Fishing Shallow Reefs

By Jamie Crawford

Fishing around shallow inshore reef systems would have to be one of my favourite forms of fishing. Cruising up to a known nugget of reef and working some soft plastics or hard bodies along the edge of the tapering structure is a dynamite way of connecting to some good fish. It appears to be a universal approach too, working just as well on tropical species as it does on our southern species.

These shallow-water clumps of reef needn’t be big either, and can vary in size from just a small single nugget of reef around the size of a family car, up to extensive systems of reef that can stretch for hundreds of metres, or even further. Regardless of their size, they’re all fish attracting systems.

Especially in an environment where the surrounding seafloor is quite flat and featureless, these reefs harbour life from benthic algae right through the food chain to top order predators, and everything in between.

There are many reasons why I get such a kick out of fishing these shallow reefs. Firstly these grounds are productive, the fishing is quite visual given the shallow water, the fish fight harder over these shallow grounds, and the survival rate of released fish is markedly better from shallow water when compared to deeper reefs.

In the south, the main species we associate with shallow inshore reefs are snapper, silver trevally, salmon and the occasional rat kingfish, with the list of tropical targets a lot more extensive and varied. In the north we’ve targeted GTs, queenfish, coral trout, coronation trout, various emperors, and even saltwater barra. The list of warm water species is almost endless.

The depth range we’re focussing on here are reefs that lie in water from around 5 to 10m and rise up to within 2 to 3m from the surface. Most of these reefs lie in close proximity to landmass, and hence are easily accessible from small trailerboats and even kayaks.

Some of these reefs may see swell pitching and even breaking on occasions, so always tackle these environments with caution. It’s a good idea to check these reef systems out first on a calm day with low swell and the sun high overhead so you can mark exactly where the high-points may be, but also to pinpoint likely drop-offs and ledges that may house some good fish.

When we are fishing these inshore systems of reef, we start by slowly approaching to the side of the reef, so when we cut the engine we’re drifting down along the length of the reef (you will need to determine wind and / or current direction first). This will allow you to fire casts in towards the reef, and have multiple casts before needing to reposition (which is obviously dependant on the size of the reef and speed of drift).

When we place a cast around these reefs, we’re looking to work the plastic along the tapering edge of the reef and down into the deeper section where the depth will plateau. We rarely work our lures over the shallowest peak of the structure. If we see any undercut ledge or significant rise in reef, then we’ll always aim to work a plastic or hard body past that pinpointed area. And don’t be afraid to work your lure several metres out into the clear away from the reef, as species such as our southern snapper are often feeding around the plateau perimeter of these reefs and not exactly on the hard structure itself.

When targeting reef species such as our snapper down south, or emperor and trout up north, then I favour the use of soft plastics over hard bodied lures. The versatility of SP’s and being able to deliver your plastic right down into a crack in the reef or worked slowly past a ledge is invaluable when fishing these areas.

If we’re fishing soft plastics, we’ll choose a jig head that will allow the plastic to work down to the desired depth; but still offering a natural presentation. It’s pointless whacking on a 1oz jig head in 5m of water if you’re aiming for a finesse presentation.

The main jig head weights we use over these shallow reefs is ¼ to 3/8oz. Strong hooks are important when fishing around these shallow reefs. A lot of species will try to bury you on the hook-up, so you’ll need to be able to put the brakes on while trying to steer them into open water.

The main plastics we use on our shallow water reef sessions the Squidgy 85mm and 110mm Flick Baits, 80mm and 100mm Wrigglers and 70mm Fish. The Wrigglers and Pro Range Fish have their own action which suits a slower retrieve, with the Flick Bait being a deadly plastic when hopped erratically. The Flick Bait is just as effective when worked high in the water column on a faster retrieve for cruising pelagic species than it is down along the bottom.

When using plastics over these reefs, we’ll thoroughly work an area before moving on. This may mean repeated drifts past a likely looking nugget of reef, working our plastics through the depth changes.

It’s a similar story for top water action around these reefs. We’ll pick a hard bodied lure that matches similar baitfish profiles in the area, and will work the hard bods around edge of the reef. Sometimes reef species will rise up to hit a hard lure, which is cool to see, but most of the time the action will be from mid to top-water predators such as salmon and snook down south, with trevally and queenfish up north.

It’s even better when you can see fish working bait on the surface. Just a week before writing this I had a session out in our local bay. We stumbled across a bait ball that was being harassed by a school of salmon over an inshore shallow reef. When we drew close, the baitfish sat in the shadow of our boat for refuge. This drew the school of salmon to our boat in the process; it was very visual fishing.

For this style of fishing (depending on the species you are targeting), a threadline outfit in the 3 – 6kg range is ideal. My personal outfit is a Shimano TK3G 722 spin 3 – 6kg together with a Biomaster 2500FB and spooled with 15lb Power Pro Braid. It helps to have a bit of pulling power should you set the hooks on a better-than-average fish. Fishing our inshore reef systems is great fun. It’s visual, productive and often brutal.