Wide Open Breaming

For those who missed it first time around in print, here’s a piece on open water bream luring that first ran inFishLife magazine earlier this year:

The art of luring bream has been one of the major engines of change in Australian sport fishing over the past few decades. In less than a single generation, catching bream on lures has gone from being an accident or a novelty for most anglers to a regular pursuit for many. Even those who don’t “get it” and wonder what all the fuss is about must grudgingly admit that the pursuit of bream on artificial baits has completely transformed our sport.

Before many of you reading these words were born, that doyen of Australian fishing writing, Vic McCristal, offered the opinion that anglers skilled enough to regularly take bream on lures would tend to find most other species easy. It was McSea’s quietly understated way of doffing his cap to the bream clan as perhaps our most challenging piscatorial targets.

What Vic could hardly have guessed in those days was the passion with which this country’s sport fishing community would eventually embrace that particular challenge, and how doing so would completely revolutionise our tackle, our techniques and even our angling mindset. Make no mistake: bream luring has radically altered the shape of Australian fishing, and this significant evolutionary upheaval is far from having run its course. Discoveries remain to be made. For many, open water breaming is just one of them.

Middle Of Nowhere

For most of us, thoughts of catching bream on lures immediately conjure mental images of structure fishing: accurately casting our soft plastics and little hard bodies at shorelines, rocks, snags, pylons, oyster lease racks or moored boats. But what if I told you there’s a whole world of bream luring far removed from the realms of obvious physical structure? Would you believe me if I promised that you can regularly take bream on hardware literally in the middle of nowhere, far from any bank, boulder, bridge or buoy?

A few of you are probably nodding and smiling as you read this, and thinking to yourself: “Of course! He’s talking about flats and weed beds.” Well, yes I am, but I’m also stretching the concept of open water breaming far beyond the accepted realms of shallow flats and clearly defined weed beds to take in those vast, seemingly empty estuarine expanses that most folks simply motor across on their way to the “real” bream fishing grounds.

If you’d happened to spy me out fishing the week before I wrote this piece, chasing a few last images for the feature, you may well have scratched your head. Drifting slowly across the very middle of a broad, saltwater lake on the south coast of NSW, you’d have been forgiven for thinking that I didn’t have a clue what I was doing, that I’d broken down, or perhaps that I was lazily yo-yoing for flathead across all that featureless, flat lake bed in 3 to 5m of water, far from any juicy rocks, snags, drop-offs, gutters or weed patches. But you’d have been wrong. I was targeting bream, and I was catching them… Good bream.

I certainly didn’t invent open water breaming. Much smarter anglers than me have been quietly doing it for years, in locations as widely scattered as Moreton Bay, Lake Macquarie, Sydney Harbour, St Georges Basin, the Hopkins, St Helens and the Swan, to name just a few. Back when I competed regularly on the various bream tournament circuits, it was a trick that saved me from the dreaded donut (a zero scorecard) on more than one occasion. I saw a few other anglers out there in the middle of nowhere doing it, too. In the early days, a very small handful of us had this game virtually to ourselves, but competitive bream fishers aren’t dummies. The idea caught on. Despite this fact, the middle of nowhere remains a relatively lightly-fished area, where you’re more likely to find happy, un-pressured (and therefore catch-able) bream than just about anywhere else in an estuary system… especially by day three of a long weekend or a hard-fought tournament! For this very reason, open water breaming remains the unspoken ace-up-the-sleeve of many gun tournament pros, and I dare say that some won’t be too happy that I’m telling you about it! So, lower the Maxwell Smart “cone of silence” and let us proceed into the wide, blue yonder…

Why It Works

Looking at a large body of water for the first time and trying to guess where fish might be found in it can be an incredibly daunting task. Angling educators such as myself have traditionally attempted to help people come to terms with cracking the code of any large waterway by breaking it down into smaller, more manageable chunks and then identifying the major structural features within those bits. It’s a sensible enough approach, but it can also lead to over-simplification. Big picture elements get missed when you take this microscopic view.

It pays to remember that fish like bream have tails, and they use them to swim. This means they can effectively be found in every part of an estuary system at one time or another. Commercial netters woke up to this fact a long time ago. The vast majority of fish presented for sale on the market floor each morning were hauled, trawled or seined from open water over flat, relatively featureless stretches of bottom strata in water deeper than a couple of metres. There’s a message in that.

Fish like bream temporarily occupy these wide open spaces of an estuary or bay for several reasons: Obviously, they must travel across such areas when moving from one feeding station to another, or en route to their spawning grounds. But there’s more to it than that. Relatively deep, open water is also a fine place for fish to simply lose themselves and lie up when not actively feeding, with less likelihood of constant harassment from predators. Finally, there’s also a surprising amount of food out there, in the middle of nowhere. Prawns and other bait often accumulate in these open water zones, and there are also likely to be shellfish and worm beds on the bottom in some places.  There’s much more life in these marine “deserts” than meets the eye.

Many of the fish (bream included) encountered in these open, relatively featureless areas are eminently catch-able. Even if they’re simply schooled up out there and “resting”, or staging before a spawning migration, they’re still prone to snapping up a tasty morsel that strays too close. At many other times, they may actually be actively feeding in the “middle of nowhere”.

Where It Works

Most estuary systems larger than tidal creeks have areas of what I’m referring to here as “wide open” breaming country. Typically, this sort of aquatic terrain lies in 2 to 10m of water (sometimes more) and has a fairly flat bottom topography, with a seabed composed of sand, silt, mud or fine gravel. It may contain the odd rocky outcrop, wreck, reef or patch of weed, but don’t stress if these features are absent.

These open water zones are especially prevalent in larger bays (Moreton, Botany, Jervis, etc), but are also common in our coastal lakes: both those that are permanently open to the sea and also temporarily closed systems. Think of the likes of Wallis Lake at Forster, Tuggerah Lake and Brisbane Water on the NSW central coast, Wagonga Inlet at Narooma, Mallacoota’s Top and Bottom Lakes, the Gippsland Lakes network, or Georges Bay near St Helens, in Tassie, and you’ll be on the right track, although there are heaps of smaller systems in between with the right kind of terrain.

Even our larger rivers offer fine open water breaming at times, especially some of the NSW north coast systems that feature connected feeder lakes and broadwaters. The Tweed, Richmond and Clarence are classics. Further south, bigger tidal rivers such as the Hawkesbury, Shoalhaven and Clyde all have areas where open water breaming can be productive. Be a little lateral in your thinking and I’m sure dozens of other likely spots will also spring to mind.

How It Works

Hunting wide open bream can be an incredibly frustrating and potentially rather boring process, unless you’re able to significantly narrow down your search areas. Drifting randomly across hectares of featureless water while jigging a vibe, bouncing a soft plastic or repeatedly cranking down a hard body is unlikely to produce much more than the odd flathead, flounder and chopper tailor, unless you can precisely pin-point schools of bream.

By far the most important tool in this regard, and an absolutely essential part of the open water breaming process, is a decent depth sounder. A GPS unit is also well worth having, as we’ll soon see. The ideal solution for most small boat and kayak fishers is a mid-range combo unit incorporating both functions, with the ability to display them simultaneously via a split screen or overlay readout.

Rather than heading out and starting to fish “blind”, spend some time cruising back and forth across what you suspect to be likely areas while closely watching your sounder screen. Punch in waypoints to mark the position of any likely showings of fish or bait, but don’t stop yet (unless it’s a really good show!). Keep cruising and building up a picture of the area before you commence fishing. Patterns and clusters of likely spots should begin to emerge.

How fast you can cruise and still record a meaningful sounder image will depend very much on your transducer set-up. It’s really useful if you can undertake this surveying process while just on the plane, which is around 12 to 15 knots (20 to 30 km/h) in most boats. If you’re able to travel faster and still clearly see what’s happening down below, by all means do so. My mate Bushy will sometimes traverse a lake at 20 knots or more while looking for scatters of what he calls “little red house bricks” on or just above the bottom of his sonar readout. It’s a pretty good description of how bream show up on many sounders, too.

If you own a sounder with side scanning capabilities, by all means use these handy bells and whistles, as they broaden your effective search path. You may also need to tweak the unit’s sensitivity and other functions to obtain a meaningful picture capable of reliably showing bream. Study the photos accompanying this feature for an idea of what decent sized bream look like on my Lowrance HDS-8 (as confirmed by actually catching good numbers of fish from these ‘shows’). Every sounder will paint a slightly different picture, so learn to interpret yours, then trust what it tells you.

Generally speaking, fish that show up as being separated from the bottom will be more active and keener to bite than those pinned firmly to the lake bed. Be aware, too, that buzzing over flighty fish at speed in 2 to 6m of water is almost certain to at least temporarily spook them. You may find that they flatten out hard against the bottom or even scatter after the first pass, but give them some time and they’ll typically re-group. This is why it’s important to collect a string of GPS marks. then return more surreptitiously (ideally under electric motor power or while drifting with the tide and wind) before presenting your lures.

It may be possible to stand off a short distance from a pre-marked concentration of fish and cast to them, but I actually find that a nice quiet drift across the spot works at least as well on most occasions, especially in water depths of 3.5m and more. This drift can be controlled by the judicious use of a bow-mounted electric motor if you have one. Deploying a drogue or sea anchor is also a major advantage in breezy conditions. A lot of my fish are caught by making a reasonably long cast up into the wind or tide (in other words, in the direction you’ve just drifted from), getting the lure down to the bottom and then virtually “trolling” it behind the drifting boat, imparting a jigging motion and picking up slack only as required. I’ve experimented with taking this one step further on very calm days by actually using the electric motor to ultra-slowly “crawl troll” the lure across the bottom. It definitely works, but please be aware that this manoeuvre would be a clear breach of the rules in a casting-only tournament!

Casting ahead (down-wind or down-tide) of a drifting boat can also be highly effective, and really comes into its own in waters shallower than 3m, where the passage of the boat overhead can easily spook bream.

Generally, I favour some boat drift when fishing this way. Dead still conditions are less conducive to covering ground and catching bream. Observations of my drift rate on the GPS readout have shown that a speed-over-ground (SOG) of anywhere between about 0.3 and 0.8 knots (0.5 to 1.5km/h) usually produce the best results. Slower and you don’t cover enough water. Faster and it becomes difficult to maintain regular lure contact with the bottom.

What To Use

What lures you should actually choose in an attempt to catch these open water bream is a matter of personal choice, water depth, drift rate, experimentation and experience. Prime options include soft plastics (especially worm, wriggler or grub patterns), metal blades, hard or soft vibes and various diving plugs or minnows. Fly fishing can also work in this scenario, if you make the correct selections in terms of line density and leader length.

You really need to be flexible with your lure choices and vary them continually to match the conditions, at least until a productive combination is identified. Bear in mind, however, that slightly larger offerings than those considered as bream “standards” often work best out in deeper, open water. Perhaps the bream are a tad less wary here, or a bigger morsel is need to draw them across several metres of open, sandy terrain for a closer look. Whatever the case, don’t be afraid to try lures from the upper end of the size scale generally accepted as being applicable to bream.

Even more important than precise lure selection is the presentation of your offering in the correct part of the water column. On a few occasions I’ve seen open water bream schooled up very close to the surface, aggressively ripping into small baitfish or prawns. On one particularly memorable day working a side basin off the Clarence River in far northern NSW, most observers would have named the surface splashes and dipping terns as obvious signposts of a tailor bust up. However, by casting small, shallow-running minnows like the time-proven Ecogear SX40 under the wheeling birds, I pulled more than 25 small to middling bream from the melee in an hour or two of valuable tournament time, without encountering a single chopper. Always expect the unexpected with bream.

More often, however, you’ll need to get down, make contact with the bottom and then expect to hook most of your bream within a metre of the lake or river bed. It goes almost without saying that you’ll catch a fair few flathead doing this, too.

While small metal vibes are a wonderful tool for this task, one lure stands out as an absolute favourite with many of the more experienced open water bream specialists, myself included. I feel a mix of both pride and embarrassment in naming that lure, as it’s one that bears my name on the pack (and Bushy’s, of course). It’s the 100mm Squidgy Wriggler in either the Bloodworm or Wasabi colours, ideally trimmed slightly (as I’ll explain in a moment) and matched to a 2 or 3g Squidgy Round Head Jig with a fine gauge No. 2 hook. (Heavier jig heads may be required in deeper water or with faster drifts, and lighter ones in shallow, calm situations. The lightest you can get by with is usually best on bream.)

As for the trimming I mentioned, this is a simple process made famous by bream tournament guru, Chris “Slick” Wright, some years ago. It involves using a pair of scissors to cut about 5mm from the nose of the Wriggler, then trimming the “fin” and a sliver of plastic off the back of the lure, and perhaps also a little from its belly flaps. This nip and tuck operation reduces the overall profile of the plastic and seems to enhance both its appeal to bream and the subsequent hook-up rate. The modified lure thus produced carries the nick name of “The Drover’s Dog”, and has helped elevate “Slick” onto the tournament winners’ podium more often than I care to remember over the years. (You might think that using a smaller, 80mm Wriggler in its un-trimmed state would achieve much the same result but, strangely, it doesn’t. There’s obviously something special about that long, fluttering tail on the 100mm model.)

There is one final tip I can offer that will, in my opinion, potentially double or even treble your catch rate on open water bream, if you’re game to give it a whirl. It is simply this: dispense with your standard, braided or fused gel-spun polyethylene (GSP) main line and leader set-up and re-spool your little spin reel with 1kg fluorocarbon monofilament, fished straight through to the jig head, without a leader of any sort. I’m damned if I can satisfactorily explain exactly why this is the case, but the gossamer fine approach dramatically improves the efficiency of the wide open breaming routine. The difference is nothing short of remarkable. Yes, you’ll lose a lot of the flathead you hook as a result of being chewed off, but trust me when I tell you that you’ll pin a lot more bream. And, in that open, obstacle-free water, you’ll get to find out just what a hot little sprinter a kilo-plus breambo can really be. Boy, do they go!

If you just can’t bring yourself to ditch the braid and go “bareback” with ultra fine fluorocarbon run straight to the lure in this scenario, at least use a long (4 or 5m) leader of 2kg mono at the business end of your rig. It makes a difference.

Wide open breaming will never replace the thrills and challenges of working hard structure, edges or shallow flats for these great light tackle targets, but if you’re serious about your bream fishing, and particularly if you fancy your chances as a tournament contender, it’s a game you really need to add to your bag of tricks. Who knows, you might even find it as engaging, rewarding and totally addictive as I do!