Operation Middle Ground: A Battle Plan for Targeting Shoal Dwellers
  |  First Published: September 2008

When heading for an offshore fishing trip, the weather will usually dictate two options: a scoot to the reef in fair conditions, or island hop to rocky headlands in rough conditions. But what about those neutral days, when the sea is unpredictable, and a ‘little breeze’ suddenly turns the boat into a seesaw? Do you scoot or hop? My answer is to do neither, instead fish the middle ground.

So what is the middle ground? To put it simply, it’s shoaly areas, bits of low growing soft corals and rubble patches that usually exist close enough to the mainland or an island to be protected from a wind increase. The supreme feature of such places is that they are often under-fished and can contain large populations of schooling species.

Research and Reconnaissance

First thing to do before heading out is to purchase a local marine chart (or a GPS map card) and look for any contour lines that indicate a rise in sea level. As a general rule most decent rises will be already marked and named. But be aware that contours named as ‘Something’ Shoals, will generally be mere sand hills or sandy ridgelines that hold little structure. However, some of these empty shoals can sometimes produce interesting pressure waves and can at times hold bait, so it is always worth a troll around their edges with fast running lures like Rapala Magnums, Laser Pros and Tremblers.

Even though most shoals are sand, be sure to still go over them with the depth sounder. Any density in the bottom line can indicate low grown corals or rubble, which are well worth a fish. The best way to check is to simply throw out a reef-pick and drag it over the bottom; a reasonably experienced fisher can quickly make out the seabed’s consistency. The anchor will also serve to slow down the boat’s drift making this a perfect time for drift fishing. Many snapper, red emperor and sweetlip are caught in this fashion.

Nevertheless, a better prospect is to look for areas off the beaten track marked as ‘Something’ Rock. These spots will almost always contain large amounts of structure, but they will often also attract large numbers of boats. The trick can often be to find the rock’s fringe areas, as these will often be in much deeper water, be rubble and hold numbers of quality table fish.

Many of these small rubble patches and minor coral areas are unmarked so, while it is a gamble, it can often pay to do some drift fishing in deep areas (30m+) near your favourite island or reef. Always keep one eye on your sounder and remember to mark any interesting structure on your GPS. These marks can end up being more precious than a corporate box at the State of Origin.

Plan of Attack

Once you have located a potential area of middle ground, do your best to anchor so that you’re fishing down onto the structure. This can be problematic, so you may need to adjust your anchor.

There are three key ingredients for a good anchor: good prongs; good chain; and, good for you.

Having strong well curved prongs, which can often be achieved using a D-shackle to shorten the prong length and a small piece of metal pipe to apply the leverage to bend them, is essential for holding in awkward areas.

Likewise, the chain is also a huge factor and can be the difference between a hold and a drag. Try using the heaviest and the longest piece of chain you can comfortably retrieve. An adequate chain not only pulls the prongs down harder but also allows a buffer from wave action because when the boat moves up and down the chain will lift, not the anchor. Lastly select an anchor that is right for you. If you can afford it, try a plough anchor, as they hold much better in softer ground. Just be careful, if you hit a patch of thick structure you might not get it back!

Once you drop the anchor, it pays to be persistent. Often a patch of shoal will only work at certain times of the tide. The first time at a new spot is always a learning curve so pay attention to every little detail, including tidal run/height, moon phase, water temperature and the presence of bait on the sounder. Each spot can be different, but from experience I look for a small to medium tide, a cloudless night with at least a half moon or dawn and dusk.

Action creates more action, so it can often be a case of catching one fish and suddenly all hell will break loose. Berley bombs can be effective at drawing fish from a large area and starting a feeding frenzy, but just be careful of the tidal run. If it’s running too much you might just be feeding the seagulls a mile away.

Target Acquired

A good patch of middle ground can produce all kinds of quality table fish, as well as pelagics such as trevally, cobia and mackerel. This feature will focus on several of the more popular and tastier species.


Sweetlip are well and truly a mixed bag of sub-species, with more quirks than Andy Warhol. The lipper, as they are known, are traditionally bottom dwellers with firm white flesh. They are a delight to catch and eat, and local shoals will often hold large numbers of grass sweetlip, which can take some skill to hook.

When targeting grassies, use soft bait like squid, pilchards or strip bait. Good sized bait squid are available at most tackle shops and are ideal, and an insider tip that has worked tremendously well is cooked prawns. Large, bright red, cooked prawns can be brought cheaply from your local supermarket at times and are one of the best baits out there for fishing the middle ground.

A running sinker rig with the lightest bean or barrel sinker that will get to the bottom, is ideal. Lipper are notorious for avoiding any bait that isn’t flat on the bottom, however, at the same time they can have the soft touch of a trained pickpocket, so the right amount of lead can be quite tricky. An effective technique can be to use just enough lead to get to the bottom and then let the sinker bounce your bait across a large area. This will cover a lot of ground and guarantee maximum sensitivity.

All species of lipper can be cantankerous and will often need to be allowed to run with a bait for several metres. In these circumstances a softer rod tip and a baitrunner style reel can be very useful. Once hooked however, even the softest bite can turn into the devil’s steam train with a one-way ticket for the bottom, so pick a rod with some backbone and hold on!


Snapper grace Mackay’s water only during the coldest parts of the year (Show Day is commonly know as Snapper Day), but which can provide a heck of a thrill when schooled up over a rubble patch.

This species likes a larger bait, so try whole squid or pilchards rigged naturally with a loop around the tail or a double hook rig. These big bad brutes will often feed up off the bottom so experiment with different rigs like paternosters or just wind up several turns once you’ve hit bottom.

Don’t forget to bleed snapper after capture, as their flesh can be rather dark.

Parrots, Trout, Reds and other Collateral Damage

The middle ground can produce all kinds of tasty surprises, so be prepared.

Coral trout are a frequent catch and will often take a prawn or a pillie, but be warned that these guys can make a real mess of 60lb leader so don’t give them an inch. A locked drag is a good idea, and so is having a more solid auxiliary combo (capable of wielding 80lb braid) just in case the trout are in large numbers.

Parrotfish can make a tasty side catch and can pull as hard as any fish in the ocean. These colourful guys love crustaceans and will make a meal from prawn baits.

If you plan to target red emperor when fishing deep rubble, then don’t forget to bring the heavy gear (even a heavy handline will do in a pinch) as they will make short work of softer rods. A good choice of bait is a large slab bait with the fish’s tail still attached.

Another species that is often taken is the dreaded slatey bream. These Mother-in-law fish can leave anglers feeling quite robbed after a long and drawn out battle. Likewise, be aware of the possibility of grunter, javelin fish, which are often taken on inshore rubble.

Mission Notes

The techniques listed above are just a few of the wide range that will work wonders when fishing the middle ground. Everything from soft plastics jigged with heavy jigheads to deep-diving lures on downriggers can and will produce fish.

Whether by day or night, the rubble beds and soft corals will produce fish for the anglers who have the time and persistence to find them. Next time the weather is neither rough nor glassed out, give the middle ground a drift; you might just find a secret spot of your own.


Author’s Weaponry For The Middle Ground

• Boat rod rated at over 15kg with a soft tip, the 24kg T-Curve Jig Stick is ideal.

• A light, well balanced reel. Good models include ABU Ambassador 7000, Calcutta 700, Tekota 500 or 600 or a Shimano 6500 Baitrunner (Spin).

• Spectra Braid 30-50lb.

• 1.5m of supple leader, around 60lb to maximize feel.

• Barrel sinker

• 7/0 Mustad Big Gun Chemically Sharpened Hook.

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