ESTUARY BAIT FISHING
The adage that “bait is great” certainly proves true if you’re keen on chasing a trophy-sized bream. Our resident estuary expert KEVIN SAVVAS the best baits for big bream.
OVER recent months I’ve spent a great deal of time reigniting my passion for grass roots bait fishing. Primarily this has been in the pursuit of mulloway while trying to pen an article for this mag. Bravely I put my hand up to write the article (published in the July issue). This forced my hand to using bait again, which I hadn’t used in well over six years. With a short deadline the challenge to get back up to speed with this form of fishing was well in front of me. I'd be lying if I said I wasn’t a little worried that I could no longer cut the mustard with bait techniques. My old man kept repeating the analogy about riding a bike; once you learn you never really forget. I hoped he was right. While I had my livies deployed waiting for my prized jew, I always had a speculator rig with bream bait out the side to help with the long bouts of anticipation staring at rod tips. The great thing about this process was it retaught me many old techniques and rigs to catch bream. I honestly forgot how exciting it was to get a tap-tap-tap up your line leading to a rampaging kilo-plus bream. On light gear I still maintain they are one of the best fighting sportfish around. This latest experience only reinforced my beliefs why the bream-on-lures movement has been so thoroughly accepted in mainstream fishing in Australia. They tick the right boxes. Bream are widespread, are in plentiful supply, are great to eat and, most importantly, are a wily adversary – even on bait. With such a long list of attributes, I can see why they are the favoured target of so many fishos around the country.
While bream are abundant, the big ones often evade inexperienced anglers. By the time they reach a kilo, a 20-year-old-fish has run the gauntlet of countless nets, hooks and lures. If you’re going to catch one of these smart suckers you need to be doing something different to the next guy. They say the definition of madness is doing the same thing time after time but expecting a different result. There is some truth in that statement, especially in reference to catching bream. New ideas and techniques usually are superior to run-of-the-mill techniques as bream can “wise up” in hard-fished waters. So here are a few hints from left-field to unlock the jaws of some thumper bream in your backyard.
Before I can point you in the right direction with techniques and presentations, you need to know where to look. If I was looking to consistently catch sizable bream on bait I’d be checking out a few different areas. My first preference would be to target deep holes, especially ones that have a hard or reef bottom. Foraging fish like bream use structure like this to feed and station themselves out of the main current. Deep trenches often give big wily bream an impression of security. They can often be caught more readily in these locations than in shallower terrain as they are less inhibited.
The next identifier would be access to good cover. Big bream can be caught in surprisingly shallow water if there’s access to cover. This could come in the form of submerged timber, weed beds, bridge pylons, moored boats, oyster racks or pontoons. Cover is not always imperative as bream are caught over shallow flats regularly on lures. However we are talking about using bait here and I wouldn’t anchor over a shallow flat with bait expecting fish to find me. Position yourself near where bream could be holding and entice them to come out of their hiding place – more on that later.
The last piece of advice I can give is to understand the characteristics of the species. Yellowfin bream, which are my local species, are highly migratory and traverse their local system at least twice a year. Bream spawn in the lower reaches of estuaries and even around headlands and adjacent beaches during the cooler months. This means that fish well up river need to cover large distances to reach spawning grounds. After they finish their cycle they need to head back up to their warm water grounds to feed. Knowing these migratory routes is a massive advantage. My advice is to study your local system and work out where the primary channels are. Along these channels will be holes or reefs scoured out by current. If you can find these locations, which shouldn’t pose too big an issue, especially with today’s sophisticated electronics, big bream will not be hard to find. The bonus here is that jewies frequent the same type of structure, so having a speculator rig with live bait over the side will eventually pay healthy dividends.
This is where you can become quite imaginative. Successful baits sometimes border on the ridiculous so be prepared to be adventurous. My absolute favourite is chicken breast marinated in oyster sauce and soy. While this sounds more like human food, the smell of the sauce creates a good berley slick that entices bream to feed. For more effect add some Parmesan cheese to the mix and, presto, you have a bait that if unsuccessful while fishing can be consumed at home by the family!
Some of the more weird culinary exploits I have heard of but not personally used as bream bait include haloumi cheese, corn kernels and marinated steak. I have used chicken gut as bait. This is pretty widely used, especially by canny old timers. I tend to use this in discoloured water when bream are using smell to feed as it pongs hard.
While all this may sound a bit weird, tried and proven baits should also be employed concurrently to see what the bream are feeding on. I refuse to thread on a dead prawn of any description or a pilchard that has been frozen as I tend to live by the philosophy that the only bait I should use for bream is bait I can source myself from the local area. As I fish predominantly in the Hawkesbury River this usually means live nippers, crabs, green nippers or strips of fresh fish.
It astounds me to this day why crabs are not more widely used as estuary bait. I believe they are the best big bream bait on the eastern seaboard. The drama is that only big bream will eat them, which means it is quite selective bait. If no big fish are in the area your bait may go untouched. For a novice, crabs may thus be perceived as a second rate offering and discarded for something a little more popular.
I fish crab baits either unweighted close to shore, very similar to using lures, and let the crab sink on slack line or I will employ the standard running sinker rig with about half a metre of trace. When you’re rigging up your bait keep the crab alive by placing the hook through the side of the carapace between the legs and out through the centre of the underside shell.
Fish strips are often overlooked as bait by anglers targeting bream, however not all types of fish work. While the standard baitfish often employed is yakkas, slimies and tailor, I think the better options are herring, silver biddies and mullet. The key denominator here is fish that have scales. While I am yet to understand why, as yakkas and slimies have higher blood content to their flesh and should act as a solid berley trail, scaly fish seem to fire better on big bream. It might be that scales are an attractant as I often leave scales and flesh on when filleting up the bait. Herring especially descale easily when they are handled and produce a good glittery trail on the hook.
While live nippers are gun baits, in either the pink or green variety, they can be eaten by any species in the vicinity. This can be a pain as in my local this means pesky catfish and undersize bream.
No Berley, No Bream
Quite often, even once the right spot has been chosen and the correct bait is tied on, you will experience a fishless trip. It happens to all of us but the use of a good berley will certainly tilt the odds in your favour. Bream don’t hold stationary in deep holes. Instead they roam the area, making it difficult to get constant action. Berley will aid in directing fish to your baits and keeping them in the vicinity.
I like to use a combination of soaked wheat, pilchards, chicken pellets and tuna oil. If I can’t source this, my second string approach is to catch a handful of yakkas and mush them through my fingers. The outcome is to get a mist of food into the environment; something the fish can taste and smell but cannot eat. It really fires them up. At this point, if I have deployed yakkas as berley, it makes sense to use some as bait, otherwise I’m not a huge fan.
If you’re fishing a deep hole and there’s decent current flowing berley can sometimes be an issue. The use of a berley bomb will be important to ensure your berley is hitting the zone otherwise you might find your concoction is benefiting the boat a few hundred metres down-current.
Berley is also important if you’re targeting bream held tight to cover. If you’re fishing an oyster rack and bream are holding well underneath, as is usually the case, getting them to come out and eat is an issue. Likewise is getting your bait deep within their lair. Anchor up-current and get a nice slick of berley over your target area and entice the bream to come out. This technique can be used to target submerged trees on the bank, pontoons and jetties, boat moorings, bridge pylons and any other terrain where it is hard to place your bait into but where you know fish are holding.
The key point to remember here is don’t be overzealous with the berley supply. You want to bring the fish on the bite, not feed them so they stop biting!
I’ve made a complete transition when it comes to the gear that I use for not only bream but all fish I target on bait. I’ve become fixated with using crisp graphite rods, light and powerful spin reels and sensitive low stretch braid.
A typical bream outfit now would be a 2-4kg fast actioned graphite rod, a small threadline reel loaded with 6lb braid (or 4lb in hard current) down to a swivel with an attached 10lb fluoro leader. This is in stark contrast to the 15lb mono mainlines and 20lb mono leaders my fishing partners and I once used. We still got dusted up on that heavy gear. The sloppy ’glass rods gave big bream enough rope to sink us on the reef. Nowadays, the low stretch factor of the braid, the crisp action of the rod and tough drags on our spin reels means bream are heading in the right direction when you set the hook.
One point I would make here regards hook set. Braid bites often feel more aggressive as more sensitivity is transferred up the line. You need to get your timing right as you’ll pull the bait from the fish’s mouth till you get used to it. I do is dip my rod tip to allow the fish more line to engulf the bait. Once the rod loads up, then I strike. It’s easy enough and something that will become second nature if you haven’t fished bait on braid before.
If you’re up for a bit of a challenge, try your hand at catching big bream on bait. They are challenging fish that require a little bit of grey matter upstairs. If you take anything out of this piece it should be to try new things and think from left-field. Don’t go down well-worn paths. The silly bream got caught ages ago!
Some of the more weird culinary exploits I have heard of but not personally used as bream bait include haloumi cheese, corn kernels and marinated steak.