There is fishing in the snags, and then there is fishing in the snags. If you’re feeling adventurous, you’ll find there is a big difference between just getting your lure right back under the trees, and getting your whole boat in there as well!
This article is for those who aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty. If you relish the thought of close quarters combat and looking your quarry right in the eye, then this type of fishing will probably appeal to you. However, if you are afraid of getting your pretty boat scratched or busting your expensive graphite rods, then perhaps you’d better skip the following and read about something a bit less intense.
This is type of fishing is full-on and I’ll be the first to admit that it won’t appeal to everyone, but I’ve had success with it from one end of the country to the other and have almost always found it to be effective. Often it produces fish when other methods are drawing a blank and I have wondered many times why it isn’t more popular. Then again, I guess some people simply prefer the laid back approach of waiting for the fish to come to them rather than actively seeking them out.
The sort of fishing I’m talking about here is fishing the snags. Not simply by casting your lures into the snags, but physically dragging your boat back in there under the cover with the fish. Once you’re inside the fish’s comfort zone, it’s then a matter of using extremely short casts to target fish that you have, in most cases, already seen. It’s hand-to-hand, sight fishing in the structure, and it’s usually explosive stuff.
While this technique works on anything from freshwater species like trout and cod to tropical thugs like trevally and jewfish, my favourite deep cover quarry would have to be barramundi in the mangroves. Barra are ambush feeders and they are perfectly at home swimming amongst the tangled snags and mangrove roots. By getting in under cover with the fish, I’ve been fortunate enough to watch countless barra snooping about in centimetres of water, hidden from the outside world by the draping canopy of branches.
While you shouldn’t expect to find many really huge barra in the branches, the sheer number of fish you can see way back in under the structure can be a real eye opener. On some mangrove flats, I have witnessed upwards of fifty barra before I’ve covered a couple of hundred metres. Quite frequently, average-sized barra will be found hanging around in small schools, however this is not always a good thing as there are so many eyes looking about that one of the fish will usually spot you before you can get a cast away.
And that’s the whole trick to catching fish when you are right in the snags with them. You have to be able to put your lure in front of the fish without spooking it, which isn’t easy. While fishing amongst the mangroves, you have to move ultra quietly and slowly, and even electric motors are not usually sneaky enough. The best way we have found to get around is to do away with the motor all together and use the structure to pull the boat around. Amongst the trees, it’s simply a matter of pulling the boat from branch to branch. In the more open areas, a short push pole can be useful to move you on to the next convenient branch.
You need to move slowly and cautiously at all times, as sudden movements are a sure-fire way to spook any nearby fish. Even when casting, keep movement to a minimum: your wrist should be about the only part of your body that moves. With branches all around, gentle side casts are generally all you will be able to make. This is an advantage however, as they are harder for the fish to detect, and a gentle lob will allow the lure to enter the water with minimal splash.
You also need to keep your eyes open. Scan the water all around. Don’t expect to see whole fish, but watch for bits of fish, moving shadows, a flicker of silver – anything that seems out of place. Some people are just naturally better at this than others, and I have fished with blokes who almost seem to have X-ray vision when it comes to spotting fish amongst the shadows and snags. Don’t despair if you are not one of the lucky ones though. Like most things, the more you practise, the better you will get at finding fish
Of course, barra aren’t the only fish to be found in under the trees. Salmon, jacks, bream, mullet, catfish, stingrays, sharks and a whole host of species will all roam up in the shallows under the cover of the trees. Even mud crabs can often be found just sitting on the bottom, and are easily scooped up with a landing net. On occasions, I have even found muddies fighting, which allowed me to score a double header with one scoop.
When you are in the trenches with your opponent, it becomes almost hand-to-hand combat. Consequently, this is no place for light gear. I use short, forgiving fibreglass or graphite/glass rods. Ugly sticks are excellent, as they are soft enough in the tip to provide a bit of flex, while still being gutsy enough to stop most fish in their tracks. They are also as tough as old boots, and have shown a remarkable ability to survive getting smashed into trees and overhead obstacles, which will happen frequently no matter how careful you are.
Choice of reel is not overly important, as there is no room for long runs amongst the sticks. You either stop them or pop them as they say. However, you will need to be able to make short accurate casts with either hand, and from virtually any angle. Robust threadlines are a pretty good choice, but I actually prefer barra-sized baitcasters spooled with whichever type of braid line you prefer. Look for reels that are strongly built, and have a drag that can be relied upon to work at the very top end of its range.
This article mainly deals with fishing under the mangrove forests and the best places to find suitable hunting grounds are on shallow shelving mud flats with a distinct ‘front line’ of trees guarding the outer edge. These kind of shallow flats have a gentle slope and subsequently drain slower and hold more fishable water amongst the trees than steep banks do. Once you actually get inside the fist line of trees, you will quickly realise that there is actually a lot more water to move around in under the branches than you initially thought. You will probably also be amazed at just how far back into the sticks you can get your boat if you really try.
While fish can be found literally anywhere amongst the trees, some places seem to hold more than others. If there are small drains or deeper channels or creeks running out of the trees, pay these areas particular attention because the fish will use them to move in and out of cover. Also, don’t forget to turn your head around occasionally and check over your shoulder. Sometimes you will find fish simply patrolling along the outer edge of the trees behind you.
Mangrove flats are not the only places where this type of fishing is successful. Artificial structure can be just as productive. Wharves and jetties provide the same shade and protection as overhanging trees and hold a surprising number of fish. Of course, not all structure is open to the public, but where it is legal to do so, some very good inner city fishing can be had.
The main difference with fishing artificial structure is that it tends to be located in much deeper water than the mangroves. This means fish are not always so easy to spot and you spend more of your time ‘blind casting’ to locate the fish. This is the complete opposite of mangrove fishing, where you only cast to fish you have already seen. The upside to fishing under wharves and jetties is that the fish are usually not so spooky and you can get away with a bit more noise and movement. It is still challenging stuff however, and the next jack, bream or big barra to grab a lure and hopelessly wrap the line around the pylons definitely won’t be the last.
The best news is that you don’t need a mega-expensive boat for this sort of fishing. In fact, smaller boats are better; my old 4m tinnie was an ideal platform because it was relatively stable and easy to pull around. The main criteria is that they have a shallow draft, are easy to manoeuvre and light enough to drag off the mud should you stay too long and run out of water when the tide drops. Unpainted hulls are also good, as you will spend less time worrying about all the scratches you are putting on it, and more time looking for fish.
I’ll be the first to admit that fishing right in the snags like this won’t appeal to everyone, but if you give it a go, I’m sure you’ll find it challenging and productive. On hard-fished waters, doing something that is different to the usual approach is the best way to improve your catch. It’s also strangely addictive once you get used to it. So check out your local waters to see if there is anywhere you can get right back into the thick stuff with the fish. If you find a suitable place, I’m sure you’ll be amazed by the action it produces.
When it comes to tossing lures in the shallows inside the mangrove tree line, there is really only one choice, and that’s soft plastics. Soft plastics can be rigged weedless and that makes them far less likely to hang up on the mangrove roots and breathers than hard-bodied lures with treble hooks. They are best fished unweighted as you don’t want them plummeting to the bottom and getting snagged. They are also relatively cheap, so it doesn’t hurt so much when you get blown away.
Specific patterns are not that important, as most fish encountered in the trees will be in feeding mode and likely to snap up anything that comes their way. I have used various plastics with success but shads, stickbaits and prawn imitations always seem to be amongst the best producers. The DOA Prawn is a bit of a standout and has been a big hit with barra and those incredibly frustrating threadfin salmon.
In the deeper water under wharves and jetties, tides don’t seem to be as important as they are on the mangrove flats. Because of the shade provided by the platform overhead, time of day is not so critical either, however times when there is less human activity are usually best.
On the flats however, it’s a different ball game. The best time to fish is a dropping tide and you should try to be there as soon as enough water has come off the flats to allow you room to move under the trees. This way you will usually have enough time to find a few fish before the water drains away and it gets too shallow. Just make sure you don’t stay too long and get left high and dry.
Drawing: This illustration shows where you should be in relation to the bank and the trees. It also shows the way in which the trees are generally further apart on the edge of the flats and closer together as you head into the bank.