Sensational Sydney Harbour

Al McGlashan | VOLUME 26, ISSUE 2
Sydney Harbour is the most heavily fished waterway in NSW thanks to the lack of marine park restrictions and the sensational fishing.
Despite being our most heavily populated city, Sydney and its iconic harbour offer some of Australia’s best fishing.

Sitting on the boat with a coffee in hand, I watched the sun slowly breaking free of the horizon, its rays illuminating the Opera House in the process. In the background, the Harbour Bridge was bumper-to-bumper as everyone else headed to work. As the light increased, the waterway came alive as the feeding frenzies began. Flocks of seabirds wheeled about excitedly as pelagic predators churned the surface to foam and smashed the baitfish schools.

The commotion continued, even when ferries and other traffic ran straight through their frantic midst. As I made my first cast, I wondered just how many people were watching from their office windows. However, I didn’t have long to contemplate the answer, as an instant double hook-up – a salmon and a bonito – interrupted proceedings. Moving on to the next school, we found some kingfish, then a chopper tailor bit me off – and that was all just in the first hour.

Sydney is a truly amazing fishing destination and over the years I have tallied some impressive captures, from heavyweight kingfish to delicious john dory, countless bonito and some sizeable flathead. Then there was the 180kg bull shark that I released in front of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Australia’s biggest city, Sydney is also arguably its prettiest. The picturesque Port Jackson is encompassed by suburbia, yet there are still pockets of natural parkland and beautiful white sandy beaches, while the Blue Mountains serve as a majestic backdrop to the west. And, of course, there are its iconic landmarks, like the Opera House and Harbour Bridge, which are known throughout the world.

ALIVE WITH FISH

As impressive as all this is, the best aspect of Sydney from my professional perspective is its sensational fishing. The deep, clean waters of the harbour are alive with fish, from the bream and flathead up amongst the mangroves, to the kingfish and tailor that patrol the lower reaches.

Protected from the rolling swells of the Tasman Sea by an impressive wall of sandstone cliffs, Sydney Harbour is a tranquil waterway. With countless bays and beaches, there is always a lee shore for both boat-and land-based anglers.

According to NSW Fisheries, Sydney Harbour is the most heavily fished waterway in the state. Considering there are almost a million anglers in NSW, with a vast majority of the population concentrated around the harbour, it is really encouraging to see that the fishing is actually improving. The main reason behind this was not the introduction of marine parks, but rather a concerted effort to improve water quality. The Parramatta River used to be nothing more than a dumping ground for industry, but now tighter controls have alleviated the abuse and the waterway is bouncing back.

However, the remnants of man’s mistreatment still linger in the form of dioxins present in the Parramatta River – dioxins that have subsequently filtered through the food chain. A while ago, tests revealed an alarmingly high level of dioxins in a number of fish species, which forced the closure to all commercial fishing in the harbour for health reasons. As bad as this sounded at the time, the banning of prawn trawling and other commercial activities has helped to give the harbour a new lease on life and it is now exploding with fish.

Fed by both the Parramatta and Lane Cove Rivers, Sydney Harbour is a mass of mangrove-lined bays, rocky points and sprawling suburbia. One of the reasons why the harbour has rebounded so quickly after years of abuse is that the all-important mangroves have been left intact in many areas. This has helped to insulate the system, making it more resilient to pollution. From personal experience, I have been amazed at the comeback of prawns and baitfish, which are now so prolific throughout the harbour’s waters.

KING OF FISH

In the upper reaches, bream, flathead and tailor are common, as is a surprising number of jewfish. In the lower reaches, Aussie salmon, trevally, squid, john dory, bonito and even mackerel tuna are a possibility. But of all the species available in the harbour, it is the hard-fighting kingfish that is the most sought after. In recent years, this species has gone from strength-to-strength, thanks to the demise of commercial floating fish traps, and it is now a common target in the harbour.

Sydney Harbour also makes a great departure point for the extensive offshore bluewater options. There are also some productive snapper grounds inshore, as well as some great game fishing offshore –including some sensational kingy grounds literally just outside the Heads.

YEAR-ROUND OPTIONS

The beauty of the harbour is that it offers year-round options. In fact, it is one of the few places where anglers are pretty well guaranteed to catch something every day of the year. That may seem like a tall claim, but the fishing now really is that good.

Bream, flathead, jewfish and tailor are year-round options, while pelagics, such as kingfish and bonito, are common from early spring right through to June.

During the peak of summer, the East Australian Current pushes a warm tongue of water down the coast, bringing with it a series of tropical intruders like spotty mackerel, striped tuna, amberjack and even cobia. Alternatively, during the cooler months, Aussie salmon invade the harbour en masse and will often hang around right through to the summer months.

While the kingfish may slow down inside the harbour during the winter, they are thick over the coastal reefs, also making them a year-round option.

Further offshore, marlin and dolphinfish (mahi mahi) are common during the warmer months. This season saw unprecedented hot water push down the coast, bringing with it wahoo and even Spanish mackerel. And as the water cools during the winter, the marlin are replaced by yellowfin, albacore and even the highly-prized bigeye tuna. So, there is always something on the chew.

FISHING FOR ALL

What makes Sydney Harbour such a great fishing spot is that it is so varied and has great fishing for boats big and small as well as land-based anglers.

It may surprise many fishos, but there are also some serious ‘stud’ bream lurking in this suburban waterway. Although common throughout the system, the best fishing is in the rivers. The Lane Cove River is productive throughout its length, but the lower reaches, from Burns Bay Bridge to the entrance at Greenwich, offer the most reliable stretch. Not only does the area produce a lot of bream, but it is also home to some sizeable flathead and even a few flounder.

The Parramatta River is even better, but some of the hotspots are around the Gladesville Bridge and my personal favourite is Iron Cove Bay. These areas can be fished just as effectively from a canoe or a ‘pro’ bream boat, and in the case of Iron Cove the land-based fishing is also highly rewarding. In the middle reaches of the system, there is a maze of boat moorings, wharves and rocky banks that all hold fish for both the bait angler and the lure flicker. Bait-fishing the deeper holes can also produce jewfish at night.

PELAGIC PARADISE

The lower reaches of the harbour still offer some great bread-and-butter fishing, but they are overshadowed by the exceptional pelagic fishing. Every spring, massive schools of whitebait enter the harbour attracting a wide range of pelagic predators. When the fish are firing, it is possible to catch several different species in as many casts. In fact, one morning while filming a segment for Channel Seven News, I managed three species in three consecutive casts – all on camera!

The surface activity is often best early in the morning, but when the fish are really firing, the action can last all day. It is easy to find the fish – just look for commotion on the water, mostly accompanied by a flock of seabirds excitedly wheeling about above.

These inshore pelagics can turn up just about anywhere, so the best approach to finding them is to cruise around slowly searching for surface action. Some of the best spots are Garden Island, North Harbour and Clifton Gardens. On the run-out tide, salmon will work bait schools between there and North Head.

Chasing this surface action is exciting and fast. The best approach is to fish light tackle that allows you to make long casts. The best lures change daily, but small metal Halco Twisties, soft plastic stick baits and flies are the best options.

My personal favourite is a 6in translucent stick bait rigged on a worm hook. Skipped across the surface like a scared baitfish, these odd lures are absolute dynamite and usually cause an immediate response from the kingfish. But if the fish go quiet, try adding a sinker and letting it right down to the bottom before cranking it back up at speed.

As the water starts to warm up in spring, kingfish start to congregate around the many buoys and navigation markers that litter the harbour. Casting poppers will produce some explosive strikes around the markers early in the morning, especially if you are the first one to hit them.

STRIVE FOR LIVE

As good as artificial lures are, if you want to catch the big boys then you simply can’t go past livebaits. Yakkas, slimy mackerel and squid are all available in the harbour and easy to catch. Squid is the pick of the bunch inside the harbour, but for headlands and coastal reefs the yakkas and slimies are a better option.

Rigged on a single hook and weighted enough to get them down to the ideal depth, baits can be either slow-trolled or drifted past structure. A panicking ‘livie’ sitting midwater is like a flashing neon sign for hungry predators and rarely lasts long. The numerous navigation markers are the best place to start, but the deeper ledges and rocky points are also worth a shot. A surprising number of jewfish, big flathead and even john dory also fall victim to this technique.

Live yakkas can also be slow-trolled on downriggers around the headlands to great effect for kingfish. Don’t fish light though, because kings above 10kg are common and will make short work of light tackle.

For anglers keen on chasing jewfish, there are some great holes and ledges in the harbour. Concentrate your efforts after dark around the tide change in areas like the deep hole off Clifton Gardens or around Shark Island. From here upstream past the Sydney Harbour Bridge there are a number of good jewfish spots. Unfortunately, due to excessive boat traffic, boat fishing isn’t recommended and anchoring is illegal in many parts of this area. For land-based anglers, one of the best spots in this stretch is McMahons Point, which drops away almost straight down to 20m. Over the years, some huge jewfish, in excess of 20kg, have been caught.

Another plus is that Sydney has not come under the attention of the anti-fishing Marine Park Authority, which has locked up so many of NSW’s best fishing spots, so anglers are still largely free to fish just about anywhere they wish.

And for those who want to venture slightly further, just 30 minutes’ drive to the north is the massive Hawkesbury River system, while to the south, Botany Bay, which is now a recreational fishing reserve, is just 10 minutes from the city. Then there is picturesque Port Hacking further south, which backs onto the Royal National Park.

So, if you have a boat and you have an urge to wet a line, there is hardly anywhere else in Australia so close to a major population centre that offers so many fishing options. If you doubt my word, I suggest you get out on the harbour and try and prove me wrong. Go ahead … I dare you!


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