Great Barrier Reef Fishing Guide

The thrill of the chase, coupled with the meditativeness of it, a time of reflection and relaxation, is what many cite as reasons for their love of fishing. And in Tropical North Queensland, whether you have a boat or not, whether you’re after barramundi, found in the region’s pristine rivers; mangrove jack, found in the mouths of estuaries; or coral trout, nannygai, and red emperor out on the Great Barrier Reef, there are a broad variety of species across a range of spectacular locations that’ll keep you chasing the one that got away.

The following guide includes tips on where to fish and the best time of year to catch particular species, starting south of Cairns, in the Cassowary Coast region, working your way up the coast. It’s advised that if you want to go out on your own, versus cruising with a fishing charter, you speak to your local tackle provider for tips from the experts. 

Quick Tip: Fish dislike certain scents such as insect repellent and sunblock lotions. If using either of these products, be sure to you wash your hands thoroughly before touching any bait or lures. 

Best places to fish in the Barrier Reef Region

Cassowary Coast

Mourilyan Harbour, 40 minutes north of Mission Beach, is a tidal estuary. The system, with its many mangrove-lined channels, creeks, and sandbars, is ideal for catching barramundi in the summer months. Try your luck at casting a line from the boat ramp or the jetty. Other species found in the area are mangrove jack and fingermark, while giant trevally and queenfish are more commonly found in the cooler months.

As with all estuary fishing, an understanding of how the tidal flow will affect the behaviour of both baitfish and the fish you’re looking to catch is key.


Trinity Inlet, a tidal estuary made up of over 90km of mangrove-lined waterways, is only two minutes from the heart of Cairns. With more than 40 species of fish available in this one waterway, it’s a popular destination for fishermen/women with a boat, offering good catches any time of year. During the summer you’ll find barramundi, mangrove jack, and fingermark. During the cooler months, you’ll find bream, trevally, flathead, estuary cod, and grunter.

North of Cairns is Yorkey’s Knob, another hot spot. Fish from either the north or south marina rock wall or from a small rocky headland just south of the boat ramp. During the summer months, when the rains flush out the prawns and baitfish from the nearby creek, barramundi catches of over 10kg are common, with dusk and dawn being the prime times for a decent catch.

Palm Cove’s jetty is jokingly referred to as one of the most expensive fishing platforms in Australia, as it was originally built as an alternative pick-up port for cruises out to the Great Barrier Reef. However, the constant southeast swells battering against the platform made it difficult to pick up passengers. Locals have since embraced the jetty as a prime fishing location, especially for Spanish mackerel, school mackerel, yellowtail, and more. Visitors can hire fishing rods and bait from the food van in the carpark at the start of the jetty.

Port Douglas

If you want to cast a line out from dry land, the iconic Sugar Wharf at Port Douglas is a popular spot, however the rock wall of Anzac Park, just at the mouth of Dickson Inlet, is where you may have more luck. Heavy rainfall in the summer months means baitfish, flushed from the inlet, seek shelter among the rocks, attracting barramundi, fingermark, and mangrove jack.

The playground equipment, BBQ facilities, and picnic benches mean it’s a great spot for family fishing. Other spots include the Reef Marina – although it’s best to check with marina management first. Fishing in the Dickson Inlet requires a boat and is well worth it according to experienced anglers.

Atherton Tablelands

Lake Tinaroo in the Atherton Tablelands was created in the late 50s with the damming of the Barron River to provide a major water source for the food bowl of the area. Its potential as a fishing hub was recognised, resulting in the introduction of barramundi and sooty grunter, both of which have thrived since. During the winter barramundi can be elusive as they aren’t active in cooler temperatures, with summer – specifically at sunrise and sunset – the best times for catching this species. You should be able to catch sooty grunter throughout the day with lures.

Great Barrier Reef

A day trip out to the Reef would rank high on any angler’s must-do list. A fishing charter will give you access to expert local guides who’ll take you to the best possible spots for catching some of the most popular eating fish such as red emperor, nannygai, Spanish mackerel, and coral trout.

There is also the option of night fishing charters, and even overnight charters. In addition to having local knowledge on hand, you’ll also have the advantage of having your catch cleaned, bagged, and iced for you; ready to take home.

Fish species

Happy moments

Happy moments grow to 35cm. Their bodies are olive brown with a network of fine bluish-white lines and scattered black spots. There may be a dark smudge-spot behind the gill cover and a white bar at the base of the tail. Spines along the dorsal fin and procumbent spine (a spine lying flat along the head, immediately in front of the dorsal fin) have venom glands that may inflict painful wounds.

Yellowfin bream

Yellowfin bream is one of Queensland's most popular estuarine angling species. These fish vary in colour from bright silver to greyish green, but usually have yellow pelvic and anal fins (along the belly of the fish). Yellowfin bream may grow to 45cm (4kg). A black spot at the base of their pectoral fins distinguishes them from the pikey bream and tarwhine.

Barramundi cod

Barramundi cod grow to 70cm (5kg) and are recognized by their profile and distinctive colouration. The creamy-grey tips, head, body and fins are uniformly covered by well-spaced, dark brown to black dots. Reef fish.

Black-tipped cod

Black-tipped cod or footballer cod, grow to about 40cm (1.2kg) and are dull red with brighter red vertical bars along their sides. The tips of their spiny dorsal fins are usually tipped with jet black. Found on the reef. 

Coral Cod

Coral Cod. [Round-tailed Cod] not to be confused with Coral trout. Growing to about 50cm, either light or dark red with an abundance of blue spots. Found in abundance on the reef. Confusion between this fish and the coral trout is common. An easy way to distinguish between the two is the shape of the tail. Coral Trout have a wedge shape tail

Estuary Cod

Estuary Cod. [Goldspot Cod, Orange-spotted cod]. These fish can grow to an almighty 230kg and up to 220cm long. (Try one of these on a hand line!) Widespread along the Queensland coastline.


Bullrout are stout with strong mottles. Their colours blend almost chameleon-like with the background surrounds. Growing to around 35cm, most common at 15 - 20 cm. Handle with extreme care as the dorsal, anal and pelvic spines are filled with venom and can inflict painful injuries. 

Freshwater Catfish

Freshwater Catfish. (eel-tailed catfish) Most fish around 2kg. Can be as large as 7kg (if you're lucky) Scaleless fish. Watch for the sharp spines on the dorsal and pectoral fins, they can inflict a nasty injury. Not a fish for all tastes. But a least it's edible. 

Golden Perch

Golden Perch. (yellow belly). Large fish commonly around 5kg. Can grow to 23kg.One of the most popular fish stocked in artificial impounds in Queensland. Excellent eating. Their natural habitat is turbid, warmer slow-moving streams. More commonly found further south. 

Silver Perch

Silver Perch. (black bream). known to grow to more than 7kg. Most common at .75 to 1.5kg and 35 - 40cm in length. Another fish more commonly found further south.


Barramundi (giant perch) All time favourite fish to catch and eat. On every angler's wish list to catch a big one and show it off. Found in freshwater lagoons, tidal waters and estuaries. The sex of these fish changes as they get older, starting life as a male and changing to female as they get larger. There is a maximum size limit on barramundi of 120cm.

Sooty Grunter

Sooty Grunter. (black bream). A fish that can grow to 4kg. Most commonly caught at 0.4kg They are good eating when small at below 2kg. Larger fish are not considered good eating and should be released. 

Fishing licenses

While licenses are not required for recreational fishing in Queensland, regulations do limit fish size, the number of fish, and even gender for some species. Regulations also control the closures of specific areas to fishing and seasonal closures for some species. For all the latest info on recreational fishing, please contact the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries (

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