Words & Images: Kosta Linardos
Targeting estuary species is often associated with the summer months. Early morning sunrises, shorts and T-shirts and late warm nights are all part of the appeal when fishing an estuary in summer. The warmer months are also thought of as the prime time to target a range of inshore species such as bream, bass, flathead, estuary perch and whiting. Personally, I’m not a fan of estuaries in summer. It gets too hot, the mosquitos are dreadful and I’d prefer to spend my time offshore and in bays. While the flathead and whiting fishing is undoubtedly better in summer and early autumn, years of experience has shown that winter offers exceptional fishing for estuary perch.
While the inshore fishing in Victoria and southern New South Wales does become limited in winter, estuary perch are an amazing species to head out and target. They can be thick in numbers, large in size, at times challenging but they fight hard and dirty. They’ll take a variety of lures such as plastics, jerkbaits, crankbaits and even topwater lures through winter. Best of all they can be targeted in metro, suburban and regional areas. Thanks to some great stocking programs from the VFA, they have become a highly accessible species. You can look on the VFA website (vfa.vic.gov.au) to see where they have been stocked near you, but as an example, Albert Park Lake, smack in the middle of metro Melbourne, was stocked with 50,000 fish between 2013 and 2016, a lot of those fish are now well over 30cm.
Each winter I do a few trips away chasing perch. When I first started targeting them, I’d usually head to the Glenelg River in Nelson but I then started mixing that up with Bemm River, Marlo and Mallacoota, with the odd session in my home waters of the Patterson River.
A lot of studies have been done on estuary perch and annual stocking programs and monitoring have provided anglers with excellent information on their movements. EPs are a euryhaline species, meaning they are able to adapt to a wide range of salinities. I have caught them down near river mouths with high salt content, while on our most recent trip to Bemm River we caught perch and trout in the same area.
During winter, around July to August, is when they move from the rivers to the mouths of estuaries to spawn. They do this in groups, so don’t feel that all the perch have left the rivers during winter. In the estuaries you’ll find them on both snags and weed beds and up the river they’ll hold in tight on snags. Perch will generally find comfort in the nastiest-looking snags you can see above the water or see below on your sounder.
Winter is a great time to target perch as the lower light and cloudy days keep them feeding higher in the water column. It’s always a little tougher on bright sunny days to catch perch as the fish will hold deeper and I find they bite less aggressively. Optimal conditions are cloudy days free of morning frost where the air temperature is slightly warmer, and mornings and afternoons tend to fish best. While there are always the ‘best times’ to target any fish, EPs are a viable target all winter and in any conditions, so when you get a chance just get going and have a crack.
Gearing up for Perch
Winter will see large perch holding in close to snags and this is what makes the fishing so much fun. Your casting needs to be precise, and you need heavy drag pressures and a line class that can handle that pressure in order to extract perch from that first strike close to the snag. The initial run from a perch is often blistering so you need to be alert and have your gear ready for it. While you should be fishing a minimum of 12lb braid and 8lb leader, many anglers will go up to 10lb or even 12lb for abrasion resistance and to handle the drag pressures required to turn their heads. However, depending on the system, the perch can get quite shy if they’re getting too much pressure and you’ll need to adjust your gear accordingly. In situations of clear water or where there are a lot of boats around, fish as light as you can get away with, and 6lb quality fluorocarbon leader is about as light as you’ll get away with. You can expect to get smoked on this if you hook a big perch close to a snag, but it may be what’s required to get the bite. In less pressured systems or dirtier water, fish 10lb or 12lb. This is a style of fishing where fluorocarbon is imperative and it needs to be a quality fluorocarbon, as perch in snags will quickly show weakness in inferior products. I have found that Sunline, Seaguar and X-Braid make the strongest and most abrasion-resistant leaders for their diameter.
2-4kg rods are fine but they need to have a lot of power in the butt to extract fish, while able to accurately cast lightly weighted plastics. Rods of this nature are generally expensive so if you have something like this already, then use it, and if you’re heading out to buy something new, look for rods that have these attributes.
I have a 19ft fibreglass Sportsman boat with a 112lb Minn Kota, which can make a bit of noise, so I try to keep the maximum distance I can from the snag. When it comes to casting those lighter plastics, I opt for longer rods around 7ft 4in that can cast the distance. The need for stealth is perhaps less of an issue with smaller alloy boats and kayaks, but I have found the greater the stealth used when approaching snags, the better they fish.
I use 1000, 2000 and 2500-sized reels with success, I just ensure whatever one I use has a high-quality drag system and these days you’ll find this on mid-range reels from both Shimano and Daiwa. Like most techniques with lure angling, the rod is far more important than the reel and you should be spending more on the rod than the reel or at least equal amounts.
EPs will happily strike a range of different lure styles but there are some I have found to work best. With soft plastics, small paddle tails around 2.5-3in, 2.5in curl tail grubs and prawn imitations are dynamite profiles. When fishing snags you’re looking for a slow sink, so jig heads around 1/16th and 1/32 of an ounce are the prime weights for most systems. My preferred plastics are the Bait Junkie Minnow 2.5in, Squidgy Wriggler 100mm, Keitech Easy Shiner 3in, Bait Breath Egg Tail Shad 2.8in and the Biwaa TailGunR. Natural colours such as Bloodworm, Motor Oil, Gudgeon, Smelt and Ayu are all highly effective colours.
Hardbodies are also very effective on perch, and both jerkbaits and crankbaits with a shad profile work well. I prefer lures that have some sort of cast weight system to provide more accurate casting. Any medium diving hardbody that responds well to twitching and that suspends on a long pause are best, as this twitch-twitch and pause technique is often what will get perch to strike. Some of my favourites are the Daiwa Double Clutch in both 60 and 75mm, Lucky Craft Bevy Shad 65mm, Evergreen Ultra Sledge and the Daiwa Spike. Natural colours such as Ayu, Ghost Wakasagi, and any of the shad variations are all proven performers.
The other newer hardbody that’s proven to be exceptionally effective and a lot of fun to use is the Shimano Bantam BT Bait swimbait. This 99mm swimbait has at times been the lure the perch will strike when not much else is getting bites. It’s highly responsive and has an outstanding slow sink rate that both perch and bream love. It’s our prediction that this lure will become a classic of Australian estuary lures.
Find Your Angle
I will reiterate the need for stealth when targeting perch and therefore recommend you stay vigilant about your proximity to the snags you’re casting at. I try to keep things pretty quiet on the boat in these situations and prevent any loud bangs from hatches opening and closing or unnecessary noise. While there are some days I can take the boat right into a snag to retrieve a snagged lure, make a huge amount of noise and then go on to still catch fish on the same snag, practising stealth will lead to captures on the tougher days.
I like to slowly work up to a snag on the Minn Kota then spot lock and pepper all sides of the snag. I cast in behind it, along each side and across the front. Sometimes the perch will sit right in close to the snag or can be sitting just off it on submerged structure. I use the Side Imaging on my Humminbird sounder to take note of submerged snags close to the bank and mark them. Doing this starts to build information on the system I’m fishing for later in the afternoon, the next day and even months down the track. There’s no guarantee the snags will still be there in the future, and some systems change more than others based on water flow, but don’t waste the opportunity to collect information when it’s easily done with the push of a button.
While it’s easy to let the cold of winter get you down and feel you don’t have many fishing options, I look forward to it and enjoy it thanks to this amazing species. Winter perch are big, fun targets that test your angling skill. Yes, it can be bitterly cold, but with the right clothing, some hand warmers and a Jetboil camping stove, the anticipation of catching these fish makes it a highly enjoyable fishing season in the rivers and estuaries.