Southern Comfort

Mick Fletoridis benefits from time spent with Dave Longin on southern estuaries

"There should be one in there,” Dave offered, referring to a deep hole near the riverbank. It didn’t look too different to the dead water we’d fished, but what did I know? With overhanging tea tree it made for a tricky cast, but I took the chance to get in first. While not pretty, the cast straightened the leader enough to send the Clouser splashing in above a tangle of underwater branches. “Good cast,” said my fishing mate for the first time that day. After struggling in the wind all morning it was nice to put a good one in. Strip, pause, strip, pause… CRUNCH. “Yep!” My rod took on a deep bend as the fish shot for home. The line pulsed as it was pulled toward the snag, and then a stalemate ensued. Applying side pressure with the rod down low eventually turned things my way. Slowly the fish rolled near the surface, revealing rounded bronze flanks and protruding mouth. The Clouser was nowhere to be seen. The fly-swallower was an estuary perch, EP (see FL#91), and a nice one at over 45 cm. Once in the net the fly just fell out and after some photos the chunky perch was lowered in gently and sent back on its way. While I felt pretty satisfied with the catch, my fishing partner had called out the snag and kindly gifted me first shot. LONGIN LESSONS It’s been said that fly fishers never stop learning. This rings true whenever I throw a line with longtime mate and Canberran, Dave Longin. Having first fished together in the ’80s, our trips were fewer when I left Canberra for Sydney several years ago. Recently though I’ve been down south often to fish with Dave again. Over many trips I’ve found myself revisiting some fly fishing lessons learnt early on, and learning new ones. Being schooled on just some of Longin’s favourite estuaries (he’s reluctant to give away too much!) has at times been like fly fishing boot camp, minus the in-your-face instructor. Usually run out of Dave’s campervan ‘Stumpy’ and pint-sized punt ‘Cupcake’, these trips have produced some blinders and some duds, but (at Dave’s insistence) we’ve always fished long and hard. There are no early marks, even when my back protests and I have to lie for a spell on Cupcake’s mini deck. Whatever the result on those trips I’ve always learnt something, even if only a reminder that my casting sucks and I should practise more! In contrast the ‘teacher’ is usually a few steps ahead of the game, conjuring up fish in any conditions, proving that persistence pays. While some fly fishers might find inland tidal waters challenging, myself included, Longin and his good mate Kaj ‘Bushy’ Busch (FL#81) seem to have estuaries figured out and enjoy great fishing while other mere mortals struggle. Despite Longin’s skill at turning over fish, it’s due to his tireless commitment to perfecting his craft, no matter what the species. He has caught most estuary fish on fly from luderick and mullet to bass and jewies. He’s always refining techniques, flies, rigging and (in recent years) custom double-handed rods longer than his boat (FL#86). Despite fighting it for quite a while I also recently went to the ‘long side’ via a cheap 11-foot rod Longin calls “too short.” He’s since bought the same rod but retro-fitted a different butt section to extend it a couple of feet… For a bloke into his sixties, Longin seems to still fish as hard as he did in the ’80s and probably catches more fish. There are no shortcuts to his success and I’ve been fortunate to benefit from such a vast reserve of knowledge. So, as a keen student of the Longin school of estuary fly fishing, I offer some observations from the back of the class. FISH WHERE THEY LIVE Estuaries can be daunting places to fish, as they don’t reveal secrets easily to anglers. That said, knowing the sort of places fish frequent in tidal rivers, creeks and lakes holds you in good stead wherever you throw a fly. Black or yellowfin bream, estuary perch, bass, flathead, whiting and jewies are readily found in many systems along the south-east coast. Pinpointing good numbers of fish at different times of year on certain tides is more difficult and only comes from many hours on the water. As an example, I’ve fished estuary systems along the far NSW South Coast and into Gippsland with Longin without having any previous experience. But thanks to Dave’s time on these waters I was able to leapfrog a few semesters of theory and go straight to the fun, fish-catching part. While most experienced fishers can spot typical fish-holding areas such as snags, knowing which produce consistently takes more time. For example, in the past few years Dave has worked out locations that regularly deliver good numbers of estuary perch, a fish that can be hard to find at times. While results are sometimes mixed, it’s rare that he doesn’t hook a few EPs at these spots and some are of unstoppable size. Having fished some of Dave’s favourite snags now, I know what to look for when chasing perch on new waters. Having said that, we’ve fished plenty of great looking snags for zero! Established snags that have maintained position for a few seasons tend to be more consistent, especially bigger, longer trees with plenty of fly-grabbing branches above and below the waterline. EPs (and bream) tend to avoid recently fallen trees until they take on their new environment by way of shellfish or algal growth and establish regular cover for bait-fish, prawns or shrimp. For whatever reason, certain snags just fish better too. Tidal flow can be an issue if too strong as it makes presentations difficult and dictates the flies you need to use. Generally the tide needs to be near its peak as it provides cover for predators and prey alike. Snags that are largely out of the water on low tide aren’t usually worth fishing. While knowing where fish hang out is one piece of the puzzle, you can get rods bent more often by keeping an eye out for signs of feeding or disturbed fish — skitterish baitfish, jumping prawns or shrimps, mud clouds left by spooked flathead. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen a cast produce a shower of jelly prawns and an eaten fly soon after. Fish aren’t always where you expect them to be and staying alert to opportunities turns slow days into productive ones. And if you need help finding fish, marine electronics can offer a big advantage for locating them in estuaries. Modern sounders, notably units with CHIRP and side-scanning capability make locating bait and target- fish easier than ever. Find the bait and chances are that’s where you need to be putting your fly; knowing where in the water column the bait sits will also help choose which fly to use. DON’T FIGHT THE WIND Strong wind seems to be a regular unwelcome visitor on trips I’ve had with Dave. In a gale I’ve been known to spit the dummy, while Longin just keeps casting and catching fish. As any good troutie knows, using the wind to your advantage is often the key to success. If you can’t beat it, use it. That said there are added dangers that come with two blokes throwing weighted flies in the wind from a tiny boat. Enough said… While gale force winds are never fun, most average prevailing winds can have positive effects. Wind provides water movement that stirs up baitfish, prawns and the like and in turn gets predatory fish on the move. Stirred up water also provides surface cover for predators so they are less wary and more likely to be on the lookout, and ultimately, eating your fly. Wind and boat wash too provide water movement that often produces sections of dirty stirred-up water where bait and bait-eaters alike hangout. Knowing how tide affects the system you’re fishing is also important. While southern estuaries with limited tidal flow tend to be less affected, those with regular strong flow can be harder to catch fish from during slack run periods. Estuaries that become closed off to the sea are more tricky as they can produce ‘boom or bust’ fishing depending on when tidal flow reoccurs. Water clarity, temperature and salinity are all factors that can also affect your success in an estuary system. Recognising the signs and watching fishing reports by locals who regularly post their catches online can at least help point you to one system or another. BE PREPARED Something I am often reminded of when fishing with Longin is to always be fishing-ready. Being somewhat of a slow starter on early mornings I’m often left behind as he rattles off fish after fish, before I’ve wet a fly. I’m often sidelined with a tangled leader from lazy casting, another side effect of fishing before the coffee has kicked in. In my defence I tend to have only one rigged rod aboard Cupcake, which isn’t exactly big on room. In contrast, Longin will have at least four rigged rods on hand. Being 13-foot plus custom rods, they’re thankfully broken down and stored in cloth bags for easy access. Each outfit is set up for different lines, flies and species. Rods not being used are stored out of harm’s way in a port rod locker. For an 11-foot boat, Cupcake is set up to be one practical and productive fishing machine, just like its owner. STAY POSITIVE This can be harder than it sounds. Having experienced some horrendous weather during trips with Dave, I’ve sometimes felt we were cursed. But as someone who regularly chomps bananas out on the water, Longin dismisses bad omens and myths. This was clear one trip late last year when we were out in the mini tinny getting buffeted by gale force wind, rain squalls, and lashes of hail. We were smackbang in a super low pressure weather ‘event’ that tested our resolve for three days. As the atmospheric pressure plummeted so did my positivity and I would’ve happily stayed in the camper, or headed for home. Longin on the other hand was keen to soldier on in the wild conditions so he put his thinking cap on and dug deep. Knowing the system helped him to map out a game plan of areas we could fish (hopefully) without danger of hooking ourselves more than any fish. While things got very nasty and I questioned our sanity, we had surprisingly good fishing and landed some quality fish including bream, EPs, whiting and flathead. Not surprising was that we had the river to ourselves the whole trip. The experience showed that staying positive and revising your options can produce fish when the only alternative is to go home — another lesson learnt.

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