Living in Gippsland enables me to regularly fish some of the best estuary waters Victoria has to offer. There are remote creeks and rivers with endless banks full of snags, and fish that may only see a handful of anglers each year.
There are vast shallow inlets like Bemm River, Marlo and Mallacoota, that have an army of dedicated regulars chasing flathead, tailor, salmon and bream. These amazingly prolific waters just keep producing fish, despite the year round pressure on them.
Then there’s the mighty Gippsland Lakes, with all its feeder streams like the Tambo and Mitchell rivers – the heartland of Victorian bream – which are fished by thousands of anglers. It is also, arguably, the estuary perch capital of Australia.
Within 15 minutes’ drive from home, I can be on the water fishing this impressive system, flicking soft plastics to aggressive estuary perch and ill-tempered bream in the sticks. Not to mention the omnipresent dusky flathead.
Gippsland’s a wonderful part of the world – an angling paradise. It’s even better when you own a kayak!
My fishing background is mainly flyfishing for trout. For nearly 12 years, that’s about all I did. But then I was introduced to a form of fishing I’d never done, or even considered. Casting lures to bream and perch.
About six years ago I was away camping and trout fishing with good mate Michael Fennessy. We were sitting around the campfire reflecting on how much fun we had catching 1.5kg trout in the middle of the night. Fenno was impressed with my foam ‘night-stalker’ beetle, and was grateful for me showing him how to trick those trout in the dark and wanted to return the favour.
Soon after that trip, Fenno had me casting lures from his tinnie trying to catch estuary perch and bream, down at Bemm River. I certainly didn’t expect to catch anything during my two days with him and thought I could learn something from watching him do his stuff.
Within an hour, I’d caught my first estuary perch and, by lunchtime, a fat bream and a yellow-eye mullet! I hadn’t even changed the lure! To top things off, I also got a nice brown trout – on the same lure! I don’t think I took that lure off for the whole trip, even when the paint was all but chewed off!
This was my introduction to estuary lurefishing, nearly six years ago now, and I’ve been totally obsessed since. Needless to say, for the time being, anyway, my flyfishing has suffered greatly.
I soon purchased a heap of lures and a couple of new rods and reels. It was also painfully obvious that without a boat, I wasn’t going get too many estuary fish. I finally parted with about $500 – and bought a new kayak – then set off in search of estuary perch.
I spent every available day on the water paddling around casting to snags and weedbeds in nearly every estuarine creek, river and inlet all over Gippsland. I was amazed, and even shocked, to find estuary perch in nearly every one of them.
I soon realised I could put the kayak in just about anywhere. No boat ramp needed and I could fish such shallow water and tiny creeks. As the days on the water unfolded, and the number of fish I caught grew (and grew!), my kayak began to evolve to maximise comfort, storage and a level of safety.
First of all, it was quickly evident that my behind was not suited to being punished on a single cushion for long periods. Now, I have four pillows stuffed into a heavy duty garbage bag (to keep them dry), and this seems to do the trick. Next came the backrest, and for this a milk crate-style box was the perfect answer. I tied a cushion to it for soft padding, which at the same time created much needed storage for thermos, raincoat, tackle boxes, food, anchor and other essentials.
Next, I needed to access all my lures, pliers, scissors, torch and other items. I mounted a tackle box right in front of me, on the deck of the kayak, which is easy and quick to reach. Most importantly, it’s easily detachable for restocking and safekeeping while on the road.
Then came the rod holders. I used two aluminium handles from the scrap yard and positioned them on the side of the kayak, just to the rear of where I sit. I can have the rods facing forwards or backwards. This keeps rods out of the way while paddling long distances, and also for securing a rod while unhooking and handling fish, or tying on leaders and lures.
An anchor was pretty simple. I used a heavy bit of scrap angle iron. A conventional anchor would be lost to the jungle of submerged structure. I needed something cheap, and expendable. Amazingly, after all this time, I’ve yet to cut it free from a hopeless tangle!
One of the best additions to my kayak was fixing about a metre of rope (with a clamp at one end) to the rear of the crate. This enabled me to quickly clamp onto overhanging trees near the bank, or structure like timber above the water line (and just below water level, too). This is a fast way to come to a halt, and even quicker to get going again, just unclamp and go. No tying or undoing knots, very handy in windy and tidal situations and perfect for staying in one spot to thoroughly work over a fishy snag. After all, lining yourself up to fish tiny gaps in a snag is like buying real estate… it’s all about location, location, location!
The single most important thing in my kayak is a small container for relieving my bladder! Most of the time getting clear access along a stream edge, to exit the kayak, is just not possible. Leaning over the side to relieve oneself is not easy, believe me!
The latest additions to my kayak are waterproof pockets with zippers that I’ve fixed to the side of the crate. Handy to keep gear dry and secure, like a camera, leader material, spare packets of soft plastics and the like. Keeping the floor of the kayak clear is a must. Things tend to get lost under the seat, or covered in mud, water or sand.
Paddles have to be as light as possible. When it comes to rods, they’ve got to be short and lightweight, too. These are the two things in your hands all day. Obviously, reels should also be small and lightweight.
I fish with my drag just about locked up. Sure, this means pulling the hooks or busting off a few thumpers, but if I can’t turn or extract a fish in the first few seconds, it usually means: a) it’s too big for me to have caught regardless; b) giving a fish any room for taking line means a fish and lure tangled somewhere deep in the snag; or c) winding in what’s left of my leader!
The kayak itself is a form of drag, anyway, with even small fish pulling the kayak around. One-handed backpaddling out of snags, while hooked-up to a fish, must be a comical sight for those looking on! Of course, when fishing open water, a set drag is a must.
I often wear waterproof pants, as all fish that come onboard end up on my lap. During summer, these pants get too steamy and a hot sun usually dries dampened clothing, anyway.
Perch are easy to handle with the usual thumb in the mouth grab. Bream tend to sit very quiet once out of the water, but it took me quite a while to get a handle on flathead!
Flathead up to about 60cm I usually lift in by the leader and pin their wagging tail between my knees. I then make a firm grab around the body (while still holding it up by the leader) just behind its head. Yeah, I know, right near those spikes! But having done this, it actually restricts the fish from any movement and they rarely try to wriggle. Just make sure the tail is firmly wedged between your knees! Once you get your head around actually handling a flathead with your bare hands, it gets easier every time.
I’ve had to learn how to quickly handle flathead, as I’m involved with tagging so many now. In one hot session recently, I caught, tagged, measured and unhooked 67 flathead ranging 26-62cm by using the above technique… and not one spiked finger or cut hand. Using a net would have been impossible (not much room for an Environet in a kayak), and even using a wet hand towel gets fiddly.
As for big flathead, well… it’s all ugly! They are super tough to handle in the confines of a kayak. My biggest so far is an 11-pounder and, at 88cm in length, it was a nightmare! I had to use a net and boy she took some extracting out of that! Then trying to immobilise, measure and tag her, had me chasing her around the bottom of the kayak! I’ve caught quite a few good flathead now with many into the mid-70cm range, and when it comes to handling them, all have been a teeth-gritting experience!
When I say I’m totally obsessed with fishing from my kayak, I mean it!
Consider this… I’ve been keeping records for the past four years. I average 120 days a year on the water. Three years ago in 2001, I released 798 estuary perch, 117 bream and a handful of flathead. Last year, I caught 310 estuary perch, 294 bream and 152 flathead. Most released with tags.
This year (2004), so far I’ve been on the water for 94 days, for 606 flathead, 173 bream and 168 estuary perch – all fish tagged, except for a couple of bream and flathead. About 90 per cent were caught on soft plastics, the rest on hard-bodied lures. I haven’t kept count on salmon, tailor, trevally and other species. Over 30 of my tagged fish have been recaptured now, with some amazing results.
I’m often asked: “When are you going to get a real boat?” I usually reply with: “Little boat, BIG fish!”
I’ve been in my mates’ Hornets or punts, fitted with electric motors and other luxuries, and I enjoy doing the steering up front, too. But I’m always keen to get back into my Dolphin kayak.
One of the best advantages with the kayak is my low profile to the water, which doesn’t spook many fish. This also enables accurate, flat casts, deep in and under overhanging snags. Many times, I have even gone in very quietly, over a snag, pulled my imbedded lure from the timber, gone back out, and after a few casts pulled more estuary perch from the same snag!
My record is 33 estuary perch from one big snag, in about two hours, where I had to go in, over the fish, and get my lure four times! Now this is real stealth!
Sadly, I’ve yet to find a prevention for stiff legs or a sore back, during and after a big day in the kayak. Things won’t get any easier now I’ve hit the big ‘four-OHH’, either! These days, I do a lot of running up and down in one spot, just before and after fishing in the kayak, to revitalise my legs. This does help a little, especially in winter.
People may shake their heads at the 8-10 hours (and in summer I’ll even go 12 hours!) I spend paddling around some days. Not to mention the kilometres I sometimes cover.
The main reason I catch a lot of fish is simply because of the sheer hours I spend chasing them. There’s always another snag, or another bend of the river, or another big flathead waiting on another sandflat. My greatest asset is probably not knowing when to stop. Maybe that’s called having no brains? Well, lucky me!
USE THESE PICS FIRST
4. Finally, a 45cm estuary perch gives up the fight, before being rleased.
5. A nice flathead nearly ready for lifting onboard the kayak.
8. Fishing the shallow margins for flathead.
9. When you’re in a kayak and trying to land ‘crocs’, like this 4.5kg flathead, it’s difficult to know ‘who has who’! This fish was, of course, tagged and released.
EXTRAS IF NEED THEM
1. A 74cm flathead before release. It was caught in just centimetres of water that only a small craft could get over.
2. A slice of heaven. What a joy to paddle around in country like this Gippsland creek.
3. A nasty estuary perch carving up the water before landing.
6. A Bemm River estuary perch tagged and ready for release.
7. Another Bemm River monster! This estuary perch had an enormous head and a pretty scrawny body. Looked like a very old fish and had probably been around at least 30 years.Reads: 1133