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Bottom Bashing the Great Barrier Reef

Some of the most sought-after species in our seas are found on the Great Barrier Reef – and you’ll catch them consistently with a bit of preparation

There’s no doubt bait fishing for reef species or red fish on the Great Barrier Reef is one of Queensland’s most popular forms of fishing. Who doesn’t like going out and soaking a few baits for a tasty feed of coral trout, nannygai or red emperor? The list of tasty reef species you can catch on bait is way longer than just these three species, which adds to the fun. Bait fishing is a great option for everyone as it can accommodate a range of fishing abilities and ages on the boat. But catching big reef fish consistently still requires great skill and technique. Everybody wants to head out and return with a tasty feed of fresh fish, and bait fishing the bottom on the Great Barrier Reef is one of the best ways to do this.

Eyes on Sonar

If you want to catch reef fish consistently you need to get your eye in on the sounder. Isolated bommies, bumps, rock piles and edges off the reef from 30m to 70m of water is the ideal ground to look for. Ideally these isolated patches are out on the flats between reefs, either on sand or rubble beds that you will pick up on the sounder as you travel. Ideally these areas will show good signs of life on the sounder, with the best patches having both bait and bigger fish. The bait will often mark up as scatter or blobs midwater and the bigger reef fish will hold under the bait and mark as solid lines and arches.

This is a prime area to start dropping baits. If conditions allow, slow drifts through this area with your baits on the bottom will produce the best results, however, if your drifting too fast anchoring will be the better option. A Minn Kota with Spot-Lock is also extremely handy for this type of fishing and easier to deploy than a bottom anchor. While drifting you want to keep a keen eye on the sounder then once a decent fish is hooked, drop a GPS mark into the unit to give you an idea of where the better fish are holding in the area. Also, if the wind picks up and you are no longer able to drift, you have some marks and an idea where the better fish are sitting for a starting point to anchor.

Reef fish will often move around slowly in schools and graze over rubble patches when they are feeding, so will often show in small waves of fish as they pass by. The first bite may be a patch of nannygai, resulting in a triple hook-up, then it may be 15 minutes of nothing before a school of reef jacks swim past and you’re on again. Next, a large red emperor may show up out of nowhere and this really adds to the excitement – you never know what is going to show up next. Areas that produce these big red reef fish are worth marking and returning to again. Take notice of what’s on the sounder and look for similar areas to try.

Rigs and Gear

My preferred rig for bait fishing the reef is a paternoster set-up as this allows my sinker to reach the bottom while keeping my bait just above the reef. I will tie a breakaway sinker, which is a small loop of leader that is much lighter (50lb) than the leader, on my rig; that way if I get snagged it’s the sinker that snaps off first, and I don’t lose my rig or fish. You can go for a single or double dropper paternoster rig – it’s personal preference. I like to use long droppers with 7/0 gang hooks with two or three hooks (depending on bait size) on an 80lb leader. The ganged hooks allow you to have hook points all the way down your bait, aiding hook-ups. Cut your baits so they are long and streamlined in the water as this will help prevent them from spinning and make them look more lifelike in the current. If anchoring or fishing over lighter bottom, the running sinker rig is a great option as this gives your bait a more natural appearance; however, this can prove very snaggy when drifting. Feel for bites on a tight line and once a solid fish has the bait, I will often drop the rod a little to give the fish some line before a solid hook-set to drive the hook points in.

Overhead or spin combos are perfect for bait fishing the bottom and it’s up to you to use whatever you prefer. I have my bottom fishing reels spooled with 50lb braid, which allows me to detect bites in deeper water and cuts through the water better then mono. I run these on short 6ft graphite rods in the 30lb to 50lb range and these nice stiff rods provide enough sensitivity for detecting bites with the grunt to drive hook points home. The shorter rods are much nicer for fighting fish straight under the boat compared with longer rods.

Bait Choice

There’s no arguing the fact that fresh bait is best – and if you can put the time into catching fresh bait it will produce the goods. Taking the effort to catch fresh squid, herring or yakkas will leave you with the best fresh baits you can get. If you don’t have time to catch fresh baits, snap-frozen squid and pilchards are the next-best option. Once you’re out at the reef you can also take the time to catch some smaller bait fish such as fusiliers and use filleted strip baits from these. Fresh strip baits can prove deadly when fished along the bottom. Take the time to prepare and look after your baits so they are in the best possible condition when you start dropping them down and the results will speak for themselves. Smaller baits tend to catch smaller fish and bigger baits catch bigger fish, so if you’re after trophy-sized reef use a larger bait the small fish won’t quickly destroy, such as a butterflied fusilier.

Moon Rise

Time of day and conditions often play a big part on how active reef-dwelling fish are. From experience, moon set and moon rise have proven time and time again to be strong bite periods, these can be in the day or under the cover of darkness. It is worth planning your day bottom fishing around these times. While you can catch good reef fish throughout the day and night, many of my best sessions are at night when the fish seem to bite for longer periods. Tide change is often a good time to fish in deeper water or channels where the current can be stronger, as the reef fish will graze this area while the current is slack before moving back to some structure for shelter as the tide begins to charge again. Remember the biggest tides are around the new and full moons of each month, so this is extremely important if you are fishing during one of these periods. If you find a particularly hot bite at a certain time in a specific area, take notice of the time, tides and conditions. If you return again to these same conditions, chances are the bite will be on again.


There’s a vast array of techniques you can employ on the Great Barrier Reef these days, but bait fishing is still highly effective. It’s a great way to get new anglers hooked on fishing and for them to learn the basics while catching a lot of fish and having a heap of fun. Big reef fish are not fooled easily on lures but with a well-presented fresh bait you can tempt some of the most sought-after table species on the reef and come home with world-class seafood. Take care of your catch by keeping fish in a saltwater slurry for maximum table quality.

Words & Images: Colby Lesko

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