Fishing the Solitary (Coffs) Coast of Northern NSW
The focus of game fishing on the northern NSW coast is centred around the prime marlin grounds stretching from Southwest Rocks to Yamba. This is often referred to as the Solitary Coast after the iconic inshore island group, which also lend their name to the large nearby Solitary Islands Marine Park. It is also called the Coffs Coast, after the perfectly located coastal town with the only all-weather harbour between Port Stephens and Brisbane.
The open water beyond the islands, anywhere along the continental shelf, produces good numbers of striped marlin, while the most prized billfish of all here – the blue marlin – can be found anywhere beyond about 60 fathoms.
At 30 degrees south latitude, Coffs Harbour is situated at the junction of the Coral and Tasman Seas where the edge of the continental shelf is just 13 nautical miles or 30 minutes cruising from the marina. This proximity to the deep shelf structure and the East Australian Current (EAC) that flows along it gives big game anglers fishing this coast unparalleled time for fishing with minimal wasted transit times.
The southernmost of the Solitary Islands is situated only 20 minutes by boat from the Coffs marina, and through the summer months in particular, the islands and their reefs create perfect conditions for yellowfin tuna, wahoo, kingfish, mackerel, sailfish and juvenile black marlin angling.
The climate on the Solitary Coast was officially described by the CSIRO as being Australia’s “most liveable”, and with mild temperate conditions year-round, a long warm summer, and the East Australian Current bringing offshore water temperatures that range from 19-28C, game fishing conditions are generally excellent.
Access to the Solitary Coast is easy, with vehicle driving times from Sydney and Brisbane being 6.5 and 4.5 hours respectively, while the all-weather airport has numerous daily services from Sydney, and the Countrylink XPT train service passes through Coffs daily from both Sydney and Brisbane.
There are two game fishing clubs active in Coffs Harbour, and the larger Solitary Islands Game Fishing Club operates an IGFA certified weigh station. There are also two annual game fishing tournaments based in Coffs Harbour – the Solitary Coast’s Heavy Tackle Challenge, and the Coffs Harbour Hot Current Tournament.
For bottom fishers, there is also a mackerel shootout during summer, and a snapper tag and release tournament at Easter.
Coffs Harbour itself boasts the only open ocean direct access trailer boat ramp on the north coast of NSW, and the harbour has its own marina for larger visiting boats or permanent resident game boats and yachts.
The marina has two full time game fishing charter operations, bottom fishing charter boats, plus whale-watching and scuba diving boats, as well as being the base for the northern command Water Police boat, Fisheries and Marine Parks patrol boats, and a local Marine Rescue watch-keeping service and rescue boat.
Timing, location and angling tips
While never totally predictable, the blue marlin for which the Solitary Coast is renowned usually first appear in late September with the action heating progressively up until mid-December. This summer season strong bite can continue until about mid-April, tapering off until the end of May when the blues disappear.
They are always fond of the bottom edge of the shelf structure, between 100 and 250 fathoms, and move between schools of striped tuna and smaller yellowfin tuna pushing along the edge of the shelf. Each new pulse of warmer water in the EAC will bring a new flush of blue marlin into the area, and if conditions are right, the blues will stay for days if food is plentiful.
The blue marlin bite most aggressively on lures trolled between and around bait schools anywhere between 75 and 2000 fathoms, and are very sensitive to water quality, preferring clear, blue water over 24C with flying fish and tuna schooling through, while avoiding poorer quality green or cloudy water.
While lure fishing is the most productive technique for Solitary Coast blues, they will also happily attack striped tuna, small YFT, and bonito rigged as skip baits.
While blues are generally solitary predators, during the spawning season it’s not uncommon to raise a handful of male blue marlin within a mile or two of a passing female. Occasionally, large females will be raised, and if a grander blue is going to be caught anywhere in Australia, the odds favour it being along this coastline!
Striped marlin are less predictable than their cousins, but will congregate in small hunting packs, generally on the top of the shelf drop-off between 35 and 85 fathoms, and almost always in the vicinity of bait aggregations.
When the stripes are present in good numbers, live-baiting on the edge of the big schools of slimy mackerel can be extremely productive. The stripes will also hit medium sized skirted lures when you find them.
As summer progresses, the striped marlin that have been spending time off the Solitary coast tend to move south with the cooler water. The stripes seem to prefer water under 24C, but in the really good years, they have been caught here year round in all conditions and water temperatures. Fortunately, if they’re on the chew, the striped marlin are much less fussy about water quality than the blues.
Juvenile black marlin generally appear in early December, and continue to bite well through to mid-May between 35 fathoms and the top of the continental shelf, wherever bait schools are consistently encountered. As December progresses, they move closer inshore to congregate around the closer reefs and islands, generally between 10 and 25 fathoms, and again, wherever the schools of slimy mackerel are found.
The young black marlin will rise to smaller skirted lures, but can also be reliably targeted using drifting live slimy mackerel or yakka baits or skip baits of slimys or bonito.
Accompanying the black marlin, the wahoo and smaller mahi-mahi can usually be found at the same times and in the same areas, and will attack the same baits. However, when wahoo are in the area, be prepared to lose a high proportion of baits and lures to their razor sharp teeth!
The black marlin frequent areas over the reefs around South Solitary Island, and along the length of the top side of the continental shelf wherever bait schools are present. Water quality is not as important to them as the presence of bait schools, so green water isn’t that big a deterrent as long as they can feed.
The hottest spot by far for the young blacks when they’re in town is the stretch of rocky coast only a few hundred metres off the tip of Smokey Cape, where large numbers of blacks can be hooked up live-baiting just a short run out from the river mouth at the town of Southwest Rocks. When the bite is hot, upwards of twenty boats can be seen live-baiting just off Southwest Rocks, often with juvenile black marlin finning around on the surface in full view.
South Solitary Island has a resident population of smaller YFT that move around within a mile or two of the island. The trick on any given day is to find where they are (which can be fairly time-consuming) but once located, double hookups of 3-10kg tuna are not uncommon. The larger YFT are generally all out beyond the shelf, and can provide great action with plenty of tuna in the 30-80kg range being caught in a good year.
As usual, anything floating will have a resident population of undersized mahi-mahi, which often sit above the larger adult fish and will rarely let a bait drop far enough down to get to the big fish around the FAD or the local fish trap floats. The big mahi-mahi are more easily found out in the blue water beyond the drop-off, and will always attack large or small skirted lures with gusto. The same applies to the wahoo that visit over the summer months, except that you’ll lose as many good lures to their teeth as you will actually boat fish, so wahoo can be an expensive find at times.
East Australian Current (EAC)
Game fishing the Solitary Coast can be very much a function of the behaviour of the East Australian Current and the prevailing wind patterns. If the EAC is bringing clear blue water down the edge of the shelf and is flowing at less than about 2.5 knots, it will bring a constant stream of warm water pulses to the coast, and with each one, blue marlin and other pelagics throughout the summer months.
If the EAC is flowing hard, or is being diverted by the large oceanic eddies that often establish themselves offshore, the blue marlin fishing in particular can slow down dramatically. Similarly, when the weather patterns set up persistent northerly winds for more than 24 hours at a time, the ensuing Ekman Effect will usually result in major upwellings of sub-surface dirty water along the shelf as coriolis drives all the good surface water off out to sea, and the marlin with it.
So it pays to keep a close eye on weather, currents, moon phase, and the presence of bait schools along the coast in order to gauge exactly when to expect the best bite – as most serious game fishermen always do. Fortunately though, most of the time, there’s enough going on that simply driving out there and setting up a lure pattern will result in some sort of action, and to hell with all the science.