Philip travels down the west coast of Victoria chasing bream, salmon and other saltwater species.
A couple of weeks ago, I gave a talk at the Melbourne Boat Show, titled simply ‘Why Flyfish?’ Each time I’m asked to explain what we do to the non-believers, it forces some interesting introspection. Yes of course I love flyfishing, but how do I explain why, to someone who doesn’t flyfish?
As it happened, the talk coincided with a salt & estuary trip down the west coast the very next day. So rather than drawing on inspiring trout moments, I asked myself what caused me to be so sleeplessly excited about a trip likely to involve bream, salmon and maybe a couple of other bread & butter saltwater species?
The answer wasn’t straightforward, as unlike a lot of trout fishing, the action would largely be ‘blind’, with the target species on the west coast trip being mostly midwater or bottom feeders. Yes, we might be lucky enough to watch salmon bust up on top, or to spot the flashes of bream feeding on the flats. But usually, we’d lack this visual reinforcement.
Anyway, I ended up telling the audience that, despite the lack of sight-fishing over the coming days, there would be whole hours on the estuaries when my world would contract to the precision of a tick-pause-tick tick retrieve, as I imagined my fly puffing along the bottom like a little gudgeon. I’d feel the sand, the mud, the stones through the line like brail – because mostly I wouldn’t be able to see the bottom through the somewhat discoloured estuary water. Or, in the clearer surf, I’d swim the fly around the kelp and foam of the ocean as if it were a terrified pilchard.
And then, there’ll be that moment when the pull with my line hand is stopped sharp. For just a second, I won’t know if that’s a snag, or a 40cm bream, or a 3lb salmon. And for that same instant, that’ll be all in the whole wide world I care about.
It’s been a slow process getting to a point where I can be disappointed not to catch a bream on fly, rather than surprised to catch one. By the way, I’m talking here about black bream, and in western Victoria. (By all accounts, yellowfin bream and black bream further east can behave somewhat differently.)
In any case, the first thing a black bream fisher needs to know, is their target is a fish which typically takes over 25 years to reach ‘trophy’ size of 40cm. In some waters, trout grow that big in 2 years! That says a lot about the lifecycle strategy of the two species. For a start, trout – the fish I grew up catching on fly – eat a heck of a lot more food, and much more often. If you’re going to commit to bream, you need to appreciate this difference.
Bream Fishing Tactics
In practical fishing terms, one way this difference applies is bream are less likely to run down a fly than a trout. Usually, they want prey that looks lively, but doesn’t move very far in one go – hence the tick-pause-tick tick retrieve above. They also have fewer ‘hot’ feeding periods than trout, and more occasions when they seem downright disinterested in eating, if not shut down completely. I guess when you only need to come up with the food intake required to grow 2 centimetres a year, you can afford to be a less urgent feeder.
Another related consequence is, bream often want the fly very close to them. The other day, I watched an 8 pound trout charge 3 metres to eat my son’s Scintilla Stick Caddis – something you’re unlikely to ever see a bream do! Instead, bream like flies presented right at their feeding depth; and the closer to their actual position, the better. For example, on a recent trip, the bream were feeding along the outer edge of a narrow weed-bed running parallel to the main river channel. My friend and I were casting out beyond this weed-bed from the shore, using sink-tip lines and black Hammerhead flies, letting the flies settle close to the bottom, then twitching them back. However, the only takes we got from the several large bream we caught, occurred when the Hammerhead actually reached the half metre-wide weed-bed. The drill was to feel for the fly hitting the weed, give it one more tiny twitch, and stop. We then waited for the line to move as a fish took the fly, before strip-striking.
It was an incredible session, with 30 to 40cm bream apparently eager to eat the fly BUT only under those precise circumstances. It was sobering to reflect that any variation on this precise technique – such as pulling the fly up and over the weed-bed as we often do (or at least did up until that afternoon!) would have resulted not only in no fish, but also a sense that they just weren’t there.
There are countless other situations that will require different bream fishing techniques, but a common thread during winter in central and western Victoria, is a slow but lively retrieve, and fishing the fly close to the bottom. The bream aren’t necessarily in deep water though, and flooded flats or the meeting of salt/freshwater if the estuary is open to the sea, can see bream feeding in only a foot or two of water, especially if there’s structure like rocks, logs or weed nearby for cover. Regardless of depth, a fly close to the bottom often does better than one fished mid or top water.
Speaking of open estuaries, tidal flow is preferred if you can get it, and as touched on above, bream seem to get particularly excited (by bream standards!) where the clear seawater meets the usually discoloured (in winter) river water. No doubt some of these fish are following the tide. Fisheries researchers tell me that while some big bream are territorial and won’t range far from their home snag or whatever, others can move kilometres in a day.
By the way, even though you’d think higher river flows in winter would keep west coast estuaries permanently open, it’s surprising how often storms push sandbars across the river mouths and close them off to the sea. I find closed estuaries a tougher proposition compared to when there’s a good tide regularly surging through. However, I’ve had enough action in closed systems from time to time – especially on flooded flats – to not lose hope completely.
If bream are somewhat reserved eaters, Australian salmon are unashamed gluttons. The eastern Australian species we most commonly encounter reach 40cm in just four years – so that’s a growth rate six times faster than bream. It’s also estimated that salmon eat roughly four times their body weight each year, mainly in the form of pelagic baitfish.
The biggest salmon you’re realistically likely to catch on the west coast is about 2kg, but just a few weeks ago, I heard a reliable report of a shore-based lure fisher catching a 4kg plus (nearly 10lb) salmon near Port Philip Heads. Now that would test the backing!
Salmon Fishing Tactics
As you might guess given the appetite of Australian salmon, the main issue catching them on fly is simply finding them! I can’t ever recall casting a fly to a salmon and having it refuse it, although they can be just a bit picky about depth. In the surf especially, a fly left to sink a bit can work better than one pulled back across the surface, although when salmon are worked up, which is often, even a surface popper can be deadly. Once, while we were fishing to a frenzy of salmon attacking whitebait pushed in against the shore near Point Lonsdale, my friend Mick Kaksa caught one on a Royal Wulff – just to prove a point!
At other times, salmon may want a fly pulled faster or a slower; deeper or shallower. But really, if you can put your fly in the vicinity of the fish, that’s three-quarters of the battle.
So, how do you find them? This part is not so easy. Salmon move around in highly mobile schools. In the sea, they can appear suddenly in a particular bay or beach, hang around for as little as an hour or as long as a few days, and then be gone again. If I have one tip for finding salmon in the sea that you can reach while shore-based, it’s being on the water at first or last light. If this coincides with a high or rising tide, that’s handy, but not essential. My most recent salmon success occurred on evening near Apollo Bay, almost at the bottom of the tide. Besides anything else, it was the only time I could safely fish from the rock platform at the end of the beach, and even then, a gentle swell was an essential component. The next evening, a higher tide and three metre swell had us looking on hopelessly as our ‘hotspot’ was regularly smashed by big waves.
Locating salmon in estuaries is generally easier, even if they are usually smaller than their ocean relatives. The fishing conditions are more comfortable without the surf, and the presence of fish is more reliable. If the tide is running, I’m confident I can nearly always find estuary salmon in winter – especially down near the mouth as the first surges of seawater push up, or around the good old meeting point of the salt and fresh (often but not always marked by a strip of foam).
The west coast in winter offers other bread & butter species to keep things interesting. You don’t get much more bread & butter than the humble mullet. They mightn’t be at the top of my winter wish-list, but mullet are nearly always present in the west coast estuaries and they’ve saved a couple of blank days in appalling weather. Supposedly, mullet aren’t baitfish feeders, however they’ll happily chase down and eat a small Clouser, and the larger ones (30cm plus) are good fun.
Winter west coast estuary perch are an excellent sportfish and I’ll even take them ahead of a decent salmon or bream – except I haven’t worked out how to catch them reliably yet. When I do, you’ll be the first to hear! Silver trevally are another amazing sportfish that pull even harder than salmon – if you can believe that. However, once again I haven’t encountered these fish regularly enough for them to be anything other than welcome but largely unexpected bycatch when fishing for bream or salmon.
A final contender for west coast surprises, is the barracouta. Often these bizarre predators are out of range of shore-based fly, but you never know. Just a week ago, my fly was neatly sliced off by one while fishing for salmon. A few weeks before that, I fluked landing a couta before the fly was again surgically removed next cast! I learnt four things from those encounters: couta fishing really requires a wire trace; they’ll eat nearly anything, including a Clouser cut back to virtually a bare hook, they fight really hard – and don’t go near their mouth with bare fingers!
More than a Fill-In
I’ve gone from treating winter bread & butter estuary / salt on the west coast as merely a fill-in between trout trips, to something I look forward to as much as any of my fishing. The travel time is short enough for a day trip or an overnighter from population centres like Ballarat, Geelong or Melbourne, the landscapes are wonderful, the location options are endless and the fish are perfectly suited to flyfishing.
FlyStream Facts: Bream gear
A typical 6 weight 9’/ 9’6” trout outfit is ideal for bream fishing. Carry at least a floating line for when the fish are in the shallows, and a decent sink tip (or sinking leader) for when they’re not and there’s a decent current running. I like a fluorocarbon leader of 8lb or more. For flies, Hammerheads, John Schofield’s Vampires, Woolly Buggers on decent saltwater hooks and of course Craig’s Muz Minnow are all great. (In the video, note Craig’s tip about his bream flies being barbless.)
FlyStream Facts: Salmon gear
A 6 weight 9ft trout rod will do in the estuaries, but a 7 or even 8 weight is handy in the sea. A intermediate tip line like the RIO Outbound works well, and I like at least a 10lb fluoro tippet for fighting fish among the kelp and rocks. Salmon aren’t at all leader shy, so you might as well err towards heavy over light. Clousers in white, or white and chartreuse, pretty much cover it for flies.