Sea run trout tactics – Craig Vertigan

During the trout off-season I tend to spend a bit of time chasing bream, to continue getting a fishing fix, and spend time tying flies and dreaming about the trout season to come. It’s a time to spend doing tackle maintenance, stocking up on lures and dreaming up new challenges and goals for the trout season ahead. When the new season comes around I usually spend the first few months targeting sea runners. Sea run trout are simply brown trout that spend much of there lives out to sea and come in to the estuaries for spawning and to feed on whitebait and the other small endemic fishes that spawn in late winter through spring. Mixed in with the silvery sea runners you can also expect to catch resident fish that have the typical dark colours of a normal brown trout as well as atlantic salmon in some of our estuaries that are located near salmon farm pens. Living in Hobart it is quick and easy to do a trip on the Huon or Derwent and is a more comfortable proposition compared to a trip up to the highlands with snow and freezing winds to contend with.

Last season was a real jump in my learning curve on these silver rockets, so I thought I’d share some of what I’ve experienced.
Firstly the most important thing is edges. Work the edges because that’s what the trout are doing. And the reason they are doing that is they are hunting down the whitebait, which are trying to seek refuge from strong currents and hungry predators. It surprises many people just how far into the skinny water you’ll catch big trout. You need to approach the water with stealth and always be on the lookout for signs of feeding. Many times they can be right at your feet!
Shore Bashing
For a short trip out I still do the odd bit of shore bashing. There are quite a lot of spots on the Derwent such as along Bedlam Walls, Geilston Bay, Old Beach and around Dowsing Point where you can get easy access. But there are many other spots where you just can’t access the area any other way than from the water on either a boat or a kayak. For shore bashing I like spots with a gentle sloping hard muddy shore where you can easily wade or spots such as Bedlam Walls where you can walk along the rock platform and fish along the edges of the deep drop off. When fishing from the shore I always look for feeding trout hard up against the edges. I move along the shore and fan casts out as I go and always put some casts parallel to the shore before I walk further along it. I’d say the majority of my trout caught from the shore are from the zone of five metres out right up to the shore edge. Many times the trout are actually tailing with backs out of the water as they drive the bait fish into a corner. I have polaroided some monsters around 8lb cruising hard up against the edge around Bedlam Walls and lost the battle with a few of them too. But the average sea-runner of 2-4lb is a much easier proposition on light tackle from the shore. If you really want to get serious about catching sea runners you need to fish from either a boat with an electric motor or a kayak. There’s just so much shoreline that’s otherwise completely inaccessible in both the Derwent and the Huon in the south and no doubt this is the case for many of the other estuaries in the state that hold good numbers of sea trout.
Suitable Kayaks
In some of the prime areas where the whitebait hide and the trout come to feed a kayak is the ultimate weapon of choice to target the fish. The spots where the kayak truly excels is in the shallow flats where a boat can’t get in and around fallen logs and snags where a boat would have a lot of trouble manoeuvring into position. The shallow flats I’m referring to can be found in the lower sections of the Huon and the Derwent, and the sunken trees are a big feature of the Huon river, especially above the Huon bridge. A kayak also excels in the stealth factor, which can be a big factor when chasing trout. Sneaking along the edges of the tall reads on the banks of the Derwent around New Norfolk is a great way to target the trout.
I had some great sessions in the Huon River early last season, chasing sea runners and atlantic salmon as they marauded the whitebait. The guys I fished with both had Hobies, and were able to stay in position against the strong outgoing tide while I got myself a good workout swapping from rod to paddle in a traditional paddle kayak. I’d get a few casts in before having to paddle back up to where the fish were busting up the whitebait. I did manage to catch some very good sea runners and atlantics, but maybe I could have caught more if I’d spent more time with a rod in my hand.
In my issue 85 article on the Scamander River ABT tournament I mentioned the versatility of the mirage drive Hobies for holding position in a current. Fishing in a tournament under time restrictions really highlighted the extra time you get with a rod in your hand rather than a paddle. The advantages of the mirage drive make it perfect for chasing sea run trout just as much as the bream. After much testing and deliberation I decided to buy the Hobie Revolution.
There’s a lot of tidal current as well as fresh water flow in the estuaries. So you need a kayak that is capable of moving against that current with relative ease. One of the best times to target the trout is when there’s a lot of flow in the river from recent rains coinciding with a large shift between the tides. In the past I managed to successfully fish from my paddle yak, but I now fish it from my pedal yak and the difference is quite noticeable for this style of fishing. The pedal yak is able to keep me in position facing into the strong river currents while I can continue casting, while in the paddle yak I was constantly swapping between paddle and rod and probably missing a few opportunities in the process.
A light graphite rod of 6 to 7 foot in the 2-4kg range teamed with 1000-2000 sized spinning reel and 4-6lb braid and leader are the tools needed for the job. And when it comes to lures I use the fly fishing motto of “match the hatch”.
I generally use two styles of lures when chasing the sea trout: bibbed minnows and soft plastics. In the soft plastics lures such as the 3 inch Berkley Power Minnows in natural colours such pearl blue or watermelon, pumpkinseed and the galaxia green work well. The Berkley Hollowbelly in pearl watermelon is also a killer imitation, which I use in shallow and clear water. I rig these on light jig heads from 1/32 to 1/16 and occasionally on a weedless worm hook.
In the hard body minnows I favour shallow to mid depth diving minnows that are 4-8cm and also in natural colours such as: Daiwa Dr Minnows in brown trout or olive ghost, Stiffy Minnows in brown snake, Atomic Hardz Shad 50 in ghost gill brown, Strike Pro Bass-X and Smeltas in natural colours and Rapala X-Raps in olive green or muddler. It’s also worth trying surface lures such as the walk the dog style. When you catch them on surface lures the takes are thrilling and very similar to a river trout scoffing down a big hopper fly.
I will resort to more vibrant and flashy colours when I’m not getting a hook-up but the fish are obviously feeding. I found that in times like that sometimes the whitebait are so thick that you can see a solid mass as the bait ball swims under your yak. And at times you’ll cast a hard body to a feeding trout and come back with whitebait stuck in a treble. Its times like these that you need to have a lure that stands out against the mass of naturals!
Another lure that does well is the humble Tassie Devil trolled along parallel to the bank. The reed lined banks between New Norfolk and Bridgewater Bridge are the hot spot for trolling Tassie Devils.
After observing the masses of naturals I think another key factor in a good imitation is the addition of silver rimmed eyes. Many times that is the standout feature of the whitebait packs as they swim under you. If a lure combines these eyes with some translucency in the body and a little bit of shimmer then it will make an awesome imitation.
As mentioned previously the golden rule is work the edges. The whitebait will swim up closer to the centre of a river when the tide is coming in, helping them on their migration to spawn, but when the tide turns and they have the river flow as well as the tidal current to contend with they are forced to seek out slower currents along the edge. So with all the whitebait corralled up against the edges it becomes easy pickings for the trout. So the outgoing tide tends to bring the feeding to a climax for the trout as they feed ravenously on schools hard up against the edges.
I saw an awesome sight one trip where a trout of about 5lb chased some fish so hard that it came out of the water and landed on a sandy bank and had to flap its way back into the water. It felt like watching that David Attenborough doco where the killer whales chase the baby seals right up onto the beach.
This illustrates perfectly what tactics the trout are using to catch their quarry, driving them up against the edge until they have no where to retreat and then pouncing. So we must use that knowledge to our advantage. Position your kayak a comfortable casting distance from the bank and slowly work your way up the river blind casting until you spot feeding fish. Sometimes the tell tail sign is a few fleeing whitebait jumping clear of the water. Then you need to try to guess which direction the fish is chasing the whitebait and put your lure a little ahead of that position.
When you’ve found a feeding fish sometimes they’ll keep on slashing away at the whitebait for a very long time and it’s worthwhile putting continuous casts into the zone while this is happening. When the whitebait are thick the trout will feed frantically and may miss your lure because of the wall of whitebait. Just keep persevering until you finally get it in front of the trout’s nose. They don’t seem to spook when they are feeding this heavily, especially when you’re in a stealthy kayak low to the water.
A fish-finder is a great tool to help you out in your quest, along with a good pair of polaroid sunglasses. The fish-finder helps you find the right depths, structure such as sunken trees, weed beds and drop offs and channels in the shallows. When you find trout or whitebait in one of these zones you can use your fish-finder to keep on finding similar spots throughout the session to maximise your chances. Use a slow stealthy paddle/peddle and constant scanning with your polaroids to find schools of whitebait. Sometimes they are easier to see when they go across a sand patch or over a sunken log, so always have a good look around such areas of good visibility.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that an area is too shallow to hold a trout. I’ve caught plenty of fish in water so shallow that my rudder or mirage fins touch down. In those areas you may need to pull your rudder up and for Hobie owners you’ll need to use small strokes with the fins up against the hull, or lock the fins up and grab the paddle. On a recent winter trip with my mate Scott McDonald we both hooked up to sea runners in super shallow water. In both cases we saw a bow wave moving towards where our lure was, as the trout pushed through the skinny water to get to our lures. Scott’s 57cm brute went ballistic when hooked and he had to drag it out of the rocky shallows into deeper water to have a chance of landing it.
I generally use soft plastics when targeting fish feeding in edges that drop straight down to depths beyond a metre. The approach I use when I spot a fish slashing at the baitfish is to cast near the slash with a lightly weighted plastic and let it sink slowly for a few seconds. Then give it some small but very erratic twitches to try to get the plastic just moving up and down on the spot without moving it out of the zone. The reasoning behind this is that the trout will often stun a school of whitebait and then turn back around and pick up any injured or stunned fish.
If you don’t see any feeding trout then just methodically cast your way up the bank, casting your lure as close to the bank as possible and using a gentle lift and pause retrieve, making sure to always get in the slack line on the pause. In these situations the fish will invariably strike on the pause so be ready.
Hard body minnows are ideal for bouncing along super shallows in water where no boat can go. This can be heart in your mouth stuff as you cast to a feeding fish with its back out of the water and then a few winds of the handle later you see a big bow wave as the trout chases down your lure. You have to tell yourself to relax and wait for the hit, and then it happens and you’re hooked with a big trout thrashing about in 10cm of water.
I have started using surface lures with a walk the dog style retrieve when the light is low. To get the lure to swing left and right you simply give the rod a constant small twitch down or to the side while maintaining a slow and steady retrieve with the reel. The seductive swinging motion can elicit some exciting surface action.
When casting to a feeding fish I tend to slow my retrieve right down and just use some erratic twitches along with big pauses to keep the lure in the strike zone. Otherwise I use a slow rolling retrieve with just the odd pause for a second or two. If fishing in deeper water I’ll put some hard cranks in as soon as the lure lands to get it down to the working depth, before slowing things down.
If you’re casting to trout in amongst the sunken trees it’s a fine line between catching fish and losing lures. But that’s a risk you’ve got to take if you want to get the hook-ups. Accurate casting is the name of the game. But even still you will probably lose a lure or two to logs hidden in the depths.
Fighting tactics
Finally after all the hard work you’ve hooked yourself a trout. They’ll do everything in their power to get off that hook, including spectacular leaps out of the water, head shakes, body rolls and heading for the deep cover of snags. There’s a few things you can do to even the odds in your favour. The first of which is to always position your kayak so that you can retreat to deeper water to pull a fish away from the snags. Keeping your paddle on your lap at the ready can help in case you need to quickly go into reverse.
Another tactic to control the fish is good use of the rod. Keep it down low if the fish is close to the surface to try to stop it jumping. Apply side pressure to use the strength of the butt section of the rod to turn the fish and dictate terms. If the fish goes under your kayak put the rod in the water to stop it rubbing the line on your hull.
Finally always maintain pressure, all the way to the net. Trout are good at flapping about madly when they get yak side. Ease off the drag as the fish gets closer to give yourself another shock absorber besides the rod.
Where and when
Southern estuaries such as the Derwent, Huon, Esperance and Lune are all good spots. Sea trout in the Derwent can be found all the way from the first rapids above New Norfolk down to the Tasman Bridge. In the north try the Tamar, especially around the tailrace, Pipers River, the Mersey, Rubicon and Leven rivers. The west coast has the Henty and Arthur. And even some of the rivers such as Georges on the east coast will have sea run trout.
The prime time for sea runners chasing whitebait is between August and November. But they can be found a couple of months either side of that. I have already started catching the odd sea runner and a few residents in June in the lower section of the Derwent. So hopefully this is a sign of bumper season to come.
Craig Vertigan

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