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Bream on Fly

Craig Rist
I've been hooked on fly-fishing since I was a teenager. Pursuing trout and many salt-water species with the fly has been a big part of my fishing. Fly-fishing can take you on a life long lesson in casting, presentation, fish behaviour and the life cycles of the many different insects; crustations and baitfish, that make up the diet of the fish you want to catch. With each year your casting improves, as does your catch rate. The more you can learn about the fish species you want to catch, the better angler you become. This is probably the reason why I have never lost interest in fly-fishing. Sure, there are other forms of fishing that are far easier and more productive at times, but for me, fly fishing has been the most rewarding.

 Salt water fly fishing opens up a whole new set of challenges to overcome with so many different types of fish to target with a fly. One of the great things about this type of fishing are the many milestones you can achieve, first Australian salmon, first tuna, first shark and the list goes on. With each new fish species there is a whole new lifecycle and feeding habits to learn about. These days there is so much information available to the fly fisher. The Internet along with the many fishing magazine articles offer a starting point and often the inspiration needed to go out and try something new yourself. Bream are one salt-water species that are defiantly worth pursuing with a fly in Tasmania. We have some huge fish in our waters. Many unstoppable on light lines when hooked amongst the snags. In many respects bream are a lot like trout in their behaviour and the way they can be caught using a fly.

Tailing Bream
Like trout, bream will move into the shallows to feed and at times have their backs and fins out of the water. My first encounter with tailing bream was while Steve Hambleton and I were fly fishing from his canoe. The tide had turned and was on its way back in when we spotted a large fish just under the surface, slowly making it's way up towards us with the tide. At first it looked like a sea run trout of around four or five pounds. This was enough to get us both pretty excited with a few explicit words coming from our mouths. I put out a cast as it came within range and slowly twitched the fly across its path. It wasn't the slightest bit interested in my fly or the presentation I used. Steve did the same but again it refused to acknowledge the fly. By now it was directly across from us allowing a much better angle to see the true identity of the fish. From the depth and shape of the fish it wasn't a trout, it was a huge thumping big bream. We managed to fit in two more casts before it eventually spooked off. We were both just getting over the sight of such a large bream when two more of similar size swam down stream along the shallow edge of the channel. Steve landed his fly half a metre in front of the two bream and worked his yellow Clouser across the mud in front of the lead fish. One of the two fish seized his fly with a swirl and sped off down stream as it felt the unnatural weight of the line. The fight was short lived as the hook pulled on the first run. By now the tide had pushed up over the mud flats so we moved onto the shallows hoping to see some more bream. The water was about 300mm deep and slightly discoloured. A dark shape, the size of a small stingray, slowly made its way across the flats. Suddenly the dark shape had three sets of fins poking out of the water. These were tailing bream in very shallow water. We couldn't believe our luck. There's something about fishing to tailing fish that gets the heart pumping just a little faster. After Steve's success with his yellow Clouser, I had changed my fly to a small yellow Clouser tied on a size 8 nymph hook. We took turns casting to the small group of tailing fish, but like trout with their heads down and tails up, they ignored our presentations. As Steve was changing flies I decided to change the presentation and land my fly on their heads. The cast went out and the fly disappeared in amongst the fins. I striped the fly once and was instantly hooked up. The water erupted as the group fled across the flats into deep water taking my fish with them. Line peeled off the reel as I applied some side strain to prevent the fish reaching the oyster-covered rocks on the far bank. The fish pulled the front of the canoe around as I applied the pressure, pulling it up before the rocks. I started to gain line back as the fish swam back towards us, now just two rod lengths off the canoe. The size of the fish could be seen as it flashed in and out of sight on a short line. A few more tense moments followed, as the big bream charged around the canoe, before lying on its side allowing Steve to slip his hand under the fish. This was a good fish, probably four to five pounds, too big to take home, and no doubt full of spawn. A few quick shots with the camera to capture the moment before she was released back into the water.

Rods and reels
One of the great things about targeting bream on fly is that you can use the same outfit you would use to catch any trout. Specialised salt-water fly rods and reels are not needed when targeting bream. Anything from a 7 weight down to a 4 weight will pull up most bream with a little side strain. The choice of rod usually has more to do with the wind and weight of the flies you want to cast. I like to use a rod that is at least nine foot long to make casting long lines over the flats a little easier.
Some people are a bit reluctant to use their trout fly rod and reel in the salt water, with thoughts of reels seizing and rod eyes rusting the moment they cast a line into saltwater. As long as you give your gear a rinse in fresh water after each session, there's no reason why you can't use it in both salt and fresh water. I"ve used my 6 weight Sage outfit in both salt and fresh water for years now and have never had a problem. Even the larger salt-water fly rods and reels need to be looked after in the same way.

Lines
For blind searching the deeper channels I like to use a clear intermediate weight forward line with a 10-pound fluoro carbon tippet. Ten pound may seem a little heavy, especially when most people using soft plastics are fishing with four and six pound line, but there is a good reason for opting for a heavier line when there are large bream about. When a big bream takes the fly hard on a fast strip there is not always enough stretch in the line to stop the line breaking when you have the fly rod pointing straight at the fly.
For the times when sight fishing is an option or when fishing shallow water, I like to use a floating line. A floating line is good for imparting a rise and fall action to a weighted fly and for suspending a fly in front of bream holding near the surface or stacked up under an exposed snag. The slightest nip from a bream is detected by watching the end of your fly line. You can respond instantly to any sign of a take with a solid strip strike using your line hand. This can produce a hook up or provoke an aggressive take.
 Last summer I was busted up by a big bream, using this method. I had crept up to a snag that always holds a few fish and could just make out the shape of a bream holding hard up under the submerged tree limb. I made the cast and let the fly slowly sink under the branch. The end of the fly line jolted forward, I quickly stripped the line but felt nothing. Within a second the line was ripped from my hand as a bream crunched the fly, turned and charged back under the branch. My rod hand clamped back onto the fly line as I laid the rod over to one side in an attempt to draw the fish out from the snag, but it was too late. The leader had broken as the bream left a huge swirl on the other side of the snag, leaving me shell shocked. It all happened so quickly, I had no chance on such a large fish that was determined to drill me back into the submerged branches.

Flies
Bream feed on shellfish, crabs, shrimps, worms and small baitfish. These food items give the fly tiers creative mind plenty to think about and some great patterns have been developed over the years. Any fly that is going to represent a shrimp or a small baitfish is going to get some reaction from a bream. Flies such as clousers and Muzz Wilson's BMS flies in a variety of colours are proven bream takers.
When bream are not in an aggressive mood they have a tendency to nip at the fly rather than taking it all the way into their mouths. When they do this, the heavy stainless steel hooks that so many of our salt water flies are tied, on don't seem to hook up too well, or stay connected in this situation. Flies tied on small chemically sharpened hooks have a much better hook up rate, with most of the fish being hooked in their rubbery lips as they go in for that first explorative nip of the fly. Once the hook has pinned those lips they just don't come out. I tie most of my flies on a size 8 B820 Kamasan Nymph hook. These are a straight eye long shanked hook that can be easily bent to make a bend back style fly or tied with bead chain or lead eyes to tie the many different variations of the Clouser Minnow pattern. Colours that have worked for me are green, black, yellow, red and white, and gold.

Retrieves
Presentation and imparting the right action to the fly is a big part in provoking a take. As with most fish, there are a variety of retrieves that will work on bream. From a fast stop start strip to a very slow retrieve that barely moves the fly. Two of the more reliable retrieves are the Barra strip and a slow foot long strip. The Barra strip consists of two very quick short strips, followed by a one, two, or three-second pause then one quick strip followed by another pause, before repeating the sequence. This imparts a wounded baitfish action to the fly that will often trigger a response from many predatory fish.

Where to find them
Black Bream spend most of their time living in our estuaries and coastal lagoons. However, during heavy floods they are pushed outside the river mouths at times, but will return as soon as the floods subside. Obvious places to find bream are along the drop off to deeper water, around structures such as logs, bridges, oyster racks, rock ledges and out on the shallows searching for food on an incoming tide. Bream can be found feeding over mud, sand, rocks, oysters and weed covered areas. Like trout, bream will sit out of the main current in the deep holes of back eddies created by sand bars and rocky points ready to ambush prey as it moves in with the tide. The East Coast has a thriving population of Black Bream and is a great place to hone your skills and gain some confidence. Places such as the Scamander River Road Bridge is easily accessible and always seems to hold a few bream, willing to take a fly.
Bream spawn mid water, in the upper reaches of the estuary river systems where fresh meets salt. During spring and summer, bream move up from the lower estuary and hold up in the upper reaches ready to spawn. It's this time of year when most people start to seriously target bream.
Low tide can be a good time to fish the deeper holes where schools of bream drop back to, before following the tide back over new ground to feed or move further up the river to spawn. As the tide starts to move, this can produce some great fishing as they prepare to feed. Side channels and gutters are a good place to intercept bream moving onto the flats. As the tide covers more of the flats, bream will spread out in search of food.
In the upper reaches snags and rock ledges give protection to spawning fish and are always worth several casts with different retrieves and flies. Bream are very easily spooked and will respond best to flies when your presence is not known. The first or second cast to a fish, snag or rock ledge will usually have the best chance of success.
When fly fishing from the shore it can be very tempting to put the first cast out as far as you can, as you would if you were casting a lure or soft plastic. Do this and you have probably just spooked every bream under your fly line. You only have to sit quietly on the bank for a while to see bream swimming past under your nose. It's far more productive to first fish the water in front of you before lengthening the cast.
While fishing from a large rock I watched two bream materialise from the depths of the main channel and make their way straight for the rock I was standing on. I froze as they continued towards me disappearing under the rock ledge at my feet. With barely the length of my leader hanging from the rod tip, I lowered a white Bucktail fly down to where the two bream had vanished. Holding the fly out from the ledge, I gave it the slightest twitch. One of the bream eased out from under the ledge, stopping within inches of the shimmering fly. At this point I could see every scale on its back. Something wasn't quite right with the presentation as it retreated back under the rock. Thinking this fish wasn't comfortable accepting the fly at that depth I allowed the fly to sink deeper and gave it another twitch. This time the bream eased out and snapped up the fly. I struck instantly, the rod tip was pulled towards the ledge as I locked up and tried to use the rods length to pull the fish out from under the ledge at my feet. Not wining the battle under the ledge it charged out to the deeper water, where it laid on its side slugging it out in the deep water for a while, eventually tiring, allowing me to bring it into the shallows to be released.

Something to think about
In Tasmania huge black beam are caught every year during their spawning run up the estuaries, many weighing up to five pounds or more. Bream are very slow growing and fish of this size could be anywhere from fifteen to twenty years old. These large fish are capable of producing three million eggs each. The bream in our waters get to these impressive sizes over many years due to relatively low fishing pressure through out the year. The small estuary systems along the north coast have a much smaller population of bream and are rarely caught during any other time of the year. Thankfully, more and more anglers are realising the value of these big fish and are more than happy to take a photo before returning them to breed another year and get bigger again. It's quite a sight to see these big fish pushing up our rivers each year on their annual spawning run. I think a photo of a big bream fresh out of the water and then being released is far more impressive than one on the dinner table or a frozen fish pulled out of the freezer to tell the story. I'd much rather keep a smaller fish for the table and release the bigger fish to ensure their presence in our estuaries for many years to come. Bream of that size are too valuable to catch only once.

Craig Rist