It’s hardly a day trip destination but this remote part of the Great Barrier Reef holds some mind-blowing GT fishing
I have been lucky enough to fish the Bugatti Reef system a couple of times and both trips have been amazing, although complete contrasts in terms of approach and conditions.
For those of you unfamiliar with this section of the Great Barrier Reef, the Bugatti reef system is about 185 kilometres southeast from Airlie Beach, a fair bit less from Hamilton Island – and accessible from Mackay. Bugatti first came to prominence at least 10 years ago and surprisingly enough, probably receives less pressure now than a decade ago.
It’s a Journey
While Bugatti Reef might be well-known among topwater enthusiasts looking to battle with large giant trevally, it is in fact one of the farthest reefs in the area and there are sensational systems north, south and well inshore of it as well. Little Bugatti, Wup, Kirwen, Edgell, Square and many more unnamed reefs lie in all directions and are all fished on the way out to Bugatti itself. In fact, many expeditions will probably never get all the way to Bugatti as there is so much great fishing on the way. It’s a massive area and well adorned with suitable anchorage locations from most wind directions. This is obviously important because we aren’t talking about a day trip destination here; depending on your conditions and range to fuel preservation formulas, your running speed may see you taking 6 to 12 hours to get out to good reef.
Anchorages are vital for a mission like this, and both Bugatti and Little Bugatti are U-shaped and provide excellent protection in lagoon-like conditions. If it’s windy, as my second trip was, you will undoubtedly be bouncing around at night despite the protection of the reef, as the high tide on a big moon will probably see water going over the top of the reef and creating swell on the inside. It more than pays to set up your anchorage while there is still plenty of light and you can see all hazards well before the sun gets low. It goes without saying that an anchor alarm must be set on your chart plotter and the skipper and crew must remain vigilant overnight. Easily said when you are trying get some rest, but it makes a good case to limit your alcohol intake so you are sharp enough to respond if there is an issue. Apart from being ready to fish once there is enough light to see reef clearly in the morning, I’m yet to see an anchorage out there where a few GTs won’t turn up in the evening for a bit of fun – it’s almost a ritual (and they’ll smash a barbecued chicken wing when they won’t touch a lure).
The high incidence of topwater GT captures compared with many other areas of the reef shows a healthy population of GTs, from tiddlers to giants. The difficulty of getting tight to the bigger fish is undoubtedly the sheer biomass of smaller to middle-sized fish that will almost always beat allcomers to your popper or stickbait. The average weight of GTs at Bugatti is in the high teens or low 20s, with fish of 30kg or more a reality. I firmly believe that the sheer numbers of GTs affect the big fish to catch ratio. Why there are so many GTs is speculative, but the area is known for very big tides pushing big fusilier schools onto every pressure point and gutter and many places in between, which would have to play a large part. In my experience there seem to be more GTs in the region than many other parts of the reef.
A lot of the reef looks very fishy, but it doesn’t make sense to try to fish it all. The fish cannot be everywhere so you need to read the situation and make some judgement calls. I’ve found that your efforts are better concentrated on isolated shoals, bommies and deep gutters between reef, and where the bait is holding in pressure points and corners. Taking this approach allows you to fish hot zones and motor around a little and see a lot more of the reef and get an exploratory aspect to your trip.
Some of the reefs provide flats fishing opportunities inside the sheltered lagoons. As the tide pushes they provide amazing fishing, and flats fishing for GTs has to be experienced – it’s mind blowing on PE3-5 tackle and about as much fun as you can have with a fishing rod in hand. Just a word of warning: when up on the flats you need to be acutely aware of tides and how long you can push your time in the shallows, as you don’t want to get locked in unless you’re planning to.
The two trips I have experienced here were fairly different. The first was with a mate on a Contender 35 centre console steaming out from Hamilton Island in late December, the other on a game boat in June with Topwater Sportfishing Charters. There are pros and cons with both but the fishing was very good on both.
The first trip on the Contender was hardly slumming it – it’s an amazing boat but it’s a centre console and you’re sleeping on the deck. Being December, we had amazing conditions for the most part (below 10 knots and for fair sections almost a glass-out) but on the downside each night we had decent dumps of rain and there is nowhere to hide, so you find yourself huddling under the T-top until it stops. That trip’s weather was consistent both in terms of wind (or lack of it) and rain for that time of the year, and they don’t call it the ‘mother-shipping’ season for nothing.
Another side issue of the summer months is that with glass-outs, you cannot see subsurface reef due to lack of white water breaking over it. Running aground is a real risk with so much of the area poorly mapped, and it happens more than is mentioned. There are, of course, the logistics of being able to carry some form of bedding, and enough food, ice, fuel and water. We had this covered in the Contender easily but could be done in varying degrees in smaller boats for a night or two. It is a great adventure, with significant logistics and restrictions, but there’s no doubt summer is the time of year to take that challenge on. Remember, it’s a hell of a long way from land in a small boat but I would not trade that experience for anything as it was amazing. Just be sure you have the experience and the vessel to handle a trip of this magnitude.
The game boat trip was a completely different perspective. It’s slow going for the most part but hey, you are conserving fuel and dragging some skirts between reefs but with a lot more range and can disappear for a week and never fish the same piece of reef twice. With a game boat the simple logistics such as shelter, a bed and a place for food, water and ice are a lot simpler to take care of. On our trip in June the wind averaged 20 knots-plus each day and would have peaked in the mid-30s; it was rough and wet and would have been called off if in a trailer boat. The reality is that at this time of year an open boat would not have been an option at all. Even in a game boat we could not fish the windward or outside of the reef, it was just too rough, but thankfully we could still nose in on the right spots to get great fishing. If you want a winter escape, you are going to need the game boat, or forget it till later in the year.
While this has been a lot about the GT popping credentials of Bugatti, the jigging, flats fishing and many other reefies typical of the Great Barrier Reef are outstanding, I don’t mean to ignore that but the ‘geets’ overshadow this by a small margin, for me at least!
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Regardless of your vessel size or taste for adventure, Bugatti isn’t an easy destination to reach, but as inshore grounds get more and more pressure there is huge appeal in pushing further to target big fish in numbers. If endless isolated bommies, reef edges and never fishing the same spot in a week appeals to you, it may be a destination you need to add to the bucket list – how you do it is the big deciding factor. There’s no doubt that getting all the way out there is a significant exercise that will need a good weather window, a good skipper, a good boat and solid planning, but pulling that off and experiencing mind-blowing topwater fishing and great jigging is what fishing dreams are made of.
Words & Images: John Cahill