A Great Barrier Reef Fishing Adventure

Six days on a mothership casting stickbaits and soft plastics on the northern GBR produce a remarkable array of game fish.

During six days, a group of anglers cast stickbaits, poppers, soft plastics and metal jigs on the shallow reef crest atop the Great Barrier Reef, and farther inside, around bommies (large coral heads surrounded by deeper water). The result was an impressive and diverse mix of game fishes. We fished with Nomad Sportfishing which specializes in multi-day fishing trips to remote areas of the Great Barrier Reef.

Giant trevally are what most anglers most want to tangle with ... at least those with some masochistic tendencies, since no fish fights more brutally than these big jacks, often compared to the junkyard dogs of the reef. Famed Alaska skipper Andy "Frosty" Mezirow (left) caught this bad boy on the Shimano Tranx baitcaster he brought for the trip. Guide Tim Baker holds the fish which hit a huge stickbait (new that morning: Check out the wear on it from this first fish!).

Giant trevally fishing Australia Great Barrier Reef
Number-One TargetDoug Olander / Sport Fishing

While anglers finish eating breakfast aboard the Odyssey, the 80-foot aluminum cat mothership, the crew lower skiffs to join two 25-foot Contenders, putting up to 12 anglers on the water.

Odyssey mothership fishing Australia Great Barrier Reef
Time to FishDoug Olander / Sport Fishing

Although some anglers bring tackle, weight limits on the regional flight out of Cairns make that tough, but no worries: Nomad has equipped its mothership with more than enough top-quality tackle (including lots of Shimano Stella spinners) for all anglers' needs.

Shimano tackle fishing Australia Great Barrier Reef
Rods to the ReadyDoug Olander / Sport Fishing

This is prime sport inside the Great Barrier Reef — anglers cast big poppers and stick baits along the edges of bommies (coral heads like that visible here, surrounded by deeper, blue water). Watching dark shapes of GT and other game fish charge out behind one’s lure is one of fishing’s most exciting moments.

Bommies fishing Australia Great Barrier Reef
Working the BommiesDoug Olander / Sport Fishing

That would be the red bass (Lutjanus bohar), very abundant, very aggressive and fantastic game fish of the GBR. George Large caught this toothy specimen on one of the smaller (and very effective) stickbaits, called a Mad Scad, in the Nomad's own line of lures.

Red bass fishing Australia Great Barrier Reef
Snapper on SteroidsDoug Olander / Sport Fishing

Though known as coral trout, these are long, slender grouper that don’t really act like grouper. They love to chase down topwater lures. In coral-filled shallows, often by the time an angler has set the hook, the fish is embedded in the reef. Large managed to land this lovely fish in part thanks to being in a mostly sandy area of the reef crest.

Coral trout fishing Australia Great Barrier Reef
Coral TroutDamon Olsen

This 20-pound humphead Maori wrasse is but a child: These monsters of the wrasse family can approach 400 pounds. Triple-digit wrasse are hooked out here but seldom landed. They'll hit poppers, but Andy Mezirow caught this one on a Z-Man soft-plastic bait.

Humphead maori wrasse fishing Australia Great Barrier Reef
Massive WrasseDamon Olsen

The remarkable chinamanfish is one of many colorful types of snapper and predators in these waters. Could this fish, caught on a Z-man Jerk Shadz by Tom Geddes of New Zealand — and released, like nearly all fish caught on these trips — have weighed 30 pounds? If so, it would have beaten the current world record for the species by a pound. Though probably tasty, chinamanfish have proven so frequently ciguatoxic that the Australian government has banned their sale.

Chinamanfish fishing Australia Great Barrier Reef
Not Your Average SnapperPeter Myers

What Aussies call “spaniards” are officially narrowbarred spanish mackerel, similar to the Atlantic king mackerel but with a barred patern on their sides and more prone to leap clear of the water in pursuit of lures. George Large caught this one, however, trolling a deep diver in the steep dropoff of a reef pass, hoping for a dogtooth tuna.

Spaniard spanish mackerel fishing Australia Great Barrier Reef
Kingfish CousinDoug Olander / Sport Fishing

A narrowbarred Spanish mackerel is brought boatside for its release — which will be facilitated by the use of single hooks vs. trebles. The Nomad operation equips all of its lures with single hooks and asks that anglers do the same since most fish are released unharmed.

Narrowbarred Spanish mackerel fishing Australia Great Barrier Reef
Toothy GrinDoug Olander / Sport Fishing

In the grey light of early morning, the big deep-diving plug that George Large was trolling for dogtooth tuna in one of countless current-swept passes through the reef provided quite a surprise when the line angle came up and up, to reveal a small black marlin. Note the proximity of the reef edge by the surf in the background.

Black marlin caught with diving plug fishing lure fishing Australia Great Barrier Reef
Marlin on a Diving PlugDoug Olander / Sport Fishing

Large bids farewell to his marlin after a brief resuscitation period.

Black marlin caught with diving plug fishing lure fishing Australia Great Barrier Reef
End GameDoug Olander / Sport Fishing

Large is about to heave another cast as far as he can. Lures for big GT, dogtooth and wrasse are generally large and heavy; an angler has to be in shape to throw them for long periods. This lure, made for the Nomad, has been well armed with an interesting and highly effective hook arrangement, cable-tying together the front two at the shank.

Giant trevally tackle fishing Australia Great Barrier Reef
Serious GearDoug Olander / Sport Fishing

With so many manufacturers like VMC now offering inline hooks, replacing standard trebles, as I've done on these Shimano Orcas, is quick. (However, sometimes larger split rings are needed, both for strength and to accommodate thick hook eyes.)

Shimano Orcas with inline hooks fishing Australia Great Barrier Reef
Inline Hooks Make it EasyDoug Olander / Sport Fishing

When not casting around bommies in deeper waters inside the reef, anglers are likely to be up on the reef crest as here, throwing lures in 5 to 10 feet of water. The abundant coral means lots of fish — and lots of obstructions into which most of those fish immediately try to insert themselves.

Flats fishing Australia Great Barrier Reef
Fishing Great Barrier Reef “Flats”Doug Olander / Sport Fishing

Damon Olsen, who oversees the ops for Nomad Sportfishing, holds a big queenfish that George Large caught on a stickbait. These Indo-Pacific nearshore game fish are supercharged jacks with a penchant for high jumps that makes them superb light-tackle targets.

Fishermen holding big queenfish fishing Australia Great Barrier Reef
An Angry QueenDoug Olander / Sport Fishing

The vivid, electric blue in this bluefin trevally is striking. It’s another of the many species Large connected with fishing a Nomad Mad Scad stickbait.

Bluefin trevally fishing Australia Great Barrier Reef
Lit UpDoug Olander / Sport Fishing

I was lucky to get this hefty flowery cod (a species of grouper) to the skiff after it grabbed a Halco Hamma diving minnow since that was on the shallows of the reef crest, and keeping it out of the coral was a struggle.

Flowery cod fish grouper Halco Hamma diving minnow fishing Australia Great Barrier Reef
Lucky CatchGeorge Large

Ladyfish Down Under are known as giant herring, and for yanks who think a 3-pounder is big, the “giant” certainly applies. Ths beauty was caught on a small speed jig by Geoff Askin of Brisbane.

Giant herring ladyfish fishing Australia Great Barrier Reef
One Large LadyPeter Myers

Emperors are a large family of tropical Pacific and Indian oceans that generally prefer fairly shallow, often sandy areas. Like nearly all larger types of fish out there, they'll nail a topwater such as this Halco Roosta Popper.

Emperor fish fishing Australia Great Barrier Reef
Yellow-Lipped EmperorDoug Olander / Sport Fishing

Though Aussies call this lovely fish a red emperor, in fact it's a species of Indo-Pacific snapper. They're found around somewhat deeper reefs, rubble or wrecks; the IGFA all-tackle record weighed 39 pounds, 7 ounces, from Japan. Aussie enthusiast and fishing photographer Peter Myers of Brisbane caught this one.

Indo-Pacific snapper red emperor fish fishing Australia Great Barrier Reef
Red EmperorDamon Olsen