Taking the Bait

Rob Sloane develops a taste for springtime whitebait fishing.

A twenty pound trout on a fly rod sounds a little far fetched, but last season I actually met a fellow who had been lucky enough to catch one just a few weeks earlier. He had a fourteen pounder on his wall as well, and Brett Wolf and I saw and hooked fish of this calibre last season during the whitebait run. Where abouts you ask? A secret river off the beaten track? Not at all, just half an hour south of Hobart with a sealed road all the way.

It is a typical story really. I had just spent a week on the West Coast of the South Island, fishing coastal lagoons and river mouths for sea-run fish. As it turned out, the whitebait weren't running while I was in New Zealand and though we caught some beautiful resident fish a little further upstream on nymphs and dries, we missed out on any real whitebait action even though I had timed my visit for the prime time in October.
I had barely unpacked when Brett called to say that the whitebait were running, so next morning we headed down to the Huon towing his five-metre boat. It's a day we will both remember because the trout in one particular corner of the river, up-stream towards the limit of tidal influence, went absolutely berserk as the tide peaked and then began to run out.
Not that we caught a heap or anything. No, when they are 'taking the bait' it is not quite as easy as it looks. Fish may be crashing right left and centre but your fly is one among millions of these tiny transparent baitfish (and a pretty poor imitation at best).

The best trout we did catch was close to double figures though, and Brett lost one which was much bigger. We saw others too, wallowing in the bait, backs humped and tails slashing-real heavyweights-double figure fish without any need to exaggerate. I had travelled thousands of miles at great expense only to find the action I was seeking less than an hour from home!

Many of these are resident fish, not fresh sea-runners. They live in the lower reaches and are whitebait specialists. It's the same story in New Zealand. When the time is right they gorge on whitebait, and like all forage-fish feeders with an abundant supply of food, they really stack on the weight and condition.
Folklore has it in New Zealand that monster trout actually migrate downstream to coincide with the whitebait runs and feed on the bait schools as they move back upstream. The same pattern seems evident in Tasmania but I've always suspected that a lot of the big resident fish stay pretty well in situ and just hammer the bait when it turns up. They know the good spots and that's where they live.

Irrespective of the behaviour of individual trout, a progressive upstream movement of whitebait and coincident trout activity over a period of days and weeks is the general pattern, repeated as subsequent waves of bait move upstream.
Generally the whitebait, mainly juvenile galaxiids of various species, are heading upstream, moving from the sea to populate the rivers. In Tasmania an additional whitebait species, the 'true whitebait' Lovettia seallii complicates the whole business-these are not juvenile fish but one year old adults heading in to spawn in the lower reaches. After spawning they begin to die and make even easier pickings for greedy trout. Irrespective of the species, concentrations of whitebait differ from day to day, with waves moving progressively upstream. There is a pigmentation change too, with the whitebait becoming darker as they spend time in the river. A fly that works well early in the season may need to be darker to have the same effect later in the run.

TIDE & TIME . . .
Tide is a critical variable and this interacts with time of day and prevailing weather conditions. Location within the river adds further complexity as whitebait schools move in from the sea. As my Westland trip aptly demonstrated, if the whitebait aren't running you won't see much action.
Bob McDowall's publication The New Zealand Whitebait Book (Reed, 1984) makes interesting reading and has helped to explain some of our fishing observations. A few interesting points are summarised below.

1) Whitebait runs occur in spring, with September to early November being the main season and October generally the best month. This is basically the same in Tasmania, though Lovettia tends to run earlier, starting late August or early September.

2) Daily and seasonal variations in whitebait migrations are complex and difficult to predict, though major runs tend to coincide with clearing water after flood. In Tasmania floods tend to inhibit runs with big volumes of colder, discoloured water shutting things down. Here too, runs probably intensify soon after significant flushes.

3) Whitebait tend to migrate in to rivers during daylight hours-traditional Maori fishermen assumed no night-time movement. At the Henty River mouth on Tasmania's West Coast, an early morning high tide seems to produce the greatest activity, with sea birds and trout following waves of bait in from the ocean. You get the impression that the whitebait schools have waited until dawn to invade the river mouth, and then they make a run for it!

4) The relationship between tide and whitebait activity is also complex and varies depending on river flow and distance from the sea. When flow is greater whitebait tend to crowd near the edges and on the surface. In the upper estuaries in southern Tasmania the best fly fishing normally coincides with the tide starting to run out. Whitebait may well move up-stream with the incoming tide but because the flow is reduced they may be deeper, more towards the centre of the river and more dispersed. As the tide begins to run out, the increased flow forces the whitebait to hold up and bunch along the edges where the trout get stuck into them. This also makes the trout easier to target as they bash bait repeatedly in confined pockets close to the bank.

But these trout are clever, and seem to learn special techniques for maximising their food intake. Several things make them hard to find and hard to catch. For a start they tend to feed in short gluttonous bursts. This means you have to be in the right place at the right time.

If you are new to the area, keep moving until you find fish. The obvious signs are slashing surface rises with whitebait showering in a windscreen-wiper motion. Sea-bird activity is another give away, and herons stalking the banks are an accurate indicator. We rarely see actual schools of whitebait first, but having keyed in on some other indicator a glance in the water will quickly confirm the presence of bait. Then you are in.

If you know what you are doing you can afford to be patient and wait for the trout to really fire up at a particular hot spot. But mostly, when you don't have a clue, it is best to keep on the move until you get lucky. This is where Brett's boat comes in handy, particularly where the banks are overgrown and hard to negotiate. You can cover a lot of river in a boat.

I'll give you a couple of examples of what it can be like. One day we cruised around for hours and found bugger-all. Blind flogging produced nothing. Then, fairly late in the afternoon we saw a fish move against a clear, open section of clay bank. Not a big fish but at this stage anything would do. We hooked and landed it, only to find another still working in the same place. Five or six fish later there was still one working in exactly the same spot! A bunch of small trout had obviously cornered a school of bait and were just quietly working them over. Other than that one patch along a couple of metres of bank we saw very little all day.

On another day we tied up for hours and had big trout bashing all around us. Really frantic activity, but only on one particular bend of the river. When the trout finally went quiet we stayed put to brew a coffee and have lunch. While we were relaxing another fly fisherman arrived and drifted nearby while we thanked our lucky stars that the fish had turned off. This was too good a spot to broadcast!
As soon as he started his outboard and disappeared back down-river the trout began to turn it on again and we had another hour or two of excitement. He was in the right place at the wrong time. We had our best day, he probably had his worst. That's what it can be like.

The other problem I touched on is the way the trout tend to feed. As I said, many seem to develop their own particular ambush techniques and unless your fly is right in the target zone, at precisely the right instant, they will totally ignore it, as they will ignore hundreds of real whitebait.

This leads to the observation that too much bait is not necessarily a good thing . . . it seems to encourage trout to feed in shorter bursts and to become far less catchable if not more discriminating. The only answer seems to be sheer persistence, repeatedly presenting flies into spots where the trout are regularly chomping whitebait. We have also experimented by using multiple flies to increase the chance of being noticed.

At times it pays to get flies down quickly and to retrieve a foot or two below the surface where the trout are lurking between forays. We have found split shot and bead-headed flies helpful in this regard. The chap who caught the twenty pounder used a sink-tip line and adopted the deep and slow approach. His theory was that the bigger trout were lurking underneath and the smaller ones seen jumping and splashing on the surface were only an indicator of the real action down deep.
In general, the best whitebait patterns are lightly dressed, light grey in colour with a prominent silver body and a distinct eye. If you observe whitebait in an aquarium, you will see that these are the essential features. We have had most success on a small, slim version of Chris Beech's Tasman Minnow and on Murray Wilson's BMS (Bullen Merri Special). Traditional matuka style whitebait patterns have also worked over the years as have slimly built Fur Fly variants.

Suitable locations are not difficult to find. In South Island NZ the main West Coast road generally runs within a few kilometres of the sea, providing access points to river mouths and coastal lagoons (waters seaward of the road are open year round). In southern Tasmania road bridges across the upper estuaries around the Huon district generally coincide by default with spawning grounds for Lovettia and are consequently prime trout fishing areas.

If you put in some time and manage to strike the right combination of whitebait, tide and time, then these areas are capable of producing the biggest trout and the most exciting sight fishing imaginable. A word of warning . . . don't fish too light, or you may lose the fish of a lifetime.