Spangled emperor of this standard were fun on light gear in the dories.

Extended trip to Swain Reefs

THE Swain Reefs is a massive reef system a long way off the central Queensland coast.

The Swain Reefs is a revered location for reef and pelagic fishing that is well beyond the reasonable and safe range for most recreational boats. I was recently invited by Ron Roduner to fill a reserve spot on a week-long trip to the Swains with a crew he organises annually to fish on the Capricorn Star out of Rosslyn Bay Boat Harbour at Yeppoon.

These guys have been doing this trip together for a number of years now and have it down pat in terms of organising a good crew who work well together, knowing the right fishing tackle for the area and all the logistics to ensure every trip is a success. It had been quite a few years since heading to the Swains on those annual spearfishing pilgrimages as a younger fellow and the opportunity to do it differently, focusing purely on fishing up in the middle section on a fully catered boat with four dories, an experienced skipper and two deckies who were highly regarded by the crew, was too good an opportunity to pass up.

The road trip to Yeppoon with many of the crew was enjoyable and I felt a huge air of excitement when we finally boarded the Capricorn Star and met the rest of our crew mates. In no time everyone had settled in, sorted tackle and tucked into a great meal of fresh king prawns, chicken and a few beers while we waited for enough draft under the keel to depart the marina.

The two deckies, Nathan Porter and Muka Dowling, did a sterling job briefing us on all the issues about the vessel and safety processes I felt we needed to know. Skipper Scott Wilson steamed right through the night on a glassy sea and by first light we were greeted with a humungous hot brekkie and the most awesome sunrise 280km from Yeppoon.

Lines down shortly after set the tone for the rest of the week, with a mix of coral trout, redthroat, parrot, red emperor, mackerel, various species of trevally and some good fish lost to the sharks too. At one stage I said to George Baumber I had never seen so many big sharks hanging around a boat waiting for a feed, and was glad when we moved on.

Nathan and Muka were kept really busy working the deck, maintaining the supply of bait, de-hooking fish, brain spiking and putting them in the brine tank, sorting the odd tangle and engaging in pretty deft work on the gaff. Moving between fishing spots, the deckies were still at it and cleaning the decks while the crew was well organised in trolling a range of lures behind.

At various stages we had multiple hook-ups, with the deckies alerting the skipper to slow down each time. Spanish mackerel were the prime trolling target but a constant variety of shark mackerel and mack and dogtooth tuna were also being landed. It needs to be mentioned at this point that Scotty has an extra crew member, a loveable little foxie/jack russell named Dexter, who has this sixth sense of knowing every time a fish is hooked up and always waits to help get it under control on the deck.

I enjoyed the occasional visit to the wheelhouse to talk with Scotty while travelling, listening to whatever he had to say about the region, his boat and the issues we shared in dealing with bureaucracy now that commercial vessels are managed by remote control from Canberra. The following couple of days, we fished from the dories and that was the part of the trip several of us enjoyed the most.

Scotty and the deckies made short work of launching the dories, roughly 4m aluminium boats powered by 30hp Yamahas, from their rooftop cradle thanks to the Hiab crane and remote control. Our crew of 12 split into four groups of three and Scotty gave each skipper a thorough briefing of the safety equipment and a run-down on the lay of the reefs surrounding us to ensure each boat maximised the opportunity to fish away from the mother ship.

I was really happy to skipper a dory with George Baumber and Dave Bremen, a Brisbane-based fisho I’ve known for a long time. Both guys are former captains of the Moreton Bay Trailer Boat Club deep sea group and were as keen as I to make our own luck. As a group we soon had things humming along nicely, with fish in the icebox from the first drift.

Each dory was equipped with a relatively basic Garmin sounder mounted on the centre console. The sounder was quite adequate for the job and was very useful for picking up the schooling bait and ridges of reef along the drop-offs and discriminating between soft and hard bottom as we moved about.

We all had GPS in the dories and that made it easy to work out the drift lines that fired best and mix our efforts around various depths and bottom features. The hand-held VHF radios soon had pretty good banter going between the crews as we all helped each other out with what was being caught where.

Dave enjoyed floating back lots of line attached to large unweighted baits pinned to a gang of hooks for spectacular bust-offs, big hits, quality redthroat and stonker coral trout in particular. It is his favourite way to fish and he had no qualms about sacrificing a few rigs to some big predators.

George was content to fish from the stern of the dory, working a heavy handline and feeding a running sinker rig to the bottom for redthroat and trout. His quiet but methodical approach and style worked exceptionally well and watching him was like taking a master class from someone who has done a lot of successful handlining over the years.

My rig was a simple paternoster on the smallest teardrop sinker with two hooks and baits suspended above, which resulted in mainly parrot and redthroat. My logic was to work a simple rig for no tangles, minimal gear losses, to put fish in the boat and to change to a fancier rig later if needed.

The three rigs worked well for us and resulted in a pretty near full brine slurry icebox by lunch. After another of Scotty’s fabulous hot lunches, we had another session working the dories right through to sunset, this time fishing a different reef system with sand cays and some exposed coral bommies at low tide.

Again Scotty’s prior knowledge of the area was very useful and was reflected in everyone having a good catch. For our dory, it was a quieter arvo than the morning session, but a late burst of fish over a small rise we had spotted and marked earlier that afternoon got us out of jail just prior to sunset.

The back deck happy hour was all smiles at day’s end, with excellent fish numbers and quality. Scotty and the boys topped it off for us by preparing hot nibblies laid out on the rear deck, all washed down with cold ales for sundownders – it doesn’t get much better.
Nights were good, with plenty of hot water for showers, movies, ripper meals, air-conditioned cabins and a big saloon in which to stretch out and relax.

The weather held and we fished another reef in the dories the next day. Our catch included the usual culprits as well as coronation trout and spangled emperor. The most unusual fish was Steve Baxter’s cracker of a maori sea bream. After lunch, George, Dave and I were heading to the exposed side of the nearest reef to fish and probably hadn’t gone 200m along the edge of the reef from the mother ship when Dave’s lure burst into life and he began rapidly losing line to what was the best pelagic of the trip.

After a bit of back and forth, Dave proudly landed a better than 20kg spanish mackerel and it was back to the Cap Star to offload it, as it was way too big for our icebox. Ron and some of the other crew landed dogtooth tuna and various mackerel on lures but the focus later in the afternoon was definitely on reef fish.

Lipper, parrot, trout and hussar were steady and we came across Ron who had just released a massive chinaman fish that put up a great fight. Another memorable moment was George quietly doing his thing with the handline when we noticed he was starting to struggle on a big fish. With no finger stalls he was in a game of ebb and flow of line and tenaciously stuck with it, bringing aboard a magnificent spaniard that anyone would be proud of on a handline.

Capricorn Star almost ready to depart for the Swain Reefs.
Capricorn Star almost ready to depart for the Swain Reefs.
Scott Wilson, the most obliging skipper, in the wheelhouse of the Capricorn Star.
Scott Wilson, the most obliging skipper, in the wheelhouse of the Capricorn Star.
Dave Bremen nailed this red emperor in the last hour of the last day.
Dave Bremen nailed this red emperor in the last hour of the last day.
Steve Baxter with a typical trolled-up spaniard.
Steve Baxter with a typical trolled-up spaniard.
Ivan Mapp’s red bass fought hard before being released.
Ivan Mapp’s red bass fought hard before being released.
Loading the hook to the hilt with bait worked well for Brad Hardingham.
Loading the hook to the hilt with bait worked well for Brad Hardingham.
Ron Roduner kept up a steady flow of coral trout.
Ron Roduner kept up a steady flow of coral trout.
Muka and Nathan were the hardest working and most cheerful deckies the author has come across in a long time.
Muka and Nathan were the hardest working and most cheerful deckies the author has come across in a long time.
George Baumber had his work cut out handlining this spanish mackerel.
George Baumber had his work cut out handlining this spanish mackerel.
Andrew Hay opened his score with a redthroat on day one.
Andrew Hay opened his score with a redthroat on day one.
Ivan Mapp with a solid green jobfish.
Ivan Mapp with a solid green jobfish.
The happy charter crew with the skipper and deckies before heading for home at trip’s end.
The happy charter crew with the skipper and deckies before heading for home at trip’s end.
Some of the fishing from the deck of the Capricorn Star was very good. Everyone was fishing braid, and with an experienced crew tangles were at a minimum.

On a number of occasions the quality of fish was much better than I had expected, and it was surprising how quickly a good catch could be put together. Ivan Mapp landed an excellent green jobfish and topped it off on another day with a ripper red bass, both fish acknowledged for their fighting qualities.

Andrew Hay, Brad Hardingham, Dave Bremen and Steve Baxter all boated excellent spanish mackerel on the troll. Whenever we fished reefs that had an abundance of small pickers, it was noticeable that the crew up from us of Steve, Greg Lee and Brad were really loading their hooks up with lots of bait and consistently pulling fantastic lippers.

Greg kept us well entertained with colourful turns of phrase whenever he was busted by a big fish or sharked. He even provided coaching to some of the more gentlemanly crew members on getting the right guttural sounds going when they were busted off too. I haven’t laughed so much on a boat for a long time.

The lads up along the rail from George and I worked a longer and wider pattern that they loaded to the hilt with bait, allowing the bigger fish to muscle in on what the pickers were feeding on while food was still on the hooks. Dave persevered with his unweighted rigs down in the starboard corner for a monster barracuda one day and on the last day, the only windy day of the trip, he compromised by adding a small pea sinker to the rig.

He was rewarded with the best trout of the day and a lovely red emperor inside the last hour of fishing. In 25 knots of southeasterly on the last day, Scotty still had plenty of aces up his sleeve with choices of reefs that offered shelter and still put us onto good fish before the long run home through the night. From my perspective, it was a very enjoyable week where the skipper and deckies worked extra hard in the wheelhouse, decks and kitchen to make it a special trip to a special location.

The boat was an extremely stable sea boat that was kept spotless inside and out daily, the food was top shelf and so was the company of all the crew. I’m happy to say it wasn’t a catch and release trip. Everyone caught great fish and there was plenty to share around to take home to enjoy with family and friends.

As you would expect from an operation of this calibre, daily catches were meticulously logged, with all fish marked and individually bagged before being snap frozen and shared equally among the crew. Would I do it again?
You betcha, if there’s a vacancy.

Author

  • Bill has been spearfishing, fishing and surfing for all his adult life and now runs a business specialising in teaching people how to cross coastal bars and fish offshore. He also runs charters for people who fish for the right reasons and whose company Bill thinks he will enjoy. He’s been running his bar crossing business successfully since 1996 and hopes to continue doing so for years to come as he grows old disgracefully.

About Bill Corten

Bill has been spearfishing, fishing and surfing for all his adult life and now runs a business specialising in teaching people how to cross coastal bars and fish offshore. He also runs charters for people who fish for the right reasons and whose company Bill thinks he will enjoy. He’s been running his bar crossing business successfully since 1996 and hopes to continue doing so for years to come as he grows old disgracefully.

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  1. Hi, are you able to email me a contact for Bill Corton

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