Traveling Angler's Guide to Fishing in Cairns
May 16, 2019 | 6 minute read Comments
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Reading Time: 6 minutes

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.

Marlin Fishing in Cairns aboard "Shikari"

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.

Regulations

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.

Tackle

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.

River Fishing

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.

Barramundi fishing in Cairns

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.

Reef fishing in Cairns: An angler holding a big Grouper

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.

Marling Fishing in Cairns: A big Marlin leaping out of water after it got hooked

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

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.

Fly Fishing

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

Indo-Pacific Tarpon

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.

Queenfish

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.

Blue Salmon

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.

Golden Threadfin

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.

Golden Trevally

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

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.

Diamond Trevally

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.

Indo-Pacific Permit

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.

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Comments (12)
  • Paul Hamill

    Aug 11, 2016

    I am heading to Melbourne in October on a family holiday and was considering flying up to Cairns to hopefully fish for barracuda. Would it be possible to get contact information for a guide/skipper for a days fishing for Barracuda, I would be open to going as part of a group or individual. Prices and location would be appreciated. Thanks in advance , Paul Hamill, Ireland.

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      Cat

      Aug 12, 2016

      Hi Paul,

      GBR Sport Fishing could be just what you are looking for. They fish for Barracuda, as well as a huge variety of other fish in theGreat Barrier Reef. An individual spot on a shared charter is $280 (AUD), and if you want to rent the boat for yourself that would come to $1500. Otherwise, take a look at Paradise Sport Fishing Adventures, who do half day shared charters at $95, and full days at $180. They are both located at the Marlin Marina in Cairns.

      Take a look at the links and if you need any help, give FishingBooker’s customer service a ring at +1-888-395-2564

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  • Steve Cieciuch

    Feb 13, 2018

    I am headed to Port Douglas in early April and am curious if there are fly fishing opportunities off the beach in Port Douglas as well as Oak Beach to the south. I have two children so this would be a way for me to cruise the beach at dawn and be back with the kids by breakfast. I have been told that we cant swim these beaches in April because of Box jellyfish, can you wade with long pants or is this a real risk, your thiughts? Any guides in Port Douglas that you can recommend for a morning of beach or estuary fly fishing? If I am solo are there certain color deceivers that work, mantis shrimp, 8 or 9 weight preferred? I would grealty appreciate your thoughts, thank you!

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      Lisa

      Feb 19, 2018

      Hi Steve,

      Even with extra protection like stinger resistant swimming enclosures at the beaches, nothing is 100% stinger proof. Box jellyfish are not the only creatures that can be encountered… there could also be crocs.

      I would recommend to book a small boat and check the river and coastal spots. There are inshore wrecks, reefs, Daintree River, Dickson Inlet, and many other nice places. April is good for Queenfish and Trevally, along with Fingermark and Jacks and Barramundi.

      Is there something else I could help you with?

      Lisa

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  • jean-claude dussault

    May 24, 2018

    Hi,

    I am a French Canadian. I will be in Cairns from the 21 of October 2018 till the 25 of October 2018. I would like to join a group to go fishing the sailfish, on the 22, or 23 or 24 of October, I have already a snorkeling day on the 22 of October but I think it could be changed.
    Please tell me if you have room for me and how much it will cost.

    Best Regards.

    Jean-Claude Dussault

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    • Reply icon

      Stefan

      May 25, 2018

      Hi, Jean-Claude,

      Thanks for reading.

      There is a number of charters that target Sailfish in Cairns that might be able to take you on.
      My colleagues from the Customer Support team will reach out to help you choose the date and charter.
      As for the price, shared charters range about 280 CAD per person for a full day trip.

      In case you have some more questions about your trip, feel free to ask here or reach us at +1-850-502-4257.

      Hope you have a safe trip and get that fish.

      Cheers,
      Stefan

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  • dan

    Jan 9, 2019

    Hi I’ll be in cairns from the 11th to the 24th and there are two of us that are look to do some jack fishing , and some deep sea fishing what the best way to find who to go with thanks

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      Sean

      Jan 9, 2019

      Hello Dan,

      Thank you for reading the blog.

      You can give us a call at +61-280-113-433 and our Customer Service team will gladly help you pick the perfect option. You can also take a look at some of the skippers we have through this link.

      I hope you’ll have a great time!

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  • Louise

    May 9, 2019

    I am a Travel Agent in the US originally from Australia. I have a group visiting Port Douglas area. One definitely, maybe two guys want to fly fish. A full day or damp overnight, what are the best options.
    Regards
    Louise

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      Sean

      May 12, 2019

      Hello Louise,

      Thanks for reaching out.

      For a fly fishing trip around Port Douglas, I would recommend a full day outing.

      There are a number of fly fishing charter options in the area, such as Fish Hunter FNQ.

      A couple of popular fishing hotspots include Daintree River and Mowbray River. Transfers, snacks and lunch can be arranged on these full day trips, of course. But you’d best arrange that with the Captain directly.

      Should you need any further charter recommendations, please feel free to contact our Customer Service Team.

      I hope you’ll find this helpful.

      Have a great day!

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  • Kyle

    Sep 22, 2019

    Hi guys, I’ll be heading up to palm cove in late November and plan on doing a lot of fishing. I have been twice before when I was younger but only fished off the jetty. This time round I’m prepared to travel and really like flicking lures. A charter is an option but may not have enough money. Just wondering what the best all round lures would be for anything worth catching? And what would be the best fish for me to target being purely land based? Also wondering where I can get more information on being croc safe and some better fishing spots. Thanks heaps!

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      Sean

      Sep 23, 2019

      Hi Kyle,

      Thanks for reading!

      In freshwater, lures that are gold, brown, green, or pink in colour tend to work best. Something like the Gold Bomber will probably give you the most versatility.

      As far as species are concerned, the best land-based fish you can catch in the area is definitely Barramundi. However, in November, the season is closed for this fish. You can still fish for species like Mangrove Jack, Tarpon, and Jungle Perch.

      Nobody knows the best spots quite like the local Captains do. I would suggest contacting one of them through our website to get the best recommendations.

      I hope you’ll find this helpful.

      Tight lines!

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