River blackfish (Gadopsis marmoratus) were once the apex predator of the Yarra River and its tributaries south of the Great Dividing Range. They were a staple dietary component, along with eels, for indigenous people of the area. However, poor land management practises, introduced species and in-stream habitat degradation have all contributed to the general decline of blackfish throughout its natural range.
But the news is not all bad. In fact, it’s a lot better than many people think! Bernie Sullivan lives in Wandin and regularly fishes for blackfish during the open season. I spoke with him about one of his favourite little freshwater species and how he goes about catching them.
Bernie believes that there are some very healthy stream populations of blackfish in the many small tributaries of the Yarra River, adjacent to lowland farms and woodland. Some of these streams are within an hour of Melbourne’s eastern suburbs. The more remote spots might require some walking but many are within 15 minutes of vehicle access points.
So with a little preparation and effort, you and the family can enjoy a weekend picnic by a river somewhere and be in with a chance of catching one of these prehistoric looking native fish.
If you baitfish for trout, whiting or bream then you’ve probably got an outfit that’ll handle river blackfish without any trouble. A 4 to 6lb spinning rod matched to a small eggbeater reel spooled with 6lb monofilament line will do just fine. If you’ve got a spool of gelspun or braid, there’s no need to respool. Just attach a mono leader and you’ll be right.
A dozen small split shot, a packet of bait keeper hooks, a line cutting tool and a pair of narrow nosed pliers to extract hooks will see you through. All of this can be kept in a small tackle box in your top pocket if you’re really travelling light.
A small metal rod holder, the type that pierces the ground, is a good idea so you can clearly see bites. They also help to keep your rod and reel out of the dirt. That’s got to be a good thing! They don’t cost much and fit into a small backpack if you plan to cover lots of water.
Yabbies are at the top of Bernie’s list followed by scrubworms and wood grubs. It pays to keep the yabbies small because that’s generally all that these small streams manage to support.
Bernie’s even caught blackfish on lures and bead head nymphs when fishing for trout. He concedes though that the bulk of his blackfish are caught on bait that’s fished on or very close to the bottom.
Some lead is necessary to get your bait to the bottom and keep it there. In some conditions, a single split shot is all that’s necessary while in higher flows, two or three might be required.
For yabbies in particular, you’re aiming to get the bait to the bottom and allow some unrestricted movement, just like a natural uninhibited yabby crawling about looking for a meal.
A quick look at your Melways will reveal a plethora of small streams that flow into the Yarra River, the bulk of which support blackfish. Many of these streams run through private property so you may need to spend a bit of time enquiring with neighbouring houses before you start jumping fences.
There are numerous bridges that cross these streams, often on dirt roads. A Sunday drive with the family might be worthwhile to check out access before you devote a day to pursuing blackfish. It’s often easier to check out new water without a rod in the car. It just avoids the inevitable temptation to have a cast. One cast becomes ten and before you know it, half an hour has passed and the family is wondering where you’ve gone!
It’s also worth looking for public parks and reserves that are adjacent to streams. Even if the river frontage is limited, parks often provide a good launching pad from which to start walking. It’s also nice to be able to ‘let someone know before you go’ if you’re fishing alone. Definitive locations, such as parks, certainly provide some certainty for anyone wondering about where to start looking for you!
There’s no doubt that blackfish are more active and less cautious in low light conditions, particularly after dark. This is when the biggest blackfish get caught as they venture from their homes in snags and under cut banks to search for food.
During daylight hours though, when most of us are going to have a go at blackfish, it pays to fish into in-stream habitat whether it be rocky bars, submerged tree branches, undercut banks or deep and dark holes. This approach can take its toll on gear but you’re only talking about a few yards of mono, some sinkers and a few hooks. Doesn’t get much less significant than that!
After rain, when water flows are high and clarity deteriorates, blackfish become bolder, similar to their night-time behaviour. Bernie recalls catching one large blackfish after rain that contained over 100 worms in its stomach.
And then there are the less common, but far more interesting prey items, such as lizards, mice and even small birds. Bernie’s unsure whether large prey are eaten alive similar to Murray cod or whether they’re already dead when they hit the water and the blackfish are just cleaning up before the yabbies do. Whatever the case may be, they seem quite prepared to eat large and unconventional baits.
Most of the fish that Bernie catches in Yarra River tributaries are between 1 and 2lb although his son has caught fish to 4 and 5lb. Further east in the Thomson catchment, there have been reports of blackfish to 12lb.
Bernie likes to drift his baits into likely looking blackfish spots rather than drop them straight on top. This more natural presentation gives fish time to weigh-up what’s coming their way and prepare to pounce, or not.
Having cast, he likes to watch the line for any deviation from a normal drift. Quite often, the bite will come quickly if there’s someone home who is in the mood for a feed.
When the blackfish are quiet though, Bernie pulls out the rod holder on proven snags or banks and gives the fish time to make a decision. This is most common during daylight when river flows are low and the water is clear. Understandably, blackfish aren’t quite as brave in these conditions and will wait for the right time to take your bait. Bernie believes that sometimes, passing cloud cover is all that’s needed to turn these lookers into takers.
Normally, he spends no more than 10 minutes in any one spot. And when he moves, he might only move ten metres to the next snag or bank. These fish are territorial and unlikely to move far unless they feel safe, even for a juicy meal of wood grub or worms!
The most common by-catch when targeting blackfish are trout. Most are relatively small browns that breed naturally in these cool flowing streams.
Bernie believes that established blackfish populations tend to keep the trout at bay, defending their patch and predating on juvenile trout as they make their way up the system. No doubt there’s also a few trout that eat blackfish to balance out the equation!
He’s also caught the odd spiny freshwater crayfish on worms and grubs but most don’t get to the legal minimum carapace length.
Fishing for river blackfish is a form of angling that reinforces baitfishing principles, something that can be particularly useful for beginners or children.
A basic outfit, a simple rig, an assortment of live bait and an understanding of your target species’ preferred habitat is all you need.
Upon reflection, Bernie believes that, amongst the current swing towards plastic lures and glamorous sportsfishing, the humble blackfish has a lot to teach us all about the basics of fishing. You’ve just got to give them a chance!
River blackfish are on of the few native freshwater fish of recreational interest in Victoria that are not listed as ‘threatened’ under the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act 1988.
Not withstanding this, there are catch limits to ensure that recreational pressure doesn’t exacerbate more significant threats such as de-snagging and land clearing.
The legal minimum length is 22cm, the bag/possession limit is 5 blackfish per person per day and the closed season is from 1 September to 31 December each year.
None of these catch limits, nor the closed season, apply to blackfish in waters north of the Great Dividing Range.
Bernie’s Top Five Tips
Use live bait
Fish close to structure
Watch your line
Keep moving spots
Fish in low light conditions