Hidden in Plain Sight

Jack Porter targets snapper and bream in Moreton Bay.

Situated in the shadows of Brisbane city and its population of 2.5 million people, Moreton Bay is frequented every weekend by hundreds if not thousands of locals, chasing all sorts of aquatic pursuits. Among the jet skis and thunder ducks crisscrossing the bay you will see plenty of boats parked up on the well-known artificial reefs, soaking baits in hope of landing the family dinner. Others will spend their days moored up at various anchorages like Tangalooma and Horseshoe Bay. One could be forgiven for thinking, as I have heard many a time, that the bay is ‘fished out’ or ‘not what it used to be.’ Hearing this may be enough to prevent some from venturing out, especially with a fly rod. Moreton Bay is a vast expanse of water, and the combination of not even knowing where to begin, coupled with these negative sentiments certainly make this a potentially daunting task. However, with a can-do attitude and a willingness to adapt, Moreton Bay can be that gem hidden in plain sight. The quality and the challenge of Moreton Bay as a longtail tuna fishery has been written about before (FL#84), and I’d love to jump on the wagon and sing its praises for these navy-clad silver bullets, however, I have not been fortunate enough to bend a fly rod on one just yet. Luckily for those of us with small boats unable to cover the miles needed to track down these high profile speedsters, the bay has a number of other worthy options. You just have to downsize the gear and do things a little differently. A day’s fly fishing the bay for us is highly dependent on the weather — anything under 10 knots of wind is doable in my little 3.7-metre tinny. Any stronger than that, and travelling becomes very wet and uncomfortable. If we are fortunate enough to have light winds line up with a mid-morning high tide, then you’ll know where to find the car! Winter usually provides the most stable and reliable weather for this kind of fishing, and as luck would have it, snapper and bream in Moreton Bay tend to be abundant through the winter months, and they provide great sport for fly fishers. MORETON BAY SNAPPER Snapper, or squire as we call the smaller pan-sized models that frequent the bay, aren’t always the first species that comes to mind as a fly rod target. They are, however, a fantastic option — you know when they’ve eaten the fly, and no matter what size, they always pull hard! We are very fortunate in the northern half of Moreton Bay to have a number of islands with shallow fringing reef and drop offs to some degree. The islands from Russel and Coochiemudlo in the central bay, through Peel Island up to Green and Mud in the north, all have extremities that fit this description. They are all great options to chase snapper on fly. You could spend hours driving around the deeper reefs and shoals staring at the sounder for congregations of fish and bait, then waiting and managing a fast-sink line in heavy current and be successful I’m sure, but this style of fishing doesn’t do it for me. I much prefer to stick to this shallow fringing reef with an 8-weight fly rod, loaded with an intermediate fly line, or lately, a floating line with a sink tip such as an Airflo Flats Master. This is then tipped with 16 lb fluorocarbon leader straight through to the fly. You do get shown who’s boss from time to time, but as with any form of fishing, the trade-off with a heavier leader is that you tend to sacrifice bites. Fishing this type of water is a simple process. Cast your fly as far as you can along the reef, allow a few seconds sink time, and if fly line isn’t ripped through your fingers on the drop, begin a nice twitch-and-pause strip back to the boat. Along with the rod and line set-up coming straight from most people’s flats-fishing stable, the flies do too. My go to flies are tan or light pink Fuzzle Shrimps in a size 2, and a 1/0 tan or brown VGDC style crab fly, all with large dumbbell eyes. Before my fly fishing days, when the boat had no electric motor or even a sounder, we still managed to find enough squire to keep us interested. Funnily enough the simple way we used to find fish then has proved very effective for catching snapper on a fly rod. Motoring towards the chosen stretch of island until we found reef that was visible to us in the boat was the first step. From there we set up a drift towards the deeper water and just fished our drift till our lures took too long to hit the bottom. With modern technology now at our fingertips, this has given us a little more insight into the depths we were fishing. We used to start in about 2 metres of water and drift into about 7 metres. After plenty of trial and error, we reckon the sweet spot for chasing snapper is in water 3–5 metres deep. Fishing this depth with the sink-tip line and a heavy fly gives plenty of hang time while still reaching the strike zone, and on each strip the fly will rise up again, prolonging its hang time — something that has proved key in maximising snapper bites. Although snapper are the primary target, there is usually plenty of by-catch, some species more desirable than others. Grassy sweetlip are a firm favourite, along with various little Lutjanids. The ever-present grinner, however, usually suggests you have drifted too deep and it’s time to restart the drift. So that’s the early morning taken care of — from those first rays of pre-dawn light through to an hour or so after sunup we tend to focus on squire. As I mentioned before, a mid-morning high tide is our favourite to get out on the bay with a fly rod, and that is all about to make a bit more sense. MORETON BAY BREAM Options for chasing bream around Moreton Bay are as varied as you can imagine. From fishing pontoons and canals, moored boats and mangrove-lined creeks, to open tidal flats, you can choose your arena. The flats that surround every edge of the bay and most of the islands are our choice more often than not, as any fish on a flat is usually there to feed! Through winter the visual aspect is a major drawcard, as the water is usually crystal clear and no more than two feet deep at high tide. This is where having a little boat really comes into its own, allowing us to push right up onto the mangrove edges just as they start to flood, and to stay there until the last of the water ebbs out, usually two hours or so either side of high tide. This style of fishing is also readily available to those people who prefer kayaks, however, as most of the bay flats are quite soft, wading would be a challenge. Up on the flats a 6- or 7-weight rod and a floating line is our weapon of choice, as the flies we throw tend to cast a little easier with a bit more grunt. Although, if you’re a better caster, a 4 or 5-weight would handle the fish without too much hassle. The first step to catching bay flats bream is choosing your flat, and there are plenty to choose from. Fortunately a lot of the legwork can be done at low tide, on shank’s pony and behind the wheel of your car. The edges of the bay from the Port of Brisbane in the north down to the mouth of the Logan River in the south are almost all accessible by land in one way or another. Doing some exploring at low tide is how we found a number of our most productive flats. To shorten the hunt, we tend to steer clear of plain old mud flats. Although they hold fish from time to time, there is not enough structure to hold the fish particularly well. We have two preferred types of flats — ones with lots of scattered rock and rubble, and sandy/silty flats with weedy patches — and both in close proximity to freshly flooded mangrove edges. Both substrate types can be found in abundance throughout the bay, so there are always options. On the water, an angler should always be watching for any little clues to help turn the tables in relation to what the fish are doing and what they may be eating. We started our bream-on-fly education throwing traditional bream flies — little Charlies and Gotchas as well as small shrimp patterns fished with nice slow strips — figuring that little prawns and other crustaceans were the main forage for bream in these areas. Although this approach brought some success, a fish or two per session was not exactly what we had hoped for. A keen observer will soon notice that winter in Moreton Bay brings vast schools of hardyheads up onto the flats, sometimes shimmering past in the distance, sometimes scattering along the surface fleeing from predators. Initially we thought trevally were the culprits, sending the hardyheads spraying all over the place, and sometimes they are, but more often than not, bream are the predators in question. Surface flies like the Disco Shrimp, retro-fitted with a small treble in the tail and stripped fast along the surface, have proved effective in raising these fish and certainly improved our rate of bites. However, the hook-up rate still leaves plenty to be desired, which is understandable given a surface presentation fished to small-mouthed predators. Our light bulb moment came when one day my good mate Tom, in frustration, threw a 2/0 Surf Candy, left on from a failed tuna hunt, at one of these hardyhead showers. The fly was eaten shortly after by a lovely bream, and then another. Sometimes it pays to do something a little different (Tom is good for that!), and it highlighted for us the fact that these fish are most certainly up on these flats hunting, but targeting baitfish rather than the crustaceans we first thought. In subsequent sessions we have fished all manner of baitfish flies, from Candies and Deceivers to Game Changers. All these flies have attracted attention, although bucktail tied on to a 1/0 hook with a set of dumbbell eyes has proven most effective. Yes, the humble White Clouser fished erratically just above the bottom has now taken more bream than any other method in my boat. As you can imagine, if bream are up on these flats eating baitfish, so are lots of other fish — big eye trevally, flathead and tailor make regular appearances when fishing for bream in this manner. So there you have it, in the shadows of 2.5 million people on Brisbane’s doorstep, and sometimes actually on people’s doorsteps, the ‘fished out’ Moreton Bay has a few little secrets, well hidden in plain sight. Anyone willing to do a little bit of exploring with a fly rod in hand might just be pleasantly surprised.

Current FlyLife Subscribers can login to read the full article.
To access this article, back issues & more Subscribe to FlyLife today.