When fishing offshore in Northern Australia, no fish is more sort after than the mighty red emperor. These fish are top of the list for the most common style of fishing in the world, which is commonly referred to as bottom bouncing. Either drifting or anchored, dangling a couple of baits above a snapper sinker is an Australia’s favourite technique for catching big reds. When targeting these fish half the fun is the by-catch, as they are all great fighters, great eating and a nice surprise. The excitement of guessing your capture before viewing it makes it all the more enjoyable. These friends of the Reds I am referring to are the rest of the emperor family, rankin cod, coral trout and baldchin grouper. The list does extend even further too as the photos accompanying this article show. The main common factor between these fish is they all grow big, taste good and enjoy each other’s company on the oceans floor.
The Emperor family consist of many, and are commonly and incorrectly referred to as North West snapper, even though they are no real relative of the true snapper family. They are known as Lethrinidae or Lethrenis, which are pigface or emperor bream and are usually just called emperor. In Australia they can be found all the way from Sydney around the top end down to Perth, although they are far more common further north. Although there are 40 odd types, the most common encountered by anglers would be red emperor, sweet-lip emperor, spangled emperor or long-nose emperor. For a long time the emperor family have been most popular for their eating qualities, particularly the sort after red emperor, and yet, it is surprising that their amazing fighting abilities are rarely mentioned. In the middle of Australia`s coasts, snapper and red emperor can be caught in the same areas, and this is where the fighting comparisons can be made. These powerful red emperor, when compared to the southern snapper, make the snapper seem pretty lazy. The thumping red emperor headshakes are the tell-tale sign of the famous red from the start of the fight to the end. The spangled emperor is also a favourite for many, as they will hit all types of lures in all depths of water, and will also pack a mean punch for their size. All emperor are always welcome, and although they vary in fighting abilities, they are all aggressive strikers and also don’t tend to give up easily. They all take a liking to any lure, and as for baits, emperor tend not to be fussy, although it is hard for them to pass up fresh squid, crab of fish fillets.
Spangled Emperor are also known as sweetlip emperor or North-West Snapper. They are one of the largest in the family growing to a whopping 7 kg and 80cm. They are an extremely powerful fish, and the first run from a 5 kg Spanglie in shallow waters is unstoppable when using light gear. They tend to hang around coral bommies, coral reef lagoons and sandy areas. Spangled Emperor can be found in depths over 100 metres, and these deeper waters can be targeted with the usual paternoster rigs with two hooks above a snapper sinker. They can be found in large numbers on coral reefs, drop offs and other structures. These depths are a common capture for bottom fishing charter boats in northern waters. They also frequent shallow waters making them a great target for shore based anglers. Beaches and rock ledges are likely to have spanglies around and they also respond well to berley. I find that pellets work a treat. My first introduction to spangled emperor was learning a technique of how to attract them away from their safe bommie hideouts. This would involve using berley pellets on sand patches nearby to the spanglie coral hang outs. They can’t resist a berley trail at dusk or high tide, and the sandy spots make them fair game for light tackle. Once you attract them out to the sand flats you can use a simple rig consisting just of 60lb leader and a 6/0 hook with no sinkers. This will give your bait a natural look and increase your chances. Rock ledges within reefy areas are harder spots to catch these fish, because if there is a hole or ledge to get into, they will do their best to bury you and snag you in it. I have known someone who swears by heavy gear with 100lb mono for this type of area, and it does work a treat, although it does take the sport out of these fun fish. Beach fishing where there is reef present works well and you can use anything from bait, soft plastics, hard body lures, metal slices or poppers. These fish are great shallow water fighters which makes them a perfect target for surface lures from a small boat or kayak. It surprises me that not many people realise that they are popper eaters, so they are not often targeted this way (For more detailed on this technique see issue 7). In deeper waters they will also take jigs and plastics which can be worked along the ocean floor. This technique works best with a drifting boat, so that you can cover plenty of area, although an anchored boat also works well if you use some berley. Again I would recommend berley pellets as they are less likely to attract sharks than a berley mix of chopped up fish or pilchard cubes.
Long nosed emperor
Long nosed emperor (otherwise known as long-face emperor) are another tough member of the emperor bream family (which are similar to the spangled emperor) and have the same tasty white flesh. Long nosed Emperor can also be found in shallow waters, so they can be caught with the same methods as its spangled cousin. In shallow water they tend to hang out alone or mixed in with schools of Spangled Emperor. In deeper water they can be caught in larger schools and are normally around the 4-5kg mark, and in some cases they can grow in excess of 10kg. Most of these fish are caught by anglers targeting red emperor and coral trout in depths of 60-120 metres. They are a threatened species in Australia which has come about from commercial fishing. It is no surprise that there is no real threat to them from amateur fishing, as amateurs are likely to throw them back and keep their target species such as red emperor, baldchin groper (tuskfish) and coral trout, which are all more favoured table fish. To catch them offshore, simply use the same rigs and techniques as you would for red emperor, and depending on your luck they will either be a welcomed by catch, or a pest. Larger specimens are also known to contain Ciguatoxin which is a poisonous toxin to humans. This toxin comes from the fish eating a type of dinoflagellate (Which is mostly marine plankton) and is found in grouper, wrasse, triggerfish, lionfish, coral trout and amberjack. This is the main reason larger coral trout are thrown back as the toxins accumulate in the fish over many years. In saying that, it is really not common and eating smaller fish is always safe. I don`t really want to alarm anyone but the toxin ciguatoxin is pretty nasty stuff. It will attack the nervous system causing paralysis and heart contractions. These nasty symptoms can last from days to months. There is no known antidote; the poison cannot be eliminated in the cooking of the fish. The effects are way too serious to take the risk, so it pays to throw back larger fish of these types of species merely for safety’s sake, and more catching and releasing is always a good thing for our sport.
Red Emperor has one of the best reputations in the ocean, and are quite commonly the target species making everything else a by-catch. They differ from sweetlip and spanglies as they don’t tend to hang in shallow waters. 9 out of 10 anglers’ deep sea fish in the traditional way, with the paternoster rig which is quite obviously suited to these prize fish. The by-catch commonly associated with red emperor, such as coral trout and baldchin groper, are equally impressive table fish, and other emperor will also be found in the same areas. Most fisho`s that target reds are lucky enough to get one in-between the many by-catch although some fishermen in the know have hot spots that produce red after red with every drop. Besides the eating quality and fighting ability, the one thing that attracts anglers to them is the massive sizes that they can reach. Chunky reds can grow well over 20kg and longer than a metre. The average sized red emperor is around 6 kg which is still quite a solid fish, and Red Emperor of over 10kg are a trophy catch. When targeting reds you will most likely find them in over 30 metres of water, and most commonly in 60-120 metres, and also up to 200 metres. They tend to hang around structure such as coral bommies, reefs and manmade grounds or wrecks. Like I said, the simple paternoster rig accounts for most captures and hooks of around 8/0 should do the trick, coupled with a Snapper sinker that suits the depth and current you’re fishing in.
Red emperor also take a liking to certain lures which can be worked along the bottom in deep water. Vertical jigging will catch the odd on smaller knife jigs, although it usually won’t tempt them. I have had most of my successes with soft plastics or octa-jigs. They don’t seem to favour any particular colours, although on certain days they will only eat a certain colour. I guess it depends on their mood and what they are feeding on for that day, so it pays to experiment until you find what is successful for you. With lures, use a slow action. My technique is to do 10 slow jigs and 10 winds then drop back down so I am only working the bottom 5 metres of the ocean. Catching Red Emperor on bait is good enough for most, but catching them on lures is a true art and an impressive feat. In most cases they will take bait over a lure, but I have seen lures out fish bait at times. My personal best red was on a plastic, so I am obviously a fan of this method. When catching red emperor on lures you get more of a feel for how aggressive they attack, rather than just how they chew their food.
Good luck to anyone who is out to catch their first emperor, or cross another different species off the long list of different types. Also best of luck to anyone willing to give some lures ago despite years of using bait. For a long time these fish have been the go for anglers wanting to fill up their freezers, but they shouldn’t be forgotten as a great sport fish.
Rankin Cod are a common capture and tend to hang around the Emperor family in depths of 30 metres to 200 metres. As with the others they take a liking to fresh baits fished the traditional way. They are also quite fond of lures and will readily attack butterfly knife jigs. They are also commonly caught by trolled deep divers when targeting Mackerel in 30 meters or less. Rankin`s are one of the least fussy fish around and seem to hit any bait or lure. They are a favourite for myself on the plate as I prefer there flaky fillets even over the white flesh of the tasty reds. Rankin cod grow over 1 meter or 10kg so the bigger ones are a force to be had on light tackle.
Coral trout are also at the top of the list when it comes to a sort after table fish. Besides being by catch when bottom bouncing they can also be targeted on lures. They are known to take trolled deep divers like the rankin cod and are often caught near the bottom in deeper waters using ockta-jigs or plastics. In shallow waters they are also aggressive and will attack metals and even poppers or stick baits. Coral trout will grow up to a metre or 30kg but the fish of this size often carry simular toxins as the long nosed emperor so it pays to release the larger specimens.
Baldies, tuskfish or blue bone are also a great tasting fish which tend to hang out in the same areas. Many anglers regard these fish as the best tasting fish in the sea so it is hard to regard them as by catch. They tend to like waters a little cooler than the other species although they are not often found lower than Perth or Sydney. They are also said to be one of the smartest fish in the sea which would explain why they rarely fool for artificials and are most likely caught on bait. With all these amazing table fish found in the same areas, remember to focus on sustainable fishing. Red emperor and their friends are great sport fish and I believe look better in a photo before they’re released then they do on a plate. So do your best to enjoy the fishing and only take what you need and learn the skills of using a release weight.