on southern beaches. However, in NSW the fish can be consistent during summer. During spring, schools of salmon often follow migrating anchovies into bays like Port Phillip. It is not unusual for the salmon to remain in the bay for several months.
Black bream is a year-round species. In the south, spring sees bream swimming upstream on their spawning migration. This is the time to target the biggest fish, but for most of the year they can be caught in estuaries wherever there is structure, be it rock walls or fallen trees. This species is a consistent capture in ports where it shelters under wharf complexes or near bridge pylons.
As you move north, yellowfin bream take over estuary waters from black bream. There is a fair amount of overlap. You can catch yellowfin bream at least as far south as Mallacoota, and black bream as far north as Jervis Bay. The two fish are similar, with subtle differences apart from colour. Yellowfin bream is an estuary fish that is also caught in shallow open bay waters where there is a tapestry of weed and sand, and in the surf.
Flathead of one sort or another are caught in most estuaries along the east coast. The biggest of the frogs is the dusky, and this species ranges south as far as the Gippsland Lakes and north to Mackay in Queensland. West of Wilson Promontory, and in Tasmania, southern blue spot flathead take over the inshore fishery, along with sand and rock flathead. Flathead are a year-round species and to find them you need to follow the movements of other fish, like bream which run upstream during spring.
Squid are caught everywhere. Arrow squid run offshore, and for the most part are beyond reach of shore-based anglers. Calamari squid are resident in many bays and estuaries and can be caught year-round in waters they inhabit. Look for seagrass or at night, look for the shadows of squid moving along the fringes of lights beaming on the water from piers or bridges.
Mulloway tend to run at different times of the year, depending on location. Anglers catch mulloway off the beach on the north coast of New South Wales and southern Queensland over summer. In Victoria and eastern South Australia, surf fishers do well in autumn and spring, but this species is caught in estuaries most of the year. Head to Ceduna in SA and a favourite time of year is summer. A rising barometer often triggers a bite.
The most sought-after whiting species are King George whiting and sand whiting. King George whiting range from southern NSW south to Tasmania, Victoria, SA and across the Great Australian Bight to Dongara in the west. This fish can be caught all year, but the biggest specimens are taken from late autumn through to spring.
Sand whiting lack the spots and darker back colouration of King George whiting. This fish is an east coast stalwart and is caught from Tasmania through to Cape York.
Estuary perch is the saltwater version of Australian bass. It is similar in appearance and fights hard like bass, but that is where the similarities end. Perch tend to hang in schools over snags or along weed beads and are more eager to attack lures or bait than bass.
Tailor is a beach favourite and caught is from Fraser Island on the east coast to Carnarvon in the west. Mind you, tailor have a wide distribution, and can be caught right along the southern coast, but the best fishing is along the east and west coasts. During winter, large schools are encountered running along the east coast, and beaches from Fraser Island to Coffs Harbour can produce huge numbers.
Gummy sharks made a comeback in recent years and are now caught from most beaches from southern Queensland, Tasmania and through to Shark Bay in WA. Late summer into autumn is a consistent time, and shore-based anglers do well on moonlit evenings when the toothless sharks move into the shallows to feed on crabs and molluscs. In strong tidal areas, fish the New Moon when currents are weakest.
Barramundi are doing well in many Queensland rivers, like the Fitzroy at Rockhampton, where you can catch them from shore. Barra can also be caught from some piers and jetties, often close to estuaries. In the monsoonal north, which takes in Cape York across to the Kimberley, the hot barra time is during the run off, and the build up to the wet season. Roughly, this means March or April for the run off, and December for the build up. Barra are still about from December through March, it’s just that conditions are difficult, both in terms of road travel access, and the amount of water.
As well as the fish mentioned, other species like yellowtail kingfish and mackerel can be caught. Piers and jetties that have deep water access are common haunts for tuna and mackerel in the north, and kingfish, mulloway and snapper farther south. Predators move in to feed on baitfish, and these vary with location: in the north it could be herring and hardihead, or yakkas, slimy mackerel and mullet farther south.
As you move north, yakkas and slimy mackerel become more dominant and are then replaced by small trevally, herring and hardihead. Always, or so it seems, there is a species of mullet waiting to be caught. In tropical waters, piers and rocky headlands that offer deep water access can produce bigger fish including mackerel, longtail and mackerel tuna. GTs and golden trevally have a penchant for piers in the north, while in southern waters there are always fish like mullet, luderick, snook, barracouta, silver trevally and Australian herring to add to the occasional snapper and mulloway.