I’m not a species counter, but this year I was keen to catch (or at least better understand) two fish which I admire and want to target more often: estuary perch and kingfish.
To estuary perch first, and regular readers may have observed that I’ve long been troubled by how few of these fish I catch. I once took comfort in the fact that estuary perch were a rare catch, and believed to be quite uncommon. But it turned out this misconception was due to EPs being discerning feeders which only eat live prey – and prey which mostly lives midwater or on top. In other words, EPs are not likely to be caught by regular bait-fishing techniques; and given this is (or at least was) the major angling effort where they live, it’s no surprise they were seldom caught.
So despite appearances, EPs are actually quite abundant in many estuaries I fish regularly. That’s good news because they’re a handsome, respectable-sized fish which fight well. The bad news was, despite being an ideal fly species on paper, during countless hours fishing waters where they live, I’d encountered relatively few. I’d caught plenty of their co-residents like Australian salmon and bream. But EPs seemed like ghosts: a decent-sized predator, present in numbers, but hardly ever seen.
This spring, John and I headed to some known perch hotspots down Inverloch way in South Gippsland. John’s familiarity with the area goes back decades, and he’d caught EPs on fly there (with a Yellow Matuka in fact) before I even knew what estuary perch were. This local knowledge was bolstered by a recent visit and I could tell John was quietly confident we would find and catch some perch. You know the situation: your mate is clearly busting to get you onto the action they’d enjoyed only a few weeks earlier, but they’ve also been around flyfishing long enough to know not to build expectations too much.
As it turned out, John needn’t have worried. We caught EPs almost from the start of the trip and I think I’m beginning to understand a bit more about them. For example, although I’d always believed that EPs were more or less glued to structure like snags and overhanging scrub, in fact we caught quite a few that were a long way from any cover, in what you might call ‘nothing’ water – just a metre or so of depth over mudflats. And we caught them around gentleman’s hours as much as any other time – even under a bright sun. This reinforced the view, based on my limited past successes, that EPs are certainly not as nocturnal as I’d heard.
Meanwhile, retrieves and flies had more in common with trout fishing than my bream fishing. Up until something very big and strong busted it off, my most successful perch fly for the trip was a bright green Zonker pattern tied for trout, and fished a couple of feet down with a steady strip.
The upshot is, while I don’t pretend I’m anywhere near having estuary perch ‘sorted’, I’ve now got enough confidence banked to give them a decent go on some other waters.
If my EP adventures were about trying to build on limited experience, with kingfish it was a case of starting from complete ignorance. Sure, I’d read the articles, watched the films and listened to kingfish-successful friends, but I’d never tried to catch one – or even laid eyes on a live one. So when Stephen Gaynor offered to take me and Steve Dunn out chasing them in Sydney’s harbours and inlets (a trip I’ve written more about in our upcoming print Annual) I knew we’d be totally in Stephen’s hands.
There’s something strangely liberating about having nothing to add to a fishing trip besides doing you best to follow the instructions. For better or worse, you’re completely reliant on the guide. You don’t really understand the fish and you can’t ‘read’ the unfamiliar water. It’s fair to say that for this particular late winter kingfish effort, if I’d been trying to catch them on my own, I would have failed outright.
The techniques and tactics required utter faith in Stephen’s knowledge; at once comforting and yet, being a guide myself, also vaguely disconcerting. There was very little visual reinforcement: besides the odd random bust-up in areas I would never have looked anyway, all the action was hiding in many metres of water, visible only on the boat’s sounder. From the start, Stephen certainly appeared confident and competent, but when Steve hooked the first kingfish, it still seemed miraculous.
When the action died off (as it periodically did) and our own confidence grew just a little, Stephen humoured us as we asked to try different tactics. But it was usually a return to Stephen’s spots and methods which actually resulted in the next kingie.
Unlike estuary perch, I’m still a very long way from being able to independently chase kingfish. However, I can now say I have caught them, and they are indeed every bit as beautiful and powerful as I hoped. And they’re even in many ways like estuary perch (and most other fish): active and aggressive at times, quiet and retiring at others. Sometimes the changes in their behaviour are due to obvious, even predictable, changes in the environment; and it’s hard not to feel a little smug at our angler cunning in figuring that out.
At other times though, they are, as one long-time fishing mate Peter is prone to utter, ‘complete bastards!’ – maddeningly hard to catch for no reason that even the experts can decipher. Strangely, I think it’s this last fact as much as any, which keeps me coming back.