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Going soft in Winter
  |  First Published: August 2004



WINTER is certainly not my favourite time of the year – I’m unashamedly a wimp when the temperature drops below 20° because I need heat to get me up and running.

Frankly, the chills of Winter just don’t cut it for me! But Winter is arguably the best time of year to fish the estuary, particularly with soft plastics. So, invariably, I’m up at sparrow’s fart freezing my Khyber off working over my favourite haunts. Fortunately, the results usually justify the chilly starts but I still hate them and bed always seems so warm at 5.30am.

So what’s available on plastics during the cooler months? There are usually loads of big bream, good numbers of plate-sized flathead, some of the best bass fishing for the year and my favourite, mulloway, in size and numbers.

If you like any of the above species and you like the challenge plastic fishing offers, you should be getting excited at the prospect of chilly starts and gloomy, overcast days.

Here on the North Coast the annual bream run usually kicks into gear late April early May, depending on weather patterns and so on. But once you see those greedy beach-haulers camped on every southern beach corner up and down the coast, you know the mullet and bream are just about ready to run.

In the past few years the bream have run just after the sea mullet, and thankfully the netters packed up a month early and most fish inundated the lower reaches of many North Coast rivers.

In my early days I use to think those big bream in the deep lower sections of the rivers as bait-only propositions but in recent years I have realised those big silver bream are absolute suckers for well-worked grubs and small shads.

The trick is working the lures deep enough in the strong tides usually encountered close to the estuary mouths. It’s tricky fishing where boat positioning is just as critical as lure presentation, but the results can be terrific.

I still like to use my standard bream spinning gear (small threadline, 4lb braid and a 7’ rod) but go up a few sizes in jig weight. Most of my Summer shallow-water bream work is with jigs ranging from 1/32oz to 1/16oz but for the deep tidal walls, 1/8oz is nearly ideal. I still use the 2” grubs and shads, but work them in a series of slow twitches where my objective is actually fishing the drop rather then the retrieve.

It’s vasty different from the shallow fishing and it will take some time to feel comfortable working the lures into the depths but the results are usually good with some ripper silver bream coming to the boat.

BASS

Heading up-river to brackish tidal water, you leave most bream behind and are now in the domain of big Winter bass. This is more of a late-season fishery when you’ll be targeting post-spawn fish readying themselves for the slow return trip back up into the freshwater reaches of the system.

Prime time is usually around August and September as most fish have spawned months earlier.

The Winter bass fishery is quite different from that of Summer. During the cooler months the fish are generally far less active on top, so the best results are often had fishing deep in the water column.

Basically, the fishes’ diet gets restricted to sub-surface offerings of prawns and small baitfish and by using plastics that appeal to bream, you can encounter some terrific cold-water fishing.

I’m still a big fan of the 2” grubs for big Winter bass. Despite being quite small, there’s just something about the seductively rippling tail that few bass can resist. And if you bear in mind most of the prawns the bass are dining on during Winter are roughly 2” long, it makes sense to offer them simular-sized snacks.

As a bonus, by sticking with the smaller offerings, you put yourself back in the running for the occasional bream that ends up in the brackish water at the same time.

In the brackish water you’ll find bass anywhere you’d expect to find a bream – overhanging or sunken timber, rock bars, deep rock walls, bridge and jetty pylons – find the structure and you’ll usually find a few co-operative bass.

Many North Coast rivers are quite deep and very tidal in the brackish sections, so careful jig selection is paramount. Most areas require around 1/8oz with 1/16oz fine when the tide slows before turning.

FLATHEAD

Many anglers consider flathead as strictly a Summer species and I guess it’s true to say flathead are generally more active when the water is warm. But there’s a surprising number of fish ready to take lures during the cooler months.

In fact, flathead numbers in Winter can be so great at times they’re a nuisance when chasing bass! One spot I regularly fish for bass has a bottom that is almost a carpet of lizards, with sessions producing 20 to 30 flathead not uncommon. Admittedly, most are quite small, with the average perhaps 500g or so, but a few larger fellows are often mixed in.

In the lower reaches of the river flathead seem more intent on lying up on shallow tidal flats, basking in the warm Winter sun. Find an area of ribbon weed, broken shell grit or rock in less than two metres of water and it’s a fair chance you’ll find a few flathead catching some rays there.

These possies are real gun high-tide propositions that may fire only for an hour or so until the tide ebbs again, so fish them quickly if you know several locations that are much the same.

JEWFISH

Catching jewfish on soft plastics is something that has just started to take off in many areas. With the advent of more user-friendly jigheads and soft bodies, recent interest on fishing websites, plus feature articles in some of the national magazines, it’s little wonder the word is getting out.

I must admit to being a jewfish addict, having spent half my life chasing these majestic fish. Like most jewfish anglers, I’ve spent plenty of hours in atrocious conditions throwing big baits and lures, hoping to snare one.

Most of my fishing was after the sun had set and, at best, I’d hook one every two trips, usually landing only one. Sure, occasionally you’d hit a purple patch and catch three or four but, more often than not, it was a struggle to find one co-operative fish.

But now the tables have finally turned and, with a good supply of softies, jig heads and a well set-up boat, my success has nearly tripled.

The keys to success for this style of fishing are a good local knowledge of the area you intend to fish, good judgment when deciding which weight jig to tie on and, certainly not least, a good feel for where the lure is in the water column and a feeling for the often subtle hits and bumps in general.

I’m still surprised at how softly a jewfish can pick up a lure. If you haven’t got a good feel for what’s going on at the other end, you’ll invariably miss plenty of fish. Sure, some mulloway absolutely slam the jigs and these ones you usually don’t miss too often, but the subtle ones can be tricky. I basically strike on suspicion, and more often then not a solid fish is at the other end.

Jewfish can reside virtually anywhere within an estuary system so you have to try to isolate where they’re more likely to hold up. Places to start looking are deep rock walls, bridge and jetty pylons and deep holes, even mid-way across the river.

You’re looking for places that are likely to hold baitfish. Find the bait and you stand a reasonable chance of finding a jewfish or two.

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