The enigmatic (and often elusive) estuary perch – open season report

Lee and I teamed up with good friends of the blog Liam and Stu recently for a trip to the Clyde river (Bhundoo).   The closed season for estuary perch (EP) had just lifted so we all agreed we wanted to chase these awesome Aussie fish.  EPs have strong migration patterns, moving to the mouths of the estuaries and rivers during the winter and early spring to spawn before returning to the mid and upper reaches.  The Clyde river, which is over a 100km long and virtually pristine, has all the right ingredients  – finding them however, is a different story …

IMG_9856 Clyde river

We motored up the river for bend after forested bend before we eventually met up with the boys who were casually flicking plastics in glassed out conditions.

IMG_9859 Liam and Stu CLyde river
Liam and Stu having a flick

Estuary perch (EPs) form large schools, especially the smaller fish, and the boys had already caught and released a dozen each before we arrived!  I’ve only ever caught a handful of EPs flicking at snags and Lee was an EP virgin, so needless to say, once we heard these reports, we were keen to get into it.  Liam had his magic EP spot which he was kind enough to take us to.  As it turned out there were a dozen of these ‘magic spots’ up and down the river, but more on this later.  Motoring slowly over to the mark, the sounder lit up with fish.  The river rose here from 11 metres up to a rock bar at 8 metres.

IMG_9874 Estuary perch sounder (2)
The electronics were a huge help to find the schools of fish

We both cast out soft plastics and waited for them to hit the bottom.  Easier said than done.  8 metres of water and a tidal flow ripping through sent the plastics out behind the boat before we ever reached the fish.  Heads down bums up time! We rummaged around in our respective tackle boxes looking for heavier jig heads to get down to the fish. We settled on 1/6th oz, but had we had 1/4oz heads with a hook designed for a school EP and not a Barramundi, we may have tied those on instead.

First drop – twitch twitch – fish on!

IMG_9873 Lee estuary perch (10)
Lee admiring his first estuary perch

Now for a guy that had never caught an EP before, Lee made the rest of us look silly over the next couple of hours.  He caught four for every one the rest of us managed between us.  I’ll let him describe the technique…

Technique

(A few words from Lee). Well, I want to be a little bit modest here, so I’ll describe what I noticed and the technique I used and try not to belittle my fishing companions…much. In truth, any other day and they probably would have outfished me. I just happened to be using the right technique for the conditions…and they were either slow learners or stubborn, or both 🙂

It was probably more a fluke to begin with. I have always wanted to use a good sounder to spot some fish and then watch as my lure drops down right onto them. Grazza’s new Lowrance allows exactly this: you can literally see the soft plastic as it drops down through the water, into the school of fish. Because of the strong tidal influence, I was fishing fairly heavy…maybe 1/5 or 1/6th of an ounce, or 4-6 grams of lead. The other guys were going for more finesse, casting lighter jigs upstream and letting them drift down seductively with the flow.

I was getting a few hits here and there, but mostly on the drop as I jigged the plastic up and down. The hits were tiny and were happening in a split second. It was clear that the fish were striking the lure and spitting it out in that incredible way that large mouth predators do…think barra, bass etc. and how they can suck prey in from a distance then shoot it out quicker than a teen on prom night. So I started ‘striking on the drop’. That’s it really…just lifting, dropping and STRIKE. Repeat. The hits turned into hookups, and that was that. It was weird because it was analogous to kingfish jigging: the use of technology to put you on the spot, the whole straight down jigging thing, and just figuring out what works on the day. I thought it might have been my lure choice, but swapped rods with one of the guys briefly to test it out. It was all about the action and the seemingly counter-intuitive decision to strike randomly. It’s got me thinking about soft plastics fishing technique in general, but that’s an idea for another blog. Over and out, Lee (and thanks for bashing the post together Graz – can’t wait to do it again, hopefully sans wake boats.)

IMG_9884 Lee estuary perch (6)
Who’s a clever boy then? Lee ‘the EP whisperer’ Georgeson

Lures

From what I’ve read, estuary perch mainly feed on shrimps, prawns, worms, moluscs and smaller fish.  Unlike their close relative bass, they don’t seem to go for frogs, insects, lizards etc. which is a probably just a function of where they live – bass: slow flowing freshwater pools, estuary perch: brackish tidal waters.

With this in mind, I tied on one of the best imitation lures on the market, the Storm twitching nipper. Lee was having a ball with a little curly tailed grub in gold.  The nipper didn’t have the same action at rest as the grub, but a shaking retrieve to get those little arms flailing and the tail kicking soon had the fish feeding.

estuary perch Storm twitching nipper
A Storm twitching nipper rigged on a 1/6oz jig head was too good to resist for this school EP

Magic spots

Finding the schools was the first challenge.  The Clyde is a massive system that seemingly goes on forever.  After exploring for a couple of days we started to notice a pattern.  The fish were schooled up where there was a sudden rise in the river bottom. Typically from 11-13 metres up to 6-8 metres.  These looked like rocky ledges or cliffs on the sounder.  Presumably the change in depth concentrates food and provides some relief from the incessant flow.  More often than not, these ledges were on the outside of a river bend too.

Staying on the school was the second challenge, and again the technology made this a LOT easier.  Once we found the school, we idled up with the big motor, dropped the electric in and then hit the ‘anchor’ function to hold position in the current.  Alternatively you could drop anchor (the big metal one) above the school and drift back onto it.  As Lee mentioned, we soon gave up on casting and instead just dropped the lures straight down onto the fish.

Catch and release

Estuary perch are a long-lived fish (30+ years), so we all agreed to let the fish we caught go again.  Over the years I’ve heard a lot of fishos talk about the effect of releasing fish back into a school and how it puts them off the bite.  Well, after this weekends experience, I have to say that I completely agree. Each time we pulled up on top of a school, it was a fish-a-cast.  But after about five or six released fish the remainder became harder and harder to catch with each fish we released. Move spots, double hook up on the first drop.  I assume there is a stress hormone or release of lactic acid each time a fish struggles when hooked and the others pick up on this? A good topic for a blog post perhaps.

Until then, I can recommend spending some time chasing these enigmatic and often elusive Aussie fish.  Like bass, they inhabit some of the best parts of our Aussie environment and they are great fun to catch.

Happy fishing!

Graham Fifield

Disclaimer: Rapala VMC generously provides a handful of free gear in exchange for exposure of their products. I receive no financial gain and won’t mention any products that I feel aren’t well suited to our local fisheries

flickandflyjournal.com

Hamish Webb, Dan Firth, Graham Fifield and Lee Georgeson have been fishing the south-east Australian region since 1987. Since then they’ve become avid sportfishermen who are constantly looking for new ways to challenge themselves. They are all scientists and conservationists who are passionate about the long-term sustainability of the ecosystem in which they live. They promote understanding and appreciation of the complex socio-political, economic and environmental issues surrounding fish, fishing and fisheries, while never losing sight of the various motivations that keep them coming back. In English, that means they love all things fishing and have a damn good time on the water, and that’s all that really counts in the end!

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