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Fishing inshore reefs

In just about every ocean the waters inshore of the continental shelf hold most of their fish life close to the bottom. While pelagic species roam the currents in the upper lays, a myriad of tasty fish live, feed and breed close to the bottom. Some anglers are quite dismissive of bottom fishing, regarding it as a rather dull way to fish. But if you are after a feed on the offshore grounds bottom fishing is generally the best way to catch a feed. In my local waters snapper and pearl perch are two of the main targets, whereas further north coral trout, a range of emperors and nannygai are popular target species. In the south snapper still hold their own, and morwong, teraglin and mulloway are ever popular. Out in the deeper water, beyond 100 metres, there are trevalla, bar cod, flame snapper and gemfish. All of these species are great to eat.

The tactics used to fish reefs vary greatly according to the depth of water you are fishing, and the prevailing wind and current. In water depths of less than around 60 metres soft plastic lures, octa style jigs and metal jigs all work well, but for most of us bait is the standard option. The most universal baits for most bottom fishing are pilchards and squid. Live baits are another extremely effective option. The key to success is to plan your trips well in advance, and know your spots. Isolated small reefs surrounded by sand can be extremely productive if they only experience little fishing pressure as the fish will tend to stay in the same area for prolonged periods. In busy ports there is no longer such a thing as a “secret spot”. One press on the GPS gives a passer-by your spot forever! In heavily fished areas it is generally more productive if you are prepared to travel a fair way from port to areas that see less fishing pressure.

When you head offshore you need to take a few factors into account. If the forecast is for a strong northerly in the afternoon, fish your more northern spots. If there is an increasing southerly wind likely, head south. This is so you will have a following sea on the way home. When you arrive at your spot, take time to sound around so you get a good idea of where the ledges are and look for fish schools. Often snapper and pearl perch hold in schools between 5 and 10 metres off the bottom. Once you’ve found your fish head up current and do a long drift, looking at the speed of drift, any wind effect, and the overall direction of drift. At this point you can decide as to whether you will anchor or drift. In water around 60 metres deep I only anchor up if the current is well less than a knot. Anchoring in hard current in deep water can make it very hard to fish.

If you decide to drift make sure you start up current of the fish so your line has plenty of time to get down to the bottom. There are two main tactics to use when bait fishing, a paternoster rig or a float lining rig. A paternoster rig consists of a large bomb shaped lead on the bottom and a series of hooks on droppers above it. I generally use around 60 pound hard monofilament leader to make these rigs, and I have a three hook gang rig on one dropper and a 6/0 circle hook on the other. The paternoster rig is fast, efficient, often provides instant action and is easy for novice anglers to use. I fish this rig from a jig rod using 50 pound braid fished from an overhead reel. The down side of this rig is that it can be prone to snagging and while it catches a lot of fish, it doesn’t catch nearly as many big fish as the float lining rig does. When I first moved to the Gold Coast over 30 years ago you could catch big snapper consistently on these crude looking rigs, but that rarely happens these days as the fish are fewer in number and quite a lot smarter. Paternoster rigs catch a wide range of species such as pearl perch, coral trout, morwong and parrot fish very effectively. You can increase the effectiveness of the rig by using small lengths of luminous tubing on the droppers above your baits. Braided line makes feeling the bites a lot easier. When you get a good bite just drop the rod tip until the line goes slack and then strike hard. This is the rig that generally produces pan sized fish, but occasionally I’ve hooked mulloway, big amberjacks, kingfish, huge cod and even marlin on this clumsy looking low finesse rig. A lot of charter boats use paternoster rigs extensively. In deeper water beyond about 120 metres electric reels are increasingly used with paternoster rigs targeting trevalla and bar cod.

Float lining, also known as “stray lining” in New Zealand, is a great way to catch snapper. This method relies on a free running sinker above your hook or hooks. It is important that the sinker can run freely up the line so that the bait slowly wafts its way to the bottom. This gives a much more natural presentation of the bait. Lead selection is very important, and I carry a wide range of ball sinkers so I can adjust the lead according to the prevailing current. The ideal lead gives just enough weight so the bait gets to the bottom. This may take a few minutes. When there is no current you can often get away with no lead at all. I like to use pilchards, whole slimy mackerel or fresh strips of tuna or bonito. I like to use a single octopus hook right at the top of the bait. The mainline is generally 10 or 15 kilo mono and I sometimes run this straight through to the hook so the sinker runs freely. When there is a chance of bigger fish I sometimes increase leader strength. When float lining from a drifting boat cast your bait up current and constantly feed it out. If a fish picks up the bait you will feel the line accelerate. At this time close the bail arm or put the reel in gear and strike hard. There is something quite satisfying about feeling the head shakes of a decent snapper.

When you are on a wind effected drift you may need to be at the controls so you can reverse into the direction of the drift. The aim is to keep your lines near vertical as much as possible, and not let the wind effect leave you with your lines too far out the back of the boat. Sometimes you will have to increase your lead weight. “Octa jigs”, designed to look like a cuttlefish, are also useful in those situations where it is hard to get to the bottom. Drifting allows you to cover large areas of reef and is a very easy way to fish when conditions are good.

If you choose to anchor up you need to know which way the boat will drift. Anchoring has a number of advantages over drifting, providing the current is minimal. The biggest advantage is that you can berley and this will bring the fish, as well as baitfish, close to your boat. From an anchored boat it is possible to fish multiple lines at the same time. I may have a big live bait close to the bottom, a float lined pilchard drifting down with the berley and another live bait free swimming on the surface. Getting your boat correctly anchored over the fish or reef is tricky and may take multiple attempts. It pays to have plenty of chain and a decent sized reef pick. Once I’ve worked out the drift I like to drop the anchor up current from my spot, and then allow the boat to drift back until I am over or just up current from the fish I’ve located on the sounder screen. In ideal conditions there will be just a trickle of current and the berley will fall quite fast rather than being whisked away in the flow.

Berleying can make a huge difference when bottom fishing. I use a metal berley pot and a masher, generally with a few chopped tuna frames in the pot. We generally catch a few mackerel tuna in my local waters and they make fabulous berley. I supplement this berley stream with chopped old pilchards, yellowtail or any other fish frames I have in the freezer. Sometimes it can take up to an hour for the berley to be effective, but when a school of snapper move into your berley trail they won’t leave. The downside of berleying is that it often attracts sharks that put most fish off the bite, and catching a big snapper head is never in the plan! The further north you travel, the more of a problem sharks become.

In tropical waters most bottom fishing takes place in water from 10 to 30 metres deep. In these waters soft plastics and soft vibes all can have outstanding results. Just about every tropical species loves lures, and vertically jigging a soft vibe such as a 95mm Zerek Fish Trap can be like a lucky dip catching everything from coral trout to cobia. There is generally less current on the inshore tropical reefs. As a lot of the more highly prized species live in and around coral bommies, it requires pretty heavy handed tactics to remove the fish from their lairs. A lot of locals fishing more northern ports for coral trout prefer handlines and gloves. Another prized fish, the red emperor, tends to live in slightly deeper water, generally between 30 and 60 metres. Big baits resistant to small pickers work well on these magnificent eating fish. Red emperors are found in quantities from Noosa Heads to the north and some of the biggest ones, many over 15 kilos, come from the reefs east of Fraser Island.

Catching snapper on lures has become very popular in recent years. In general it is easier to catch snapper on soft plastics in shallower reefs less than 30 metres deep as this depth gives you better control of the lure. Most snapper tend to take the lure as it sinks down, and it is important to adjust your jig head weight so the lure sinks slowly to the bottom. Working the lure close to the bottom produces a few fish, but in general you are better of winding the lure back to mid-water and then letting it sink again. On the bottom soft plastics tend to attract a range of less desirable ooglies such as sergeant bakers and red rock cod.

Octa jigs are great lures for a range of bottom fish and consist of a coloured weighted head from which skirt material designed to look like a squid or cuttlefish protrude. Within these legs are a pair of assist hooks. These lures come in a wide range of makes and models and are very useful lures, particularly when the current runs hard. They require minimal action from the angler, and often the rise and fall of the boat on the swell is all that is required. They can be passively fished from a rod holder and the hook-up rate is surprisingly good. Slow Blatt spoon jigs can also be very effective on snapper, coral trout, pearl perch and mulloway.

Being a successful reef fisherman takes skill and practice. Good preparation and making carefully calculated decisions are the keys to success. Whether you are targeting Tasmanian trumpeters in the south or coral trout in the north, it is all about delivering a bait or lure to a feeding fish located close to the bottom, and all the factors described above need careful consideration.

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