Words & Images: Colby Lesko
The Coral Sea reefs and seamounts are a sport fisherman’s paradise – super remote and holding some amazing fishing. There are many reefs and seamounts behind the Great Barrier Reef in the Coral Sea that would take a lifetime to explore. These features start off Bundaberg, Queensland, and run all the way up to Cape York in the Coral Sea. They all have one thing in common: they are a long way offshore, meaning these reefs are mostly fished only by large live-aboard operations, but with the right preparation and the right trailer boat, some of this amazing fishing is accessible to keen sport fishermen.
Planning a trip to the Coral Sea reefs and seamounts has been top of my list for a couple of years now and finally the weather gave us the opportunity. For safety reasons, weather is everything when travelling large distances on the open ocean in a trailer boat. Being super-fussy with picking the weather window rewarded us in the end with some amazing glass-like conditions for three days. Perfect!
Our target, Flora Reef, was 220km from our local ramp; it’s 70km to the outer Great Barrier Reef then a further 150km across the open Coral Sea to our destination. Sitting on around 28 knots for the first 70km, we had to slow to around 22 knots once we left the reef due to some ocean swell rolling, although the wind was non-existent. Six hours [IG1] after leaving the ramp we finally arrived! We were greeted by the clearest water I had ever seen – 30m visibility and you could watch the fish chase your lure down from 50m away. The very first cast at the reef edge saw three big blue spot trout fight over the stickbait all the way back to the boat. This was amazing to see on the very first cast and really set the tone for an amazing trip.
Our plan was to fish the reef flats by casting lures for reef fish when the tide was right then jig the depths for dogtooth tuna and other big beasties when the flats fishing was quiet. The trip was all about having fun, catching some big fish and releasing them. Due to the massive distance you have to travel, you need to make it a multi-day trip to make it worthwhile. We planned for two nights sleeping on the reef and three days fishing. Carrying extra fuel in jerry cans and the added sleeping/camping gear meant we were fully loaded with weight and room, so we made the call to just take one small esky for food, and catch and release all our fish. We completed the trip in a 24ft Boston Whaler with twin 250hp engines but also had a couple of mates join us on the trip in a 6m alloy boat with a 175. Having a mate in another boat could be a lifesaver, because if something goes wrong out there you are very much on your own. Carrying a satellite phone is also a good idea for safety reasons.
Most of the breaking reefs in the Coral Sea have blue holes and sheltered anchorages where you can safely anchor and sleep at night. Just be aware on high tide the waves will roll over the top of the reef and into the anchorage. These anchorages, or blue holes, are also a lifesaver if you do get some strong winds or storms while out on your trip – they provide some great protection from the open ocean until the wind passes.
The flats fishing on our trip was some of the best I have experienced. Big reefies such as coral trout, long-nose emperor and Maori sea perch were common in the shallows. These fish where angry and happy to mow down the surface stickbaits. The big blue spot coral trout were really a highlight, with nothing under 65cm and right up to the magic one-metre in length. Jigging on the edge of the reef was also great for big dogtooth, a magic fish that can be extremely hard to land. Everything is big at these seamounts and seriously tests your gear, with us losing plenty of lures and jigs. We ended up fishing the flats with our GT popping and casting combos (PE10) and 150mm to 200mm lures just to stand a chance of landing the big fish among the bommies. The sharks were also very problematic, and in certain areas it was impossible to land a single fish, but once we identified these areas we kept well clear and were able to land fish in other areas of the reef. Reef fish were found casting amongst the bommies and channels inside the reef flats in the blue hole and on the breaking edge of the reef.
The best jigging was in areas of 30 to 100m of water on the reef’s edge. Areas with lots of activity on the sounder generally meant lots of sharks, so we stayed away from these areas. Our better fish on the jig were caught with only a few fish on the sounder, where we could sneak them up past the sharks.
I was lucky enough to land a trophy-sized dogtooth on this trip, a fish I have been chasing for many, many years. The fish came off the outer edge of the reef at the mouth of the blue hole channel. I dropped the jig in 60m of water but once it hit the bottom the boat was already out in 120m of water – this is how steep the outer edge of these seamounts are. The big dogtooth ate the jig as it was sinking back down to the bottom and once the fish realised it was hooked, it half-emptied a 20000 Shimano Saragosa on its first run. The boat had now drifted into 300m water and it was the perfect scenario for landing the big dogtooth. The 10m to 120m edge of these seamounts are totally riddled with sharks, making it very hard to land any fish jigged up in these depths, but once you are away from these depths there are fewer sharks, and you can sneak fish up without them noticing.
Dogtooth do burn out quickly after their first blistering run or two, and thankfully this one swung out under the boat after its big first run and came clear off the reef edge. Tell-tale signs such as circling down deep as I gained line and tail beats suggested to me that it may be a dogtooth, but you never really know until you see it. There were some intense moments as I got my first glimpse of a silver flash and realised it was indeed a big dogtooth. The fish rocketed to the surface and was dragged on board, then excitement boiled over and screams of joy rang out across the ocean. Big dogtooth tuna are an incredible fish that are only really caught on hardcore trips like this one.
We carried 800 litres of fuel and used about 550l on the 600km round trip. This was the best-case scenario but as we had great fishing we didn’t have to travel far once at the reef and had amazing weather. If pushing into a head wind or needing to travel to find fish, we could have used more fuel very easily. Make sure you know your boat’s fuel usage so you can plan to have adequate fuel.
The seamounts are undoubtably a massive mission in a trailer boat but with modern boats and engines, coupled with improving technology, we are now able to safely pull off these missions. It’s still something that should only been attempted by confident seamen with reliable new boats. If anything does go wrong it’s a bloody long way out and leaves you vulnerable for hours or even days before help arrives.
The weather in far north Queensland allows these trips to be performed only once or twice a year. The perfect weather windows are when the winter south-east trade winds back off in build-up to the wet season. October, November or December can produce these three or four-day weather windows where there are stable low winds and you can get out to these exposed reefs. Further south you may be able to sneak out a few more times a year. But for me it’s a trip worth waiting all year for, and if completed once a year is enough for me. This gives you something to look forward to and a reason to keep an eye on the weather.
If you’re after a new big adventure in your offshore boat and you want to experience some new reefs in crystal-clear water, this would be an ideal trip for you. Or maybe you just want to experience world-class sport fishing for big reef fish and pelagics out of your own boat – either way, a trip like this must be high on the list.