Tags Fish Guide

Red Emperor

Tags Fish Guide
Category: Prize Fish – Category 1, Highest Risk Reef fish category 

The fight put up by a red emperor is an indication of its bloodline: it’s related to mangrove jack and fingermark bream.  The Lutjanus family is renowned for both its toughness and tastiness.

Recognising the shape of red emperor is generally the easiest form of positive identification, along with its red colouration.  In juveniles the colour pattern is very distinct and striking with three darker red bars over a much paler red background.

WA reference books show the maximum size achieved by red emperor to be 16kg, but some eastern states books suggest that they grow to more than 25kg.  Perhaps they do over there, but I have seen some big specimens over the years such as the Mackerel Islands and I agree that 16kg would be about the upper limit.

The cutoff point for a whole host of tropical and sub-tropical species is the Abrolhos Islands but you would not expect to catch too many red emperor below Shark Bay.

Breeding and Migration
Little is known about the breeding habits of red emperor.

The main threat to this species is probably habitat  destruction  by trawling which can flatten the coral around which red emperor live.  Because we know so very little about the breeding, migration or movement of these fish it is extremely difficult to assess the impact of commercial and recreational fishing.

Western Fisheries magazine has reported that in some areas of the North-West the remaining biomass of red emperor may be as low as 20 per cent.  This is generally considered to be a critical biomass level, below which the ability of the fish stocks to recover is very poor.

Red emperor are generally considered vulnerable to overfishing as they are at the top end of the desirability list of species for both the recreational and commercial sectors.

Generally red emperor are caught in depths of more than 25 metres where the numbers of larger specimens are considered to be greater.  They prefer reef edges and coral bommies but can still often be found over low coral areas. Red emperor are thought to be much more active at night than during the day.

Tackle and bait
Big red emperor tend to hit hard and look for rough-edged coral lumps as soon as they feel resistance, and successful anglers rarely use line under 24kg. Many are now opting for the advantages of gelspun.

Standard dropper rigs – not unlike those used farther south for dhufish – are popular in breaking strains of 50 kilos upwards.  Hooks should start at 7/0 and be strong.  Circle hooks (see Boating Angler, Dec/Jan 1999) can also prove to be very effective but their sizes are a bit strange and you will probably need around 12/0 upwards in this hook style.

Red emperor are not too selective about bait so long as it’s fresh and a reasonable size.  Pieces of mackerel or tuna are good, as are mulies.  Occasionally a whole squid will do the trick.

Fishing methods
Drifting over likely ground with a close eye on the sounder is a well used and successful method.  A sea anchor is often useful even up north but tidal flow creates problems with the drift direction and speed so keep an eye on that too.

When drifting for red emperor try to keep your bait as close to the bottom formations as you can because they don’t like to move too far from home for a meal during the day.  Just keep easing line out to stay in touch with the bottom, but watch the sounder for coral ledges that will snag gear.

Keep a close eye on the sounder too, for fish marking.  Even reasonable size red emperor provide a good echo.  It’s at times like this that a split screen capability with bottom lock is worth its weight in delicious red emperor fillets.

References: Sea Fishes of Southern Australia by Barry Hutchins and Roger Swainston.
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