Taking the Bait
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.
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!
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.
TIDE & TIME . . .
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.
GETTING A FEED
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!
FISHING & FLIES
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.
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.