Think like a fish
It had been a long morning. Only a few small touches in two hours’ fishing. I was feeling beaten and attributed the tentative taps to pickers: probably leatherjackets and toadies. Hoping they might be bream, and resigning myself to the fact my flathead session had failed, I decided to try a vibe. I had been targeting flatties, but with no luck, it was definitely time to try something new. I extracted a little bronze number from my bag and tied it on, lacking motivation. Telling myself that at least I wasn’t at work, I cast the lure back towards the bank. After splashing down on the surface, the lure began to sink. Suddenly, the line twitched. I lifted the rod tip slowly and felt it load up. A few headshakes and less than a minute later, a nice flattie was boatside. I decided to go back to the spot where I had the last tap on the plastics and have a cast with the vibe. On the third cast in this spot I felt the telltale tap and in a short time had another lovely flattie boatside. After netting the fish, with spirits rising, my brain started to tick into gear and think about what was happening.
My theory was that the fish were there, they just weren’t that hungry. For the previous two hours, I’d been using plastics; changing it up, trying a few different sizes and some of my favourite colours. I started to realise the taps probably were flathead. They were sluggish, probably as a result of either too much food or some cold water. When faced with this situation, it can really pay to try something different. I think the reason the vibes worked on this occasion was that the fish were attacking the lure out of instinct, as opposed to attacking out of hunger. The configuration of the vibe lure, with its placement of hooks at the rear and bottom of the lure, resulted in hookups. Over the rest of the morning, I landed another eight fish, and had a few touches or hookups that were dropped.
This article is about using your senses to help you catch more fish. The things you can figure out are far more useful than any of the latest sounders, electric motors or advice from the old bloke at the ramp who says ‘you won’t catch ’em today, mate’. I’ll use flathead as the case fish, but the following lessons are applicable to a wide variety of situations and species.
Water temperature is one of the biggest factors in flathead success. Often I go out early in the morning and won’t get a touch, then return to the same spot once the sun has warmed the water and start catching fish. You can control the temperature of the water you’re fishing in quite easily by moving around. Mobility is the key to finding flathead. If the water is too cold, find warmer water. This could mean fishing a shallow bay, or seeking out a small tributary where warmer water is flowing into a system. It could also mean fishing the run-out tide, when the water has had a chance to warm in the upper reaches of the estuary system. Sometimes I have been fishing in 2m of water, catching the odd fish here and there, and then tried a few exploratory casts right up next to the bank. Often the lure will get taken just after it hits the surface. When this happens, systematically work the bank and see what happens – you might turn an average session into an incredible one. If the fish are sitting on the bank, it can often pay to downsize your jighead so you have a bit longer in the ‘strikezone’.
There is also a situation where water can be too warm. This usually occurs once the water goes past about 22 degrees. Flathead are happy to go down deeper to find the cooler water. If it’s a hot day and they’re not in the shallows, try 1m of water. If they’re not in 1m, try 2m, and so on, until you find where they are comfortable. This is a time when it can help to have a sounder, but you can also use a bathymetry map to find likely areas. I’m a big proponent of learning to read a system using your eyes and your brain, before using all the technology. Look at the clues above the water or count the seconds for the lure to sink, and you should start to get a better idea of depth.
Water clarity is an important factor for fish comfort and one that is commonly overlooked. I have had frustrating sessions where I can see the flathead beneath the boat, in good numbers, taking off whenever the shadow of the boat approaches. I had definitely cast over the fish using a variety of lures and retrieves; they just weren’t interested. Many fish prefer water that is slightly cloudy and turn off on days when the water is gin-clear or muddy. I have had the most success on most species when fishing in slightly cloudy water. Similarly to temperature, you can control this by moving around. If the water is clear, try finding an inflow or tributary where the water is slightly discolored. It can also be worth waiting until the runout tide when the water will be full of sediment, bits of weed and other debris. Sometimes wind can play an important role in water clarity, so if it’s too dirty in the wind then find some shelter and the clarity could be more suited to the fish. This works in reverse, too, but it can sometimes be hard to convince oneself to fish in a windier location.
Flathead feeding habits
If there is food around, flathead will generally eat it. Flathead will continue to eat until they have fat bellies. When full they can be quite sluggish, often half-heartedly attacking lures out of instinct rather than hunger. If you are fishing plastics, there’s three main things to try. Firstly, downsize the lure. This will mean the hook is essentially nearer the rear of the lure, and may result in more hookups. Secondly, slow it down. I have had success hopping the lure slowly in tiny hops across the bottom. Lift the rod tip a third or a quarter of what you usually would, and only give the reel a wind or two. Let the lure sit there on the bottom for a good few seconds, then repeat. This is a technique that has worked for me when all else has failed. It feels wrong at first, as you are covering much less ground, but try this when nothing else works and it could just turn your session around. This can also work well in the depths of winter when the water is at it’s coldest. Thirdly, try some scent. I was skeptical at first, but when I started catching mullet, leatherjacket and blackfish consistently using scented plastics I started to twig to the benefits. Flathead, being an ambush predator, are probably less affected by the smell of a lure than some other species, but the combination of scent with a nice slow retrieve can work wonders.
Matching the hatch
It’s incredibly important to think about what the fish are eating. The nicest hardbody whitebait imitation can be useless if the flatties are feeding on poddy mullet. If you hear people talking about frogmouth pilchards finding their way into the estuaries, get a lure that looks like a frogmouth pilchard. If you hear about 7cm prawns getting caught by the locals, get some lures that look like 7cm prawns. Then think about what the bait does when it’s in shallow water. A poddy mullet skips along erratically, stops to check out something near the surface, sinks to the bottom, then takes off quickly when startled. Prawns float slowly along, suddenly punctuated by sharp thrusts of their tail, propelling them a metre in potentially any direction. Try and imitate what you think these food sources do. Just because the latest fishing DVD says ‘lift and drop, lift and drop’, doesn’t mean that you can’t mix it up – especially when the fishing is tough.
Next time the fishing is tough, remember that these are the times when you can learn the most. Then using your eyes, analyse what you can see around you. Look for the cues I have talked about and think about what you would do if you were a fish. I know it sounds silly, but if you can get inside the head of a fish and understand what motivates them to move, attack and eat, your success rates will skyrocket. Eventually you will notice that you will be the one back at the ramp who is consistently catching fish where others have failed. It’s a satisfying feeling, especially when you see the look on the face of the old bloke who told you that you wouldn’t catch ’em today, but remember the principles of catch and release and only take a few for the table. I used to think catching fish was just a bonus. Now I am genuinely disappointed if I can’t work out how to catch at least a few. Now go and put yourself to the test, to see if you can turn a quiet session into some hot fishing!
Copyright Lee Georgeson 2011