When The Weather Changes – Bill Bowtell

Over the years I have kept pretty good records of my fishing. You know – the regular stuff – tides, moon phases, sea colour and conditions, weather patterns and of course, species of fish caught and/or released, locations and baits/lures used.

Toss into that mix, time of the tide when the “bite” occurred and the average size of the fish caught, then, over the years, these records have become a fair wealth of information on which to call.

It all started back in the early nineteen eighties’ when I had thirteen weeks of extended recreational leave. Fishing was high on my “To Do List”. And after three years of a continuous works program without a break, this element within my “To Do List” was going to be often over the next three months. It didn’t work out that way!

I recall that first day.

Knocked off at midday and travelled back to my home at Tungamull, a small locality located at the back of Emu Park. Picked up my previously packed fishing gear and headed down to Yeppoon to meet up with mates Gavin Nash, Darryl (Duffy) Minter and Barry Strickfuss. Left Rosslyn Bay boat harbour in two boats and headed north to The Pinnacles about 40-odd kilometres up the coast. Arrived at The Pinnacles around two hours before sunset and set anchor from the reliable coastal landmarks – the “tits” at Manifold and the sand flash on Nine Mile. The fish did not let us down.

Nannygai (Red Jew) in the 2 – 3kg range were the first to show and they came aboard at regular intervals. They were little match for the 60lb handlines we were using at that time. They even moved up so high in the water column that our floating bait of pilchards were hit hard and often. It was fast and furious fishing and we were having a ball.

As the sun dropped behind the Coastal Range and the shadows of late April lengthened, the action took on a complete new complexity. The nannygai went right off the bite and the rattle on our lines, followed by arm-wrenching runs, was a clear indication that the new “Boys on the Block”, were the hard hitting, hard fighting, Black Jewfish, which were known to haunt these deep underwater columns of rock. Sixty pound handlines were no match for these fish in this type of environment, so we switched to 100lb gear. And, all being lads in our mid, to late twenties, we gave as good as we got.

It was great fishing, and even at that time my notes show “exceptional fishing” when describing our results. I didn’t challenge that point, or ask why at that time, but it was a remark that I have used only twice since.

The second event was in October 1988 when fishing the rock bar at the mouth of Topsy Creek, Kowanyama Country, western Cape York, I hooked, landed, tagged, recorded and released 42 barramundi in a three-and-a-quarter hour period. That equates to a fish a bit over every four-and-a-half minutes. It too, was exceptional fishing!

The latest entry was two weeks ago – late May 2016. This time it was more to do with, “how the location that I was fishing performed”, rather than size and number of fish caught, for the fishing was wide and varied with important factors being, the distribution of the fish and as importantly, how and when, they “bit”.

I recalled my previous trips of 1980 and ‘88 looking for points to compare, points of commonality, with the view of making a further comparison with events of May this year.

1980 – two boats left “The Pinnacles” mid-evening as the stars began to disappear behind a very solid bank of heavy cloud. A southerly change was coming! We moved quickly back to Rosslyn Bay harbour. It was a telling move.

Following that Friday night it was a further twelve weeks before there was another break in the weather that gave, even the slightest hint, of being able to go to sea again to fish. Twelve weeks of incessant southerly to south easterly winds of strengths greater than 15 knots and more often, than not, gusting to 25 knots, or better. The sea was continually wind-swept and milky green. There was one day, through pure frustration, that I tried (did) venture out under a forecast of 15knots. It was a foolish mistake for no fish were caught, a hiding was copped and I came home with my tail between my legs.

It was in the final week of that three-month stint that the weather dropped out sufficiently enough to venture wide of Keppel Bay to the outer Capes and islands. It took a few days, but the fish finally came “on” and again, it was good to be out on the ocean.

1988 – the Topsy Creek trip, whilst “exceptional fishing”, was no surprise. It was planned. I had worked up in that country for more than eighteen months and fished both Topsy Creek and the Mitchell River at every opportunity. So I knew the country, the people, and the fishing well enough to take a lot of the guesswork out of any trip into the area. But I must admit, that even 42 barra in a bit over three hours was beyond my wildest dreams. However, it was what happened over the next two weeks of my stay, that was the real lesson.

As any Gulf fisherman will tell you, weather patterns that bring winds from the north – west sector are vicious, and often dangerous, winds. In the Gulf proper and along the western side of the Cape they whip up the seas and create dangerous inshore conditions, often raising tides levels far greater than those predicted. They put the fish down and off the bite. This type of front came through the day after I caught and released the 42 barra with the winds dominating the rest of our two-week stay at Topsy Creek. Fishing after that incredible session was difficult, to almost impossible.

Was there a pattern of commonality between 1980 and 1988? And if so, what was it? Also, did the same pattern occur in 2016? There were a few salient, accompanying factors which made it so. I noted these in my fishing notes.

1980 was an offshore event. The fish bit very strongly and aggressively that Friday night before the change. With the seas being blown out for the next twelve weeks, apart from the one futile attempt, there were no trips offshore to evidence whether the fish were still biting, or not, leaving an unanswered question. But there were two worthy factors worth noting.

Whilst the offshore fishing was a wipeout due to the strong and persistent southerly sector winds, I still ranged the inshore creek and estuary systems. Working the tides and the better days of wind and weather, most of my trips were successful. This was an important factor, for it indicated that the fish were still following their normal feeding patterns. At least in those areas where the waters were shallow and the effects of the strong winds, were far less.

The second factor was that, when the winds did start to abate the offshore fishing did not pick up immediately. Other factors came into play first. Points such as, water clarity, prime tides, regular current lines, return of schools of baitfish and regular patterns of consistent water temperatures. It was only then, did the fishing return to “normal”.

1988 however, was an inshore event, and the creek and estuary fishery closed down almost completely although at times, large Queenfish could be seen working the foreshore gutters just out beyond the chop of the metre high on-shore breakers. One could only suggest that they were chasing bait and feeding. But what had happened to the fish in the creek, especially the barra who had come into the creek to breed? Were they still there and just lying “doggo”, or had they moved? Again an unanswered question! (But there was a twist!)

From these two events of “exceptional fishing” the only obvious factor of commonality in both circumstances was, the change to the prevailing weather pattern and the conditions that followed those changes (where the fishery closed down, or was suspected of closing down). But even with this knowledge, there were still more questions needing answers.

The most obvious being, “what were those conditions?” Then there was also the question of – “if they do close down on their feeding pattern, then for how long, and under what conditions?”

I have pondered those questions over the years and entered many a discussion with fishers, both respected recreational and commercial. Each and everyone have had very valid points of view that would stand up under any form of scrutiny. But it was not until May 2016, that the penny finally dropped and some of the unanswered questions came to light.

My approach had been from the wrong angle. Instead of trying to determine what happened during the period of poor weather in order to make the most of when the break finally came, what I should have been doing was, working out when the weather changes were coming through in order to plan my fishing trips around those events. Both before and after periods of unstable weather conditions! Because the fish already had!

The questions were not as complex as I first imagined.

Whilst science admits that there is no definitive answer as to how fish feel the effects of barometric change, the fact that they do, is in general agreement.

Fish are thought to sense pressure changes through their air (swim) bladders. And because fish of differing species have differing size air bladders the effects on each are different, causing varying behavioural patterns in both movement and feeding patterns.

Take those species of fish that have large air bladders: fish such as our reef species (trout, nannygai, emperors, cod) and estuary species such as barramundi, jacks and threadfin among others.  These fish quickly sense changes in air pressure, especially when the gradient is dropping, as it affects the pressure acting on their bladders. When the pressure is low it is accepted that the bladder expands a little making the fish feel uncomfortable. Under these conditions they either, move to deeper water thus increasing the pressure and stabilizing the air bladder, or control the bladder by absorbing extra gas.

This action causes some stress on the fish and in general they are not worried about eating but are more inclined to sit in a comfortable section of the reef, or estuary and ride out the change.

Pelagic species of fish are somewhat different. Because they have smaller air bladders and a body density that is closer to that of the surrounding water, they are less affected by the changes brought about by drops, or rises, in the barometer. So their pattern of behaviour is generally the same. However, much of their baitfish food source have large bladders and will hold deeper in the water column and become less active. So in fact, the habits of pelagic species are affected through a de facto relationship with their food source.

The converse is true with high-pressure systems. Fish are much more comfortable when there is stable high pressure and will feed most actively under what we consider “normal” feeding patterns. And when I look through my long kept records, it is easy to see that this is the case.

Looking back to 1980 and 1988, it becomes obvious that the fish sensed that the changes were coming and they fed heavily and aggressively, almost right up until the time of the change. Then, once the change had occurred they felt uncomfortable and went into a pattern where they fed less often and less aggressively. This again occurred most recently in May of this year.

My son Andrew and I fished one of the northern reefs of Keppel Bay on the Tuesday night and caught a big hump-headed snapper and a big golden grunter before a slight change came through from the south. The fish went off the bite, but could be seen massed up in a hole just wide of the reef. By the size and shape of the show there were mackerel on top and reef species below – most likely grunter and snapper. That night and front came in from the north and the barometer rose. I went to investigate the reef at 5:00am. I had my bag limit of three Spanish mackerel in under half-an-hour. And with the catch of the grunter and the snapper from the night before called it quits. The sounder was still lit up like a Christmas Tree. It was exceptional fishing.

That night the pressure dropped, the front hit, 62mm of rain fell and the rest of coast below Yeppoon to Tasmania got a thumping.

The After-Event and the Topsy Creek Twist!

As noted in each diary entry there was a “settling-in” period, a stabilizing effect, after each frontal system had passed through, a period where things began to again, return to normal. And when I investigated this a little further it appeared to be around the 24 to 36hr period. I now plan my trips around this information.

As for Topsy Creek! Right in the middle of the blow a commercial barra boat came into the creek. At first it was thought that it was there to shelter, but the skipper immediately started to set his nets. The next morning his 5m net-boat was full of barra. He and his two crew members were still filleting the catch at 4pm that afternoon.

The fish were still there but not biting!