Seeking sea-run trout
Andrew Large, of Got One Hobart, is a keen sea-run trout angler. He outlines how to catch these fabulous sportfish.
What is a Sea-Run trout?
Sea-runners are brown trout (salmo-trutta) that have, as juvenile fingerlings, made a decision to move away from freshwater and to live in saltwater.
This would normally mean leaving a side creek or tributary of a larger estuarine system and moving into it's brackish and semi-tidal zone. After taking up residence in this part fresh, part saltwater environment the fingerlings undergo minor physical changes to their gills which will later allow them to live in a totally saltwater environment. Having acclimatised in the first 1-2 years of their lives, the fingerlings move even further downstream towards saltwater.
What are "resident" and "slab" trout?
Upon reaching a near saltwater environment potential sea-run fish have to decide whether or not to leave the estuary or remain and become resident or maybe even "slab" fish. "Resident" trout are those fish which have moved into saltwater but have chosen not to leave the confines of the estuary unlike sea-run fish residents do not turn silver or lose any of their spots and are not dissimilar to their freshwater counter parts. Generally speaking resident trout do not do as well as their sea-going brother and sister fish and usually spend most of their time scrounging for whatever food items they can find. Living as a resident is very much a second existence in comparison to that of a sea-runner.
Some resident trout find it so hard to survive that they actually lose condition and become "slab" fish. Slab fish suffer from slower growth and exhibit poorer body condition and never usually recover or do as well as those trout that choose to migrate to sea. Huge weights are nearly always unobtainable for resident and slab trout and as a result always look to be in poor health. True sea-runners on the other hand are those fish which choose to leave the estuary and live around our coastline feeding heavily on the varied and abundant food items our nutrient-enriched oceans have to offer. The almost oversupply of crabs, shrimps, baitfish and other aquatic organisations ensures that trout choosing to lead a sea life grow faster, stronger and bigger than resident and slab trout.
Sea-trout nearly always form torpedo-shaped bodies with the added bonus of speed to match. Sea-trout take on two more notorious characteristics. Firstly, after some time at sea they lose their typical brown trout colourations and become silver and chrome-like in appearance. Secondly, sea-runners become super fit. No longer are they casually cruising a quiet stretch of river looking for an unsuspecting stick caddis, but are in fact doing just the opposite. These fish are not only battling the forces of nature around our rugged coastline but are also constantly pursuing baitfish. Therefore tremendously high levels of fitness and stamina are quickly built up.
It is, without a doubt, their superb stamina that gives sea-runners not only their hard fighting reputation but also the respect of many anglers as well. Make no mistake, sea-runners are one of the toughest adversaries a Tasmanian trout angler is likely to find.
Where can I catch a Sea-Run Trout?
Sea-runners become vulnerable to anglers at two times of the year which are at times of spawning and during the whitebait runs. Spawning sea trout re-enter nearly all coastal estuaries during the last few weeks of the annual trout season. They continue into freshwater and then spawn. Catch and release is highly recommended at this time of the year. Smaller sea trout, usually maiden fish, that are too young to spawn remain in the lower estuary system and provide ideal winter angling during the closed season.
Make sure you check the inland fishing regulations in respect to fishing limits in estuaries.
Off-season winter sea-run fishing really begins to liven up toward the beginning of August which also coincides with the opening of the trout season. At this stage some sea-runners, having spawned, return to the mid reaches of estuaries where upon they wait with the trout that did not spawn and those fish that did not move in far from the coast. All trout are waiting to gorge themselves on the first of two major baitfish migrations. Sea-runners feed on these baitfish so ferociously that they too become part of the run and once again head up the rivers.
For 3-4 peak months of the year, namely august to November, whitebait form the main part of a sea-runners diet. The term "whitebait" refers to approximately 5-6 species of native baitfish. The first run is mainly composed of Tasmanian whitebait (lovettia sealii). These small fish move upstream to spawn and die in the upper brackish regions. This first run of whitebait builds steadily throughout August and peaks in early September. At this time whitebait can be seen congregating at the mouths of small creeks, stormwater drains and natural culverts.
Needless to say our adversary and ultimate whitebait-chasing predator, the sea-runner, is not very far away. Hordes of whitebait can be seen, on a high tide, showering from the water as a sea trout tears through them. Such schools can be bailed up into a tight ball and just hit time and time again by hungry sea-runners. I feel sure trout use this first whitebait run as a practice session as the intense feeding only increases when a second run of whitebait occurs in October and November. By the time the second run begins al anglers whether they spin, fly or bait fish should be experiencing almost magical fishing conditions in upper and lower areas or rivers.
Spinning for Sea-Runners
Spinning for sea-run trout would have to be the most commonly practised fishing method. This is due to the fact that spinning is so easy and, regardless of fishing experience, nearly everybody can do it.
Spinning is basically the art of casting and retrieving an artificial lure that looks and acts like a baitfish which sea-runners chase. This type of fishing does not require the finesse of fly fishing or the long cold nights of bait fishing and is therefore enjoyed by a broader spectrum of anglers including young children and, more often than not, Mum as well. A basic spin outfit should be a rod of around 6-7ft in length and a medium-sized threadline reel. Leading manufacturers such as Shimano, Jarvis Walker and Mitchell all offer reasonably priced rods and reels that are of good quality and more than adequate on sea-runners.
Choosing a good quality monofilament spinning line is vitally important. Sea-runners will be targeted in and around sharp mussels, oysters and rocks. All of these hazards will test not only the breaking strain, but also the abrasion resistance and knot strength of any monofilament. Any line used has to be able to withstand any rough treatment during the blinding run. For this reason I choose to use a good quality line.
Lure choice for sea-runners is vitally important. Firstly choose a lure with plenty of action. Wonder Krocodiles and Pegron Mountain Minnows are particularly good at doing this and imitate a wounded baitfish really well. These lures are very good in the shallower margins as they tend to avoid snags. In deeper areas, or if trolling, choose Cobra-type lures as their fluttering action allows them to sink a little bit deeper and imitate small jollytail minnows that live nearer the bottom. Wigstons, Tillens and Loftys all have good selections of lures that fall into the sea-run category.
Colour, in my opinion, is secondary to the action of the lure. Sea-runners like attacking any lure with a splash of silver, bronze or white in its colour scheme. Most whitebait or galaxia-type minnows have some form of silver or white band through their bodies. It therefore makes good angling sense to choose lures that mimic this. Try and play around with the silver idea by adding black, green, brown or blue to form black and silver, green and silver, brown on silver or blue on silver. These four basic colour combinations would have to be what I consider all-time sea-run lure colours. Natural colours, like the ones above, work well but do not be afraid of trying more vibrant colours in order to elicit a response.
These are a definite advantage in some situations. A fly dropper can be used spinning or trolling, and is basically a wet fly that is placed a foot or so in front of the lure. In this way, when the lure is spun or trolled, it looks to be chasing a small baitfish. The fly dropper's main role is to act like an extra attractor or an extra food that the trout may like snapping at. It's smaller or secondary role is to create an air of competition between the trout and the main lure. Obviously the trout sees the lure chasing the fly dropper and then competes in the race by wither taking and eliminating the lure, or racing in and grabbing the fly dropper. Either way the trout is fooled.
Fly Fishermen are well catered for with lively sea-run fishing during the peak whitebait times. Most anglers choose to fish with standard 6, 7 or 8 weight, and 8ft 6in and 9ft rods. The fly fishing style is strictly wet. Nearly all sea-run fly fishing is done with weight forward or double taper lines although sinking lines are becoming increasingly popular. The use of good quality tapered leaders and tippet material is imperative. 6-10lb breaking strain should be more than adequate for casting slightly bigger than usual wet flies and lasting the distance on big sea-runners. More often than not the fly fisherman will start his season fishing blind but will soon begin to sight fish when sea-runners start chasing whitebait in only centimetres of water. Fish can be stalked as they charge and swirl at baitfish in the shallows. Flies should be chosen on the basis of size, shape and colour and should bear a close resemblance to whitebait. Grizzly matukas, whitebait, minnows and fur fly patterns are all regular fish-takers and should not be overlooked by the sea-run fly fisherman.
This is the deadliest way of catching a sea-runner and is usually carried out at night. This would have to be the best way of undoing really big sea-runners. Normally these timid monsters of the deep channels and waterways will not look twice at a lure or fly, but present them with a whole fish or slab of eel under the cover of darkness and the tide turns dramatically back in the angler's favour. Casting a dead minnow and slow retrieval is the preferred method of most bait fishermen. Common baits include prettyfish, freshwater flathead (sandies, glassies and roach) and jolly tail minnows. These fish are normally placed on a rig called the "Bridgewater Drag" which uses two small trebles usually size 10 and 12. The size 10 treble is usually placed up through the head of the baitfish, while the size 12 treble goes up through the middle of the body. Another popular rig basically uses a size 6-8 single hook (Gamakatsu Shinas are really good) which is placed up through the head of the minnow. Once rigged, the minnows can be cast and retrieved in a natural fish-like manner. Sea-runners home in on these slowly spun baits and take them enthusiastically. Bottom baiting is another popular method. This form of bait fishing can be carried out for hours with limited success. For best results in daylight try early morning or late afternoon. Once again, most serious bottom baiting is done at night. Popular baits include eel, freshwater flathead, pike and prettyfish. These are placed on a size 4-6 hook and cast out on a simple running rig. It is vitally important with these two types that a trout, after taking the bait, is allowed to run, stop and then struck. This will nearly always ensure that the bait has been swallowed before the strike is made.
Make sure you check both inland and marine regulations in relation to bait gathering.
When is the best time to fish?
Spin and fly fishermen should target sea-runners early in the morning and late in the afternoon. Sea-runners, like all trout, loathe bright conditions. This means that the middle of the day, or from 10am-3pm is quiet and unproductive. The only exception to this rule is if the conditions of the day are fairly rugged and wild. Occasionally the angler may be faced with the overcast, windy and drizzly day. In my opinion an angler can fish at anytime on a day such as this, as sea-runners tend to be highly active in such conditions and are only too eager to snap at a lure or fly.
Incoming tides give whitebait the chance to seek shelter and spawn over the shallow rocky bottoms of river edges. Whitebait are very exposed and vulnerable in deep channels and waterways and quickly take advantage of the incoming tide and head for shallow water. Trout also see this as an ideal opportunity to give chase and attack the baitfish relentlessly as they go. From the point of view of spin and fly anglers an incoming tide offers the best chance of securing fish, especially if the tide coincides with early morning or late afternoon fishing periods. Always try and fish the turn of the tide. This is when the tide reaches its highest point, stops, and then turns to run back out. At this time whitebait, knowing that the water level is dropping around them in the shallow, scurry back into the deeper channels. Sea trout lie in waiting at the edges of the drop-offs and viciously attack the whitebait as they go. Any lure or fly cast into these areas at this time is usually accepted without hesitation. Bait fishermen on the other hand prefer the incoming tide, but fish it from its low point to its highest point. One friend of mine, in quite a few spots, swears by a dropping tide before he even thinks about wetting a prettyfish. It is my firm belief that tidal movements do not seem to be vitally important as sea-run trout are very much opportunistic feeders and seem happy to snap at a lure at any stage in the tide rather than any particular one.
Sea-runners can be caught from nearly any shore in an estuary system. Usually anglers, at the start of the season, start fishing low in rivers and slowly fish their way upriver until they find the main run of sea trout. From then on each trip is planned around where the fish are in the river than where they are not. Good fishing spots include prominent points, deep channels or shorelines that have good weed beds within casting distance. Fishing an area with a tidal flow or current is always a good choice, as sea-runners like feeding in such areas. Always take waders, or at least high gumboots, as these will allow you to wade out to fishable depths when spinning or fly fishing off the shore. Waders also make retrieving snagged lures and tackle much easier. I prefer to wear our locally made Anchor Fly n" Dry Neoprene waders, as these offer good insulation from the cold water during the late winter and spring months.
In general, sea-run trout would have to be Tasmania's most prestigious and highly prized river fish. Sea-run trout have always been known in England as the "Prince" of the river fish, the title and crown of "King" being reserved for the salmon. Sea-runners are by no means easy to catch, although at times this statement would seem ridiculously untrue. These trout would have what would seem to be very mystical and secretive behaviour patterns that seem only to excite the most dedicated of anglers. In order to catch a sea-runner new anglers must be prepared to put in the hours at the river and be able to take the good days with the bad. A sea-run angler must, above all, be patient and prepared to experience the odd blank outing, snagged tackle, lost lures and a little frustration. The rewards are there for the persistent angler. All the hard effort and perseverance all seem worthwhile when a lure, fly or bait is savagely taken. It is only at this moment, when the angler feels the fish on the end of his rod and sees its chrome-like body erupting from the water in a blinding, head-sinking run, that it is in fact himself that has just been hooked - not the sea-runner.