How to catch yellowbelly
I’VE only recently developed a love affair with yellowbelly. Growing up I was never exposed to fresh water fishing and the thought of heading five hours west and tying on a worm to catch a fish that fights like a wet gumboot was never appealing, especially when I was 10 minutes away from prime jewie grounds. Over time though I’ve come to appreciate our freshwater fish more and I’m at a point in my fishing life were targeting something new is exciting. I was invited to attend the Windamere Golden Classic five years ago; a well-run family event that’s welcoming and friendly yet highly competitive. It really opened my eyes to the wily nature of the humble golden perch.
I’d caught goldens before, trolling for bass at Glenbawn Dam, however I had never cast lures specifically targeting them so we were complete greenhorns in our first year. Luckily we did well and were asked to return. We strung together some poor results and it got to the stage where we needed to get a bit more serious. While we like to have fun and participate, we also like to compete well.
The beauty of yellowbelly is there’s a wealth of material on the internet and we watched every video we could get our hands on, and every article we could read. And while all that’s helpful, there’s nothing quite like experience – getting out there and learning as you go. The past few trips have been amazing. We are finding fish and catching them in numbers and there’s been a very specific pattern to our success more related to retrieves and lure selection.
Like all species, there are key triggers in getting fish to bite regularly and goldens are no exception. In our lean years we simply adopted lures and techniques we use in the brine, and while they worked to a degree, we didn’t quite set the world on fire. It wasn’t until we got a few key tips from some yellowbelly luminaries like Jamie Hardman, a bloke who’s had more wins on the tournament circuit than anyone else I know, did we understand some key differences in retrieves and presentation that finally unlocked some mind-blowing results.
When fishing impoundments, we had the basics right. We fished prominent points, weed bed edges and gentle drop-offs. We knew the mornings and afternoon bites were usually best, and in the middle of the day the fish retreated to deeper water. We knew vibrating lures were the flavour of the month. We used typical lift and drop retrieves which in hindsight was the beginning of our mistake.
What we’ve come to learn is the fish fire up best on a more aggressive and faster retrieve than the subtle lift and drop I employ for, say, jewies. The technique actually involves a crossover between a straight wind and what I call “tapping the slack”. Tapping slack line is more a barra retrieve that makes a hardbody dance erratically done by popping the rod tip with a touch of slack line just as you make tight contact with the lure. If repeated fast, the lure comes to life. I use this on jerk minnow plastics to mimic wounded fish when chasing jewies to good effect. For goldens, we’re tapping the slack line on a rod angled at 10 o’clock as we’re winding the lure back in at a decent pace. Every five or six turns of the handle we pause to allow the lure to sink back to the bottom, then repeat the process back to the boat. We have named this hybrid retrieve “the Hardman Shuffle” after its namesake.
For some reason, this faster retrieve fires the fish up. It’s counter-intuitive when you look at the fish ; they’re fat footballs that appear slow and lethargic. However when released, they show a clean pair of heels which indicate they can easily track down a fast-moving lure. Perhaps the secret with a speedier retrieve is they’ve got less time to suss out the lure and refuse it. One thing is for sure, at speed they woof the lure down deep and they don’t usually miss. Sometimes they hit the lure as its sinking back to the bottom on semi-taught line, represented as tick as they inhale, or they will hit it as your winding the reel and it’s a bone-jarring strike.
To test out the speed variable further, we’ve also been using a “churn-and-burn” retrieve. Cast out and let the lure sink to the bottom, then at full pace with the rod parallel to the water put five or six turns on the reel and stop, letting the lure sink back to the bottom, repeating the process back to the boat. This is also accounting for good fish and really fires them up. At this speed though, all hits come as you pause but they seem to be committed to the lure and we think its pace related.
The benefit of such fast retrieves is water coverage. We can cover far more water in a given day than we used to with slower more methodical retrieves. We’re still looking in the same haunts but 10 minutes in each spot will soon tell us if the fish we’re spotting on the sounder are fired up to bite.
What we’re finding is the fish are active in 10-17 ft of water in the early mornings and late afternoons and retreat to 20-25ft in the middle of the day. We are marking fish in much deeper water but we tend not to focus our attention on them. Our best success is weed bed edges, especially ones off prominent points. The weed usually ends in about 12ft and that zone out to 17ft is the prime areas to target with these fast retrieves. The fish will get in amongst the weeds and feed shallower, as most of what they eat is close to shore like yabbies and shrimp, but unless you can find a way to combat getting fouled up you won’t be able to target these fish effectively unless your using hardbods. I’ll touch on this later but it can be done.
There are always exceptions to the rule and the last variation we are working on is a painfully slow straight roll. This is the last ditch effort in trying to unlock shut down jaws. It’s contradictory to everything we’ve found to be productive and in the middle of the day when we see fish and they don’t bite, a slow roll can be deadly. I think the reason is the way the lure is moving. In all the retrieves discussed, the lures are working horizontal in the water where the lift and drop does not. Any retrieve we are using that has the lure working parallel to the bottom has worked well.
Much of our success has centred on using vibe lures. This isn’t anything ground breaking, everyone fishing for goldens these days is throwing them. However what we have found is different vibes are working at different times and it all has to do with acoustics. In my “Good Vibes” article in Fisho’s Summer Long edition, I briefly touched on how jewies get zoned into different intensities of vibrations that are derived from the different materials used in the construction of the lures. It seems goldens are partial to the same pattern.
Metal blades such as the popular Ecogear ZX & VX or Strike Pro’s Cyber & Astro Vibes transmit severe vibrations when retrieved. They call in fish from great distances and are perfect if the fish are in an active mood. They don’t take a great deal of force to vibrate and can be used in more subtle ways with slower and smaller flicks with the tip of the rod while you’re retrieving. If the fish are not actively feeding though, the intense vibration can make them shy away. The benefit of using blades though, is it allows you to quickly sum up a fish’s mood. If they’re hitting blades they’re on the job and they’ll probably hit most lures, or if they’re ignored you know they’ve got a case of lockjaw.
If they’ve got lockjaw, one step down on the vibration scale is polycarbonate vibes such as lipless crankbaits. Some of our most popular versions for goldens include the Jackall TN 50 and 60, Shads Lures Jew Candy and Atomic’s Hardz Vibe 60. These still vibrate well however the poly material transmits a more subdued vibration and at times gets the fish interested when the blades shuts them down. I find these lures work well as the blade bite tapers off or if schooled fish need to see or hear something different. A key attribute for these lures are internal rattles which adds another acoustic sound into the mix. On fast jigging retrieves it mitigates the vibration so the rattle is the predominant attractant. If these are ignored we do reach for silent versions, however at this point it’s probably best to step down again.
If poly lures are being ignored, the next option is soft bodied vibes such as Samaki Vibalicious in 70 mm and 100 mm, Jackall Transam’s and Mask Vibes or Storms’ SX-Soft Vib. Once again, these are another step down on the vibration scale. The soft body of these lures really mutes the intensity of the vibration and while they certainly don’t call in fish from big distances such as the metal blades, they do tempt shut down fish which can be a real advantage. Another advantage is repeat bites. If they miss the first time, which is pretty rare on fast retrieves, the natural feel in the mouth will entice them to hit again as long as they haven’t been pinned by the hook.
Of all lure types mentioned above, my favourites are the soft bodied vibes. Again, they don’t cast a wide net acoustically however this is mitigated by fast retrieves that cover tons of water. The other feature I love is the weight for the profile. Both Vibalicious 100mm & Transams weigh 20 g which allows me to make super-long casts, get to the bottom quickly and on a brisk retrieve keep low in the water column. The weight also makes them easier to use in windy conditions or for novices as keeping contact with the bottom while pausing in between the Hardman Shuffle is made more noticeable.
A few observations have surprised us. The first is, while employing the Hardman Shuffle you don’t really feel the lure vibrate. The twitching motion as your winding interferes with the lures natural action and while I still think some vibration is being transmitted it’s unconventional to fish with a lure that is supposed to vibrate and you can’t feel it. This is why I believe the soft vibes work best with this retrieve. Out of all three vibe types, the Vibalicious and Transam cut the most realistic fish profile with a fork tail. So the jury is still out whether it’s the profile they’re chasing, the vibration, or a combination of both – probably the latter.
The second observation is lure size. We used to fish with ZX35 and TN50 but the best bites have come when we have upgraded lure size. 100 mm vibes and larger seem to attract the best bite and goldens don’t have any issues getting it in their gobs. Even small goldens eat big lures.
The last observation is lure colour. As the saying goes, “once black never go back”. It seems black is the standout colour but really what we’ve found is anything dark works. Sometimes it’s dark green, sometimes purple and sometimes gold, but as an all-round performer on any given day or time of year you can’t go wrong with black.
Rigging and gear
I’ll start with rigging. Earlier I made mention of fishing shallower than 12 ft in the weed edges. It can be deadly and with a few tweaks you can prevent a lot of foul-ups. The trick is to get rid of treble hooks; they have no place in impoundments! You’ve really only got two choices, either rig your lures with assist hooks off the rear tow point, or run in-line singles off either both tow points or just the rear. The singles are my preference as the hook up rate is superior but they’re not quite as weed-resistant as the assists. It’s really personal preference with this. If you do get fouled with these rigs, an almighty rip of the rod will see the weed come free. Get ready too, that rip of the rod stirs up the fish and it’s not unusual to get a hit de-weeding your lure.
The other added benefit of changing out trebles to singles is a reduction in dropped fish. It killed us in the Golden Classic this year and we’ve learnt some valuable lessons in getting rid of them.
As far as gear goes, it’s fairly stock-standard stuff. Due to the heavy nature of the lures used I tend to prefer faster actioned rods that can carry the weight, load up well and have crisp recoil to fire off as long a cast as I can muster. My theory is the more water I cover, the more fish that see my lure. Usually the higher modulus rods exhibit these characteristics but these days we are spoilt for choice. I like a rod between 7’2” to 7’4” in the 2-5 kg range, again to maximise casting distance.
With the lighter poly vibes, which are roughly half the weight of the Vibalicious’ at 10 g a standard 2-4 kg rod with a fast action is sufficient. On the lighter metal vibes you can scale right back to 1-3 kg rods. You’ll still knock over a golden with this light stuff no problems as they’re not known for their exceptional fighting prowess.
Reels are a combination between 2000 to 2500 sized reels loaded with anything from 3 lb Power Pro Bite Motion to 8lb Bite Motion, clearly my preferred braid bar none. Leaders, keep it light, no need to get over-cautious. I’ve run 4lb without issues and on a shutdown bite it can make a difference. However on 20 g lures a miscast means a lost lure. I now run 6lb for my polys and 8lb for my soft vibes.
The last note is on scents. I still reckon S-Factor is hands down the best scent on the market. We can clearly tell when someone on the boat has forgotten to lather their lure due to fewer bites. I recommend you buy some. You can now purchase it separately and use it for fishing in both freshwater and in the brine.
The key to all this for us has been speed and size. Get the lures moving fast with periodic pauses using lures with good natural fish profiles in key areas where fish are feeding or holding. Fish fast and cover lots of spots and once a fish is caught, fish the area thoroughly, we have seen where we catch one they usually come in multiples. And don’t be afraid to vary it up until you've worked out a proven pattern.