Reef fishing out of Cairns has so much to offer due to the large numbers of reefs that are close to Cairns and the large amounts of reef fish species that will challenge any angler. The main reef species that are targeted are Coral Trout, Red Emperor, Sweetlip, Spangled Emperor, Cod, Nanaguy and Mangrove jack. The main pelagic species are Mackerel, Cobia, Kingfish, Travelly, Queen Fish and Tuna.

Bottom Fishing

Fishing on the reef bottom is exciting because you can catch over one hundred different types of fish in one outing. Most of them will be small but it is nice to see the different fish and the different colouration of each species. When bottom fishing a large number of fish are lost to the reef especially the larger fish. The most common scenario with a reef fish is, once hooked, to head for shelter under a bommie or large reef structure. As soon as the line rubs up against the reef while it is tensioned, it will eventually break. When snagged in the reef it is best to jig the line up and down to try and allow the sinker to free the hook. If this does not work the line will need to be broken and rigged up again. Most bottom dwelling fish will fight hard for the first five meters from the bottom, they then tend to back off and tire easily.

Depending on the reef zoning most anglers that bottom fish have a float line out the back of the boat to catch any pelagic fish passing by. The most common dead bait for a float line is pilchard on gang hooks and the most common live bait is the Fusilier. Fusiliers are commonly found around large bommies, the shelter from the bommie assists the Fusiliers in avoiding attack from large predators such as the Shark and Mackerel.

If you find a bommie in deep water and the crest of the bommie peaks within a few metres of the surface, it could potentially serve all your needs. Anchor on top of the bommie and drift of the edge. If any Fusilier is in the area they will school on top of the bommie, the larger bottom dwelling fish will be just beside the drop off and the large pelagic fish will pass through near the bommie looking for bait. Now, I am not guaranteeing that you will catch fish but if you put yourself in the best situation possible you will have a greater chance of producing a large catch.

That is one of the many different scenarios that are available to all anglers on The Great Barrier Reef, the type of fishing you decide to do on the reef depends on the weather, tides, the time of day and the fish you are targeting.


Sharks can become a big nuisance when fishing on the reef. If you are unlucky enough to have a large shark position itself under you’re boat waiting for the next fish to be hooked and retrieved for an easy meal. It can become very frustrating losing every good sized fish to the gray jackets. In the end the only thing you can do is to pull up anchor and move from the area.

If you attract sharks to the boat on purpose with fish, a word of warning. The sharks can become very aggressive if you tease them with fish just so you can get a better look at them. I have witnessed this being done once before and I recommend against doing this.

The shark in question was just a little smaller then the 15ft boat and it got aggressive because it didn’t get the bait that was being used to lure the animal closer, so the shark decided to head to the rear of the boat and attack the outboard motor. It didn’t take them long to pull up the anchor and get out of there. Learn from other people’s mistakes and think about what you are doing when it comes to sharks because, when provoked, sharks can be very aggressive, but left alone 99.99% of the time you have nothing to worry about.


Trolling can consist of lures, fresh bait and dead bait.

Fresh bait is sometimes hard to come by but works very well especially with the Spanish Mackerel, which is a great fish to target being a very good table fish and a great fighter. The Spanish Mackerel has lovely white flesh and a very small stomach and can grow over 1.5 metres long. This means the majority of the Mackerel is usable flesh and not just head and stomach.

Dead bait such as Garfish works well too but both require knowledge and a lot of preparation.

Trolling is a good way to cover a lot of ground and to familiarize yourself with the area. There are many reefs and islands to explore in the Cairns region and I think, apart from a helicopter, trolling is the best way to cover the most ground whilst fishing. When Trolling you should be looking at your depth on the depth sounder to find the large reef structure, fish havens and drop offs where the larger fish are waiting to ambush their prey. Make sure you are trolling at the right depth because you won’t catch coral trout in fifty metres of water while running your lures at 5 metres. The fish you are targeting will determine the lures you are running and at what depth you should be traveling in. When trolling I recommend using a small length of leader with a long wire trace attached to the lure, so that if the fish has sharp teeth, which most of them do, they won’t cut the line. If your line is dragged into the reef the trace and leader can help with not getting cut off on the reef. One of the most common with the pelagic, yet not commonly considered, is that when hooked the fish swims away from the boat, so with the fish running in the opposite direction the line runs along the body and against the kicking tail, in the end the tail will cut though the line. So, when deciding what length leader to tie on after the trace just ask yourself what length fish are you expecting to catch or targeting, then add about 6 inches.

Charter Boats

The best way to get out to the reef and try all the different types of fishing is on a fishing Charter Boat. We highly recommend going out with the experts and letting them show you the best areas to fish, the best rig to use and what fish to target. There is a large number of Charter Boats to choose from that are based out of Cairns, and you can also select from a range of charters out from Port Douglas. Prices vary depending on what is involved in the package and what type of fishing you want to do.

Reef Zones

When traveling out to the reef a GPS (Global Positioning System) is a must, and with the new re-zoning of the reef it is almost impossible to judge the boundaries of the different zones without one.The zoning maps information can be found in at the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority website.