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Shallow reef adventures in Hervey Bay
  |  First Published: March 2016



In the pursuit of information for my articles, I love having a chat to anglers as they come into the boat ramp after a time on the water. A typically friendly question from me enquiring about their success will often elicit one of three responses. One is stony silence. No way they intend to divulge the secrets of their excursion on the briny, not to anyone, certainly not to a fishing correspondent. Another typical response is ‘just got a feed.’ Again, no details but at the very least they might have a legal bream whose fillets could become a sumptuous seafood dinner for two. Then there are the refreshing individuals who catch little but are happy to talk about it. Nigel was one of them.

Regular readers will know that I have often written about Hervey Bay’s shallow reefs, as these are in easily accessible parts of the Bay. Through encounters like those I have mentioned I have come to realise that the majority of anglers working these reefs catch very few decent fish. I wish to tackle the shallow reefs again, to highlight the reasons why so many do not have much success.

A shallow reef in Hervey Bay can be defined as rock, coral and other attached marine life that might surface on a low spring tide, or be covered by 1-2m of water. With the tidal range you can expect to fish in up to 6m of water. The reefs fringe the mainland and island foreshores. There are launching ramps at Gatakers Bay, Point Vernon, Scarness and Torquay but the latter three are quite open to the weather. By far the best launch facilities are inside the Urangan Boat Harbour, because this area is ideally located to reach the eastern reefs. Just a reminder that there is a triangular shaped green zone occupying a sizable part of the reef to the north of Round Island. See the mud map and also the table of coordinates to locate the corners of the green zone. Silver buoys mark two of these points and the third is very close to the red beacon. Fishing in the green zone is totally banned. Many anglers would be aware that there is some excellent shallow reef country along the western shore of Little Woody Island, and around the red beacon to the south of that island. With the exception of the very tip of Little Woody Island, this is totally zoned green.

Nigel’s story

The first time I met Nigel, he was happy to show me the contents of his bait bucket - a few prawns, a piece of squid and a fillet of mullet, all of which were starting to feel the effects of a hot sun. When I asked him if he had tried using artificials he said his attempts with small ZMan plastic had resulted in being snagged, with the loss of two plastics and jigheads. There are some very successful reef anglers in Hervey Bay who mostly work artificials almost exclusively over the shallow reefs. Most target cod and trout as they troll along the reef edges. Others experience success with a variety of plastics and hardbodies. I didn’t want to embarrass Nigel, having seen the state of his bait but it was obvious to both of us that some improvements were needed here. As I mostly use frozen baits while fishing on the reef, I keep my stock in a small cooler with as many freezer bricks as I can possibly fit in. Depending on how far I am travelling I might leave out the first baits to be used. It is so important for bait to be in top condition. As far as possible, I net my own hardiheads and herrings, and of course pump up good handfuls of large yabbies.

When I asked Nigel if he had caught anything at all that day, he told me about dark motley little fish with spines all around its body. Fortunately he used his fish grippers to deal with what was obviously a black spinefoot (happy moment). Once you’ve been stung by a happy moment you’ll spend the rest of your life making sure that it doesn’t happen again. These unfortunate little creatures can be in plague proportions over the shallows during daylight - just another reason to fish dusk and early evening. Nigel’s other capture was an attractive little fish with large black spots on either side. He indicated its size with a hand span. Just as well this little Moses perch found its way back into the water. With a minimum legal size of 25cm, this could have proved expensive if checked by an inspector at the ramp.

We had quite a discussion about setting the boat in position on a reef. Quite a lot has been written about the damage anchors can cause on reefs. The best alternative, where possible, is to anchor on a sandy bottom close to the reef and use the tide to carry baits over the coral. There are quite a few places where this can be done in Hervey Bay, but weather conditions can make it almost impossible. The ideal way to position the boat is to have it lying with the tide without the interference of the wind causing it to drift about. With the boat in this position, cast your lines directly down tide. Casting at right angles to the tide will get your terminal gear washed around and inevitably snagged in the heavy structure.

My standard rig for the shallows is usually nothing more than sinker on the hook; I sometimes include a heavier leader, but keep the sinker on the hook. Use the lightest lead that conditions allow, right down to no lead at all. Another major reason for casting with the tide is that fish will be attracted into that zone. When I have my boat set on the reef, my first bait is a half pilchard to attract attention and act as a self-berleying device. I rarely use other berleys. Sometimes all they achieve is a massive gathering of unwanted butter bream and other small fish.

We had a look at Nigel’s equipment - nothing too much wrong with it, but a little light for the heavy duty fishing that can happen on the reef. My standard set of gear is a much used and loved Ugly Stik made up to suit a 650 Alvey with a large stripping guide for long casts. I use 12kg mono, a wide selection of ball sinkers and 2/0 and 3/0 540 Mustads. This might sound a bit like overkill but when you could be dealing with blackall up to 6kg, you need to have enough wood to put on them. This equipment is fine for the usual run of reef fish - grass sweetlip (coral bream), blackall (painted sweetlip), small snapper, Moses perch and stripeys, but to tackle blueys (black spot tuskfish) you need to go to at least 25kg mono. Having sorted out the some of the equipment questions it was time to look a little more closely at the popular species of the shallow reef and how to successfully target them.

Shallow reef species

The larger grass sweetlip are naturally shy fish. In shallow water they rarely come close to the boat. This is why long casts down tide away from the boat achieve the best results. Although good quality fish are possible captures throughout the day and night, they often have a short burst of frantic activity just on dusk and at first light. With very little warning they will pick up bait and tear off with it. Then it’s a matter of giving little as it heads for cover. In these conditions there is no time to be gentle, particularly early in the struggle. Coral bream feed ravenously on just about anything, but in my book whole small herrings, half pilchards and hardiheads are the top baits.

On an evening about a fortnight later I came back to the ramp at my usual time of 5-8 pm. This is when the action happens. Start any earlier and you might have to put up with the happy moments! Stay much later and there will still be the odd fish to contend with. Nigel came into the ramp just as I had pulled my Quinnie up onto the pebble beach. He was looking quite pleased with himself and a glance in his icebox showed me why. Half a dozen nice coralies, a Moses perch and a blackall of about 2kg were staring at me through the crushed ice. It was still early in the evening on a rare windless night so we were happy to hang out for a while and talk fishing.

We examined Nigel’s blackall, remarking on its fleshy lips. In common with its close relatives, the bruin of Fraser Island and the blubberlip bream of our rivers, their soft fleshy lips help them to feed among the sands between the hard corals and rocks. It might not be surprising then, that yabbies, along with other small crustaceans work well as baits. The only problem when using yabbies is that they are often torn apart by small fish before the blackall can find them.

An elderly gentleman and close friend, who sadly is no longer able to fish, developed the use of a shandy of a small strip of squid laid on the shaft of the hook with a yabby mounted on the gape. A simple solution, perhaps, but it works. I often fish with my friend and I would hear him say “the yabby’s gone,” and ten seconds later his reel would be screaming. The initial bite of a blackall, no matter what bait is used, is little more than a suspicion. As well as yabbies and crabs, blackall are quite prepared to take squid or cuttlefish. You might catch a few on hardiheads, even pilchards, but these are not baits that I would choose to target blackall.

After our examination of Nigel’s blackall we chatted about the eating qualities of this fish and others from the reef. Blackall do not have a great reputation with anglers further north, which I think is unfair. We always bleed a blackall on capture, then fillet, bone and skin. I probably wouldn’t have them in my top ten, but the cooked fillets are very acceptable. Coral bream, closely related to red throat emperor, are prime table fare, no matter how they are prepared for the table. Young snapper are very common over the shallow reef and the majority don’t make the 35cm limit. In fact, they can become quite a nuisance. I took a 50cm specimen in the middle of a typical coral bream burst, which was a welcome addition to my catch that evening. Snapper of this size are superb eating. I was confident that this one would probably earn me another leave pass when I handed it over to the home manager.

We also discussed a few of the other shallow reef species. We took a close look at the Moses perch in Nigel’s icebox - no problems with this one - comfortably over the 25cm limit. Both the Moses perch and closely related stripey are common captures on the reef, particularly just after dark. They are in elite company with other members of the sea perch family - mangrove jack, golden snapper (fingermark), nannygai and red emperor. Moses perch and stripeys will take just about any bait offering. As table fare they are hard to beat. Closely related to coral bream, juvenile spangled emperor are often caught in their company. They are distinct species with very different legal requirements. The spangled is a much more colourful fish with lots of bright blue spots over its body.

Nigel had been debating whether or not to get geared up for blueys (black-spot tuskfish). In Hervey Bay the very biggest fish are taken on the deeper reefs and ledges such as the Rufus Artificial and Moon Ledge. Here specialist fishermen who use 100kg mono hand lines take fish well over 10kg. Whole blue-claw or sand crabs are favoured baits. Once hooked it is heavy-duty work with gloved hands to stop the bluey from making it into his favourite structure. This is one form of fishing that I haven’t graduated to. However, the shallow reefs hold good numbers of smaller blueys that can be handled on lines up to 50kg. I use a heavy duty Ugly Stik with a direct wind 650 Alvey, as well as Hoodlum 2/0 hooks. Much the same outfit that I use for other shallow reef fish, except for the line and rod ratings. The standout baits are black rock crabs followed by small paddlers, yabbies and soldier crabs. Yabbies and soldier crabs can get cleaned up quickly on the reef nursery, so the firmer crab baits are more likely to survive until a bluey arrives at the scene. For these smaller fish, even those of just legal size, there is no room for finesse, the fish must be stopped abruptly and brought to boat without giving it the slightest opportunity to find cover. Shallow reef blueys are likely up to 4kg, just about the limit for the kind of gear I use. They are predominantly daylight feeders and early morning sessions usually prove to be the most productive. Fishing a late afternoon session will often see them continue to feed right up to complete darkness. The closely related purple tuskfish (greasy) are often prolific on the reef.

Bluey hunting

A couple of days later Nigel was keen to accompany me on a session dedicated to bluey. He was happy to see it put into practice. The first bluey was just undersize at 29.5cm and he was surprised at the energy that small fish displayed. The next fish couldn’t be stopped in his tracks, and ended up wrapping my 50kg line around a bommie. After a period of little activity, I was on again and it looked like I was going to lose some more line, but I managed to get the fish coming. Almost 2kg of fish soon ended up in the boat. I am not sure whether Nigel will set himself up for blueys on the shallow reef. It sure isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.

When I caught up with Nigel at the Boat Club about three months later, he hadn’t set himself up for bluey fishing, but was looking forward to doing so for the start of the coming summer. However, he had been busy in the latter part of the previous season, having some success trolling shallow working hardbodies. His most frequent catch were estuary cod, many of which were undersize. Just a few trout were taken and more than half made the legal requirement. He also scored a couple of tailor, a big-eye trevally and a small queenfish, representatives of non-resident visitors to the shallow reef.

I am looking forward to catching up with Nigel again soon - maybe at the ramp again - more likely out on the water. There may be lots of Nigels out there struggling to find ways to improve their fishing knowledge and skills and consequently the complete enjoyment of their sport. There are also lots of anglers of various skills and experience, only too ready to talk to and help their fellow anglers. You certainly can learn lots from fishing mags like Fishing Monthly, and from TV shows, but nothing will replace the one to one communication between two anglers sharing their experience.

Green Zone Boundaries

Green ZoneLatLong
North (near red beacon)25° 16.0’S152° 55.600’E
South West (near Round Island)25° 16.683’ S152° 55.663’E
South East (near Woody Island)25° 16.100’S152° 56.400’E

Legal sizes and bag limits

SpeciesMin. length (cm)Bag limitClassification
Coral bream (grass sweetlip)3010N/A
Spangled emperor455Coral reef finfish
Blackall (painted sweetlip)255Coral reef finfish
Moses perch255Coral reef finfish
Stripey255Coral reef finfish
Bluey (black spot tuskfish305Coral reef finfish (Combined bag of 6)
Greasy (purple tuskfish)305Combined bag of 6
Snapper (squire)355N/A
Estuary Cod385Max. limit 120cm
Coral Trout387Coral reef finfish
Bream and tarwhine2530Combined limit of 30

* A maximum total bag limit for coral reef finfish is 20

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