A fishing mission: Catching the estuary perch

By: John 'Bear' Willis


A new mission to master the catch of the estuary perch gets Bear’s blood pumping.

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I love the challenge of a new fishing mission, especially one of those bucket list trips that you thought you’d never get around to! Modern technology has made it so much easier to identify a target species, where to go and how to get ’em, so why not try something new occasionally? There are innovative ideas developing daily, especially in lure technology, but team that up with good word of mouth from a network of trustworthy mates and your chances of angling success expand dramatically. When you get that phone call telling you that the fish are on, you’ve got to move immediately – or else the fish will.

Only last week I received a text from a close friend on the Sapphire Coast with a photo of a lovely bag of estuary perch (EP). These little silver bullets have always been somewhat of an enigma to me. I’ve certainly caught a few but usually by chance when targeting bream or other species in coastal estuaries, rivers and creeks. Most of my previous captures have been on live baits such as sand worm and nippers and I guess that my firm belief in day-old smelly prawns being the universal best bait in these environments has meant that I haven’t attracted too many EPs to my lair. I can also be a bit of a lazy fisho, more often choosing to sit back and watch a baited rod than spend exhaustive hours chucking lures. But that’s just me – there’s a whole new wave of keen, high-tech fishos enjoying the fruits of a well-directed cast of hard and soft bodied lures, fizzers, poppers, bloopers, spinners, blades and all manner of bonnet fixtures!

Yet it doesn’t matter how old you get; if you have an open mind, you can always learn something new. There’s technique to all of the different forms of space junk that we throw at fish to test their preference. Some need to be jiggled, some towed and some cranked with erratic jerks; while others need speed, some down deep and many up high. But no matter your style, there’s no point in directing any bait or lure at fish that simply aren’t there; so the temptation must match the species.

EPs aren’t to be underestimated, reaching a maximum recorded size of 10kg. That’s one big bucket mouth to feed! It seems that the species can reach around 75cm in length and, with their scooped forehead and silver flanks, they are often referred to as southern barramundi. We may dream of fish of this size but, in reality, most of the general population will be a little more manageable at 30–40cm.

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I guess we all get a little ravenous around spawning time and EPs are no exception. They are said to prefer water temperatures between 14-19 degrees to spur on the spawning activity. This can range from July to December in southern climates of NSW and Victoria. They are endemic to the south eastern waters of Australia and their numbers can vary dramatically from waterway to waterway. Their range is quoted by NSW Fisheries to be from the Richmond River in northern NSW through to the Murray River in South Australia inclusive of regions of Tasmania.

While estuary perch are mainly inhabitants of the snags and underwater structures of upper saltwater and brackish environments, it seems that they move down to the lower inter-tidal zone to breed around late winter to spring depending on location and season. This is completely opposite to the spawning habits of many of their homies such as bream. The local ‘secret’ (don’t tell anyone!) passed on to me was that EPs are particularly active in the lower estuaries around full moons, a similar practice to the other popular target species the mulloway. While both mulloway and EPs love structure, they are often active around the shallow weed beds, particularly those with scattered sandy patches. These areas are alive with shrimp, nippers, crabs, sandworm and an array of small baitfish that all form part of the EPs diet, hence, attracting nearly every fish in the system, so a by-catch of flathead, trevally, bream and even soapy mulloway is common.

EPs are often seen chasing unsuspecting baitfish and insects off the surface with that traditional ‘blooping’ sound that gets all anglers’ blood gushing in anticipation. At these times, it’s easy to mistake them for poddy mullet, tailor or mulloway. They may be active throughout the day, particularly on tide changes, with the first of the flood being a preference, but the peak periods of sunrise and sunset are also tremendous feeding triggers.

It’s the anglers job to match the hatch to maximise your success and that’s where bait and lure selection is essential. I was recommended the Bassday Sugapen 70g lures, however, visits to a couple of tackle shops opened up a selection of floating hard bodied lures that do the job beautifully. We found some ideal territory with a bridge for structure and its inevitable deep cutouts rising to relatively shallow water over broken ground with weed and shell patches less than 1km from a tidal entrance. The floating lures had enough weight and shape to cast well on lighter 4-6lb mono or 10lb braid. We worked the floating lures with a small twitch and rest action enticing powerful surface strikes from the intense EPs. A fella casting similar lures just up from us also nailed a lovely bream on a similar lure while my mate Peter endured a couple of very slow sessions casting a range of soft plastics until he finally nailed the largest fish of our trip on a Gulp 3in Minnow Smelt.

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It is wise to consider your lure selection dependent to your environment, as lures can be hellishly expensive. The elusive little EPs can be found right up into the brackish headwaters of rivers and estuary systems, and will mostly congregate around a submerged snag or similar. Deep diving bibbed lures may be needed to get down to their aquatic lairs particularly during the heat of summer or alternatively maybe some surface fizzers thrown back into the banks under the shade of overhanging trees at other times. Lightly weighted live baits drifted past their noses will spur on a strike, and floats can be used to keep the tempting morsels in the midwater strike zone for longer.

Our latest fishing mission taught me plenty of tricks with new lure technology and, more particularly, about the habits of these wonderful little battlers. It’s worth noting that they are often mistaken for bream, particularly as juveniles, when the scooped forehead is less pronounced. While they aren’t my personal favourite eating fish, they taste very similar to bream and nobody minds you keeping a few for the table in allowable areas. However, EPs are a long lived species (recorded up to 36 years) that can often be found in large schools that can be easily decimated by over fishing, hence, catch and release is recommended to ensure their numbers for future generations.

If you hear some howling on the next full moon, don’t worry, it’s only me chasing some EPs!

The full feature appeared in Caravan World #557 2016. Subscribe today for the latest caravan reviews and news every month!