Headland fishing… with vengeance!

By Dan Bowater


Isn’t it bizarre how a seemingly nightmare turn of events can dramatically transform into something incredible? There have been countless moments in sports like basketball when a team has basically conceded defeat and morale has struck rock bottom.

The clock is winding down and the opposing team’s staunch defence has held. Then out of nowhere one of the oppressed attacking players takes a ridiculous one handed throw from an impossible distance. In slow motion the ball goes into orbit and descends with a perfect swish straight through the hoop. The miracle shot wins the ‘unwinnable’ game from the grip of death by a point! Occasionally there are times of equivalent miracle triumphs in the fishing world too. After all, isn’t it part of the Aussie spirit to be the underdog?

A special option

Speaking from personal experience, recently I enjoyed my own fishing victory. It all started in mid-March when the house was undergoing renovations and work had stalled due to heavy rain late in the week. My builder mates had left behind an elaborate scaffolding walkway carefully placed directly across the garage roller door (of all places). Meanwhile my old faithful boat was basically left trapped by this imposing steel prison. At the same time talk around town gravitated towards the wonders of the reef. When a thick blanket of fog settled over the cane fields that Saturday morning my temperature gauge dipped to 19 degrees (remember this is March in FNQ). It was beyond doubt going to be a day of ‘variables’. Virtually the whole town could be seen descending toward the ramp – and frankly you would need that bloody scaffolding barricade to stop me from joining in! My alternate option for the day ahead was centred around exploring a nearby stretch of rocky points on foot. In this article I will describe how I managed to turn the tables and provide insight into the underrated and somewhat secretive domain of NQ rock headland fishing.

When anglers discuss land based fishing, images of common locations like jetties, bridges, weirs, or secluded beaches might all come to mind. These cliché types of options sure have their place and unquestionably produce good results. However, in my experience, you would be hard pressed (so to speak) to equal the quality and abundance of species available on the many rock headlands that scatter the coastline between Port Douglas and Townsville. In this special part of the Queensland coast various protruding rock structures characterise several river mouths and punctuate long stretches of beach. Understandably, such areas become fish-holding magnets with everything from bread and butter species to game fish all available. In spite of these facts, rock headlands, compared to other fish holding features, are rarely fished or perceived as good options for the casual angler. Perhaps this has to do with NQ’s small tinnie culture, the general comfort factor, or maybe a widespread belief that fish would rather live around a set of pylons. Over the years I have found that some of these headlands have held remarkable fish life, but the key has been understanding when to target the chosen location.

Stones, stealth and surprises

Successful NQ rock anglers watch the weather forecast and their tide books like scholars, because Mother Nature’s water movements totally dictate proceedings. It will sometimes come down to an hour-long window when the tide and time of day will coincide in an extraordinary way. As an example, I will backtrack to my earlier description involving the dreaded scaffolding dilemma. After witnessing that rare fog blanket my backpack and spin stick were madly thrown in the back of the car. By the time I arrived at the chosen spot the tide had just peaked, thereby covering most of the rocks situated in the intertidal zone. Secondly, the clean influx of oceanic water was exacerbated by glassy conditions – it was the perfect combination. Within minutes I began polarising solid barra and jacks frolicking between the scattered boulders below. There would have been about a ten metre zone of giant rocks stretching seaward – ideal for those special headland barra. Once the tide receded another metre these fish would simply have no cover for ambush or safety. The water clarity not only allowed me to identify individual fish, it gave them great visibility too. As the minutes ticked over, my soft plastic lure continued its deadly slow shimmy past the nose of numerous quality barra. It was just a matter of time before a hook-up. In any other combination of tide and wind direction it would have been impossible to experience. However, the conditions I first feared to eventuate on the Friday were now very beneficial to say the least. In the space of two hours of continual sightings (and improved casting accuracy) half a dozen solid barra were hooked and many more sighted. It was like being in some kind of heavenly fishing aquarium…with lures allowed!

Considering that I usually fish from my boat, it was interesting to play the role of the land based angler. From my Quintrex punt I typically cast toward the shoreline, but the above session showed how the boat approach lacks the stealth and finesse required to trick these boulder-hugging barra. When some of the nearby boaties realised there was action from the stones one of the punters boldly moved in for a looksee. In the relatively shallow/clear water their outboard motor simply caused the nearby cluster of barra to dart elsewhere. What’s more, none of the anglers were able to recognise the fish, whereas I could see them easily from an elevated rock platform. The barra were able to identify the boat (and its noise) as a threat, whereas I was able to quietly sneak up to fish that were behaving naturally. Witnessing the advantages in such a stark way was a reminder to never underestimate the stealth factor!

The above barra fishing session highlights but one example of an NQ rock headland scenario. In truth, I have done plenty of rock fishing in-between Cairns and Townsville, especially before I purchased a boat. Some rock fishing spots consist of plain features (like scattered boulders), and others have much more definition. There are a few like Island Point (in Port Doulgas) and Double Point (near Cowley Beach, Innisfail) that actually overlap with the reef and its tasty occupants. Yep, it is even normal to catch coral trout from these locations. There are a host of others that come to mind, in fact probably too many to practically (or respectfully) name. My point here is that you can basically create your own special rock fishing experience by understanding the crucial environmental variables and preparing accordingly. I know some anglers who effectively target big pikey bream off rocks traditionally seen as barra hotspots – and good on them for taking an original approach.

Tools of the rock fishing trade

In terms of equipment, the two most important purchases are not the rod and reel, it is actually the sunglasses and footwear. Without proper footwear you have no mobility and no chance to cast. Without proper sunglasses you can’t see the fish, or your lures! In the past I have found flexible/light reef shoes as the best bet for general NQ rock hopping. One of my favourites is actually a inexpensive brand called ‘aqua shoes’. They are simply a soft rubber sole under a light breathable neoprene mesh. Their best asset being that they let your feet ‘mould’ around the rocks. The shoe must be able to walk in water, on rocks, on sand and sometimes in the jungle – a tough ask! A few of the big tackle brands have released some great boat shoes that would be similarly suitable. Wet shoes and tropical heat/humidity is the perfect way to suffer the dreaded curse of tinea. Years ago I’ll admit I had cases so bad that I could barely walk the next day, let alone fish properly. Nowadays I thoroughly spray these reef shoes with methylated spirits from a cheap hairspray bottle once a trip is over (obviously not for hair if you look at my noggin!). I then remove the inner soles and hang them up to dry. Giving your feet an added spray will get the teeth grinding if you were due for a case of the midnight itchy! In regard to sunglasses, this is an emotive topic for many anglers – probably partly since they are such pricey items. However, if you want to polarise fish from the rocks, quality eyewear is essential. For about the last year I have fished exclusively with photochromic copper glass lenses and find it very hard to wear any different. Obviously the frames must also be well suited to the shape of your face without pinching.

In terms of fishing tackle the range of options is staggering with so many target species inhabiting rock headlands. When targeting estuarine species (like barra, tarpon, salmon, jacks etc) I like using a medium spin stick that can cast a range of lures good distances – it is an open/exposed environment where long casts are the norm. Baitcast tackle is good in terms of accuracy but lacks that all-important distance advantage. I like running a twenty pound braid main line to a 40lb fluorocarbon leader for versatility. Being able to store at least 150 metres of braid on your reel is beneficial with transitory game species always a possibility. During one trip a massive giant trevally annihilated my lure and began heading for Fiji. For about a minute I watched about a hundred metres of twenty pound braid disappear into the briny… never to be seen again! Even though this fish evaded capture, it shows how some common sense is needed with tackle selection. When packing lures I will limit myself to one small stowaway style box containing a mixture of soft plastics, vibes, metal slugs and barra minnows. Maintaining a light load is critical when being mobile, so leave the big four tray box at home. Without being too vague, each location will have its unique suitability for a certain lure type. A bit of experimentation doesn’t go astray in the selection process. Keep in mind that other factors such as casting accuracy and leader thickness are important on pressured fish.

Time to rock n’ roll!

Interestingly, many of the better rock fishing spots are also tourist hotspots. Not only does this give these locations a relaxed atmosphere, but also provides the possibility of accommodation within walking distance of the stones. A few that immediately come to mind are Palm Cove, Trinity Beach, Flying Fish Point, Etty Bay and North Mission Beach. Some basic planning can lead to a great weekend away. After my recent barra session I was even able to duck into a trendy café for a mini celebration with my girlfriend (not to mention a much needed cold drink). As a bit of a bonus we had no boat or trailer to clean. What’s remarkable about my trip was the fact such a rushed and unexpected session transformed into such a great one. It shows there’s simply no substitute for time on the water.  I hope this article has provided some insight into planning your own successful rock fishing trip. Now the ball is in your court!


Photo 1: In some locations (like Mourilyan Harbour) regular rocky habitat overlaps with reef providing the opportunity to hook species like this brown tuskfish.

Photo 2: We walked for an hour to fish from this prominent headland. Rock ledges aren’t always easy to access, but that’s what helps preserve the quality of fishing.

Photo 3: This nice 70cm barra was caught by polarising a procession of lone fish cruising between bommies. Casting accuracy and correct lure selection were vital in attaining the hook-up.

Photo 4: This nice 70cm barra was caught by polarising a procession of lone fish cruising between bommies. Casting accuracy and correct lure selection were vital in attaining the hook-up.

Photo 5: Releasing a beautiful saltwater barra is one of the many enjoyable experiences on offer for the budding NQ rock angler.

Photo 6: Dan with an average barra caught by casting soft plastic lures around a rock headland.

Photo 7: Underwater these locations can resemble an aquarium filled with barra and numerous other NQ species.

Photo 8: Underwater these locations can resemble an aquarium filled with barra and numerous other NQ species.

Photo 9: River entrances are prime locations for the NQ rock angler. With such large volumes of water moving through this narrow passage, it’s no surprise there are good fish holding behind these rocks and bommies.

Photo 10: Many of the better land based locations have a casual touristy atmosphere, making them very pleasant to visit. This was one of the local parking inspectors.

Photo 11: Estuary species like this tarpon tend to be larger and certainly a handful when found off rocky points.