How to Catch a Sweetlip Emperor

How to Catch a Sweetlip Emperor

The sweetlip emperor is also referred to as a sweetlip swoose and a tricky snapper. This fish can get up to 35 inches in length and weigh over 11 pounds. It is a light grey fish with small black scale centers that are dotted around their body. On the top or back of the fish, is its first dorsal fin, which is red and as the fin moves toward the tail it becomes darker. Around the base of its pectoral fin it is either orange or red and is located behind the head on its chest. On parts of the bottom fin, around the eyes, or on the corner of the mouth it can also be orange or red. They can also be olive green on top with an olive-brown body. They are identifiable by their bright red dorsal fin and its large mouth is also bright red inside.

Sweetlip emperors are considered a carnivorous predator in the reef but they mainly eat sand dollars, small fish, and small crustaceans like crabs. A sweetlip emperor will also eat other organisms that live near the reef bottom. They are a threatened species because both recreational fishermen and commercial fishing operations like to catch them because of their taste and lovely colors.

Where to Find a Sweetlip Emperor

The sweetlip emperor is a fish that you can find in moderately warm waters and coral reefs in the Western Pacific Ocean. Its primary habitat is the Great Barrier Reef. You can also find it in the center of Western Australia around the coastal regions. Although they live at the bottom of the reef, they will only be found where the bottom is light and sandy, which is on the continental shelf. They choose to live near a reef for protection from predators.

How to Catch a Sweetlip Emperor

They respond well to burley, which is when you release small amounts of fish into the water in order to attract the sweetlip emperor to your location where you have your baited hook. Sometimes they will get brazen in their eating, making it easier for you to catch them. They are a bottom fish so you have to catch them by using bottom fishing methods. 

When you hook a sweetlip emperor, it will fight hard to get away. It will quickly swim to the bottom to try and break the line. This can happen if you are not quick to reel it in. Remember that when you are fishing in deep waters, cast with the current and not against it. You also have to make sure that you get the lure as close to the bottom as possible.

Best Bait for Sweetlip Emperor

Although the sweetlip emperor will take most bottom bouncing baits, the most successful bait is fresh fish flesh bait. They like bait such as cut-up squid, pilchard, prawn, mackerel, and crab. If frozen, wait for the bait to thaw out before placing on your hook.

Best Lures & Tackle for Sweetlip Emperor

A sweetlip emperor does respond well to a soft plastic lure. If you are using a jig, it had better be healthy or it will not survive the onslaught of the sweetlip emperor. For jigs, use the small 2/0 or 3/0 circle hooks rather than a sinker when fishing in the shallows.

Tips and Tactics

  • They will bite down on most bouncing bait but the fish loves fresh raw, cut-up fish.
  • When you handle this spiny fish, be very careful because it has sharp anal spines and dorsal fins. 
  • Before you put it in a cooler that is filled with ice, make sure that you kill it humanely with a firm knock to the head.
  • When fishing in shallow water, use fresh bait to attract the sweetlip emperor to where your boat is anchored.

How to Cook Sweetlip Emperor

Grilling is one way that you can cook your sweetlip emperor with a delicious marinade of fish sauce, soy sauce, and sugar. To make this marinade you need to mix the following:

  • 1 cup of fish sauce
  • 1 cup of soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon of sugar

Before you use the marinade, you put your fillets of sweetlip emperor into a deep dish that you can put on the grill. Once you have your fillets in the dish, cover the fillets with the above marinade. The next step is to cover the dish with aluminum foil, sealing it around the edges of the dish. Put it on the heated grill for 20 minutes. At this time, check the fish to see if it is done. It will be done if you can easily flake it with a fork. Take the pan off of the grill and let it rest for a few minutes before serving.

Sweetlip Emperor Reproduction

These fish have a strange breeding and development pattern. They spawn all the time off the coast of Cairns but they only mate in June and August off the coast of Townsville. In the more southern waters, spawning time is in October and November off the coast. The difference in water temperatures is the cause of these different breeding times. They can only spa in warmer water.

The young sweetlip emperor lives near the shore in mangrove swamps and sea grass beds where the water is shallow. As they get older, they will start to move out towards the ocean.

Predators of the Sweetlip Emperor

The only real predators that a sweetlip emperor are humans. Specifically, a fishing net tends to be its biggest enemy.

Fun Facts about a Sweetlip Emperor

  • As the sweetlip emperor grows and gets older, their sex will change from female to male.
  • Because it is classified as a reef fish, there are certain times of the year, usually around October or November that they are closed to harvest each year.
  • The sweetlip emperor is coveted by commercial and recreational fishermen, which has led to overfishing, so there are now limits on how many you can bag. 


If you take a vacation to Australia to visit the Great Barrier Reef, arrange a fishing charter to take you where you can fish for the sweetlip emperor. It will be an experience that you will not forget. It is a fishing trip that the entire family would enjoy experiencing. If you should catch some sweetlip emperor you may be able to have them cooked for you or if you have rented a condo, you could prepare them for dinner yourself. They are a great fish to eat. Just make sure that you know when the closed seasons are so you will not miss out on fishing for them. If you do not want to eat them, then do a catch and release back into the reef.

If you want to learn about catching other fish, read How to Catch a Yellowfin Croaker.

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