Rise to the Challenge

Scott Coghlan stumbles onto a different take on black bream

Fishing obsessions can be inspired by the most random of events. There I was drifting on the local river in my pedal kayak, with the sun just starting to dip and an appointment at mixed volleyball looming, when the water around me came to life. I was fishing for bream as I had done in this spot many times before and surface activity was nothing new, as there are plenty of mullet in the system. But this felt different. For a start, there were more splashes than I’d ever noticed before, and they didn’t look, or sound, like mullet splashes. These surface disturbances had more weight behind them and were creating bigger swirls. I’d done a fair bit of fly fishing for trout and been lucky enough to fish a few evening hatches and that’s more what it felt like. When I gazed upwards the cause of the commotion was obvious — the sky was full of flying ants, clouds of them buzzing around a few metres above me. I didn’t have my fly gear with me but switched to a surface lure and had immediate success on a few small bream, while any sinking lures were ignored, which got me thinking… Were the big swirls actually black bream rising to slurp ants off the surface? Was that the reason they were ignoring sub-surface offerings, because they were all looking upwards for their next feed? Was this a bream rise? Catching bream on the surface is nothing new, but this was potentially a different slant on it and I was intrigued. As I live only a few minutes from the river, the temptation to race home and grab a fly rod and a couple of dry flies was strong, but that volleyball appointment was close at hand and I didn’t have the gumption to let the team down. I reluctantly packed up and left a few minutes later. I was disappointed to not have the time to experiment further, but the few minutes I experienced lit a fire to delve into this phenomenon and see if rising bream were actually a valid fly fishing option. As it turns out, casting dry flies at rising bream is actually a thing, and I don’t mean working any old surface popper fly, but actually dead-drifting imitations past the nose of bream that are actively feeding on flying ants (see FL#3). It must be said that my subsequent efforts have proven that bream will rise very aggressively during a flying ant hatch, gorging themselves on the tiny insects in extremely shallow water at times. The problem is you really only get a few hours a year to target them in my neck of the woods. The hatches usually only start late afternoon and run until dusk, and can stop instantly if the wind picks up. At times they can be smallish hatches, while on other occasions there are tens of thousands of ants and they’ll be all over my arms and legs while fishing. No matter the size of the hatch though, the bream are certainly triggered by it and will feed on them, as will yellow-eye mullet. There’s probably a maximum of half a dozen days each year that we get these flying ant hatches, mainly in autumn and occasionally in summer. Generally there is a window of 60–90 minutes between the hatch starting and dark, so it’s a matter of grasping that opportunity at a moment’s notice. SOMETHING TO PROVE The first time I actually tried casting dry flies at bream during an ant hatch I had no idea if it would work. I hoped it would but really that was as much thought as I had put into it since that first chance encounter. With plenty of trout patterns in my tackle boxes, I grabbed a handful of flies and the 5-weight and headed to the nearest spot where I could cast. Sure enough when I got there the surface was alive with swirls, which suggested the fish were feeding on the ants. From memory I tied on a Bionic Blowfly initially, a rather garish pattern I’d picked up from the colourful Stu Tripney in New Zealand several years back, thinking that having the fish spot the fly in the discoloured water of this river would be the main challenge. Unlike casting dries at trout in NZ, I couldn’t see the fish so just cast in the general direction of the splashes and allowed a dead drift, mending the line as I went to ensure the fly moved at a natural speed in the current. As it turned out bream, like trout, demand the angler match the hatch, and before long I switched to a fly that more resembled one of the flying ants. Just when I was starting to wonder if I was flogging a dead horse there was a swirl on my fly, it disappeared and the weight of a fish came onto the end of the rod. To my absolute delight, a few moments of stripping had a small black bream glide into view at my feet. It was only about 15 cm long, but I had taken the first step in my mission to catch bream on dry — proving it could work. That set the trend for subsequent sessions over a couple of years, with numerous small fish caught and confirming this method did work. While these bream weren’t anything to brag about, this way of fishing was a heck of a lot of fun and it really got me thinking about how to take it to the next level. I saw some big swirls and therefore suspected better fish were a realistic option, and wondered about where I was fishing. The spot where I was catching the small fish had never produced for me when casting lures, but there were other areas on the river where I’d caught trophy bream and I believed my chances would be better if I tried spots more likely to produce bigger fish. At the back of my mind there was the gnawing concern that perhaps only the smaller fish were feeding this way, but I was determined to persist. Converting inquiries into captures became a real area of experimentation as I sought to refine my approach. Unlike trout, I couldn’t see the fish rising up towards the fly, so had no warning when they would grab it — the first I knew of it was the swirl and momentary disappearance of the fly. It seemed bream usually just mouthed the fly gently and my hook-up rates were so low, probably around one for every 10 inquiries. I tried different approaches — strip striking, trout striking, not striking at all — but none seemed to make any difference to end results and every bream I caught was just gently hooked in the outside of the lip. Large flies, smaller flies, flies sitting higher/lower in water and flies with more/less hackle — none of it seemed to matter. I’m not a fly-tier and most of my flies are black flying ant patterns in sizes 14–16 bought from various online stores, while a mate also tied a few to try out. The desire to catch a big bream this way was ever present, but didn’t consume me as I was still enjoying the experience for what it was and every fish, even the smallest one, felt like a personal triumph. As well as bream I caught a lot of small mullet to 20 cm and they were a very different proposition, inhaling the flies with gusto and often hooked well inside their mouths. MILESTONES Vindication in the form of finally catching a bragging size bream on dry came down to little more than dumb luck, really. On a perfect autumn afternoon I hooked up the kayak trailer and headed to a nearby estuary to target mulloway on light gear, arriving there to realise I’d managed to leave the rods behind! By the time I got back home I didn’t have enough sunlight left to head out to the estuary again, but an ant hatch had begun and the kayak was already on the car so I decided, fatefully, to test out my theory that I was just fishing the wrong spot for big bream on dry. Where I launched the kayak the water was bubbling with fish and the sky was clouded by thousands of flying ants — it was a major hatch. The first spot I wanted to try was a small flat around 500 metres upstream, which had produced a number of good bream for me in recent years. There was no wind at all and only a small amount of tide so I was barely moving in the kayak, making conditions perfect for natural presentation of the dry. I could see fish rising aggressively in against snags, so casting into those areas was the approach I used and it paid dividends almost immediately. The fish were really on the chew and casting at rises resulted in a number of takes and, more significantly, hook-ups well beyond my normal ratio. A number of smallish fish were caught before I headed to a very shallow sandy section where the top of the dorsal fins of a number of bream could be seen breaking the surface. Casting into the area, the dry was quickly taken by a fish that immediately felt better as it dived for deeper water. A few moments later I was looking at my best ever bream on fly. It was only 26 cm long, but it was nonetheless a milestone. As the sun dipped towards the horizon the action around me only became more frenetic and I soon had another even bigger fish around 28 cm in the kayak — two personal bests in one session! Much of the action was right next to snags and submerged bushes and I was actually able to cast at individual rising fish and catch them. It was an absolute blast and vindication for pursuing this fly fishing insanity, but the best was to come. A few minutes later, as I edged upstream, I saw some big boils right on the end of a partially submerged tree, a few metres from the bank in around a metre of water, and felt it just had to be a good fish to be creating that much disturbance on the surface. I’m certainly not the best fly caster and it’s not the easiest thing to do sitting down in the kayak, but at the first attempt I somehow managed to put the fly perfectly where I wanted it to be. It landed just upstream of the boils, within a few centimetres of the foliage, but not too close so as to be swept into it by the current. I just had a moment to admire my own handiwork before the fly disappeared in a serious bulge of water that caught me by surprise. I lifted the rod tip and felt the weight, immediately realising this was a much better fish and that I had little room for error given the proximity of the snag and the light leader I was using. One thing a fly rod does do is offer a fair bit of leverage and I angled it as far to my right as I could to turn the fish away from cover, while back-pedalling the kayak as fast as I could. Once the immediate danger had passed I was able to take it easy so as not to imperil the tiny hook and soon had a serious bream next to me. It was way beyond any I’d caught before this way, and looked to be verging on the trophy 40 cm mark, with big blue lips and rich black golden flanks coloured by its upstream environment. It was actually the first big bream I’d caught in this system for some time and to do it on dry fly made it an incredibly special capture. A quick measure revealed it was 37 cm — close enough to make me ecstatic while still leaving me with future goals! With three PBs and the fish of my dreams under my belt, the session still had one more surprise for me though. I headed a little farther upstream and found a tree stretching out from the bank over the river in a location where I had often caught good fish on lure. Above the tree was a thick haze of flying ants, and below it at water level was a constant swirl of feeding bream. The fish were stacked up below the tree and simply dining out on the flying ants as they hit the water. I pulled a string of bream off that one tree and no matter how much commotion each hooked fish made, it didn’t stop the others feeding. As the sun dipped down below the horizon, darkness descended and the hatch tapered off. The intensity of the sunset feeding frenzy below that tree was the final exclamation mark on a session which had offered the ultimate reward for my persistence with this style of fishing. It just showed how aggressively black bream will feed on flying ants and what they therefore can offer to fly fishers looking for a different challenge from one of Australia’s most iconic fishing species. The opportunity to cast dries at rising bream doesn’t come along often, but when it does it’s a challenge worth rising to.

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