Hillbilly Bonefish

Thomas Clancy gets down and dirty in Sydney’s urban drains

Not a cloud in the sky and conditions are perfect for the morning ahead. Doing my best ninja impersonation I cautiously make my way along the shore. The day is already hot, and sweat starts to bead on my brow. A renegade droplet slides down onto the left lens of my polarised glasses. With urgency, I pull them from my face and scrupulously wipe them clean. Today, these little windows of glass are invaluable to my efforts. Scanning the shallow flats I spy the tip of a caudal fin breaking the surface. My focus tightens as I strip line off the reel and begin to cast. The line falls beautifully onto the water, carrying my fly directly into the danger zone. The fish sees it, and I feel adrenaline starting to rise as the gap closes between fish and fly. The fly disappears, I strike, and the rod bends under the weight of a good fish as it fights for freedom. Eventually, I emerge from the battle victorious. As my opponent rests in my hands, I pay it a few moments of respect before unceremoniously bonking it on the head and burying it beside an old, rusted shopping trolley. Welcome to Hillbilly bonefishing. Apart from the grisly conclusion (in NSW the killing bit is up to you), this encounter could apply to many species well suited to sight fishing. The mind conjures images of bonefish on tropical flats or brown trout in New Zealand streams. However, after recently moving here, I now associate sight fishing with Sydney’s urban drains and the mighty carp! For the largest city in Australia, Sydney has a surprising number of healthy fisheries on its doorstep. Kingfish, salmon and other pelagics frequent the various harbours and make for some unbelievable days on the water for locals and travellers alike, often with the dramatic backdrop of the city skyline. While these sessions can be red hot, they often require significant preparation in advance, and a boat or kayak is almost a necessity. The idea of walking along a local creek a few minutes from home and sight casting at 4-to-5 kilo fish is something completely foreign to many Sydney-siders. But the fishery does exist and can provide immense fun for those willing to explore their backyard and look past the stigma that surrounds this urban dweller. Carp, mud marlin, hillbilly bonefish — call them what you will — the species requires little introduction. While highly regarded as a sports fish in Europe and a food fish in Asia, in Australia we view carp with almost universal disdain. But rather than delving into why this is so, my attitude is simple… You may as well make the best of a bad situation, right? Backyard Waters “You catch fish in that?” An all too common question asked by a passer-by when they see me walking a suburban creek, fly rod in hand. My affirmation is often answered by some reference to two-headed fish, as they shake theirs in disbelief. It’s true that Sydney is host to a substantial amount of pollution and the environmental degradation that follows. Sadly, the creeks winding their way through the city have not escaped. Whether it’s by way of chemical run-off or physical trash (shopping trolley bust-offs are more common than you’d think), most Sydney creeks are a far cry from the healthy waterways they once were. Native sportfish have all but disappeared as a result, which is where our featured species comes into its own. These hardy ferals flourish in these forgotten urban backwaters, and it still surprises me where I find them sometimes. The ideal creek for sight fishing carp in Sydney must have reasonable visibility and not be too deep. While carp are often found suspended just under the surface, they are frustratingly difficult to catch like this, and I consider casting to feeding fish a far more successful proposition. As carp are bottom feeders, shallow water is a must if you want to spot and cast to these fish. Living in the inner western suburbs of Sydney, most of my fishing is concentrated in the west and south-west. As a starting point on this side of the bridge I would suggest prospecting the upper reaches of the Parramatta and Nepean rivers, Toongabbie Creek, and Cabramatta Creek. I’m not overly familiar with the creeks of the north-side but I’m almost certain all fresh-waterways in the greater Sydney region will support carp populations. Fly fishers from the north do have access to Manly Dam. This is quite scenic and provides a more serene environment to stalk the banks than the shopping-trolley-filled backwaters of the south-west. Most carp waters in Sydney are readily available from bridge crossings and, in some cases, adjoining parkland such as the Parramatta Park. It’s interesting to note that Sydney creeks flow through a multitude of environments, with some streams offering civilised walkways or mowed lawns to fish from and others requiring a lot of bush-bashing through nature reserves and remnant scrub. With this in mind, caution is advised as there are still snakes in the city and I often see a Joe Blake or two sunning themselves alongside the creek. As a final tip, if you are ever lost for spots in Sydney, Google Maps is there for you. A quick scan will reveal many drains and creeks well suited to this style of fly fishing, and it’s just a matter of getting out and trying each one until you are successful. The Tackle Due to their commendable ability to survive in less-than-ideal conditions, carp are often the only fish present in the backwaters of Sydney. With a lack of competition they thrive in these creeks and grow to an impressive size. In the Parramatta River and Toongabbie Creek especially, the average size would be 3–4 kg and 50–60 cm, and they get much bigger! Given the scale of the fish and the snaggy environs they inhabit, a #5 to #7 rod weight is ideal. In more open waters, such as Manly Dam, a lighter trout outfit will ensure plenty of fun and I’ve caught carp to 6 kg on 3-weight gear where the snags are scarce. Any floating fly-line with an emphasis on presentation will do, and I tend to fish a leader ending in 10–12 lb tippet, which affords a perfect balance between abrasion-resistance, pulling- power and sublety. Any fly that seeks to imitate a crustacean or insect will get a carp’s attention. I’ve had the most success with Woolly Worms and Woolly Buggers, and can fish an entire session on these two patterns alone. The weight is often more important than the type of fly. Bead-headed ties are useful for getting down quickly to a feeding fish, while unweighted flies are ideal for presenting to cruisers and suspended fish. I usually tie them on size 6 or 4 hooks, in natural colours. However, I always finish the tie off with a bright red or yellow tail, which helps to visually stay connected during the entire presentation. Other flies I have been lucky with include scud patterns and larger trout nymphs. Recently I’ve started bringing along a few dry flies and have begun to enjoy sight fishing for carp on a whole new level. On particularly hot days, when the fish are noticeably more active, I’ve had considerable success using larger Red Tags and Parachute Adams, as well as deer-hair grasshoppers. Casts placed to fish under overhanging brush or along banks lined with tall grasses will often be met with a rise. The takes are clumsy, and hookups are pretty inconsistent, but it is great fun nonetheless and adds another element to this under-appreciated fishery in the heart of Sydney. Moody Fish Some days the fishing will be almost too easy, with nearly every fish you find more than happy to slurp up your offering, no questions asked. Other days the fishing will be unimaginably frustrating, and you will throw everything you have at them, then some, to no avail. When you first spot a fish, observe it for a few moments. Once you have clued onto its mood you can match your presentation to suit. It comes as no surprise that their most cooperative mood is when actively feeding. This will be pretty obvious as the fish will be head down, tail up, foraging along the bottom in a plume of silt and mud. All that is required here is a well-placed fly within a few feet of the feeding fish. A little bit of weight will ensure your offering gets down in the zone quickly. These fish are eager fly takers, and if you’re lucky enough to stumble across carp in this mood, you will be rewarded with some great fishing. When carp are not feeding they cruise slowly, often in small schools, or sunbake motionless just under the surface. These fish can be substantially trickier to persuade, requiring a little more finesse and a whole lot of luck. It is imperative that you get your fly down to their level as they pass over it. It may take a few failed attempts to hone your skills here, as you experiment with how far ahead of the fish to place your fly. Even if you pull off the perfect cast, prepare for frustration: carp will often completely ignore your offering! In my experience it’s a 50/50 split whether they take or not. If you find carp ‘sunbaking’, you are best to move on. On rare occasions they will take an unweighted fly presented right in their face. Time and time again I have churned the water to foam casting at these suspended fish, only to spook them on the umpteenth cast, or with a rock thrown in anger! You will make far better use of your time by simply moving on and searching for other, more cooperative fish. Carp tend to become a little sluggish in the winter months. While you can catch them between April and August, the warmer waters of spring and summer will bring more action. A bright, sunny day with minimal wind is ideal. These conditions ensure you have the best possible chance to spot fish from far enough away to avoid spooking them. Carp are pretty forgiving of bad casts and close quarters though, so you don’t need to be overly pedantic about becoming a ninja master. That said, they will shoot off quick smart if you plonk a fly right on top of them, or start jumping up and down. Final Words It is unfortunate there is such a stigma surrounding carp. It’s understandable, though, as their bottom feeding habits increase turbidity, which adversely affects the environment and our much-loved natives. At least for the time being, carp are here to stay and are well established, so you may as well open yourself up to the fishery they provide. Carp can often be frustratingly difficult to fool, and they pull unbelievably hard. It’s not unusual to have the larger fish take you to the backing. Add to this the fact that carp in these urban creeks regularly reach sizes upwards of 5 kilos and you have a species that is a challenging adversary on fly, and well worth some respect.

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