Fishing the often overlooked ‘in between’ zones

You wake up 10-minutes before the alarm sounds and instinctively glance out the window to see the hint of pre-dawn light. The tree tops are barely moving, stars have replaced yesterday’s cloud and the forecasters appear to have finally got it right. Twenty minutes later you’re reversing down the driveway and heading towards the ramp. As if on auto pilot, the decision to head out fishing for the day virtually made itself. But now, as you scoot across a near-flat bay, you have one of two choices to make. “Do I fish close in, around the Islands, or run wide to the barrier reef?” But there’s another option to consider and it can be a damn good one – the ground found between the islands and reef, the ground many fishermen call the shoals. While commonly known by this all-encompassing name, the reality is far from uniform. This ‘in between’ shoal ground can differ immensely depending on location, proximity to structure, depth of water and most importantly the species of fish on offer. Inshore shoals, which are typically found around twenty kilometres offshore from island structure, are generally made up of either a hard rock bottom or reef sliding away to rubble.
Grunter or javelin fish are a common middle shoal target fish species though they become more readily available on inshore shoals during winter.

Grunter or javelin fish are a common middle shoal target fish species though they become more readily available on inshore shoals during winter.

These shoals are often quite pronounced on the sounder and therefore commonly marked and well known by anglers. More isolated shoals, found up to 60 km from shore in deeper water, are often characterised by small fields of rubble sometimes covered in a fern like coral or wire weed. These shoals are far less obvious on the sounder and are sometimes completely invisible unless the boat is equipped with a high quality sounder with powerful transducer. In places such as North Queensland’s Burdekin coast these offshore shoals are characterised by large sand banks with big gutters which provide the perfect habitat for all types of deepwater fish. As you move closer to the Great Barrier Reef itself, these rubble and sand patches tend to become more pronounced. They appear as hard, gutter-strewn structure often rising ten to twelve metres out of very deep water. This is because water depths tend to rise as you move closer to the outer reef which allows more coral and structural growth. Whatever form they take, this ‘in between’ ground plays a vital role in terms of fish migration. It provides crucial habitat and structure for many fish species when they move from inshore waters to deeper offshore waters as they mature. Similarly, adult fish will migrate between these grounds, moving from the outer reef waters to inshore waters when the time comes to spawn.
Big saddle tail snapper or nannygai are the most predominant shoal target species due to their big numbers and excellent fighting and eating qualities.

Big saddle tail snapper or nannygai are the most predominant shoal target species due to their big numbers and excellent fighting and eating qualities.

Seasonal variations

Just like the differences in structure described above, fish species on these shoals can also change and this mainly depends upon the time of year. Through the warmer months of summer and spring inshore shoals become a haven for golden snapper which tend to move out of rivers and away from islands and into this deeper water isolated shoal area. Over spring and around the new moon golden snapper will congregate in large numbers over these shoal areas and spawn making them very hungry and highly aggressive. This can lead to some monumental and memorable fishing sessions.
Bar-cheeked trout like this one are common on inshore shoals however the really big ones tend to migrate out into the middle grounds in very deep water.

Bar-cheeked trout like this one are common on inshore shoals however the really big ones tend to migrate out into the middle grounds in very deep water.

Golden snapper can be very fussy with shoal structure and prefer to congregate around a rubble bottom with isolated rocky structure. These shoals are the hardest find but produce the best quality fish. Another species which tend to move to inshore areas during the warmer months are large and small mouth nannygai. These fish can be found across inshore, middle, and offshore reef shoals of all descriptions and if there was one species to represent shoal fishing it would have to be the nannygai. They are the bread and better species of the shoals due to the fact they are found in big schools, grow to a large size and offer a fantastic fight once hooked. Nannygai are without doubt the most prominent inhabitants of the shoal grounds. Juvenile nannyggai are renowned for saturating inshore shoals with the majority of these fish moving into deeper offshore shoals as they mature to around the 2kg mark. It is not uncommon to come across big numbers of these fish inshore, pulling in one after the other just under the legal size limit. This is due to the larger fish having moved to the deeper offshore shoal grounds. Over the summer months, particularly during the monsoon season, many shoal fishermen believe that sediment washed from rivers draws baitfish closer inshore which in turn brings in the nannygai. This chain of events often sees inshore shoals holding large numbers of mature nannygai. When this sediment settles and bait moves back offshore adult fish also tend to move to wider deeper shoals. The large mouth nanny is the preferred option over the small mouth version as they have a cleaner flesh and taste a lot better – especially once they reach over the magical 4kg mark. Nannygai are not a picky fish and can be caught from rubbly bottoms as well as hard and sand shoals. One feature they do tend to like is gutters which allow protection from current.

Keep an eye on the sounder

With this in mind it pays to keep a close eye on your sounder, looking for small rises and dips over deep water shoals when locating good ground in hard to identify areas.
A typical example of an inshore shoal. Resting in about  30 metres of water the structure is isolated but still quite predominant and easy to see on a sounder.

A typical example of an inshore shoal. Resting in about 30 metres of water the structure is isolated but still quite predominant and easy to see on a sounder.

This exemplifies perfectly the structure of an outer reef shoal. Lots of structure with plenty of big deep gutters. As you move further from away from the outer reef these tend to slide away into rubble patches.

This exemplifies perfectly the structure of an outer reef shoal. Lots of structure with plenty of big deep gutters. As you move further from away from the outer reef these tend to slide away into rubble patches.

A perfect example of the boat beginning to move over middle offshore rubble shoal ground some 40km offshore. You can see only a small change in bottom structure and this is why the need for a good sounder. Take note of the bait ball - it’s a good sign.

A perfect example of the boat beginning to move over middle offshore rubble shoal ground some 40km offshore. You can see only a small change in bottom structure and this is why the need for a good sounder. Take note of the bait ball – it’s a good sign.

While golden snapper and ‘nannies’ tend to move to inshore shoals during the warmer months, two other often encountered species play a very different game. Grunter – aka javelin fish – and black jew are two shoal species which behave in the exact opposite manner, taking up residence on inshore shoals during the cooler winter months. At this time of year it is not uncommon for these fish to make the migration from deepwater shoals to inshore shoals in large numbers. Jew seem to prefer similar structure to golden snapper however grunter more commonly feed and school around rubbly bottoms with little structure.  
Two cracking golden snapper taken over an inshore shoal some 20km offshore. These fish were snared off the only piece of hard structure over a rubble shoal.

Two cracking golden snapper taken over an inshore shoal some 20km offshore. These fish were snared off the only piece of hard structure over a rubble shoal.

Large black jew will migrate from offshore and middle shoal ground to inshore shoals during winter. When they arrive they are usually in big numbers and feed hard. Be aware though that don’t survive catch and release so only take what you need.

Large black jew will migrate from offshore and middle shoal ground to inshore shoals during winter. When they arrive they are usually in big numbers and feed hard. Be aware though that don’t survive catch and release so only take what you need.

All hail the King of the shoals

The King of the shoals is without doubt the mighty red emperor. ‘Reds’ share similar behaviour to nannygai using inshore, middle and reef shoals to migrate. Many inshore shoals will hold juvenile fish up to or just under the legal size limit with the majority of mature fish found well offshore on the deeper middle grounds.
Big cod are always on offer fishing across all types of shoals.

Big cod are always on offer fishing across all types of shoals.

Red emperor love structure but also inhabit rubble-like shoals when there is good presence of fern. Reds will school in good numbers, a ‘schoolie’ referring to fish of the 5 to 6kg size bracket. Larger fish tend to be more isolated however they will school with smaller fish at times. Location plays a big role when fishing for red emperor on shoals. In Western Australia and in the Northern Territory red emperor take a lot longer to grow compared to east coast fish therefore average fish sizes are way down. In North Queensland most reds are around the 6 to 8kg mark. Around the central coast fish around the 10kg mark are not uncommon. This is due to the expansive middle and offshore shoal grounds available. There are many other species on offer when fishing shoal country with fish such as coral trout, cobia, and big cod readily available.
The King of the shoals- The red emperor. Mature fish are typically found on middle and offshore shoal grounds.

The King of the shoals- The red emperor. Mature fish are typically found on middle and offshore shoal grounds.

Inshore shoals tend to harbour bar-cheeked coral trout – a species that also utilises the migration opportunities that shoals offer. In fact, my largest bar-cheeked coral trout – a fish of just over 8kg – was pulled from an offshore shoal some 50km from the mainland in more than 180 feet of water. If you’ve ever wondered where the big bar-cheeks go this may just answer your question. Shoals closer to the reef tend to hold common coral trout and also good numbers of red throat emperor, especially when fishing over rubble structure and sand. Hard-fighting job fish are also available at these outer reef shoals. One of the reasons shoal grounds fish so well is that unlike islands and the outer reef, they are not as easily identified on GPS plotters. They are also completely hidden from the naked eye. The key to finding these grounds is to closely study a detailed marine chart. By exploring a chart you can identify areas within this ‘in between’ ground where there are obvious drops or rises in depth. Another way to identify shoals is to look for areas where contour lines converge or squiggle or even form a circle. This pattern often highlights changes in bottom structure or depth. These areas are often quite pronounced with a combination of depth and lines on the chart.
A great catch of reefs from the ‘in between’ grounds.

A great catch of reefs from the ‘in between’ grounds.

It pays to highlight a certain area and spend time closely researching it to identify any likely looking locations. On some maps, shoals are highlighted by the letters S or M which indicate shale or mud. Time on the water is the best way to find these shoal areas and even when you do locate good looking ground it can very much be a case of further investigation to find where the fish are lurking. Once structure has been identified the next step is to look for signs of bait or indeed fish. Baitfish such as hussar will show up well on your sounder and are a top indication that larger predatory target fish are nearby.

What rig do I use?

Shoal fishing is all about bottom bashing so a paternoster or running sinker rig is a wise place to start. Braided line to a main line is essential as you will be fishing deep water. Being able to get to the bottom and feel bites is critical and large target species such as nannygai bite remarkably timidly so being able to have that sensitivity is a must. When fishing offshore deepwater shoals you’ll be contending with considerable run and will need to use a lot of weight. Drift fishing is a great idea when the tide is running hard. Drifting also allows you cover more area and is an effective way to prospect when first working new ground.

When fishing deepwater shoals I prefer to use large overhead lever drag two speed reels. They provide ease of use when drifting and the optional high speed retrieve helps when the dreaded sharks are in the area. Sharks are another factor to consider when shoal fishing – you will experience sessions when the bite is hot but you just can’t get the fish to the boat due to the many ‘men in grey suits’ below.

Many shoal fishermen use large deck winches to get the fish to the boat promptly. It is best in this situation to move away from the mark as no reel is faster than a 10 foot whaler honing in on a tasty red emperor at speed. I prefer to target my reef fish with soft plastics. For inshore grounds a 1 to 2 ounce saltwater jig head will suffice but when fishing deeper water in middle and reef shoal areas a 3 to 6 ounce head will be required depending on the amount of run. ‘In between’ grounds are a terrific option to fish. They may take a bit of extra homework to find but are certainly worth the effort. Next time you find yourself thinking about where you are going to fish offshore, don’t overlook the space between the islands and the reef. This ‘in between’ ground has plenty to offer.
Dan Kaggelis

About Dan Kaggelis

Born in Tully, North Queensland, Dan cut his fishing teeth in the region’s freshwater rivers chasing the tropical triumvirate of sooty grunter, jungle perch and barramundi. With fishing running thick in the Kaggelis family, Dan was fortunate to experience many extended trips to the Western Cape and Gulf of Carpentaria from a young age. This instilled a deep affection for the sport. Living so close to Great Barrier Reef, offshore fishing was also very much included in recreational activities as was free diving and spearfishing.

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