Bream on the flats - Georges BayJamie Henderson
Up until the summer of 2006 suggesting to anglers that large numbers of bream could be caught from the rich waters of Georges Bay on artificial lures would have resulted in a small laugh and a comment that it was a waste of time. The fish had always been there, just talk to any of the oyster farm workers. The numbers may have been low, but the bay had never been considered a major bream fishery, not like several river systems along the coast from it. Some of the jetty regulars would catch a few bream on baits during the summer months, even boat anglers would snare the odd fish, but most had overlooked the schools of fish that frequented the mud and sand flats at high tide. As the soft plastic lure revolution built up speed suddenly these areas were being looked at a little harder and some exciting fishing was being discovered. In January of 2006 a small bream tournament was run on Georges Bay, 12 teams with a maximum bag of 10 fish each saw 81 fish brought to the scales and released back into the bay and most of those fish were caught in less than one metre of water. From this point onwards Georges Bay in St Helens has grown as one of the states premier bream fisheries and is now host to a qualifying round of the Australian ABT Bream tournaments. Many mainland entrants are now making the trek to Tassie to experience the fantastic Bream fishing we have. Now nearly every weekend throughout the summer the high tide will see various sand flats, mud flats and oyster racks targeted by small boat anglers armed with bow mounted electric motors and soft plastic lures chasing the wiley southern black bream.
The Southern Black Bream, or Acanthopagrus butcheri, is probably one of the most common species in our waterways around Tasmania, particularly the East Coast, and is more than likely what most of us would have cut our teeth on as a youngster bait fishing the rivers and jetties with Prawns and Crabs as bait.
Southern black bream are opportunistic feeders and will consume a wide range of prey. The diet of the species varies between river and estuary systems but exhibits smaller variations between seasons, although they appear to have certain preferences towards a particular prey item when two or more possible prey species are available. In most estuary systems in Tasmania crustaceans make up a large portion of the breams diet, this includes crabs, prawns, types of shrimps and nippers etc as well as a number of polychaete and annelid worms. Other food items such as oysters, mussels and cockles are also consumed by bream and are crushed in the fish's powerful jaws. Small fish such as gobies and anchovies, commonly referred to as "Sardines" or "Prettyfish" are also taken and at times feature highly on the breams diet. Studies have also suggested that the fish's diet changes as it gets older, the juvenile fish eat a higher proportion of amphipods and small molluscs. The number these items consumed decreases in the diets of older fish while the number of large molluscs and crabs increases.
Now that you know the dietary preferences of the Black Bream you can get a better understanding as to why they feed so heavily throughout the "flats" areas of most estuary systems. Georges Bay, like most estuaries, is very tidal and as the tide rises the water covers much of the exposed shoreline, as the tide drops this area is once again exposed to the air. This area is called the "intertidal" zone and this region contains a very high diversity of aquatic species. The intertidal zone is also split into smaller zones, Lower intertidal zone - dry only during the lowest tides and contains the highest biodiversity within the intertidal zone, Middle intertidal zone - regularly covered with sea water and the Upper intertidal zone - only covered by water during high tide so it experiences dry periods daily.
A general rule of thumb is to look for any sand and mudflats or rocky bars covered in shellfish such as oysters that are out of the water at low tide, come back to these spots at high tide and there is a good chance there will be Bream feeding all over them. Look at the sand and mud for small craters or "digs" as this is where the Bream have been feeding on the previous tide, they work along with their head down and tail up and blow water at the bottom to move the sand and dig out the little critter they are trying to eat.
Any areas that have high concentrations of oyster and mussel growth and rocks covered with oysters are prime locations to prospect for fish once they are covered in water. Ideally you are looking for expanses of mud and sand with broken patches of week interspersed with rocks, oysters and mussels with 2-3 feet of water on top--.this is where the bream will be
Techniques and Lures
Tides, tides, tides-..can't stress that highly enough, if the tide isn't high you can't fish the flats. Study the tides closely and aim to attack the flats on the incoming and high tides. As the tide drops the fish will have finished feeding and will move back down into deeper water. Look closely at the tide height figures as well, usually there is one high tide of the day that is higher than the other. Depending on the moon phase the high tide can be actually be quite low so there will be less water on the flats than normal, this is an important factor as it will effect the feeding patterns of the bream and determine what areas they can access so pick your tides carefully.
I like to approach the flats as stealthy and quiet as possible by using a bow mounted electric motor and start by using a hard body lure such as a Bushy's Stiffy on 4lb Fluorocarbon to search the flats. I pick areas where there are clear patches in between the weed and broken rock and shell and keep my eye out for fresh diggings or any disturbances and activity. I get very excited if I see a small group of bait fish skitter about the surface and cover the area with a cast immediately as generally there is a big bream in close vicinity.
Ahe lure is an excellent choice for long distance casting and can be fished in various depths of water with a little manipulation of the rod by the angler. Belt out a big cast as far as you can and when the lure hits the water give it a quick sweep with the rod to get it down under the water and moving then stop with a pause in the water and wind up the slack, wait a second then give another steady sweep with the rod and pause again. Many of the strikes from bream will come while the lure is sitting static in the water and lures that suspend are preferred for this purpose. If the water has good depth then keep the rod tip low however if the water is a little shallow or you are over the top of weed and want to keep the lure above everything hold the rod tip high which will keep the lure a little higher in the water column and just above the weed. Don't be frightened to experiment with the retrieve either, sometimes just a steady constant wind, called a slow roll, will trigger a reaction and other times a very static lure will be the secret, even a very erratic and jerky retrieve will work when the fish are in an aggressive mood, don't get locked into a particular retrieve especially if it isn't working look for the trigger and then be consistent but be willing to change.
When using plastics I take a slightly different approach favouring areas with little or no weed and picking the clear sandy areas as much as possible. A large plastic such as a 100mm Pro Range Squidgy Wriggler in Wasabi colour on a light 1gm-2gm head is my choice and cast into the clear areas. I then let it sit for a minute before giving a slow lift and then let it settle back on the bottom for a pause again for anywhere up to 10 seconds. I find the fish either swim over to it as soon as its hit the bottom and grab it or after the first couple of lift and drops but they always take the plastic while it is sitting so remember to keep the retrieve slow. If the fish are not hitting the plastic properly and I am not hooking up I add a little bit of "S-Factor" scent to the lure which usually causes the bream to hold onto the plastic a little longer.
Another technique and lure that is becoming more and more popular is the Vibe style lures. These lures are generally used when targeting bream in deeper water and suspended schools of fish however they are proving themselves as worthy flats weapons as well. When using vibes on the flats open sandy areas are preferred with little or no weed and obstructions. Cast the lure as far as possible, being small metal lures they cast extremely well and can also be effective during windy conditions. Once the lure has settled start the retrieve, this can vary between slow winding across the bottom or small rips and hops all the way back to the boat. The action of these lures attracts bream from a wide area and can be a good technique when searching for congregations of fish.
You won't see many people fly fishing on the flats of Georges Bay for bream, and until recently very little was done. Fly fishers though love their sight fishing and bream on the flats fit the bill perfectly.
It can be a very delicate way to present an artificial bait to feeding bream and this type of finesse fishing can be exceptionally productive when other methods fail. Mike Stevens, the Editor, has managed plenty of bream on the flats and the techniques are not much different from what I have described for lures and plastics.
A floating fly line is all that is needed and in fact, any trout fishing outfit will do. Just about the only change needed is to the leader. A heavy butt leader will help turn the flies over and a long tippet will keep the flyline out of the bream's vision. A leader of total length of more than four metres is best and if you can handle longer go for it.
You will often find the bream will follow when you make short strip retrieves, but not eat. Don't be hasty-just let it sit there sometimes and the bream will pick it up. Try to strip strike, and above all avoid trout striking and lifting the rod.
Muzz Wilson flies work well if you can find them. Try his Black or Olive Hammerhead, Fuzzle Bugger or the universally great BMS Special in Olive or Black, or Estuary Chartruese.
Most shops have a few different bream flies in stock. Even small Crazy Charlies and small streamer flies can work really well.
Fishing the flats for bream does require the use of specialised tackle, once again there is no need to break the bank but buy the best you can afford. Rods need to have the ability to cast very lightly, and often unweighted, plastics and lures a long distance and this requires them to be ultra light themselves. High modulus graphite has the benefits of being super light, incredibly strong and extra stiff and this all equates to a rod that has more responsiveness than a composite or fibreglass rod. The more responsive the rod the better its ability to store and release energy efficiently, the faster and more consistent a rod is able to store and release its energy, the better the angler is able to cast farther and more accurately. I favour rods 7" in length as it gives you a tad better distance over a 6'6" length and on the flats distance is everything.
Reels need to be small and light, 1000 through to 2500 sizes will be perfect and will hold more than enough line. The reel also must have a very smooth drag, they don't need to have high drag pressure capabilities but must be smooth to start up as often you are dealing with very light line classes and the line needs to be able to run off the spool without being jerky or notchy when a fish hits the lure hard and runs fast.
A combination of a lightweight rod and reel will give the angler the ability to cast all day long with less fatigue on the casting arm, the more casts you make the more water you cover and the more chances of presenting to a fish and flats fishing is all about covering as much water as possible.
Lines can vary depending on opinion, some anglers favour light gelspun lines and some favour light fluorocarbon-.I tend to use both depending on the situation. I use light GPS line of 3-4lb couple with a long fluorocarbon leader of 2-6lb for the soft plastic lures and I use a 4lb fluorocarbon all the way through for the hard body lures when conditions are bright and the water is clear. Most quality reels come with a spare spool these days so having an extra spool rigged with a different line is handy for differing conditions if multiple rod/reel outfits is not in your budget.
Shimano have a great range of rods and reels to cover most budgets for this type of fishing, with rods priced anywhere from the Catana at around $50 right through to the T-Curve Flight and Fireblood series at around $400+. Reels are also price in similar fashion with the Slade from around $60 right through to the Stella range at $600+ and everything in between
Fishing the flats for bream is an exciting way to target the fish, often you are in water less than 3 feet deep and you can see many of the fish you are fishing to. The fish hit the lures hard and generally run hard across the flats fast peeling line off against the reels drag. The flats in Georges Bay can produce some big fish of well over 40cm and 3lb in size and are well conditioned and strong. Its one of my favourite forms of fishing during the summer months, so the next time you are fishing St Helens in your boat don't ignore all those areas that look too shallow you may just be missing out on some of the best estuary bream fishing you could wish for.