Estuary myths

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Want to catch fish like this in estuaries? Read this article!

CATCHING fish in creeks, rivers and estuaries is a business shrouded in folklore, mystery, dogma and fairy tales! There’s always an expert somewhere giving you advice, social media is full of 12-year-old arm chair experts and rabid greenies ready to attack you for catching a big fish. Getting accurate advice can be difficult. The following article is about some of the myths of fishing I’ve learnt over a long period of time, and how to catch fish when conditions are not in your favour. Patience, persistence and using lessons gained from previous fishing trips are the keys to "myth busting" your fishing.

You will often hear that you can’t catch much when the estuary you fish in is full of jet skis and heavy boat traffic. While this is true in part, the reality is that a fish at some time of the day generally has to eat. While boat chop and the incessant screaming of jet skis and outboard engines does have an effect on feeding fish, if you work out your game plan there are a few situations where boat traffic can actually be to your advantage, particularly on a falling tide. A lot of fish feed on shallow edges chasing mullet, prawns and smaller baitfish. In this situation boat wash rolling onto the flats disturbs the bait and causes them to move into slightly deeper water as the boat wash rolls and breaks on the edges. It also creates mud lines that provide good ambush cover for predators. The waves and wash make it harder for most baitfish and shrimp to hide and can give predators a distinct advantage. Looking for banks where the wash rolls onto is a great strategy, and casting shallow running minnows and plastics to the edges when boat traffic is heavy is often a very productive strategy for flathead, barra, bream and whiting when using surface lures. This works well in some of the most crowded estuaries close to big population centres.

The second good strategy when the boat traffic is heavy is to move to deeper water. A lot of fish, particularly mulloway, won’t move around much when boat traffic noise is high, and they tend to hold close to the bottom in the deepest sections of the estuary. When you are looking for fish in these conditions fish your soft plastic or vibe right on the bottom with small twitches and lifts and if you see good fish on the sounder stay in the area and persist, regardless of the boating chaos around you. Eventually the fish you find will bite. A lot of fish species in busy estuaries become habitualised to boat noise as it is a constant part of their environment, and you can catch plenty of fish despite the traffic. Sydney Harbour is a good example of this.

It's a myth that flathead can'ty be caught in strong winds.

The next common myth is that you won’t catch many fish in strong winds. In some places anglers hate southerlies or westerlies, in south east Queensland the worst type of wind to fish in is a strong dry north westerly. In truth, these winds can and do have a profound effect on your catches, but the secret to catching fish in totally unfavourable winds is to get out there and learn how to fish in these conditions. I’ve learnt how to catch plenty of flathead in horrible north westerlies by being persistent and looking for spots on lee shores and finding draining channels unaffected by wind. In my area the biggest problems in north westerlies is that within a few hours of the blow commencing, the water turns a horrible dull dirty brown and is often full of floating weed. After a while you learn that this sort of water isn’t worth fishing, so you have to adapt to the conditions. I look for pockets of good water as the tide falls, and the cleaner water of the run in tide as it pours over the flats. Most of the better spots in a strong north westerly tend to be quite close to the seaward entrances. Trolling a deeper contour using lures that run from 4 to 6 metres is another useful strategy as the deeper sections tend to be less wind effected. It is also important to remember that after floods or heavy rain the fresh water runoff tends to float on top of the saltwater and the deeper sections have a much higher salinity content in the deeper holes and channels. Catching mud crabs after heavy rain is a good example of this. The crabs all move to the deeper saltier sections of a river and can be caught in big numbers by working your crab pots in the deep holes at the entrances of shallow rivers.

Regardless of what estuary you are fishing in, over time you will work out a pattern that often repeats itself in times of strong winds. When you do find a good patch of fish in unfavourable wind conditions, it's often a really valuable lesson, as the same spot will often produce fish the next time wind conditions are totally unfavourable. Most anglers can catch plenty of fish when conditions are perfect, but the little pots of gold you find by fishing terrible conditions can serve you well in the future. This is why local anglers tend to do well in tournaments in poor conditions. The more you fish your local river, the more you learn about it.

The lure strategy required for dirty water can be summed up as “bright, noisy and smelly”.

One other myth of the estuaries is that it's impossible to catch fish in dirty water using lures. Rain events, flood conditions and dam releases can all turn to water into a milk coffee coloured river. For fish that hunt by sight the visibility is greatly reduced. In these conditions lure fishing can be extremely tough, but if you adopt a strategic approach it is still possible to catch plenty of fish using lures. The filthy water that runs up the Northern Territory Rivers on big spring tides is a good case in point. Barramundi and mullet use this tidal bore as a free ride up the river, and a lot of the biggest barra are caught in these conditions using trolled lures. Sometimes this water has an underwater visibility of only a few centimetres, yet the barra are able to find and slam the lures despite the filthy brown water. When fishing dirty ware using lures a few principles apply. The first is that you have to make your lure as visible to the fish as possible. Use bright fluorescent colours and lures will luminous pigments. If you have access to a UV light, have a look at your favourite lures under it. You’ll be surprised how different lures glow and light up under a UV light. One great lure to use in filthy water is the Bomber long A minnow. It glows under the UV light and has one of the brightest eyes of any lure. Secondly, you have to let the fish know the lure is there by sound. Rattles in lures work well in dirty water and hard rattling vibes like the Rattling Spot or the Strike King Red Eye Shad are very effective lures in dirty water. Scent is also important in dirty water, and Gulp soft bodied lures or the addition of applies scents is also very useful when the water is dirty. Overall, the lure strategy required for dirty water can be summed up as “bright, noisy and smelly”!

The key to success is to be adaptive and positive.

Another common myth is that the bigger the lure you use, the bigger the fish you will catch. Some of my biggest flathead and mulloway have been caught on quite small lures. It's more about matching the common baitfish that are around at the time, and small lures tend to be eaten by fish with less close inspection than larger lures. In certain situations where tailor, mullet and whiting are the commonest baitfish big lures play a major part in the lure fisho’s arsenal, but it is important not to be dismissive of smaller lures. Small lures generally appeal to a wider range of fish, get more bites and generally have a better hook-up rate. When using smaller lures to target larger fish there are a few modifications to make that may increase your success. Use bright colours such as chartreuse, yellow or pink so the fish can see the lure from a greater distance, and use singles instead of trebles to give a stronger more secure hook set. I like to use 1/8 ounce blades for flathead, and over the years the bright yellow small TT blades have caught me plenty of really big flathead over 80cm long. These very bright strong action lures appeal to big fish. Similarly, the Lively Lure’s famous Micro Mullet is a small lure that is responsible for the capture of plenty of flathead over 90cm long. The biggest flathead caught from my boat, a 99.5cm monster caught by Kelvin Williams, ate a diminutive pink and silver Micro Mullet.

The next myth of estuary fishing is “you can’t catch much today because the tides are all wrong”. While tides play a major part in all types of fishing, from blue marlin fishing wide of the continental shelf through to barra fishing in a remote river, it is important to be adaptive. Guided fishing operations have to fish as many days as possible in order to make a living, and good operators soon learn strategies to fish all tidal situations. Most of us tend to fish on our one or two days off, and with tides being entirely predictable, the game plans we make earlier in the week are often totally based on the prevailing tides. A “bad tide” is only a relative concept. The bigger the tidal variation there is in a system, the more difference tides make. Big spring tides in more northern areas can be quite tricky to fish as they often coincide with dirty water as the run in tide pushes over coastal mud flats. Despite this, big tides do offer a number of strategic advantages. Faster flow creates plenty of back eddies, and these areas are used by feeding fish as holding areas where they can sit in relatively slow moving water and feed by using the back eddy as an ambush point. Similarly, big tides push up into feeder creeks and drains and often “hold up” the flow coming out of these creeks. I’ve caught some of my best barramundi by working run off creeks in periods of big tides, particularly if there is tannin coloured water flowing out of the creek.

Very small tidal variations can be tricky to fish as there is little water movement. The “no run, no fun” rule has a bit of truth to it. On small tides the key to success is finding where the bait is. The other advantage of small tides is that the water clarity is generally quite good, meaning fish can see your lure from a greater distance. It is commonly a situation where small lures work well, and a finesse approach is required to get the best results. On smaller tides there is often a fair bit of searching to be done, and when targeting fish like flathead trolling can be a very effective method as it lets you cover a lot more water which helps find active feeding fish that may be scattered over a wide area. In actual practice, there is no such thing as a “bad tide”. There are just those tides that you have to learn to adapt to.

Throughout the country anglers who fail to catch fish need excuses and there is very much a “blame culture” when it comes to fishless trips. Dirty water, bad tides, bad winds, too many boats, global warming and all sorts of other things become the reasons no fish were caught. The key to success is to be adaptive and positive and realise that every fishing trip is an opportunity to learn more and to fish better the next time you go out.

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