Chasing a Feed from the Reef

When it comes to great tasting fish, we Queenslanders are particularly spoilt. From flathead and whiting from the southern rivers and creeks, to barramundi and threadfin in the north, there are literally dozens of species that are considered top class table quality. Most of these great tasting species can be found on our offshore reefs, some of which inhabit almost the entire Queensland coast.

With our offshore water teaming with species, often offshore anglers head out targeting a mixed bag without really honing in on the correct techniques to catch any one particular species. When the fish are chewing, it’s fine, but when conditions are tough, it really pays to hone in on one or two target species and fish for them accordingly. Let’s go through a few of our most popular and tastiest species and what it takes to catch them.

Sweetlip (Red Throat & Grass Emperors)

Eating Quality – 8.5/10

Red throat and grass emperors, from the family commonly known as sweetlip are two of Queensland’s staple offshore species. Both are found in relatively shallow water, typically from 6-8m deep through to 35-40m deep. Interestingly, these two particular species rarely inhabit the same areas though. Grassies tend to be found in greater numbers on the inshore reefs where red throat are typically caught in greater numbers on the offshore coral reefs.

Their typical habitat tells you quite a bit about each species. Grass sweetlip tend to reside amongst hard structure like coffee rock ledges, rubble patches and weed beds while red throat emperor prefer the safety of coral bombies, caves and ledges. Both species can be considered bottom feeders but will move around to feed. For this reason, anchoring a bait on the bottom with a heavy sinker probably isn’t the best way to catch them.

Floating lightly weighted baits through the water column is a far more effective way of catching them. A float rig is just about the simplest set up there is. Run a pair of ganged 5/O or 6/O hooks and a running ball sinker directly above those hooks. Use a small green lumo bead to act as a shock absorber between your hooks and sinker. Depth, current and wind conditions will determine your sinker size but you want to aim for a weight that is going to allow your bait to descend steady and naturally to the bottom.

Pilchards, flesh baits, squid and even small live baits like yakka and slimeys are best. Any fish of around 3 or 4kgs is a cracker for either species. Typically, your average size for both species is around the 40-45cm range, which is a fish of about 1.5kgs. In terms of bycatch, you can expect to catch the odd snapper or cod when chasing grassy sweetlip, and maybe a coral trout or parrot when you’re after red throat.

Venus Tusk Fish (Parrot)

Eating Quality (9/10)

Residing hard on the bottom of most offshore reefs is the Venus tusk fish, more commonly known as the parrot. Eating wise, they don’t come much better than the tasty white flesh of these critters and there are normally plenty of them around. Catching parrot as bycatch is pretty common, because they tend to feed in most conditions.

There has been many a day on my boat when a good feed of parrot has saved us from embarrassment. Parrot tend to reside in waters from 25-75m deep and anything in between. It doesn’t take much structure on the ocean floor to hold a few parrot either and they spend a lot of their time on the move with their mouths eating away at crustaceans, rubble and shale on the bottom. If you do get one in the boat, they’ll happily cough up most of that all over the sides of your boat as well. The good old double paternoster rig is just about the best way to target parrot. Use two separate single hooks, around the 5/O size, and a snapper lead sinker that is going to anchor your baits very close to the bottom.

Hook size is important when chasing parrot as they have quite small mouths and a finicky bite. For this reason, octopus circle hooks are recommended as they allow the fish to hook themselves and don’t require the angler to strike. The smaller bites of a parrot aren’t really conducive to sharp strike hook ups. Flesh baits are best; mullet, trevally, tuna or anything fresh that you can get your hands on. The key is keeping your bait on the hook as soft baits like pilchards will normally tear away from the hook after minimal attention from a hunger parrot.

Typically, a nice average size parrot is in the 40-45cm range, but they do grow to 5-6kgs. Bycatch wise, you’ll often encounter plenty of cod species, like Maori and estuary or even the odd red emperor. The tricky part about landing those species is the tiny hook you’re using!

Pearl Perch

Eating Quality – 9.5/10

Pearlies are one of my personal favourite fish to eat. They can be caught in waters around the 45-55m range but are more common in the deep stuff, anywhere from 75m to 275m. Their big eyes are perfect for cruising the deep, dark depths in search of a feed. Hard ledges and rocky structure are their preferred habitat.

In terms of catching them, employ a very similar technique to that which you’d use to chase parrot. Heavy sinker, flesh baits and get it to the bottom. Circle hooks again are effective as pearlies have big bucket mouths that they keep open almost the entire duration of the fight. They typically fight well at the start and then almost feel like a heavy, dead weight on the retrieve.

Where there are pearlies, there are normally snapper and rosy jobfish, both of which are great on the table as well. In the really deep water, you may come across a bar cod, flame snapper or even a hapuka.

Coral Trout

Eating Quality (10/10)

Probably regarded as the finest eating fish in the ocean, the coral trout is one of Queensland’s most famous reef species. These fish are so well regarded that there is a huge Asian market that sought and pay big money for live trout exported from Australia. Interesting, the smaller, just legal sized trout are the ones in highest demand. As an angler though, I love nothing more than tangling with some of the bigger models in that 7-10kg range and I reckon they taste just as good!

Float lining again is the technique to use but trout are also very responsive to soft plastics and even trolled hard bodies on the shallow reefs. Whatever lure or bait you choose, you need to present it close to their structure as they tend to reside under coral bombies or ledges, sometimes even within caves and rock holes.

Their strike and initial run is typically destructive as their natural feeding pattern is to identify prey in close vicinity to their home, rush out, attack it and return to the structure in the same movement. For that reason, you’ll need quality leader material that can handle a bit of abrasion on the rocks and coral.

Fishing lighter is probably better for coral trout because heavier sinkers cause you to get snagged in the bottom frustratingly regularly. There’s not much better than seeing a bright orange coral trout hit the surface and then the esky, especially knowing you’ve got probably the tastiest fish in the ocean in your grasp. Not sure about you, but I’m hungry! Catch ya!

Chris Raimondi

About Chris Raimondi

Chris Raimondi is a Brisbane based angler who's passion for fishing began in the estuaries chasing bream and whiting with his dad and grandfather. These days, Chris spends the majority of his spare time fishing offshore of South East Queensland anywhere from Cape Moreton to 1770 chasing snapper, red emperor and other reef species. Despite getting offshore at any opportunity, Chris also loves nothing more than chasing snapper on plastics in the shallows of Moreton Bay and prides himself on being an 'all rounder'.

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