Abstract Benthic structure plays an important role as shelter and feeding habitat for demersal fauna. While many studies have investigated the relationship between structural complexity of aquatic vegetation and the number of species or abundance of motile organisms, little is known of the attractiveness of submerged mangrove roots. We tested the importance of various root attributes in attracting fish species in a field experiment using different artificial mangrove units (AMUs) with PVC pipes mimicking roots to exclude interaction with other environmental and biotic factors. We manipulated length, vertical orientation, and three-dimensional structural complexity of root mimics in the AMUs to explore their effects on the fish community variables: fish abundance, number of species and community composition. Pipe length and three-dimensional structure did not have an effect on fish community variables. Vertical pipe orientation had a significant effect and AMUs with standing pipes showed higher total fish abundances and number of species than AMUs with hanging pipes. Also community composition differed greatly between AMUs with standing versus hanging pipes. At species level, demersal fish species mainly occupied AMUs with standing pipes and occurred only at very low abundances when hanging pipes dominated in the AMUs; in contrast, the semi-pelagic swimmer Sphyraena barracuda showed a trend of higher abundance in AMUs with mainly hanging pipes. When analyzed across all AMUs, fish abundances of demersal as well as semi-pelagic species decreased significantly with increasing interspatial pipe distance among AMUs, suggesting that distance to refuge may be the underlying mechanism for the observed patterns. The above findings are important in the context of the worldwide degradation of mangroves, because human alteration to mangrove vegetation affects its structure and thus composition and size of fish communities.