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It’s salmon heaven!
  |  First Published: August 2009



Australian salmon have become a year-round proposition in the past couple of seasons but September through to January is traditionally the time when they appear in the lower reaches of the Harbour and Broken Bay.

The closing of the cannery at Eden has seen decreased commercial pressure on stocks in the past decade and it appears that numbers have increased quite dramatically. Salmon fishing has been sensational over the past few years and should continue, providing the commercial fishos don’t start hitting them again

The lower reaches of Sydney Harbour are salmon heaven, mainly because it is also baitfish heaven.

Sydney Harbour is a harbour, not a river. This might sound like a bad case of stating the obvious but the differences are often overlooked.

The Hawkesbury River has the depth and the baitfish, but not the salmon.

This is because the Hawkesbury pumps huge volumes of fresh water into the ocean. This creates two conditions unfavourable to salmon, lower salinity and turbid, low-visibility water.

Pelagics are physically less able to deal with fresh water than estuary fish like bream or mullet, for example.

They are also visual hunters so clear water is an obvious advantage.

Having said that, the lower reaches around Broken Bay and Pittwater can be salmon hot spots providing there hasn’t been too much rain upstream.

The Harbour, on the other hand, has a tiny freshwater catchment compared with the Hawkesbury and, except in times of severe flooding, remains clear.

Why depth is so important to salmon is not so obvious. It certainly gives them another option when fleeing from predators but mostly it gives those sensitive, lidless eyes a break from the midday sun.

Coastal harbours are baitfish magnets, being warm, still and clear. They obviously supply the nutrients they require as well.

So Sydney Harbour has it all – masses of food and clear, deep saline water.

FINDING FISH

Most people I know would rather cast to salmon than troll for them.

What do you do, though, if you want to cast a lure or fly to pelagics but can’t see them on the surface? Troll until you find them and then cast.

Trolling lures is a legitimate fish-finding tool, even if you do not like or intend to catch them this way.

Trolling lures is a great way of finding salmon. Trolling around the headlands, particularly North, South and Middle heads, is the preferred option when the fish, or the baitfish, cannot be visually or electronically located in open water.

Of course, with their highly mobile nature, salmon can be expected to turn up anywhere and we have even caught them as far upstream as Bantry Bay in Middle Harbour.

Strong concentrations of baitfish have been known to lead them well up into the mangrove country but this is the exception rather than the rule.

Trolling is best done with minnow-style lures.

Metal baitfish profiles and skirted lures, the likes of Christmas trees, are good when the fish are high up in the water column. Those types of lures will ride high at the trolling speeds required for pelagics (4 to 8 knots).

Minnows offer deep-diving capabilities, or at least reliable depth control.

A trolling pattern must be established to locate the concentrations of fish.

This usually involves a close run first and then moving a little bit wider on each run after that.

Troll both directions on each run because it’s common to find fish biting in one direction and not the other.

Keep an eye on:

• Your sounder for baitfish concentrations;

• Other boats trolling to see where and what they are catching (and so you don't run into them);

• Birds working the surface;

• Current lines and, most importantly

• Gnarly waves, bommies and other safety hazards.

Salmon regularly work bait on the surface.

At these times they can be visually located, often kilometres away, by looking for the accompanying flocks of seabirds cashing in on the leftover baitfish.

Not every surface-feeding school has birds but even they can be visually located just by looking for the surface disturbance. Obviously, good sea conditions make the job a lot easier.

There are times when the erupting schools will be heard before they are seen.

APPROACHING SCHOOLS

When the time comes to approach the school, there are a few things to keep in mind.

Don't charge right up to, and never into, the feeding school as this will almost certainly put them down.

There exceptions to this, when a rapid approach is essential.

At certain times will, feed in very short bursts and if you are not there quickly you will miss your shot.

You must approach fast but keep your distance. The obvious distance to pull up is at the extremity of your personal casting range.

You will probably be sharing the school with many other boats, especially on weekends, so keep your wits about you in respect to safe navigation.

Whatever you do, don't go charging through the middle of the school because it will put the school down and attract plenty of verbal abuse your way from those in the other boats.

As frenzied as these feeding sprees often get, the fish will not tolerate a boat being driven straight through them. Regardless, this is a situation that I confront every weekend on the Harbour.

Three or four boats will slowly and quietly approach the outskirts of a school and will be in the process of being rewarded for their stealth when, out of nowhere, some clown will go powering right through the middle, putting the fish down immediately.

If you power through a gathering of any type of animal (except maybe sheep) they will scatter, so why do these morons think that fish are going to be any different?

I’ve found the best approach is to get just within casting distance as quickly as possible and let fly. Speed is the essence in this situation.

You must consider your boat’s shadow, which will put fear into the school long before the engine noise.

Shadows are the early warning sign of a large predator, whereas engine noise is just a little unusual. Fish have proven to be to be far more wary of dangers that they are familiar with.

The basic rule is to never get between the sun and the fish. The lower the sun is in the sky, the more this applies.

Try to anticipate the direction that the fish are moving and be sure not to put your boat in their path.

You can use the wind to make a quiet approach on a school but position your drift to take you alongside the school, not over the top of it.

LURE SELECTION

Lure selection in these situations is more a matter of size than type or colour.

You are all familiar with the concept of ‘matching the hatch’ but how do we determine the hatch?

Seabirds help a lot. They won't even show up unless it’s worth their while.

A birdless patch of feeding salmon usually indicates that the prey is very tiny. And, at the other extreme, the bigger the patch of birds the bigger the prey.

Tiny bait inhaled whole leaves little to interest a seagull but a 10cm pilchard chopped in half or stunned by a crushing blow certainly provides an easy and worthwhile target for a bird.

If you are lucky you might even see the prey as it showers from the water in an effort to escape.

If all else fails, start with your smallest lure and work your way up.

Fish honed in on a certain size prey will regularly eat something smaller but rarely anything bigger.

Never assume that the fish you are seeing on the top are necessarily the fish you are catching.

In these situations it is not uncommon for fish of different species to layer, i.e. salmon on top, bonito under them and then trevally under them.

Your first few casts should be retrieved immediately but later casts should be allowed to sink to varying depths before the retrieve. Many pleasant surprises have come from this technique.

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