Presented from Issue 96
Look and Learn
As I passed Wrinklers lagoon I noticed for the first time this summer the lagoon had been released. The spoil piles still remained where the excavator had dug an opening to the sea, slowly being eroded by the ever widening channel as my favourite lagoon disgorged its tannin rich waters. My mind started racing with questions. How had the high water levels of winter and spring affected the fishing? Would the large bream from the year before still be there? How would the abundance of water birds affect the fishing? As the water level dropped and the flats began to appear, it became evident that the black inky mud of the year before had been overlaid by clean yellow sand and the lagoon now contained far more weed. How would this affect things? There is really only one way to find out.
One morning a few weeks later with a couple of hours before work, I decided to take advantage of the lack of wind and clear blue skies to answer some questions. Arriving around 9:30am I donned a hat and polaroids. As I did so I could see movement in the shallows. I slowly walked around the side of the lagoon, keeping well back from the edge. I could clearly see small swirls and movement under the water in several spots along the bank. As I came closer to the activity a silver gull flew low over the water where the fish were feeding. There was an explosion of water as half a dozen good sized fish scattered out of the shallow hole they were feeding in and bolted for deeper water. After a minute, whilst questioning the lineage of the gull, I started to notice the subtle movements of the fish as they crossed the shallow water on their way back to the hole they had only just vacated. I was pleasantly surprised to see the fish return so quickly and figured it must be a common occurrence and one that the fish had become accustomed to. However, it did show how nervous they were to be feeding in the shallows on a bright sunny day.
I crept forward keeping as low as I could and fired out a small shallow-running hard body three metres beyond where the fish were feeding. With the rod tip held high I walked the lure slowly back across the top of the water to the fish, dropping the tip of the rod as the lure came in range. After a short pause I gave the rod a slight twitch and felt the bump of a subtle take but failed to hook up. I repeated the process landing the lure well beyond the fish to prevent spooking them and retrieved the lure back into the strike zone. Another pause, twitch, pause was greeted by a solid hit and hook-up, with all of the fish steaming off the flat for deeper water. After a good run out over the drop-off, followed by some shorter bursts in the shallows my first lagoon-caught bream for the summer came to hand. With dark bronze scales, indicative of the at times, tannin rich lagoon, the fish measured 37cm with solid shoulders. It was a good test the 4lb fire line.
Bolstered by my early success I continued around the side of the lagoon taking note of the circular depressions that dotted the sand flat. Most depressions seemed to be old and unused, with clean yellow sand in the bottom. However, there was the odd one that had black, sulphurous mud showing signs of recent activity. I stopped by one for a closer inspection and after a tentative dig around in the inky black mud, I found several small purple mussels between 2cm and 3cm long. My mind started racing as I contemplated the problems in tying a fly that imitated the mussel and then the problem of delivering it to the fish in an acceptable way. Perhaps this was a problem for another day.
As I progressed further, the shore changed to a slightly deeper rocky edge with the odd log in the water. In several places I could see the telltale signs of fish moving about with small dimples on the surface as they fed in the stringy green weed along the edge. While looking along the shore at these feeding fish I failed to notice the one at my feet until it was too late, or so I thought. Glancing down not two metres from my feet was a bream pointing straight at me. But much to my amazement the fish edged forward into the green fluffy weed and sucked in a mouthful. Obviously the weed contained some sort of food. The fish backed up, chewed the weed, spat out the unwanted bits and slowly continued along the bank, oblivious to my presence. Then something else dawned on me. The lagoon had been low and static for more than two weeks. Everywhere I walked on the flats I left deep footprints but mine were the only footprints. It was becoming apparent that I was the only person to fish the lagoon for at least the last two months. This went some way to explain the fish’s reaction or lack thereof to my presence. As long as I stayed still I was not seen as a threat.
Not wanting to look a gift horse in the mouth I waited until the fish was moving away from me and flicked out my lure well beyond the fish. Moving as little as possible, I retrieved the hard body back towards the fish and stopped the retrieve as soon as the fish noticed the lure. The bream charged over and stopped just centimetres from my small, suspended offering. The fish hung there transfixed by the lure as I stood there equally mesmerised by the fish. A slight twitch of the rod broke the deadlock, with the bream shooting forward and the lure disappearing. However, that’s where things got a little strange. Instead of hitting the hard body, feeling the hooks and bolting for deeper water the fish just sat there. I could no longer see my lure and the fish’s mouth was definitely working hard, like it was chewing something. Running out of options fast, I lifted the rod in the same manner I would to set the hook if fly fishing, thankfully to feel the weight of the fish as it jumped. Yes, jumped half a metre in the air, landed and bolted for the relative safety of deeper water. I suppose the rather hard little fish in its mouth biting back came as a bit of a shock. With a spirited fight behind it the 35cm bronze sided bream was un-hooked and returned to the lagoon. A close inspection of the lure revealed both sets of treble hooks had been crushed, requiring some maintenance before continuing.
What followed over the next hour or so left me feeling a little embarrassed for the fish. The fish were easy to see in the calm conditions and I didn’t have any trouble with fussy fish refusing my offerings. The bream were all feeding in groups of two to five fish, with 15 to 20 metres between groups. It got to the point where I could select the fish I wanted out of the school by retrieving the lure past the chosen fish, give the pause, jig, pause and the fish did the rest.
After an unbelievable run of six casts for six fish it was time for Scamander to get its mail delivered, so I doubled back and started to walk back along the bank I’d only just finished fishing. As I did so I unpacked my camera deciding to get a few shots of the cruising bream in the water. I came to a large tree lying partially in the water, climbing up onto the trunk I studied the water looking for any fish. After a minute or so I noticed a large bream swim in and around the head of the log, feeding happily, oblivious to my presence. With the help of the polarised filter and long lens I managed to take some fantastic shots of the fish as it cruised around, at times pointing straight at me. But after a while it finally dawned on me that this was quite a large fish, probably larger than any fish that I had caught in the lagoon in the past.
With only a few minutes to spare I packed the camera away, grabbed the rod and fired out a cast three metres beyond the fish. As soon as the lure hit the water the bream noticed it and charged the lure, hitting it immediately. The fish turned around and charged straight back at me, or should I say the log I was standing on. As I frantically wound to try to keep the line tight to the fish, the fish got to the point of the log went underneath, turned at 90° and shot along the bank flat out. With the added drag of the line under the log, it was too much strain on the treble hooks, which straightened out. It was the first time I’d been so comprehensively stitched up by a bream and the whole process took three seconds.
So I left him to it and went off to work still smiling. As I did so I contemplated my questions from a few weeks before. The weed had made things a little harder, as the fish tended to make better use of it during a fight. The swans had increased in number from just a few pairs to well over 100 birds. They tended to feed right the way across the lagoon, but I had at times seen fish feeding only metres from the foraging birds. With the swans dislodging large amounts of weed from the bottom I would suggest this helps the bream to feed in the birds wake, rather than hinder them. Best of all the bream were still there. However one thing that had changed, there seemed to be a new recruitment of younger fish. There were just as many big fish as they had been the year before but this time around I start to see small fish that seem to be only one or two years old. These fish had been completely absent from my bags from the year before. Best of all is that this year the water had lost all of its tannin stain and was now crystal clear. This year’s lagoon fishing may be even better than last year’s.
I find fishing to bream during the spring spawning run to be a little frustrating. To see hundreds of fish schooled up in the creek mouths but reluctant to feed makes me want to tear my hair out. In late spring fish can still be seen in their usual feeding locations but tend to show indifference to any sort of offering. Four out of five fish may show no reaction to a lure at all, with one in five enticed into a non- committal tail-nipping, bumpy sort of take. However, with summer it all changes with most fish charging up to the lure daring it to give one more quiver, then engulfing it. This usually requires long nosed pliers to extract the lure out of the back of their throats. Aggression like this continues through until about mid autumn, when spawning once again takes precedence.
Looking for Lagoons
Whenever I look to fish a new location, the first place I start is Google Earth. The information that can be gained depends a lot on the quality of the aerial photography and when the photographs were taken. The images are updated every now and then but at the moment over the northeast coast of Tasmania, they show the lagoons North of St Helens through to Eddystone Point after heavy rainfall. The tannin rich waters that fill the lagoons make it very difficult to see any detail under the water. However the lagoons south of St Helens through to Bicheno are quite clearly shown on the photographs. It is quite easy to see the deeper channels, sand flats and weedy edges. It is also possible to identify bank side vegetation, access tracks and roads.
Another good idea is to visit the closest tackle store to your intended fishing location. Not only is it possible to purchase lures that work well in the local area but also gain some current information about the fishery. These guys are a wealth of knowledge and tend to gather little bits of insight from just about everybody that walks in the door. They are usually quite happy to share their knowledge with a polite customer. It might cost you a little more for fishing gear purchased at a local tackle store but you won’t get up to date advice about the local area from an overseas warehouse.
Once I have identified a likely looking lagoon, I plan to arrive around mid morning. This gives me the best chance of calm conditions as the sea breeze usually comes in around midday. A blue sky day is preferable to Polaroid the edges effectively. During the summer months I generally find that the lagoons are a good temperature for wet wading. A good pair of boots, a quick drying pair of trousers, long- sleeved shirt, broad brimmed hat and a good pair of amber coloured, polarised sunglasses is about all I generally wear. I try to keep the gear I carry to a minimum, a small pair of split ring pliers are not just for replacing hooks but also extracting lures from the fish. Leader material consists of a small spool of six pound fluorocarbon. One small tackle box with a dozen or so various hard body lures. I generally take a couple of each type of lure, surface lures, small shallow running lures, some mid depth lures, bib- less sinking lures and a couple of vibes. This covers all the situations I am likely to encounter. If I take my camera with me I generally also take the landing net to leave the fish in while I am setting up the camera for a shot.
I generally like to fish lagoons that are open to the sea on low tide. If the lagoon is closed to the sea I usually target the ones that have drained before they closed. This makes walking the edge of the lagoon much easier and concentrates the fish in the deeper channels and the edges of the flats.
The direction that I first start fishing in depends a lot on the direction of the sunlight. Polarised sunglasses will cut the glare on the water making it easier to see the fish. But they generally only cut the glare when you’re looking at 90° to the sun. So with that in mind I would generally start exploring the edge in the direction that gave me the best visibility into the water. If I am exploring the edge of a large flat with very little bank side vegetation behind me I try to keep a low profile. The fish are keenly aware of anything that changes in their environment, so with nothing to break up your outline, you are silhouetted against the blue sky background. This makes you very easy for the fish to see. I find it best to stay back three to five metres from the drop-off spending three or four minutes just looking at the water trying to see fish before moving on. First I make a general scan out over the water, looking for any evident structure such as logs, clumps of weed or rocks. Most lagoons don’t have many snags or logs in them but the snags that are there generally hold fish. Scan the area looking for any movement or shadows. Trust your peripheral vision to pick up any movement and don’t rush it. If the fish are feeding they will be moving around quite a bit and will seem to appear out of nowhere at times. I have lost count of the number of times that I’ve fired out a cast only to see a bream appear a few metres away. This makes it a bit hard as you have to retrieve the lure without moving too much then put in a cast to the fish without spooking it.
Be Patient and Slow
A little bit of patience can save you from spooking quite a few fish. After scanning the area, look along the edge in the direction that you intend to walk. Any movement on the surface close in could indicate feeding bream. Continue along the bank for about 10 to 15 metres keeping back from the edge and then once again pause for two or three minutes to study the water. Continue to work your way around the side of the lagoon searching for fish. The features that stand out the most on bream when they are in the water seems to be a dark line on the edge of their dorsal fin and tail, a dark line on the outside edge of their gill case. Furthermore, if they are facing you, their white chin can stand out. One of the biggest giveaways is when they shine (roll) over or flash in the sun whilst feeding. This can be noticed from quite a distance on a sunny day and also in deep water.
At some point you will come across feeding fish. If you are moving at the time you may spook the first one or two fish you see. If this happens, just stop and scan the area. Look for a fish from the same school feeding nearby, they will be there. When you spot one that is fairly close I don’t like to make a cast if it is pointing straight at me, as my movement is more than likely going to spook the fish. I generally keep very still and wait for it to swim past or turn and swim away from me. Once the fish is pointing away from me I like to cast the lure two or three metres beyond the fish and then retrieve the lure until the fish sees it. One thing I learned quite a few years ago was that you have to be careful bringing baitfish imitations to the notice of predatory fish. The fish are not used to having baitfish swim right up to them. This is unnatural behaviour and it’s something that could lead to the fish becoming spooked. For this reason, when the fish spots the lure, stop winding. In most cases the fish will immediately swim up to the lure and sit with its nose right on it. When they do this, it is usually a simple matter of very gently bumping the lure just enough to make it move. Then the fish usually engulfs it. If the fish doesn’t immediately approach the lure you may be required to work the lure a little bit more to gain its interest. By being able to Polaroid the fish this makes gauging its response a lot easier and tailoring your retrieve to get the take. If after scanning the area for a few minutes and you don’t see any more fish, make a few searching casts. I like to start off with a shallow running lure as it is easy to spot on the retrieve. Keep a close eye on the line as you retrieve and wait for the lure to come into sight. As soon as you spot the lure, pause the retrieve and look for any shadows or shapes that appear around or behind the lure. If a fish fails to appear, continue to retrieve with a slow wind, pause motion. Fan out four or five casts covering the area, pausing each time as the lure comes into sight to see if there are any fish following the lure. When you notice a fish following your lure, it is just a matter of tailoring your retrieve to elicit the strike. Again being able to see the fish makes this a lot easier.
The biggest obstacle to landing a fish in the lagoons is generally the weed. This is where having a long rod comes in very handy, as you can generally keep the rod up, keeping the fish out of the worst of the weed. While playing the fish out, keep a close eye out for other fish swimming with it. It is quite common to have one and sometimes two fish following the hooked fish through most of the fight. They generally only swim away as the hooked fish comes to hand. As I return all of the fish that I catch in the lagoons, I try to keep handling to a minimum. By sliding the fish onto the bank and holding the line in one hand the lure can be extracted from the fish, using a small pair of pliers on most occasions without touching it. Then it is just a matter of pushing the fish back into the water. It is usually a good idea to check the hooks on your lure after unhooking a fish as they are quite often bent or broken by the bream’s crushing teeth. Also have a quick look at the leader as it may have been damaged by the fish. As soon as I have made any necessary repairs, I like to have a few quick casts in the area. I quite often catch two and sometimes three fish, one after another, in the same spot. Once you have found a group of feeding fish it is often possible to go over the same area two or three times over a couple of hours. Work your way along the bank targeting the fish as you see them, until you get to a point where you can’t find fish. It is sometimes possible to go back to the point where you first came across the fish and re-fish the same area. I have also found that over the summer months the fish tend to feed in the same locations day after day providing that the water level doesn’t change too much from one visit to the next. So once you have located a feeding area within a lagoon, it is quite possible to return to the same lagoon, go straight back to the area you fished last time and immediately polaroid feeding fish. However this only holds true if you didn’t take them all home with you last time you fished the area. That is the beauty of returning fish to the water after you catch them - being able to return to the same place and have a chance to catch the fish all over again. I certainly don’t begrudge anybody a feed of fish but there are certainly better places to get it than lagoons. The fish from many of the lagoons are very dark in colour and I question whether they would be as good to eat as the fish from the estuaries. Another thing to keep in mind with bream is their slow growth rate, as a general rule it takes two years to grow each mouthful of fish.
My preference is for longer rods. This helps me keep the shallow running lures close to the surface in weedy areas by holding the rod tip up high when retrieving. They also provide greater casting distance and assist in steering the fish away from structure in a fight. I use a Shimano STP Flats Spin 7’10” in the 2-5kg range. The rod also doubles as a great salmon rod when coupled with 10lb Fireline loaded on a 4000 reel. It also won’t break the bank.
Any reasonable quality reel in the 1000 to 2500 range will do fine. Lately I have used a Shimano Sienna 1000. It is well and truly into the cheap and cheerful side of things but it’s nice and light with a fairly smooth drag that hasn’t let me down yet. The spool is loaded with 10lb nylon backing overlayed with 4lb Berkley Fireline in the crystal colour. For a leader I prefer 2 metres of 6lb fluorocarbon.
While living in Darwin back in the nineties I spent a lot of time fishing for Barra with hard body lures. Soft plastics were not widely used at that time so I had very little exposure to them. For this reason, my preference has generally been towards hard body lures. Since then lures have come a long way, especially the small lures used for bream. I would say one of the best innovations is the suspending lure. With the ability to swim a lure down to the depth the fish are holding at, then stop the retrieve and have the lure stay there without sinking or floating away from the fish is a huge advantage. This is what sets the hard body apart from soft plastics. It is very hard to achieve the same result with plastics.
The lagoons that I fish are quite shallow with abundant weed so shallow-running lures are a must. A good example is the Strike Pro Smelta in the 128VS colour. It’s a fantastic hard body for the flats or their weed-lined edges. Any water a bit deeper say between one to two metres the Atomic Aussie Bream Shad 40 mid in 05 Ghost Gill Brown has found wide acceptance among the bream community and I don’t mean the fishermen! I tend to use surface lures sparingly in the lagoons as some bream tend to be reluctant to take a floating lure. I have sight fished to a lot of fish who refused to take a lure from the surface time and again only to immediately nail a subsurface offering when it is presented. I do catch fish on the surface but when you get to see the reaction of so many fish through a set of Polaroids you very quickly learn their preferences.
In general bream seem to be fished in either of two ways in Tasmania. One way is to use lures, soft plastics and flies, while drifting the edges of rivers, estuaries and some larger lagoons in boats. The problem is that most boats, given their size, require a reasonable boat ramp to launch. Most of the smaller lagoons on the east coast don’t have launching facilities and the owners of these flats boats are very reluctant, given the expenditure, to leave the boat at home. What would the wife say? So they tend not to target the smaller lagoons. The bait fishermen on the other hand do fish some of the smaller lagoons but in general only fish close to where they can park the car and are reluctant to walk the edges of the lagoons. This means that there are large expanses of lagoons that see very little and at times no fishing pressure whatsoever.
So to anybody that would like to try something a little different, have a go at walking the edges of some of our overlooked waterways. You may be surprised at what you find.