Words & Images: Dean Norbiato
Every Christmas holiday the south coast of New South Wales swells to almost double its population. Every café, restaurant, truck stop, fishing shop and boat ramp heaves under a huge human mass, all looking to soak up every bit of their festive freedom. During this time, the fishing discourse is often dominated by the well-known species such as flathead, whiting, tailor and bream. But one often overlooked fish with a growing cult-like following has caught my attention over the past few years and that’s the estuary perch.
These brackish brawlers are frequently mistaken for Australian bass, who are from the same genus. They are so close that scientists have confirmed they even cross-breed in some waters where the populations mingle. To the untrained eye, trying to separate the two fish is extremely difficult. What I always look for is the protruding bottom jaw of an EP, as it sticks further forward than a bass, while its body shape is traditionally deeper and narrower. Another popular marker is the concave profile of the top of an EP’s head, compared with the convex distinction of an Aussie bass. Estuary perch also inhabit estuaries, hence the name, from the central New South Wales coast to the Victoria and South Australian border. Pockets of perch have also been reported in northern Tasmania. During spring, summer and autumn, EP will occupy the upper reaches of brackish estuaries and hit baits with gusto. It’s only in winter when the mature adults will work their way to the front of the estuary system and look to get jiggy with it. This coincides with a NSW close season on the species from 1 June until 1 September.
While they are present in most NSW south coast estuaries such as Tuross, Clyde and Moruya, their numbers have been declining. This alarming trend has been attributed to commercial over-fishing and, more recently, the removal of vital habitat for the benefit of agricultural and urban commercialisation. While I do believe the experienced pundits peddling their dire EP propaganda, the NSW South Coast, courtesy of fervent fishing bodies, still has an angler-friendly population of this hard-fighting quarry. So, let’s crack on with getting an EP-induced bend into your spin rod.
Estuary perch have an overall growth expectancy that would surprise most anglers and one that easily overshadows their Aussie bass brethren. They have been recorded to a staggering 75cm and 10kgs. This seemingly freak specimen was well and truly the exception not the norm, and most EP are between 15cm and 35cm. While it usually takes only around three to four years before they break the 20cm mark, their growth rate after that stage slows considerably, with a 40cm-plus fish being anywhere from 15 to 30 years old. The oldest published EP was a very senior 41-year-old citizen from the Bemm River, in Victoria, while they are also believed to be the second-oldest living perch species in the world after Murray cod, which can live to at least 48. This information puts in context why any EP that breaches the magical half- metre mark is known as a true trophy fish, no matter what system they are caught in.
Finding a Fight
Any action is good action. My favourite snags are those in which I get attention from smaller baitfish swiping at my surface bait or soft plastics close to the snag. Small tailor nipping off the tails of my 80mm Squidgy Wrigglers, although frustrating, tells me there is bait in the area and my presentation is being noticed. Use the Side Imaging and DownScan on your sounder to identify fish that are holding deep and adjacent to bankside structure. It’s not uncommon to find large schools of perch 10 or 15 metres off a snag during the middle of the day. These fish will then make their way to the sticks during low light and smash anything that drops on the surface. Take note of these areas, mark them on the sounder and pay them a visit as the sun dips behind the horizon.
I have not encountered another species – in fresh, brackish or saltwater – that sticks closer to structure than an estuary perch. If I had to stick my neck out, I would say the enigmatic Murray cod would be its closest snag-dwelling compatriot. Now, this has its pluses and minuses. On one hand it means they are not that difficult to locate as they take up residence on most snags that infest South Coast estuaries. While they love sunken timber and rocky walls, they all cluster in thick little packs around man-made structure such as wharves, oyster racks, bridges and pumps. The negative side to this snag-hugging species is they sit so tightly against and under structure that it makes extracting them rather difficult. Firstly, you need to pack your casting A-game, as you rarely get rewarded with a ‘she’ll be right’ cast that lands a cricket pitch away from a snag.
To extract these chrome cannonballs that seem like they’re velcroed to the snag, you need to land within a foot of the structure. Sometimes, when they are in a particularly finicky mood, you have to drop your bait even closer. During these times it’s even advantageous to deliberately land your bait on the snag and drag it into the drink, so it flops and plops right on their noses. Knowing they like to sit tight on rocks walls and drowned timber sees us always employ a parallel approach to keep our baits in the strike zone for longer. What that means is instead of casting perpendicular to a snag and leaving your baits in the strike zone for only a fraction of the retrieve, you bring them back parallel to a protruding limb. While estuary perch stick very close to structure, strangely enough they are not afraid to follow your bait right back to the boat. In clear water, such as the Clyde River, you often see them mesmerised as they tail behind your bait before they abort mission or detonate.
As the summer sun heats things up, you’ll find EP scattered right up the South Coast estuary systems, clinging close to structure. From a comfort standpoint, you can easily target these fish from the luxury of a boat, as estuaries can be very wide and relatively deep systems, like most parts of the Clyde. As you push up into the high reaches and various anabranches that spawn off the main brackish artery, a smaller craft such as a kayak may be needed. Also, a lot of expert EP anglers have great success fishing from the bank. The only limiting factor is the majority of fishable water is flanked by private property.
When it comes to your tackle box, three main baits, similar to bass, do most of the damage: surface baits, diving/suspending hard-bodies and soft plastics. In each of the categories there are certain types that work better than others. When it comes to working the surface, the most successful have been pencil-style baits such as the Jackall Chubby Pencil 55, the Lucky Craft Sammy 65 and the old-school and now discontinued Bushy’s 70mm Top Dog. With their rhythmic ‘walk the dog’ side-to-side action, these baits seem to draw more aggressive reaction bites, when the fish are looking for a drive-by meal.
Alternatively, if they seem to be in a shy mood don’t hesitate to try a slower-worked paddler, such as a Jackall Micro Pompadour or a Tiemco Soft Shell Cicada and really hang it in their face. Unlike the nocturnally dominant Murray cod, EP will bite off the top well into the daylight hours. In fact, some of our best South Coast bites have lasted all day under nothing more than a thin blanket of low-hanging cloud. If you are greeted with an ultra-bright day and they aren’t hitting your surface arsenal, then it’s time to bust out the sinking and suspending baits. First on the 10lb fluorocarbon leader are the suspending minnows, such as the Jackall Squirrel 67SP and the Daiwa Double Clutch 75.
Colour-wise we tend to stick with clearer, natural tones that best mimic fleeing baitfish and translucent crustaceans. We like to work these baits down to depth with a few swift cranks of the handle, before letting them sit stationary on a relatively long pause. We then burst the bait back into action before again letting it sit stationary in the water. As EP will follow your bait back to the boat, make sure you work it all the way, as they have a David Copperfield-like knack of magically materialising behind your jerkbait and swallowing it at the rod tip. Standard floating hard-bodies are also worth a toss, but work better under a constant crank when the EP are a bit more active and on the chew. The final bait type you should sneak into your EP box is a small selection of unrigged soft plastics. A few stand-out baits include the 80mm Squidgy Wriggler, Fish Arrow Flash J-Shad and the ProLure Paddle Grub, all on a half-ounce jig head.
Soft plastics are best cast as close to the tips of the timber as you can, before allowing them to tantalisingly flutter down the front of the snag. Keep a keen eye on the line as it disappears to the depths, looking for that customary flick or pluck of your line that indicates an EP is on your bait. After it hits the bottom, jig the plastic on the spot before commencing a slow roll retrieve littered with pauses that let it sink back to the bottom. While you can get hit on the retrieve, the vast majority of strikes will come on the bait’s first descent to the bottom. With this in mind, bright braid such as the Island Blue Daiwa J-Braid Grand or Shimano’s new bright-yellow Kairiki braid will help identify even the smallest crack an EP has at your bait. Another addition that can work EP into a tizz is the inclusion of a small beetle spin to the front of your soft plastic. This extra flash and vibration from the small Colorado blade works like dynamite on bass and can be just as effective to switch-on an EP bite. While not yet used in the mainstream, I have also noticed the increased use of medium-sized swimbaits on EP. As they have a bucket mouth the size of a can of Coke, it’s no wonder they are gobbling swimbaits such as the 165mm Savage Gear 4Play V2 or the 180mm Jackall Gantia.
Staying in Gear
The beauty of fishing for EP is you don’t really, outside the diehards, need specific finesse gear. Your standard bass, bream and light flathead spin combo is more than sufficient to tame these pugnacious perch. In a fight, they are often likened to bass for their searing runs as soon as they snaffle your bait. Some circles even refer to EP as ‘the barramundi of the south’ for their similar, albeit truncated, aesthetic and powerful early surges. As a result you should always have your reel’s drag tightened to about 75 per cent, just to ensure you extract them from the snag. If you don’t turn their head early they will have no problem burying you back where they came from. This can become as frustrating as it is expensive. Gear-wise, any 1000-2000-sized spinning reel, such as the Daiwa TD Black or Shimano Stradic, will be ideal, especially when matched with a light to medium seven-foot graphite stick with a fast taper. The fast taper of a graphite rod combined with a tightly wound drag will help whip out to open water any EP hooked close to structure. Due to the finesse approach we always run 10lb to 12lb braid, in a bright colour, with a rod length of 10lb fluorocarbon. As the water is generally pretty clear when chasing these little pocket rockets and the structure pretty gnarly, fluorocarbon wins out over monofilament due to its invisibility and abrasion resistance.
Whether you are already holidaying along the bustling NSW South Coast or making a day trip from Canberra or Sydney there are plenty of EP hot spots to explore. While the number of estuary perch may pale in comparison to previous generations, there still are more than enough to excite anglers of all experience levels. So, if the bream aren’t biting or the flathead have gone off the chew, maybe it’s time you turn your attention to the snags and pick a fight with a brackish brawler.