Thursday, February 29, 2024
How to

Wading the flats

IN recent times, working from home has provided an opportunity to become more familiar with the local estuary (Sydney Harbour) and its bays and coves. While taking walks I noted tidal changes, structure, bottom profile, and fish activity in different conditions.

Fish activity on the surface seemed to increase towards the bottom of the falling tide as the schools of baitfish retreat from the receding water of the sand flats, back into deeper water. Larger predatory fish, including salmon and tailor, lay in wait at the drop-off.

Having had experience with surface lures from boats, I adapted that technique to a land-based approach – wading the flats and casting to the drop-off among the moored boats where access by boat would be difficult.

This form of fishing requires basic gear, minimal preparation and is suited to short, sharp sessions when fish activity is at its peak. Both salmon and tailor will respond to the same technique and lures resulting in more consistent catches.

Salmon are some of the hardest fighting and larger of the fish on offer in an estuary. The sight of a solid salmon smashing a surface lure, leaping in the air and peeling line off is one of the more exhilarating estuary fishing experiences. Similarly, tailor are often overlooked as a genuine target but also strike lures aggressively. They are generally a little more reliable and easier to locate, whereas the salmon could be present in masses some days and not at all on others.

Where and when

As the water cools, salmon move into estuaries and are often located in large numbers. While it varies from year to year, depending on water temperature and weather conditions, late winter and early spring seems to be peak season for tailor and salmon. Generally, the closer to the heads, the easier the salmon are to find. Having said that, salmon can make their way quite a way into larger estuaries.

I have found smaller bays and coves with sandy flats leading to a drop off are the most productive and offer land-based fishing accessibility.

Quality fish might be closer than you think, near built-up areas, and in often overlooked small bays and coves. Hundreds of people must walk by a spot I fish, yet I have never seen anyone else fish there despite catches of tailor, salmon and rat king fish. They probably wonder what the weird guy wading around in the cold water is doing!

Through trial and error, I found the second half of a falling tide yields the best results. Particularly so when combined with the first or last few hours of light in the day. The nature of this fishing means the action can be hot one minute, then switch off.

Some shade on the water, whether it be overcast, dawn or dusk seems to help. A slight ruffle on the water is ok, but floating stickbaits are less effective in the chop.

Gear

Rod and Reel

Choosing a suitable rod and reel is about finding a balance between a combo light enough to cast lures, but heavy enough to muscle a larger salmon or tailor.

A rod of 6’6’ – 7ft, casting weight in the 4-20g range, paired with a 2,500 size reel loaded up with 12 pound braid and flouro leader seems to be user friendly and a good compromise of the desired attributes.

I currently use a Samakai Zing Gen3 SZG-702SM – 7ft length, fast action, 8-15 pound line class and casting weight of 5-18 grams. This is paired with a Shimano Sedona 2,500 reel.

Another consideration when selecting a reel is the fatigue and soreness of the hands and wrists caused by a few hours casting and using a walk the dog retrieve. A slightly lighter reel can make all the difference and make for a longer and more comfortable fishing experience.

Sometimes I use a lighter outfit – 6ft 6’ rod 1-3kg line class, 1,500 size reel spooled with 8lb mono and flouro leader). This approach offers challenging fights, but occasionally results in a lost fish and/or lure (particularly early season when there is a chance of being dusted by a kingfish). Having said that, plenty of 3kg+ salmon have been caught on very light gear.

Lures

I prefer a basic assortment of surface lures – focussing on floating stickbaits and poppers as a changeup. For salmon, having a tried and tested type and colour of stickbait in different sizes, rather than having a large variety of lure types, seems to work. Salmon can be finnicky and changing down a size can sometimes be the difference. Taking note of the baitfish on the flats and what the salmon are feeding on (matching the hatch) if the surface activity is obvious can assist. Conversely, tailor tend not to discriminate – barely legal-sized tailor will happily take a 120mm stickbait.

If the surface bite is not on, a simple metal blade for tailor, or clear soft plastic for salmon are effective alternatives.

Floating stickbaits

A floating stickbait in a clear or natural colour is my go-to surface lure for salmon and tailor. My favourite is a Bassday Sugapen in C-264GF colour. I carry all sizes (58, 70, 98 and 120mm) but typically start with 90mm and change down if salmon are active but not striking.

Atomic Hardz K9 Walkers are similarly successful floating stickbaits.

Poppers

Poppers of varying sizes also produce results. I carry a Halco Roosta 86mm and a Daiwa Steez in 50mm.

Surface lure alternatives

If the surface bite is not on, metal blades like the Halco Twisty (sizes 10, 20 and even 30g) with a relatively fast retrieve are a good alternative. Similarly, a soft plastic like Berkley PowerBait Minnow in casper clear work for salmon.

Tools and accessories

While not a fashion piece appropriate for family gatherings or a post-fishing session flat white at the café, waders are a practical and inexpensive piece of kit. They keep you warm and dry, particularly the chest high variety. I purchased a pair of Wilson PVC nylon chest waders on sale for $50 – the boots are surprisingly comfortable, sturdy and provide good protection from rocks and oysters. From experience I can confirm they withstand a whack from a stingray barb. The material also seems resistant to any cuts and tears.

A bait box and belt (usually for keeping bait on you while beach fishing) adapted to carry lures, scissors and pliers, saves time in wading back to shore to change lures and re-rig. Catch and release is also easier and quicker.

A short handle kayak style landing net tied in a bow (for quick release) around the belt of the bait box means the net is always at hand.

Technique

Strategy

It can be difficult to anticipate salmon movements in an estuary. Tailor have a more consistent presence – even if they are not ‘busting up’ there will often be a few patrolling the edge, terrorising the baitfish, and more than willing to smash a well presented surface lure.

Surface Activity

With any luck there might be obvious thick schools of salmon and tailor either finning on the surface or more actively “busting up” bait fish. I have witnessed schools of salmon so thick that they create their own bow wave as they surge chasing bait fish. If they are finning on the surface, they may not necessarily be feeding. Take note of the baitfish they are chasing, particularly the size, and choose an equivalent lure.

Alternatively, sometimes there are singular but regular bigger hits on the surface, which is enough to suggest the target fish are there, even if not in obvious big numbers. Sight fishing is the key here with a quick cast immediately to the last surface hit producing a strike more often than not.

On other occasions, there is no apparent surface activity. This does not necessarily mean the fish are not present, particularly if there are schools of baitfish on the flats. Fan your casts out across the bay and cover as much area as possible until you find a strike.

Cast and retrieve

Wade out until you are in casting distance of the drop off. Casts do not necessarily need to clear the drop off by a long way. Many strikes occur just over the drop off and well into the flats as the tailor and salmon leave the deeper water to chase the bait fish on the flats. It is worthwhile casting at any surface activity you see, even if it means quickly retrieving a cast you have just made. After catching a fish cast back into the same spot.

The ‘walking the dog’ style retrieve with stickbaits may seem a little awkward at first (a bit like that rubbing your tummy and patting your head trick), but it soon becomes natural as you get a feel for the rhythm. The aim is to get the stickbait, darting and zigzagging on the surface like an injured or fleeing baitfish. This is achieved by imparting twitches with the rod tip side to side while maintaining a steady retrieve.

This retrieve technique is very visual – you can see the lure’s action and adjust according. Importantly, it allows you to see when the lure is in the strike zone, causing maximum movement and disturbance on the surface while keeping it in the strike zone as long as possible.

Depending on the type of lure, the target species and how they are biting, I find that larger stickbaits require more movement and work on them to achieve the desired action, whereas finesse and slighter movements suit smaller stickbaits.

The Fight

Tailor and salmon will strike surface lures aggressively, often flying out of the water. If a hit does not result in a hook-up, maintaining a constant steady retrieve rather than pausing seems to illicit a further strike. It’s easy to be in awe of a solid fish smashing a stickbait and going aerial, but just keep retrieving.

These fish are prone to throwing trebles while leaping into the air and shaking their heads. Accordingly, it is important to maintain line tension particularly during aerial displays and while the fish are swimming towards you.

Salmon are ‘clean’ fighters, and do not instinctively dive for structure like moored boats, rocks, or jetties. As they tire, salmon in shallow water tend to make wide arcs side to side – it can really be 360-degree fishing as the salmon sometimes end up behind where you started.

Takeaways

Wading the estuary sand flats with surface lures for salmon and tailor is a technique which is accessible, requires basic gear, minimal preparation, provides consistent catch and lends itself to short sharp sessions when the action is hot.

The fishing itself is spectacular, and there is little more exciting than seeing a fish launch itself into the air hitting a surface lure. Tailor and salmon are some of the better fighting fish in east coast estuaries with good fishing found closer to home than you might think. 

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