Port Sorell's Australian salmon
Australian salmon seem to have been tailor made for the recreational angler. They're readily caught using a wide variety of fishing styles and techniques. When hooked, they fight hard and will display gill rattling leaps clear of the water adding to the excitement of catching these great fish. When the word gets out of their arrival in a particular area, anglers will travel long distances to pursue these light tackle fish.
Over the last two years, Port Sorel's Rubicon River estuary has experienced a run of juvenile Australian salmon over winter and spring. These fish range from 0.5kg to 2kg. Fish under a kilo are locally known as cocky salmon. While fish of a kilo and greater tend to have a dark blue green back and are commonly referred to as blackback.
This year the news of their arrival at Port Sorell filtered through my work place on the fishing grape vine. Within days of the news I had my 12ft tinny on the water with the company of my father, trolling silver wobblers. There were no signs of birds feeding over schools of salmon as you might expect, but the presence of three other boats trolling the area suggested the salmon, were still in the estuary. It wasn't long before one of our rods bent over under the weight of a good fish as it proceeded to take line from the reel loaded with 6 lb braid. After a solid fight, a fish of around 1.5 kg was landed. We caught several more trolling before deciding to pull out the fly rod, as I do at every opportunity. We drifted down the same area casting flies and lures. I managed two good fish on fly, blind searching the area, but casting flies and lures from a drifting boat without knowing the location of the school at any one time wasn't proving as effective as trolling lures. The tide turned and started to run out slowing down the bite as the fish moved off the flats we were fishing. We managed a couple more on the way back to the boat ramp before calling it a day.
Steve Hambleton is a great fishing mate who is always up for trying new methods and ideas when it comes to salt water fly fishing. In the past we have used berley with great affect to bring a range of fish species to within a comfortable casting distance from the boat.
On the next trip, Steve had invited along one of his work mates, Hilton, who had just started to use soft plastics and was keen to put a bend in his new outfit. On an incoming tide we searched the estuary for salmon using the fish finder and trolling lures. Things were very slow, with only a couple of random fish caught over two hours. With an hour to go before high tide we moved further up the estuary. Hilton was trolling a lure behind a paravane and hooked a good fish in 6 metres of water, with time running out, we anchored the boat up-current of the previous capture and tied off a frozen block of fish mince inside a keep net to thaw out in the current. Fifteen minutes had passed with no response from flies or soft plastics. Yet another cast saw the fly swing into the berley trail, I felt a savage strike followed by another. The line stretched out tight with a solid hook up, followed by a powerful run and tail walking jumps, before slogging it out deep at the boat putting a nice bend back to the cork in my 6 weight fly rod. The fish soon tired, allowing Steve to net a nice black back salmon. From that moment just about every cast produced a strike or a hook up, from the school of salmon that were now feeding on the berley only 6 metres behind the boat. Flies and soft plastics proved very effective drifted back through the berley trail followed by a slow retrieve. We must have caught at least 20 fish, keeping only a few for the table.
My brother Darren and I repeated the same technique a week later holding a school of salmon at the boat in only 2 metres of water. Although the estuary was quite rough, we could easily see fish feeding up the berley trail within 3 metres of the boat. Darren had never used a fly rod, but by simply flicking out the fly into the feeding fish he was soon connected to his first fish on fly. Together, we caught well over 40 fish on flies and soft plastics, carefully releasing all, but a few, for Darren's family.
Finding the fish
When it comes to locating Australian salmon there are a few things you can try. The most obvious signs are the presence of other anglers fishing the area or birds feeding on the baitfish forced to the surface by schools of hungry salmon. In the absence of birds working the area you may see signs of salmon or baitfish breaking the water surface as they chase their prey. Salmon feeding just under the surface can make the water ripple and shimmer, indicating their presence well before any obvious surface activity. In the absence of surface activity, salmon or bait schools can be located with the aid of a fish finder or by trolling likely areas with a range of proven salmon lures that cover a wide range of depths. Areas to try on an incoming tide are along the edge of the main channels and over the flats in water as shallow as 1.5 metres, particularly over areas that may provide some refuge to shrimps, sea worms and bait fish such as deep gutters, oyster beds, reefs and weed beds. On an outgoing tide the fish will move off the flats into deeper water. Fishing the edge of the main channels and the sandbars on an outgoing tide will still produce fish, but this stage of the tide does not normally fish as well.
Whether you're into salt water fly fishing, casting soft plastics and lures or even bait fishing, berley can be a great way of holding the fish to within casting range, giving you a better chance of success. When salmon are not actively feeding at the surface it can often be very hard to stay in touch with the location of a school. This in where the use of berley can turn an average session into a very productive one. Once you have located a school of fish, anchor the boat in a position so that the current will take your berley over the school of fish. My friends and I like to use a block of frozen minced fish frames inside an old landing net or keep net. This is a very simple and clean way of distributing a continuous flow of berley, necessary to bring fish to within your casting range.
For the average Australian salmon, commonly found around Tasmania, big specialised salt water fly rods and reels are not required. The rod you would normally use to catch trout at our inland lakes is quite capable of taking control of the average blackback salmon. All that is required is a reel with a good drag and capable of holding 50 metres of 20 pound backing. I like to use a clear intermediate line to cover all depths but a floating line will still catch plenty of fish when fished in a berley trail.
The ability to cast long distances is not required when using berley. This makes it ideal for anyone who might want to experience catching a fish on a fly rod without having had any previous experience. Because the fish are usually very close to the boat a short three metre cast is all that is required to present the fly. After the initial cast start feeding the line out with the current, keeping in contact with the fly at all times and striking side ways or strip-striking with your line hand when you feel the line tighten on a fish. If this fails to produce a hook up then a slow steady retrieve back to the boat will usually bring results. A white fly on a No. 1 hook with a bit of flash is all that is usually necessary to provoke a strike.
For people not familiar with catching strong fighting fish, such as blackback salmon, on a fly rod, try to use side strain as much as possible on a big fish and fight the fish from the reel. The term side strain is when you lay the fly rod to one side applying pressure to the side of the fish's body. This will greatly shorten any run of a strong fish. When the fish is down deep slogging it out at the boat, try and avoid lifting the rod above shoulder height so that maximum lifting pressure through the rod can be achieved with short lifting strokes, with the rod tip in the water if necessary. Blackback will usually take two or three runs when hooked so be ready to take your hand off the reel as soon as you feel the fish going for another run. Failure to do this may result in sore knuckles or a broken leader. Once you have the leader close to the rod and you feel the fish coming up to the surface, you can then lift the rod above shoulder height to guide the fish to the net.
Like many other fish, Australian salmon will readily take soft plastics. We drifted a 4 inch Frostbite Squidgy Wriggler back through the berley trail and this was promptly eaten within seconds. We didn't use any other type of soft plastic, but I'm sure there would be many more that would have done the job just as well. To get the most out of these fish a 2 to 4 kilo rod would be all that is required to catch the average blackback in our waters.
Trolling lures for salmon is by far the most common way of catching salmon. Silver wobblers, Raiders, bibbed lures; plastic tubes, soft plastics and flies are all very successful when trolled for salmon. Paravanes, down riggers and lead lines are all very effective ways of presenting your lure at the right depth when the fish are in deep water. Having a range of lures to cover all depths and conditions is often the key to success.
Fish for the future
Once you have a feed of fish handle the fish to be released carefully with wet hands and consider closing up the barbs on your hooks. This will hopefully improve the survival rate of the fish you want to release. With anglers catching more fish using new technologies and techniques these days, it is great to see anglers having realised the value of these great fish as a light tackle sports fish for the whole family and that bringing home a boat load of dead fish is no longer a measure of a successful day's fishing or a way of sustaining a great fishery for years to come.