Fishing Ningaloo Flats

By Jamie Crawford

I reckon shallow water flats fishing would be up there with the most visually appealing forms of fishing you can do. Wading through knee-high, warm, gin clear water and laying casts to clusters of coral, channel edges or cruising fish is pretty cool. Seeing a fish break away from a school and zero in on your lure or fly is a memorable sight, and if you’ve ever hooked a decent fish in shallow water you’ll know how hard they run.

And while there are plenty of places around Australia to go flats fishing (and the world for that matter), the lagoon waters of Ningaloo Reef are up there as a must-visit destination for anyone who enjoys this form of fishing.

For those who aren’t entirely familiar with Ningaloo, it’s a 260km length of reef, with Exmouth marking its northern-most tip. The outer band of reef varies in distance from shore, but probably averages out at around 300 to 500 metres. This band of reef acts as a barrier breaking the Indian Ocean swell, and offers extensive sand and reef flats on the sheltered inside.  

I first fished the lagoon waters of Ningaloo several years ago when my wife and I towed our camper trailer to WA. We were immediately drawn to the clear, shallow warm waters of Ningaloo, and I had been itching to return ever since.

I had the opportunity to return recently when I was invited to report on the Gamex sportfishing comp in Exmouth. And while I was largely focussing on the bluewater action, I made sure at least a few days were set aside for wading the Ningaloo shallows.

And while the fishing is pretty good – or great in fact – there’s a whole lot more to the flats scene than just the fishing. We lost count of how many turtles we saw, plus there were reef sharks cruising around, stingrays, umpteen species of fish, and even a few octopuses. We did spot a large stonefish on one of the days, so the importance of protective footwear was highlighted to us.

Before you begin fishing you will need to source a map of the area which clearly depicts the no-fishing sanctuary zones. There are also yellow beacons erected on land to mark these zones, so there’s no excuse for fishing in the wrong area.

I was fishing with Peter Pakula and David Hodge, who were also in Exmouth for the Gamex comp. We would aim to fish the flats during the rising tide, and we would keep on the move, casting either from the shoreline or if the patches of reef or deeper sand sections were set a distance from shore we would wade the flats so that we were accessing the better patches of water.

For general prospecting we stuck to using soft plastics. SPs allow great versatility in retrieves, meaning a plastic could be slowly hopped along the bottom adjacent to structure. The plastics I was mainly using included 80mm Squidgy Flick Baits (great for a quick retrieve), 80mm Squidgy Fish (ideal for a slow to mid-paced retrieve), and 75mm Stealth Prawns (perfect for slow ‘stop and start’ style retrieves). Jig heads in the 1/16 to 1/4oz were ideal.

We tried to concentrate our casts around depressions or troughs which were close to raised platforms or beds of reef. There wasn’t a lot of subtlety in the strikes either; they would hit hard, turn and run. It was lots of fun.

We got an even spread of fish while fishing the flats including golden trevally, small GTs and queenfish, longtom, spangled emperor, yellowtail emperor, yellowfin whiting, quite a few bar-tailed flathead and even a couple of small baldchin groper. The diversity was really cool.

A couple of times we could see a school of fish milling over the sand, but out of casting range for the SP / jig head combination we were using. In this scenario we would tie on a small metal slug in the 10 – 20 gram size range, and belt these out. I was using a 20g Spanyid Strike-It, which cast like a bullet and caught some nice fish.

I have a soft spot for spangled emperor, especially when taken from just a metre or two of water. These fish look awesome, fight hard, and taste pretty good on the plate. Longtom and flute fish are an unusual and entertaining catch, and are quite common throughout the shallow lagoon water.

An ideal outfit for casting the Ningaloo flats is a 6’6” to 7’2” rod rated at 2 – 4kg coupled to a 1500 to 2500 sized threadline reel and spooled with 6 to 10lb braid. Leader material should be around 15lb; you still want subtlety in presentation but you need a bit of abrasion resistance around the coral outcrops. We still got smashed by quite a few fish making it back to their coral lair.

Exmouth’s Ningaloo lagoon waters are an amazing location to visit, even if for the scenery alone. It’s a location everyone should plan to visit at least once.