Ravenous and predatory by nature, the Australian salmon is without question, one of the most accessible and hardest fighting sportfish available to southern anglers. Commonly referred to as sambos or black-backs, larger Australian salmon are admirable opponents, with a reputation for their speed, spectacular aerial antics and dogged determination.
A migratory species of our cool and temperate waters, salmon are found right around the southern seaboard and are also prolific about much of the New Zealand coastline. There are two subspecies of Australian salmon found in Australian waters: the western species (Arripis truttacea) and the eastern species (Arripis trutta). Both varieties are found largely in estuaries, bays, harbours, along beaches and rocky shorelines and further offshore. They frequently hunt in areas of strong wave or current action with a covering of aerated white water.
Australian salmon are olive green to steel blue with small dark spots on their back and upper sides, and pale yellow-green to silvery white below. Their pectoral fins are bright yellow. Juvenile salmon, also known as bay trout, are silvery white with several rows of large golden or brown spots on their back and sides. Salmon have a moderately elongated body with small eyes and a relatively large mouth. Although they can grow to in excess of 6kg, salmon are more commonly encountered in sizes ranging from a few hundred grams up to 2-3kg.
Since spawning occurs on coastal headlands and further offshore, salmon enter our southern bays and estuaries driven exclusively by the urge to consume. Feeding primarily on whitebait and krill, they can be found herding and harassing massive schools of bait at various times throughout the day, but periods of low light are generally more favourable.
Fuelled by an unrelenting desire to feed and always on the lookout for an easy meal, salmon are ideal targets for southern sports anglers craving pelagic style action. While trolling various metal slices, hard bodies and skirted lures is still highly productive, casting soft plastics usually provides unrivalled versatility and variety in terms of presentation. They can be worked throughout the entire water column, deep or shallow, fast or slow and even skipped across the surface to replicate a fleeing shrimp or baitfish.
Locating salmon can be difficult at times, particularly if they are holding down deep. When the food chain is working at its best however, birds hovering, diving or flapping furiously above rippling water and nervous baitfish is a sure sign larger predators are nearby.
Salmon schools work together methodically, circling and herding their prey into a tight ball, driving them up to the surface where they are vulnerable. Unleashing a spate of torpedo like assaults, salmon gorge themselves to the point where their stomachs bulge. Under siege, hapless baitfish are dispersed in all directions, as repeated attacks gradually dissect the herd.
Only on rare occasions are the fish on the surface in the same area for a sustained period. Once the birds have been spotted, move fast, driving at full throttle towards the foaming water. Consider the direction of the wind, strength of the current and how fast the school is moving, and decide whether to approach from the side or from in front of the boiling mass. Switch the engine off at least 50m away and glide, drift, row or use an electric outboard engine to get into position. Always resist the temptation to troll straight through the middle of a school, as it is almost certain to send them deep.
The use of an electric motor to silently manoeuvre the boat is a distinct advantage in this situation. Similarly, pedal powered kayaks also enable a stealthy approach, but chasing fast moving schools presents a far greater challenge. If positioned correctly, you will soon be amidst the adrenalin pumping action with fish swarming all around the boat. Trembling with excitement, try to maintain composure and fire a long accurate cast deep into the frenzied water. Commence retrieving immediately, winding at a steady pace and shaking the rod tip above your head until you feel weight. Upon setting the hook, be prepared for several bursts of speed and numerous head shaking leaps, before engaging in a persistent circling battle down deep.
When there are no visual signs of salmon on the surface it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not willing to feed. Often the start of the run out tide is a trigger for equally rampant feeding activity, minus the visual appeal. As water drains off the shallower flats creating a bottle neck at the mouth of bays and estuaries, salmon conserve energy in the eddies, casually picking off unsuspecting baitfish and shrimp as they’re funnelled through the main channel. Soft plastics should be cast slightly upstream and allowed to drift down with the current. Experiment with the speed of retrieve and don’t be afraid to incorporate a few short sharp jabs or longer sweeping lifts of the rod tip. Although salmon are fast movers and generally prefer a steady retrieve, pausing the lure often turns follows and bumps into solid hook-ups.
Even while holding deeper in the water column, salmon keep a close eye on the surface activity. If you suspect salmon are in the area, but they’re reluctant to hit soft plastics, tie on a popper and start ripping it across the surface. You’ll be surprised how seemingly shut down fish will rise to at least inspect and follow a seductive surface presentation.
Another method employed to stir up inactive fish holding in deeper water is the ‘burn and pause’ retrieve. After casting, allow your lure to sink to the bottom, before retrieving flat-out and pausing about half way back to the boat. At times this will stir them into frenzy, with multiple fish competing for your lure. I’ve seen salmon so charged up and agitated that it was literally impossible not to catch one. Amazingly, even cranking the handle at top speed and skipping the lure metres across the surface still resulted in a fish.
Trolling soft plastics against a slower moving current is another technique worth trying for fish feeding in mid water. After drifting downstream and casting at current lines and eddies, towing lures back to your mark is likely to produce a few bonus fish. Interestingly, the use of an electric motor is not as effective in this situation. Petrol motors, however, displace more water, creating a wash or a bubble trail, and salmon often emerge from the depths to inspect the commotion. Even trolling plastics or poppers on the surface, in the bubble trail, is successful and creates the potential for some spectacular hook-ups. As mentioned earlier, if there are fish busting up on the surface, avoid driving straight through the school.
A typical 2-5kg sports fishing rod ranging from 6-7ft in length, matched to a 2000-3000 size reel is more than adequate. My preference is for 6-8lb Berkley Fireline and 6-10lb Berkley Vanish or Nitlon Fluorocarbon Leader. A range of soft plastics work well, but your choice should be determined by the size of the bait the salmon are pursuing on the day. Basically, minnows, single-tailed grubs and worm-style soft plastics in natural colours are hard to beat.
While casting soft plastics at schools of salmon there is always a chance of picking up plenty of other species, particularly if you allow the lure to reach the bottom. Depending on the location, kingfish, tailor, mulloway, flathead, snapper, trevally or snook are also likely to be lurking nearby.
Personally, sight casting at 1-2kg salmon provides a welcome change of pace from chasing finicky bream close to structure. With two anglers in the boat, double hook-ups are common and the memories of scorching runs, spectacular aerials and adrenalin fuelled action remain with you forever. While other species often take precedence, there’s no denying the sport fishing attributes of Australian salmon.
SOUTHERN SALMON HOTSPOTS
Pt Road Knight
Pt Lonsdale / The Rip