Deep estuary tactics
IN numerous Australian rivers and estuaries there are locations famous for producing big fish. Often these places are deep, snaggy areas with strong current. In my local area, Jumpinpin Bar and the Gold Coast Seaway are both big fish producers. Nearly every system has a “hole” either just inside the mouth or a few kilometres upstream.
While big fish are a real possibility, the terrain and current in these areas can make fishing frustrating. This article is about dealing with the challenges of fishing deep-water holes.
Deep water types
There is an infinite variety of deep holes and gutters. Some are featureless mud bottom slots while others have structure to attract and hold fish. Most types fish best when bait is present.
Deeper holes offer cover due to water depth and reduced light. Those with steep edges and significant changes in depth interrupt the flow causing eddies and backwaters. Variation in bottom terrain such as hard reef, sand waves or snags also deflect current. Fish hold in low-pressure zones where the current is less, and these areas are often the best producers when the tide is running.
Some deeper areas like the ‘Pin’ Bar constantly change. Edges erode, snags are deposited during a flood or cyclone and sand moves in and out. Other are formed on permanent structure like hard reef or coffee rock and resist the forces at work.
In a large estuary, deep holes and gutters tick many boxes for anglers chasing both bread and butter species and trophy fish.
Deep holes invariably feature tidal flow. Bigger tides create stronger movement and the lull over a tide change will be brief. Neap tides can be slightly easier to deal with. It's amazing how bait can hold in an area even though there are several knots of run raging along.
The run makes fishing harder. The first few times you try to work in these conditions can be discouraging with snags, pulled anchors and cross winds making life difficult. Fishing the deep is not easy but learning to work with the tide is an important step toward success.
The best fishing often occurs when schools of bait are present. Bait can sometimes be seen rippling on the surface or as a dense mass on a sounder. There are a range of species that constitute food for other fish. Some “run” at a certain time while others are a year-round food source. Herring, mullet, pilchards, prawns, whitebait and similar will draw in hungry predators.
In general, fish will hug the bottom during high flow periods and roam around when the run slows. These fishing methods are designed to target fish in both strong current and during tide changes.
Anchoring in the run is not popular or easy, however, it is a productive way to target big fish holding on a feature. The first challenge is to identify the area holding fish. In some cases, a reef or snag will be the target and can be marked on the GPS. Some anglers focus on an area known to attract cruising predators. Look for where side channels enter a hole or the drop off just over the leading (up-current) lip.
A heavy sand anchor, extended length of thick chain and a strong rope are necessary to hold in several knots of current. If the bottom is rock, a weighted “reef pick” is used. The anchor is dropped upstream of the target area and by letting out rope, the boat is situated slightly up current of the feature. Be prepared to repeat the process until you are positioned correctly.
The “Pipeline”, a popular and productive fishing spot that crosses the Seaway, bares testament to how hard this task can be. Underwater footage shows the structure covered in lures, line and anchors. Most of this was lost by people trying to anchor near or drift over this feature
Once in position, the angler uses heavy sinkers to position baits close to the target structure. Select an outfit able to handle leads up to 500 g or more. A live bait or fresh strip of squid or fillet is pinned onto a long leader. Yellowtail are often used because they are tough but herring, pike, mullet and slimys work well too. Squid strips are good cut bait options.
The sinker is lowered to the bottom, raised slightly and the rod is left in strike in a holder. Rod holders must be strong and models that hold the rod nearly parallel to the water are ideal. The bait fish should be hooked in the nose, so it is “towed” head first into the current. That way it stays alive for much longer. Rigs should be checked frequently to ensure the bait is kicking.
This method is great in calm conditions but becomes frustrating when a strong cross wind causes the boat to yaw. If this is the case the next method may be a better option.
Drifting live baits is ideal when the target species are dispersed, bait schools are scattered throughout the hole or the run is slowing. The drift is started upstream of the deep zone. A bait is lowered to the bottom using enough lead to hold it down there. The boat drifts with the run and the skipper tries to match the current speed so lines remain vertical. Each angler constantly adjusts line length to keep the bait and sinker just clear of the bottom or snags are likely. Once the boat drifts out of the hole, the process is repeated. This method is tough on live baits which need replacing regularly.
To determine the best drift line, sound the feature by driving back and forth in a “S” pattern, marking the deepest water on the GPS. Then either drift along the line of way points or use them as a reference for other drifts.
Drifting features such as wrecks, log piles or reef in a strong run is going to cause snags and be costly in tackle. Specific targets are much easier to work from anchor or during the tide change.
Many anglers prefer to use lures such as soft plastics, micro jigs and vibes. These are yo-yoed just above the bottom (drift jig). Lure weight is important with stronger runs in deeper water requiring lures up to 28gm or more. Again, the angler must constantly adjust the line to ensure the lure is near the bottom. The lure should tap the bottom regularly.Watching a sounder helps to predict depth changes.
An electric motor will assist to position a boat, so the drift follows the selected route. It offsets the effect of any head or crosswinds. Anglers without electrics can use the main motor to stay on line.
Trolling holes using deep diving lures is more popular in northern waters but can work well for jew and other species further south. Lures capable of diving to near the bottom are ideal. Rock bars and specific snags are perfect targets. Trolling into the current keeps the lure in the strike zone for longer and is easier to control. Alternately, anglers can troll lures in the surface layers to target species such as tailor, salmon, kings and small tuna. Metals, minnows and flies are good options.
In very deep water, trolling a lure or live bait off a down rigger can work well although this means only one outfit is in play.
Along the coast of Australia, the deeper parts of estuaries and rivers attract a wide range of fish species.
Tailor and Salmon are mobile predators often found in these areas. They show up well on a sounder and will bite freely when baitfish are about. Flocks of fluttering birds and small splashes indicates they are feeding in the surface layers. They prey on schools of whitebait, pilchards and other small baitfish.
Both species hunt in schools and move constantly. Trolling for them using shallow running minnows or metals is effective. Where a school is found feeding, anglers can cast to the "bust ups" using metal lures. A medium speed retrieve works well. Where fish are down near the bottom micro jigging with 20-40 g metals works well.
Tailor and salmon will also take a pilchard or white bait on a matched gang of hooks either trolled at a dead slow pace or drifted through the area.
Tailor make excellent live or cut baits for larger prey.
Traditional bream angling involved anchoring on the edge of a hole and using bait to attract schooling fish. You can still see dozens of boats using this technique today. Baits include yabbies, prawns and cut flesh such as mullet.
Lure anglers can employ either soft plastics or blades and drift jig the deeper areas. It takes practice to get this right but those who master this technique can achieve excellent catches when bream or northern species such as fingermark and grunter are holding in a hole.
There always a few flatties around when baitfish are plentiful. In spring, big concentrations of large female flatties escorted by smaller males take up station in deep waters to spawn. In some years, new and full moon phases featuring spring tides can deliver some great fishing.
Flatties will snap at both lures and baits and large numbers of big fish can be taken when they school up. Lure choices include soft plastic grubs, prawns and fish style tails. Larger jig hooks in 5/0 – 7/0 are used. Baits include live fish and pilchards on a gang. The key to this style is to get the bait or lure on the bottom and imparting movement to entice a strike.
In northern waters, snapper are not usually abundant in estuaries. However, after bad weather, some will come into the lower estuary looking for an easy meal. After every blow a few lucky anglers take some quality fish using fresh bait or soft plastics.
The habits of snapper change as you travel south. In southern NSW and Victoria, anglers regularly tangle with large snapper using the techniques described above. These fish are feeding on shellfish, squid and baitfish.
In south east Queensland kingfish take up residence in the deeper holes and adjacent waters in the cooler months. Anglers suddenly experiencing a monumental wipe out can often blame a hoodlum. Kings actively patrol these areas, but anglers seeking these fish should work near a channel marker or similar structure with live bait or soft plastic lures such as large stick baits.
In southern areas, the best method is to catch some live squid and either troll or drift them down near structure. Kingfish will take stick-baits and poppers worked near baitfish concentrations.
The jewie, and its northern cousin the black jew, is a prize on everyone’s list and the deep holes are a very good area to catch them. In my home patch dozens of jewfish up to a 1.2 m are taken on baits and lures every year. Tide changes are popular times to fish for them, but plenty are taken during the run.
In some areas there are probably resident jewfish that live in nearby structure. There are also transiting fish that drop in to rest or feed.
While many jew are taken on lures, the live bait angler will often out fish everyone else. Pike, small tailor and herring are good baits. I have also taken jew on slimies and yakkas (yellowtail). Live or fresh squid is also an excellent bait.
Other species you may find in the deep water include threadfin and occasionally blue salmon, cod (estuary and Qld) gummy sharks and barramundi. In bigger estuaries, off shore species such as cobia, long tail tuna, school and Spanish mackerel have been caught.
The deep can be a testing area to fish. Snags can demoralise even the keenest angler. A “tackle-back” on a long length of heavy mono can get a few lures back, but bait rigs are very hard to unsnag. Use a short length of dowel with a racing bike inner tube slid over the top to wrap and break braid line off.
Current against sea can create choppy conditions which can swamp smaller boats. It is illegal to anchor in a shipping channel, and anglers need to move quickly when larger vessels come along.
Bream, tailor and other pests can reduce a tank of live baits in short order. Taking lures is a good back up. In warmer months bull sharks take a hefty tax on jew. It's very annoying to finally hook a good fish only to have a shark eat it and steal your rig.
Many deep holes in our estuaries are famous for producing trophies. These predators prey on the schools of smaller fish that pass through this zone. Learning to work with current, cross winds and other elements can pay off over the long term. Those who go to the trouble of sourcing live baits or persevering with lures will feel a well-earned sense of achievement when they land a big one. That is the lure of the deep.