Tangling with tropical shallow water reef fish.

Tuskfish fight incredibly hard in shallow water, and are one of the finest quality table fish caught in tropical Australian waters.

A broad selection of the tastiest table fish caught in the country, both in the tropical north and the cooler south, are demersal fish loosely referred to as ‘reefies.’

Reef fish are known for their structure-based lifestyles, which generally see them residing, feeding and being caught in close proximity to substantial reef systems.

Some of the more popular reef-dwelling species include snapper in cooler southern waters and coral trout, tuskfish, fingermark, parrotfish, red emperor and estuary cod up north in Cape York and the rest of the tropical Top End.

When many anglers think of fishing for these tasty table fish, their minds immediately turn to the time proven ‘bottom bashing’ tactics of the past: heavy rigs on handlines or Alvey deck winches and broomstick rods, paternoster rigs, snapper leads and big baits pinned to the bottom in deep water.

No doubt this style of fishing has accounted for plenty of good catches over the decades, however these days many anglers prefer to make use of lighter tackle if conditions allow.

It’s not necessary to head miles and miles out to sea to plump the depths from a rocking boat all day in order to bring home a haul of fillets.

Plenty of succulent tropical table fish including tuskies, coral trout and fingermark are more than happy to populate shallow reef systems in less than ten metres of water, in many cases less than a kilometres from shore.

The key to targeting these shallow water specimen is to fine-tune your approach and to utilise a depth sounder and burley.



Estuary cod are a tropical mainstay and respond well to a variety of techniques – including light tackle popping over shallow coral reef.

When fishing shallow waters, remember that the crucial factor is to exercise discretion. When you’re only fishing in a couple of metres of water, it doesn’t take a lot to turn fish off the bite.

Coming in full speed and hurling your anchor and chain over the side will alert any fish in the area that something isn’t right. Idling into your chosen target area and setting up a drift where possible will generally ensure a much better result.

When targeting the shallows, the most effective approach is to search for prominent sections of reef and to then do several low speed passes over the top, using your depth sounder to identify the rubbly areas of gravel and broken reef that run off the edges of the hard reef.

You want to position your boat over these rubbly shoulder sections rather than directly over the hard reef. Fishing straight over the top of the hard reef will more often than not result in lots of snags and unwanted bycatch.

Once you’ve positioned your boat in the zone, it’s time to attempt to draw the target species into the water you’re fishing with the use of burley.

One of the most effective types of burley is prawn heads and shells. Keep the rest of the prawn for bait and toss a handful of shells and heads overboard every minute or two to keep your burley trail going.



Any tuskfish over a couple of kilos is capable of pulling incredibly hard and warrants the use of 60lb leader at a minimum.

Shallow water, jagged reef and tough reef fish call for fairly heavy-duty tackle. Depending on the size of the fish you’re encountering, a modern spin rod around 7’ long matched to a large threadline reel loaded with 30-50lb braid should have you covered.

You’ll want to attach a rod’s length of 60-80lb fluorocarbon leader, which can be adjusted according to how treacherous the reef is that you’re fishing.

In some instances, when targeting ultra tough customers like big tuskfish, it might be necessary to step up your game and grab an 80lb outfit in order to start winning battles.

The rig used for this style of fishing is as simple as they come – a basic floater rig. You add a pea-sized sinker to your mainline and simply tie on an octopus or suicide pattern hook that matches the size of the bait your using.

I like to use large peeled banana prawns, so have found that a 5/0 or 6/0 octopus hook works perfectly. This size hook is great for most reef fish from about a kilo up to 5kg plus brutes.

A useful tip is to match your hook to the size of the bait you’re using, rather than the fish you’d like to catch, and this will help ensure your baits are presented as best as possible each time.



Juvenile red emperor are marked by distinctive bands which fade as the fish grows and moves further offshore to deeper reefy territory.

You can’t beat fresh peeled prawns for bait when fishing the shallows. Just about all of your favourite reefies can’t resistant a fresh juicy prawn bait.

Their heads and shells make the perfect burley too, so grabbing a kilo or so of green prawns before heading out on the water is all you need to get started.

If you run out of prawns or are looking for alternate baits, chunks of fresh squid, cuttlefish and octopus work well, as well as slabs of oily fish flesh like slimy mackerel, bonito, mackerel tuna and striped tuna.

The formula for this type of fishing is simply to find your shallow water reef, position yourself off it, start and maintain a consistent burley trail and then to get a bait in the water.

Once the fish are onto your trail you will surely know about it, so prepare to get your arms stretched!

Catching reef fish in the shallows can be a great day’s fishing in itself, or a handy way to add a few extra fillets to the icebox after a day spent trying other methods. Give it a try and you’ll wonder why you ever thought you needed to drive way out to sea to get connected to fish of this quality.

‘Blue Bastards’ are endemic to the tropical waters of western Cape York, and are typically taken on crustacean baits, or replica flies, fished over shallow reef.

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