How to catch trout when you are not allowed to use bait
by Greg French
In the last round of changes to our trout fishing regulations (1997-1998) restrictions were tabled which further limit both where we can fish with bait and what bait we can use. The reasons for these changes to the law are complex and I will discuss them as we go along.
However, the main aim of this article is to suggest how to make the most of waters reserved for the use of artificial lures. The upside of the new laws is that you will probably learn how to take bigger bags than ever before.
I guess that the most popular way to fish bait is by casting it out and letting it sink to the bottom. While you are legally bound to stay within sight of your rod and not move more tan eight metres from it, most anglers do not constantly tend to their bait, but opt instead to sit in the bank, perhaps near a cosy fire, and jump to attention only when line starts to peel off the spool. In general, worms and wattle grubs are the preferred baits. They are undeniably productive, especially in spring when lake verges are sodden and streams have broken their banks.
The simplest way to accommodate the no bait regulation is to substitute your worm or grub for a soft-plastic artificial bait with built-in scent (such as those produced by Berkley.) Most Tasmanian anglers remain sceptical about "artificial baits" - but they sure hook fish which are foraging about in flooded backwaters and marshes searching for frogs and worms.
Note: It is illegal to add scent. (Ed).
So set-rod fishing with soft plastics definitely has some merit where the use of bait has been restricted in order to help prevent the distribution of exotic species or to stop the damage which results from bait collection (cut trees, upturned stones etc.)
However, sometimes the no-bait restriction is introduced in conjunction with reduced bag limits, the hope being that fish released by anglers will either live long enough to grow to good size or simply be there for someone else to catch as well. Bait fishing is a problem at such waters because a fish is likely to swallow the hook into its gut, or else be hooked in the grill arches. Such wounds result in high mortality, where as fish released after being caught on lures and flies usually survive. Set-rod fishing with scented plastic does not over come this problem - fish are still likely to swallow hooks.
Sometimes the no-bait restriction is designed to be a pseudo set-rod restriction, perhaps in an attempt to stop lakeshore littering or to stop anglers from occupying stretches of bank for unacceptably long periods. Here, too, set-rod anglers will have to change their fishing style or face more stringent regulations.
This is not all bad news. First, while set-rod fishing is a good way to catch those trout which gorge on worms and frogs, it is not the most effective way. Second, throughout most of the season set-rod fishing is actually highly inefficient. In either case you will do yourself a real favour by learning bow to "cover water" and/or stalk your quarry.
Working baits on the surface
One of the most productive ways to fish a bait is by retrieving it back across (or just below) the surface of the water, in much the same way that you would operate a small lure. This is a popular method in Tasmania, particularly for targeting trout in the evening, during the night and at first light. It is especially effective when trout are feeding from the surface. In spring, brown trout patrolling the flooded marshes after frogs are suckers for a surface bait. So too, are sea trout feeding on whitebait. In summer trout often rise vigorously at night, taking advantage of migrating mudeyes - and then anything which makes a small wake or silhouette is in danger of being eaten. Moreover, surface fishing can prompt savage strikes at any time of the year for no particular reason and has long been considered the most reliable fall-back for lure anglers when daytime sessions have proved difficult.
In the past, most surface baits were used in conjunction with a single hook, or a gang of two or three single hooks. Once the fish had struck, the bail arm was released and the quarry was allowed to swim off and swallow the bait. However, treble hooks, which allow for instant hook ups are every bit as effective.
Frogs, formally the most popular surface bait, are now prohibited. This regulation is unquestionably a legitimate measure since it come on the back of a severe decline in frog populations throughout Tasmania, mainland Australia and the rest of the world.
Various species have also been transferred from one area to another, creating potential for environmental problems.
Live fish too, are no longer allowed to be used for bait. The discovery of carp in lakes Crescent and Sorell has highlighted the ease at which vermin can be carried from one water to another and we know that even native fish could do unknown damage if introduced into waters outside of their normal range. For example, if climbing galaxias established at Crescent and Sorell they would very likely displace the local golden galaxias, resulting in the collapse of the trout fishery.
Wattle grubs, the main surface baits, are still permitted. These work well at night for virtually all surface feeding trout (including sea trout and mudeye feeders) but are relatively difficult to collect and expensive to buy.
So, while surface fishing with bait is excluded only at specific waters, it is increasingly difficult to practise at other waters as well. Don't despair! This is where soft plastics really come into their own.
You can rig soft plastics exactly like natural bait (I recommend the use of treble hooks) and fish them just like frogs and jollytails. The actual design, colour and "flavour" isn't a big issue but you should aim for a size ad weight that approximates a typical natural bait. Big "craws" or worms can be cut down to suit.
Also, when night fishing, don't underestimate the use of traditional surface lures(such as Fishcakes) and floating divers (like the Mepps Floppy). Small sizes are best and a fur-fly dropper is deadly.
The best part about cast-and-retrieve fishing is that you can cover lots of water and quickly present your offering to any fish which rises or makes a bow wave. I guarantee you will catch more fish at night by stalking than you would by leaving a bait sitting on the bottom. I admit that, until you get some experience under your belt, working the marshes in the day time can be relatively tough. Nonetheless, once you start casting soft plastic baits to tailing browns you will probably find it hard to go back to set-rod fishing.
In recent years quite a few bait fishers have mastered the art of polaroiding. On bright days, proponents of this method don a broad-rimmed hat and polaroid glasses and go spotting fish in the shallows of clear water lakes. Once a fish has been spotted they cast an unweighted cockroach or mudeye in its path. Success with this style of trout fishing increases with experience and according to how well you learn to spot fish and read water. In these ways it is similar to fly fishing. Now that most of the Western Lakes are closed to bait fishing, what can you do instead?
Most polaroiders who use bait also use high-performance gear. Without it you simply cannot throw a light weight very far. The preferred outfits have been graphite spinning rods equipped with closed spool reels, or fly equipment loaded with monofilament rather than fly line. Both outfits can be used to present lightly weighted nymphs, and this is a very effective alternative to cockroaches and the like
Of course, an even better way to present a nymph is by conventional fly fishing. For those already using fly gear, the shift from monofilament to fly line should be easy. If you are more comfortable with spinning gear, the transition may be a little harder - but remember that great rewards await the bold.
Rising fish in lakes
Some bait fishers enjoy great success targeting rising trout with grasshoppers and other bait. Generally they use conventional spinning equipment and don't yet have the confidence to progress to full on fly fishing. The easiest compromise is to use a traditional dry fly (a Red Tag will usually do) in conjunction with a bubble float. This works a treat in coloured waters (such as Sorell and Pedder) and can be effective in very clear water provided you cast well ahead of the fish. If the trout are spooky try reducing splash by using a smaller float.
Another innovation is to use a pinch of putty-like Power Bait instead of a float. The size of the wad will be determined by how far you wish to cast your fly, and adjustments can be made in an instant. Distance can also be increased by using super fine lines and closed-spool bait casting reels. Most Tasmanian anglers using floating Power Bait do so in conjunction with a fly, but fish do strike the bait (especially at time of low light) so it pays to pack it on to a hook, not directly on to your line. Remember not to cover the barb and try not to crows the gape.
Fast water streams
Not too many streams are covered by bait restrictions but let me discuss some innovative fishing methods used by friends in New Zealand and on the Mainland.
Fly fishers targeting pre-spawners in fast rivers traditionally use Glo Bugs and other weighted flies. These patterns are so heavy that they can be effectively cast with spinning equipment and my friends say that, while snags are part of the deal, natural drift is relatively easy to achieve and big bags are commonplace. Here, then, we have an alternative to fishing with heavy baits. If you are used to fishing swollen fast waters by upstream casting with worms or grubs, you would probably do as well to use weighted nymphs or soft plastics.
In riffled water, clear or otherwise, a fly attached to a bubble float is just as likely to undo trout as one on the end of a fly line. Some friends of mine who fish now use such a rig in preference to grasshoppers, claiming that they get better results and don't have to worry about catching bait.
What can we expect in the future?
Around the world, more and more waters are being closed to bait fishing. In most cases this is at the request of anglers themselves. They acknowledge the benefits of catch-and-release (only in certain types of fishery, of course) and know that fish caught in bait are often morally wounded. They get sick of carp, redfin and other pests being transported all over the place. And they get frustrated by small groups of anglers occupying stretches of shore and marsh days at a time (remember all the fuss at Lake Crescent?) On top of all this, rubbish continues to be an especially big problem in areas where set-rod fishing is allowed. Bearing in mind the carp tragedy, I think that Tasmanian anglers will eventually push for more waters to be closed to bait fishing. If this prospect alarms you, then urge your friends to act responsibly. Don't carry live baits from one area to another, don't use set rods where your line will get in the way of other anglers, abide by the current regulations and, above all, don't litter. The future is in your hands.