Derwent Bream

Peter Morse joins the locals on the Hobart waterfront

The River Derwent above New Norfolk is a big river that has its flow regulated by hydro demand out of Meadowbank Dam, in addition to the many small and medium sized streams that flow in further downstream. When you wade it you soon understand that it carries a heavy flow, exerting oppressive pressure against your legs. The dark substrate is composed of rounded, black and greasy, ball-sized rocks interspersed with sandstone bedrock, which in comparison is like walking on Velcro. It’s not easy to fly fish from the bank. The big riffle upstream of New Norfolk is considered to be the upper limits of tidal influence, and downstream it opens up into a slow flowing, shallow, broad-water filled with weed beds and water birds. The north/south crossing of the river is at Bridgewater and that seems to mark the beginning of the true estuary. Ben Hoggins is a lifetime resident and fisherman of the Derwent Valley and I went there determined to put in some days with Ben swinging larger trout flies with the new generation of light two-handed rods, designated as ‘Trout Spey’. From the salt overlap, through much of the year, the Derwent is alive with big migratory baitfish such as eels, galaxiids and whitebait, and is famous for growing large trout, whether resident river fish, slobs that live in the estuary, or genuine sea-runners that inhabit the harbour. (see FL#46 & #74) Ben and I put in the hours and we swung it hard for several days for just one bump. We swung the river from the hop fields of Bushy Park down to the tidal zone; we fished it shallow and deep, in high flow and in low flow, and the only tangible rewards were much better casts by the end of it. PLAN B Because of daily teaching commitments in the Hobart area, travel to the Highlands was not possible for me, so with the meagre returns from the river, a Plan B had to be hatched. The small streams that feed the Derwent were fishing well and were tempting, but a visit to town and the Fishing Connection shop for some socialising and information led to useful intel that came in the words, “The harbour’s full of big bream at the moment and they’re all over the place — there’s also heaps of bait moving in and out with the tide.” Tasmanian black bream really interest me. I’d spent time fishing for them some years ago and on various trips had encountered really outstanding fly fishing for them up and down the East Coast, but had never fished the Derwent estuary. Alex Green showed me the shop’s selection of bream flies and, coincidentally, local commercial fly-tying maestro Brent Bowerman was in the shop writing up an order. Brent does a lot of bream fishing… “These fish eat bigger flies than are usually used for bream — they’re not your typical fussy small-fly-eating bream — they’re eating baitfish at the moment, and they’re aggressive.” Ben has a fair handle on the Derwent’s bream spots and we re-set our sights to the tidal waters. The last of the outgoing tide found us on the north bank of the river downstream of the Bridgewater Bridge. This area is as rubbly as the upper river, and we could have fished over this rocky ground where crushed mussel shells glinted among the black rocks. But our attention was drawn to the occasional splashes that drove schools of showering bait, and the diving terns that were moving downstream towards us with the tide. We were fishing the last two hours of the run-out and our rocky point coincided with where the flow of the tide hit the shore with the greatest impact. Ben had strung up a 4-weight and was using one of Mathew Risley’s Game Changers — a 3-inch fly with multiple articulations and an excellent replication of the baits mostly found in this part of the world. I persisted with a two-hander and rigged the Rio Trout Spey line with an intermediate tip and a small flashy Clouser. In the clear but dark tannin-stained water, bait showered around Ben’s feet and schools of bait were being harassed all along the shore — it was like being in Weipa. The predators driving them could have been a mix of species — sea trout, cocky salmon, little couta, or bream were all likely, but whatever they were, they weren’t interested in whatever we threw at them. We were caught up in the moment and with hindsight were probably stripping too fast, but clearly changes had to be made because the fish were there, they were feeding, and we weren’t getting bites. As the tide slowed the action increased and Ben came up tight on the first bream. Several more followed soon afterwards including a high 30-cm fish with a deep blue nose. Local knowledge is always invaluable. “There’s a ledge there, about 50 feet out, and the fish are sitting on that — that’s where all my bites are coming from,” Ben said. I’d rigged with a 12 lb tippet and asked Ben what he was using. “Eight pound fluorocarbon,” was his answer, so I attached three feet of eight to the front of the twelve. My black bream fishing mentor had been Muz Wilson and he was a huge fan of the pause — the stop/start retrieve that allows the fly to sink — and the moment I introduced these changes the bites came. MOTHER OF BREAM I slowed my retrieve and worked the fly in the main channel, bringing it back to the unseen ledge, and started catching fish. I heard a grunt to my right and looked up to see Ben’s 4-weight bent flat. “This is a better fish,” said Ben, and it certainly looked like it. “Here comes the backing,” and I heard the knot click up through the guides, and it kept going. This was impressive and the fish went and went, but stayed deep. Eventually it stopped, there were a couple of bumps and head shakes then all went slack. “I reckon that was the mother of all bream,” Ben said, with undisguised disappointment in his voice. The last foot of his tippet was badly frayed but the fly was still there. It knew exactly where it was going. Ben’s personal best bream on fly from the Derwent stands at 46.5 cm, and he felt this one had been much bigger. Bream in the Derwent average in the mid 30 centimetres. They are very slow growing and spawn in late winter in the lower tributaries, but they don’t spawn every year. Spawning is determined by the fresh/salt confluence — where it is and how it’s structured. There are plenty of 40 cm bream caught in this system every year. The magic boasting rights mark, like the metre barra and the 10 lb trout, is a 45 cm bream. We fished on and the bite ebbed and flowed as the tide slackened, and then stopped. The fish had clearly been moving around following the bait, and on slack water the bite stopped altogether. Ben left to go trout fishing up a small stream and I stayed on and picked up a few more fish using long casts out into the channel, and applying a slow deep retrieve. I’d changed to an all-white Fuzzle Bugger and had to resist striking as the fish pecked at it. This is why the strip-strike is so important on so many species. I delayed any lift of the rod until I was tight to the fish. If you lift the rod prematurely you whip the fly out of the fish’s view, and bream are notorious peckers at the fly. MONA BLUE NOSERS We were back on the same shore the following morning, an hour earlier, therefore two hours earlier in tidal terms than the previous day. It was a very different day, glassy calm with some bait and some dipping birds, but very few fish. A few big swirls well within range were probably sea trout but we couldn’t pull any bites from them and only a few small bream came our way. A few days later we had another session in a different location and Alex Green from the Fishing Connection joined us. Like Ben, Alex has fished the lower Derwent for bream for many years and is a great source of information and flies. We fished a rubbly shore across the bay from MONA but could have selected from at least a dozen well known fish-producing shorelines — this one was selected mostly for the cityscape backdrops. Brent had given Alex his bream box full of favourites and I didn’t even have my waders on when Alex hooked up to a good fish that turned out to be in the high 30’s. The shore here was a long gentle slope and the substrate was a mix of rocks, sand, mud and weed. Once again many crushed mussel shells glinted on the dark bottom. Alex was using one of Brent’s very sparse mini ‘Pink Things’ and he didn’t change it all morning. Ben stuck with the Game Changer and wandered off to a different part of the bay. The fish weren’t as thick here, but the bites were steady and the session culminated in a double of ‘blue nosers’ in the high 30’s. I stood back and watched, listening to the sounds of peak hour traffic and admired this small city with the cheapest waterfront property in the country. It seems almost everyone in Hobart has a water view. I’d seen very few other fishermen — some young lads with spin rods were about it.

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