Cracking the cold-water code
  |  First Published: August 2004

WE ARE just about to hit the toughest time of the year, with water temperatures at their lowest , crystal-clear water (accentuated by the lack of rain) and howling westerly winds.

This shouldn’t stop you coming home with a feed but it will mean that you will have to take a bit more care when planning your trip. Feeding periods tend to be more precise and shorter at this time of year so you need to pay very close attention to tides, moon phases and pressure systems.

Fishes’ metabolisms slow right down when the water chills and they eat less. To conserve energy they maximise their effort by feeding only at the most opportune times.

In Summer the run-out tide tends to produce the best fishing because warm water from the shallow upper reaches moves out with the tide to the lower reaches. In Winter it’s the opposite: The upper reaches chill right down and the outgoing tide produces a flood of cold water.

I’ve monitored water temps upstream and downstream over a range of seasons. I have listed averages below to give you an idea of what I’m talking about.

Summer: Upstream 26°, downstream 21°, ocean 24°.

Winter: Upstream 14°, downstream 16°, ocean 19°.

So you can see that in Summer the upper reaches will fire and the lower reaches will fish better on the outgoing as the warm water comes down. The water is so warm upstream that things like tide, moon and pressure systems have little impact.

And in winter, the upper reaches will shut down while the lower reaches will fire up as the incoming tide brings in warmer ocean water. Big high tides are good in Winter as they bring in more warm water and for longer. You can also see that the greatest variation in temperature happens upstream and therefore you can expect the greatest variation in fish behaviour upstream

Moons play a part, too. I find the full moon to be the best in Winter. High-pressure systems are good in Summer or Winter but their effects are more obvious and precise in Winter.

Having a good variety of quality bait helps, too. I spread out a couple of live baits, prawns, salted slimy mackerel and pilchard. This way you are appealing to a wider variety of species and increasing your chances.


I also do a lot more berleying in Winter. By this I don’t mean that I use more berley but, rather, that I berley more often.

Winter is not the ideal time for sportfishing but this is compensated for by great eating fish like snapper, morwong, dory, jackets and flounder. Furthermore , the fish that cross over both seasons, like tailor, trevally, flathead and the occasional kingie are much tastier due to their high Winter fat content.

Next time you clean a tailor in Winter, take note of the amount of fat on your hands and your knife compared with similar fish in Summer. That fat is the good oil, too, being high in Omega 3 fatty acids.

Some reliable Winter species include:

Luderick: The big suckers are found in the lower reaches around the reefs and structure, such as Sow and Pigs and the Wedding Cakes. There’s always a squabble among fishos for rare river weed at this time of year despite the fact that these big lower harbour bronzies actually prefer cabbage from the ocean rocks which , fortunately , is in abundance. The reliability of luderick is due to the fact that, being vegetarians, they are constantly grazing. They need to eat a lot more than a carnivore simply because veggies yield less energy than meat.

Being vegetarians, drummer (silver and black) fall into the same category as luderick. You will find them in abundance off all the deep rocky shores along the harbours sound.

Black drummer are very good to eat and the silvers are edible with a bit of work and tricky cooking.

Salmon are now in abundance since the easing of commercial netting and have become a year-round proposition. They are commonly found at the Heads, North Harbour and occasionally up around Clifton Gardens. The only thing that changes is what they are feeding on and this can have a dramatic impact on their catchability.

If it’s tiny bait then they become ‘one in a thousand casts’ fish but, if the bait is big, they are too easy. They are the best sportfish you will encounter regularly in Winter on the Harbour.

Trevally, while they can be caught all year, are at their peak from July to November. They don’t mind the cold and will head well upstream but are most common in the lower reaches. They like deep water and plenty of berley and love salted slimy mackerel baits, lightly weighted.

John dory are at their best when they first move in, around May, but can be caught right through until November. They can be found lurking well upstream as far as Bantry Bay in Middle Harbour and Mosman Bay in the main Harbour. They are most common around the deep moorings in the lower harbour, particularly North Harbour, and are taken almost exclusively on live bait.

Tailor are in the Harbour all year. The main difference in Winter is that they rarely feed on the surface and are bigger. You can still take them on deep-diving lures early in the morning or on live baits fished in the deep holes but if you want some whoppers, try night fishing around Sow And Pigs Reef and the shipping channels.

Flounder are more common in Winter but, like tailor, they are deeper and bigger. Try small soft plastics around the sandy drop-offs and deep moorings or drifting prawns around North Harbour and Rose Bay.

Complete shutdowns are a lot more common in Winter but you can almost eliminate them by knowing a bit about the available species, avoiding unfavourable conditions, having a wide variety of bait and having a back-up plan should your target species let you down.

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