Having spent the bulk of my 30+ years of lure fishing casting in water where I can see the bottom, for species such as flathead, bream, barramundi, mangrove jack, grunter and trevally, it's been a great learning curve for me in recent years targeting deeper water structure in the rivers and estuaries, with anglers who have been focussed on this style of fishing and do it well. The joke was commonly asking me if I was okay as we ventured beyond two metres of water and they took me out of my 'comfort zone', fishing three to nine metres of water in my local river and estuary systems. The truth is that when you shift from what you know in fishing it does take some time to get a feel for it, work it out and gain confidence through success. Here's ten tips that I have picked up while fishing with these guys and hopefully it gives you a head start on fishing deeper water river and estuary structure.
1. Locating Structure & Fish
In the shallows I am generally targeting visible bait and structure, such as drop offs, timber, rocks, mangrove edges and changes in the bottom from weed to sand and rubble, using a good pair of polarised sunglasses. Step to the deeper water and your eyes below the surface become a depth sounder, allowing you to locate bait, structure and fish. A basic sounder is better than no sounder, however as you step up in size and features it is getting crazy what you can actually see, so purchase the best sounder that you can afford if you plan on fishing deeper water. If you already have a sounder, then learn to use it and read it for best results.
Over time I have learnt that it doesn't take a lot of structure to hold fish, so spend some time looking for rubble, reef, wrecks, ledges, changes in bottom structure and even a single rock. Anything that alters the current flow and creates breaks in the current is enough to hold bait and attract predators.
2. The Milk Run
The anglers that fish deep structure well seem to have a 'milk run' of spots and spend time searching and marking structure on their sounder during the less productive stages of the tide, allowing them to check a run of spots quickly until they find areas that are holding fish. This allows you to make the most of the productive stages of the tide, such as slack tide in many waterways, zipping through the milk run until you find structure that is holding bait, fish or both.
3. Drift or Spot Lock
If you are working a larger area of structure, then drifting to cover ground is an option, however if the structure is isolated you may need to wait for less run, to stay on the structure longer or hold position using an electric motor, allowing you to cast back up current and work your lure back through the strike zone.
Anchoring is an option, however many of the deeper water anglers that I have fished with have told me that once a boat drops their anchor on the spot it's time to move on to the next one as the fish shut down. All I can suggest is to anchor as far away as possible from the structure, while still being able to fish it effectively, and anchor as quietly as possible. You may be able to use the wind or tide to carry you to the structure on a long anchor line.
4. Casting & Lure Control
When fishing deeper structure we primarily cast ahead of the drift, or across and ahead of the drift, allowing the lure to sink on a slack line, while watching the line and staying in touch with the lure enough to detect any bites on the drop (sink). Once in the strike zone, which may be on the bottom, we will then hop the plastic with a single or double hop and allow it to fall back into the strike zone. Hits will often occur on the drop. Depending on the speed of the drift you may be retrieving quite quickly or have more time to allow the plastic to fall to the bottom. Jighead weight will allow you to ensure that your plastic is spending time in the strike zone, while also presenting as naturally as possible.
When spot locked on the electric or anchored we will generally cast up current and allow the plastic to drift back naturally with the flow, while fishing a single or double hop retrieve. The aim is to cast past the structure, allow the plastic to sink into the strike zone and then retrieve it back through the strike zone. The tricky part is to get a feel for driving the plastic so that it is falling naturally, while you are still staying in touch with what is going on and retrieving any slack line. A good way to learn is to err on the side of what you believe is retrieving too slow, what you feel is the right retrieve speed and also what you believe is retrieving too fast and you will soon find what works for the location, tidal flow and the fish on the day.
5. Fishing Vertically
An excellent way to fish deeper structure is to fish vertically, allowing you to drive the lure over the structure, stay in contact with it and keep it in the strike zone. The trick when fishing vertically is to try and stay directly over the lure and this can be controlled more effectively through the use of the electric motor or the weight of the lure. By maintaining position directly above the lure you can impart action, lift or lower the lure to drive it over structure and the hookset can be solid and direct.
If you are unable to stay directly above the lure you can cast ahead of the drift allow the lure to hit the bottom and work it back toward you with a hopping retrieve, making the most of the period when it is close to the boat, then open the bail arm on the reel and release line so the lure hits the bottom, apply a couple of hops, release line again, a couple more hops to stay in touch with the bottom or strike zone, and repeat. When the lure gets too far back behind the boat and you start to lose touch, wind in and cast again. The more vertical you can work the lure, the more feel that you will maintain, making it easier to detect bites and set hooks.
TT Lures Switchblade metal vibration blades are an excellent option for fishing deeper water structure because they get down there quick and with short sharp lifts of the rod tip they send out loads of vibration and get eaten by a stack of different species. With two trebles hanging out the bottom you don't want to be dropping them right into the middle of reef or they'll quickly be snagged, however they are perfect for rubble patches, ledges, wrecks, changes in bottom structure and isolated rocks. The Switchblade can also be cast and retrieved like a soft plastic to cover water.
The Switchblade is available in a variety of weights, including 1/8oz for bream, 1/4oz and 3/8oz for a mixed bag of smaller to larger predatory species and the 1/2oz is dynamite on snapper, mulloway, large flathead, trevally and more. There is also a Switchblade HD model available in 1oz, 1.5oz and 2oz for those who require additional weight and a larger profile size. This larger model also excels offshore and all sizes can be jigged, cast or trolled.
7. Jighead Selection
When it comes to jighead selection it's always a balance between getting the soft plastic into the strike zone for as long as possible, while also presenting it as lifelike and natural as possible. I always carry a selection of weights and hook sizes that will cover the range of plastics that I have in my kit and depth ranges from shallow water to around nine metres of water, with strong current and no current.
For my waterways this would consist of jigheads weighted 1/8oz, 1/6oz, 1/4oz, 3/8oz, 1/2oz and a few 3/4oz just in case. You can build up a kit of jigheads over time and will soon discover the favourite weights and hook sizes (related to go-to plastics) for the waterways you fish. For example I set up a selection of weights in the TT Lures HeadlockZ HD jigheads with 2/0 hooks to suit my 3.75" StreakZ and when the 3" Slim SwimZ was added happy days as I could utilise these jigheads and simply add a few 3" Slim SwimZ colours to my kit. On the other hand when the 4" Scented Jerk ShadZ was added I needed to add 4/0 jigheads to suit, so I kicked off with 1/4oz, 3/8oz and 1/2oz as I was looking to utilise this plastic in deeper water and faster current.
8. Soft Plastic Selection
It's amazing how often the smaller presentation gets the big fish, so don't be afraid to fish the ZMan 2.5" GrubZ, 2.5" TRD CrawZ, 3.75" StreakZ and 2.5" & 3" Slim SwimZ, even in deeper water. These are great representation of the tiny baitfish and other creatures that can be making the most of the break in the current and shelter that the structure provides. Check out the 'Rigging Guides' section of the Tackle Tactics website for a guide to selecting jighead hook sizes to suit the range of ZMan soft plastics.
When it comes to stepping up to larger soft plastics, favourites in my local waters include the ZMan 3" MinnowZ, 4" DieZel MinnowZ, 4 and 5" StreakZ Curly TailZ and 4 and 5" Scented Jerk ShadZ. The paddle tails and curl tails excel when there is less current and you are looking for a slow, natural fall (sink) to draw a strike, while the jerkbaits, with their minimal built in tail action, excel when you are wanting to get the lure down quickly to fish that are holding deep, especially in current.
In some systems where larger mulloway, snapper, kingfish and other predators are present, anglers may step up again to larger plastics, including ZMan 7" Scented Jerk ShadZ, 8" StreakZ XL, 9" GrubZ and 10" HeroZ. It really comes down to matching the bait in the area, the target species and the environment that you are fishing - depth, current, small system or larger river or harbour.
In terms of colour I stick with my colour theory of carrying at least three different colour types; natural / light colour in clear water and bright conditions (Bad Shad, Shiner, Opening Night, Pearl), darker silhouette colours in dirty water and low light (Bloodworm, Motor Oil, Midnight Oil, New Penny) and a fluoro colour if you're not getting the bite (Nuked Chicken Glow, Sexy Mullet, Electric Chicken, Atomic Sunrise). If there are multiple anglers fishing then it's worth fishing different colours to see if the fish prefer one over the other on the day.
9. Scent Up!
I always scent my soft plastics and other lures as I believe it masks foreign odours, such as fuel and sunscreen, while also attracting fish and triggering strikes. Pro-Cure Super Gel scent is a super-sticky gel formula that stays on longer (I apply a little scent either side of the head of the plastic and smear it down to the tail every 30-50 casts) and it contains the best of the laboratory - amino acids, bite stimulants and UV enhancement - with real ground bait. My go-to flavours for fishing deeper river and estuary structure include Mullet, Pilchard/Sardine and Inshore Saltwater, however there are plenty more flavours to suit your local waters and target species.
I believe that scent becomes even more important in deeper water, where the visual element may be reduced and fish potentially have more time than in shallow water to observe a soft plastic before deciding if they want to eat it. When the bite goes quiet adding a little scent has often fired things up again.
10. The Early Bird gets the Worm
There is no doubt that the peak bite times are around dawn and dusk, with early morning a prime time to get the bite and often beat the wind. If these bit times correspond with your preferred tide for the structure that you're fishing then even better. Fish will still bite during the middle of the day and tide can also influence this, however when the sun is high and more boat traffic on the water, the fish become more shy and a switch to lighter leader and slower presentations may be required to get the bite.
We generally fish with 7' 3-6 or 5-12kg spinning rods, 10-20lb braid and 10-40lb leader, depending on structure and target species. Time on the water will tell you which structure fishes better on the run in and run out, or requires the hour each side of slack tide due to heavy currents. We will often have multiple rods rigged and ready to go with different presentations and leaders, making the most of the early bite and subsequent bite windows. You don't want to be the guy rigging up when you get out there and your mate is hooked up to a solid snapper of his first cast.
If like me you have been hanging out in the shallows, it may be worth exploring the deeper options in your local rivers and estuary systems, and for those fishing deep already, I hope this has fired you up to get out and get into a few. There's no doubt that the deeper structure is a magnet for fish and it also attracts some surprises along the way, including out of the box species and some trophy river and estuary captures.