You have to admire offshore reef systems for the sheer variety of fish they provide, and the resultant unpredictability of what you may hook next. There's few more exciting scenarios in fishing than being parked over a lively reef, with your sounder lighting up like a Christmas tree, and anticipation levels maxed out.
Fishing the reefs often entails what is broadly referred to as 'bottom bashing' which once meant a lump of dead bait on the bottom fished with on a paternoster rig and heavy gear, basically harvesting any fish that jumped on. Of course nowadays fishing the reefs offers a much more diverse and pleasurable 'bottom bashing' experience thanks to modern tackle systems, the introduction of a variety of lures, and more refined bait fishing methods. So not only can you get a good feed of fish, but you can have a ball hooking them as well!
Mixing up your tactics on the reefs is the way to tap into the diverse range of fish on offer, and spark up the bite when they're not totally switched-on. The better reef fishos tend to be those who are flexible with their approach to suit the bite conditions and species on offer, which can vary on a session by session basis.
Often you can pull up on a reef and baits get slammed straight away, but the bite gradually tapers off, or conversely the bite on baits is slow from the get-go despite the knowledge that there's fish below. It can be a smart move to have at least one person fishing a lure on board if others are using bait, be it a soft plastic, vertical jig, or a slow jig. Activity creates activity on the reefs, so a lure could just ignite an otherwise sluggish bait bite and vice versa.
Many reefs have an entire food chain in operation from the bottom hugging, browsing type feeders, through to red-hot pelagics. Not all of these fish will respond to dead baits set on the bottom, or even slow jigging methods. A great way to 'see what's home' is to play around with live baits, or rip a few knife jigs or straight profiled micro jigs around. This can turn a mediocre bait session into full-on pelagic warfare in a matter of minutes!
Many productive reef areas are also home to pelagics like tuna, mackerel and others. The beauty of such areas is you don't typically need to do a lot of shifting to switch between chasing tuna or hitting the bottom for a bunch of tasty or sporty species. Always have a spin rod rigged up with a metal lure, like a Raider, ready to cast for any bust-ups that may occur!
Both bait and lures have their place when hitting the reefs. Bait anglers can boost their chances by using quality offerings over freezer-burnt rubbish from the bottom of their freezer. Freshly sourced and frozen bait, or baits collected on the day, will prove deadly, while it also pays to have dependable frozen options like pilchards and squid on hand also. Creating 'cocktail' baits, usually a soft and a firm fleshed option on the hook, is also a proven way to get hooked-up.
Any bait species caught on the day can also be kept alive, with live baits having the ability to turn around a hard bite and clearly outshine the dead stuff when it comes to tricking pelagics like kings, samsons, amberjacks and even large snapper and the like.
Robust rigging is essential for reef fishing with baits, with Shimano Ocea EX Fluorocarbon or Tiagra Leader perfect for close encounters near sharp rocks. A wind-on leader like Shimano's Win-On Leaders will also offer extra security when a fish decides to run your around the rocks. Circle or J hooks are fine for the job, with Paternoster rigs or lightly weighted drifted baits in shallower areas standard.
Both overhead and spin outfits are suited to bait work. In spin, something like a Saragosa 5000 or 6000 running 30-50lb braid is a good medium starting point on a Terez rod to match. While in overhead the new Tekota 500 or 600 will hold all the line you need to stop most species north or south. Of course you can step up the line weight as needed, in some areas 50-80lb is standard around harsh reef systems with big fish in the mix.
Lures in their own right are frontline reef ammo, with their usage revolutionising the way we target many reef dwellers. They're well-known to complement bait fishing on the reefs as well, so both methods can be done side by side if you wish. Like bait fishing, lures can be fished on the drift or at anchor. You may need to adjust weights to suit either situation.
As a minimum look to bring both slow and fast jig types for reef sessions, covering different sizes, weights and actions. Slow jigs, such as octopus and inchiku jigs are effective on many reef fish with the Shimano Bottomship jigs a deadly inchiku option.
Smaller micro to midsized jigs with plenty of flutter action are also great at fooling a range of fish. Coltsniper Wonderfall jigs come in a range of perfect sizes to target many reef favourites, as does the Ocea Sardine Waver. Keep dropping your jig size down if need to be to increase the deception! While if you're looking to tap into any pelagics in the area high-speed jigging is also worth dabbling in, with the new Ocea Pebble Stick a fresh offering to tempt kings, amberjack and any other lurking speedsters.
Micro jigging gear, spin tackle, through to heavy dedicated jig outfits are all on the cards for this fishing. If you have the space available take the weapons with you if you want to win the fish war! Seriously, having that heavy outfit can save the day, while conversely a lighter lure outfit could create a bunch of fun as well. Fishing the reefs these days is more than the food factor, so downsize where possible to enjoy each encounter yet still be rewarded with some of the best tucker from the ocean possible!