Live Baiting Brisbane Estuaries
Dave "Nugget" Downie

Shawn Downie With A 40lb Jewfish

The adrenaline rush that hits you when you hear the scream of a ratchet while live baiting can make the old ticker miss a beat or two, leave brown lumps in your undies or a yellow trickle down your leg. The reason is that the majority of big estuary fish; mulloway, trevally, mangrove jacks, croc size lizards, kilo plus bream and cod, are all taken on live bait. There are a lot of different rigs, baits and methods that can get very confusing for the newcomer. I started live baiting 25 years ago off the NSW coastline from favorite haunts such as Tathra Wharf, Bermagui Pools and the Tubes at Javis Bay. The most popular method in those days was to use an offshore breeze, underwater paravane or outgoing tide to drift a live yellowtail or slimy mackerel under a balloon. The rig utilized rubber slip rings, cotton thread and exact balloon sizes to suit conditions. When finances stretched to a small tinny we swum slightly weighted live baits in the white water wash of bommies and rocky headlands within reach of an enthusiastic youthful row. Nowadays the home brew and old age has caught up with me and the majority of live baiting is at Jumpinpin and the Broadwater out of my small but outboard powered boat. There will always be controversy when it comes to techniques, where to locate the hook, size of hook, length of trace or preferred species of bait fish. The subject can always raise a fiery discussion at the local club. Over the past 10 years fishing south east Queensland estuaries I have refined my technique to come up with a system that works for me. Here it is warts and all.

Species Of Bait Fish


First of all it is important to realize that you can not use a summer whiting under 23cm long. A 23cm whiting is not too big a bait for most estuary species however, it is pretty hard to catch only 23cm whiting. A 30cm whiting is a good bait for 10 kilo plus jew but most other estuary species will leave it alone. Winter whiting, the small ones with the dark blotches on them are just as good and they have no minimum size limit. Whiting are hardy, meaning they will stay alive in your live bait tank for a long time and stay alive with a hook in them for a long time. The main problem I have encountered using whiting is their ability to bury themselves in the sand when a large predator approaches. As long as you are aware of this you can modify techniques to over come it. I mainly fish live whiting over hard rock or clay where they dont have the opportunity to disappear into the soft sand. If Im using whiting on a soft sand bottom I drop the bait to the bottom then wind up enough to ensure it cant bury its body in the sand. Whiting are an excellent bait for mulloway, mangrove jacks, flathead and a good bait for all other estuary species.

Herring, Bony Bream

I class these two together because of their similarity in both looks and habits.Herring give me the shits. You throw the cast net and as it closes up you feel that familiar vibration and instinctively know you have a net full of herring that you are going to spend the next half hour picking out. They are very hard to keep alive for any length of time, either in the tank or on the line. Herring are a fragile fish that can not stand being rigged on a large hook or heavy line. For this reason herring are a favorite light line bait using hooks up to a 4/0 and line up to 6kg. They are deadly on big bream and a good bait for trevally and flathead as well as most other estuary species.


It is no secret that mullet are a good bait, both live and dead. I am not going to get into the debate over which is the best species of mullet for live baiting. I have used them all and had success with all. Just remember that sea mullet, also called a bully, hardgut or river mullet, have a minimum size of 30cm. Mullet are a strong fish and stay alive for many hours. Just make sure there are no scales on the point of the hook as this will hinder setting the hook.


Yellowtail pike are at the larger end of estuary live baits and are therefore mainly used for mulloway. They are a very lively bait often taking drag giving you a minor heart attack while your waiting for the big jew run, they are relatively easy to keep alive.

Tailor (Bluefish)

Tailor are one of the best live bait you can use but once again, be aware they have a minimum size limit of 30cm. They are very active and hardy with the added advantage of roaming between the surface and the bottom if using them unweighted. Because of there minimum legal size they are mainly a mulloway bait.


Scad are difficult to obtain at the Pin and Broadwater estuaries for that reason I dont use them very often. They are plentiful out in Moreton Bay and outside the Southport Seaway to the south at the wreck site of the Scottish Princess, but this is out of range for most estuary anglers small tinnies. There are isolated pockets of scad that hold up at the Pin and Broadwater but they can be difficult to find. Scad are an excellent all round live bait, have no minimum legal size and stay alive for a long time on the line.

Keeping The Bait Alive

There are three main things that will keep your bait alive. First of all dont handle it. If using bait jigs hold the caught bait fish over the live bait tank and shake it so it drops into the tank. If using a cast net have a saltwater wet chamois and grab them with that, dont touch them at all if you can help it. Second, get them into the tank as soon as possible. Thirty seconds out of water is too long. Thirdly keep replacing the water every 20 minutes. If it is a bilge pump fed tank then run the pump continually. The water must be fresh and cool. By not replenishing the water you cause it to loose oxygen content. If you have a portable esky live bait tank with a pump and spray setup then run it continually and every hour or so drain half the water out and top it up. Dont take any shortcuts, if you follow those simple but very important rules then you should have minimal problems keeping you bait alive all night. The difference between a very lively bait that has been looked after and a sluggish bait that has not been looked after is the difference between fish and no fish, its that important.

NEWS FLASH!!!                                  l-smorig.gif (3377 bytes)
I have recently discovered an aeration system that has changed my live bait keeping methods completely. I now use the KeepAlive Oxygen Infusor and recommend it above all others. Read my article on 'Live Bait and the Theory of Aeration' or visit the KeepAlive site for more information - KeepAlive Oxygen Infusors


Although my grandfather (and Tye Porter) would turn in his grave, I must confess to using lead on the majority of my rigs. Most of my live baiting is done at Jumpinpin and the Broadwater where the tidal current is usually pretty strong. You can fish with no lead on the very slow tides or during the turn of the tide, which I usually do, but on most nights you need a lump of lead to stop the bait doing loop to loops on the surface in the current. I usually use 10 - 15 kilo main line and 20 30 kilo trace depending on the location I am fishing and species likely to be caught. The rig I use consists of an eight or ten ball sinker running down to a swivel and a six to eight foot trace.
I do a few little things that I think make the difference when using lead. I drill the hole in the sinker out to a larger diameter. This allows the line to run absolutely unhindered during the first few meters of a run. I also fish with the reel in free spool with a home made quick release line clip to stop it feeding out line under current flow or bait fish pulling. The theory being the fish will not feel a thing when taking the initial run.

Unweighted rig

Wherever possible I prefer to use no lead, however, in most situations this is not possible. The rig I use unwieghted for live baiting is the same as the one I use with lead only I replace the swivel with an albright knot. If using an Alvey or spinning reel (egg beater) I use a swivel as that type of reel can induce line twist.

Hook placement is dependent on the tidal flow and the type of bait fish chosen. Whenever possible I place the hook just behind the head and just in front of the dorsal fin. You only need to place the hook a few millimeters into the skin, any deeper and the bait will die prematurely. Most predators grab their prey side on and then try to swallow the bait head first. For this reason I have found a greater hook up rate by placing the hook in this location. The only disadvantage is that a hook placed near the dorsal fin can cause the bait to be pulled side on in very fast current such as big tides in the Seaway or Pin Bar, making it look very unnatural and killing it quickly. If I find the bait doing this in current then I use a bridal rig as shown in diagram B.


The bridal rig keeps the bait facing into the current swimming naturally. Because it is used in very fast flowing water it is usually used in conjunction with a sinker and long trace. It looks difficult to do but is very quick and easy. A darning needle threaded with fine fuse wire in the tackle box and with little practice you can rig a bridle up in under 30 seconds.

A useful tip to make the bait swim where you want it to, is to trim the tail fin. The top half of a fishes tail gives it downward thrust and the bottom half gives it upward thrust. By trimming the top half of the baits tail it can only swim to the surface. By trimming the bottom half of the baits tail it can only dive towards the bottom. This is useful to keep an unweighted bait near the bottom during the turn of the tide or slow tide. It is also useful in keeping a bait on the surface when chasing pelagics.



1..2..3..4& STRIKE

There is a lot of hoo-har about when to strike at a run. Jew will quite often take a run, stop, then take off a second time. Reading all the books I used to wait for the second run then strike, however, there were many occasions when the second run didnt come. I now use a simple approach, count to four (sometimes pretty quickly) then lift into it.



I dont use hooks with a set in them such as a Mustad 540 as you can have problems with the hook burying back into the bait. I have used Mustad 7766 hooks for years but lately I have been using the new Mustad Big Gun hooks. They are very sharp straight out of the box, light for their size and very strong. For larger baits destined for larger fish the Mustad Hoodlum or Mustad Live Bait is a better choice.


Below is my favorite selection of hooks rigs and baits for the most common species.

Big Bream; Small herring stealthily fished unweighted over rocks at night, rigged on a 4/0 Mustad Big Gun pinned just in front of the dorsal fin.

School Jew; Four inch mullet or winter whiting fished on a weighted rig with a long trace using a 6/0 Mustad Big Gun pinned just in front of the dorsal fin.

Big Mulloway; Large whiting, mullet, pike or tailor rigged on a weighted rig with a long trace using a 8/0 - 10/0 Mustad 7766 or Mustad Live Bait.

Mangrave Jack; Winter whiting, herring or mullet either live or a fresh fillet rigged on a 4/0 Mustad Big Gun, unweighted if possible. The majority of my jacks are caught at night or late afternoon during the turn of the tide.

Trevally; Herring, small mullet or winter whiting fished unweighted up off the bottom on a 4/0 Mustad Big Gun hook.

Flathead; Whiting, herring or mullet fished on a weighted rig with a long trace using a 4/0 - 6/0 Mustad Big Gun hook.

Using a Down-Rigger

Even though a down rigger is designed for trolling lures at depth mine is employed for live baiting. With a down-rigger I can fish an unweighted bait in the Seaway or Pin bar regardless of current flow. I would go as far as saying the down-rigger has had a greater effect on my fishing, particularly in the Seaway and Pin Bar, than any other invention in the past 10 years, it is that effective. Diagram D bellow illustrates its use.

Before down-riggers I would fish with an open bail rigged with a clip that held the line with just enough holding pressure to overcome current, bait fish struggle and line drag. A down rigger does exactly the same except at the depth you are swimming the bait. This gives you the added advantage of overcoming line drag and allowing you to fish with no lead, the down rigger bomb acts as the sinker. With accurate setting of the release clip you can increase your strike and hook-up rate particularly in fast flowing current. In still water or during the turn of the tide, the down rigger enables you to keep the bait at the depth you want to fish, particularly if used in conjunction with the tail clipping technique mentioned earlier. I can cut the bottom of a whitings tail to make it dive, then, rigged on a down rigger, position it off the bottom so at maximum stretch it reaches about six inches off the bottom. A deadly technique.



Some smaller model downriggers have the release clip off the lead bomb.

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