How to

Winter tips from a sportfishing guide

With the cooling of inshore coastal waters comes the altering of many fish habits and behaviours. Sydney-based fly and sportfishing guide JUSTIN DUGGAN offers a few approaches to help keep your rods bent this winter.

With winter comes a fond farewell to our tropical visitors such as the little tunas, amberjack and samson fish. Instead, Sydney anglers welcome temperate species in the form of Australian salmon, silver trevally, john dory and hairtail. Other species such as bass, estuary perch and bream launch into mass spawning migrations to areas of suitable salinity at the front of rivers and estuaries. Closed seasons exist to protect the spawning bass and EPs.

Fish like kings and jewies will still be active during winter, however, the cooler waters slow their metabolism enough that they will feed less regularly and often with less aggression. Given the habit and location changes that occur over the winter period, it’s important to change where and how you fish to match what the fish are doing.

Lighten Up
Don’t put away your fishing gear just yet! There are quality fish, like this king, available throughout the cooler months.

Sydney winter waters are traditionally very clear thanks to prevailing westerly winds. When it comes to fishing these waters, the obvious solution is to fish lighter lines. Downsize the strength of leaders and tippets in winter and look for the thinnest line you can find for a given breaking strain. Fluorocarbon is a good option.

It can be a struggle to get moving on cold mornings. Personally speaking, I wouldn’t run down the road to eat my cornflakes. I suspect many fish in cooler waters feel the same about getting a meal. When fooling winter fish with lures or flies I like to think of moving the lure more yet travelling it less distance.

Fish such as kingfish, jewfish, flathead and bream are often lethargic in cooler waters. A fast lure may work but mostly the fish are not going to move a long way for a feed. Create more movement in your lures but make them travel less distance. You’re looking to “tease” a lethargic fish into taking an easy meal rather than having to chase it down. For example, in summer I work soft plastic jerkshads for flathead using large lifts and drops. In winter, however, I’ll opt for plastics with much more wriggle in the tail and use very small sharp lifts and drops or even slow rolls instead of the big lifts.

Rather than flat-out fast retrieves for kingfish I may opt to hover micro jigs in a set depth with sharp yet small twitches. Trolling and downrigging live baits can also be less effective in clear winter waters. Far more effective is to drift slowly and suspend the bait for extended periods over likely haunts. For many winter species it can be almost like giving them a little slap around the chops before they can be talked into eating.

Winter Jewfish

Winter offers excellent jewfish options in Sydney. The waters are less crowded and quieter, there are schools of bream, bass and perch for them to eat and they don’t mind cooler waters. Finding suitable jewfish habitat such as wrecks, rocky reefs and shorelines, current eddies and deeper holes is not hard in areas like the Hawkesbury River, Georges River, Sydney Harbour and even Port Hacking.

For years my jewfish tactic involved casting soft plastic jerkshads and working them back to the boat using hops and jumps close to the bottom. Truth be told, I had mixed success. I tried fishing the lightest jigheads I could use so as to “hover” the lure a little longer in front of the fish but felt the current was playing havoc with the speed and depth. Heavier jigheads fought the current but dropped rapidly. My suspicion was that winter jews just don’t move so quickly so I needed to make it easier for them to eat my lure.

The technique I now employ involves a much more vertical presentation, a keen eye on my Lowrance HDS sounders and judicious use of the electric motor. Place yourself up-current of structures, eddies, reefs, or along a rocky shoreline and use the electric motor to slowly drift back with the current. Use heavier lures such as blades or heavier weighted plastics and suspend the lure vertically under the boat.

The starting point is usually within a few feet of the bottom. Jiggle that lure in the strike zone by working it in small vertical hops that even the most lethargic jewfish can see and eat. The same works by hovering for extended time over wrecks and bait schools. Fluorocarbon leaders of no more than 10kg are best. Sure, you lose a few but you hook more. It’s all about patience, moving slowly and identifying what is bait and what is jewfish on your sounder so you can adjust depth or presentation. A fast action 6kg spin rod with a solid tip will help drive the hook into a jewie’s hard mouth and jigging braid will help you to identify the depth you are at. A high quality 4000 sized spin reel should complete the outfit nicely.

Luderick & Drummer
Anglers are now using traditional blackfish gear teamed with synthetic flies to target luderick.

Many anglers find transitioning from bait and lure to a fly rod daunting, right? Well, here’s a way to get the benefit without actually learning to fly cast. The success of fly anglers in catching luderick and drummer has been well documented. What hasn’t been well advertised is the move by many hardcore luderick anglers to put artificial weed flies under their floats, replacing traditional weed. Weed flies can easily be as effective as the weed itself, often more effective since you never need to to re-bait.

Many tackle shops stock weed flies or you can tie your own on standard luderick hooks like Gamakatsu panfish hooks. For drummer I use stronger hooks and larger flies. Favoured materials for weed flies include ice dubbing or seals fur, however, a trip to any haberdashery can score you some green tapestry wool. Make up a few small lengths tying an overhand knot in the middle of each. Coat the hook with a light coating of superglue and slide the wool one piece at a time down the hook and pull the knot very tight. Once you’ve filled the hook from the bend up to the eye, let it dry. Once dry, the wool is trimmed and then teased like a mad afro haircut using a piece of velcro. Don’t worry, it looks weird but once placed in water it wafts and behaves like the best green weed you’ve ever seen! Wraps of fuse or lead wire can add weight to the hook before you add the wool.

Weed flies are best employed in wash zones and faster current where the fish need to pounce on the weed immediately before it drifts away. Slow, clear water can prove harder to get a bite as fish have more time to inspect the offering. Try some weed berley to stack the odds back in your favour if the fish turn their nose up at your flies. Don’t neglect the idea of fishing weed flies on soft 8-9 foot rods from a boat so you can access washes and other water not fished from the shore.

Work The White Water

A great place on a winter’s morning is the wash zones found along Sydney’s rocky headlands and coastline. You can escape the early morning westerly winds and it’s a wonderful place to find active fish. Turbulent water holds lots of food for hungry predators such as tailor, kings and salmon. The aerated water is easier to get bites in than the super clear less volatile waters. Salmon and tailor will congregate in these areas and can be quite active in chasing down lures in the wash.

By far my most successful technique is using the newer generation of sinking stickbait lures. The Daiwa Overthere Skipping lure was a revelation; I could fish almost an entire water column from top to bottom with the one lure. Throwing stickbaits into a wash and working it back with a raised rod tip and a seductive shuffle on the top has taken some fine fish. These pilchard style lures are also fantastic when sunk and twitched back in the now well promoted “walk the dog” style shuffle.

I replace trebles with single hooks since I hook a lot of fish intended for release. I find I stay connected with single hooks far better than trebles. Use strong hooks as there are some seriously big kingfish hiding in the washes.

Get Out There!

So while frosty mornings and cold winds can make fishing in winter a little less enjoyable than in summer, the fact is the fishing during the cooler months can be red-hot. So as the temps drop and the days grow shorter, make sure your boat is fuelled up and ready for action!

An accomplished angler, photographer and fly casting instructor, Justin runs Sydney Flyfishing Tours.

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