Fly Fishing in the Tamar Estuary
by Steve Suitor
Fly fishing in the Tamar Estuary presents a wide variety of species for the angler prepared to explore and experiment.
Each of these different species requires a different technique, a different location and, importantly, a different state of the tide for best results.
Some species are only resident during certain times of the year. The most sought-after species is without doubt cocky salmon. Salmon usually appear in the Tamar about October and stay until late May or early June. However, this year, reasonable numbers were still coming to the net in mid August in the Kelso/George Town area.
Salmon respond well to deceivers, anchovies, general whitebait patterns,
Crazy Charlies and prawn patterns. The size of these flies are more important than colour and flies in Size 8, 4 and 1/0 should be carried in the streamer patterns. Best colours are blue-white, red-white and green-white. Fish can often be located by the behaviour of seagulls and terns. Fish feeding on the surface are obvious but the presence of flocks of gulls sitting on the water, or hovering, indicates the presence of schools deeper in the water column.
Gear for salmon need not be specialised and your 6/7 weight trout gear is ideal. A reel that holds 100 metres of backing is recommended. Salmon can be found anywhere between Rosevears and The Heads in late summer. Earlier and later in the season consistently successful spots are Egg Island,
Sidmouth - especially around Drumstick Island, Reid's Rock, the area around the woodchip plant including The Dragons on the western shore, Shag Rock, Kelso and Monument Point.
While a lot of anglers like a rising tide I have always had best results in the first two hours of the ebb tide.
Leaders need only be about 2 metres and a 5 kg tip will turn the bigger and bulkier flies over far better than say 3 kilograms. Fish swirling around the fly and not taking indicate a change to a smaller pattern is needed.
Always bear in mind that the bigger fish will be at the bottom of the school so allowing your fly to sink will generally result in better fish. Flathead are the second most frequently targeted fish and they are also fairly easily caught. Whether fishing with baits, lures or flies most anglers make the mistake of targeting flathead on a rising tide. They will catch plenty of flathead but the majority will be under the legal size of 300 millimetres. The best fish can be targeted by fishing the drop-offs of the extensive sand flats during the last two hours of the runout tide. As your fly needs to be right on the bottom, the best patterns are Crazy Charlies, clouser minnows and some of the crab patterns. A hesitant retrieve will outfish a regular stripping motion and the best colour is emerald or fluoro green. Fly sizes 2 up to 1/0 are about right and a fast sink, braided or poly leader with about 1 metre of 5 kg mono tippet is my standard rig for the flats.
Recommended spots are the old oyster leases at Craigburn, Ruffins Bay,
Redwood Bay, East Arm, below the George Town Golf Club House, the long flats and the flats north of the Kelso Jetty.
Barracouta are easy to catch when you can find them. They are much less reliable than salmon and are best targeted from Bell Bay to The Heads. They are occasionally found as far upriver as Deviot. A deceiver-type fly tied on a 1/0 or 2/0 hook is all that is needed.
Since I have great trouble casting wire traces I now tie my couta flies on long shank hooks with the head of the fly directly above the barb. This enables me to use the 50 mm shank as a short, built-in trace. Also works well on other toothy species such as tailor, pike, wrasse, parrot fish and leatherjackets. Couta are a summer fish and can be caught from about mid November until the end of April in the Inspection Head, Shag Rock and Garden Island areas.
Pike are found in areas of seagrass beds and will take the same flies as couta. The seagrass opposite Marion Villa and out off Greens Beach are prime sites. A rising tide before 10.00 a.m. is the best combination.
Mullet are a widespread species which are available year round. They respond well to berley and as great distances don't have to be cast they can be great fun on a *4/5 weight outfit. I have caught mullet on small, black dry flies such as smut and ants but more usual patterns are bread flies, scuds and shrimp patterns. A floating line and a leader tapered to 2 kg is all that is needed.
Mullet venture further upstream than most species and can be caught in shallow bays and particularly in the vicinity of inflowing streams and
ricegrass beds. Rosevears, Windermere, Supply Bay, Craigburn, Redwood Bay, East Arm, Middle Arm, Kelso and Pipe Clay Bay are good spots. Mullet are definitely a rising tide proposition and are often caught in water less than a metre deep.
Silver trevally are a midwater species with small mouths. They respond well to berley and are most often encountered in close proximity to jetty piles, oyster leases, reefs and permanently moored boats. Most successful flies are epoxy-bodied minnows and Crazy Charlies fished on sinking lines. The jetties, pontoons and channel markers at Windermere, Gravelly Beach, Swan Point, Deviot, Bonny Beach and Inspection Head all have resident populations of silvers. It is important to get your flies right in close to the structure for best results. Expect to lose both fish and flies.
Black bream only seem to appear about the middle of January and disappear about May. The only places that I have found them are around the abandoned oyster racks in Supply Bay, Craigburn, Spring Bay and East Arm, although I have seen a bream which was caught off the old Blackwater Jetty. The best time is the first two hours after low tide. Bream may be
polaroided as they follow the advancing water over the oysters and will respond to a scud, shrimp or green nymph. At times they may be persuaded to accept a Crazy Charlie - pink or white seems best. Floating or intermediate lines and leaders of 2 metres are sufficient. Tippets should be 3 kilograms.
Snotty trevally are another summer fish appearing in the bay at my home at Deviot about New Year and staying until the first floods of autumn. The old pro fishermen who used to fish the Tamar will tell you that when the jellyfish disappear so do the snotties. I have found this to be remarkably accurate.
Like silvers, snotties are a midwater species and they are also found round structures. Rigs, flies and locations as for silvers. Rods should be a least 6 weight.
Garfish are a year round fish in areas north of the Batman Bridge. Berley of breadcrumbs, cat food, minced fish flesh or pulped oysters is essential. Small bread flies and fished on 2 kg tippets using 4/5 weight rods and floating lines. The bigger sea gars are found in Sea Reach and beaches and mudflats with plenty of washed up seaweed or kelp are likely spots. In summer good berley trails can be established by throwing small quantities of rotting seaweed or kelp containing maggots into the rising water at regular intervals.
Mackerel may be caught from about Point Rapid northwards. Most are taken by anglers fishing under the lights at the woodchip plant, Bell Bay and Inspection Head. Berley will excite mackerel but is often not necessary.
Small minnows, Crazy Charlies, shrimp and bread flies are favoured patterns to use from about half tide to high tide.
In calm sea conditions it is possible to anchor close into Shear Reef,
Black Reef, Hebe Reef and like locations and cast epoxy minnows and small deceivers on sinking lines to the resident wrasse, parrot fish and leatherjackets. Best results are achieved at the bottom of the tide.
Bluehead in particular will attack flies with spectacular ferocity and they are powerful and tenacious adversaries.
The use of heavier rods is justified and an 8 weight is recommended. A pair of long-nosed pliers is required to effect the release of these fish as they have an impressive set of dentures and frequently are hooked well back in the mouth. They are an indifferent table fish.
The common rock cod will readily take a deep-sunk clouser minnow fished on an extra fast sinking line at Windermere, Blackwall, Spring Bay or East Arm. A 5 kg leader of one and a half metres is sufficient. Use a slow figure eight retrieve to keep the fly right on the bottom. An 8 weight rod will handle the heavy lines and weighted flies better than say a six.
While I have never caught a kingfish on a fly I am aware of two taken on a blue deceiver in Bryant's Bay by an angler fishing for salmon. These were 3 kg specimens and put up a spectacular display before coming to the net.
While a boat is a definite advantage for saltwater fly fishing it is possible to enjoy good sport fishing from the shore and wading the flats.
Remember that in a school of fish such as salmon, mullet or trevally the larger fish will be at the bottom of the school. By allowing your
Flie or lure to sink a little deeper, better fish will be taken.
Schooling fish are not particularly leader shy and a heavy one and a half metre butt section with a half metre tippet of 5 kg will turn heavier, bulkier flies over far better than long, fine leaders.
There is great scope for further experimentation in saltwater fly fishing and fly tying. I have heard, though I haven't tried it, that it is possible to catch luderick by berleying with sea lettuce or chopped green weed and drifting a green marabou fly down the berley trail.
Other uncharted waters, as far as I know, is night fly fishing and in this area the newer luminous and fluorescent fly tying materials have exciting possibilities.
No special gear is required to make a start in estuary fly fishing and your 6/7 weight trout rod will cover most species. Mullet and garfish really only warrant a 4/5 weight rod and an 8 weight is useful for bluehead and big cod.
I use my trout gear and find that provided I wipe the rod over with a damp cloth, paying particular attention to the guides and reel seat, that it suffers no ill-effects. Fly lines are rinsed in fresh water and run through a soft cloth, and reels are cleaned with an old toothbrush and relubricated. My own System Two reel has suffered no apparent ill-effects after twelve years of this treatment.
The Tamar River is close and accessible. There is no need to camp, no need to be on the water at daylight and you can never be certain just what it is you have hooked until you see it.
It is an attractive proposition for the "office hours" angler and is available all year round - right on your doorstep.