Estuary luring basics

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bream on soft plastic

THE soft plastic revolution of recent years is largely regarded as something of a watershed in modern angling history. Seemingly no fish was safe from these innovative “new” lures and there’s no doubt that the fishing media fanned the flames of excitement.

What was not so freely reported was that many anglers tried hard with soft plastics but simply failed to convert the hype into results. For them, the “revolution” was a bit of a fizzer. The point here is that sometimes it doesn’t matter if the lure, bait, rod or reel you’re using is the best of the best. If you haven’t a clue about the technique needed to use the gear or lure, then you’re screwed.

The inspiration for this article came from a few days I spent fishing with a trio of professional fishing guides who operate in the areas I regularly fish on the NSW South Coast. The three guides are Capt. Kevin Gleed from Wilderness Fishing Adventures, Stuie Hindson from Aussie Fish Estuary Adventures and Greg Reid from Bay and Basin Sportfishing. All three specialise in estuary fishing but Bay and Basin also operates in the open waters of Jervis Bay. Like all good guides, these blokes are very experienced anglers across a wide range of fishing disciplines. In my book, these guys know what they’re talking about. Over the course of the days I fished with them, I took notes on the advice they provided to the anglers they were guiding.

On each occasion the guide had to spend some time explaining to the clients (don’t worry, I was doing plenty of listening too) on how to use their outfits properly in order to have a chance at catching fish. This involved explaining how the lure, tackle and environment all contribute to the plan on how to catch the fish. Surprisingly, much of it wasn’t necessarily about a specific lure retrieve but more about managing the overall techniques required. Perhaps not so surprising was how a well-briefed client can put into practice what they’ve just been taught or shown and start getting results.

Lots of aspects of fishing have changed in the past few decades but none as much as lure fishing. When I first started fishing, lure casting most commonly (but not always) involved simply casting a lure out and then cranking it back in. The speed of retrieve was really the only thing that varied. Back then there was no such thing as “finesse”, “burn and kill”, “draw and drop”, “dead sticking”, “controlled slack” or any of the other facets that make up modern lure fishing. In fact, for most modern lure fishing scenarios, the old straight crank retrieve would be the most unlikely retrieve you would/should use. Yet habit, instinct or naivety force most of us into this as our standard retrieve.

So how does “Average Joe” get a handle on mastering modern lure fishing? Starting with the reels and rods, most modern lure fishing techniques are going to be more suited to threadline reels than baitcasters. While this may not be the case everywhere, it certainly applies to much of the estuary and inland fishing for which these techniques apply. Rods are usually longer and finer compared to the shorter, stouter models popular a couple of decades ago. The extra length and fine construction directly translates into an ability to cast light lures reasonable distances while still allowing for accuracy. Long and accurate casts are two key ingredients of modern lure fishing.

Jerkbait Smith Cherry Blood

On the water, the first lesson taught by the guides was how to use the equipment efficiently. The importance of good basic skills can’t be underestimated. All three guides favour threadline reels for their clients. Interestingly, each of the guides would watch to see how the novice handled the casting side of things before offering any advice. If their casting was sufficient for the task at hand then they were left alone. If a change of technique or location warranted it, then a short casting lesson was provided as well as a detailed explanation of what was needed. Whether the lesson/tip involved getting greater distance, accuracy, or both, the message was simple. If you have the most effective lure that money can buy and you can twitch with the best of them, it’s all worthless if you can’t put it where it needs to be. A bad lure in a good spot is better than a good lure in a bad spot.

As important as casting was, I noted that each guide consistently took the time to explain to each client the importance of line management. One of the inherent issues with finesse fishing (more on that later) is that the line is often wound onto the reel under very little tension. This can cause loose loops, which create tangles. It happens to everyone but more regularly with novices. Each guide had a slightly different way of managing it but it essentially involved ensuring the first few wraps of line go onto the spool under reasonable tension. Sometimes this involves pinching the line between the thumb and index finger of your rod hand while you make those first few winds or fully extending the middle finger of your rod hand so that the line brushes against as it is wound on, creating just enough resistance to ensure no loose loops. This seemingly simple tip will reduce the amount of time you spend untangling lines, which increases the amount of time your lure spends in the water. This, in turn, increases your chance of catching a fish.

oyster pontoon

With these guides, and most of the other good ones I’ve fished with, the quality of the rods and reels (as important as it is) is not considered as vital as the quality of lines, leaders, lures and terminals. This interesting observation highlights the importance of paying attention to the finer details. Small things really can make really big differences. Let’s have a look at some of these finer details.

These days braided line is virtually a given for all modern lure fishing and the guides featured in this article use it exclusively. The reasons why you’d use braid over mono are many and varied and quite well documented so I’m not to going to go over it all again. However, some of the more subtle benefits of braid may become clearer as I explain some other aspects of modern lure fishing, particularly what is described as “finesse” fishing. It’s worth noting that modern lure fishing benefits from using the lightest line possible. Two or three kilo braid would be the standard estuary or southern freshwater choice these days.

Choosing the right leader is as important as choosing your line. All the guides were more inclined to go with relatively short leaders of 1-1.5m. This reduces the stress on the leader knot during casting. In really clear water with especially tricky fish, long, light leaders may be the go. In fact, many anglers in bream comps will have a dedicated outfit spooled with one kilo monofilament for just such occasions. The preferred leader knot for each guide varied between the Albright, the Double Uni Knot and the Slim Beauty – all of which are good knots.

When it comes to leader strengths, choosing a leader that suits the environment and species you’re chasing is what it is all about, the guides said. Bream in open water may require a light 2kg leader. Around the oyster leases or snags, the same leader would be suicide. As heavy as 6-8kg may be more appropriate. There are two schools of thought when it comes to choosing a leader. One is to start heavy and go light if the situation demands it; the other is to start off light and upgrade if required. For what it’s worth, the average leader breaking strain and length used by these guides in southern estuary scenarios is three to four kilo and 1.2-1.4m.

“What about fluorocarbon leaders?” I hear you ask. Fluorocarbon leaders have some specific properties that make them unique. Firstly, fluorocarbon has a much harder outer casing than mono, which makes it more resistant to abrasion. However, that outer casing can also make fluorocarbon a bit harder to tie knots in. You need to choose the correct knot and ensure you pull it tight slowly and gently and with lots of saliva or other lubricant otherwise the outer coating gets damaged and undermines the strength of the knot. Fluorocarbon is also physically heavier than mono, which means it sinks faster. This can both be good and bad, depending on the situation. You just need to know about it and factor it in to your rigging. Finally, fluorocarbon is reported to have the same refractive index as water. Scientifically, this infers that it becomes “invisible” underwater. This highly debatable statement needs to be considered in a variety of contexts. The facts are that top quality 100 per cent fluorocarbon is close to, but not exactly the same, as the refractive index of water.  Invisible is very different to less visible. Also, the human eye is very different to that of a fish. The fact that we can’t see something does not make it “invisible”. So far, no one I’ve heard of has learnt to speak to fish so we haven’t been able to interview any of them to actually determine whether they can or can’t see fluorocarbon leaders. Finally, not all fluorocarbon lines are the same. Our guides all had different favourites but it’s fair to say that good quality fluorocarbon is not cheap. The cheap stuff is cheap for a reason. Is it worth it? The guides featured in this story, as well as myself, all use high quality (and thus expensive) fluorocarbon leaders.

Finesse fishing
What is “finesse” fishing? The word “finesse”, by definition, means extreme delicacy in executing a skill. This means that “finesse fishing” is not about the mechanical action of casting and cranking. The skill is in being able to impart very subtle action and presentation into the lure. The range of subtle actions may include light twitches, sinking/swimming, gentle wafting, suspended pause or even laying on the bottom. The main difference with all these presentations is that they often don’t involve the angler being in direct contact with the lure. In fact, the lure is usually doing its best work when the line is slack or under minimal tension. This is both the key to success in finesse fishing but also the cause of most people’s problems with it. If you can understand that, regardless of the type of lure you use, the vast majority of strikes will come while the lure is either sinking (swimming down) under its own weight, floating upwards under its built-in buoyancy, suspending mid water or just sitting
motionless on the bottom, then finesse success will start to come easily. Braided line offers both the ability to impart these subtle actions and detect the most subtle of bites due to its stretch-free properties.

Be a slacker
Slack line presentations are easier said than done. Kevin Gleed uses a good description to explain what he wants clients to use and that is “controlled slack”. What he means is being able to afford the correct amount of slack (not necessarily loose) line to allow the lure to do what you intend it to do while still feeling an inquiry from a fish. The notion of controlled slack means that to notice bites you will need to actively combine the senses of both feel and sight so that you’re more aware of what’s going on. If your line is too slack, your lure may still work well but you may not sense the bites. If your line is too taut, your lure may not be doing what it is supposed to and therefore may not get bitten.

This requires a bit of a mind shift for novice anglers. We’re used to using the reel to retrieve the lure and therefore feeling a strike when it happens as the forward movement of the lure is halted. With finesse presentations, the movement of the rod imparts the movement/action to the lure. The reel simply recovers sufficient line to maintain that “controlled slack”. Finesse presentations are often very slow and cover relatively short distances. A 20m cast may take two or three minutes to retrieve. Most newcomers will have to really try and get themselves to slow right down. It’s almost impossible to go too slow. As mentioned earlier, lures that are just slowly sinking, suspending or even sitting on the bottom are legitimate and effective presentations in finesse fishing.

One of the most important aspects of finesse fishing is the lack of direct contact when you get a strike. For this reason, when you see or feel any subtle flicks, ticks or twitches in your line, you must be prepared to react immediately. In many cases you won’t actually feel anything. The only indication of a fish is what you see happen to the line. When you react you should also get into the habit of cranking the reel to set the hook rather than jerking the rod. The reason for this is because finesse fishing often involves a belly of line between you and the lure. It’s much more efficient to crank the line tight by winding than simply pulling the rod.

A great tip when finesse fishing is to hold your rod on the same angle as the line entering the water. This allows you to impart a more precise action into your lure, be more likely to feel any subtle takes and to set the hook more directly.

Another small but important thing to consider is to ensure your lures have good quality, ultra sharp hooks. When a fish strikes your finesse presentation and you don’t have direct tension on the hook point, the only thing that helps hold those hooks in place until you react is the “sticky” sharp points of a good quality chemically sharpened hook. Most quality lures used in finesse presentations these days come with top quality chemically sharpened hooks but it pays to carry spares.

bream on surface lure with assist hooks

Which lure?
Before fishing, you need to understand the design features and capabilities of the different lures you use. For example, floating or intermediate hard-bodied lures can be great around oyster leases, snags, shallow rock bars and so on. All these locations are close to the surface and can be very precisely worked over with a hard-body. When fishing deeper water, significantly fluctuating depths or vertical structure, then lures like blades and soft plastics come into their own. Breaking it down even further, soft plastics allow you to fish a very wide range of the water column, from extremely shallow to right on the bottom. They can also be fished extremely slowly in all these environments, which can be an important key when fishing for touchy or finicky fish. Blades, on the other hand, are an excellent all-round prospecting lure. They tend to be worked faster than plastics and allow you to cover more water, again throughout the entire water column, until you locate fish. You should understand what your lure
can do before you tie it on.

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