How to

Patterns of Life

Spending time learning how to read the sometimes subtle clues that nature provides will help improve your angling efforts. DAVID GREEN details the lessons he’s learnt over years of carefully studying his local estuary system.

FISHING is a pursuit where the learning curve never has an end. There is no such thing as perfection in this sport, and the art of being a good fisherman is more about the finding of your fish than the catching. The chase is the part of the journey where all your thinking time can pay off. It’s all about constantly learning from your environment to get a better understanding of the fish you are after.
Many tribal cultures are masters of pattern recognition. Some of these relate to seasonal change and correlation between different species activity, such as the linkage between the arrival of migrating fish to the flowering of certain trees. Others relate to almost imperceptible clues that are unnoticeable to the untrained eye. Unlike hunting, the fascination of fishing relates to finding a creature that you can generally neither see, hear nor smell. Then you have to catch it! This means the chase requires even more finesse to use the clues you do see, hear or smell to find the likely location of your invisible quarry. The following are some of the patterns I’ve found to chasing fish in my local waters over a number of years. It’s the less obvious clues that sometimes make the difference.

Winter Flathead
In my local creek there is a population of pied stilts. These red-legged wading birds transiently seem to come and go from this area. From what I’ve read they don’t undergo long distance migrations, but populations may move about an area according to their nesting and feeding requirements. We generally start looking for flathead in this area in late May and June. It’s a great area to fish, convenient and close to home, and I’ve watched it for many years. Over this time I’ve come to the conclusion that when the flocks of pied stilts turn up to feed on a particular flat, it is highly likely the flathead will be there as well, because both species are dependent on the small invertebrates and fish life that moves onto a flat. This correlation works well, as the flock may contain 50 to 100 individual birds so this is a lot of mouths to feed and the flat has to have a lot of tucker to hold and feed this many birds. There is also a strong correlation between a lack of pied stilts and a lack of fish in this particular spot, but the stilts seem to be the key. Other birds such as straw necked ibis don’t seem to have the same correlation with fish activity.

There is also, and I’m not sure why, a very good relationship between the movement of big sea mullet up river and flathead activity. This isn’t a predator and prey relationship, as at this time of year the mullet are mostly bigger than the flathead. While sea mullet may ripple and jump and be visible at times they are hard to spot but the key seems to be to look out for the local population of brahminy kites, osprey and white-breasted sea eagles. These raptors are dependent on mullet to put on a lot of condition prior to the breeding season, and when they are actively hunting mullet, there always seems to be plenty of flathead to be caught. This mullet migration generally coincides with the onset of cool westerlies and a drop in water temperature, but look for the eagle to find the mullet to catch the flathead!

Another important part of flathead fishing is finding the right sort of flats on which the fish will be able to hide and hunt. The secret seems to be to get silty or soft bottom interspersed weed beds. One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that where you see armies of soldier crabs at low tide you never catch many flathead. Soldier crabs need coarse hard sand that they filter through their mandibles to feed. The type of bottom soldier crabs like is very different to what flathead like. These areas seem to only produce a few small fish for me, so when I am exploring an estuary I take note of where the low tide soldier crab armies patrol and fish other spots on full tide for flathead.

Finally on flathead, never ignore pelicans. These large, seemingly ungainly creatures got to be big and fat by being very successful predators. When they hunt the flats and drains they are after exactly the same tucker as the local flathead population is, and if I’m not sure where to go I watch the pelicans for a while. They have the added advantage of being very easy to spot from long distances.

Mulloway Patterns
To hunt the jewfish you need patience and very careful skills of observation. Some highly skilled anglers are rumoured to be able to smell these fish from a distance, but while this may seem fanciful, they do have a distinctive odour. In southern Queensland we get some mulloway all year, but the biggest turn up in winter chasing the migrating schools of tiger mullet around the estuary entrances. On these cold nights you can spend many hours watching and waiting, and over a lot of seasons I’ve learnt the following clues that can predict success or failure.

The first is whether or not the dolphins come in on the last of the run in tide. Dolphins only make the effort to come inside to feed when the bait is thick, and by their air breathing nature they are always visible and are a very good indication that there is plenty of tiger mullet around. They don’t seem to put the mulloway off, but they generally move into the estuary prior to the mulloway and are usually at their most active on the second last hour of the run in tide, whereas most of the mulloway bites tend to come an hour or so either side of the top of the tide. What I’ve learnt is that active dolphins feeding at night correlates well with productive mulloway sessions.
 Mulloway also have a very strong correlation with tailor. Feeding tailor are generally visible, whereas jewies are shy, silent and secretive. When the tailor are chopping on the top, it is a great time to chase jewies both big and small. While most people are aware that jewies love a live tailor or a slab of fresh fillet, the two species seem to go together both in the estuaries, on the beaches and offshore reefs. So when the gulls are diving and the choppers are feeding actively on the surface, there is a good chance your closest jewie spot will produce. Tailor are a great bait marking species, and it is more than likely both tailor and mulloway are feeding on the same bait. Use the presence of tailor schools as a good barometer for general baitfish activity.

Learning About Crabs
The more you learn about the habits of invertebrates such as crabs, the more you learn about vertebrates such as fish! I’ve always been a bit of a “crabologist” since I was a little kid, and these animals are excellent markers of healthy estuary systems. There are a few subtle lessons when it comes to catching certain fish that you can learn from watching the behavior of your local crab population.

The first relates to finding where the fish are after a period of heavy rain that floods an estuary or tidal creek. Crabs are highly sensitive to the salinity of the water, and rapidly leave areas that become too fresh. In general, this often relates to finding the first deep hole at a river or creek mouth. If you chase mud crabs you may well be tuned into this. As well as finding a decent feed of crabs, use your pots to track the fish. After a fresh, the fish will move into the exact same spots as the crabs do, but throwing a few pots in takes the hit and miss out of the equation. If you are quickly finding your pots are holding crabs, fish in that spot. No crabs in this situation generally means no fish as well. Use the crabs as indicators of there being deeper pools of high salinity. Also, predators such as estuary cod and mangrove jacks use this abundance of displaced crabs as a food source. I’ve caught jacks with body parts and legs of adult mud crabs in them, so if you work the spots after a fresh it can reap rewards.

Similarly, if you find crabs as a main food source in the gut cavity of fish such as flathead, it generally means the fish are on thin pickings and there isn’t much bait around. In these situations work the intertidal zones where the crabs are and cover plenty of water. My team won the 2011 Flathead Classic by using this knowledge and applying it, as the fish were feeding very differently due to an almost complete absence of the usual baitfish species.

Jelly Prawns & Shrimp
Since the great innovation of catching whiting on poppers started increasing in popularity, a lot of anglers have become a lot more aware of the importance of looking for small shrimp and jelly prawns. These little creatures are one of the important food sources for a lot of juvenile and adult estuary fish. When small prawns are skittering across the top it is a great sign that fish will respond to surface lures. The secret to observing the behavior of prawns is that they are incredibly small and often hard to spot. When a 1.5cm creature weighing a tenth of a gram jumps it isn’t exactly like spotting a mullet! The important clues to finding small jelly prawns and shrimp is that you have to actively go looking for them. Take a dip net, wade around the flats and look in the bases of sunken mangroves or debris. These clear-bodied crustaceans move around a lot and the fish follow them. If you see them showering it indicates feeding fish, but if you find them in numbers in your dip net or by exploring the flats looking very closely for the miniscule disturbances they make, it is just a matter of time until the fish arrive. If there are no prawns in your dip net and a walk over the flats fails to find them, go somewhere else. This exploration can save you plenty of time in many estuaries when fishing poppers for whiting, bream and flatties, as these species won’t actively chase a popper if prawns aren’t on the menu. A dip net is a valuable item to help you locate a variety of bait.

In conclusion, recognising patterns in fishing is all about reading and getting immersed in the natural marine environments we fish in. Every creature has a linkage with many others, and the more environmentally aware you are the better a fisherman you will be.

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