One of the purest forms of fishing is surely sight-casting to large predators in clear water. Fisherman all over the world chase this simple pleasure, and Far North Queensland offers absolutely endless coral reef flats and a natural diversity of fish to rival any destination throughout the world. Tim O’Reilly shares some tips and techniques.
In FNQ fish of all sizes, colours, shapes and appearances live among coral so vast a lifetime of discovery would never come close to seeing it all. For starters there’s over 2000 kilometres of Great Barrier Reef (GBR) length and more outer reef flats than you could poke a stick at…or a fishing rod or spear for that matter. Conservation measures up and down the reef’s length have also helped maintain the general biodiversity over the whole organism.
Despite any reports you hear surrounding the health of the GBR, it remains surely the most vast and biodiverse conglomerate of living organisms in the world. When in amongst it and venturing around within it the reef seems endless, because it truly is endless. When seen from the air over long distances you can grow numb to its beauty. It’s just reef after reef after reef. Coral bommie after coral bommie, billions of tiny microcosms all linked through a viscous medium.
Daydreams see me drif ting across sandy flats studded with coral bommies in impossibly shallow water. Watching fired-up predators race out to inspect your lure is as enthralling as fishing gets. The sudden eruption of an apex predator on a surface lure highlights the scene further. Luck and reflexes are needed in equal amounts and at times a dive-in is required to rescue lure and fish buried under coral.
DO THE RIGHT THING
Let’s get one thing straight: when you’re white-knuckle fishing on the remote reef flats you’re going to come across some no-take wrasse, chinaman fish and big blue spot coral trout. All these are fantastic sport fish existing among other predators of the reef. They’re tough and return very well in shallow water. A quick, torrid fight, gentle handling, a quick photo and they should be sent on their way.
It’s fairly low-impact fishing when just a couple of select fish make a date with the dinner table.
Every reef flat will have varying height and depth profiles. The current and direction of the weather-facing edge changes between every single reef along the GBR. A healthy understanding of tidal flow, current direction and the transition of fish on and off a reef flat are paramount to success.
A wrasse can be caught in water barely deep enough to cover its girth.
Entering the reef flats should always come with a few calculations. Are we heading up on a making or dropping tide? If dropping, how fast, how low, and could we get stuck? Which direction is the current moving and how do we ensure fishing predominately the up-current side of a structure? Which direction is the sun shining for visibility? What time does the tide or current change?
The existence of birds in the area is typically good for flats fishermen. Packs of roving gulls chasing about small queenfish schools is an indication there’s bait and life on the reef. I remember a few hot bites when the normal flats species suddenly came to life as passing baitfish alerted the bigger predators.
The sheer array of coral trout types, species and coloration which appear on the outer Great Barrier Reef flats can be overwhelming. Bluespot, common, passionfruit and coronation trout make up probably the tastiest and most colourful component in a flats fisherman’s esky. Along with a few notable cod species, coral trout play mostly ‘mobster’ type roles on the reef flats and edges. They’re always lurking near a rock, cave or overhang ready to chase something down.
Maori Wrasse have become a bit of an iconic sports fish of the outer reef flats. It’s safe to say it’s top of the list for most shallow-water sports fisherman. Every care should be taken to release these beautiful fish unharmed as they are protected. Known by the name Napolean Wrasse in neighbouring countries, their striking colours and facial markings, coupled with an inquisitive nature and unstoppable brute force, make them seem mythical.
A wrasse can be caught in water barely deep enough to cover its girth. Even the biggest of brutes can often be found in 4 foot to 8 foot of water patrolling the hard line of the reef flats. Another beautiful specimen, the Maori Sea Perch, also loves patrolling among shallow rocks and coral bommies and is equally as voracious at times.
Members of the emperor family, such as yellow-lipped, spangled, red throat and long nose emperor, put up a great battle when hooked in shallow country. Fast tail beats and a strong sideways battle are characteristic of these outer-reef-flat dwellers.
Red bass and chinaman fish provide some of the best pound-for-pound competition on the reef. Both species know how to find cover extremely well, especially in shallow water. Each loves a surface lure and will hunt down the right-sized presentation with gusto.
Giant trevally are usually on the hit list of shallow-reef enthusiasts and flats fisherman. They grow big and represent perhaps the fiercest pack element around the outer reef flats. Almost anything is on the menu for these bad boys, and they can be sight cast at times over the reef flats. Golden trevally and bluefin trevally are another pair of hard fighters, and that, combined with their striking colours, makes them highly sought after by flats fisherman, especially on a fly.
KNOW YOUR VESSEL
One of the most interesting factors when fishing the flats is how fish move on and off the bite. An absolute disaster of a session, where it seems no fish exist, can liven up in the blink of an eye. A sudden change of tide, light, temperature, the existence of bait or some unknown trigger can bring the fish on the chew. A hard day can turn into a good day if you put the most effort in while they are biting.
One of the most enjoyable things about fishing the outer Great Barrier Reef flats is the lack of virtually any other small boats up on top. That’s thanks to the shallow 1 metre to 5 metres of water which covers much of the hard-reef tops. For small boats to be consistently accessing these outer flats, they need to be connected to a mothership operation or live on a remote island lodge.
A sturdy fibreglass tender in the 4.5-metre to 6-metre range is perfect for this type of fishing, and a bow-mounted electric motor makes life and manoeuvrability that much easier. However, a good knowledge of the reef and the way current and wind are interacting allows for long drifts. This can be the most productive way to fish the flats, fanning out blind casts as you drift among structure. I look for hard reef dispersed among sand and bommie fields on the edge of the lagoons.
Knowing the capabilities of your boat and the use of trim in shallow water are equally important in staying safe and protecting your vessel. If you’re unsure what the tide is doing there’s the potential to get stuck up on top or inside a reef flat. It’s not a nice feeling when the whole ocean suddenly starts draining away.
Needless to say, always take extra water, plenty of sun cream, a spare anchor and a spare prop.
These adventures are always best undertaken during glamour weather. Sunshine, clean water and only a gentle breeze to ruffle the surface are all great set-ups. Fishing low-light conditions is usually the best for a few reasons. After dawn and before dusk are guaranteed to be cooler on the water and hold a few extra top-water bites.
The most versatile set-up for fishing reef flats are medium to heavy spinning outfits. These allow long casts with braided line (usually 50lb to 80lb) and heavy mono leader (usually 80lb to150lb). Despite being a little heavy to cast and retrieve all day, a slightly longer and heavier set-up provides greater means of extraction of brutish fish from tight cover. The first GT or wrasse which snaffles your $40 stick-bait will prove this.
Fly fisherman normally gear up with between 10WT to 12WT rods, and intermediate, sink tip or floating lines matched with large-arbor reels. A strong, abrasive-resistant tippet is required, and larger profile, flashy, deceiverstyle flies and poppers can be very effective.
Each flats fisherman will have their favourite set-ups regarding positioning adjacent to structure. I like to have a stern weight, back anchor or electric motor to hold position during a drift. Success lies in fishing productive areas methodically rather than just drifting on to the next area. Remember, locating actively feeding fish is the prize scenario.
It is important to keep morale high during this type of fishing. Without 100% focus, energy and enthusiasm, those win/loss moments invariably tip in the fish’s favour. The keenest and most successful will always keep their eyes on the water and their retrieve. Fancy sounders and gadgetry are not needed for this very visual and addictive form of fishing.
There are a few charter operations which target remote outer reef flats fishing along the Great Barrier Reef. It’s logistically challenging to provide small-vessel access to these shallow, dangerous outposts. The images accompanying this article were compiled with clients of Far North Sport Fishing, an outfit which specialises in providing just these types of charters.