Trolling the lower reaches of our coastal rivers is a fun and productive way of fooling a few fish, yet it doesn’t seem to be anywhere near as popular as it should be.
We spend a lot of time towing lures around the lower reaches of the Burnett River in Bundaberg and it always seems to turn up something interesting. Strangely, we rarely see anybody else having a serious go at it. Sure there is the occasional boat puttering up the middle of the channel with lines limply trailing out the back, but these boats seem more intent on enjoying the sunshine than actively targeting fish. And that’s the key to working the tidal waters, you have to have a plan and work at it if you want to be successful.
The bottom end of the Burnett River doesn’t really have a lot of obvious structure to speak of and if you are used to working oyster racks up the back of some quiet bay, then it will probably have you scratching your head. Apart from the port area and the rock training walls that channel the river’s flow, there simply aren’t that many spots that scream out “Fish Me!” The lower reaches are little more than a broad channel and when the tide is running hard, it can be a testing place for lure anglers.
However, the less structure there is, the more important it is to target it and we invest a lot of effort into working the rock retaining walls that line the banks. When trolling along the walls, we get so close that you could almost lean out and touch the rocks with your rod tip. By keeping our lures close to the rocks, it gives us the chance to tangle with the numerous cod that inhabit the river.
I have a real soft spot for estuary cod and reckon they are one of our most under-rated estuary sportfish. The next time you get one, have a look at the size of its broad paddletail in relation to the rest of their body. It’s huge and they really know how to use it to burrow back into the rocks when hooked.
This is pretty rugged fishing and your terminal tackle needs to be up to the task, or you will quickly grow tired of losing lures. Strong braided lines and a tough wearing 10kg trace are a bare pass mark. Robust, Australian-made lures are also worth investing in, as they normally won’t let you down in the heat of battle.
Finally a good tip to remember when fishing this close bankside cover like this, is to turn the boat away from the rocks and out into the middle of the river as soon as you get a hook-up. That way, you can lock up and use the boat to help drag the fish from the snags. It might sound brutal but if you give the bigger fish half a chance they will bury you every time.
The good news is that flathead will also lay amongst the rocks along the edge of the walls and are only too happy to pounce on a passing minnow. However, you can afford to move away from the stones a bit and concentrate on a predetermined depth range. The reason for this preoccupation with water depth is that flathead are not that keen on coming off the floor to hit a lure, so the closer it is swimming to the bottom, the better.
I like to take a test run along any prospective trolling route to get an idea of the average depth. Armed with this knowledge, it is then a simple task to select a lure that will spend the majority of its time swimming just above bottom. In most of the water we fish, the depth doesn’t get much beyond 10 old fashioned feet, and a deep diving minnow with a running depth of 8-9ft is spot on.
One point to remember when selecting lures for trolling in saltwater is that they don’t dive as deep in the salt as they will in the fresh. I’m no rocket scientist but it’s probably safe to assume that it has something to do with the higher density of salt water.
The beauty of trolling in the lower tidal reaches of a big river like the Burnett, is that you are just never sure what will jump onto your lure. It might be a tailor or trevally, a queenfish or a boasting-sized bream. Of course, with the smaller lures it will often be less desirable species like pike and grinners. While they are probably not what you want to be catching, they are great for keeping the kids entertained. My youngsters love the constant action that comes with trolling tiny minnow lures and they don’t really care what they are catching as long as there are plenty of them.
Other oddball captures include tuna and mackerel. Don’t laugh, it is quite common to find schools of mack tuna blasting into bait in the lower reaches of the Burnett and if you troll a small minnow through the schools, you will sometimes hook-up. The macks are less common but they have been known to push upstream as far as Bundaberg. They are frequently responsible for the mystery bite-offs that plague bait fishers in this part of the river. As long as there is bait around in reasonable numbers, mackerel will enter the river to feed on them.
By and large however, most fish will be under the 2kg mark and your standard barra-type baitcaster will do the job admirably. Spool it with 10kg braid and top it off with 1-2m of hard wearing mono or fluorocarbon leader of 10-15kg. Even a modestly priced outfit like this will be able to comfortably deal with most hook-ups, without taking all the fun out of things.
While tidal water predators aren’t usually that fussy, you can still finetune your lures to make them even more effective. One trick I have found successful is to rig my favourite trolling lures so they have neutral buoyancy. This means they neither sink nor float up when left sitting on a slack line. The easiest way to achieve this is to swap hooks and split rings around till you find a pair that has the correct amount of weight to keep the lure suspending.
While it is a bit of mucking around, I have found that flathead in particular really respond to lures that suspend in front of their face. This is particularly the case when you ‘work’ the rod while trolling to give it extra action. This is commonly called jerk trolling and it’s barra anglers favourite tactic. Let me tell you, it can make a big difference to the number of strikes on the humble flathead as well.
The downside is that you tend to lose a few more lures, because they won’t float back to the surface if broken off, but that’s the price you have to pay. If you carry a Tackleback or other lure retrieval device, that won’t happen too often anyway.
Hot hard-bodies in the Burnett
Any small to medium sized diving minnow is likely to be successful but the following lures have proven to be top performers behind our boat. They are all Australian made and can be relied upon not to let you down when larger than average fish get involved.
Deep Diving Merlins
Halco Scorpions (smaller sizes)
Reidy’s Little Lucifers
No. 3 StumpJumpers