Winter is officially here, with cold spells having been upon us since mid April already, the fishing in the estuaries has changed from the summer species and techniques to those we traditionally expect during the cooler months. Some of the summer species have left our rivers, and some have gone off the bite. Others have arrived and can be targeted in different ways. Winter usually means tougher fishing, with less catches, but there are some great fish that are caught during the winter months in Eastern Cape and KZN estuaries.
Winter arriving does not mean that it is time to put away our estuary tackle. It just means that we need to consider a different approach and work a little bit harder for our fish.
The fish that become scarce at this time are species such as River snapper, Perch, kingfish and springer (skipjack). This does not mean that all of these fish have left the system, for indeed many of them are resident in the estuary. It just means that they do not feed as aggressively during the cooler months. River snapper and perch in particular are still in the system throughout the year, they just get harder to catch as they seem to eat much less at this time. Springer seem to be more plentiful in the KZN estuaries during early winter, but as it gets very cold, they too go off the bite and many leave the river to move further north (we assume).
Fish that become more plentiful in our estuaries during the winter months are species such as: kob, garrick and shad. Other resident species such as grunter and gurnard can be caught year round in most rivers.
What becomes obvious when we look at the winter species composition is that there is going to be far less action on surface lures than there was during the summer. Lures that work in the deeper zones are going to perform far better. Not only that, but lures that can be worked slowly on the bottom with an attractive action will become your main producers during the cooler months.
This is the time for bucktail jigs, soft plastics and slow sinking or suspending twitchbaits and jerkbaits. These are the lures that are going to give you the bulk of your action. Of course you never leave your topwater lures at home, for at any time you could experience a surge in surface action, but your main tools are going to be those lures that work slow and deeper. Kob, grunter and gurnards are all targeted on the bottom and even more aggressive species such as shad and garrick will often take slower worked lures near or on the bottom during the winter. You could also still expect the occasional kingfish, perch or river snapper to take your lure and provide you with some good excitement.
The rod and reel setup for winter fishing is much the same that you would use for summer. I recommend a light rod, with a fast action such as one of the Shimano Crucial spinning series rods. These rods have a lovely crisp action and are very light. This means that you are imparting a good action to your lure, without losing its effect in the sloppiness of a soft rod and you can work it all day without tiring your wrist out too much. I like to use a small reel, with a good front drag system and light braid. I would recommend the Shimano Stradic or Sustain 2500, loaded with 6 to 10lb Sufix 832 braid. Top this off with a 15lb Double X fluorocarbon leader to handle any abrasion resistance and you are in business.
The thing with winter estuary fishing is that you have to have a lot of patience. You should try and slow your fishing down, and focus on keeping your lure looking good down near, or on, the bottom. It may take some hours to get a bite, so you need to persevere and believe in what you are doing. If you keep at it, you are going to catch something. While this may not be as exciting as fishing during summer, particularly with the surface action, it can still provide some very good fish and can be entertaining for those who enjoy a challenge.
I often find that in winter it is the small things that can make a difference. I like to fish prawn imitations that can be flicked off the bottom and allowed to slowly drift back down. Prawns sink slowly, in a horizontal position, so your lures should too if they are imitating a prawn. I also sometimes rig my soft plastic minnows onto a bass worm hook, weedless style, and crimp a splitshot or wrap a bit of lead wire around the shank of the hook to give it a horizontal sink. This works well, particularly in situations where you don’t need to cast very far and where you are fishing in hazardous structure. Without the weight on the front of the lure it has a far more natural action, particularly when being twitched very slowly.
I find that in winter it is often best to fish the deepest holes and channels in the river. While this is also the case in summer, I find that the deeper spots produce more bites in winter. The fish seem to concentrate more in the deep spots and hold there, especially when the water is cool. If the current is not too strong, then I like to use the lightest weight lure that I can get down to the bottom, as this will have the best action when moved with small twitches and jerks.
Some of the new slow sinking, or suspending lures, such as the Rapala Twitchin' Minnow or Twitchin' Mullet are an excellent option. These can be worked very slowly, with long pauses, where the lure virtually suspends in the strike zone. For deeper water the Storm Sinking Pencil is likely to get down quicker and is a good option to fish in those holes.
It is a good idea to have a second rod rigged up with a surface lure, or a midwater lure, that you can quickly pick up and flick out if you see some activity on or near the surface. A slim spoon is a good option, as it can cast far, can be worked at almost any depth and is very attractive to fish. If you have one of these on your standby rod, then you can flick it at a splash up to 50m or so away from where you are fishing.
Water temperature becomes particularly crucial during winter. It is worth carrying a thermometer and checking the temperature of the water in the sea, around the mouth, and right at the top of the river. If one area is substantially warmer than the rest, then it is likely that you are going to get concentrations of fish in the warmer water or where the two meet. Sometimes there may be water draining off a shallow area on a falling tide where the water draining off has been lying in the sun for some hours and is much warmer than the river water. It then makes sense to spend some time fishing the channel where that warm water drains out into the main river and where the cool and warm water meet.
The same basic rules about fishing first and last light apply. There is always going to be more action around those times. A spring tide, with the increase in water movement, is also always going to be a prime time to target fish in the estuaries, regardless of whether it is summer or winter. As always I would like to encourage anybody that fishes in our estuaries to please consider that these are very important nursery areas, and any fish caught in the estuaries should be carefully handled and released. These fish are the future of our coastal fishery and should be well looked after.