Fly fishing for Derwent River bream
by Tim Farrell
In Tasmanian estuaries, Black bream (Acanthopagrus butcheri) are one of the mainstay of recreational fishers. These fish can be relied upon to provide excellent sport on light gear with baits such as crabs, mussels and pretty fish involving the simplest of rigs - often just a hook. Bream are great fighters and are taken regularly by spinning and fly fishing in mainland waters. So why don't we take them on artificial's in Tasmania?
Well we can, but it's not quite as easy to do. The most common species of bream on the east coat of Australia is the Yellowfin Bream (Acanthoopagrus australis). Unlike our bream, they will take lures and flies with gusto - especially if they are cast to structures and retrieved with a slow but lively action. It is rare to take Black Bream in such ways. The reason for the difference may come down to habitat preference, different food items and general behaviour. However you can take Black Bream on lures and flies, you just need a different approach. While spinning for sea runners at Lindisfarne and Risdon Cover I had infrequently caught bream on spoon style lures. Generally these were fish that had followed a slowly retrieved lure and been enticed to take at my feet by letting the lure flutter to the bottom. I have also heard of bream being taken on cobra style lures that were trolled, or spun from the shore. Until recently I had not considered bream a viable fly fishing target.
Last September, armed with a sink tip line and sinking braided leader, I took some newly tied flies for a swim. The ledges upstream of the Bedlam Walls on the Derwent River have great drop-offs and often harbour sea run trout and bream. With a stiff North Westerly blowing it was only possible to cast ten metres. On the second cast a fish stuck and went for a long tearing run. Although expecting a sea runner I was more than happy to land and release a bream in excess of a kilo in weight.
Remembering the slow speed of the retrieve I had just used I caught three more all of the same size. In the following days I fished Otago Bay and Risdon Cove for a few hours each and managed to catch at least one bream at each spot. The biggest fish encountered was 1.5 kg and took several runs into the backing. While bream fight very hard on the fly gear the number of bust-offs compared to those hooked on spin tackle seems to be fairly low. Perhaps this is due to less strain being put on the fish, which may cause them to run away from the rocks and other obstructions, rather than around them.
It wasn't until April this year that I started fishing this technique again and have still found it to be successful for taking bream, using a variety of flies. While I have continued to catch fish up to the time of writing (August), my catches have been less consistent and the fish generally smaller in size. However they are there and can be caught with persistence being paid off with an excellent fight on fly gear.
Black Bream feed on, or near the bottom of the water column. They probably spend more of their time searching round the rocky substrate and weed beds looking for mussels and oysters which they crush with their peg like teeth. Whether they hunt down more animated prey I couldn't say, but they definitely eat crabs, shrimp and slow moving bait fish which live amongst the rocks and sea grass. Bream probably take the flies that cross their path for fleeing crabs or shrimp.
Ledges and drop offs are the places to target, especially those with a good supply of mussels and oysters. Cast the line out far enough to allow your fly to get to the bottom to retrieve it towards then up the ledge. It is important to let the fly get to the bottom which may take ten or twenty seconds depending on the depth. Start retrieving in short strips (ten or twenty centimetres of line) pausing for a few seconds after each retrieve. If you have allowed the fly to get to the right depth you will feel the fly touch the bottom occasionally, hopefully some of the bumps you feel will be more than just rocks. When the bream take the fly it usually feels like a snag so it pays to lift the rod to most bumps till you learn to distinguish between fish and rock. Vary the retrieve regularly till you find one that will get a response.
Once the bream takes the fly it pauses and shakes its head before taking a hard run the fight will continue as a series of arcing runs till the fish tires. It is important to keep the pressure on the fish towards the end of the fight to avoid loosely attached hooked slipping out.
The time of the day you fish is not overly important, I have caught bream in the middle of the day and right on dark, however bream are definitely less wary during rough weather or overcast days. Success is probably more independent on tides rather than the time of day with an incoming tide best. Slack periods in tidal flow are generally mean slack fishing.
Getting down deep is the most important consideration when it comes to what tackle to use. Sink tips and/or sinking leaders are essential to achieve depth and will quickly have your flies bouncing on or near the bottom. The actual weight of the fly line is almost irrelevant but may need to be adjusted according to how windy it is or how big and bulky the flies are. In most cases a 6# or 7# weight is more than adequate. There is no need for lots of backing and fifty metres will suffice. However if you can squeeze one hundred metres onto your reel then you will be prepared for any fish that swims in our estuaries.
Leaders can be either tapered monofilament with a one metre tippet (2 to 4 kilo) or braided sinking with one and a half metres of mono, a total length of two and a half metres is ample.
Flies and accessories:
The first fly I used to take bream was a Woolly Bugger with a gold bead head. While this fly is a fish taker it also is a bit too effective at hooking rocks and I have found myself having to tie up heaps in order to have enough for a few hours fishing. The solution to this has been to use patterns that ride hook point up. This involves using paired beads as eyes on the top of the hook. Popular salt water fly patterns such as Crazy Charlies, Clouser Minnows and Whistlers all fit this mould and any of these in sizes of 8 to 2 will work. For the hook to ride point up the dressing needs to be kept fairly sparse. Colours that are most effective are black, greens, greys and small flashes of orange or pink (especially in dirty water). Add some crystal flash, ultra - hair or mylar to give the flies a bit of fish attracting sparkle.
Apart from a fly box you will need some spare leader material and maybe some pliers - handy for removing hooks. If you are not skilled at landing fish by hand it is wise to carry a net, remember bream have a sharp spine on their anal fin as well as other spiky fin rays on their dorsal.
While bream will be the main target of estuary fly fishing there are many other fish that will be encountered. Yellow eye mullet are a particularly common catch during the winter months but can be caught right through the year. The average size of these fish is about 250 - 400 grams and although they can be better than catching nothing they won't present any great challenge. Flathead and cod can also be taken throughout the year. After dark juvenile Blue Grenadier (whiptails) also get in on the act and these can be in plague proportions during winter months as they have been this year. Once we get into late spring and summer cocky salmon and jack mackerel will start to take your flies, both these fish fight well for their usually small size. During summer and autumn there is always the possibility of Silver Trevally, these have been known to top five kilos in the Derwent River.
From May through to November sea run Brown Trout are present in our estuaries and while they are attracted there to feed on whitebait, they do spend some of their time foraging for crabs and shrimp amongst in the shallows and at depth. Trout provide an added bonus when fly fishing for bream and you can increase your catches of them by keeping an eye out for swirls and tails in the shallows. Remember though to release any trout caught within inland waters (see Inland Fisheries regulations as to the areas this covers) when the seasons closed (beginning of May to start of August)
While the author has not fished anywhere other than in the Derwent estuary for bream, there is great potential for this style of fishing to be explored in elsewhere in the state. I have heard reports of bream taken on fly gear from Bream Creek and the Little Swanport estuary. The estuaries on Tasmania's East Coast are particularly prolific bream producers and with some recognisance to find suitable areas some catches on the fly are sure to be made. Areas to look for are rocky shore lines with good supply of food such as oysters, mussels and crabs.
While the bream are definitely found amongst weed beds you will find that it becomes very difficult to retrieve for any distance without fouling your fly. Of course you could try weed guards on the flies, I am sure a fly tyer with enough experience could develop a fairly weed free fly (especially a shrimp pattern) which may open up these habitats for exciting fishing.
Remember get your fly to where the fish are, if your not bumping the fly on the bottom regularly or snagging up occasionally then your not fishing deep enough. If nothing else this style of fishing will give you good practise at tying flies. Don't let lost flies put you off though, when you get a decent bream on you will definitely know about it and the rewards of catching these fish on the fly more than make up for the extra involved in the tying.