Fish without the chips

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Reading Time: 4 minutes

BREAM might be low on brains but they can still manage to make themselves difficult to catch, as STEVE COOPER explains:

Technology has subjugated angling; the do-it-yourself culture has been displaced by reliance on electrical impulses. Looking at the fish-finding technology available, I think it’s a bloody miracle we ever caught fish before sonar and Global Positioning technology (GPS).

Where would we be without a colour screen giving off basic knowledge that includes water temperature, depth, structure and tidal movement, or observing fish hovering among structure? Talk about the Dark Ages.

There are other ways to fish. Old hands who didn’t have the technology, still found fish. Before the micro-chip wormed its way into fishing, observation and instinct borne of experience were a canny angler’s tools of trade. It wasn’t that there were more fish; angler catches are higher these days, but old black frypans come out less often as more fish are being returned – fillets intact.

Most anglers attain higher levels of capability through a progression of trial and error applications. Failure drives us to improve and seek a better understanding of target species.

At 1.85kg, bream don’t come much bigger. This fish was caught in the Derwent River in Tasmania.
At 1.85kg, bream don’t come much bigger. This fish was caught in the Derwent River in Tasmania.

No estuary fish requires more grass roots understanding than black bream, a contrary species if ever there was one. Bream have a tiny brain, however, there is enough anecdotal evidence to support a premise that they learn by association. How much more association can you have than being pricked by a hook, landed and released? There are days when bream won’t look at certain lures: if you doubt this, look in the tackle box of a bream lure specialist. Five years ago that tackle box might have been solely devoted to soft plastic lures; nowadays there will likely be a mix of plastics, metal vibes and hard body lures.

Bream reaction comes through instinctive caution borne of their environment, which explains why the clear font of knowledge sometimes runs with turbid water. The best weapon in the technologically challenged angler’s arsenal is the ability to see things. Bream move upstream on their spawning run, and they eat along the way. On flats, you will see small craters where these fish have been sucking crabs, Bass yabbies or worms. Craters full of debris are old; clean craters mean recent visits. Another sign is found on the snags where the fish have nibbled the barnacles, leaving lighter coloured scars on the dead timber.

Estuary hot spots almost invariably involve structure of some sort. Weed lines are great food sources for species that nibble on crustaceans or vegetation: decaying vegetation and softer sand attracts many burrowing creatures, which provide meals for browsers like bream. Sand and mud banks attract fish, especially those banks exposed at low tide. As water levels rise, bream move on to these banks to suck nippers and sandworms. A favourite area for estuary fishers is in and around oyster racks in those estuaries where oyster farming is undertaken. Bream are the species most likely, even though you will find other fish, flathead, garfish and luderick, feeding around oyster racks.

Andy Zarro with a bream caught in the Wallagaraugh River in NSW.
Andy Zarro with a bream caught in the Wallagaraugh River in NSW.

Anglers casting lures soon learn about the inclination of bream to inhabit difficult areas. Easy snags are usually the most heavily fished, consequently these rarely produce the goods. Catching bream often comes down to risk taking. In my experience of snags, the easier they are to fish, the fewer bream will be available.

Bream will be shy and finicky on bright sunny days, but easier to hook when there is cloud to dull the sun. Like all estuary species, bream often feed best around the change of tide, however, in an environment where the fish feels safe, such as among the waterlogged branches of a large snag, they may feed at any time of the day or night.


Estuaries are the crib for the marine food chain, this is where zooplanktons grow into fish, which in turn seek shelter and feed on the zooplankton. An estuary is a rich food source, not just for fish but mollusc, crustaceans, birds and mammals. And while there is much breeding, there is also much feeding, which is why anglers do so well. If the fish aren’t eating, we aren’t hooking. In short, an estuary is a world-class berley trail.

And berley is effective in estuary waters due to tidal flow. Find an area where there is both current and a slight drop off. Current is essential to disperse berley and dead flat ground is not as productive as uneven areas; a slight drop off, even if is only 10 or 15 centimetres, can make all the difference. The consistency of a berley should be a mist in the water, not large lumps of what constitute a fish meal.

And finally, buy yourself a set of polarising sunglasses. If you can’t see what is happening then you are not fishing to the max.

Maribyrnong river bream fishing with Cam Whittam
Maribyrnong river bream fishing with Cam Whittam

Author: Steve Cooper

STEVE COOPER won two Walkley Awards for investigative journalism but his great love is fishing and he is renowned as one of Australia’s foremost writers and broadcasters on the subject.



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