Estuary fishing in winter – find one fish, find em all

Pick the right day and a fishing session on the NSW south coast in the middle of winter can be a beautiful thing. Pick the wrong day and you will wonder why you ever left the comfort of the leather recliner – you know the footy is on right? Fortunately the human brain, or perhaps just an overly-keen angler’s brain, has an amazing ability to block out hours and hours of exposure to freezing winds, cold hands and not catching any fish and latch hold of the few fun-filled moments of fishing success.  As we learned over the course of three days, there are fish to be caught in the middle of winter, we just had to find them.

glass
Looking for any signs of fish in perfect winter conditions

OK, let’s start with the weekend before last. Friday. It was a glass out. Curto and I arrived at St George’s Basin around 10am and spent the first two or three hours exploring the artificial reef system. Primarily we were looking for bait fish, palaegics, or any schools of bream or snapper that might be using the reefs as a home or feeding station. Once or twice the sounder lit up with fish, but by the time we had back-tracked to relocate the school, it was gone.  These reefs are clusters of relatively small concrete balls so don’t expect, as we naively did, that the GPS co-ords provided here or here will drop you straight onto a hot bite. Some of the co-ordinates merely suggest the general area the reefs were installed and you might need to spend some time driving around.

Schooling yellowfin bream
Artificial reefs in St George’s Basin, Image source: NSW DPI

We cast small vibes and plastics around the reefs but with only one small flounder in the net, we headed off across the lake to explore the deep drop-offs St George’s Basin is famous for.  It looked fishy. The water depth plummets around the edge of the lake from 1 metre to 7-10 metres. I can see why people target these areas for huge flathead.  But alas there were no fish to be found, not even a huge flathead. We pushed on to one of the weed-lined points. Again it looked like amazing habitat, with tidal water spilling around the point into a mix of weeds and rocks, but there were no fish. Eventually we decided to take a look at Sussex inlet, which connects to the basin via a small tidal channel.  Our luck was about to change.

Glass
Glass at Sussex inlet

Surrounded by the Noosa-esque mansions, each with their own private jetty, we drifted along slowly casting soft plastics in all directions. Curto caught the first fish. Then I was on. Then another! There was a small hole here no more than 50 metres by 50 metres in size. It was only subtle, perhaps 3.5 metres deep when the surrounding water was 2.5 metres, but the flathead seemed to be lined up inside it one on top of the other (presumably cuddling up for warmth).  The wind was dead calm and following the commonly held belief that you need to fish slower in winter, the 1/8th oz jig heads we were using took about 5 seconds to hit the bottom after each lift.  There wasn’t a breath of wind and every inquisitive bite on the lure was visible as the braided line twitched.

hooked up
hooked up

<Tap>

The tell-tale sign that the fish had just swallowed the soft plastic on the drop.  This is the best feeling when flathead fishing. There is a second or two of anticipation where you know a fish has the lure in its mouth and all you have to do now is lift the rod sharply and the fish is hooked.  When it’s windy, it can be much harder to keep the line taught on the drop. But in these perfect conditions every subtle bite was perfectly transmitted back through the rod – it’s a much more fun experience.

Fish on!
Fish on!
Graz 62cm flathead sussex inlet
2 fat ladies (the fish, not the anglers) 22

These two girls were a matching pair at 62 & 63cms and both ate 70mm paddle tailed soft plastics.  The photos don’t do them justice, they seemed too healthy, too fat and well, too fertile to take home for a feed. We released them back into the hole. I would like to think the fishing gods smiled upon our decision, for they delivered another 10 or so fish from that hole of which perhaps half a dozen were legal sized.  As we drifted back over the hole the bite slowed to just a couple of fish and on the third drift the bite has completely stopped. We didn’t catch another fish for the day.

Stu joined us on Friday night and we eyed off the weather forecast hoping to repeat another stunning day on the water on Saturday.  How wrong it was. We launched the boat into a moderate wind and went exploring more of the artificial reef system.  It was nice to get a few more of the reefs saved into the sounder but there was little sign of life on any of them.  We picked up another small flounder and a snapper on a vibe and then the wind picked us up and started to blow us across the lake.  We shouted at the wind, we cursed the wind and we hid from the wind. This wasn’t in the forecast! It didn’t matter. The howling wind seemed to defy all reasonable laws of physics and bend around the trees in front of us and straight into our face. It pushed the boat fast and the electric motor, similar to our resolve to keep fishing, was just about to give up fighting.  We couldn’t find another fish to save ourselves and to be honest we couldn’t be bothered any more.

photo(4)
So much for light winds on Saturday?

We retreated back to the ramp, loaded up and went into town. We were red-faced and blown to pieces. It was time to regroup, scoff down a couple of pies and a coffee and give it another go. Yes we are fishing tragics …  This time, we drove around to sussex inlet rather than bash across the waves which were forming on the main lake of St Georges basin.  We figured the inlet, with its myriad of small channels and creeks, was bound to have somewhere out of this wind. We explored the hole that had produced for us the day before but it was deserted. We cast at jetties, we cast at small drop-offs and we kept moving.  Finally we pushed into a small creek and we found the fish.

Creek flathead Curto
A nice winter flathead of 55cm in the small creek

It was a pleasure to drift through the creek under electric power and flick soft plastics and hard bodies around. Especially since it was lined with native trees and shrubs (and not houses) and was OUT OF THE WIND.  We caught a few flathead in the creek and the day was saved. Light jig heads seemed to really help get the bite. We spooked a couple of bigger fish along the way that I swear we had just retrieved a lure past. I guess sometimes they just don’t want to eat. We reached the end of the creek, turned around and headed out back into the canals.  Back in the suburbs, we didn’t get another bite all afternoon. That’s a long time when 3 blokes are casting non-stop for 3 hours!

Where are the fish?
Where are the fish?

Sunday. The weather forecast had predicted strong winds from the west.  That was OK we figured, let’s tuck into an eastern facing part of Jervis bay and try our luck with the squid.  We might even get lucky and be able to launch our small (4m) estuary boat.  Now I usually swear by the Willy Weather app, but Willy was having a really bad weekend. When we arrived the wind was blowing hard (as predicted) but from the north or even the north east.  There was no way we were launching into those conditions. So we left the boat on the trailer and flicked squid jigs off the breakwall at Murray’s boat ramp.

There has to be more of this in my life – it was great fun! Admittedly it was hard to cast the jigs straight into the wind, but not impossible with a little extra weight.  All of sudden my line went taught and starting pulsing off fast to my left. I turned to the other boys and shouted “I’m on”. As I did, I must have dropped my hands slightly and let the pressure off the line. I wasn’t ‘on’ anymore; beginners mistake.

This large brown mass is actually a cracking cuttlefish
This large brown mass is actually a large cuttlefish

Enter Stu ‘the squid whisperer’. Stu quickly whipped up a nice squid over some promising looking broken bottom and followed it up with a really nice big cuttlefish. It looked for a while like he was winding in a dead weight of weed, it didn’t do much when it was hooked.  We were really glad for the net as dead-lifting this mass up the rocks was sure to end in tears.  Both the squid and the cuttle were humanely spiked (see Iki-Jime) and popped into the esky. As the sun rose both the squid and cuttles went off the bite or probably just moved into deeper water where we couldn’t cast to them. It was a fun session and a really nice way to wrap up the weekend.

If you ask me what I’ll remember about nearly three days on the water, it’s not going to be getting blown to pieces. It’s not going to be those three of four hours we spent checking GPS co-ordinates and idling over the artificial reefs.  It won’t be fishing the ledges and weedy points looking for ANY signs of fish.  It will be three short sessions, each of about 30-60 minutes where it was all action.  The ‘flathead hole’ in Sussex inlet, the small tree-lined creek and three cephalopods off the breakwall in Jervis Bay.  The take home message for me is that there are fish to be caught in winter, but they tend to be schooled up in small patches – even the flathead. It pays to keep moving and if there is one or two fish to be caught, there might just be a dozen. Being winter it really helps to watch the weather and especially the wind. It can have a huge bearing on how pleasant it is to be outside in the elements. But perhaps more importantly, finding those windows where the wind is still, or parts of the lake where it is sheltered, allowed us to fish really light jig heads and very slowly. As it turned out this was really important to hooking a few nice fish. All of these lessons were repeated all over again last weekend at Tuross lake – but that’s another story!

Thanks for reading – Graham

Salt & pepper cuttlefish with lemon pasta, rocket and snow peas
Salt & pepper cuttlefish with lemon pasta, rocket and snow peas – thanks Stu!

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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