Cairns Region Wonky Holes: Dan Kaggelis 2018

Whether you call them saddle tail snapper, red jew, or large mouth nannygai, there is no denying the fact they are one of the best fish in the ocean to target.

Growing to over 10kg in weight and up to the metre mark in length,they can really put a bend in the rod and always go the full ten rounds.

Their sporting capabilities are evenly matched with their eating capabilities and a well bled and iced nanny can taste as good if not better than coral trout.

Whilst they fight like demons and taste great, probably their best quality is the fact they swim in schools and if you get onto a patch of them it can bring on a session that you will never forget.

Talk to many offshore anglers with a few beers under their belt and I’m sure they have a story or two of a trip when they came on thick and fast leaving everyone fishing buckled and groaning under the weight of a pack of reds.

When many anglers think saddle tail snapper they immediately visualize ground at the back of the reef or on the continental shelf where reef edges give way to deep water shoal country or canyons littered with large isolated rocks.

Sure, this is very much the home of the large mouth but its not the only place you can find them, and you would be surprised at the places you can pull these fish consistently without having to drive over the horizon.

That’s right, you don’t need a six metre boat or drive to the shelf to catch these fish and with a little perseverance you will find there are plenty of sneaky spots just offshore which hold some huge trophy sized reds.

Before I get into the nuts and bolts of finding and fishing these inshore saddle tail spots its first important to understand a little about their life cycle.

Unlike many coral reef fin fish which spend their whole life on the reef, saddle tail cross a range of inshore and offshore habits during their life span.

Small juvenile fish can in fact be caught quite regularly in estuarine and creek environments and have even been found in numbers in Moreton Bay.

As these fish get older they tend to move out onto the rocky reef coastal grounds.

Diving some of the inshore headlands and coastal reefs between Cairns and Port Douglas I have come across isolated bombies in 5 metres of water that are just packed with juvenile saddle tail so thick you can’t see through the school. At this size they are characterized by deep red colours and a large band across their eyes.

As they get older they become paler and lose this heavy red colour and banding.

This is because red is the first colour which disappears in deeper water which makes their pale white colour the perfect camouflage especially when residing over sandy, shoal bottom.

As these juvenile fish grow to 30 to 40cm in length they will move to halfway spots between the inshore coastal grounds and outer reef.

If you have ever hit a patch of this age group of fish, you will know it can be very frustrating as they all seem to be just under the legal size of 40cm.

When they get a little more mature they will move into the reef and join what I believe are biomasses or schools of fish which can hold massive numbers.

Talking to a skipper of a Townsville charter boat he swears there are certain schools he has been fishing for years and they move like clockwork from one end of a paddock between reefs to the other.

Because of this they are highly susceptible to over fishing and it is possible to wipe out whole schools of fish in an area and once that mass is gone they never return. Something you want to keep in mind if you have a spot which holds big numbers of reds.

Even though most saddle tail head offshore when they mature, there are certain times of the year when large extra oversized fish return to the shallower water.

I find this tends to be around the warmer months of the year especially when monsoonal rain gets those rivers flowing and pumps bait out to middle ground areas.

One saddle tail holding structure which also gets working this time of year are the wonky holes and this will be the focus of this feature. Wonky holes put simply are the remnants of rivers which were drowned and covered in silt when sea levels rose.

Even though they were covered over by sediment and now underwater they still flow underground and eventually push up from under the sea floor leaving a giant hole which at times spews out freshwater.

If you want to see what one looks like, YouTube ‘spearing a wonky hole’ and there is some awesome footage of them.

They mostly resemble a divot or sharp depression in the bottom.

I have seen them on my side imager as a big dark hole when they are really flowing.

When looking for wonky holes the most obvious sign to get you started is to be in the round about proximity of river mouths and the bigger the river the more wonkies you will find.

Ground water is also a source of wonky hole flow so islands near the mouths of rivers can also hold good wonkies.

The Daintree River is a notable example and north of Snapper Island there is ground worth searching.

Even the Cairns Inlet is the source of some awesome holes which many people drive right over on their way to the reef and I have snared some great fish in sight of some of the main city area of Cairns.

The same for the Hinchinbrook Channel and Mourilyan Harbour and they are certainly not as rare as people make out.

Don’t get me wrong, they aren’t directly in line of the river mouth and some are near no rivers at all but this is a good place to start.

I have found them as close as 10km out but I have found them as far out as 25km, easy range for a small tinny on a good day.

Finding them is a little tricky but once you find one or two, a pattern quickly emerges, and you will soon find they string along in a sequence.

This is where a high-quality side imager is worth its weight in gold. I have found them in depths from 15 metres right through to 40 metres and this should give you a good guide as to areas worth searching.

For some reason large extra oversized saddle tail hang around these holes and most agree its because of the bait that surround them.

Whatever the case when you  hook a ‘wonky donkey’ in 20 metres of water I can tell you the fight is ferocious.

Fishing wonkies can be a little tricky. Mostly I try and line up the mark right the first time as the water is shallow so driving all over it can spook the fish.

I also never anchor and always use my Minn Kota Electric as it keeps me in perfect position without having to disturb the ground below.

I always fish right on the hole first then use my jog feature on my electric to move up current of the hole and fish its outer rim.

If no luck I move back from the hole. This is because sometimes the fish are hanging near the hole and not right on it and I think this is mostly because they are not feeding hard at the time.

Other times I have caught them right in the guts of the hole where the bait is the thickest.

Generally, bites come right away so be ready because one lost fish will shut down the bite.

Saddle tail can be finicky so if the bite is slow drop down your weight and leader poundage.

Sometimes the fish will be mid water or off the bottom so drifting down lightly weighted baits or plastics is a preferred option. Squid baits and squid style plastics are the best options.

With bait I have found using a smaller bait presentation seems to be the best option as saddle tail are renowned for mouthing large baits and swimming up the water column.

This will see you with a slack line wondering what’s going on. If this happens start winding hard and a smaller bait will allow for better hook penetration.

With plastics light as possible jig heads are a must and its hard to go past a pink plastic like a Berkley Squid Vicious or Chase Bait Ultimate Squid.

Some things worth considering with wonkies. First, they are not always consistent and some days they fire other days they are barren.

Don’t think they are a magic source of red fish like some people make out.

In fact, they can change quite quickly, cover over, and even fill in if they don’t flow for a while.

Talking to spear fishermen who dive wonkies, they always report the presence of big cod on holes.

It is believed these cod will clear the hole and keep it open when its not flowing.

If the cod is removed the hole can quickly disappear or begin to fill in as the care taker has been removed.

Keep this in mind if you get a big cod off one as its best to release them to ensure your spot is there for the future.

Wonky holes are great spots to target big saddle tail and are worth the effort especially for those small boat owners keen to snare some big trophy reds.

Good luck in finding a few as you can bet if you have a river in your back yard flowing to the sea then there will be a wonky nearby.

Cheers, Dan