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Icy but nice – at times
  |  First Published: August 2005



If you are a newcomer to the Canberra-Monaro scene you might wonder what the heck we fish for in the depths of Winter when there is heaps of snow all over the mountains, many roads are iced over or snowed under and impassable, day temperatures sometimes stagger up to only 4° and night temperatures get down to minus 10° or lower.

When a screaming alpine gale comes up and you have a wind-chill factor of around minus 30°.

When it is so cold that you use an Esky to stop food and grog from freezing rather than just to keep it cool and you can make ice cubes on the back patio faster than you can in your freezer.

When a fish thrown up on the bank is frozen stiff in a short time and the biggest threat to your day's fishing is when your reel freezes shut and the runners in your fly rod freeze up and put a stop your casting.

For a start, that's just the description of the worst weather we have. In reality, many days are much milder than that with clear blue skies, no wind, scenery that brings tears to your eyes and fish that are sometimes obliging in even the coldest weather.

REDFIN FEED

Redfin, for example, can be surprisingly active during Winter. Of course they are not as hungry or aggressive in Winter as they are in Summer but they are a Northern Hemisphere species well adjusted to cooler conditions.

In fact they even breed when the water gets up to 12.5°, a temperature lower than that at which any other fish in Australia, apart from trout and galaxias, will breed.

In Canberra's urban lakes the water gets down to about 2° and it is common to find ice in the shallows, especially in shaded areas. If you skip those areas and fish in the more open spots you can get redfin on lures if the water is clear enough.

The best locations are where there is deeper water close to shore where there is likely to be stratification and formation of warmer zones in the clear water that are the closest fit to the fish's comfort zone. In that layer the fish can most easily and efficiently absorb oxygen and are thus more likely to be active feeders.

Bait sometimes is more effective than lures, especially where the water is turbid as a result of runoff from rain, from wind-throw or from algal development.

Tiger worms can be useful fished as a bunch on the hook but commonly stop wriggling shortly after immersion in cold water and thus are just that bit less attractive to the fish.

Scrub worms, imported from the cold high country of Tasmania and sold in local Canberra tackle shops, are a much better proposition. They remain more active in cold water and have a more attractive odour than tiger worms.

A whole or half scrub worm fished on a light running sinker rig is quite likely to attract a fish. Casting and retrieving the bait frequently, as if it was a lure, also is a technique worth trying as redfin are inordinately curious fish and will chase and investigate anything that moves in their field of vision.

They also are adept at picking up vibrations though their lateral line and are able to home in on a moving bait with surprising accuracy.

CARP OBLIGING

Carp aren't the most attractive fish in most people's eyes but can provide a bit of fun on a quiet Winter's day. As with redfin, they are more sluggish in Winter but are still likely to take a worm or a kernel of sweet corn.

They normally prefer the brighter and warmer parts of the day but just recently I saw some large specimens in Lake Burley Griffin tailing and obviously feeding just after dawn when the air temperature was around minus 3°.

Big specimens are exceptionally strong and some anglers fish for them just to experience the feel of a tough, strong fish ripping out metres of line. Any fish you land, of course, are taken home and buried in the garden as fertiliser although an occasional one is eaten by some unsuspecting idealist who thinks they have just caught their Sunday dinner.

What they should remember is that when we ran a competition here some years ago to find the best recipe for cooking carp the winning entry was: “Soak in kerosene, set alight and run.”

NATIVES DIFFICULT

Native fish vary in their response during Winter. All of them, being warm-water species, are hard to interest during the cold weather but occasional specimens can be taken if you work at it.

Murray cod and golden perch, for example, tend to get to the bottom during Winter and don't feed very often. It's hard to get them to chase a lure but sometimes if you get the right lure close enough to them they will take it.

That's why we use deep divers that get down to their resting depths and big lures for higher visibility and attractiveness. We also work on the basis of repeated casting to a likely location on the basis that eventually we will get right up close to the fish or drive it nuts to the point where it simply grabs a lure from irritation rather than hunger.

In recent years we have experimented more with spinnerbaits and soft plastics than traditional deep-diving minnows, sometimes with pleasing success. With these lures it is easier to target a resting fish in deep water and jiggle it up and down in manner hopefully more attractive to the fish than a lure that passes by quickly. It stands to reason that keeping a lure in the strike zone longer should result in more strikes and the evidence to date suggests that that is exactly what does happen.

It's early days yet with this technique but with more practice I'm sure it can be refined as an effective Winter technique.

Bait fishing, of course, is a preferred option for cod and golden perch in Winter. The smell and activity of live bait often is the telling factor in finding fish on what can otherwise be a pretty slow day.

The best baits are tiger worms, scrub worms, live shrimps, live yabbies and wood grubs.

Smell and movement are the two considerations when choosing a bait. Tiger worms and scrub worms have their own definitive odours and can be very good but nothing beats the odour of a freshly-punctured wood grub. I know it spreads quickly though the water because I have tested a drop or two of the juice in a large 1000-litre fish tank and it has evoked a response from the resident golden perch and Murray cod within seconds.

It is the preferred bait of many old-timers who have a lifetime of cod-chasing to back up their decisions.

Live yabbies and shrimps are useful baits. There is speculation that piezoelectricity, a special form of electrical energy released in minute pulses when the joints of legs, antennae or shells of yabbies and shrimps are articulated, can be detected by fish which then home in on the bait.

Certainly we know that platypus can find their prey in this manner and it is likely that fish can act in something of the same manner, although perhaps not as efficiently. Either way, these crustaceans are great bait to use at any time during Winter.

TROUT A STANDBY

Trout, of course, are our great standby during Winter. Like redfin, they come from cold Northern Hemisphere environments and are perfectly at home in freezing waters even in the depths of Winter.

The streams are closed until September 30 to allow the browns and rainbows to spawn but the lakes are open all year round and provide good fishing because the two different species spawn at different times.

The browns breed mostly in June-August and the rainbows mostly in August-October so there is always a population of catchable fish in the lakes.

Winter fishing can be superb, with crisp, cold days and frigid nights. Use baits, flies and lures off the bank and trolled lures from boats, as long as you are appropriately dressed for the weather and thus safe and comfortable.

Best baits are scrub worms and PowerBait. Best lures off the bank and trolled with lead-core line or downrigger are small minnows, spoons, Celtas and Tasmanian Devils.

Fly fishers mostly use larger flies, especially late in the afternoon and for the first hour or so after dark before it becomes too cold to continue fishing.

Polaroiding – walking the bank and spotting fish with polarising glasses before casting to them – is magnificent fun, challenging and productive.

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