Fishing in Cairns is as close to an angler’s paradise as you can get. It’s a perfect starting place to experience Northern Queensland’s massive sport fishing potential. This modern, tropical city has everything a person could want in a fishing location – the World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef at arms reach, abundant Barramundi and Marlin populations, as well as an impressive offer of quality fishing charters.
Cairns Fishing Basics
Cairns is a regional city located in Tropical Northern Queensland.
It’s based in the tropics, so there are two distinct seasons: the “Wet” season from November to April, and “Dry” season from May to October.
Seawater temperature ranges from 29 °C in February and cools down to 23 °C in June.
The Seasonality of Cairns Fisheries
It depends on what you want to fish for and how, but a rule of thumb is that Barramundi like warm water, so it’s better to go after them during the wet season.
Marlin spawn September through December and that’s the best time to target them.
Trevally and Queenfish tend to bite the best during the dry season near the river mouths or even upriver. Check out our interactive Cairns fishing calendar for more info.
You don’t need a license for sport fishing in Queensland, except in privately stocked fishing ponds and closed waters. There are 3 freshwater noxious species that can’t be returned to the water because they compete with the indigenous fish population. These are Carp, Tilapia and Gambusia.
Spearfishing is allowed except in closed waters. Here’s a list of all size and take limits. In short, Sharks, Sawfish and Groupers are the most protected species and you can’t take them home.
Cairns Fishing Spots
Being smack in the middle of almost total wilderness, Cairns boasts a large number of good fishing spots, saltwater as well as freshwater.
You can find fishing tackle shops throughout Cairns, from mom-and-pop shops to large warehouse type stores.
Tours, Charters & Fishing Techniques
Calm Water Estuary Fishing
Trinity Inlet is a natural harbor with over 90 kilometres of waterways that you can fish.
Barramundi, Mangrove Jack, Trevally, Salmon, Grunter, Flathead and Fingermark are the most common species you can catch.
The best way to explore this area if you’re not a local is to hire a guide. Half-day charters are available 7 days a week from the Marlin Marina. The boats depart twice per day, at 7:30 AM and 1:00 PM. Prices range from $95 per person to $350 for the whole boat. You don’t need experience or equipment to enjoy these trips.
Daintree River to the North of Cairns, and Russell and Mulgrave Rivers to the South, as well as Mourilyan Harbour and North/South Johnson Rivers are among local fishing tour guides’ regular spots.
The rivers are filled with sand bars, rock holes and weed beds which make for good Queenfish and Trevally fishing grounds in the 3-10 kg range on light tackle. Flathead, Bream, Whiting King and Blue Salmon and estuary Cod are regulars as well. Barramundi are most active September – March as they prepare for breeding.
Species caught in the freshwater regions include Sooty Grunter, Jungle Perch and the Australian Tarpon.
Full day tours start at $200 per person, or $600 per vessel. The usual departure time is 06:45 AM and return at 06:30 PM. Half day trips are available and go at $350 per boat. Most tours are all inclusive with food, drinks, equipment and transfers included.
Reef Fishing in Cairns
Reef fishing is referred to locally as “Bottom Bouncing”, which is basically medium-heavy handline bottom fishing. The primary target species are Coral Trout, Red Emperor and Nannygai.
The two most popular departure locations are Marlin Marina in Cairns and Marina Mirage in Port Douglas. Reef fishing charters depart at 07:00 AM and return at 05:00 PM, and cost about $240 per person or $950 per vessel. Bait and fishing equipment are included, but make sure to check for food and drinks as operator policies vary. Other departure locations for day charters include Cairns City, Mission Beach and Dunk Island.
Cairns Deep Sea Fishing
The Great Barrier Reef and the nearby continental shelf provide a great habitat for huge numbers of baitfish, which attract nearly every pelagic game fish that inhabits the South Pacific.
Cairns is most famous for its Black Marlin population, but smaller game fish species such as Sailfish, Wahoo, Spanish Mackerel, Barracuda and Dorado are numerous as well.
Most game fishing happens inside of the reef from June to October. November to March is a good time for some offshore fishing as well.
Because you need to travel relatively far to the fishing grounds, deep sea charters are more expensive than reef/river fishing. Rates start at $395 per person (5 minimum) or $1950 for private charters and go all the way up to $5000 for the premium charter boats.
Trips depart from Cairns Marlin Marina, Yorkeys Knob and Mirage Marina Port Douglas at 08:00 AM and return at 05:00 PM.
Beach fishing is great if you’ve got small children or family members that aren’t thrilled about boating. It’s also a good option if you’ve already spent your tour budget and can’t afford a charter.
The top spots are Palm Cove, Yorkeys Knob, Port Douglas and stretches of the Captain Cook Highway north from Cairns to Port Douglas. All of them are ‘civilized’, offer a safe location for lazying on the beach and have shops and restaurants at hand.
You can expect to catch smaller Trevally, Catfish and Sharks from the beaches along the highway. You can also target Barramundi, Queenfish and Trevally during the wet season in more remote regions.
The tropical fish, which inhabit these areas are very aggressive. They take and fight hard, which means you’ll need physical stamina and heavier equipment.
The fish mostly don’t feed on insects, so your fly patterns will need to resemble small fish or shrimp in most cases.
Top Fly Fishing Species
The smaller relative of the Atlantic Tarpon you’ll find in most American fishing shows. These guys are most common at weights of 0.7-1.5 kg but can grow up to 10 kg (rarely). Anglers catch them in river mouths and estuaries and you can easily spot them when they gulp air on the surface. They respond best to shrimp or crab patterns on the flats. They are pound for pound as good and energetic fighters as their larger Caribbean cousins.
Fly fishing on the flats, you can expect 1-10 kg specimens on the end of your line. Check out freshwater rivers, offshore islands, and reefs. Smaller Queenfish school on flats and are among the easiest fish to catch on the fly, attacking most setups. Larger specimens are harder to tempt into a take. Large flies lead quickly ahead of active fish will trigger queenfish into action.
Also known as the Blue Threadfin, they are a smaller relative of the Golden Threadfin. Blue Salmon are most often in the range of 1 to 3 kg. These fish stick to salt water and schools are common on the flats during the dry season. Sometimes these fish will take anything you throw at them, and can be next to impossible to catch at others. They are a strong fighter and respond best to quick-moving, smaller streamer presentations.
They can easily be identified by the yellow fins and pectoral fin extensions or “fingers”. Golden Threadfins grow up to 30 kg in weight, but are more common at 5-8 kg. Shrimp or baitfish fly patterns should be cast as close to the fish’s nose as possible. Even then, there are times when the fish simply won’t bite, regardless of your presentation.
Even though there’s more than one species of Trevally in the waters surrounding Cairns, you’ve got the highest chance of landing a Golden Trevally. When fly fishing the flats, most Golden Trevallies you’ll encounter will be in 1 to 9 kg range. Larger fish up to 15 kg lurk in deeper water. They can be easily caught with most presentations in remote areas where fish aren’t used to anglers.
Giant Herring or ladyfish grow up to 15 kg but are most common at 1 to 6 kg. You can find them in estuaries, bays and harbors and inshore waters outside of flats. As for the bait, you can get them with a wide range of presentations including shrimp, crab, and fish imitations on a slower retrieve.
Although it looks like the African pompano, this is not the same species. Specimens of 1 to 5 kg are most common. They often swim on flats and along beaches, trailing feeding stingrays and shovelnose sharks. They rarely bite on conventional streamers, but will take shrimp and crab patterns. The easiest way to catch them is casting at spotted feeding rays.
If you’re visiting Cairns on holiday, you’re probably not going to catch a Permit. These close relatives of the “true” Permit are among the most difficult species in the area to tempt into attacking a fly. They grow up to 16 kg, and are most common in small schools over flats or around river mouths.
Got questions about Cairns fishing?
If you’re wondering which rod to bring, which captain to choose, or where to fish for Aussie Tarpon – don’t hesitate to ask! We’d love to help and even have a few local captains that will be glad to share their insights.