Let’s Go To Barren – Bill Bowtell September 16

We were sitting around the bar of the Keppel Bay Sailing Club having a few beers and a chat: old mates of forty years standing! The conversation of course was about fishing -of exploits, past and present.

The fish scales were piling higher as the laughter and banter continued. The irony however was that, even though this was a group of fishermen most, if not all, of the stories were true, with only the versions differing slightly. Back in those earlier days we generally all fished together and if not together, then in close proximity to one another. And it was commonplace that if one did “a loner”, then a phone call, or visitation, over the following days to discuss the trip, was normal. There were no secrets.

The conversation around the bar that evening gravitated towards, and finally centeredaround the local Keppel Group of islands – one in particular, namely Barren. There was a silent reverence, as each fisherman in the group held his own momentary reflections. Then all hell broke loose!

“Remember the time when ……!” “I got my biggest…..!” “What about the hi-speed jigging!” There were so many stories before Gav nailed it – “Yep, then there were the Spanish!” Again silence, each bloke nodding his head in knowing approval, for indeed Barren had a fearsome and well-deserved reputation as a great spot for Spanish mackerel. And that is still the case today.

These thoughts were still fresh in my mind when my son, Andrew, came down from Townsville and suggested a trip out in S-Cape 2 to chase a mackerel. It was no surprise then that Barren was chosen.

“Barren”, or “Barren Island”, is the collective term used by locals when referring to a duo of islands, paradoxically named, Barren Island and Child Island. They are termed “Continental Islands”, due to the fact that they rise from the ocean floor that forms part of Australia’s Continental Shelf.

As islands go they are not big, with Barren measuring roughly 1.2 kms square in area and reaching a height of 171m. Child Island, separated from Barren to the east by a 300m wide channel, is even smaller measuring a mere one-tenth of the size of Barren in area and reaching a height of only 49m. But what they lack in size they make up in diversity.

The two islands are located 30kms east of the Rosslyn Bay boat harbour and are the most eastern land forms of the Keppel Group of islands. They are ancient volcanic “plugs” of igneous rock formed by the weathering down of previous extinct volcanoes and as such are very stable in nature.The surrounding waters are deep and support a diverse range of coral gardens from the shallower staghorn and fan corals, to the deeper gorgonian corals of sea-whips, sea-fans, red and black corals and mushroom polyps where the sheer rock walls drop away to the sea floor.

Like other islands within the Keppel Group, they form labyrinth of fractured chasms, exposed rock shelves and coral gardens, all washed by strong ocean currents which pour in from the southern Coral Sea. And it is this diversity and these currents that are credited for the Barren mackerel fishery.

Andrew and I arrived at Barren just after sunrise. The final 10km of the trip, beyond Great Keppel Island, was a telling and bumpy ride. It is open water all the way, once you pass Big Peninsula (on Great Keppel), and if there is any hint of east in the direction of the wind, then it will be felt right down to your toes. We ducked into the channel between the islands and rigged our gear in relative comfort.

Two lines were rigged. One, a deep runner rigged with a pink plastic squid head and Watson’s bonito. The other, a shallow runner rigged with a freshly caught ribbon-fish. Both baits glistened in the clear oceanic waters when tested for swimming action. If there were Spanish mackerel in the area then these baits could hardly be resisted. We sounded the channel.

This was an exercise more out of habit, than actually searching for fish. For over the years of fishing the area the rocks, the shelves of reef and even the points have all been given names – The Boulders, The Ledge, Middle Point, The Coral Gardens, Shag Rock, One-Bum Beach and the list goes on. I checked the time to get a gauge on the tide, then moved wide of Child. Again, an old habit borne of instinct. Andrew set the rods.

We took the first strike just off the eastern side. It produced a neat little 8kg Spanish for Andrew. I checked the water temperature. It read 23.6 degrees centigrade – ideal for this water. The current was from the south east and strong. We moved back along our previous troll path and took another fish of a similar size, this time on the shallow running ribbon-fish. The school of mackerel could be seen on the sounder and they appeared right throughout the water column. Barren was living up to its reputation.

The “Keppel Bay Calm Waters” are defined by imaginary lines from Cape Capricorn in the south, to Barren Island in the east, to Water Park Point, at the leads into Corio Bay, in the north. As local fishers will you, the terminology “Calm Waters” is not always the case, but the described boundaries do give a relative definition of Keppel Bay and the coastline known as the “Capricorn Coast”. They also define a pretty good patch in which to catch mackerel all year round.

There are some strongly held points-of-view by local commercial and long-time recreational mackerel fishers about the “whys and wherefores” of this fishery. Especially in relation to the year-round movement of the fish from the outer reefs and islands, such as Barren, to the deep-water inshore headlands of Cape Capricorn, Cape Manifold and others further north beyond the bay proper.

Most, if not all, of this conjecture centresaround the formation of the currents that push through Keppel Bay and the wider effects of both the barrier reef and the groups of reefs further south. To me they are inextricably linked.

I have mentioned this relationship between reef andcurrent(s), which affect Keppel Bay, in previous articles. But it is relevant (and) to again labor this important point.

The primary current that affects the east coast of Australia is the Australian East Coast Current. It travels west across the Pacific Ocean, intercepting the outer Great Barrier Reef in its more northern waters (it is generally accepted in an area between Cairns and Townsville). From here it takes a southerly path in a band about 100km wide and around 1.5km deep. And whilst it is a warm tropical current that is generally low in nutrients, it‘s effect as a fish mover as it flows down the coast outside of the reef,is extremely important. Especially to places such as Keppel Bay and in particular, Barren Island.

As this current pushes south at around 7kph, it forms a series of eddies. Some are broad and oceanic in nature, due to contour changes in the sea floor and the shape of the Continental Shelf, whilst others are local, due to coastal contours and the effects of the shape of the Great Barrier Reef. There are two such “local eddies” which affect Keppel Bay and the waters along the Capricorn Coast.

One eddy forms at the base of the Swains Reef, in much the same way as a surf point break. It pushes inshore and northwards along the Capricorn Channel as it rounds the base of the reef. The second eddy forms, in a similar manner,at the bottom edge of the Bunker Group of reefs and heads north, and west, into Keppel Bay along the Curtis Channel. Locally these are strong currents and play a major role in the distribution of baitfish and pelagics into, and throughout, Keppel Bay.

I can recall one incident some years back when night fishing the Curtis Channel wide of Cape Capricorn. We were at anchor, and the big 9m platealuminum held its position into the current.   We waited for her to swing with the turn of the tide around 11pm, but it never came. She just held with her bow facing south, so strong was the northerly flowing current. Then at around 1am, the shroud of light thrown across the water by the back deck light erupted in a ball of flickering baitfish. And as one school would leave, another would soon arrive. It was a highway of fish traffic. Barren stands directly in the path of the Curtis Channel current and intercepts this movement of fish!

Local commercial fishing families from Yeppoon, who targeted Spanish mackerel all year round in the Capricorn reefal lagoon, used this knowledge to track fish as they moved between the Capricorn Channel and the Curtis Channel – moving in and out from coast to reef and along the coastline between Cape Capricorn and Townsend Island. Picking up fish all the way.

Many of us young blokes at that time would meet with these blokes at the local pub and once they saw that you were genuine would give you a few starting clues. As one skipper told me, “Watch the water temperature, especially at Barren. It can change with the tide!” We learnt a lot.

On this day at Barren with Andrew we followed the 23.6Cthermal line and found the bait still balled up wide of the eastern face of Child. Another fish followed, this one a better specimen of around the 10kg mark, before the sharks moved in and took the next two fish.

Many of the mackerel grounds these days have a healthy population of sharks. Healthy if you are a shark looking for a mate, or a feed. Unhealthy if you are a fish, or a fisherman, chasing a feed! Research shows that sharks learn very quickly and adapt even quicker – a vibrating motor, a trolled bait, a hooked fish all mean one thing – a struggling fish not going anywhere in a hurry. It soon learns that this is an easy meal. Barren has more than its fair share of bronze whalers and the occasional tiger shark. At times, during summer and the lead up to the spring tides, it can be unfishable. So these days I concentrate my efforts just after the neaps. But I still lose some fish. The tide neared full, steadied for a while, then turned. Time to move.

The channel below the Boulders was beginning swirl and hump over the cross-shelf, know locally as “The Ledge”, which runs from the Boulders across to the southern side of Child. It is a good place to fish on the first of the run-out tide. The baits rolled out the back of S-Cape2.

The second bait of fresh bonito took a hit that resulted in a blistering run out to the south of Barren. This was fish number four and the best fish of the day at around the 11kg mark. A check of the sounder showed that the water temperature had increased to 24.4C. The old skipper, now passed on, was right – “watch the water temperature”.

The fish had gathered along The Ledge and could be clearly seen. The sharks were being kind to us. And although they showed up under the hooked fish, they decided, for reasons known only to themselves, not to attack. It would have been easy to take a bag limit but with enough fish to feed three families and for Andrew to take a box back to Townsville we called it quits.

Barren had again lived up to its reputation!