Having fished as a guide and traveller from the north to the south, the salt to the fresh, I am often asked ‘whatchacatchemon?’ and extremely often the answer is ‘fresh bait, mate!’
For the average holiday recreational fisher, here are some of the best baits that work in the estuaries on the South Coast of NSW, and probably the North Coast and everywhere in between, for that matter.
The first one, my favourite, is arguably the best bait you can use in the estuary. Call it what you will, the nipper, pink nipper, yabby, bass yabby or ghost shrimp, it’s a tasty treat to absolutely any fish that swims in an estuary, from whiting to luderick, flathead to mulloway, stingrays and bream.
God’s gift to gathering nippers is the simple stainless steel bait pump.
Most people try gathering nippers at low tide, which you can do effectively with a fair bit of hard work.
To make life easier, go as the tide rises or falls over the nipper beds, when these little critters come nearer to the surface to clean their burrows. Or you can use a sieve on a high tide wading over the beds.
Rigging them is simple. Use light line of 1kg to 3kg max, preferably mono which has a bit of give, tie a short double to give strength where you run a No bug sinker to a size 12 black swivel.
Bug sinkers are better than ball sinkers because they don’t roll around tangling your rig. Then use around 25cm to 30cm of clear mono trace of around 10 lb and attach a No 4 short-shank black baitholder pattern hook.
When putting the hook through your nipper, start at the tail, threading the hook through to the head, and break off the claw. This allows for easy casting with little wind resistance.
After studying bass in aquariums, a nipper with a claw on will be sucked in and spat out by the bass, breaking the claw off, before it then swallows the unfortunate crustacean. A nipper dropped in without the claw will be swallowed with out hesitation.
Some will argue this rig will not present well but there must have been a few thousand fish I should not have caught in my time.
Live poddy mullet are undoubtedly one of the best flathead baits you can ever use in an estuary.
Catching them is easy and using them is even easier.
All you need is a clear plastic bait trap baited with bread and extra bread to be thrown around the trap for berley.
Use polarised sunglasses to scan the shallows to find where the mullet are, attach to your trap a short length of heavy mono with a large snapper type sinker or something similar, berley the mullet with the extra bread and then float your trap among them. Check it regularly, removing your captives.
I like place a brightly coloured polystyrene float inside the trap. This helps to float it and the colours also attract the mullet to the trap.
Another way to obtain your mullet is to catch them on a light line using a very small hook, around a No 16 to 18 if you can find them that small.
Berley with bread, which can also be used for bait, or just use a bit of prawn.
Rigging a mullet is simple. A running bug or bean sinker on your main line should vary in size depending in how large a bait you are using and how much tidal run there is.
Slide the sinker down to a small black swivel and then 30cm to 40cm of 12lb to 15lb mono trace tied to a 1/0 to 3/0 circle hook.
Whether you are drifting from a boat, anchored or bank fishing, I find placing the hook through both lips of the mullet from the bottom jaw and out just in front of the eyes will work fine. Rigging like this, the mullet fights the hook, giving out those lovely ‘eat me’ vibrations and flashes that attract any predator in the area.
Live or fresh dead prawns are deadly for most estuary species and are easily obtained.
Capturing your prawns is a lot of fun. All you need is a powerful light, preferably an underwater one designed for prawning, and a legal prawn net.
Wading the estuary shallows on moonless nights through Spring, Summer and early Autumn should produce enough prawns for bait and perhaps a delicious feed for the family.
Try getting up before first light to capture a few prawns and then fish them live through the early hours for some dynamite results.
The best way to keep prawns alive is in an aerated bait tank or container. Otherwise simply store them in a bucket with no water and cover them with fresh wet seaweed.
If this sounds a mite too difficult, most good bait shops have a supply of frozen bait prawns or you can try a seafood shop or market where you can purchase them fresh. (Don’t use uncooked imported prawns, no matter how cheap they might be – they could introduce foreign diseases into local waterways! – Editor)
Rigging is similar to nippers and mullet, with circle or baitholder styles of hooks acceptable.
For live prawns, I prefer the circle hook placed once through the centre of the prawn, allowing it to kick, while dead prawns are best on a baitholder hook inserted from the tail through to the head.
Squirt worms are more difficult to gather and put on a hook but they are worth it and there are quite a few species that literally die to get hold of them.
To gather squirties, firstly you will have to find them, generally over muddy or sandy flats. You see their holes in clusters, with a sandy tube a couple of millimetres across sometimes protruding from the sand.
A single, slow, purposeful draw of a bait pump over the holes should produce a result.
The best time to do so is as the tide is rising or falling, leaving a fraction of water to assist with the pump, but be prepared to spend some time chasing these fish delicacies.
When using the worms for bait target weed areas, channels and especially where you may have gathered them at high tide. Many different species forage over these flats for the same reason you did – to find squirt worms.
Rigging is very similar to a nipper, in fact I use the same rig. Thread the hook through the head of the worm, and sometimes I draw it up over the eye of the hook.
You will find as you do so that the worms will break up, leaving a section near the head, so it may be necessary to use a few worms to achieve a decent bait.
Keeping squirt worms involves a bucket with fresh saltwater kept in cool shade. An aerator can help in keeping them alive and you should change the water regularly so it does not get too warm.
Most fish in an estuary eat squirties, with the more common targets including whiting, bream, luderick, mullet and trevally. Don’t be surprised when other species show up.
If you don’t go to sea or have a mate who does, how do you get striped tuna?
Most bait stores carry it in a vacuum packs, which are OK. By arrangement you may be able to obtain whole stripies and can use the fillets as bait and the carcasses for berley.
Fish markets are another fair bet although the tuna there may be a few days old and a bit softer.
This is not a problem because salt is a wonder agent for curing these fillets.
Take the fillets off – not too thick so the salt will penetrate – then place in a bucket, covering the flesh side of the fillet with a generous amount of salt.
Continue with other fillets, layering them. Leave overnight in a cool area and then package and freeze.
The liquid gathered in the bucket, along with the frames can be used for a berley trail when you go fishing with your tuna. In my opinion this berley is a must and will produce the best results.
Rigging is simple, with a 1/0 circle hook pierced through the skin side of a 2cm to 3cm strip of tuna into and through to the flesh.
Use a running sinker rig to a swivel. How heavy a sinker depends on the current.
Tidal flow is important to disperse your berley to attract fish to your area and even though you may see fish up close in your trail, place your baits further back, where the larger fish often lurk.
Most commonly caught species with this technique include, bream, trevally, flathead, mullet, tailor and salmon.
So the next time someone comes up and admires your lovely bag of fish and asks whatchacatchemon? You can look them in the eye and say ‘fresh bait, mate’!
Nippers: Found along sandy or slightly muddy foreshores. Gather by bait pump. Best kept fresh in cool saltwater changed regularly as not to get too worm or you can use an aerator. Target fish: Everything!
Poddy mullet: In every estuary, best targeted in shallows over sand or mangrove flats. Can be caught in a bait trap or on a line with a very small hook. Best kept alive by an aerator in a bucket, live bait tank or a container which can be placed back into the water. Target fish: Flathead, tailor, jewfish, flounder, bream, salmon.
Prawns: Found in most estuaries along weed beds and over shallows. Can be gathered at night with a light and prawn net. Keep alive in an aerated livewell or bucket, or a bucket with no water and covering with fresh wet seaweed. Targets: Everything.
Squirt Worms: Found over sand or mud flats in most estuaries. Use a bait pump with one slow, consistent pump. Keep alive in aerated cool saltwater. Targets: Whiting, luderick, mullet, bream, trevally, garfish.
Striped tuna: Oceanic predators captured on trolled lures or sourced from bait stores, seafood shops or fish markets. Salt fillets or freeze whole. Carcasses make excellent berley. Targets: Bream, trevally, flathead, snapper, mullet, garfish, salmon, tailor.
A way to rig prawns, nippers and worms. The claw is removed from the nipper because quite often a fish will nip at the bait to remove the claw before deeming it fit for consumption.