How toTips & Techniques

Freshwater fishing basics

FOR fishos with salt in their veins, switching over to freshwater fishing may seem confusing, or even pointless. The truth is, freshwater fishing makes a great change and with the majority of Aussies living along the coast, there’s an abundance of exciting freshwater fishing opportunities not far from home. With a slight shift in gear choice and technique, it’s easy to adjust and take advantage of a variety of species in the fresh.

State of play

The good news is most freshwater fisheries along Australia’s East Coast, extending inland, have bounced back after years of devastating drought. Of course, droughts come in cycles and some parts of Australia are still suffering, while others are waiting their turn. For now, however, the abundance of water, together with some good fisheries management and habitat restoration, has meant we’re looking at several years of red hot fishing. There’s never been a better time to try freshwater fishing.

Only a couple of years ago, we watched as millions of fish died in Western NSW. Many blamed drought, but that was only part of the story. Water mismanagement, greed and political negligence was to blame.

The good news is, while major disaster such as that will take a long time to recover, many of our rivers have recovered. One such river I regularly fish has recovered well. The water is back and recent re-stocking efforts mean the next few years will only get better.

The same story applies to many more rivers and dams. The NSW and Victorian alpine streams and dams are also fishing incredibly well after consistent rainfalls and re-stocking. Likewise on the coast; our bass rivers have never looked better!

So, where to start?


Firstly, if you’re heading inland looking to target freshwater fish, you need to know what you’re targeting.

Bass are the first species you’ll reach. Australian bass live along Australia’s East Coast from Victoria, throughout NSW, to Southern Queensland. Bass will inhabit any coastal river that allows easy access to saltwater where breeding takes place during the cooler months. They also inhabit dams. Most of these dam fish have been stocked and they’re mostly found within the natural catchments of bass, rather than inland waterways. More on rivers and dams later.

The same river that holds bass also commonly hold mullet and carp. These are fun species for kids or beginners to catch on bait or even fly.

Further inland and Murray cod are another popular species. Cod are Australia’s largest freshwater fish and take lures, bait and fly. They’re an incredible, mysterious sportfish with bursts of power when hooked. Cod can be found in many creeks, rivers and dams with the Murray Darling catchment. This catchment covers Queensland, NSW, Victoria, SA and Canberra, so there are plenty of opportunities for targeting these fish across a wide range of destinations.

Golden perch are another species alined with the Murray cod. They’re the second largest freshwater fish. Goldens are known as yellowbelly or callop depending where you fish and who you speak with. They also love lures and are an exciting sportfish.

Other inland species include silver perch and lesser know, protected species such as Macquarie perch and trout cod.

Trout are another popular freshwater species. While the above fish are native, trout were introduced over 150 years ago. They’ve since thrived in the alpine parts of Australia. Being a cold water fish, expect to find them in alpine areas, especially in NSW. As you move further south, the altitude you find trout lowers and many trout are caught at sea level in Tasmania.

They’re a fun fish to catch on bait, lure and fly. Fly fishos in particular have great success on trout, being able to mimic the tiny food these fish often prefer.

Let’s not forget the abundance of tropical freshwater species. Barramundi are the obvious one and they live in both salt and freshwater, including many stocked impoundments.

Barra are found from Southern Queensland, right around the top of Australia well down into WA. Catching them in the fresh is loads of fun, especially in the billabongs!

Other fish such as tarpon, sooty grunter, jungle perch and more will keep you entertained in the tropics.


Finding locations is one of the hardest parts of fishing for a new species. Unlike the saltwater, which is mostly easily accessible, many areas of freshwater are bordered by private property. Other freshwater areas are remote or isolated. It’s really the main difference between fresh and saltwater.

However, don’t despair. Do some research online and try to understand the habits and movement of the fish you’re chasing to discover the locations. For example, there’s no point chasing bass above a major barrier such as a waterfall in a river. As mentioned above, bass need to move downstream each year to breed in saltwater and this migration will be stopped by large barriers.

Likewise, there’s no point searching a warm coastal stream for trout when we know they belong in inland alpine areas.

The good news is many areas are not on private property. The larger rivers have boat ramps to access long stretches of water. There are also national parks, water supply and irrigation impoundment and state forests. All of these (with the exception of some closed water supplies) are available to access for fishing.

I’m always surprised how common freshwater fish are. If you’re searching for a particular species and now that lives in the area, there’s a pretty good chance the right technique will produce the goods.

Dams or rivers?

Both produce constant numbers of fish, yet the approach to targeting some species differ.

Take bass for example, the habits and techniques in certain dams differs greatly from the rivers. I guess fish adapt to their surroundings and man made impoundments are often different from natural rivers. Rivers flood, but they don’t fluctuate in water levels like dams. Rivers and dams have plenty of structure, but again, it’s different.

Bass dams are open to fish all year round because fish can’t migrate and spawn. Therefore they’re a good option for fishing during the cooler months when most fishos leave the rivers alone.

Murray cod and barramundi dams are incredibly popular and both species typically grow larger in this environment.

The other factor worth a mention is dams are more tough to fish from the shoreline. This definitely applies to most of the native dams. Sure, you can catch fish off the bank, but the ability to quickly move from one spot to the next has its advantages.

The exception is trout dams. Many people fish for trout off the shore and get constant catches. Trout often cruise the shoreline looking for food in the shallows. They also have a “beat”, which means if you spot one and don’t spook it, it will often return in the same spot 5 or 10 minutes later. Be patient and keep a low profile so you don’t spook the fish.


If you’re a saltwater fisho, you will most likely own gear ranging from an ultralight estuary rod for chasing bream and whiting, to a heavy game fishing outfit, and everything in between.

If you’re trying freshwater fishing for the first time, it’s best to leave the heavy hear at home. Even larger cod and barramundi can be targeted on surprisingly light gear.

Often gear choice comes down to matching lure weights and retrieves rather than fighting fish. You won’t have long screaming runs on many freshwater fish in Australia, but some of our large bass, cod and barra will still hit a lure with gusto and a smooth drag is important.

A light outfit will allow you to cast smaller lures and it’s more sensitive for feeling hits on the lure or when a lure isn’t working effectively.

Baitcasters have traditionally been a favourite for casting lures at natives, although these days more and more people are using spin gear.

Lure choice is a topic that deserves its own article. There are many types of freshwater lures for natives, many of which crossover to saltwater fishing. Hardbodies are the obvious one and are very effective on a range of fish from trout, bass, to cod and barra. Carry a range in sizes and styles to match the species. You’re best option is to visit your local tackle shop ands them for advice on which type of lure works best.

Other types include spinnerbaits, chatterbaits, swimbaits, and of course, surface lures. Surface lures works on most of the above species and are fantastic fun! Watching a big bass, Murray cod or barra explode on a surface lure is heart stopping!

Again, there are endless articles about lure choice for freshwater species over the years in Fisho and online at our website. Do your research and ensure the lure you’re using is suitable for the river or dam you intend to fish.

Fly gear is also popular on the natives and trout. If you’re looking to target bass, a 5 or 6 weight is perfect. Murray cod, golden perch and barra suit a 9 or 10 weight, while trout, depending on the location, suit anything from a micro 2 weight up to a 6 weight.

All of the above species are fantastic fun on fly.


Much like saltwater fishing, using a boat will make targeting freshwater far more productive. The good news is some of the best freshwater boats are canoes and kayaks. Having a canoe or a kayak will provide access along stretches of river and calm dams. It will allow you to properly work structure and cover much more water than shore based fishos. They’re slow to fish and you can’t just pull up stumps and move a great distance, but thats’ not a bad thing. Use the slow nature of a canoe/kayak to your advantage and throughly work an area before moving on.

They’re also perfect for accessing the tiny creeks and faster flowing rivers out of reach to the average fisho.

As for boats, think small. A smaller tinny or fibreglass boat will cover most larger rivers and dams. Importantly, ensure you have an electric motor for silently manoeuvring. Another essential is a quality sounder for finding structure and fish. Technology such as live sonar has revolutionised the way many freshwater fishos operate these days and that trend is set to continue.

The best part about using a boat in freshwater? You don’t need to wash the salt off!

That’s a wrap

Making the switch from saltwater to freshwater fishing isn’t that difficult. You won’t need to invest in too much new gear and you won’t need to travel very far.

Many parts of Australia are experiencing some of the freshwater fishing for years. Get out there and experience it for yourself! 

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