SEQ Mixed Reef Targets – By William Kitching
When hitting the water in South East Queensland, one of the most exciting forms of fishing has to be heading out to target some of the awesome reef species we have on offer here. It is a fun way to fish with both baits and lures, and you never know what to expect out there – something amazing or exciting can happen at any second. This style of fishing differs from estuaries greatly; the fish are bigger, they pull harder, and are going to put up a fun fight while you try to wrestle them away from their home in the sharp reef.
Snapper, pearl perch, tuskfish, cod, sweetlip, cobia, moses perch, and jewfish – put all these fish in a list and you’ll notice that they are all very sought after fish for several reasons, and they are all available right here in South East Queensland. All of these fish put up a fun fight and taste great. Just to excite you I will also mention the catches of coral trout and red emperor which start to occur from Brisbane northwards. Species such as kingfish and amberjack are also great sporting fish which hunt offshore reefs, however in this article we will be focusing on the demersal ‘mixed reef’ species. If you want to know where to find them, the best rigs, baits, and lures, as well as how to actually catch them, you’ve come to the right place!
Mixed reef refers to the mixed variety of tasty species which can be caught while fishing a patch of reef or structure. That’s the beauty of this type of fishing; you never know what awesome fish is going to come along next. In saying this, you can definitely target certain species by fishing a particular technique, bait, or type of area which they prefer. For example snapper will happily come up off the bottom several meters to feed as your bait slowly floats down, however pearl perch like to stay much closer to the bottom. There are a few things that are important to consider when fishing for any of the tasty fish out on the reef, so that will be the first focus.
“I think one of the most important things that is often overlooked is bait presentation.”
I see a lot of people using a lump of bait shoved on the hook in a big ball, and sending it to the bottom which doesn’t work. No matter what bait or rig you are using, it is very important that it is sitting as straight and naturally as possible on your hook/s and preferably not spinning. Some of the best baits for our local reef species are pilchards, squid, as well as strip baits of fish such as yakkas, slimy mackerel, bonito, and mack tuna. Live bait is also great of course, with live yakkas and slimy mackerel being the most common.
When it comes to rigs there are several that can work well, however two which I find the best for South East Queensland are the running ball sinker rig with the sinker sitting straight on top of the hooks, and the paternoster rig. Both rigs have pros and cons, however a lot of the time I personally use the running sinker rig. It is a good idea to snell/snood two hooks together, as this improves hook-up rates but also helps with the bait presentation by keeping it nice and straight. Single hooks also work though especially when using baits such as half a pilchard or smaller squid.
The beauty of this rig is that you can choose a sinker size that lets it float down through the water column slower, but still makes it down to the reef. This means you have a chance of hooking fish such as snapper and cobia which feed up off the bottom at times, but still get to target ‘reefies’ that hold closer to the structure when your bait makes it down there. The other thing I like about this rig is that you can put a live bait on it at any time and send it down, which will give you a better chance of landing fish like cobia, larger snapper and jewfish (mulloway).
The paternoster rig sinks a lot quicker to the bottom if you use a heavy snapper lead, and is good for targeting fish such as pearl perch, tuskfish, sweetlip and so on. You can still catch snapper and cobia of course, but this rig is definitely best when the fish are holding tight to the bottom. For example, red emperor and coral trout fishermen tend to prefer this rig as those species sit very close to the reef. If you see fish on your sounder hugging the bottom, this may be the best rig as it will get you down there quickly and hold your bait close to the reef easier. It can also be useful when fishing in very deep water, or when the structure you’re fishing is just a small pinnacle or bommie. It will get your bait into the zone quickly and hold it there until you drift off the mark. You can also use live bait with this. With either rig, I use strong 4/0 hooks for dead baits, and at least 5/0 hooks for live baiting.
As stated above, lure fishing is also very popular when targeting these aggressive reef brutes. Lures that can sink fairly quickly are good, such as soft plastics, jigs, and vibes. The beauty about all of these is that you can work them within a few meters of the bottom, but can also jig/work them up through any bait schools or fish sitting higher up if you see some on your sounder. Try using slow lifts and drops, or more aggressive twitches to see what the fish want. A handy tip is to drop a jig or soft plastic down, wind it a couple of meters off the bottom and stick it in the rod holder while you fish on the other side of the boat. You’ll be surprised with the results, it often catches the most fish! You can also do this with a live bait to give yourself a chance of a larger fish.
With our baits, rigs and lures sorted you are probably wondering what to look for when trying to find a place to drop them down. Reefs can cover a large area, so it is best to look on your sounder for lumps, bommies, and ledges. These provide shelter for fish, and also an area to ambush prey. If specifically chasing reefies, you can zoom in on the bottom with your sounder to get a clear view of what is down there. It is worth having a drop on any bigger arches (fish) you see on your sounder, or any bait schools that look like they have been balled up by predators. When you sound over a bommie or lump and it has plenty of life on it (you will see bait and fish showing up around it or on either side), this is also worth a drop as predators may be lurking. Over time, you will gather a collection of GPS marks and you will learn what species you can expect to encounter at each of them and what the best way to fish them is.
When fishing over reefs, you can either anchor or drift. A lot of the reef systems in South East Queensland are very rough, jagged and cover a large area with a mixture of bommies and pinnacles scattered around them. This means drifting is usually successful, and it’s a great way to cover ground, stumble across new pieces of structure and bait schools. If the area you’re fishing is just a small piece of structure you may have to anchor up-drift of it and fish back onto it. This is also a great time to start a berley trail and float your baits back with it to try and bring the fish to you. Whichever style you choose, it’s important to try and turn the fish away from the bottom as soon as possible, otherwise they will try to break your line on the sharp reef!
For safety reasons it is important to wait for good weather with low swell and winds, but this also makes it easier to fish as your drift will be nice and slow (you want your line as vertical as possible). The shallower reefs will fish better at dawn and dusk or on overcast days, with the fish tending to be a bit shy when the sun is high in the sky. Sometimes when the bite slows down in close it can pay to head a bit wider to deeper water as the bite often lasts later into the morning. In saying this, the couple of hours around tide changes can be a great time to fish on the reef as well especially for snapper. Another factor which can dictate how hard the fish feed is the moon. The few days leading up to a new or full moon, and the few days after tend to see a lot more action on the reefs. Another very interesting fact is that reefs close to shore tend to fire up after a lot of rain which flushes bait out of the estuaries, or also after a big swell has battered the coastline for several days in a row. These both must push bait onto the close-in reefs. Jewfish also love these conditions!
The final tip I will give is to bleed all fish you’re taking for a feed, as it makes a huge difference even in the smallest of fish. Cut behind their gills on both sides before getting them straight into an ice slurry. Fresh reef fish are definitely some of the most delicious food on the planet!
If this doesn’t sound fun to you I don’t know what will. Wait for some good weather, then get out there and try your luck tangling with our local reef brawlers. If you want to see some of these tips in action or even just some exciting fishing footage, feel free to head over to my YouTube channel (Will Kitching) and subscribe to see my videos. Until next time tight lines and enjoy your fishing!