Presented from Issue 96
I don’t think fishing gets any better than watching something come up to the surface and eat a lure off the top. If you’re like me and you love chasing those big Tasmanian bream on lures, then you might have considered casting a surface lure at one time or another. Plenty of people might tell you that “it’s a waste of time”, “black bream don’t like surface lures” or “the water is too cold down here”. Any other number of reasons not to do it might come up. I’m writing this article in the hope that I can disperse that myth and instil confidence in anyone who remains a sceptic. For last three years I have sought out bream on topwater lures in almost every recognised bream estuary, through every month of the year and in every weather condition. You might be surprised to learn that throughout this time I have had very, very few days where I didn’t get at least one fish.
Some days are definitely harder than others but in the end, good things come to those who wait. Hopefully I can pass on some information through this article that will help you in your search for that big topwater bream.
Bream abound throughout Tasmanian estuaries and they can be found in a vast array of locations within these systems. Possible locations for the species are nearly without limits. They can be found from the fresh water upper reaches of the rivers, to the salty open water of the bays. For fishing with surface lures some of these areas can be neglected but only a select few. The optimum area for hunting bream with topwater offerings is somewhere that is shallow and not too discoloured. Over the weed beds, around the oyster racks, up on the flats, along the edges or in tight to the snags can all be productive places given the right conditions. Occasionally bream will come up from the bottom in two metres of water to take a stick bait or popper but this is generally not the case.
Choosing the right time and place is often the key to success. Your eyes are the most valuable tool you have when fishing surface lures. If you can see bream working over the flats, or chasing bait up against a tussock lined bank then you’re already half way there. If you can see that fish are rolling and flashing on the oyster leases, holding high in the water, hiding beneath overhanging trees or sitting just under a snag then these are all perfect scenarios to have a cast at. Blind casting into a likely looking region can pay off but if you can see the fish before you let rip with the lure, you’re in with a big chance. In general any area you would normally locate bream that is less than a metre deep is an ideal place to begin with. The alternative is to look for bream that are holding high in the water column around structure. If the bream is close enough to the surface that he is likely to notice a small fish or shrimp swimming above him then that’s a good place to start from.
The best time to have a go at catching bream on the surface is usually the top of the tide. At this time they can access food that is only available when the water covers the highest areas and this means that the fish will be in shallower water fossicking around. Because the window of time that they can be in these areas is small, the fish tend to feed more viciously while they have the opportunity. I find that early morning sessions just towards the end of the run-in are the prime time. That’s not to say that bream can’t be caught on surface at any stage of the tide or day, it’s just an observation of the most successful sessions I have had. This can probably be attributed to the low light levels allowing the fish to come up high in the water column and into the shallow water without being too spooky. I have a general theory that bream are going to feel hungry in the morning just like you or me and because I prefer catching them on surface lures more above anything else I choose to exploit this time to cast around a small stickbait or popper. If the first food item a fish notices for the day happens to be flittering across the top then he’s more than likely going to investigate. If the fish likes what he finds... “boof”. Game on!
Because the water warms up and the bream’s metabolism is higher, they become more active during the warmer months. Summer and autumn are great months to be working the surface. Baitfish and small crustaceans will be high in the water and around the edges, less fresh water is pushing down the rivers as a surface layer and small terrestrials that fall into the water become a thriving food source. The other circumstance I find to be a good indicator towards a surface bite is the weather pattern. The second day of a large very high pressure system is often the peak time to hit the water. For some reason a bit of extra humidity in the air can really turn the fish on to topwater and on those days the amount you are sweating can be an indicator towards the possible strike rate.
There are several different types of topwater lures and working out how to use each one can be a difficult task. There are some golden rules that apply but versatility is usually the key. The two main types of surface lures are poppers and stickbaits. What a lot of people don’t realise is that there are also a few other categories and sub categories that can come into play here. The less common surface lures that can be deadly on bream are sinking poppers, wake baits, walkers and soft plastic topwater lures. These can be explored at a later date for now I’ll stick with the main two. Each type of lure has a different action and a different retrieve that needs to be applied to get the lure working correctly. Any and all of the lures come in different colours and sizes. For bream in Tasmania I would recommend a range of colours from ultra bright to clear to solid black, as any colour can be a winner on any given day. A range of translucent and solid colours is always worth having onboard. Lures from 30mm to 70mm are suitable but mostly I tend to use lures in the 40-50mm size range.
Poppers have a cupped face on the front that is used to make a “blooping” noise and kick up a spray of water. The noise and splash is what attracts the attention of the bream and they make great lures for when the fish are switched on and feeding well. When the bream are spooky and not feeding readily then I’ve found it is usually best to steer clear of poppers, they can generally be reserved for days where the fish are really switched on.
To make a popper work effectively is a very simple retrieve. A jerk of the rod tip makes the cup- shaped face spray water forwards, accompanied by a popping noise, hence the name ‘popper’. The line gained is taken up and then the rod tip jerked again. Poppers are best on rippled or slightly choppy water as they can pull fish from great distances.
There are an infinite number of ways to retrieve a popper, or any surface lure for that matter, and make it catch fish. The two basic methods are summed up as a constant retrieve or twitch and pause. A fairly consistent blooping retrieve is known as a constant retrieve. You wind the reel and twitch the rod tip at the same time to keep the lure blooping along back to the boat. For a twitch and pause retrieve, make sure you leave the lure still in the water or ‘pause’ it between jerks. By putting in a couple of short sharp twitches and then pausing and leaving it dead on the water you grab the fishes attention and then he has time to saunter over and investigate it before it moves again. Often you will see a bow wave come up and follow your lure for a while before the fish strikes.
If you are using a constant retrieve then it is important not to change when the fish swipes at the lure or follows it up, keep the lure moving in the same pattern and wait for another strike as the fish will often lose interest in a popper if it stops dead all of a sudden. If you are using a twitch and pause retrieve then leave the lure dead still on the water for as long as possible. If the fish stay right up behind the lure then leave it still and watch the fishes reaction. As soon as the bream loses interest and turns away, give it a small twitch and he will usually do a circle and come right in behind it again. When this is happening its most important to just keep the fish interested. It’s not unusual for the bream to sit right behind or under the lure for a good 5-10 seconds and then suddenly decide to suck it in. In my experience this has been the number one method for catching bream on topwater lures, especially around structure. For conditions where it is dead calm then short sharp bloops and long pauses in between work best. The fish will usually hit the lure on the pause directly after a twitch.
Stickbaits are generally a more slim profile than a popper and have a rounded front face, a bit like a mini torpedo. They come in all shapes and sizes but the uniting factor is the retrieve methods that you will generally employ when using them.
They are designed to use with a “walking the dog” type retrieve. Walking the dog is a term which describes the side to side darting of a lure through the water. The lure should turn to around a 45 degree angle and shoot out that direction a short distance before turning to 45 degrees the other direction and then darting back that way. To get a lure to walk the dog is just a matter of practise. It can be very challenging initially to get the lure walking left to right without a bib to direct it but once you get the hang of the motion you need to use then it becomes simple. A lot of people compare it to patting your head and rubbing your tummy or vice versa. A short sharp twitch of the rod tip pulls the lure forward in the water initially. By then letting a small amount of slack develop the lure will dart off at an angle in the water.
As the lure darts of to the side you twitch the rod tip again and the lure will turn the other way and use the next small bit of slack to dart across. By making consistent, very short, sharp jerks where the line tension only just contacts the lure each time you can get the lure two walk left to right and snake across the surface. Some people wind a fraction of a turn after each twitch but timing this is almost impossible for most. It is easiest to keep a continuous slow wind while twitching the lure back. Larger lures are generally easier to learn the technique with and then you can progress to smaller lures as you get into a rhythm.
Stickbaits are particularly useful for situations where the bream are spooky and shy. They are much more subtle than a popper and although they will not pull a fishes attention from as far away they can be just as deadly. Ultra small stickbaits are my favourite lure for casting into heavy structure especially natural snags where the fish are holding high in the water and locked in around the branches.
With practise, small stickbaits can be made to take long steps left to right or kept in a tight waddle where they remain almost stationary and just step left to right. This allows you to keep the lure above the strike zone for longer and draw the fish from deeper down in the timber.
For fishing open areas such as flats or shallow weed beds I prefer larger stickbaits as they can be cast further and worked faster to cover more area quickly. Once the fish have been found then you can slow down and work it more carefully over that area testing out different retrieve styles and speeds.
The versatility of stickbaits is endless. You can walk them fast and slow, wide or skinny steps, pauses or constant retrieve, you can get your rod tip down and make them spit a little bit of water like a popper before darting off to the side. The possibilities are only limited by imagination. On any given day it’s always best to try a few different styles until you find the one that the fish reacts best to in the specific situation.
There are many different schools of thought on what sort of hooks work best on topwater lures. Hook-ups can be problematic at times, with missed strikes or pulled hooks being a regular issue for surface lure anglers to overcome. Most surface lures come with a pair of trebles on them and especially on bream designed lures you will find they are fairly heavy gauge wire hooks. Where possible I will change nearly all of my hooks over for topwater bream fishing. I like a very fine gauge hook, in particular the Owner ST11 ultra lights. The finer gauge the hook then the easier the penetration will be when the fish strikes. Many people are concerned about straightening hooks but in my experience I have lost very few fish this way, especially considering that so many surface lured bream come from open shallow areas of water with little structure you need to keep them out of.
When things are tight and nasty, like around oyster leases and barnacle covered snags, and you need to be able to put some serious brakes on I find that single hooks are often a great way to go. They penetrate easily and are strong enough to hold up to a very serious drag setting. Sometimes when the fish are just nipping at the lure they will result in a lower hook up rate but on most occasions the connections are similar to, or better than, that of trebles. Almost certainly I would suggest that when you do get a solid hook-up on singles the fish tends to stay stuck better than for trebles. Opinions on hook set-ups for surface lures are highly varied throughout the fishing community but it is almost unanimously accepted that the bite to hook-up ratio is generally lower than with sub-surface lures. Trying a few different arrangements out for yourself you will surely develop your own preferred set-up and there is not any one exact way that is especially better than the other.
One of the great things about chasing bream on top water lures is that you don’t need to invest any money in upgrading your normal breaming arsenal. Any 1000 to 2500 size reel and 1-4kg rod that you would normally use for casting soft plastics or small hard bodied divers will work just fine. Again opinions differ on the exact style of rod to use but I prefer something with a fast taper that allows you to work the lure with just the tip of the rod. This can be especially handy for working small stickbaits that twitch with only minimal movement.
Line class in the 2-6lb range is ideal as some of the lures can be extremely light and often a long casting distance can be the key to catching fish. Braided super-lines are ideal in most situations however many people are using fluorocarbon monofilament straight through in recent times. I personally find that the stretch of the fluorocarbon line limits the versatility you can get from a surface lures and hence tend to stick more with braided PE line. If you’re fishing with braid then you’re going to need to use at least a rod length of monofilament leader, the same as for any other luring scenario. There are two very specific schools of thought when it comes to leaders for topwater lures.
Some people swear by fluoro carbon. Some people swear by nylon. The idea is that fluorocarbon lines, being the same density as water, are all but invisible to the fish. The down side is that they will sink into the water and pull the front of the lure down. This means that you have to either work the lure with a high rod tip or lift the front of the lure out of the water before commencing your retrieve after each pause. Otherwise the lure can follow the leader burying down into the water and not working as it should.
Larger lures will have enough buoyancy in them that it won’t make much difference but for micro stickbaits and poppers the fluoro can cause a lot of difficulties. To counter this many people have reverted back to nylon monofilament line as it floats on the surface and doesn’t cause the front of the lure to pull down. The fish can see it more easily than fluorocarbon but when you’re dragging the line across the top and disturbing the water anyway I personally don’t think it makes a lot of difference.
When chasing bream on hard bodied lures it is not unusual to use an addition scent on the lure to mask any other residual smells that might be on the lure which could otherwise turn the fish away. There are plenty on the market to choose from; some oil based, some wax based, some spray on some in a tube or tub etc. My view of these scents (bear in mind that this does not include soft plastics) is that for the most part it doesn’t matter which scent you use, as long as you use one. Maybe some work slightly better than others but overall, as long as it masks the other scents that can accumulate on the lure that is the key element. Often the fish will be hitting the lure just as hard regardless but on that next strike it might just make the fish suck it down a little harder, or cox a shy fish into having a crack where it might normally turn away. On the whole you will increase your catch rate, even if only slightly. On some days it can even be the difference between a total failure and a brilliant session.
For surface lures especially it can be a very important part of the equation. Bream that rise up behind the lure and sit right under or behind it will sometimes check the lure out very carefully before deciding that it’s worth a taste. If they can smell something that resembles food as opposed to a piece of plastic that’s been bouncing round the tackle box, boat and your hands they are much more likely to suck it down instead of just nudging it to check if it’s really worth eating. Scents are not absolutely paramount to catching bream on topwater lures but they are definitely worth using.
Stealth is one of those things in fishing that needs to be assessed purely on a day by day, place by place basis. On a cloudy, overcast day with a bit of ripple on the water and fishing around structure you could assume that the fish are not going to be too worried about you being stealthy (within reason of course) but for those bright sunny days in shallow water with a glassy calm surface it is important to keep track of how you approach the fish. When you’re trying to get bream to come up to the top to eat a lure or fly you are always encouraging them to look up and toward the boat. They are also going to be on a heightened state of alert as they can sense the danger of being so close to the surface and vulnerable to predators. Some days the fish will hone in so hard on the lure that they will follow it out to within a foot of the boat but a lot of the time they will only take the lure if they can perceive no visible threat. Keeping your movements smooth and deliberate will lessen the chance a fish will notice you moving around in the boat and working the lure and many people choose to wear clothes that limit their silhouette against the skyline. It’s also important to keep your noise to a minimum as any banging on the hull or floor of the boat will surely send an interested fish sprinting for cover. Sometimes the splash of lure landing is enough to clear out fish in a 30 metre radius. On those days you can overcome it by slowing the lure down at the end of your cast so that it plops gently onto the surface instead of crashing down into the water. For the most part it’s easiest just to be mindful of how the fish are reacting to your presence and try to limit their awareness.
If fishing for bream is your caper, and just like everyone else you love the visual aspect of a surface strike then don’t be afraid to try a surface lure from time to time. Eventually you will get the knack and the results will speak for themselves. Despite the myth that seems to have existed previously that Tasmania’s black bream don’t like top water, you might be pleasantly surprised. Rest assured that topwater in Tassy can be just as good as anywhere else in Australia if the planets align. There are few things better or more exciting than polaroiding a big bream and watching him “boof” that little stickbait off the top!