How to catch fish in heavily pressured estuaries and beat the “February blues”.

Bream can be difficult to tempt at times
Bream can be difficult to tempt at times

Graz and I started discussing whether the fish along the coast are actually any harder to catch during and just after the summer holiday peak. From mid December to the end of January, literally thousands of holiday makers make their way down to the south coast of NSW to wet a line.  Graz had just got back from a tough weekend of fishing at Tuross lake. The weekend saw plenty of fish, but hardly a legal one amongst them. It was the same for everyone he met out on the water. And it was a similar story the week before at Durras lake. This experience reflects the calls by many every summer on the South coasts most heavily pressured systems that the big fish are hard to find and the fishing tough. The undercurrent being that the hoards, especially those that aren’t local, have “overfished” the estuaries, taking too many fish, ruining the fishing. Could there be any truth to these musings? Or are they just unsuccessful anglers searching for an excuse?

There just may be something to it, the big influx of anglers and the spike in fishing pressure could conceivably have an effect on fish populations or on the behaviour of fish, making them much harder to catch.

We can probably safely dismiss local depletion and local overfishing arguments. If this was the case, would there be any legal and trophy-sized fish caught in the subsequent weeks and months after the peak holiday period? Fish takes months if not years to reach these sizes? In truth, most of the estuaries affected bounce back pretty quickly, which suggests that big fish are still in the system. That’s not to say that overfishing cant have an effect. The anecdotal jump in the size and number of big fish caught in south coast estuaries after the commercial fishing licenses were bought out suggests that fishing pressure can reduce the number of big fish in a system. However, its not likely to be the cause of short term events such as this. If overfishing of big fish is a problem, it will show itself over longer periods with bigger fish becoming less and less common across the year, year after year.

So, the most likely cause of the “disappearance” of big fish coinciding with a yearly spike in fishing pressure is some sort of behavioural effect. This could definitely be happening. The spike in fishing pressure means more boats, more boat noise, that the fish are going to see a lot more lures and leaders and that more fish are going to be caught and released. All of these factors could change the behaviour of big fish, making them harder to catch.

Fish can adjust their feeding strategies depending on the “risks” of predation associated with them. For example, fish often react to boat noise, either sending them to cover or putting them on high alert. So this spike in boat noise may mean that the fish are simply shutting down across large sections of the estuary or that they are moving into less heavily pressured parts of the system. Both things that could make big fish harder to catch.

While a lot of fish that have been caught and released survive, it is still a stressful experience for the fish. In many cases, it has been shown to result in short term behavioural effects. Fish often move less and sulk after being caught before returning to normal behaviour patterns. And while there hasn’t been a lot of work on the longer term effects of catch and release, being caught a few times could quite conceivably change the preferred habitats of the fish. Would you hang around on the same drop off, lets call it 4 ways, you’d been caught on a couple of times in the last week? Probably not. There is anecdotal support for this idea. It has been remarked upon by more than a few trout fishers that on heavily pressured waters, the big trophy fish often start preferring “poor lies”, safe from the vast majority of anglers. So it could be that for this brief period of high pressure, the big fish simply move into places we might not expect. Similarly, fishing at night is a common suggestion on heavily fished waters, the assumption being that all the pressure during the day shifts the “peak” feeding time for most fish from day into night. Some of my biggest flathead have been caught in less than 6 inches of water less than a meter from shore on flats near “famed” big flathead spots. Not evidence, but maybe it is something…

Graz 91cm flathead
Fish of this calibre often come at strange times and from strange places. This big girl was caught at about 6 in the morning in about 1 metre of water

Next we come to the increase in fishing itself. Not take, but the likelihood that fish have seen leaders, hooks and lures before and have learnt to avoid them. I’ve had my own experience with this fly fishing for carp around Melbourne. Fish can learn. The more you fish for them the harder they get to catch. This isn’t just something that has been experienced by myself, its something that has been widely recognised by anglers and studied. Bass quickly learn the difference between a worm and a worm with a hook in it, pike to avoid spinners, trout get much much harder to catch once they have seen a few flies. The difference in behaviour between fish in lightly and highly pressured habitats can be extreme, with painted comber from lightly pressured habitats attacking baited hooks with zero hesitation, while being shy, retiring and very risk averse, carefully inspecting what they eat in heavily pressured habitats. Its this learned avoidance, of leaders, hooks and for us lure fishermen, popular lure styles, brands and types that is behind the “February blues”. Put simply, all the fishing pressure over the summer has given the fish a crash course in not being caught.

Carp learn – With each trip to the carp hole, they became harder and harder to catch

So while its impossible to say whether the February blues is a real phenomenon, it could be, which should be enough for us as anglers to at least take it into account if we are struggling to put good fish in the net during summer.

So if you find yourself suffering from a suspected case of the February blues is there anything you can do about it? YES! Working back from our hypothesized potential causes, the first thing you should do is lighten your leaders and go for smaller, more naturalistic lures, less likely to be spotted as fake from a mile away. That or something completely new and different, something that they haven’t seen 100 times over the summer. If that doesn’t work, it might be time to search out less heavily pressured parts of the estuary or fishing at less popular times. Throw some casts way up on the flat, get in right behind hard to access oyster leases. There are plenty of places that are very hard to get a lure into. This might just be where the fish are hiding out, waiting for the summer hoards to disappear. Fish late, fish at night, fish early, the fish may be in their usually haunts, but they may be feeding at different times. Lastly, be quite. Limit boat noise to an absolute minimum. Don’t stamp or jump around, use your electric motor. Heck, it may even be worth hoping off the boat and sneaking along the shoreline from time to time. Using a combination of these techniques, it is usually possible to defeat the February blues. In fact, last weekend, after only catching cricket scores of undersized fish in the usual haunts, Graz and his dad lightened up their leaders and started fishing a few less heavily pressured parts of the system. The result, half a dozen decent bream, even more rewarding than normal given the effort and thought that went into boating them.


Hamish and Graz

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3 thoughts on “How to catch fish in heavily pressured estuaries and beat the “February blues”.

  1. Great post! The February blues are definitely a common part of fishing here in Port Stephens. Having said that, I did have a trip once where I caught the same bream 3 times in one session over a famous wreck! That fish had a death wish and was probably peed-off every time I released it!

    1. Thanks for commenting, Mac. Certainly an interesting phenomenon! I reckon that bream had brain damage… 🙂

  2. Pingback: Tuross Flathead And Bream Comp 2016 | Flick And Fly Journal

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