The annual Tuross flathead and bream tournament is just around the corner. Never heard of it? That’s understandable. This tournament on the south cost of NSW is a relatively low-key event run by the local fishing club to increase visitation to the small town of Tuross during non-peak periods. There are a stack of rods, reels, lures, an electric motor and a sounder as well all of the other usual prizes to be won. Perhaps most importantly however, there are no cash prizes which seems to limit the number of ‘serious’ tournament anglers. Details aside, the tournament is a favourite of the Flick and Fly crew and something we look forward to every year – when life allows.
As the tournament approaches we rally and sneak in a couple of extra trips to go for a fish. We find a couple of new productive and hopefully secret spots. We continue to challenge ourselves and refine our techniques hoping to find those little things to give us the competitive edge. Most importantly we learn just a little bit more about these two humble fish which are the backbone of fishing in southern Australia; the dusky flathead and the bream. At the end of the day that’s what fishing is all about for us. Having fun, catching some great fish and continuing to improve as anglers. Tournament results are a distant fourth on that list. This annual event is a great opportunity to reflect on our estuary fishing over the past 12 months, which is what I’ll do briefly here. For these reasons, I’d suggest getting involved in any local tournament that comes around in your part of the world. If nothing else, it’s a great litmus test for how we’re progressing as anglers.
The big picture
One of the things I hope never to take for granted are the estuaries dotted up and down the coast of Australia. With the exception of a couple of busy waterways around major population centers and some dubious water quality around major industrial developments, we are spoilt silly with the access, quality and solitude afforded when we go fishing. Travel to different parts of the world and you will inevitably return with a new found sense of good fortune and even privilege to be able to do what we do. It never hurts to keep this in mind when the fishing is slow, the queues at the ramp are longer than usual, or the waterway is busy during peak school holiday periods. In a similar vein, we always try and stop fishing, even just for a moment, to absorb the bird life, the seals, the whales, the goannas and of course the fish. Not only is a connection with nature good for us but it trains us to be observant of the conditions and those subtle changes that come each time on the water.
High probability fishing
There are lots of different ways to catch bream and flathead and lure makers seem to pride themselves on designing, and then marketing, a bewildering array of different lures and associated techniques to do it. For those task-focused individuals among us (hands up!) it is easy to get absorbed in the challenge of a particular method and easily spend an hour or two chasing a fish, only to to reflect later that it was probably a really low probability of actually working. This is fine, and a challenge is great, but time on the water is a precious thing these days (and during a tournament) and it pays to be a bit disciplined in our approach.
Here are a couple of recent examples of low probability fishing. Fishing the Clyde river on a stunning summer day; the sun was high, it was hot and the water was crystal clear. We were casting crank baits through a muddy / weedy matrix in a known bream area. The water was so clear in fact that we could virtually see the lure swimming as soon as it landed. Even on 3lb leader the bream would cautiously follow and occasionally bump the lure but they were infuriatingly difficult to hook for well over an hour. We persisted because it was all very visual and entertaining. We moved into the shade and hooked up nearly instantly. Fishing the bright, sunlit waters was very low probability.
The second example is fishing snags with soft plastics in a tidal river or estuary. This is one of my favourite ways to catch bream, as well as estuary perch and other structure loving fish. Light jigheads (typically 1/24, 1/16 and 1/12oz) means lots of time spent waiting for the plastic to slowly waft down the timber to tempt a hungry bream to strike. If the tide is really moving however the line drag and lure drift make it nearly impossible to get and keep the lure in the strike zone long enough to get the bite. The only thing that might make it lower probability would be a good wind trying to drag your casts into the timber! That said I’ve spent many an hour diligently navigating down a river bank, trying to get casts deep into snags when conditions really weren’t very favourable. Low probability fishing; guilty as charged.
So what’s high probability fishing in this context? Fishing surface lures during periods of low light, or when the surface of the water is ruffled by wind. Fishing hard bodies over weed beds as the tide is rising and fish are pushing up in to the shallows. Fishing deep water when the current and wind allow you to stay in contact with the bottom and the lure. Fishing snags when the tide isn’t racing past at a million miles an hour as per the example above. Fish are cryptic creatures but their behaviour becomes more predictable with time on the water.
Bream: go light or go home
In the last couple of years I have found bream so much more willing to hit lures than in all the years previously. Some of that will be a better understanding of where bream hang out and how to target them. But I put a huge amount of the increase simply to light leaders. 6lb used to be the starting point for a session and then if conditions were calm, sunny or glassy or the fishing was slow, I would down size to 4lb or even 3lb. The problem with this mindset is that when I didn’t get any bites I was never quite sure if it was the lure, the cast, the retrieve speed or any number of other factors which were resulting in donuts. I also find it really hard to stop, sit-down, cut off a perfectly good leader and have the patience to tie on a new one once I’m in a rhythm. If you have the luxury of multiple rods you can always set them up with ‘light’ and ‘medium’ leaders and switch between the two. If not, why not start light and take that whole factor of leader diameter out of the equation. The light leader thing has reared its head in the most unexpected conditions – like fishing with vibes in 5 metres of water at Mallacoota (link). The boys using 3 and 4lb caught fish, those on 6lb didn’t. If you think about it relatively, one is twice as thick as the other … Fishing with 3lb is a confidence thing however and it has definitely taken me a little while to adapt. My tip is get some good quality line (avoid some of the cheaper USA owned brands) and just tie it to a bench, or a fence or some other immovable object and see just how hard you can pull on it with a decent rod and a reel with a nice drag before it breaks. You’ll be surprised. I think I’ve learnt a lot more from hooking a dozen fish on light leader (and losing a couple) than spending hours only hooking a couple of fish …
Flathead: Big girls live in shallow water
Flathead are arguably the ultimate ambush predator. They can change their skin tone to match their surroundings, they can partially bury themselves in the sand, they have a huge mouth and an explosive turn of speed over short distances. Lucky I’m not a bait fish I suppose. Although at least you’d be spared from my piscatorial ramblings as I would have been swallowed a looong time ago. One thing I hadn’t fully appreciated however is just how often and how willing flathead are to venture into shallow water. We used to spend a lot of time chasing flathead on a runout tide, focusing on those holes and drains where bait is likely to get sucked in as the tide recedes. But a rising tide can be just as effective, if not more so, as the fish are in shallower ground and it opens up the possibility of covering lots of water with crank baits or even trolling. In the last few years we’ve hooked lots of big flathead essentially as by-catch around high tide. They have taken poppers on the flats while targeting whiting, tiny soft plastics around oyster leases while targeting bream, and small hard bodies trolled from the kayak. The point is that flathead are a really great target in deep AND shallow water and arguably easier to target in shallow. In the next 12 months I’m really excited about exploring more consistent ways of catching big flathead in shallow water (watch this space I hope!).
Challenging myself and continuing to learn
It is really tempting to get to the water, whether land-based or on a boat, go to your favourite spot and use the exact same gear and techniques that worked so well last time. Sometimes they work again. Sometimes they don’t. Personally I’m guilty of spending far too long fishing one particular (nameless) spot because I hooked a trophy fish there once. In all honestly that spot hasn’t produced much for me for a long time. I guess it’s time to try a different technique, a different spot, or target something entirely different. One of the great things about fishing with two or even three people is that someone is likely to try something different from the others and if it works you’ll all switch over faster than a seagull spits out a rotten squid (allegedly). Years ago, before this blog even existed (even before it’s predecessor Fishing in South East Australia existed), Hamish, Lee and I would spend days fishing Wonboyn lake with a single rod each, a couple of packets of soft plastics and a few lures. We experimented, we used different lures, different lines and different techniques and we learnt a heck of a lot individually and through each other about estuary fishing. Fast forward 10 years and the three of us rarely get to fish much together (we live in different cities and life gets in the way) but still bounce a lot of ideas off each other. I am fortunate in that I’ve got others in my life that I can go fishing with and that natural tendency to experiment and to compete amongst ourselves drives us all to be better anglers as we learn from each other.
The other avenue for learning is the fishing media. Fishing magazines, DVDs and blogs are slowly catching on that their readers and viewers have a pretty limited appetite for watching celebrities catch amazing fish in remote locations, winding in a marlin, or bottom bouncing for a feed of reef fish. What appeals to most anglers, at least all that I’ve ever spoken with, is the possibility that by the end of the article or episode, they will learn at least one new thing so they can become a better angler and hopefully catch more of the fish they were just reading or watching about. Fishing down under, Next level and Adventure Angler TV shows, and Fishing World and Modern Fishing magazines are just a few examples of fishing media that seem geared towards upskilling anglers – I’ve certainly picked up a few great tips.
So tournament day is now just a couple of weeks away and we are going through our final gear checks and shopping lists. Do we hope to finish in the top 10? Sure, that would be great. But I’ll be much happier if the spots we choose and the techniques we employ turn out to be high probability and we can find the fish where we hoped they would be. We will have just two anglers in our boat and the luxury of 3 rods each, with at least one, probably two ready to go with light leader ready to tempt finicky bream. The tides are small so we don’t envisage the flathead will be chasing bait into the skinniest margins of the lake but will be on the lookout for opportunities to cover lots of water around high tide to find those crocodiles. And of course, from time to time we will stop, take a breath, and remember to look at the birds and the spectacular environment which is Tuross Lake. If you are heading down to the Tuross tournament this year, come and say G’day, share a cold drink and a yarn and we’ll happily tell you about some low probability fishing options to avoid!