Hopkins in depth

Kiel thinks it through on the Hopkins River estuary. 

The Hopkins River is hardly a secret – but it can be underrated as a bream fishery. Starting as a tiny creek near Ararat, Victoria, it winds its way some 270 kilometres to its mouth at Warrnambool, a three hour drive from Melbourne. Along its journey through a mix of drier country and rolling green pastures on volcanic soil, the Hopkins is joined by several tributaries. By the time it plunges over Hopkins Falls, it’s a sizeable river.

Hopkins Falls near Wangoom.

Above and below the falls, the river holds a reasonable population of trout, but the hunt isn’t trout this time. The hunt is in the estuary and it’s occupying every thought. Fly choice, hook size, sink rate, tippet thickness… The photo you saw. The story you heard. The one you lost against the rocky outcrop.

The estuary

From the jagged rocks and white sands lining the river entrance, right up to Tooram Stones at Allansford, the Hopkins estuary stretches just over nine kilometres. The river mouth is mostly wave-dominated rather than tidal and is regularly closed. Both rough seas and high flows from good rainfall can open the river entrance, at times dropping it one metre in height overnight. Just as quickly, it can close again and fill like a small lake.

Mid estuary.

Most of the year, the river is termed a salt wedge estuary, with a deeper saltwater layer and a shallower freshwater layer on top. That’s something to consider when fishing different depths, and one reason fish can school up in different depths at different times.

Spring, summer, and early autumn all good fish-catching seasons, but let’s not forget winter, when the bream are always in search of that BMS. The one you tied the night before.

Favourite flavour BMS.

Land-based, kayak or boat fishing are all great options, with three different boat ramps placed along the river. All have jetties and pontoons, which in turn make great places for the kids to cast from (including big kids)!

Much of the river is lined with large rock walls and cliffs so it’s easy to find spots out of the wind if you’ve chosen one of the more typical ‘shipwreck coast’ days to fish.

Rocky edge bite.

Up early

Preferably, start early morning when the bream and estuary perch are feeding on the many flats and rocky edges. At this time of day, they’re sitting higher up on the snags and multiple man-made structures littering every bend. Slowly making your way along the shallow flats or edges using surface flies, is a great option before the sun rises high and spooks the fish back into deeper water. Casting poppers and barely-subsurface flies can prove productive when in close to the shore and in a metre or less of water. Bream swirling and bow-waving before sucking the fly in always makes for intense and exciting fishing. And who doesn’t love top-water fishing!

One from the mud flats early.

Make sure you use your polarised sunglasses, even in low light, as the bream will often give themselves away; flashing and turning as they feed. Also listen for their slurp or kiss, a dead giveaway the bream are looking up and feeding on top. Sight fishing for bream in south-west Victoria might seem like a stretch but even in the lower vis water, it can make all the difference between lining fish and catching them.

Down later

On the days when you’ve slept in, had a few the night before or they just aren’t feeding on top, the BMS Hammerhead, as created by the one and only Muz Wilson, is a must. Its translucent body and flash suggests small baitfish or shrimp. This fly can be tied on a variety of hooks and weights, with many different types of dubbing and colours.

Good range.

It can get a bit confusing, so besides changing retrieves, simply remember: in clear water, fish natural tones like tans and light browns – roughly the same colour as the bottom you’re fishing over. Shrimp and baitfish don’t want to be eaten or seen and are masters of camouflage. In dirty water, fish dark flies with added UV such as a pink hot tail, reds and other stand-out variations.

Floating lines work well in close, fishing the edges and weed-beds; as does changing the size of ‘eyes’ to suit the depth you’re fishing. From a boat, cast at 45 degrees to your drift, landing the fly as close as you can to the bank or structure. ‘Hop’ your fly from shallow into the deep – with a floating line, each strip rises the fly, so allow progressively more time between each strip, getting a deeper sink as the fly moves off the edge.

A lot of eats will happen on the drop into the deeper water, so constant contact with your fly is paramount. Get to know the structure you’re fishing to – the deeper side of the rock, the log in front of it, the sharp rise of the reef below. Take things as slow as your drift allows. If you can slow that down by using a drogue, sea anchor (or even a bucket with holes in it if your mates aren’t watching) do it!

On the drop.

For land-based, sort of reverse the process: more pause and sink out wide; less in close. A sink tip or intermediate line may be needed at times to combat wind and current.

If you’ve put some time in on surface, and fished a few banks or flats, try fishing longer leaders, a sink-tip or full intermediate line, and work your way into deeper water as the sun gets higher. Still fish the bank and work the drop-offs, just out wider. Bream will come off the bottom and out of snags to munch your fly, but the closer you can deliver it to them, the more eats you’ll get.

When fishing the deeper sections, give your fly time to sink depending on the depth. If you start to bump rocks or weed up, remember, you’re in the zone. If you’re not, once again, try your sink-tip or sinking lines to aid the fly getting into that zone.

Change things if you haven’t gotten an eat. Adapt to the conditions you’re fishing in. Lighter leader. Sinking line. Shorter strips. Heavier fly. Different colour. Have a break. Put your rain jacket on. Go to the pub. Whatever you have to do, do.

Stay stealthy

From weedy edges to rocks, reefs to snags, always start your fishing in close whether on foot or in the boat, and work your way out. Stay stealthy – in the boat, only use the electric motor if need be. When fishing from a boat, kayak or canoe, set yourself up with a drift along the banks or flats which minimises the use of motors. Long casts aren’t usually necessary when fishing this way, as most of the river drop-offs and structures you want to be fishing are in that first three to four metres from the bank.

Reward for stealth.

Again, depending on the season, water quality, temperatures, that salt wedge, the moon or even those things none of us really understand, the bream will be holding up and or feeding somewhere in this zone… but you’ll have to find them. And you will. Most likely it will happen when you least expect it – that’s why flyfishing for bream is so addictive. A bump here or there, a strong hit, or line peeling from your striping hand. Fish each cast like it’s your last.

Hook up

Key point: don’t trout strike! I know all of us trouties do, but try not to. Bream may bump the fly a few times before committing to the eat, so don’t rip the fly from them. Let them have it, set the hook with a short strip strike, and hang on!!

When you start hooking black bream above the 35cm mark they can really test your gear and what flyfishing skills you thought you had.

Long runs out wide into the deep, short sprints back home under the tree-lined edge, straight at that one log you passed a minute earlier. 3x or even 2x tippet doesn’t really like the razor-sharp rocks of the Hopkins.

Trip report

A recent Hopkins trip with good mates Scotty X, James Laverty and Mark Weigall saw us fishing from two boats in cooler weather. Before departing Millbrook early in the morning, we realised one of the boat’s depth sounders had stopped working. That’s what you get for not keeping up with maintenance.

Right, it’s on. Let’s see which can fish better; the boat with all the gear and half an idea, or the other with some gear and also half an idea? To share it around, we agreed to swap boats of and on during the trip.

After 15 coffees each, plus Scott’s 16 toilet stops which turned a 2.5 hour drive into a 3 hour drive, we arrived at Mahoneys Road ramp (about halfway along the estuary) mid-morning. We could see the water was high due to a closed entrance, and quite clear with four to five foot of visibility.

Assuming the sun was too high in the sky for the surface bite, the two of us in the ‘half the gear’ boat started on the edges, while the other boat began to find bream and schooled-up estuary perch on the fish finder. ‘All the gear’ team were soon working an area of schooled-up fish sitting at the 3.4 metre mark. Using intermediate and Di3 full sink lines, fish started to come into the boat in good numbers.

Depth sounder showing schooled up bream and estuary perch, a common sight in the cooler months.

Perch, bream. Perch, bream. It went on like that until the fly lines or noise from the electric motor spooked them into a new area of the river. Using the fish finder again, the boys would slowly move around looking for arches on the screen and covering them. Most of their fish were sitting in that salt wedge at around 3.4 metres. A large section of the lower reaches fished well like that most of the day, with good numbers of both bream and estuary perch in a variety of sizes being caught.

Cool Hopkins River bream bycatch – estuary perch.

The fish finder also teased with the larger arches showing up: a dead giveaway of mulloway, king of the river – a bycatch no one’s going to be unhappy about, and one that’s more than happy to eat bream flies.

The king of the estuary – always a chance.

Meanwhile, the ‘half the gear’ boat worked the edges, flicking BMS Hammerheads under branches and next to rocks, using rod tips as a depth finder to judge sink rates and retrieves. This boat accounted for some better bream that were feeding around the flooded edges, working the banks where the slight north-westerly breeze allowed for long motor-free drifts.

Maybe not as many fish were caught as the ‘all the gear’ boat, but yep, bigger. Was that because the schooled-up fish in the salt wedge were slightly smaller, or was it just the slightly smaller fish fighting over the fly before the bigger ones could have a taste? Who knows? One thing we learnt, was the bream don’t care about your fish finder or what jacket you’re wearing. If you put some effort in, some time on any drift or bank, you’ll find them. And you’ll catch them.

Bigger bream.

The southern black bream is up there on the ‘favourite fish’ scale for me. Cunning, tough and fights hard out wide or in close. Fish the rough days, fish the calm days. Fish from the bank, boat, kayak, or canoe. Get out there on the Hopkins, and you’ll be rewarded.