Kiel explores where fresh meets salt in eastern Victoria.
East Gippsland is a sizeable chunk of Victoria, stretching from around Bairnsdale to Mallacoota. It has plenty of large estuaries and inlets, and even more smaller ones. Most systems hold trout and Australian bass up high in the rivers; then estuary perch, bream, flathead and mullet closer to the inlets and the sea. In these lower sections, you can also find luderick, mulloway, Australian salmon, tailor, King George whiting and sand whiting. Most of these species are eager to eat your fly.
Even though this part of the world occupies a lot of my thinking, I find it hard to write about it – hard to explain; hard to paint a proper picture with words which can’t always do justice to the beauty and complexity of the place. I think I could be here at the laptop for two years before I covered all the stories and fishing yarns.
There are so many flyfishing options, styles and fish to target. Then there are the locations: inlets, estuaries, rivers, and the lakes they flow into before meeting the sea. To me, it’s one of the most wild and untouched areas of Australia. True, the area gets some traffic: tourists, bushwalkers and birdwatchers. But not a lot of flyfishers.
The majority of these systems are off the main roads and down beaten tracks; others are only accessible by 4×4 or walking. Some are paddle (non-motor) only, and some have horsepower or motor restrictions. Then there are the ones where you can water-ski or jet-ski, but let’s not go there…
Wildlife and weather
The East Gippsland wildlife is remarkable. Lyrebirds walking round campsites, lace monitors trying to steal your chops off the barbie, kookaburras literally plucking the breakfast snag from your fork, water dragons jumping off rocks to beat the estuary perch or bass to your popper. There are seals swimming and soldier crabs fighting for housing on the sandy shores. Less glamourous are the ticks and wild dogs.
Then there’s the weather. East Gippsland has it all, and the storms are nothing like our Melbourne storms. Warm, peaceful afternoons soon changing to bark being ripped from trees and the sky being turned into giant strobe lights. I remember in my early days coming very close to swamping the boat because I was too busy catching EPs to worry about the approaching storm. I’d make it out with sopping wet clothes and sometimes, a very worried passenger lying on the floor of the tinny.
This whole stretch of Victoria is home to truly wild and unforgiving fisheries, where the fish are plentiful and the mosquitoes and sandflies even more so.
I think some of us like the 5-star hotels, and others chase that wild bush frontier. This part of the world has both and everything in between.
Mallacoota, Tamboon Inlet, Bemm River and the Snowy River each provide great systems for flyfishers. It’s also worth noting there are more than a dozen inlets and estuaries between these which I’ve not mentioned. If there’s coastal water in this part of the world, assume there are fish.
As a rough guide to the bread & butter fly species, you can chase salmon off the beaches and inlet entrances, then yellowfin and black bream over the sand flats, rocky edges and snags upstream. Further up the rivers, bream often overlap with EPs and bass; with the latter usually found a fair way upstream and into the fresh.
These estuaries are great to fish all year round. But it’s the same old story – you must adapt to the conditions you’re fishing in. If necessary, be willing to change flies, fly weight, fly size and tippets – including tippet diameter. Floating lines for sink tips and vice versa. As a generalisation for flies, during the warmer months, fish poppers, walkers and dry flies. In cooler months, fish sinking flies of all weights and sizes.
Due to the variation in fish targets and styles, your fly box may need to be a touch bigger than your alpine stream box. However, during warm weather, make sure you keep a few of your trout flies with you: estuary perch and bass are regularly looking up to devour cicadas, hoppers and even beetles and termites. I’ve seen bream do the same.
Land-based or boat?
While boating, canoeing or kayaking are very popular in East Gippsland, don’t overlook the land-based options. Most, if not all of these estuaries have jetties, accessible sandbars and sandflats, and pontoons. Many can be accessed by walking tracks, bike tracks and vehicles. A major tactic for me is driving a boat to a flat, then parking and wading the shallows.
Speaking of boats, bream can be very spooky and aware of your electric motor, wave slap against a hull, or noise from your paddles. I once spooked a school of feeding yellowfin bream with a cough!
I do believe that on the sand flats, it pays to take your time and walk, sight and of course fish the likely spots. The lure fishers tend to use 3lb fluorocarbon line without braid in this situation, and I’ve thought a lot about that. Fish long leaders and tippet as light as you can, to reduce spooking or lining fish – think trout in a gentle NZ spring creek. That can be easier said than done with a dumbbell-eyed fly in a 20kph headwind, but that’s where practice comes in.
And again, adapt to the situation. If needed, use a lighter fly allowing for a slow sink. Stay in contact with your fly the whole time with a slow draw or figure-8, then start your main retrieve. Tailing bream will move off the bottom to devour small baitfish or shrimp. A key point here is you don’t necessarily have to be bumping the bottom with your fly. Smaller/ lighter flies like Magoos or surface poppers can be dynamite in these shallow situations.
Keep a lookout for drop-offs, weed-beds; even a log or just one stick lying on the bottom. A few years back I remember casting to a stick on a sand flat while fishing a small prawn-style popper. In three casts, I managed a bream, a flathead and a luderick: all on the popper, all off one stick. Just goes to show they’ll look for any structure that may have food. Turned out that day, their food was made from foam and steel! (With luderick, for some reason in these estuaries, you’ll catch them on any fly, from Crazy Charlies, to a BMS, and in this case, a popper. It doesn’t have to be a weed fly.)
Coping with conditions
Keeping a keen eye on the weather helps in East Gippsland, and have a back-up plan if Mother Nature tries to ruin your trip. You can get large waves on the shallow lake sections when strong winds blow. High rainfall can dirty rivers and lakes, creating another challenge. At Bemm River in mid-December just gone, we were confronted by discoloured water. In the two weeks before we arrived, the area had seen an unusual amount of rainfall. This would typically turn a lot of people away, particularly flyfishers. Worse, the muddy water was flowing down all of East Gippsland’s rivers, into the lakes and out to the ocean, ruling out upriver fishing at least.
At times like this, whether a system is open or closed to the sea is an important consideration. On this particular trip, the entrance was open into Sydenham Inlet. All that off-coloured water was able to flow down the Bemm and out into the ocean. But on an incoming tide, the opposite would occur. Crystal-clear seawater would flood the sand flats and drop-offs around the entrance. With the water being only half a metre to 2 metres deep, I was able to drift these flats in my boat using floating lines, long leaders and light flies to entice large numbers of both black and yellowfin bream.
The clear water and also where it met the dirty water produced fish, as did casting into the scum lines where the food was concentrated. In this instance, I was fishing flies such as the CXI Special and Crazy Charlie, imitating both shrimp on a twitch retrieve, and a sandworm on short, slow draws. I’d tied these flies with raccoon or Arctic fox, which helped give my offerings natural movement when simply sitting on or near the bottom. Well, that’s the theory! I’m not a bream, but it worked.
If you can’t get to the clear water that’s flowing in from the sea, or the system entrance is closed to the ocean, you’ll still catch fish. Don’t lose faith in the off-coloured water. Just adapt. Try surface flies over weed-beds, or change to darker or lighter coloured flies until you get an eat. It’s amazing how well bream and EPs can find a fly in the murk. Retrieve your fly while keeping in mind what it’s meant to imitate.
Most of these systems have lakes, some larger than others, but all the lakes are full of weedbeds and structure. No matter how off-colour the water is, or how windy it is (even raining) the fish still have to eat. It’s just daunting for us as anglers. If you’re able to wade out, or drift in a boat or kayak using a drogue, you’ll pick up fish as they sift through these weed-beds looking for baitfish, shrimp and crabs.
Edge fishing is another great option on these estuarine lakes, especially in winter as they fill with freshwater pouring down the rivers from the catchments above. You’ll be surprised how shallow a bream, flathead, sand whiting or perch will hunt; sometimes tailing and bow-waving in less than a foot of water. Newly-flooded lake margins hold a lot of food, and, like trout, it doesn’t take long for estuarine species to figure that out.
Unweighted flies are a go-to in this situation. It’s mostly about sight-fishing and it can result in extremely exciting sessions. Don’t forget to give your popper a cast as well. I can’t really describe how hard a flathead will boof a popper in shallow water!
Moving from the entrances, lakes and up into the rivers, provides some of my favourite East Gippsland fishing. Cast at the edges and snags, allowing for your fly’s sink rate. The bream up the rivers are rolling on logs and hunting the rocks and weedy edges. Poppers can still work well here but I’d usually opt for a weighted fly to sink down the structure into the fish’s zone. If you have clear-ish water and a bit of light, you’ll see the bream flashing as they roll about feeding under rocks and logs.
The closer you can get your fly to the bank, allowing it to sink down the drop-off and slowly working it back, the more takes you can expect. Surface flies and poppers will also entice estuary perch, and trust me, that’s another heart-attack situation! When fishing around the rock bars or snags, I’d recommend a higher breaking strain tippet as these fish know where home is, and they’ll take you in there quicker than you can say, ‘I’m on!’
Don’t move on if you hook a fish from a given piece of structure. The presence of one fish suggests there are likely to be more. Some snags, logs or rock bars can hold many fish.
Estuary perch will inhabit every part of these systems, and at times school up. Fishing over weed-beds in the lakes is certainly a good way to target them. But a favourite tactic of mine is travelling up these rivers to where the fresh meets the salt. In my experience, this is where the big, solo 40cm to 50cm bass and perch hunt.
Keep an eye out for a steep bank, an old tree in the water, or any sort of structure you think you might get snagged in. This is exactly where these perch live – it just adds to the excitement, if also the possibility of frustration! Again, fish slightly heavier tippet. Sinking flies work well but there’s something special about that surface eat and opting for larger poppers.
To reiterate, you need to get your fly as close to the bank as possible. The big bass and EPs lurk right in the undercuts, logs and reeds. You can almost call a hit just by where your fly lands. Two feet off the bank and you might as well be in the middle of the river.
As I mentioned earlier, don’t forget your trout flies here. I’ve fished to EPs in a termite fall, and the water was alive with rises just like on trout lakes or rivers. EPs also love cicadas, and grasshoppers, and of course baitfish. A key point here is to remember how old these fish are. Try your best to handle them with care. They are a very special fish, and we anglers need to respect that.
So that’s a sketch of East Gippsland: a bit remote, different, unpredictable, and certainly unforgettable – all reasons I keep coming back.
FLYSTREAM FACTS: East Gippsland Gear
I use mainly 10 foot 6 weight rods for the reach and power. They’re loaded with 6 weight aggressive taper fly lines to aid the rollover of what can sometimes be heavy or bulky flies. The lines have both floating and sink tips.
For tippet, I carry 4X through to 1X depending on the situation. Recommended total leader length is usually 15ft or more.
(PS: Definitely carry good insect repellent for ticks, mosquitoes, sandflies, and especially the March flies – I’ve seen some the size of Volkswagens!)