Bread & Butter Basics

Thomas Clancy covers saltwater options close to home

With international travel off the cards for the foreseeable future and Australian trophy saltwater destinations becoming busier than a Coles toilet-paper aisle before lockdown, there has never been a better time to introduce yourself to the simple pleasures of waving a fly rod over Australia’s coastal estuaries, lakes and harbours. While the target species may not feature on as many angler’s bucket lists and the locations are nowhere near as exotic, fly fishing for our ‘bread-and-butter’ species is challenging, rewarding and a lot of fun. Bream, flathead, whiting and tailor, to name but a few, are all incredibly enjoyable species to chase. Add to this their relative abundance and proximity to major coastal cities, towns and communities and you have the makings of a fishery worthy of consideration. While there has always been a subset of the fly-fishing community engrossed in this style of fishing, I’ve noticed a real spike in interest over the past 12 to 18 months. Something, I’m guessing, to do with the pandemic and its ability to influence the extent we can travel to fish. Figuring this may be a broader trend in the fly-fishing community, I decided some foundational pointers in the pages of FlyLife might be helpful. I’ve based these pointers around what I see as the building blocks needed for newcomers to form a basic understanding of the fishery, irrespective of location. This is because, as I’ve learned over the past 15 years, every waterway is incredibly diverse. GET TO KNOW YOUR WATERWAY Coastal waterways are subject to a range of spatial and temporal influences that ultimately dictate the feeding, breeding and shelter behaviours displayed by fish. The biggest piece of advice I can give is to really develop a thorough understanding of the water you are fishing. This may seem obvious, but it’s a step that seems to be overlooked a lot these days. With instant gratification the norm and social media perpetuating false perceptions of angling simplicity and ease, there is often a desire to know exactly what to use, where and when. This may pay dividends in the short term, but it’s largely a false economy and does more harm than good in the long run. Spoon-feeding does very little for understanding why something works, which is fundamental for repeatable, consistent success. Instead, spend time on the water and take note, observe, and experiment to find out what works, and when, for your specific situation. Like all good things in life, it will take time to do this properly, but it will do wonders for your fishing ability — far more than spoon-feeding alone could ever hope to achieve. What’s more is that you’ll develop skills in pattern recognition and ecosystem understanding that will bleed into your other fly fishing endeavours and benefit them too. DON’T RUN AND GUN My second piece of advice is don’t ‘run and gun’. Jumping from system to system can act like a circuit breaker to developing the thorough understanding of a waterway that you need to be successful. Diluting your experiences across multiple waterways will give you pieces of many different puzzles, without ever seeing the complete picture of any. I see it often: anglers will give a location a go, only to have a sub-par experience and write it off completely. For all they know that waterway could be an absolute gold mine, and they just fished it on the wrong tide or in the wrong season. Devote more time to less water. Collect more pieces of fewer puzzles and you’ll see the bigger picture sooner. GENERALIST FIRST, SPECIALIST SECOND Getting runs on the board early does wonders for confidence and learning, no matter what you are fishing for. Fortunately, bread-and-butter species often co-mingle in similar locations in a system and eat similar prey. This means newcomers can stack the odds in their favour and accelerate their learning by employing a generalist strategy. Every fish caught in the beginning, regardless of species or size, will further some aspect of understanding, whether it is reinforcing strip-striking reflexes or confirming hunches on fly choice or retrieve style. Features like sand banks, deeper channels, weed beds and gravel or rock bars are all multi-species magnets and can be good places to focus your initial efforts. Once confidence and familiarity with a particular fishery have been increased, newcomers can take what they have learnt and apply it to more challenging, species- specific ventures. FLY FUNDAMENTALS Plastic moulding, flashy synthetic materials and features like articulated shanks and fish masks ensure that there are some superb, dare I say sexy, looking flies on the market today. This is all well and good for those of us that know where, when and how to use these flies, but it can make fly selection daunting for beginners. For bread-and-butter species I have found that three key characteristics make a good fly: the correct weight, the correct size, and the correct action/retrieve. If you can work out what ‘correct’ looks like for the places and fish that you target, you’ll have more consistent success than if you buy or tie flies based on looks alone, or the latest trends on social media. Having a few basic patterns, such as Clouser Minnows, BWC’s Raw Prawn or Manic’s Spawning Shrimp, in a handful of natural colours, is a good starting point given almost everything in our estuaries, lakes and harbours eats a baitfish or shrimp. From there, a combination of trial and error and time on the water will help you refine fly choice to the point where you can confidently tie or buy fly patterns to work specifically for your local situation. Having these flies tied in a wide range of weights and sizes is something worth considering once you’ve refined your patterns. Tide and depth variances mean a range of different fishing scenarios can be expected in one outing. Being prepared with flies that work in different depths and currents will allow you to adapt to the conditions if need be. HAVING THE RIGHT TOOLS FOR THE JOB Much like a science experiment, reducing the number of variables that have the potential to negatively influence your result is important when starting out with a new fishery. And nothing poses a greater risk of negatively impacting your experience than having an unsuitable outfit. Get this wrong and you could face countless hours feeling frustrated and defeated. Get this right and you’ll be free to focus your energy on things that will increase your capability, instead of your blood pressure. One of the more important pieces of kit to get right is the fly rod. Look for a rod with a medium-fast to fast flex profile and a fast recovery speed. This will help generate line speed, punch through wind and assist in turning over heavier flies. A fighting butt and corrosion resistant componentry are nice to have, but not essential. A 6- to 8-weight will be more than adequate for bread-and-butter species. The line rating you ultimately decide on will depend on many factors, such as the flies you will be casting, your competency as a caster and the locations you’ll be fishing. I personally use a 6-weight for my bream, flathead and luderick fishing and an 8 for the seasonal inshore pelagics such as tailor, juvenile trevally and salmon. I’ll also jump to an 8-weight for big bream in the nasty stuff, such as oyster leases, or when strong winds make casting a 6-weight more trouble than it’s worth. Almost every brand on the market today will have a rod that fits the above description with prices that suit all budgets. Do your research and chat to your local fly-fishing retailer and chances are you’ll walk away happy and suitably prepared. There’s not much to say about fly reel choice when it comes to bread-and-butter species — most well-made, quality fly reels will serve you well, despite what marketing campaigns may have you believe. While a reel designed specifically for the salt does give you peace of mind, and their over-engineered drags and robustness are very handy if you eventually want to test your mettle on more aggressive and exotic fare, if you can’t afford one, don’t stress. If you diligently practice proper maintenance (e.g. washing with fresh water after every outing), avoid dropping the reel in the sand, and try not to dunk it in salt water too much, you should be fine. LINES AND LEADERS Unfortunately, fly line choice is not quite as straightforward. The very thing that makes bread-and-butter species so accessible and great to target also makes choosing fly lines for them rather bothersome — they live everywhere! For example, in one estuary system at any given time, bream could be feeding right up in the super shallow flats, or several metres deep on rocky reefs, and everywhere in between. They can hold in ripping current down at the river mouth or way up in the brackish water where tidal flow is almost non-existent. Bream-specific fly lines that cater for all the above scenarios simply don’t exist, so what to do? My advice is to take a situational, rather than species-specific approach to fly line selection. Where and how you are fishing will dictate the line you will need, far more than what you are fishing for. Also, if you need assistance from your fly-fishing retailer, they will be better placed to recommend a line if you talk in terms of the specifics of the places you are likely to fish (such as current speed, depth, and water temperature) and the flies you’ll most likely use, rather than simply asking for a line that will catch bream or flathead. In contrast to fly lines, leader selection for everyday saltwater species is refreshingly simple. I tend to make my own 10-foot tapered leaders, to which I then add or subtract material depending on where and how I’m fishing. I run a three-stage taper which I find gives me a good balance between simplicity and performance. I start with 4.5 feet of butt taper (20–40 lb), 1 foot of transition taper (12–18 lb) and 4.5 feet of tippet material, give or take. Tippet strength is something that is dependent on the fishery itself, but as a starting point I’d recommend 4–6 lb for bream, whiting and luderick; 8– 12 lb for flathead, and 12–16 lb for any of the seasonal pelagics. As always though, find out what works best for your specific waterway. I use fluorocarbon for subsurface presentations (it sinks) and monofilament (which floats) for anything on the top. FURTHER HELP This prose is by no means the first of its kind, and there’s a reasonably healthy resource-base in both print and digital media available for newcomers on the FlyLife website. Peter Morse also has a timeless Saltwater FAQ online, and the magazine’s back catalogue is worth exploring for nuggets of gold. Outside of media, I would encourage newcomers to seek out information from their local fly-fishing retailer and any trusted and experienced local fly anglers.

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