by Lee Brake
Last week, Lee looked at a top option for beating the first of the winter blues – flicking for flathead. This week he looks at another species which shows up in quantity and quality in northern waters during the cooler months and is often overlooked, the humble bream.
Now that's a barra-country bream! They grow up big and tough in the tropics and will eat big lures.
Bream is a bit of a dirty word in barra country. Anglers, especially barramundi enthusiasts, often turn their noses up at these pocket-size predators. Usually considered an overzealous bycatch on barra lures and a pest on live baits, bream are somewhat of an underrated and underutilised species in the north. But they don't need to be.
A few years ago I discovered that during the neap, dry season tides, bream could be seen holding in mangrove snags in several well-known local estuary systems. These we not your flighty little silver bream either, but were big blue-nosed black bream (pikey bream) with deep bodies and fat stomachs. We quickly worked out that if we could get a lure into the guts of the dense mangroves, the bream would come alive like little devils and would plough the water as they violently charged the artificial offerings. At first, only a few found the hooks of our barra-size offerings – Flatz Rats, Little Lucifers etc – but we were blown away by the aggression and power of these 30-40cm bream. We began to experiment.
The lure is literally smashed by a bream that was spotted sulking in a mangrove nook. Note the bream on the right is still tucked up in its hiding place.
First off, we realised that barra tackle, while excellent for extracting fish from dense mangroves, was terrible for hook-ups on bream and spooked a lot of fish as the heavy line and lure smashed into their lair. We downsized to the lightest tackle we had – 7', 1-3kg spin sticks and 1000 size reels with 6lb braid. We also changed to 3' soft plastics and ultra-light jig heads, of which we had plenty for chasing flathead. This proved more effective and allowed us to get into the strike zone much easier without spooking the fish. However, as a downside, the bream were constantly grabbing the tail of the plastics and striking simply pulled the lure free of their grasp. To get a hook-up, we'd have to give them enough slack so they could munch the whole lure. Unfortunately, giving a fish that is surrounded by a plethora of roots, sticks and branches some slack line is fraught with peril. Once they got their heads turned, our 7' whippy flathead rods had no hope of turning them from their mangrove lairs. It was expensive!
How's that for a gutsy effort? A big Fysshe lure, hand carved for the barra of Teemburra Dam was a meal for this bream.
So we went back to the drawing board. The first breakthrough came from using smaller plastics. I reasoned that if these bream were biting the tail, then a smaller offering might let them find the hook on the first bite. Rather than invest in new plastics, I tested my theory by taking a set of side cutters to the first inch of my 3' jerkshads. It worked, and my hook-ups increased remarkably. Also, because the bream were taking the lure while swimming in my direction, rather than in the direction of a mangrove abyss, it was much easier to muscle them from the structure. In saying that though, I had far from a 100% success rate. Every now and then a bream in the high 30s would snatch the plastics and destroy me in a shower of spray, creaking graphite, screaming drag and singing braid. Oh, and it turns out that barra and jacks love a little softy snack in the cooler months. Call it the peanut effect – no matter how sluggish you are, you'll usually snack on a peanut if one if offered to you.
To further increase our success rate we began experimenting with small weedless rigs and shorter, slower tapered spin rods (6'4', 2-4kg). By flicking the little weedless-rigged plastics in low and fast, you can actually skip them in under overhanging canopies, and while you do have to let the bream take the weedless rigs, you have the more solid rod to turn their heads with – it's an effective compromise.
It's not only the black bream that turn up in size in the north. This big silver bream smashed a little Berkley plastic at the first major snag in the creek mouth, a place usually reserved for barra.
Using these smaller, slightly stiffer-tipped spin rods also allowed us to experiment with small diving minnows and these proved to tempt a real mix bag of bream, barra, jacks and cod. Little C-Lure Jack Snacks, Berkley Frenzies and little RMG Scorpions all worked well.
A typical northern snag-dwelling bream. Note how the author has trimmed part of the plastic's body to make it more of a "mouth full".
I found 20lb fluorocarbon to be a good leader, as it was tough enough to deal with barnacle scrapes yet light enough not to spook the big black bream. Lure size was, as mentioned, important. Two inch plastics in most styles worked – the bream usually smashed them in a territorial manner as soon as they landed – but small Atomic Prongs, Berkley Powerbait Minnows, Zman GrubZ and Berkley Gulp Minnows were all standouts.
Using light gear and small lures for bream can tempt shutdown winter barra and give you a real battle.
Jighead choice was simple – we used the lightest we could cast. The lighter the jighead, the slower it sunk in the strike zone, meaning less snags and more time to draw a strike. The light gauge hooks were also useful for getting the lures out of the snags. If there was a school in a snag and we got hooked up, simply by straight pulling the light wire hooks we could straighten them enough to get them back without spooking the fish. Then by simply re-bending the hook with some pliers we could get quickly back into the action. It's not a great practise when targeting bigger fish, but it worked just fine with the bream.
So, next time the cold weather has you down and you need a creek-flicking-fix, throw a few light rods and little plastics in the boat and go have some fun with those big black bream. They will surprise you, I promise.
Fish hard and stay safe,