I like to take a minimalist approach to my fishing by doing away with as much of the associated paraphernalia as I can. In fact, I like to fish nude. Don’t get too excited, I’m not suggesting that anglers should do away with their clothes. The Aussie sun is much too fierce for that. I’m talking about the terminal tackle equivalent of fishing nude: fishing with no lead weight. That’s right, my favourite fishing rig is a hook tied straight to the line!
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not proposing we do away with lead altogether. There are very good reasons why lead has been a traditional and essential tackle item for generations. However, using too much lead is one of the most common errors that newcomers make when baitfishing. Quite often it’s possible to get away with completely unweighted rigs and there are many advantages in doing so.
To understand the detrimental impact of lead on hook-up rates, let’s review the basics. Imagine a 1kg bream taking a bait attached to a paternoster rig anchored by a 10g sinker. Multiply that scenario by 75 times to consider a 75kg person attempting to devour a snack with a 750g lead weight attached. Think about that next time you grab a Four ‘n’ Twenty, and you’ll see it’s no wonder fish are easily put off by baits attached to too much lead!
I’ve deliberately used a paternoster rig in this example because there is no give between bait and sinker. With a running sinker the resistance of the lead would be less, of course, because the line is able to pull through the sinker and go with the fish. The effect of gravity is also less under water – but you get the point. Oversize sinkers have a nasty habit of making fish think twice about their meal.
To figure out when we can get away without sinkers, we need to examine why anglers use them in the first place. There are two main reasons. The first is that the target species is on or near the bottom and the water depth and current dictate that lead be used to keep the bait in the strike zone. The second reason we use lead is to provide weight for casting. In any angling situation where these two situations do not apply, or can be overcome in other ways, there is no reason to use a sinker.
Fishing with unweighted rigs is definitely not new. For example, up in the mountain trout streams, freshwater anglers have been drifting unweighted worms and grasshoppers downstream for years. Similarly, bluewater fishermen floating cubes of fish down berley trails for pelagics, such as tuna, have also used weightless rigs for years.
This article, however, deals with using weightless rigs in less specialised forms of angling, such as when fishing for the bread and butter species of Victoria’s many estuaries. The deadly effectiveness of weightless rigs in estuaries was recently reinforced to my Dad and I while fishing for estuary perch and bream amongst the snags of the Bemm River.
With the entrance closed and the water level in Sydenham Inlet rising, there was very little current up the river. We found great success casting unweighted live prawns towards likely looking timber from an anchored boat. This technique allows the bait to sink ever so slowly through the water column, ensuring it spends at least some time in the zone where the bream and estuary perch are lurking – which could be anywhere from the surface to the bottom depending on conditions.
The live prawns, flicking and kicking as they disappeared into the tannin-coloured depths, appeared so much more natural than if they had rocketed to the bottom behind a sinker. And the perch obviously agreed! Not only that, our unweighted rigs allowed us to float our baits right into the depths of the snags without getting snagged too often. With a sinker attached this would have been near impossible.
Another estuary fishing situation where it’s logical to use weightless rigs in preference to sinkers is when the water is very shallow. One of my favourite ways to target bream with bait is to anchor over sandflats at night, just up from a drop-off, and cast weightless baits into the darkness.
In dark or daylight, when the water is only around a metre deep, there isn’t any need for lead unless the tide is really flowing. Unweighted baits are ideal in this situation for tempting finicky bream that may be nervous because of the shallow water.
The cubing technique of tuna fishermen can also be replicated in Victorian estuaries and other inshore waters with smaller species such as trevally, tailor and Australian salmon. Berley up a storm out the back of the boat, then float out an unweighted piece of pilchard pinned on a single hook. You will often be rewarded by a savage strike from a marauding predator.
Sometimes you won’t even need berley! I have had great fun catching salmon on unweighted pilchard fillets when they swarm in estuary channels. In a similar vein, rock fishermen often target salmon and tailor in the surf by casting unweighted whole pilchards pinned on a set of ganged hooks, then slowly retrieving the bait.
One of the keys to success when fishing ‘floating’ or weightless baits is to hold your rod at all times. Stealth and finesse are the name of the game and you must always keep in close contact with your bait. Keep a sharp eye on your line, and mend any slack that develops. Any movement or resistance whatsoever will indicate an inquiry by a piscatorial diner – so strike!
When fish hit unweighted rigs they often strike with great aggression then head immediately for cover, so you’ll need to be ready. With no lead to encumber their fight, fish caught this way give a good account of themselves.
Holding your rod in your hands at all times will also help minimise gut hooks and maximise lip hooks for easy and safe release.
One of the disadvantages of fishing weightless rigs is that casting them any useful distance can be difficult. Unless you have berleyed your target species close to the boat, this can present a problem. With a little forethought and preparation though, it’s a problem that can often be overcome.
For starters, you must use gear that makes the job as easy as possible. Threadline reels are the only way to go, as overhead reels just aren’t suited to casting light, unweighted baits. In addition, use braid or gelspun line. For a given breaking strain it is much finer in diameter than monofilament that makes it much easier to cast. Not only that, braid has less resistance to the water, which allows the bait to sink more naturally.
Make sure you have enough line too, and that it’s correctly loaded. Half empty reels are impossible to cast at the best of times! Sometimes it’s best to use a light rod of a decent length, 2m at least, which allows you to cast delicate baits a decent distance without actually whipping the bait right off the hook.
Some baits are inherently easier to cast too, simply because they’re heavier. The standout in this regard is the prawn. They are big heavy baits, and very easy to cast without sinkers. They are especially good when used live and cast into snags, or across shallow sand flats at night.
Incidentally, if fishing for bream, hook live prawns lightly through the tail as bream attack their bait from behind. For estuary perch on the other hand, hook them under the horn between their eyes. Estuary perch usually take them head first.
Other good heavy baits for use in estuaries include pilchard pieces, poddy mullet and bunches of two or three large sandworms.
So, give tradition the flick. Don’t be embarrassed. Strip away all that unnecessary terminal tackle and have a go at fishing nude.
Using unweighted rigs is not only highly productive, but a very enjoyable and liberating way to target ordinary estuary species in Victoria.
Tips for Fishing Unweighted Baits
Always keep close contact with your bait, but not so close that the bait moves unnaturally. Mend any slack that develops in the line. Strike if the line moves or if the slightest resistance is felt.
Hold your rod at all times. An early reaction to a bite will help ensure that lip hook-ups are maximised. This helps to release fish in the best possible shape.
Reposition your bait if you think it’s drifted through the strike zone.
Heavy baits such as prawns and pilchard pieces are good baits to use unweighted because they are easier to cast.
Make sure your reel is properly loaded with line.
Shallow sandflats in estuaries are ideal places to use weightless rigs, providing the current isn’t too strong.
Alex Auldist with an estuary perch that took a live, unweighted prawn drifted down into the snags.
When Australian salmon swarm in the estuaries, try targeting them using unweighted rigs. This one, landed by Lachlan Auldist, took a pilchard fillet.
When fishing unweighted baits it’s best to hold your rod at all times. Here Alex Auldist has cast an unweighted prawn back to the snag in the background – soon it’ll be time to get busy!
Bream are a great species to target using unweighted rigs. This one fell to an unweighted live prawn and is about to be released.
Fishing unweighted rigs allows anglers to get their baits right into the snags where perch like this one will be waiting.
The author with an estuary perch that took an unweighted live prawn.