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Australian salmon: The great Aussie sportfish

HOW good are Aussie salmon as an accessible sportfish? Take that as a statement rather than a rhetorical question. We know there’s better fish for the table, but from a sportfishing perspective salmon are a fantastic fish and they tick a lot of boxes. How many southern species scoff lures aggressively, cartwheel once hooked, fight to the bitter end and, often roam in 10-ton schools… not many species huh?! Many of us here in the southern states cut our teeth chasing Aussie salmon from our local surf beaches at a young age. I certainly did, and I still get a buzz from a good salmon session these days.

Here in South Australia our stocks appear pretty healthy, and we’ve been enjoying year-round action on our local salmon. Admittedly the peak months coincide with late winter and into spring – but we’ve been finding schools right through the warmer months too. It’s not uncommon to find half a dozen schools of salmon dotted along our local surf beach when the conditions are right.

Of course, salmon aren’t just restricted to surf beaches, and they can be found in a range of environments from shallow bays and estuaries, around headlands, offshore islands and even around oyster racks. They’ve been turning up in more and more locations in recent years, and regardless of the setting, salmon love eating lures.

 Land Based Lure Casting

One of the advantages of hunting salmon is that you don’t need a boat to sample some of the best fishing; they’re accessible to anyone. My favourite salmon setting would have to be off the beach. These great fish seem to pull harder in the surging surf, and there’s nothing better than arriving at your local beach to find a black mass of fish holding in a near-shore gutter. Casting lures into the surf is the style of salmon fishing we do most, and when armed with a lightweight casting outfit and some lures, the fishing is simple and the action can be awesome.

Hitting a surf beach during periods of small swell and offshore wind offers good conditions to scout for any visible schools holding in the surf line. Schools are identified as a large dark mass in the surf, which is easily identified along beaches which lack weed and reef. If you’re unsure, if you watch the black mass for long enough, you’ll eventually see a flash of silver or the mass moving or changing shape. Sometimes the school will part as a bronze whaler or seal pushes through the middle of them.

We find that schools of salmon regularly push closer to shore during the building tide, especially during our larger daytime winter tides. If you watch a school for long enough, chances are that the fish will eventually move within casting range – but patience is the key.

For this style of fishing, having a lightweight surf outfit capable of punching out long casts is a huge advantage – every metre counts when you’re aiming for distance in the surf. I like using a 6 – 10kg spin rod with a length of between 9 – 10ft for casting metal lures into the surf, especially when matched to a 4000 or 5000 spin reel with 20lb braid. The thinner diameter braid will allow you to punch out some serious distance – especially some of the higher quality Japanese braids.

Lures can be simple metal slugs for this style of fishing – salmon are rarely fussy – but rear weighted lures designed for distance casting are the best option. I mainly use 60g lures in the surf, but I always carry 40 to 80 gram lures to be able to switch around to suit changing conditions. The Halco Outcast and Twisty are great salmon lures, along with Ocean Legacy Slingshot and Samaki Flash lures.

I retrofit my salmon lures with an inline single hook – this allows for easier release once the fish is beached. Quite a few years ago I copped a heavy gauge treble into the thumb while trying to unhook a salmon on the beach, which required a couple-hour drive to the nearest hospital. Inline singles of 2/0 or 3/0 are about right for salmon. When schools are holding nice and close to the shoreline, casting stickbaits can be a whole lot of fun. Watching salmon climb over each other to eat a surface lure is pretty speccy to watch.

Even if you arrive at your chosen beach and you cannot see any visible schools of salmon, it’s still worthwhile walking the beach and casting lures into the deeper pockets of water. We still find smaller schools of salmon and even individual fish moving through inshore gutters, and by methodically walking and working a lure through this water, you’ve still got a good chance of finding some fish. Metal lures are the best option for scoping water as they cast well – allowing you to cover as much water as possible. Keep the retrieve quite quick to keep the lure in the mid to upper column.

For shallower, lower energy beaches I really enjoy walking the sand and casting soft plastics on a lighter outfit. We have a few beaches in our local national park which are close to surf beaches, but they’re removed enough so they don’t collect the full force of our ocean swell. And while these beaches lack prominent deeper gutters, they do have some nice rocky outcrops along the beach which salmon love to patrol.

For this style of fishing a light 2 – 4kg spin rod of between 7 – 8ft in length together with a 2500 reel and 10lb braid is ideal for working soft plastics in these shallower areas. This lighter tackle helps to amplify the fight of a salmon as well.

We concentrate our efforts around slabs of rock and the rocky points at either end of these beaches. With a soft plastic you can work the lure right over the top of the rock, without having to worry too much about tackle loss. If you are snagging on the rock, you can rig the plastics weedless.

I’ll usually lay a cast along the edge of the rock and will hop the plastic with quick rod sweeps back to the beach. If some salmon are working their way along the edge of the rocks or patrolling along the shorebreak, they’re usually pretty quick to hit a plastic.

I find ¼ to 1/8oz jig heads with a 3/0 hook to be a good option on the salmon, but make sure the hook isn’t a fine gauge as larger salmon will easily open these up – even on light tackle. Paddle tail and stick bait style plastics of 100 to 125mm work well on salmon. In slightly deeper water we’ll opt for the paddle tail, but for super shallow areas we’ll rig a stick bait style plastic. The 100mm Bio Tough Fish and the Daiwa Bait Junkie are a couple of proven plastics for salmon down our way.

If the sea conditions are good, sometimes we’ll follow the shoreline onto the rocks and will cast soft plastics or topwater lures from the stones, especially casting back towards the beach. Salmon love this corridor of sand meeting rock. Small topwater lures are great fun on salmon too, and while they may lack casting distance they can be worked over super-shallow areas without worry of fouling.

From the Boat

Even though a boat isn’t a necessity when chasing salmon, some good salmon action is available for small boat owners. We do a fair bit of inshore trolling for salmon – especially with our kids – and by setting a couple of trolling outfits we can sit back and run some lures through our local bay in the hope of finding some salmon.

Some good hunting grounds include around channel edges, next to man made structure such as jetties, piers and oyster racks, and around rocky headlands and spits. Because salmon are a roaming species they may not be found in the same location each time, but if cover enough ground you’ll inevitably find some fish – and when you find one, you’ll generally find many. Hard body lures in the 70 to 90mm size work well for salmon, with the Yo-Zuri Mag Minnow, Daiwa Double Clutch and DTD Sardina all good additions to your lure tray.

Our bay fish are usually smaller than our surf-roaming salmon, with fish over 2kg being fairly uncommon with the average size down around 500g to 1kg. Once outside bay waters this size increases, and we’ve found fish right up to 5kg around some of our headlands and bommies. Obviously care should be taken when running lures near whitewater.

As well as trolling, idling the boat in front of known haunts and casting can be a good way of tempting a strike. We’ll often drift parallel to a rocky point or beach and lay casts back towards the shallows, working hard body lures or soft plastics as we slowly drift to cover ground. We encounter a bit of bycatch when we’re working lures in this environment, with species varying depending on location. Here in SA we see the occasional rat kingfish, along with plenty of snook, silver trevally, herring and a few flathead.

We mainly focus our efforts around structure when trolling and casting, but sometimes we’ll see some bombing birds, which is indicative of a salmon school in our local inshore waters. These fish can spook surprisingly quickly, so we’ve found the best approach is to cut the engine and lay some casts once within range.

If the salmon are feeding on small bait, you’ll find you may need to drop your lure size to ‘match the hatch’ until you get a bite. Once a salmon has been landed, it’ll usually cough up some baitfish which will give you a good indication of the bait they’re feeding on.

Salmon are a great southern sportfish, and I never tire of chasing them down the beach or hunting them from the boat. You don’t need high-end tackle to enjoy some salmon action, and they’re accessible to just about everyone along the coastline form Kalbarri in the west to the Gold Coast in the east. Obviously the western sub-species is the larger of the two Australian species, but if you only get smaller salmon in your local area, scale down your tackle and have some fun.

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