Bemm fishing secrets
  |  First Published: July 2016

I reckon you experience as much excitement and pleasure while organising, planning and driving to a much loved fishing location, as you do actually being there and hooking fish. During the weeks leading up to a trip you get restless or excited with the anticipation of what might happen. Every excursion to Bemm River has had this effect on me, and the mates I travel with.

On the long road trip into East Gippsland our talk in the car is full of past glory, personal bests and not one mention of bad weather or fishless days. Two things about Bemm River – you will become addicted to it when you crack the fishing secrets, and when you leave the only thing you will be thinking about, is how you can get back there, and when your partner will allow you! Let me share this East Gippsland paradise with you and impart some of the latest secrets and up to date trickery to hook the two most popular species that call Bemm River home – estuary perch and bream.

Estuary riches

Anglers have always been aware of the abundance of fish that Bemm provides, and without commercial netting for about sixty years now I think it will remain a very special place for decades to come. When you get to understand and catch fish in this mighty waterway you will be amazed at how the place continues to turn out prodigious amounts of finned critters. Nobody ever goes to Bemm once – some families have three or four generations that call this place their second home. For as long as anyone can remember, Bemm has had the reputation of bream capital of East Gippsland. You can also expect flathead, salmon, trevally, tailor and at times luderick, mullet, whiting and estuary perch.

The river also surprises with a few trout and bass. Through summer and early autumn the prawn run hits East Gippsland and feeds plenty of hungry fish. The food chain has to be amazing in this place to support the biomass of fish that live in its waters. There is also plenty of sandworm, baitfish, shrimp and shell to dine on. The other important feature of the place is the relatively pristine water catchment that backs up into the foothills of the Great Dividing Range. Like every living thing on the planet, you're only as good as what you're fed.

I reckon Steve Starling summed this place up the best when about 16 years ago I was lucky enough to spend two days on the water with him. We netted over 90 fish at a time when bream lure fishing was still mystical and big tallies blew our minds. It was the first time I saw bream caught on surface lures. Hey Steve, if you are reading this, can you believe that was so long ago - boy are we getting old! Starlo wrote a story about our trip and he called it ‘Bountiful Bemm.’ The perfect name for an incredible place. What’s more, Bemm seems to produce more fish with every passing year.

Fish population

Nothing proves Bemm’s huge fish population more than the bream competitions held there each year. Over 100 anglers turned up for a recent Hobie kayak tournament and just about every angler weighed in full bags each day. Not to mention upgraded bream, tailor and flathead. A conservative guesstimate would find that 1500 or even close to 2000 fish were released that weekend. That doesn't include the bait anglers also there, who probably counted another 300 or more fish that would not have been released. Bag limits at Bemm are the same for all Victorian waters but I'm perplexed at how Bemm suffers the huge take of bream from its waters each and every week of the year.

Some anglers seem to have little respect for minimising their take from Bemm, thinking that it will go on producing forever. Gladly these people are a dying breed and on a more positive spin, the younger, smarter anglers coming through these days grasp the significance of catch and release. On the other side of the coin we don't want the option of keeping fish for a feed to be taken away from us. I eat fish and love to do so. I would hate to see rogue and feral anglers spoil it for all of us. Some of these idiots are still taking more than the legal bag each day and even worse they brag about it.

Bream on bait

Bemm might not be renowned for really big bream and rarely do we release fish exceeding 42cm, but the huge population of bream in the system sure makes up for it. I've noticed over the last few years more pictures of 43-45cm bream are turning up before being released. When they are really on the chew, multiple bream from consecutive casts can go on for hours.

The best sign of a healthy population of fish is to see a whole range of sizes. Size variance suggests successful spawning – and believe me, there is phenomenal breeding going on at Bemm. Most lake bream you encounter will be around 24-36cm, although during the breeding season when they school in the upper river I've caught countless numbers with most 38-40cm. Another sure fire measure to find where the bream are biting, is to look at where all the other boats are parking as those anglers have probably done a few day of homework already and they will be fishing the prime locations.

Nobody ever sits in a spot for long if the action is slow and if you see boats parked for hours on end you can bet your house on them hooking heaps. The local sandworm is a must, and if you are lucky enough to get hold of the local live prawns then you will need to double check your knots and reel drags. Expect very big bream or flathead and a few surprise perch when using live prawns. Live shrimp and crab also work wonders. Little known to a lot of bait anglers is the use of unusual baits like white bait or fresh tuna and even mussels or raw chicken meat! I know a few cagey anglers that swear by those curious baits and they can often out-fish more traditional baits.

Lure tactics

When it comes to bream on lures, Bemm shines like no other system I know. I wish I had space to explore the endless discussions and techniques that lure specialists continually uncover there, but let me get into just a few of the really deadly and essential lure tactics. Most lake fishing is in fairly shallow water, so ZMan GrubZ are a must. The trick is to use heavier jigheads than you would probably use elsewhere. For some reason we find a 2-3g head, or even heavier, worked fairly fast, but with the odd short pause. This technique is much more effective than lighter jigheads. Amber, chartreuse and motor oil a good colour starting point but always explore different colours and retrieves.

These days we find watermelon, copper penny and blood worm colours as effective because the bream have probably seen way too many motor oil grubs. I know one mate who only uses violet sparkle, and he will probably have a contract out on my life now that I have made this public knowledge – that's how deadly this colour is. Cam Cleal and Justin Dingwall recently caught a lot of bream on the much larger ZMan 4” Curl-tail StreakZ soft plastic and said the fish attacked them so hard they almost swallowed them down past their throat!

As with all lure fishing it pays to try plastics that the fish have never seen, or use a different or even radical retrieve. Another tip for using soft plastics is to use super glue on them. I put a drop of glue behind the lead head of the jig and stick the plastic to it when I push the lure all the way on. I even put a tiny drop of glue back at the gape of the hook to glue the lure where the hook comes out of its back. Using glue gives the soft plastic a much longer life and stops it from being ripped open or having its ‘pants pulled down’ all the time. Always carry super glue with your soft plastics and even better glue them up a day before you go fishing.

Hurricane bent minnows

The hottest and most exciting lure technique these days is using surface lures like bent minnows. The smaller 66mm style lures will get you more bream so look up the Hurricane brand of bent minnows and choose from their extensive range of colours. They outscore other brands and are nearly half the price – yet twice as good! Searching the edges around the lake shallows or even out in deeper water will amaze you with continuous action. You’ll love seeing bream rise up to suck and slurp at your lure.

You might miss a lot, but sometimes you will hook many more bream than using underwater lures. The trick to using bent minnows is to keep your rod tip low to the water and impart the most action to the lure you can without moving it far. Pause the lure often and if you see a boil or swirl near your lure then stop winding immediately. Leave it motionless for at least five seconds and if the bream doesn't attack then give the lure a few sharp twitches and another five-second stop. It will take a while to master this technique, but when you do get it right, your hook-ups will go through the roof.

Sadly tailor will monster surface lures and put a decent in dent your bank balance! The good news is when you do get a tailor it can be an absolute truck. Just recently I've seen pictures of tailor 60cm+ and they will take some serious line off your bream reel. Estuary perch absolutely love surface lures, and bent minnows are their favourite by far. When they suck down a topwater lure with their huge bucket mouth it may shock the hell out of you, and I've often said the sound is like throwing a brick into the water! Sometimes flathead will grab surface lures and they can thrash around madly and even jump clean out of the water. Using bent minnows is like nothing I've ever experienced before in any type of lure fishing and for some reason their erratic or almost whimsical action drives fish insane.

Metal blades

Blades are an essential lure for Bemm, especially down in the deep channel area but few anglers realise that they are also lethal in shallow water and will often out-score hardbody lures. Small black blades between 30-45mm will have the best result, but most colours will catch plenty of fish. I always use the shrimp or prawn type blades that have trailing stinger hooks. I reckon they appeal to all species of fish with a greater by-catch of other species like whiting, flathead or luderick. The stingers have a better hook-up rate on fish while not snagging the bottom as much. I hate treble hooks because they get caught on snags too often and get so tangled up in the mouth of bream and especially flathead.

You will need to explore a whole range of techniques when using blades, like deep water jigging straight up and down or tea bagging. The methods I call the ‘Lipton Lift’ or the ‘Tetley Tweak’! Also try fast ripping and slow rolling. Let the fish tell you what works on any given day, but as always try every trick you know and spy on other lure anglers who are busy netting bream! Tony Pettie showed me recently how he leaves the blade totally still and sitting on the bottom for painfully long pauses. Up to ten seconds left motionless – a technique some of us find almost impossible to do, but at times it can be all that will work on cranky bream. Keep this method in your bag of tricks for sure.

Estuary perch

River snags are the main habitat for the mighty EP. They can turn up in any part of the entire river, from the falls to the mouth and even right at the channel entrance near the surf. Use the same sinking lure techniques that you employ for bream and concentrate on the bent minnows early morning or dusk and even deep into the night. I suggest you use minimum 5kg breaking strain lines – I use up to 8kg. Not only will this ensure landing most hooked perch but there's nothing gained with busting off EP and very cruel leaving lures stuck down their throat or treble hooks preventing them from even opening their mouth to feed. I guarantee hooks do not dissolve over night or even within weeks and perch wont miraculously throw lures within hours. These facts are complete nonsense and lost lures stuck in or on perch may cause major damage or even death. So think about fish welfare and besides there's hardly a lure on the market under $20 dollars these days so it makes perfect economic sense too! Trust me, heavy lines used in snag fishing will never compromise your success rate. In fact it’s quite the opposite and because I use 8kg gear I've landed massive EP at Bemm from 48-55cm, and I hardly ever bust lures off.

Sadly perch numbers are not what they were and even in the past 18 years since I started catching them, I've seen a dramatic decline in numbers landed. Even worse, I've seen hardly any small year classes come through and this suggests that breeding is very poor. It's a major worry and fisheries have released a heap of juvenile perch recently and it will be interesting to track their progress. Most of us know that EP should be a catch and release species and it's only the few older anglers these days that believe it to be their right to kill perch and eat them. Legally that's correct, but morally they are not thinking of the future and their grandkids. Sadly at Bemm I still hear horrible stories of fishers taking more than the EP bag limit.

River tactics

The river is a whole different story compared to the lake, and the following tactics work the same on perch or bream. Deep edges and snags are best worked over with slow sinking hardbodies and light weighted soft plastics. Another little known tactic for snag action is to use the same bent minnows that I described before. Surface hits have the benefit of dragging the fish up and out of the structure to help avoid shredding! Sinking hardbodies are a must, and it can take every ounce of nerve, guts and courage to haul big fish out of deep tree snags. Some battles can get very ugly indeed.

A part of the river often over looked is the deeper lower section. Not so much the edges of the river but out in the middle. At certain times bream can turn up in massive schools near the bottom and they have even been caught near the surface free swimming in the same big numbers. The upper reaches of the river is my favourite area and I've caught trout, bream, perch and tailor all from the bridge down to Dolly's Garden, on the same day using the same lure. Can you believe I even caught a heap of Australian salmon just below the falls one year! Even an odd huge poddy mullet has eaten my lures up there. Expect the unexpected when you're up in the river and that includes catching nothing – it can be very slow going when the conditions are not suiting the fish.

Before you go

There is a general store with groceries, newspapers, bait and all sorts of tackle on offer. If you forget anything from home, this is a good place to pick it up. You can also top up your fishing tackle at the Bemm River Holiday Accommodation and Boat Hire. Most of the accommodation places will also have the essentials, such as ice, milk and basic tackle.

If you’re lucky you might even bump into a local fishing guru around the place. These guys know the area inside and out and have been fishing all the local hotspots for years. Bemm somehow attracts an array of the nicest people who are willing to share.

Life changing?

The thing about Bemm River is that a trip includes much more than just a fishing experience. The scenery and wildlife are stunning and even during bleak stormy wet weather the landscape is still impressive, even from the windows of the pub – a perfect retreat during a big blow. I think it's the people that really make this place special as the shopkeeper or publican will take the time of day to listen and talk to you, and remember your name! At Bemm you find life slows down but friendships speed up. Every trip I do to this wonderful retreat recharges my batteries that flatten out during my hectic life back home.

But the best thing of all is that everyone becomes a much better angler at Bemm River. Why? Because there are so many more fish to catch. The place changed my life because it's where I caught my very first estuary perch. That day in 1998 was the start of my obsession and hopeless love affair with this iconic native sportfish. Last check of my fishing dairy indicates I've now caught 10,779 EP – you get the idea of my addiction, but what a nice problem to endure. The town is actually quite unremarkable; it’s just your ordinary small town. But the experience is fantastic. There's a terrific caravan park, a shop and pub that both have everything you need but refuse to be dressed up with whistles or bells and there's neat and clean accommodation without any pizzazz. Remember, you can't even purchase fuel at Bemm, so stock up before you head in.

Nothing seems to have changed at Bemm for decades, which reminds me of the friendly easy living in the great days of the 70s or 80s. As humans we don't always like change, so we tend to be grateful for and utterly cherish things that stay the same. So have I over-cooked the magnetic charm and compelling allure of Bemm River? No way!











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