Georges Bay, St Helens - an Autumn Mecca

Jamie Henderson

As the summer months come to an end many fisherman see it as a time to pack the rods and fishing gear away and hibernate for a few months until the springtime brings some fresh action, but on the east coast this is far from the truth. The months of April, May and even in to June can bring some of the best Estuary fishing the East Coast has to offer and in particular Georges Bay St Helens. The warmer summer months can quite often mean periods of high winds and rough waters on the east coast making it difficult to have consistent days on the water however as we move into April we find the windy weather gives way to more mild conditions. Days can start off quite chilly with frosts quite common but as the day wears on this can mean beautiful clear blue skies, warm air temperatures, glass calm conditions and magic times on the water.

This is a time when many fish species have fed hard over the summer and as the water temperatures lower slightly they become very active, some species that are prevalent in the Bay this time of year and are targeted by anglers are large garfish, Australian salmon, silver trevally and calamari squid.

Squid rings dusted with cornflour and lemon pepper, fried for a few seconds until golden brown and served up on a bed of rice with some sweet chilli sauce and a small side salad is a dish that can be hard to beat. The Autumn period is when the calamari squid have grown to quite large proportions and are quite aggressive, good quality squid can be caught throughout Georges Bay as they hang around the seagrass beds mostly up and down the main channel leading out to the Barway. The squid can be quite easily targeted with the use of good quality squid jigs in the 3.5" size; popular colours tend to be orange, blue, green and red head/white body. Good quality spin tackle consisting of rods 6'6" in length and 4000 size reels spooled with 10lb line are all that is needed and a good quality net if fishing out of a boat. A couple of little tricks I have picked up to save a lot of mess in the boat is to tap the back of the squid while its still in the water even if you think he has squirted all his ink, this triggers the fish to squirt whatever he has in reserve completely emptying the ink sac, once you have brought the squid aboard just squeeze with your thumb and forefinger just behind the eyes and watch the hood(body) go white instantly, this dispatches the fish fast and humanely and you wont end up with a fish tub full of inky squid. Water of about 5-15 feet in depth with good sea grass beds around it is a good place to start searching for squid, simply casting out the squid jig and retrieving with a steady lift and drop retrieve back to the boat should result in a take and a steady pull back from the squid. If after a dozen casts or so there is no action move to another spot and try again, if the squid are around you will generally see some action relatively quickly. The squid tend to hang around in pairs or groups so if you catch one get your jig back into the water quick smart and quite often you will catch 2 in as many casts. Another technique is to use a squid darpin hook, the squid barbs on a shaft with no lure, and place a piece of large bluebait or whole small fish (such as a mullet or mackerel) on the shaft. Place this under a squid float with a couple of feet of trace and let it drift about with the current and wave action. This can be done whilst casting and retrieving you jig and can quite often be a very deadly technique.

Southern Sea Garfish
The particular species of garfish that is common to Tasmanian waters is the Southern sea garfish and is found in most Southern Australian states both out in the open ocean and throughout our estuary systems. They are predominantly a herbivore and feed mainly on varying species of sea grass, algal filaments and small amounts of crustaceans. They spawn in shallow sea grass beds throughout the summer months October to March. Georges Bay becomes a hot spot for big fat XOS sized garfish from April onwards and when a hot garfish bite is on dozens of boats line up to jostle for a position along the main channel leading out to the barway
One of the most important factors to successful garfishing is the use of berley to attract the fish and keep them in the immediate vicinity of your boat. A berley mixture can be as simple as a can of catfood mixed with some bread and thrown in handfuls over the side of the boat or as elaborate as a home made concoction of fish oils, fish scraps, breadcrumbs, meal, pollard, chicken pellets and some secret herbs and spices. One important point to be aware of with your berley is not to make the pieces too large as this will only serve to feed the fish and they will soon eat their fill and move on. By far the most effective and lethal berley I have come across is the Stimulate Ultrabite range of berley's, in particular the Ground Berley model. This is a premixed berley that is in a fine particle form that resembles breadcrumbs but has some added attractants mixed in for good measure. I mix about 2 handfuls of the berley mix and half a cupful of tuna oil to a berley pot and lower into the water over the side of the boat; this creates a cloud of fine particles in the water as well as an oil slick on the surface. As there are no large food items for the garfish to feed on they tend to swim around getting a good whiff of the berley and oil and become quite agitated and enter into a feeding frenzy. Provided you keep a continuous stream of this berley mixture in the water the fish will stay attracted to the area for long enough to catch your feed. A small size10-12 long shank hook under a small quill or ball float with a small piece of squid, chicken skin or anything white placed on it will result in a hooked fish.
There are two other techniques for catching garfish that are becoming more and more popular and offer great sport; these are soft plastics and fly-fishing.
Small soft plastics such as No.1 Squidgy Wrigglers in drop bear, gary glitter and silver fox are very effective as are 2" Berkeley Power grubs in pumpkinseed and bloodworm also 2" Ecogear Paramax in white. Used in conjunction with a small 1gm and 1.5gm squidgy jig head and worked erratically through the berley trail it is a dynamite technique and a lot of fun on light tackle. The garfish can get quite aggressive once fired up with the stimulate berley and will attack the plastic lure surprisingly hard.
For those looking for a bit more of a challenge a fly rod and small flies such as Crazy Charlies and small minnow patterns in predominantly white colours will also catch fish. I have found a few retrieval techniques work with the flies, either a slow draw and stop letting the fly rise and fall in the water column or if the fish are particularly aggressive short quick strips close to the surface will draw strikes.
Garfish tend to favour areas that are shallow and have good seagrass beds, in Georges Bay the hot spot seems to be along the red channel markers leading out to the barway next to the shallow sandbank. Here you have shallow water, plenty of seagrass and on the incoming tide some good current to carry your berley trail and keep the fish swimming behind your boat. I have found that the incoming tide from about half in to full tide is about the best time to chase the Gars. The garfish can often be seen swimming right up on the shallow sand flats also and large schools of fish will jump out of the water as if they are being chased by something larger.

Australian Salmon
The Australian salmon would have to rate as one of the most popular sports fish this country has to offer and Georges Bay finds itself home to large schools of fish reaching sizes of up to 6lb. Since the banning of commercial and recreation netting in the bay the salmon have come back with a vengeance and as each year goes by larger schools and larger fish are showing up and being caught by the average angler. Once again good quality basic tackle is all that is needed to target this species, average fish sizes tend to be around 2-4lb mark and can be caught with spin tackle consisting of rods of 6'6" in length and 3-6kg matched to spinning reels in the 2500-4000 size range spooled with 8-12lb line.
Australian salmon respond well to a number of different baits such as bluebait, whitebait, squid, pippies, sandworms and prawns but "matching the hatch" is always your best option and if the fish are chasing bait schools then the smaller fish bait is the best option.
While the salmon are focussed on the bait schools it is prime time to target the fish with artificial means such as lure, soft plastics and saltwater fly. When the salmon schools are boiling on the surface a few different techniques can be employed, by far the most common is trolling lures behind a boat, whilst this seems an easy method it is by far not the most effective as the noise from the outboard motors tends to put the schools down and move them around too much. A far more deadly and effective method is drift spinning, by this I mean motoring up wind or up current of the school of fish switching the motor off and drifting down onto the fish casting lures or soft plastics ahead of you, this keeps the school up on top and quite often you end up right in the middle of the school with fish all around you. The boat itself can also act as a large F.A.D. (fish attracting device) as it casts a large shadow in the water and the baitfish quite often try and find refuge underneath keeping the school of salmon all around your boat.
The salmon tend to roam the bay following the bait but likely spots to start are the main channel leading out to the barway and the Moulting Bay area, all the while keeping a lookout for hovering birds and pelicans on the move.
Lures such as Halco Slices and Twisty's, Raiders, Snipers and Norstream Sluck lures in the 15-30 gram sizes work wonders especially if retrieved at high speed, even skipping the lure across the surface can attract savage strikes from hungry salmon and makes for exiting Visual fishing. Soft plastic lures such as Squidgy Fish in True Blue, Black & Gold and Silver Fox, Squidgy Flick baits in Evil Minnow and Blue Pilly, Berkley 3" Bassminnows in just about any colour and Snapback 4" Finesse Jerk Bait are all deadly on salmon. When the salmon are marauding a bait school simply casting out a soft plastic and letting it sink down slowly will usually result in a hookup if not either a straight retrieve back to the boat or a twitch-and-drop retrieve will be effective.
If targeting salmon on fly tackle a good #6-8 weight fly rod with plenty of backing should subdue all but the largest specimens with leaders tippets around 8-12lb. Flies such as Lefty Deceivers, Surf Candy's, Epoxy Minnows, Clousers and my favourite a Muzz Wilson Fuzzlebugger will all work well and once again either a fast stripping retrieve or let the fly sink then fast jerky retrieves back to the boat with intermittent pauses will result in savage strikes from the salmon. Sometimes clasping the flyrod in between your knees or under your armpit and double handed stripping at high speed will result in savage takes from timid fish, sometimes this technique is needed to fire the fish up and get them in the mood. Whilst not considered much of a table fish by most if dispatched immediately after capture, bled, filleted and placed on ice will offer quite a tasty meal on the BBQ that night with the smaller fish being the sweetest.

Silver Trevally
In the last few seasons in Georges Bay a run of unusually large silver trevally have been turning up during spring and staying all through the summer. Fish of up to 600mm fork length and 5lb+ are being caught; fish of this size have never been seen in the bay until recent years, evidence once again that the ban on netting is improving the fishery all the time. Trevally averaging 300-350mm fork length seems to be most common and can be caught with much the same tackle as the salmon. However these fish seem to be much fussier about the baits they will eat and require a little more attention to detail in the presentation. The trevally will respond very well to a good berley trail and nothing works better than Stimulate Ultrabite Prawn pellet burley with some Tuna Oil added to it and slowly but consistently introduced to the water column. Small pieces of peeled prawn flesh, pippies or chicken breast meat floated unweighted down the berley trail appearing as natural as possible are very effective as are the use of sabiki rigs with small pieces of bait added to the hooks. The bite from a trevally can at times be very subtle and requires a bit more concentration from the angler to strike at the right time but once hooked can test light tackle out to its limits.
One technique that is becoming more and more popular with sport fisherman chasing these XOS trevally and one that offers excellent and very exciting sport is the use of soft plastic lures and light tackle. Soft plastic specific High Modulus Graphite spin rods of 6'6"-7'6"(2-5kg) in length and spin reels in the 1000-2500 size range spooled up with 4-6lb Fireline GSP line and 6-8lb leaders are perfect. This type of tackle enables the angler to make long accurate casts with very light jig heads and plastic lures, detect the small and subtle takes of the trevally and offer a huge amount of fighting power needed to keep the large fish from finding the reefy bottom, pylon or rock formation they live around.
Finding the schools of trevally is the first part of the puzzle, they like a bit of current and some structure but do tend to move around a bit so the main channel leading out to the barway is a good place to start, drifting the channel with the incoming tide along the edges and around the pylons seems to consistently produce fish. Jig heads in the 1/16th to 1/8th size are perfect for this technique and by far the best plastics I have found are the Berkley 6" Sandworm in Natural, Berkley 2" Powergrub in Pumpkinseed or Bloodworm, the Squidgy Wriggler in Bloodworm or Wasabi and the Squidgy Flickbait in Evil Minnow. Cast the plastics out and let them sink and sit on the bottom for a moment, quite often the fish will pick it up off the bottom, then either a slow lift and drop all the way back to the boat or alternatively small hopping twitches combined with slow lifting will draw strikes from the trevally. Once hooked trevally are awesome fighters on light tackle testing drags and leaders to the limit and are heaps of fun whilst also being a reasonable table fish.

As you can see there are many fantastic sport fishing options you can tackle over the Autumn period in St Helens, all in one bay and all achievable in a day on the water. More often than not the weather will be favourable which makes it a pleasant option for the whole family and one can also produce a seafood banquette of sorts at the end of the day. So don't pack your gear away just yet, break out the light tackle for one last session before winter and you may get a pleasant surprise at just how much fun you can have.

Jamie Henderson