From hot to shot, NSW estuary fishing at Christmas

After reading the amazing report from the boys’ trip to NZ here, it seems like a bit of an anti-climax to be reporting on the fishing along the NSW far south coast. While they contended with torrential rain, finicky trophy trout, and clear-felled forestry coups, all we had to contend with was a flooded river, a failed river crossing and a lake that resembled a tropical billabong in the wet season. Actually now that I write it all down, it was quite dramatic.

There is a saying in Queensland “beautiful one day – perfect the next”. If only the same were true for the coastal fisheries in NSW the last couple of months.  What is probably more accurate is “best fishing in 30 years one day – terrible the next”.  Get the timing right and the fishing can be amazing. But as we discovered, cross paths with some of the summer super storm-cells and it can all to turn to mud in an instant.

Dad and I drove down to the sleepy coastal town of Wonboyn the weekend before last with Tudo (the boat). We drove down on Friday morning and were greeted by the lovely owners of the caravan park.  “How’s the fishing?” I casually inquired. “Best in 30 years” was the answer.  That was all we needed to hear. We re-doubled our efforts to  unpack, drove down to the boat ramp and threw the boat in the water. By some miracle we remembered the bung, and we were away.
For the first hour or two we peppered the drop-offs and weed beds around the corner from the ramp with soft plastics. The result was a grand total of … one undersized flathead.  Best fishing in 30 years huh? Apparently the fish weren’t here so we motored up to an area I’ve affectionately called the ‘S-bends’. I’m not sure what the locals call it, but the fact the river channel winds back and forth makes it an obvious candidate for an alphabet-derived name.  It is only 2-3 metres deep along it’s length, so we fished lightly weighted soft-plastics (1/8th oz and 70mm paddle tail) for a steady bite of flathead.  Once we had enough for dinner I started to relax.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say it was the best fishing in 30 years, but it was OK.

One of the defining features of the S-bends is the large sandy flat that pushes the river out of shape.  There is a mix of shallow nipper holes, weed beds and slightly deeper water adjacent to the channel here.  Not for the first, or last time, my love of surface luring overwhelmed all our other plans. Out came the poppers, in my case a transparent Gomoku popper, and the ritual began.  For the record, I love surface lure fishing.  Even if the result is only one fish for every 60 minutes of frantic rod work, I can fish surface lures all day.  The boils, the boofs, the missed strikes and of course, the hook-ups. Every moment is so dramatic and visual. This day was no exception.  The fish were around but not abundant, just enough to keep us interested and before I knew it we had been fishing poppers for nearly 90 minutes.

Fishing in the rain
Popping in the rain

The whiting seemed to congregate on the downward side of the outgoing tidal flow in 30-50cms of water.  A constant ‘bloop-bloop-bloop’ technique was occasionally interrupted by a fiesty fish. Their normally acrobatic strikes, akin to a kamikaze launch were more subdued than usual, the lure instead tugged under the water. On this day it was around the time of the full moon, rather than the new moon, so perhaps they weren’t feeding on prawns (prawns tend to run on a new moon) and they were reaction bites. Regardless they were great fun and a good size (30-35cm).

Gomoku popper whiting
This nice whiting fell for the Gomoku micro popper flitting across the surface

The bream were more sporadic and showed a preference for the slightly deeper (1.0 – 1.5m) and darker water adjacent to the channel. They would swirl behind the lure which was the cue to stop the retrieve, hold your breath, and give the lure a couple of short bloops with a pause between each. It is typically accompanied by cries of ‘eat it!’ from the owner of the assaulted popper. Bream can be ‘clumsy’ feeders.

Caption goes here

The rain and wind came and went. Sometimes it was calm, other times the combination of rain and wind chilled us to the bone and we had to retreat to the cabin for a hot shower and a cuppa. This is in stark contrast to the few days just before we arrived, where the air temperature pushed over 30. The water was still 22-25oC while we there but the ‘best fishing in 30 years window’ appeared to have closed just before we arrived. Regardless the flathead were around in areas with some tidal flow but still took some searching out. The whiting and bream occasionally assaulted our surface lures. We explored the aquarium, the area closest to the mouth and renowned for its amazing water clarity, but there were no signs of life at high or low tide. We fished the mouth and the beaches but the storms and rain had filled the surf gutters with weed and debris.

During Friday and Saturday it was showery. But on Saturday night it rained. Proper rain. NZ-like rain. Can’t hear the TV rain. It was a nervous night’s sleep as I thought of the boat, moored up at the jetty taking on water. At 11pm I lost my nerve and went down to check on it and make sure it was still floating. Covered from head to toe in rainjackets and waterporoof pants I wandered down for a look by torch light. Much to my relief the bilge was running. And running. And running. Finally it stopped. One of the features reputed in the sales pitch for Tudo was an auto-bilge but until now we had never had the conditions to test it out. With the isolator switch turned to ‘Off’ I was also nervous that the auto-bilge wouldn’t have any power to do its thing – to be honest I had little idea how it all worked. So it was with great relief the water spewed forth from the bilge and the boat gained a couple of inches of clearance above the lake. I returned to the cabin and slept a whole lot easier listening to the rain on the roof.

Day 3 – the ‘final’ day

We rose early on what was going to be our final day on the coast. How the best made plans change. We happily explored the S-bends again which had now become our go-to spot. Again we picked up a couple of flathead on plastics before the lure of surface action once again overwhelmed us. This time it was dad’s turn to get in on the action. Up until this point he hadn’t caught a fish on a popper, ever. But he had patiently kept at it, much like Hamish three of four years earlier on the same body of water – back when whiting caught on poppers was something we only read about in magazines.

With an explosion of water, the tiny reel starting peeling line. The fish powered off into the channel. Whatever engulfed the popper in just 40 cms of water, it was clear it wasn’t a bream or a whiting. After a spirited contest in which we even chased the fish with the electric motor, a 50cm Aussie Salmon was in the net. In all the years working the flats, I’ve never seen a salmon hit a popper in such shallow water. Beginner’s luck eh?

Engulfed!
Engulfed!

The final session of the trip was an opportunity to indulge another of my goals for the weekend. To land a bream from the snags. For this style of fishing, finesse was the strategy. 4Lb leader, 1/24th oz jig head and a small plastic grub. The aim was to gently flick the lure as close to fallen branches and trees as possible and then wait a short eternity for it to waft down to fish patiently hiding under the structure.

After a couple of small fish came to the net and one big one that threw the hook, an almighty storm brewed on the mountains. The thunder boomed and the lightening light up the sky. It wasn’t close to us and we weren’t even getting wet so we continued as the mountains disappeared behind a veil of rain. As it approached 2 o’clock we called it a day and made our way back to pack up. As we drove from Wonboyn back to the highway however, the full aftermath of the storm on the hills became clear. The Wonboyn river was in flood and we were trapped.

IMG_2536 wonboyn river flooded fire truck (4)
Wonboyn fire truck to the rescue – if you look closely you can see a stranded campervan on the far side

Relatively speaking, we got off lightly. We could see a campervan with a couple of German girls on the other side of the river. They were stuck. Apparently they had blindly followed their Sat-Nav to find the closest petrol station on their drive up from Victoria. They had started driving into the river, lost their nerve and tried to turn around. In the process they had put a tyre into the drain and were essentially bogged. In the 15 minutes we watched, the water level rose from half way up the radiator to the base of the windscreen. The Wonboyn fire truck arrived, ploughed through the river and winched them out. I have no idea if the van started or not, but I suspect not. As the water level continued to rise we fled back to the safety of the caravan park before we too got stuck between the flooded river and any number of small creeks. I sent a text and the following photo through to my boss, there was no way I could make it to work tomorrow. I was trapped down the coast 🙂

"Sorry boss, I can't come to work tomorrow"

“Sorry boss, I can’t come to work tomorrow”

We returned to the cabin we had just vacated, unpacked again and without anything else to do, went fishing. We left the boat on the trailer and decided to wade the oyster racks and flats around Jewfish beach. It was a most enjoyable afternoon wading along catching small to medium sized flathead on minnows and soft plastics. The bream eluded us but that was OK – it was bonus session after all.

P1010637-001 Gomoku minnow flathead (1)
Shallow diving minnows such as this Storm Gomoku are a nice way of searching shallow water for hungry fish

There was a tannin-fresh look to the water now, but it remained clear despite the flooded river. In the morning however it was a completely different story. The lake was high, many of the jetties were submerged and the water very brown. The poor oyster farmers will be desperately hoping the water clears for their busiest time of the year. A muddy oyster doesn’t sell well.

Jetty fishing anyone?
Jetty fishing anyone?

On reflection there are a couple of things I’ve taken away from this experience. One is that unless you are fortunate enough to live near some of these amazing fisheries, the opportunity to go fishing is often dictated by work, family or holidays. Sure we missed the ‘best fishing in 30 years’ by just a couple of days, but had we arrived a day or two later we wouldn’t have been able to go fishing much at all.  I was very grateful to come home with half a dozen whiting and flathead for the freezer.

Secondly as we enter the silly season and most of our fisheries are full to bursting with people, boats and fisherman try and enjoy the small wins. Any fish you can catch between the wake and noise, cook it up for your loved one, your friends or the family. Enjoy being out there and try not to let the other boats and jet skis completely ruin the experience for you – it’s a first world problem.

From all of us at Flick and Fly Journal, Merry Christmas and happy fishing!

Graham

 

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 or don’t catch fish

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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