Playing in the mud

A couple of lively, clicking, flicking shrimp can really help to attract fish in discoloured water.

• Steve ‘Starlo’ Starling

“It never rains, it pours!” Following drought and catastrophic bushfires a little over a year ago, many of us had been fervently hoping for much wetter times in 2021… But sometimes it pays to be careful what you wish for!

      A wetter-than-average La Nina summer across big parts of Australia, underscored by a series of dramatic east coast rain events near the end of March, have meant that many of our rivers, lakes and estuaries are still full to overflowing and have remained dirty and high for weeks at a time. This can be a bit of challenge for those of us who live for our fishing.

Saltwater mussels are a strongly-flavoured offering that’s well-suited to dirty water… and not only in the sea!
Match your hooks to the baits you use. Long-shanked hooks are ideal for presenting whole prawns, while shorter shanks will work well with smaller prawn pieces.
Bass don’t mind a bait, either!
When buying bait, make absolutely sure you choose only Australian caught or grown products, as imports can carry dangerous diseases and parasites.

      Of course, the longer-term prognosis from all of this precipitation and run-off is extremely positive. Most systems have had a very welcome flush, reserves and aquifers have been topped up, and flood-related spawning events have taken place or are happening right now — everywhere from the bass and estuary perch estuaries of the south east to the trout streams of the high country and the barra rivers of the far north. Make no mistake: we will reap the bounty of this exceptional ‘Big Wet’ for many, many seasons to come, no matter what our sunburnt land dishes up next.

      But in the shorter term, flooded rivers and chocolate brown estuaries dotted with mats of floating debris are not always the most inviting of angling venues, particularly for those of us who prefer to chase our fish on lures or flies where possible. Floods and ‘freshes’ tend to make life harder for fishers, apart from some fairly specific regional exceptions; like big mulloway hunting the flood-lines at major river mouths (something that’s much less predictable these days, sadly, due to the greatly diminished stocks of these wonderful fish).

      There are various high water strategies and work-arounds, of course. The most obvious is to leave those lures and flies in their boxes for now and reach for some good old bait instead: the smellier, oilier and more strongly-flavoured, the better. I clearly remember editing regional fishing reports a lifetime ago for a fortnightly publication and seeing repeated references to the use of saltwater mussels as trout bait in Victoria’s rivers immediately after floods… I wonder if such tricks are still used?

      Many readers may be surprised to learn that one of the very best post-deluge baits – in both fresh and saltwater – is the humble earthworm dug from your backyard compost heap. Millions of these critters will have found their way into our streams, estuaries and inshore waters this autumn, and fish of all types are definitely on the lookout for them. I’d love a dollar for every bream, whiting, luderick and trout I’ve caught on a garden worm in high, muddy water.

      Other pungent baits like mullet gut or a slab of bloody, oily fish flesh such as tailor or slimy mackerel can also be effective after the rains, as can pilchard pieces thawed and soaked in tuna oil. Look for backwaters and eddies that give foraging fish some respite from the current, while also pulling together and depositing a smorgasbord of flood-borne delicacies.

      If you insist on sticking with the lures and flies in the mud, choose darker colours to provide a more solid silhouette, and go for those offerings with strong actions that push a bit of water and create a sonic thump, pulse or flash of twirling metal… then scent them up and fish them slowly.

      Things might still be a little tough on some waters right now but trust me, better times are coming!