Chasing the tide
NOTHING keeps an inshore angler on his or her toes like chasing the tide change up an estuary, fishing the prime time at one spot before moving on to the next. In my local system on the NSW Central Coast there’s four hours difference in the tidal delay between the river mouth and the furthest upstream bridge.
In a typical session, this affords me enough time to fish, and travel via car or boat, between three bridges. In smaller systems there may only be enough time to move between a couple of spots, with larger rivers offering greater scope and the potential for longer sessions.
The Hunter River, Brisbane Water, Hawkesbury River, Sydney Harbour, the Cooks and Georges rivers, plus plenty of other systems up and down the NSW coast, are areas where this mode of attack would be well applied. However, the “bridge to bridge” approach is applicable to estuaries all over Australia and not limited to fishing between bridges, as starting at the ocean front and chasing the tide between wharves, deep holes or points are other viable options. If anything, the crux of this article is to advocate fishing smart at the right time and place. For the urban angler with pressing work, study or domestic commitments, spending valuable fishing hours, “leave passes” if you will, in a productive manner is of the upmost importance. When such time constraints come into play the convenience factor of lure fishing makes beautiful sense: just grab a rod, some lures, and you’re ready to go.
It’s no secret bridges are fish magnets. Narrow stretches of water are often spanned, with such pinch point areas also acting as funnels for any fish moving up or downstream. These areas are scoured by current, leaving a rocky undulated bottom where predatory species can exert minimal energy lying out of the flow in anticipated ambush. Although nothing deflects water movement like bridge pylons, which, dependent on their size, provide substantial eddies and pressure waves. These are excellent zones to drop a lure. Learning how and where distortions in current such as back-eddies or upwellings form at different stages of the tide is a good step towards understanding where ambush predators may congregate. Hence, tides should be the focus of any angler intending to target quality fish around bridges.
Excellent fishing can be had in daylight hours when working the tides; however, when bridges really come alive after dark. The water under road or pedestrian bridges spanned with overhead streetlights is some of the most fish rich area you’ll witness in an estuary system. Prawns, squid, mullet and baitfish are attracted by the lights and are shadowed by predators like chopper tailor and pike. What should also be noted about evening sessions, particularly mid-week, is the minimal boat traffic and human activity which can have a negative impact on fishing success in busier periods.
Just the night before writing this article,
I stood amazed at the spectacle unfolding before me. Under a local bridge, tailor were busting up the surface in a manic feeding frenzy. In the 15m wide section of river this particular bridge spanned, you’d struggle to find a square metre of water that didn’t resemble the frothy, disturbed surface of a washing machine. The concentration of fish in the illuminated top layer of the water column was astounding. However, the most incredible thing of all was when a few much bigger boofs and bust-ups started to break up the tailor, showering the aggressive little choppers into the air. Such a spectacle is synonymous with the feeding antics of oceanic pelagics, not what one would expect on the calm, brackish backwaters of an east coast estuary!
This food chain effect is something we rely upon as anglers. You don’t need Jedi senses to know how to tempt these predators. We try and correspond our offerings, lures or baits, with the size and profile of local prey items, whether it be a humble prawn or a long slender lure imitating a pike. In a bridge situation, it’s a sure bet that predators will be in close proximity to the bait. Expect bream and flathead as common staples after dark, and depending on how far upriver you’re fishing, estuary perch can often be seen and heard feeding off the surface. Bridges can also be jewfish hunting grounds at particular times and provided your tackle is up to the test, there are some exceptional fish to be taken.
The point of departure in any bridge fishing career should be building up a knowledge base of local areas, and such crucial learning and observation will never cease even years after your first bridge session. If you’ve got a boat with a sounder, excellent, get out there and develop an intimate knowledge of the bottom structure, drop offs and places where baitfish might congregate. Other useful resources are Google Earth and Navionics contour maps which in the absence of a sounder can be downloaded onto your phone from the App Store (as a land-based fisho these are invaluable for finding deep water close to shore).
I prefaced this article by highlighting the importance of tides, and what period of the tide is best for your local bridge is for you to find out. Through observation and experience an angler can predict where eddies will form at different times and use the current’s potency as an indication to the amount of time until a tide change. You will also key in to interesting phenomenon such as tidal discrepancies where the water level rises despite a raging run-out current, or in some instances where the water drops away during a run-in tide.
An hour either side of the slack water, whether it be the top or bottom of the tide, is a good initial focus point for angling efforts. This is without doubt the easiest time to fish high current areas and also a renowned feeding time for a variety of predators. In some instances, the change of tide can bring a bite on like the flick of a switch. However, if your local bridge doesn’t fire on a tide change, don’t be afraid to experiment. Fish can be caught at bridges through the entire tidal sequence and focusing your efforts in any large back-eddies or current breaks during a strong run can be worthwhile. In one of the places I fish, the jewie bite often comes on in the mainstream, mid-tide, with strikes on my lures often pre-empted by boofs and showering bait downstream as the school makes its way into the flow.
After heavy rain where large volumes of water are pushing out of a river the tidal delay for a particular bridge can be hours behind. In major flood conditions the run-in tide may not even be evident, as layers of current occur with a freshwater overrun in the top of the water column. Despite challenging conditions, some incredible fishing can be had early in the these wet events as the fresh water forces fish out of tributaries in search of higher saline environments. Sometimes this means getting drenched, however, it is often possible to find a dry haven to fish under a bridge, and if that bridge is near the mouth of a pumping tributary or river expect the action to be hot.
I use three separate outfits while bridge fishing – each has a unique purpose for targeting different species. The first is a typical light estuary spin stick for taming bream, flathead and the like – something around 7ft, 2-4kg and loaded with 6lb braid and fluorocarbon leader. This comes into its own for throwing small soft plastics and hard-bodies reasonable distances. When targeting bream and EPs in the summer months small surface poppers and pencils are great to throw in low light conditions, especially under overhead lights. If there’s no surface activity apparent, then a deep diving crankbait is a good searching lure to run mid-water alongside pylons or bounce over a rocky bottom. Soft plastics and blades are also good lures to try but be prepared to lose a few to snags (although weedless rigged plastics can help in this regard).
The short but potent barra style outfit doesn’t see much use in the southern parts of Australia, but a rod around 6ft or less and 5-7kg in line weight is an accurate casting weapon. Whether it be a spin stick or baitcaster, load it with 15-20lb braid and a similar weight leader and you’ll start getting a lot more lures back off snags. With such tackle, I opt for larger lures such as three to four inch plastics and, depending on the current, may go up to a jighead of 1/2oz in only 3m of water. Blades are another worthwhile proposition but without a doubt soft vibes are my favourite lure for bridges. One might think it’s a suicide mission throwing a 20g lure adorned with trebles over a rocky bottom, but provided you maintain reasonable contact with the lure and don’t let it drag across the sea floor the fatality rate is minimal. The slack water period is when snags are most prevalent, as the current intensifies kelp and weed tend to fold over and become less of an obstruction to your lure’s path.
A double hop retrieve allowing the lure to sink back on a slack line after each hop will account for most bridge dwelling species, especially flathead which can line up in big numbers when baitfish are prevalent. Of all the fishing I’ve done, chasing jewies around bridges is without doubt some of the most relaxing … and most nerve racking! It’s an adrenaline filled experience when a solid “donk” transmits through the line before you set the hook into a big, powerful fish, then start contemplating how you’re going to extract it from its pylon-laden labyrinth.
I’ve had good success working the bottom with soft vibes around structure, drop offs and eddies during daylight hours, however, after dark a new facet comes into the bridge jewfish game – the shadow line. Nothing casts a shadow like a long bridge spanned by streetlights, and it’s where this shadow intersects with well illuminated water that is an ambush predator’s haven and an excellent place to focus your efforts. I’ve seen it countless times with pelicans feeding on surface squid and prawns; they line themselves up in the shadows and rush forward to grab the prey attracted to the light. My fellow anglers always give me strange looks when I start comparing jewies to pelicans, but if you ever see these birds while fishing pay attention to where and when they congregate. For instance, during the tidal run they stake out one ambush position and remain static relying on the tide to bring food to them. However, during the slack water period they congregate together and ambush food as a group, or in some instances solitary birds may break away from the pack and hunt with impressive speed and agility. I imagine jewfish and other predators get up to something similar below the water’s surface.
Thus the final outfit I take out bridge fishing isa jewie specific rod; a 9ft, 15kg stick matched with a large threadline reel loaded with 30lb braid and a 50lb leader. This rod is also useful off the rocks and beach and is perfect for flogging big hard-bodies long distances. I’ve tried a number of minnow lures in the 100-180mm size range and found shallow and deep divers to work on different days. In deep water locations, shallow divers can be rejected in preference of deeper running lures, but in sub-2m of water something that sits just below the surface is perfect. Cast across or up current and work the lure with a consistent wind; when the tide is cranking you may be spinning at pelagic speeds and in these instances the take is unrestrained and violent. Also, don’t be afraid to break it up with a few pauses. I will never forget the time I had cast out, cranked the lure down to running depth, then turned around to instruct a mate where I kept braid scissors and spare leader in my bag. That was the closest I’ve ever come to a fish ripping a rod from my hands. The jewie that steam rolled that stationary lure proved to be a very substantial specimen, which was quite evident after it took a long run, came to the surface and threw my lure, barra-style, with a violent headshake. You win some, you lose some!
Hopefully this piece inspires a desire to focus your precious angling hours around the tides and try a bit of “bridge to bridge” fishing, or adapt this tide chasing theory to other estuarine structures. For safety reasons it’s often best to head out with a mate when fishing after dark, and it’s always handy to have someone at the ready with lip grips or a camera if you do come across that fish of a lifetime. Get out there and reap the rewards of experimentation. Learn when and how to fish your local bridges, but don’t forget a head torch and mosquito repellent. Good luck!