Winter fishing isn’t just some sort of fill-in for the desperado while the trout streams are closed, writes Philip.
Weekdays and weekends are often abstract concepts to me – I’m as likely to be working or playing on one as the other. (And being employed by things fishing, the line between work and play can blur anyway.) Wading the Hopkins River flats in Warrnambool on a pleasant Tuesday in July, I heard the distant murmur of a local radio station coming from one of the houses on the hill above me. I looked up from the blue/grey water and, among drop sheets and ladders, I noticed two painters at work on the veranda.
As luck would have it, they glanced down just as I hooked into a silvery bream of about 30cm. Unprompted, the words of Mark Knofler’s ‘Money for Nothing’ popped into my head:
“That ain’t working, that’s the way you do it, money for nothin’ and your (fish) for free.” “… Maybe get a blister on your (line) finger, maybe get a bream bite on your thumb.”
I felt slightly embarrassed to be fishing in the sunshine while the painters worked. There was no conflict however around my decision to head down the west coast for a winter day or two on the estuaries. That part was turning out nicely.
The Salty Options
When I’m thinking southern saltwater in winter, two species come to mind: Australian salmon and black bream. These fish are really practical, available targets on fly. For extra fun, estuary perch are in the mix in some locations, though except in the Hopkins, I never quite feel like I have them figured out. Same with silver trevally; wonderful fish but they’re mostly bonus bycatch when fishing for the first two. And then there’s mullet. I’d like to say I don’t target mullet deliberately… but when I cover a school of fish thinking they’re salmon and they turn out to be mullet, I must admit to putting in another cast or three. The larger mullet (by which I mean a foot or more) fight well, look good, and regularly take a ‘proper’ fly like a Gotcha, Clouser or BMS – even though they’re not supposed to eat big, lively food. Often enough, I’ve also seen but not caught sea mullet which get to 5 pounds and more. I can assure you I try my hardest to catch these if I come across them.
Flathead, snapper, barracouta, sweep, tailor… the list of occasional captures is surprisingly long for an area that’s apparently short of inshore fly species. But let me stay within the bounds of my capabilities and stick with bream and salmon.
Salmon are extroverts. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a salmon just sitting there or moving slowly. They’re a fish in a hurry, charging around, often in schools, looking to eat something. Tactically, they’re not normally fussy about flies – a white Clouser usually works, but so will many other baitfish-like patterns.
Two things do seem to help though: while salmon will hit a surface or shallow fly at times, fishing relatively deep is usually the best default option. And pull the fly fast – salmon often seem bored with a slow retrieve and peel off after a casual inspection.
The main challenge with winter salmon is simply finding them because they are highly migratory. In the relatively confined water of estuaries, this is reasonably easy – particularly when the estuary is open to the sea with a good push of water coming in and out with the tide. Just look for the excited splashes and swirls of feeding salmon, or search by covering lots of water with fast retrieves. If you’re not hit, move on. Salmon respond very well to a fly, so unlike with some species, you don’t need to waste time flogging one spot until you goad them into a strike.
I won’t lie, salmon in the ocean and larger bays and inlets are much harder to locate. Local fishing shop/ media intel is useful for knowing if salmon are in the general area, but for shore-based flyfishers, there’s an element of dumb luck in finding the schools. Best bet is first and last light, and somewhere you can access deep-ish water without taking risks. Breakwaters and rock edges in calm seas are one option; obvious channels in bays and inlets which you can reach from the shore are another. The upside of salmon in these environments, is they’re usually bigger than the estuary models.
Here’s a thought: if you’re new to winter saltwater fly down south and still building your confidence, start with salmon and then move on to bream. I still use that approach myself sometimes; get a few salmon on the board, then knuckle down to chase bream. I now enjoy my bream fishing to the point of obsession, but I acknowledge that more than most species – fresh or salt – they’re a fish of faith.
I’ve written before about the agonisingly slow growth rate of bream; one sure sign of a species that’s not a voracious feeder 24/7. They’re usually not very visible either, so the two things combined mean you often need to fish blind for bream, all the while knowing they may not move far for your fly. Bream retrieves should be quite slow too, meaning you simply can’t cover a lot of water quickly.
The best approach is to identify likely features: weed-bed and channel edges, rock bars, reefs, boulders, bulrushes, bridge pylons and snags are all good. I’ve caught bream at every point of the tide, but around the top of the tide is particularly auspicious because the currents slacken off – meaning you can fish your fly with more precision – and the bream seem particularly excited (by bream standards!).
Another good opportunity is towards the bottom of the outgoing tide fishing drop-offs where flats are draining into deeper water: bream often wait in ambush on these edges. And at any point of the tide, the moving interface between seawater and brackish estuary water (often marked by a sharp colour change and/or surface foam) is another bream hotspot.
If your estuary is blocked to the sea, the action is often harder to find, but I have had moments on flooded flats (especially when the water is a bit discoloured) and around the structure mentioned above.
A winter standard for me is a sink tip line, 4-6ft of 8-10lb leader, and either a Hammerhead or Bream Bugger (dumbbell-eyed Woolly Bugger on a heavy gauge hook). Fly colour is hard to be too prescriptive about: sometimes a colour change seems to get a result, other times it doesn’t seem to matter. If you’re looking for a starting point, black is a pretty safe bet, and maybe olive for clearer water. Red or black are good in dirty water, and bream are amazing at finding a fly even when viso is down to a foot or so.
Fish the fly as close to the bottom as you can, with a twitch-twitch-twitch… pause. Watch the line on the pause: often that’s when a bream will eat. And if you don’t want to spend 10 minutes after the take beating yourself up, remember to strip-strike, not trout-strike.
Within practical striking distance of Melbourne for a winter salt trip, both the nearer West Coast (say, from Warrnambool back) and nearer Gippsland coast (roughly Shallow Inlet back) are awash with opportunity. My favourites for the latter are the narrows of Shallow Inlet and the entrance to Andersons Inlet for salmon, with the Powlett River for bream and small salmon.
Heading west, try the Barwon River mouth for salmon, Thompsons Creek and Painkalac Creek for salmon and bream, the rocks from Skenes Creek to Marengo for salmon (calm seas only!); the Barham River for bream and salmon, the Aire River for bream and salmon, the Gellibrand River for bream, the Curdies for bream and salmon, and the Hopkins River for everything!
That list is just a start though and there are literally dozens of other options – including some estuaries you’d miss if you blinked.
Winter Trout Lake Options
I sometimes feel like the Pied Piper when I write about trout fishing lakes over winter, as if I’m luring perfectly happy flyfishers to their angling doom! I’ve come to accept that there are few areas of our sport where the gap between successful anglers and the unsuccessful, is so wide. When winter lake trout fishing in Victoria and the Snowy Mountains just over the border, the difference in success and failure can come down to the smallest decisions, tweaks in fishing skill, and above all, confidence.
First, it helps to choose winter lakes that give the average angler a fighting chance. Right now, my list would be lakes Fyans, Wartook and Bellfield in the Grampians; Wendouree, Tullaroop, Moorabool and Wombat in the central highlands; Lake Purrumbete in the south-west; and Eucumbene, Jindabyne and Tantangara in the Snowy Mountains. Yes, there are several others I’m tempted to add, but let’s keep it manageable; plus the lakes I’ve just listed are currently easy to access for shore fishing (although Tantangara access can be periodically shut off by snow) comfortable to fish, and hold good trout stocks.
I start most winter lake fishing sessions by actually looking for trout, rather than fishing blind. One thing that works in your favour in winter, is the less intense light and cold water both mean the trout are content to cruise in close.
Two important winter sight fishing tips before we go into detail: except for smelters, the movements of winter lake trout are usually subtle, so you really have to focus to spot them; a casual glance here and there won’t do it. And the ability to present a fly accurately and quickly – in any wind – is worth working on. Your opportunity ‘window’ when you spot a winter trout, usually lasts just a few seconds, and given you’ll average only a handful of these chances on a typical winter’s day, you’ll want to make the most of each of them.
Although Tassie-style wade polaroiding can work in winter, particularly at Purrumbete and Tantangara, a more effective technique is to spot from a high bank. This can produce at Fyans, Bellfield, Wartook, Tullaroop, Wombat, Eucumbene and Jindabyne. Good sunlight is handy, as is clear water – cloudy water due to wave action or run-off makes things harder.
Overall, my advice for winter polaroiding these lakes, is to attempt it if you have built up skill and confidence polaroiding elsewhere. Otherwise, give it a try, but don’t rely on it to make your day.
Tailers/ floodwater feeders
Trout often cruise the ultra-shallows when the water is flooding revegetated ground, as they hunt for a meal of flushed worms and other terrestrial titbits. In winter, the food reward, cold water, and less intense light all combine to draw the trout into water so shallow, they often give themselves away with subtle but distinct disturbances. Boils, mini bow-waves, things which look like rises but aren’t… even the occasional fin or tail tip popping out like tiny periscopes. Low light helps the activity, and calm water helps a lot with spotting.
The biggest saboteurs of this sort of fishing are exceptionally cold shallows (iced up), strong winds which ruffle the surface unevenly, and water rising too fast (the trout can feed safely on the flooded food well offshore and out of sight).
As a winter food source for trout, midges (chironomid) have several endearing qualities: they are very nutritious insects and therefore make appealing trout food despite their small size; they breed exponentially, and they are oblivious to cold. I recall one winter afternoon at Lake Eucumbene’s Frying Pan Arm when I had to wade thigh-deep to reach trout rising enthusiastically to midges. It was so bitterly cold, I was forced to retreat to dry land every few minutes to thaw out my lower body. I was reminded that although midge have anti-freeze in their blood, I don’t! It was an excruciating test of will: how many casts could I tolerate standing in the steel-grey water, before I retreated from the day’s prime opportunity?
Winter midge feeders are characterised by gentle rises (trout eating adult midge or midge balls off the top), or ‘tail wag’ porpoising as they take pupa just under the surface.
A simple rule is, the more activity you see, the more midge the trout can choose from – and the more precise your presentation needs to be. With moving lake trout like midge feeders (as opposed to drift-feeding river trout), you don’t merely require inch-perfect presentations; they also need also need to be second-perfect. I never said midge feeders were easy!
Trout chasing baitfish are another feature of winter. You could write a book about these simultaneously exciting and exasperating fish; come to think of it, I reckon I just about have! To keep it simple, winter smelters are easier if they’re chasing big baitfish (like adult galaxias or gudgeon) because they’ll try harder pursuing an individual target (and therefore a fly). It’s more challenging when the fish are after smaller juveniles or Australian smelt, because often the trout have a complicated strategy of busting up the school, then mopping up the injured. In this latter case, a slow ‘crippled’ retrieve often beats the instinctive fast strip.
Predicting when and if smelters will appear on any given lake is difficult, but except for Wombat, those listed above are all a chance.
I think my tendency to invest very heavily in spotting winter lake trout has merit, but it’s not perfect and no doubt some days, it lets me down. When conditions are wrong – rough water and/or bad light for example – spotting can be very inefficient if not impossible. That’s where confident blind fishing comes in. Look for water you feel should have fish. Like river trout, lake trout love a blend of cover (for security) and access to food. They’ll progressively tolerate less of the former for more of the latter – and vice versa. I always feel good about channels in otherwise shallow water, broken rocky edges, submerged timber, yabby beds (usually firm clay pocked with 10 cent holes), weed-beds (though not too thick or vast) and newly-flooded vegetation. Fish with a slow, steady retrieve and use flies and/ or lines that get down deep, though not fouling on the bottom. If in doubt, strike!
It’s perfectly okay to mix up blind searching with sight fishing; trying one for a while and if it doesn’t work, switching to the other. And when blind fishing, always have one eye out for a trout anyway.
Whichever approach you take, try to maintain confidence that you’ll have a genuine crack at a fish. I know this is chicken-and-egg stuff – it’s hard to remain confident without some positive reinforcement. All I know is, confident winter lake fishers catch trout, so use whatever mental tricks you can to achieve that state! (Further reading on blind fishing from one of the masters. https://flystream.com/blind-faith-part-one/ https://flystream.com/blind-faith-part-two/)
Of course being winter, the idyllic scene on the Hopkins at the start of this story can’t always be expected. It can get brutally bleak outdoors in winter. But here’s the thing: the fish themselves don’t seem to mind. On the highlight reels of my winter fishing life, I see freezing wind, hail, rain and even snow – all accompanying the capture of good trout, salmon and bream. I know that sounds like guide talk, but it’s true. These species really don’t feel the cold like we do, and they can feed with remarkable enthusiasm in conditions that look awful to us. One guide, who’s opinions I have enormous respect for, believes that bad weather in winter actually produces better fishing than bad weather in summer.
The winter fishing solution is simple: dress appropriately. We live in a blessed era for good outdoor clothing, with layers and breathable waterproof fabrics transforming angler comfort in conditions that would have trapped most of us indoors only a few decades ago. A couple of tips though: with outer layers at least, I’ve learnt that you really do get what you pay for. Invest in a decent waterproof jacket (downpour proof) with exterior connection points for instant access to things like nets and clippers. And good gloves – this is a massive challenge: nothing gets you off the water quicker than stinging fingers that won’t work; yet many supposed glove ‘solutions’ are too clumsy to allow the dexterity to fish properly. These Simms gloves are the only ones I’ve found that keep you warm AND allow practical fishing – there may be others that do the job, but I haven’t encountered them.
I’m writing this while snowflakes begin to replace the icy raindrops that have been falling outside my window all morning. I promised myself a lake fishing session this afternoon, but now, there’s a little voice saying, ‘What’s the rush? Wait for better weather later in the week.’ Then again, I’ve spent more time indoors lately than I think is healthy, and there’s at least an even chance that a few Hepburn Lagoon smelters will be up and about in these conditions. Hepburn is not a water I can broadly recommend at the moment, but I caught a nice brown there recently, and that plus a few other things have got me thinking. Time to cover myself in Gore-Tex and find out.