Cool Water Flats

Craig Rist hunts black bream in southern estuaries

Two grey shapes suddenly came into view from beneath the reflection of the clouds, thirty feet out. I immediately released the fly from my fingers and made three rushed false-casts before dropping the gold and black Clouser right on top of them, sending the two fish fleeing back out to the main channel. I cursed myself for not allowing for the stiff breeze blowing over my right shoulder. I quickly restacked my fly line, making a mental note to take another millisecond to think about the strength and direction of the wind next time, that is, if I was fortunate enough to get another shot. I could see two stingrays feeding over the flats and many large dark depressions where they had been pumping out crabs and shellfish. Among these were smaller depressions and patches of crushed pipi shells, a sure sign that black bream also frequent this area. My eyes strained as I scanned the water far and wide to glimpse another bream-sized shape or shapes, so easily concealed on these feeding grounds — all before one of these wary flats dwellers might notice me towering over them in a 5-metre flats boat. A large single fish suddenly came into view, swimming high in the water, 10 metres out at 11 o’clock from the bow. This time I managed to place the cast 3 metres ahead of the fish and it immediately moved over to inspect the fly sinking towards the sand. The fish stopped half a metre short and appeared to be losing interest, so I brought the fly to life with a couple of quick strips. The bream instantly rushed over and grabbed the Clouser, but as I gave the line another long fast strip to set the hook, the fly pulled out of those shell-crushing teeth. Fortunately for me, this made the bream even more determined to eat my fly, as it charged over and inhaled it for a second time. I watched the fly vanish well past those blue lips this time before giving the line another long fast strip. The line came up tight, sending the fish into a mad panic. With nothing but sand around me, I let it run to clear the loose line at my feet before the reel spun into life, slowing and then stopping the bream’s dash for freedom. The rest of the fight was clean and smooth, which is always helpful to ensure those fine chemically sharpened hooks don’t pull free — especially when I only have a fish pinned by the lips. In no time at all a beautiful 38- cm bream was in the net, revived and released, so I could do it all over again. A worthy Adversary A lot has changed since I wrote ‘Bream On The Flats’ (FL#65). I now have a purpose-built flats boat, which has made targeting these fish a lot easier and even more enjoyable. I really love the whole game of salt-water flats fishing, and without doubt, just like the Western Lakes, it’s the sight-fishing aspect of this style of fly fishing — combined with a fish that is not always easy to catch on fly — that gets me in, every time. Large black bream on the flats in Tasmania definitely qualify as a worthy target species. They are very spooky in skinny water, they fight hard, and they can be difficult to find and persuade to eat a fly at times. In the summer months bream are spread out throughout the estuaries, from the lower reaches of the rivers, where some are still spawning, down to the tidal mud and sand flats where they feed and regain condition. For a Tasmanian like me, living thousands of kilometres away from Australia’s amazing tropical flats, these southern flats dwelling bream deliver a similar sight-fishing experience, with the addition of a few extra layers of clothing. Going With The Flow In an estuary system with a small population of bream and a handful of fishable flats, I like to wait until the flats are well covered in water and the big bream are comfortable being out in the open and feeding hard. In the past I’ve hit them too early, at the start of the rising tide, but a lot of fish are travelling and not feeding at this time, making them much harder to catch. When I inevitably spook these transient fish, I think it actually puts them off venturing onto the flats later, at high tide, and I see none at all or very few. Knowing when to hit the flats really depends on the system you are fishing, but for me the last two hours of the rising tide is a good starting point. At this time bream are still moving and feeding over the flats, swimming into the flow of the incoming tide. Just like stingrays, you can see them using the flow of water to help them excavate and disperse the sand and mud behind them as they dig out shellfish and the like. Feeding into the flow like this also gives them a clean unobstructed view to seize crabs, prawns or small fish that are trying to escape. I also find bream around exposed sand or rock bars, waiting to ambush prey moving onto the flats on the incoming tide. I usually pole or use an electric outboard to move across the flats with the tide, and intercept the bream head on. This approach is a great way to lead a fish, allowing the fly to drift down to it before bringing the fly to life by stripping it away from — not into — the fish, like a fleeing prawn or baitfish. When the tide turns and begins to run out, these bream simply turn back into the flow of the outgoing tide and continue to feed until they are forced to drop back off the flats before they are trapped high and dry. I actually think they start to feed with a little more urgency at this time, trying to make the most of the time they have left. So, when the tide turns to run back out, I like to go with the flow, and drift back down the flats with the tide. That way I can once again present the fly head-on to any remaining fish that are still feeding — the hungry ones — until I too have to leave the flats. Inevitably I do find some fish facing away from me as they drop back with the tide to a more comfortable depth to feed. These fish are still willing to eat if the fly is presented ahead and off to one side, so that they have to turn back across to the fly, whereupon it can be stripped away from them naturally, to get their attention. I use a long leader for this, 12 to 14 ft in length down to a 7 lb fluorocarbon, which gives me more room for error on the length of cast, spooking fewer fish with the fly line on delivery. When the water gets too low for the bream and my boat, I’ll drop back into the channel with them, concentrating on the edge of any side channels where the water is still draining off the flats. Bream can often be seen ambushing food along this edge and occasionally swimming back up onto the flats, where the depth allows, to intercept a crab or prawn or just have that last minute dig for a shellfish before feeding time is over. Twisted Stinger As mentioned in FL#65, I often incorporate a stinger hook into the tail of a fly, for those bream that persist in having an inquisitive tail nip and never commit to swallow the fly far enough to find the hook point. In the past I have just used a single length of nylon to attach the stinger hook, but I now prefer a twisted section of 8 lb mono. These can be made by adopting much the same techniques as used for twisted leaders, spun by hand or a drill, ready to be tied in at the dumbbell eyes of a Clouser. This twisted stinger hook arrangement has proven to be very successful and it can often be the difference between hooking a fish or just getting a few tail-grabs that never come up tight. When the lights go out There’s nothing worse than starting the day with clear blue skies, spotting fish 20 to 25 metres off the bow, only to have clouds move in and shut down your once perfect view of the flats. Cloud reflection on the water surface really limits sight fishing to very close quarters from a boat and even closer if you are wading. For me, this is where the additional elevation of a casting platform — or the push pole platform for that matter — really makes a difference to spotting a fish and getting a cast in, without being seen. If I am still blowing chances at fish while drifting onto them with the tide, I will often change my approach by using the electric outboard or poling the boat against the tide to come up behind feeding fish, in their blind spot. I find it much harder to present a fly and ‘feed’ them this way, but at least I have the fly in the water with a chance before being seen. Another strategy I like to use when clouds cover the sun, is to find suitable flats adjacent to high banks or tree-lined shores which block out the reflection of clouds on the water. This can give me a clear, unobstructed view into the water when looking back towards the shoreline. This definitely restricts the water I can fish, but at least it keeps me in the game. The Challenge Fortunately for me, the black bream that frequent our southern cool-water estuaries are an ideal species to target on fly from a purpose-built flats boat. There are many suitable waterways in Tasmania and only a handful of fly fishers taking advantage of them as a sight-fishing option. It’s not hard to find waterways that hold large numbers of medium-sized bream — ideal for consistent fishing. But if you want to step up the challenge, there are flats to be found with smaller populations of trophy-sized bream — much harder to find and to catch — where the rewards can be so much higher with the capture of a single fish.

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