Winter is over folks! I’m happy to call it. I spent nearly all of last weekend on the south coast of NSW in board shorts and thongs – and at last count I still have ten fingers and ten toes. With another winter behind us it’s time to cast our minds (and our lures) forward to 9 glorious months of fishing in the sun and warmth. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves and dream of those steamy January afternoons when whiting will readily hit surface lures, what fishing can we enjoy in these early spring months? Well, based on the last few trips in August and September, the water is still cold and the fishing is best suited to those of us that appreciate a good challenge. But that’s all about to change.
We dragged the boat down to Bermagui last weekend and arrived late in the afternoon on Friday. The recent reports of salmon ‘everywhere’ along the beaches saw us leave the boat firmly attached to the trailer and race down to Camel Rock beach for the last hour or two of sunlight on an incoming tide. I resisted the urge to plunge straight down onto the sand and took a vantage point high on the sand dunes. I needn’t have bothered – there was a textbook gutter staring us straight in the face.
What made this gutter so attractive was the deeper blue water where the incoming waves refused to break; a low energy refuge for tiny baitfish. The edges of the hole were dispersed with white foamy water offering the perfect cover and ambush spot for hungry predators. Well that was the theory anyway. We starting flinging metal slices into the gutter and it wasn’t long before the theory started to hold water. We had a hookup. A nice sized salmon jumped a couple of feet into the air and the line went limp. It had thrown the hooks. Salmon 1 – Graz 0. We kept casting and continued to move around exploring different parts of the beach trying to find the fish. After each wander up the beach I’d inevitably return to the same spot where the first hookup was. I hooked up again and promptly dropped this fish too before finally coaxing one on to the golden sand.
As the sun set I would end up with just one fish, but this was out of 5 that were hooked. Salmon 5 : Graz 1. Not to be outdone, the old man coaxed a slightly bigger specimen to his feet. In sporting terms he was 1 from 1. The interesting observation was that no matter how much ground we covered and different spots we tried, the salmon were only striking along the edge of the white and blue water of our textbook gutter.
We weren’t quite sure what conditions to expect on the beach, so had opted to play it safe and grabbed the ‘heavy’ gear for beach spinning. By this I mean a 3-5kg rod with a 3000-sized reel and a 40g hex spinner – a souvenir from the last trip to New Zealand (where they are called hix spunners). It’s quite a stiff rod and I was putting a lot of pressure on the fish once hooked. But after more fish started throwing the hooks than were making it onto the beach, I began to wonder if it was the best rod for the job and if this heavy-handed approach was working? That would be a question best answered the next morning. For now it was dark and we had two nice salmon to clean before we could retire to dinner and a well-earned beer.
A new day and we were up at 5:30 ready to hit the beach before sunrise. We decided to try Leanda beach hoping that the fish would be more plentiful down this end. The strong northerly winds the day before had generated quite a strong rip current running from north to south. Perhaps that was dragging the fish south? Surely, it was worth a try?
After 60 minutes of solid casting each for just the one fish, it was obvious that the salmon weren’t here in any great numbers, so we raced back to Camel Rock (essentially the northern end of the same beach). Second cast into our new favourite hole and <THUD> it was on again. The decision to move had been a good one. After a couple more fish found their way into the esky we started to let fish go, especially those that hadn’t been hooked as thoroughly. Those that didn’t look like they would release well, we kept. One of the downsides of using trebles with barbs is that releasing fish in good condition becomes more difficult. After a brief window experimenting with barbless hooks off the beach last year, I think I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s a recipe for disappointment (unless you’re a salmon). Single hooks would be best for fans of catch-and-release – I think I’ll switch a few lures over now while I think of it.
The difference in the catch rate was interesting. Out of 5 fish hooked this time, 4 of them made it onto the sand. Having seen what the beach conditions were like the afternoon before I was confident I could get away with light spin gear (2-4kg rod, 2500 reel, 6lb braid, 20g lure). Perhaps the whippier rod allowed a bit more give in the line and was less likely to pull the hooks? Either way, spinning for salmon off the beach with a light rod is about as much fun as you can get and with the small esky now full of fish we had that smug feeling that somehow this justifies all the money we’d spent on fuel, accommodation and tackle.
And so it was on to the main attraction – Wallaga lake. A lake full of very fond memories after spending countless hours fishing this system with Lee. Wallaga is still commercially netted and possibly because of this, it’s not known for big fish; flathead over 55cm are very few and far between. But it can produce quite a lot of fish and an amazing diversity of fish. And on this second point, it was about to live up to this reputation again.
We visited our favourite haunts and starting casting soft plastics. Much to our amazement the first fish of the day wasn’t a fish at all. It was an octopus. And it grabbed hold of a soft plastic as it was darting across the bottom. When I say ‘grabbed hold of the plastic’ that’s exactly what it did. After some peeling and prying at the side of the boat, the creature finally lost its grip on the lure and fell back into the water. Clearly it wasn’t giving up easily. This is the first time I’ve seen this in an estuary and it happened another three times during the weekend. Later we would meet some guys at the cleaning table that had caught 11 for the day on lures and bait. Octopus are obviously plentiful at the moment and according to one local resident we were about to meet, damn fine eating!
As we came around the corner to change spots, there was an almighty KASPLOOSH to disturb the peace on an otherwise calm lake. A seal had just breached and then went about smashing something against the water with its mouth. Again and again. We idled closer trying to work out if it was playing? feeding? choking!? With the benefit of a big lens on the DSLR it became clear that Sammy (the seal) was tucking into a nice octopus. I can only assume that the thrashing around and slamming into the water might be to stop the octopus sticking to his face as one had stuck to our lure so enthusiastically a few minutes earlier!? Or maybe it was just having fun, it is a seal after all … Regardless it was quite an amazing sight and another ‘first’ to see this in an estuary.
Seals and good fishing are not words you often hear in the same sentence so after a few minutes of watching Sammy we zoomed off to find some more fish and fewer seals. We tried deep water, we tried shallow water, we went down the front near the mouth and up into the bays higher in the system. The whole time we kept an eagle eye on the water temperature. It hovered around 16 degrees on the incoming tide and up to 19 degrees on the out-going. The long story short was that we only found flathead in two spots over the whole weekend, and both spots only fired on a run-out tide. One spot was near Merriman’s island and the other was near Akolele. Similar to our other recent experiences at Sussex inlet and Tuross if you could find one fish, you could find a whole bunch. The Akolele school resulted in 6 legal-sized fish reaching the net in about 15 minutes, all from an area no bigger than 50 x 50 metres. That’s a patch of fish covering about a quarter of a hectare in a lake over 1000 hectares in size!
The other key ingredient to what limited success we did have, was to fish slow and fish light. By far the most effective combination was a 1/12 oz jig head on a wriggler-style soft plastic on 6lb leader. The wriggler tails tend to have much better action at slow speeds and while not normally leader-shy, it seemed the flathead were a bit timid to hit the heavier leaders in clear and relatively shallow water (2-3 metres). There’s always a risk on light leader of getting chewed off and this did happen once or twice, but it’s better to have hooked and lost, than to never have hooked at all … or something.
But to not to be outdone by the captures of octopus on soft plastics and a frolicking seal inside the lake, the weirdness continued. Firstly there were the jelly fish. Millions and millions of them. The line would rest on them as the lure dropped to the bottom, the electric motor would occasionally hit one (we tried pretty hard to stop this happening – it doesn’t end well for the jellyfish) and they would surround the boat. Technically I think these things are called ‘Jelly blubbers‘. Occasionally there would also be a much smaller jellyfish that looked suspiciously like the infamous box jellyfish. It had four long and brightly coloured tentacles and was clearly box-shaped. While in the same family as their deadly tropical cousins, ‘jimbles‘ as it turns out, are not as dangerous.
An interesting observation was that anywhere we found high numbers of jellyfish, we caught very few fish. While not conclusive evidence, because we also didn’t catch any fish in areas that had no jelly blubbers, it was an interesting phenomenon. The local commercial fisherman report that when their nets are full of jellyfish, all of the fish that shared the net with them are dead when the net is hauled on board. Amongst other things it means any undersized or unwanted fish can’t be released. That seems to support our theory that fish like to steer clear of these stinging swarms of blubber.
And then to complete the weird and wonderful weekend, our old friend the porcupine fish decided to attack one of the lures. While not as comically large or grotesque as the one Lee and I caught last year, it was a timely reminder of the amazing traits fish have evolved over time to protect themselves from predators. If that was floating upside down in the water – would you eat it?
So in summary, there were some fish to be caught; 12 flathead (released 4), 2 tailor (released), 10 salmon (released 4), 1 porcupine fish (definitely released), 4 octopus (disentangled) and 1 seal (photographed) to be precise. But there were plenty of hours on the water and a lot of different spots visited to find these fish. Fishing light lures with a slow sink rate really helped to catch most of these. The other overwhelming trend was that regardless of whether fishing the beach or the lake, if you could where one fish was feeding, you could find a whole lot more!
Wallaga never ceases to amaze. For that matter, neither does the whole south coast of NSW. Did I mention we spotted a couple of whales off the beach while salmon fishing? What a truly spectacular place where you can see whales, seals and jellyfish while catching a handsome creel of fish in pristine water. And the good news is that it’s only going to get better in the coming months.
See you on the flats!