The idea of casting lures over shallow reef can be daunting for some. Getting those expensive lures stuck onto coral bommies or rocks is not exactly a pleasant feeling. With the proper know-how, you can minimize or even avoid that from happening and might just latch on to some nice reef fish too!
Reefs are perfect hunting grounds for predators, both pelagic and demersal. Therefore understanding the terrain and contours of a reef is advantageous as one would be able to determine likely ambush points of predators. This is especially so for rocky ridges located very near shallow reefs. A good way to read the terrain is to observe these potential spots at low tide. Some rocky grounds can reveal holes, crevices and funnels during extreme low tides that otherwise would not be visible during high tides. These can be very good spots to place a lure.
This Spanish Flag was pulled out from the cluster of half-submerged rocks above
Some reef flats are submerged all the time but in clear water, one should be able to make out the edges of coral bommies or reef structure. A good place to land a lure would be in between the bommies as these would be where predatory reef dwellers such as Coral Trout and Groupers would lie in wait to ambush their prey. The idea is to get the lure as close as possible to the bommies as these fishes rarely move far away from their hideouts to grab a bite. This is also where understanding the terrain and depth of the water is important. Knowing how deep the water is and where the likely spots are will enable you to select the appropriate lure to deploy. For example, if one were to be targeting Grouper species, it is possible to use shallow running lures at low tide and switch to deep divers as the tide rises to get close to their hideouts. The further the lures are away from their ambush points, the less chances there are of catching them.
Snagging up lures every once in a while is a very likely occurrence but good estimation of the water depth you are casting into and understanding the running depth of your lure can drastically minimize this. It is a good idea to vary your retrieve between slow and moderate until you find a speed that produces the strikes. Understanding the behaviour of the target species will lead you to prepare the appropriate tackle for the game. Members of the Grouper family will instinctively head for the nearest rock crevice, bommie crack or snag and curl up to lodge itself in the hole upon hookup. They do not possess the endurance for a long, drawn-out battle but certainly possess extraordinary short bursts of power enough to dash for cover. As such, tackle up suitably to wrestle these dirty fighters – otherwise the battle could end up in a snag up or bust-off.
Reef drop offs are another great place to chuck lures. Right at the edges of the reef or at the bottom of the drop is where demersal predators would roam while the larger pelagic predators like Barracudas and Trevally would be patrolling the upper column. Juveniles normally roam the shallows while the bigger ones usually patrol the outer reef in search of schooling baitfish. Topwater lures such as poppers and pencils can get you some nice juvenile Trevally. Do also look out for current heads & eddies which are excellent spots to cast. Waves and currents churning up the rocks or bommies kick up nutrients that are food for schooling fish and subsequently go up the chain to the apex predators.
While you may not always catch the right timing of the feeding frenzy, there’s no harm to make a few casts into the whitewash or eddies. There could be some ‘opportunists’ that might find your lure yummy! Shallow running lures such as the Rapala X-Rap and Rapala Flat Rap from 8 to 12cm work well under such circumstances, as you would be casting right into the shallows. Deep divers may be a little bit harder to control against the pounding waves and currents with a higher possibility of snagging.
A school of tiny rabbitfish that kicked off a feeding frenzy.
Wolf Herring caught on a Storm Super Skarp metal lure
Baitfish schools are good giveaways of predator presence in a given area. Predators usually hang around not too far away from these schools, waiting for the appropriate feeding time. As such, finding the baitfish schools can up your percentage of locating these predators. It may seem impossible to locate baitfish without a fish finder when they are down deep but do look out for subtle signs of surface disturbance on the water’s surface – a sure give-away of a bait school’s presence. In such instances, it pays to ‘match the hatch’. Select a lure that has a similar profile and swimming depth as the baitfish school. The trick is to have the lure resemble the baitfish as close as possible. The oddball fish that swims out from the safety of the school in a frantic manner is more likely to get eaten. The other alternative is to use a lure that is slightly bigger than the baitfish size. This is to create the illusion of a fish trying to eat the relatively smaller baitfish, which in turn, triggers the feeding instinct of the predators.
Don’t underestimate shallow reefs. Check out the distance we were from the shore and the teeth marks on the Grouper’s body when a much bigger Grouper grabbed on and refused to let go!
A big Blacktip Shark grabs the Flat Rap and leaves Yu Hock hanging on!
Some reef casters prefer to exchange the trebles on their lures for singles. While theoretically it is less likely to snag up with one exposed point compared to three, snagging usually occurs with the lure itself getting wedged between rocks or crevices rather than the hooks latching onto rock or seaweed. As such, the advantages of singles over trebles to avoid snagging may not be overly apparent. A nice trick especially for floating crankbaits is to pause when you feel the lure bumping a rock or hard surface. Do not strike or lift your rod tip immediately. Instead, lower your rod tip and give some slack line. As long as the lure is not stuck deep inside the crack, it should slowly float upwards where you can recommence retrieval over the hazard. Should that not work, simply motor the boat towards the snag and apply pressure on the opposite direction of where your lure was headed. It is important not to lift the rod upwards or strike hard in your attempt to free the lure as by doing so only drives the lure deeper into the crack, making retrieval difficult.
Casting at a submerged rock bommie produced a Gold Spot Trevally on the Rapala MaxRap.
Jeff with an island-cruising Barracuda
Like all forms of sea fishing, the tide certainly influences reef casting success. The best tides for casting will vary from location to location. I remember an excellent evening of reef casting on a run-off tide at Pulau Tinggi. The tide was fast ebbing and fish were aggressively hitting our lures without hesitation. As light was quickly fading, we decided to call it a day and to return the next morning with the hope of encountering the same actions. We hit the water a little too late the following morning when the tide had risen by a fair bit. We were surprised to find fishing extremely slow even though we were fishing the same patch of reef from the evening before. As such, do not rule out reef patches that seem to be unproductive. You might be surprised to find different tides and different moon phases producing different results.
A small Blacktip Reef Shark takes a bite on the Pink Candy coloured MaxRap
So the next time you chance upon a nice reef or rocky outcrop, give it a few good casts. Remember to keep your lure as close to the rocks or bommies as possible and do check out the current heads or eddies too. Sure, you might get snagged once in a while but with experience and using the right lures, you should be able to get some good fun from the reefs.