Hard-fighting fish and amazing scenery make this one of the best fishing challenges around
Casting the reef flats is the most visually stimulating form of fishing I can think of. When you’re not watching dark shapes mow down your lure in a metre or two of crystal-clear water, you’re looking down at the amazingly colourful Great Barrier Reef. As the biggest coral reef system in the world, you could spend your life drifting it and never fish the same spot twice. The range of species you can catch casting the reef flats is phenomenal, and reef fish such as coral trout, emperor and red bass are common catches while pelagics such as GTs and mackerel are also a chance. It’s amazing to just drift over the ever-beautiful GBR looking at the coral and fish but it’s even better when you’re throwing lures at trophy fish.
When I refer to the reef flats I’m talking about the large areas on top of the coral reefs where the water is shallow. This is different for every reef, and while some areas just have shallow consistent depth flats, others may have shallow flats with blue holes or deeper sections inside them. The reef flats can be made up of a variety of ecosystems such as rock flats, weed flats, sand spits or sand islands, living coral and coral bommies, or a mix of all of these. Many reef flats dry out on the lowest tides but have two or three metres of water above them on high tides, while others do not dry out at all. Usually the reef will have a ‘heavy weather edge’, where the prevailing winds will smash onto the reef causing breaking waves.
This area is usually hard-hit, resulting in dead coral or rocks that protect the reef. Once behind this, the reef flat is much more protected and sheltered and therefore fishable in most weather. During bigger seas it is best to stay clear of this heavy weather edge, as you will constantly have breaking waves smashing into the area and this does not mix well with boats. To reach the reef flat you will have to drive around to the sheltered side of the reef and find somewhere you can drive up and onto the reef top without hitting the bottom. On dead-flat days you may be able to drive over this heavy weather edge on high tide and onto the flats.
Approach With Caution
When you do find yourself in two or three metres of water on top of the reef drifting over bommies, sand patches and coral, what’s to do next? Big long casts with your lures are key. There’s a couple of great options in terms of how to fish the flat. The first – and my favourite way – is to use a medium/heavy stickbait combo; something around the PE 3 to 6 range is ideal, as you want to cast medium to small stickbaits a long way. An 8ft stickbaiting rod with a 10000-size spin reel spooled with 50lb braid and 120lb leader will pack enough punch to stop the trout and reef fish from getting back to their bommies, and even put you in with a shot of landing a big GT or wrasse that may be cruising the flat.
This approach and long casts put you in with the best chance of hooking spooky fish before they see the boat. However, this requires some heavy-handed fighting and sometimes boat driving to keep the fish out of the structure and away from the coral heads. So be ready to drive and pull hard. Small stickbaits and poppers 90mm to 160mm long are ideal for this style of fishing and my personal favourite is sinking stickbaits around the 120mm mark. A simple sweep and wind retrieve works best for me, but the old straight wind with twitches and the odd pause is also good. I like to work these lures fast and cover as much water as possible searching for active fish. Don’t let your lures sink for too long as the reef is very snaggy.
The other option is to lighten things up a bit and go for a heavy soft plastic combo such as you would use for snapper. A PE 1 to 3 casting rod matched with a 5000-size spin reel spooled with 30lb braid and 80lb leader will allow you to cast soft plastics and soft vibes accurately right into the zones. This style of fishing requires shorter, more accurate casts, and as you don’t have the power of a heavier combo you can’t cast over bommies as the fish will bury you into the coral and quickly snap you off. So the better approach is to swim these smaller, fast-sinking lures past the edges of individual bommies, luring the fish out as you drift past. If you can draw the coral trout or reef out of their coral home a couple of metres before they eat it, you can generally muscle them out and land them on this gear. The results for trout and reef fish can be amazing if you get this approach right. The downside of this form of fishing is that you don’t stand a chance if you come across the big fish on the flats such as a dino-sized coral trout or a GT. So, having a heavy rod close by rigged with a bigger stickbait is ideal in case you spot something bigger, and you can simply swap rods.
Your eyes are everything when fishing the flats and you need to constantly scan the water you are drifting over, looking for signs of bait or fish. You will often spot the GTs and bigger fish cruising the flat so you can put a cast in front of them. Bait schools or fusilier schools are also hotspots and always worth a cast. Big bommies that push up to the surface or into the current are also hotspots for big reef fish, so always put a cast past these. Also keep a keen eye out for your boat and any bommies or rocks that come too close to the surface that you might make contact with – and be prepared to move quickly. The fish on the flats are extremely spooky as they are vulnerable in such shallow water so try to spot them before they can see you and cast quickly before they spook. Stay as quiet as possible on the flat and use the wind to your advantage, drifting with the wind over the best-looking areas. Big long drifts down the reef are ideal, and if you hit a certain hotspot with lots of action it’s often worth another drift.
I prefer to fish the flats on the last of the lead-up to high tide, high tide and just after high tide. Once the water starts to run off it can become hard and dangerous to navigate the flat safely, so I will find a deeper blue hole sections to fish or move onto a different style of fishing completely. The fish seem to move up and onto the shallowest points on the flat during high tide as they feed over an area that is dry on the low tide. Once the tide is low again these fish pull back into the reef’s blue holes or edges – this is why the fish are not always up on the flats, and while some days the fishing can be red-hot on the flats, other days the fish don’t move up nearly as much and the fishing can be much harder. Usually if the flats are on, you will know fairly quickly as you should see some action in the first 20 minutes or so of fishing.
Coral reef flats fishing is a must-do for any sports fisherman. It’s got all it all – visual fishing, hard-fighting fish and amazing scenery. I’d recommend it to any angler and it’s a must-do next time you head to the reef.
Words & Images: Colby Lesko