Before you catch these prized estuary trophies you need to know where they hang out. Phil Bennett can help…
Without doubt jewfish have to be the most highly desired of all the southern estuarine species. Yet despite the attention they draw from recreational anglers, very few catch them with any consistency.
The handful of anglers who seem to find fish most outings usually are either very lucky or very skilled. More often than not, it is a combination of both.
In this article I thought it might be advantageous to look at the type of country jewfish prefer, rather than solely focus on how to catch them. If you understand why the fish prefer the locations they do, whether you use live bait, lures or flies, you’re already well on your way to consistent success.
Perhaps the easiest way to begin to understand the habits of estuary jewfish is to look at their body structure.
While they’re not exactly built like Homer Simpson, they’re no elite athletes, either. Jewfish are effectively you average Joe Blow, a few kilos overweight and not too keen on physical exertion.
Like most of us, they’d sooner watch a good workout than actually do it. But this inbuilt lethargy (referred to as the ‘Homer gene’) is quite sporadic. Most of the time they’re happy doing as little as possible, then when conditions suit, they’re out and about chasing down some very flighty opponents.
This feed-in-short-bursts, smash-and-grab behaviour is typical of quite a few demersal species, with Murray cod, bass, mangrove jacks and barramundi being good examples of fish that hold station for much of the time but feed vigorously when conditions suit their style of hunting.
While other species may rely on blinding speed to secure a meal, jewfish depend on favourable conditions.
From an angler’s perspective we have to look for areas that offer jewfish maximum food potential that requires minimal exertion.
If you’ve done any snorkelling you’ll know the easiest way cruise around in a tidal estuary is to hold close to either the rock walls or the river bottom.
Both these zones are affected by slipstreams. Water rushing past the rocks creates drag, effectively slowing the water closest to the stones. This zone is usually only a metre or so but it’s wide enough to accommodate a school of clever jewfish doing little more than lazily waving those big tails to hold station.
The easiest places of all to hold station are areas where water runs hard against a vertical structure. In most estuarine environments this usually means two locations, vertical rock drop-offs and bridge pylons.
Both these zones have large areas of water that do little more than bank up and force new water to the sides and straight upwards. Effectively, you have a pocket of non-tidal water positioned on the up-current side.
When you consider that virtually all baitfish and prawns are swept along with the tide, you have a prime feeding location for jewfish.
It’s common knowledge that dawn and dusk are usually better fishing times for jewfish than office hours. This dawn-and-dusk feeding spurt ideally suits their lethargic lifestyle.
With the light fading they can confidently hunt down smaller prey with less developed eyesight. As baitfish group nervously during that hour or so around twilight, jewfish attack in short, well-timed bursts.
They’re no sprinters but they can certainly crash-tackle when the mood takes them.
Other factors that work in much the same way are heavily overcast weather and during murky run-off conditions after heavy rain. Bleak weather reduces underwater visibility in much the same way as dawn and dusk, often prompting fish to feed. With rain, you don’t necessarily need a flood to fire them up, just a nice bit of colour will usually keep them active.
When you begin to understand the reasons why jewfish reside in the locations they do, and start to work out the triggers that prompt them to feed, you’ll begin to work out the best way to present a bait, lure or fly.
One of the big challenges of chasing jewfish in tidal estuaries is dealing with the strong tidal flows. It can be tough enough from a well set-up boat, let alone shore-based.
So to maintain the essential combination of feel and timing for the strike, you have to fish locations that suit your fishing method or work out ways to keep you offering in the strike zone for as long as possible.
Boat anglers, particularly those casting lures or flies from rigs sporting electric motors, do it comparatively easily. In the right boat, the biggest problem is no longer tidal flow, it’s wind.
Remember we’re only talking about the fishability now. Jewfish will bite any time if conditions suit so you need to be able to override the elements that can reduce how effective you can fish. Even on good water you may only get two or three hits from jew, so it’s imperative you make every hit count.
While boat anglers can control drift the tide with the aid of an electric motor, those shore-based need to either walk with the drifting bait or fish a position where the bait or lure sinks into a back-eddy or similar, static patch of water. Most folks around here at South West Rocks simply walk at the same speed as the drifting bait.
Shore-based lure-tossers tend to cast up-current and bounce the lures back with the tide. Either way, if you’re on dry land, try to keep a good straight line to your offering or you may miss strike when a jew finally comes along.
As we’ve touched on jewfish can be targeted in many different ways, using all kinds of lures, though the flavour of the month is certainly soft plastics. While fishing trends are usually something that make me cringe, I’m far less disturbed if they actually increase your catch rate.
Whilst many new jewfish anglers may start off with softies, it’s only from having chased them for many years using a variety of methods that you can really appreciate how effective soft plastics are.
The main reason plastics are so effective is simply because they can be fished at virtually any depth and used to cover considerable chunks of water each session. In the right hands plastics can be deadly.
Live-baiting is also very effective, as long as you know the areas the fish will be stationed in or likely to travel through. Livies work equally as well as plastics, though generally produce fewer fish due to minimal area being covered.
Fished in the right spot, live baits seldom fail.
Another drawback is the necessity to catch your bait and keep it alive before you start targeting jewfish. It’s time-consuming and if you catch only a few livies and then have a hot bite, you’re likely to run out.
And you need to carry a smaller outfit to catch the bait and aerators, buckets and even more gear - easy enough from a boat but a big effort when land-based.
Hard-bodied lures are also proven fish catchers, although you have to choose the right size and running depth to suit the locations fished.
The two most recognised locations for using hard-bodies are bridge pylons after dark and river and creek mouths during run-off conditions. Time your trip right and you have every chance of snaring a nice jewfish.
Another proven hard-body scenario is trolling. Not unlike anglers’ night trolling the northern impoundments for barra, some switched-on southern jew specialists are sneaking around in the wee hours trolling up quality fish.
With bow-mount electric motors silently pulling them along the tidal walls, these anglers have the advantage of covering huge chunks of water each outing. They are able to run proven lures at optimum running depths virtually the whole time.
If planned correctly, most will be home in bed before the first of the morning crew hits the ramp. It’s stealth at its finest.
If you’re very confident in the exact location of the resident estuary jewfish, why not try a fly? While only having seriously targeted them a dozen or so times, I got a taste of just how difficult it could become chasing jew.
It’s not that jewfish shy away from flies; quite the contrary. It’s all about making sure you pick the right estuary to target them.
Deep, fast flowing systems are not ideal so try to find waterways that aren’t overly deep and hit them when the water slowly creeps in and out. Everything has to be spot on or you’ll simply be wasting valuable fishing time.