Presented from Issue 112, October 2014
It’s of no surprise that these days when you mention Tasmania to a group of fisherman the first thoughts go to tailing trout in the western lakes region, pristine fresh water rivers and creeks and the world class trout fishing that it has become know for. But there is a little secret about the apple isle that is starting to be whispered around the country and that is the quality of the estuary fishing on Tasmania’s East Coast.
The epicenter of all this activity is St Helens, a small township approximately 166km or two hours drive east of the northern capital of Launceston, boasts around 5000 people that increases to well over 20,000 during the busy tourist season but still has that small, relaxed coastal town feel about it. St Helens is the largest population centre on the whole East Coast of Tasmania and nestles itself among the surrounding hills 9km’s inland from the coastline, coupled with shelter from the coastal winds offers a microclimate that prides itself on its warmth and sunniness with average temperatures better than southern Victoria during the winter months.
The region was first discovered by the European explorer Captain Tobias Furneaux who sailed up the coast in 1773 and named Georges Bay and the southernmost headland of the bay St Helens Point. It wasn’t until sixty years later, the early 1830’s, before a basic settlement was established on Georges Bay and like so many of the small towns along Tasmania’s East Coast St Helens came to early prominence as a safe haven for the whalers and sealers operating throughout the region.
During this period official land grants were provided and the town grew rapidly after the discovery of tin at nearby Blue Tier in 1874 and transformed St Helens from a sleepy back-water into a major port servicing the tin mines and the main transit point for the thousands of workers, including over 1000 Chinese immigrants, making their way to the diggings. The mines prospered up to the turn of the century and when they finally closed many of the miners resettled in St Helens.
St Helens became an important commercial fishing port during the following years until present time, today the commercial fishing industry is only a shadow of its former self supporting a few southern rock lobster fisherman, striped trumpeter and blue eye trevalla scale fisherman as well as some smaller live wrasse export and abalone, urchin and clam divers, however the recreational fishing and tourism have taken over as the lifeblood of the region.
One of the success stories for Tasmania as a whole and a factor that has transformed Georges Bay into the superb sports fishery that it is today was the banning of all commercial fishing and netting and all recreational netting inside the Georges Bay estuary in 2004. Previous to this the fishery was under a lot of pressure from recreational netters many of which unskilled at setting the gear causing a lot of nets to be lost and float around still catching and killing fish indiscriminately. These have long been cleaned up and now 8 years later the fishery is flourishing like some locals have never seen before. I remember clearly to this day one particular older gentleman watching over the weigh in during one of the very first ABT style bream tournaments that was held in St Helens, after seeing bag after bag of good quality large southern black bream being brought to the scales and placed in the live display tank he looked up at the small crowd of tournament anglers standing nearby and said “where did all those bream come from??”, the response was a raised arm and a finger pointed across the bay, “out there buddy….” “Well…” he exclaimed “I have lived here for over 25 years and have never caught a bream from Georges Bay.” He wandered off shaking his head but to his credit that gentleman came straight into my tackle store the next day to ask a few more questions and learn something new….you have to love fisherman like that, souls of the earth.
| Elephant fish are quite common in
Georges Bay and must be returned
St Helens offers plenty for traveling anglers with budget accommodation right through to up market resorts and some catering to those towing boats with ample room for parking trailers and boat cleaning facilities. There are two main boat ramps for launching that offer shelter from all but one wind direction so you can nearly always launch a boat and find a sheltered area to anchor up. All the usual facilities are available that you would expect from a small bustling metropolis, supermarkets, service stations for fuel, restaurants, pubs, cafes, bakery’s, mechanical and tire services, fishing charters and of course a well stocked tackle store.
Georges Bay offers quality fishing nearly all year round and for every type of angler, experienced hard core tournament type angler right through to the absolute novice; it’s an easy place to fish. During the summer months there are a hoard of options available, this time of year will see large amounts of baitfish throughout the system and nearly every day there will be schools of Australian salmon, jack mackerel and tailor feeding on small pilchards and anchovies and smashing them up somewhere in the bay, hordes of bream cover the expansive sand and mud flats from January through to April/May and offer great sport for lure fisherman, silver trevally, snapper, elephant fish, King George whiting, yellowtail kingfish, southern calamari and nearly every other species of Southern Australian estuary fish are available throughout this time of year. The only thing that spoils it at times is when the North Eastern afternoon sea breeze blows in and makes it windy and uncomfortable until early evening when it will drop back out and you can experience some fantastic sunset fishing sessions.
During the Autumn and Winter periods the days run shorter but the winds back off and you can find yourself fishing on some of the most magnificent days with a bit of daytime winter sun and glassy calm conditions. The water temperatures drop quite a bit and most of the action will slow down but from Easter right through until September its garfish time and St Helens offers up some of the biggest southern sea gars you will probably ever see. The water clarity at this time of year has to be seen to be believed and is crystal clear easily giving the ability to see straight to the bottom in up to 5 metres of water, its also a great time of year for leatherjacket, not that there is a bad time of year for them and they will cause the wayward soft plastic lure fisherman to pay dearly, and some of the leatherjacket are quite large with fish of 1kg+ not uncommon. The humble old leatherjacket are available in Georges Bay all year round and are a staple table fish of many families, they are relatively easy to catch, are widespread all over the bay and can be quite often found grazing on the barnacles and weed growth on the pylons which make them a great target for the kids.
| King George whiting are become more
common. Tyson Digney with a good catch.
Springtime will see the start of the trout season and a small run of sea run trout chasing the whitebait and jollytails around the margins as well as the beginning of the water temperatures warming back up slowly, expect some frosty chilly mornings and some unstable rains through this period but the fishing action increases and continues to grow right through to November and December.
Georges Bay is approximately 9kms long from the foreshore boat ramp right down to the inside of the barway and at its widest point stretches up into Moulting Bay for over 4kms. Inside its shoreline lies an expanse set of sand and mudflats full of rich food items like crabs, prawns, shrimps, worms, oysters, clams, mussels and all sorts of little critters to attract fish to move up onto the shallow water at high tide. One such area is about half way down the bay, it’s called ‘Stockyard Flats’ and is adjacent to the channel that is marked by the red markers and runs out to the barway. This area is rich with food and has a good flow of water across it both on incoming and outgoing tides creating a great fishing environment. It is a prime area for flats fishing for bream, trevally, King George whiting, mullet and flathead and often the Squid will be located in close proximity to the weed beds that surround this area as well.
Quite often we will hook a yellow eye mullet and half way to the boat the fight will change, once the fish is in eye shot you will see a squid rapidly retreating away and then the mullet will come aboard with a large chunk missing from the back of its head…..time to start casting a small squid jig around.
Whilst mostly only accessible by boat it can be waded at mid tide and at low tide the flats can be walked out on and over to the edge of the channel where anglers can easily fish into the deeper water with lures or baits. The mudflats at low tide are also a great place to collect a few fresh baits, pumping nippers with a bait pump or collecting a few clams is not uncommon and will result in top class bait.
Drifting the Stockyard Flats at high tide casting soft plastic and hard body lures will produce some of the best flats bream fishing you could experience in the country, as the flats are rich in food and covered with high protein shellfish the bream are well conditioned and hard fighting. Add to that some current flow with the tide running across the top and you will have a tussle on your hands. The Bream here average around 1kg and much larger fish are common.
Bait fishing the edges of the flats into the deeper channels and run offs will also yield good bream as well as a host of other species. Here the use of freshly collected baits or frozen prawns and pippies are the order of the day and attention to detail when rigging will pay dividends. This method with produce some great King George whiting, although not huge in numbers in the bay compared to mainland standards over the last few years Georges Bay has seen a rapid growth in the presence of this species. Fish of 35-40cm are average with plenty between 40-45cm; my best has been a fish of 48cm and is an indication of what this estuary can offer up. Whilst soaking a bait for the KG Whiting or Bream its no surprise to see an angler catch anywhere up to 10-12 different species of fish.
As the channel flows east out to the barway it can be fished relatively easily from a boat but only offers a small part of the shoreline to cast a line from. The small beach on the southern side of the channel at Akaroa is easily fishable and anglers can cast lures for salmon and kingfish or bait fish for leatherjacket and trevally right here. Boat anglers can work their way up and down the channel either trolling lures or casting plastics for the same species.
As the channel flows out to the barway it follows along a rock wall that offers the land based option of spinning from the end giving access to the inside of the barway where schools of the larger Salmon and often the yellowtail kingfish will be schooled up. The northern side of the mouth of the bay is also a popular area, called Dora Point it has a nice rocky point that anglers can stand on and either cast metal lures for salmon or use surf rods to bait fish for the big silver trevally, to the seaward side of the rocks is also a small beach usually with a deep gutter running all along it and is a great spot to soak a bait with a surf outfit.
Back inside the bay proper and up in the northern arm know as Moulting Bay the shoreline is not accessible for shore based angling however in the top end is a popular little camp ground known as Humbug Point campground that is sheltered and very quiet and tranquil. Here you will interact with the big Pelicans that wander up and down the shoreline as well as if you’re lucky watch the majestic Sea Eagles searching for prey and diving to Salmon and Mackerel on the waters surface. There are no boat launching facilities here, nor is there much in the way of fishable shore line however it has proven to be popular with kayakers. Water access is really only available at high tide as there are expansive mudflats to contend with however in all but a southerly wind the whole bay is sheltered so paddling around the rocky points and past the Oyster racks can be very rewarding. Good bream are available over the flats at high tide as well as around the rocky points and in amongst the oyster racks, silver trevally can be targeted in the slightly deeper water off the edge of the weed beds.
Back toward the township of St Helens on the south western corner of Georges Bay there are some great facilities for shore based anglers. Along the foreshore adjacent to the township is the main boat ramp launching facility with ample car parking, weigh station for game fish, public BBQ shelter with coin operated BBQ’s, toilet and shower block, a couple of fish and chip shops as well as the Marine Rescue headquarters. This is all in amongst the wharf finger piers that have the commercial fishing fleet and game fishing vessels moored to. The ends of the piers can easily be fished from as well as some of the main wharf area where the boats unload and can yield some great catches of mullet, trevally, leatherjacket and bream and often at night under some of the lights there will be calamari swimming around eager to take a squid jig.
|Tyson Digney with a nice Australian salmon.|
As you head around the water front there are a number of smaller wooden jetty’s that are easily accessible, some with good car parking as well. Kirwans Beach jetty is probably the most popular, one of the oldest in the town it had fallen into disrepair a few years ago but was avidly rebuilt and resurrected by the local community and can now be seen covered in fisherman nearly every day. A big car park adjacent to it with a nice grassy lawn area and a coin operated gas BBQ keeps this area popular with the families. The jetty has seen some great fishing action over the years and just because it’s a land based area doesn’t mean it cant produce some great catches, I have seen good sized bream, trevally, mullet, leatherjacket, KG whiting, snapper and flathead all caught from this jetty using both baits and soft plastic lures.
Beauty Bay also has a nice little jetty and is nestled in a quite little bay surrounded by high bank side so is sheltered from all but a hard easterly wind.
St Helens is fast becoming known all over the country as a hot sports fishing destination offering a wide diversity of fish species and options for both the intrepid sports angler and the weekend dangler. With fantastic flats fishing for dedicated lure and plastic fisherman to quality “bread and butter” estuary fishing for the family man it’s all here on offer. It prides itself on being one of the few places in Australia where you have the possibility of catching 8-12 different species of estuary fish all in one day only minutes from the front door of your accommodation. The options are endless and we see more and more species showing up as each season passes, fishing improving all the time and species sizes become larger and larger.