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Friday, 3 August 2018

The Golden Days

Words and images by John Cahill
The start of spring spells the end of the Murray cod season, allowing the big green fish to do what nature demands in peace.  For many native fish anglers, this is a great time to step back from fishing for a while, winding down and gearing up, awaiting ‘cod opening’.  For others it’s a chance to shift gears and zone in on another native species that shares a similar habitat; the highly anticipated spring run of golden perch.  Golden perch, yellas, yellow belly, callop, whatever you call them are a prolific freshwater species that have a massive distribution in South Australia, Victoria, New South wales and Southern Queensland that have an important place in recreational fishing.  They are  a lot easier to catch than cod and provide great sport on light to medium tackle.  I personally love spring for the yella run and highly anticipate the bite that will hopefully come.  It really is a change of pace from winter cod fishing and in some cases change of location enabling a more finessed approach to native freshwater fishing compared with the big lure, sometimes maximum noise and presence of the modern cod scene.
For backwaters it's very hard to beat a slow cranked spinnerbait.  This chunky Vic yella nailed a Megabass V9 with a Hazdong Shad trailer, one of several caught on a hot afternoon when the fish were very active
Emerging from the dead of winter
Goldens are a very temperature sensitive fish and there is no doubt that the dead (or dread) of winter slows down their metabolism and the need to feed often is reduced significantly.  Don’t get me wrong goldens will eat in cold water, however it seems a lot more selective and it is a lot less likely that they will chase down a lure with enthusiasm; more likely to casually give it a lure a peck than inhale it kind of thing.    Added to the difficulty of getting goldens to eat in winter, they often suspend mid water on large flats or in standing timber to find the right temperature and can be tricky to find.  Deepwater impoundments are not a natural habitat for golden perch so they are basically looking for more lowland river conditions which can be tough on the poor golden just looking to keep warm!  I am telling you all this because when you first start to look for these nuggets in September this still might be the exact situation depending upon your local waterway and the water temp.  It’s not all doom and gloom though, as the water warms the need to feed kicks in and slowly the yellas start to resemble their normal aggressive selves as they fatten up prior to the eventual spring spawn.  As the days lengthen and water warms above 12-14 degrees the fish start to move and school up, by 16 degrees they are firing and by 20 plus degrees they should spawn.  Once waters really warm post spawn yellas can get a bit more difficult but are accessible all summer long.  mentioning specific temps is a tricky thing as triggers for Eildon for example are different to dams further north, the trick is to know your own waterway.
In early spring Chuan nailed this chunky yella in Copeton Dam from fish sounded up hanging in stranding timber
 The spawning event
Spawning is pivotal to spring yella fishing.  The behavior they show can be quite interesting.  As the females become ready they will be harassed by a number of usually smaller male suitors who compete for the chance to be ‘the one’ and the numbers that surround her can vary from a few to lots!  I have seen it in Victoria’s Lake Eildon, usually in late November or December where you can get a scenario where what you might think is a couple of carp slurping on the surface, on closer inspection reveals to be a ball of goldens doing their thing on the surface, it’s a crazy sight.  There have been plenty of documented cases where a hooked female can be netted along with all her male friends, so occupied with proceedings they don’t seem to notice the people, boat or the net scooping them up!  What is almost as interesting is that in these circumstances that it’s not uncommon to get a fish to stop and eat (or attack) a lure, surely a territorial strike for the little fish to stay away? who knows but it’s pretty cool.  Fisheries sources tell me that while spawning events occur in impoundments every year it sees that largely they are unsuccessful save of some locations where specific requirements are met, crucially, they require running water.
Lyds scored this Eildon golden whilst in 'search mode' using a Megabass Dive Elbo.  Shoreline searching in early spring is a great way to find the schooling fish
The gear
In rivers I like to use smaller low profile baitcast outfits as accuracy is paramount in the confines of a tight waterway and casts are relatively short, flicking under overhead cover, landing between logs and precisely controlling cast depth.  Six to seven-foot rods capable of casting ¼ to ½ ounce lures and run 8-15 lbs line suited to smaller spinnerbaits, small crankbaits and lipless crankbaits.  Rivers see me often run 15lbs braid or similar and a 20lbs leader.  A chance meeting with an out of season cod can always be on the cards and I would sooner see it quickly boated and released than a drawn-out fight especially when we want that fish back guarding it’s eggs. 
In the lakes I like to use spin gear for longer, easy casts with no fuss.  2500 sized threadlines are perfect for goldens.  Here I use 4 to 8lbs braid mainline with 1.5 to to 2m of 8 to 12lbs lbs fluro leader.  My rod will usually be a 6’8” to 7’4” graphite rod with a medium action.  As I will use a variety of lures there will likely be a few options in my arsenal each a match to the lure types I intend to use.  I tend to be a tad light on my drag settings for goldens in lakes as it’s not uncommon to get either lip hooked fish pulling hooks, or rampaging fish bending open fine hooks and I find a more moderate setting gets more fish to the net.
The small but telescopic nature of a goldens mouth lends them to slender profile lures
Lures and how to use them
There are many lures that will catch you a slab of gold, but some are better than others.  In the last year we have had goldens hit massive cod spinner and chatter baits, top water paddlers and surface swimbaits, but I would not recommend them!
Lipless crankbaits - my all-time favorite yella lure are lipless crankbaits, they are pretty much fool proof straight out of the packet.  Whilst not being snag proof, I believe that they can be nursed through most situations with the angled head good for hopping over a lot of underwater obstacles.  I like to fish my lipless cranks with a hopping retrieve with plenty of time dedicated to the pause.  In rivers or the more shallow margins of lakes a very slow roll and no sink time can easily see the lure work well in water as shallow as 1.5 meters, perfect to work over the top of a lot of weed beds. 
There are a lot of cheap lipless cranks out there but not all are made equal, some need to be worked far too fast to be effective so be careful where you spend your money.  My favorites include Megabass Vibration X, Mazzy Vibes, Jackall TN 40’s and 60’s are also good as well as many other options out there but be warned some of the cheap options may not deliver satisfaction.  Most lipless cranks come in rattle and non-rattle versions.  I use both, but more reach for the noisy versions when fishing deeper, the water is dirty or nothing else is getting a bite.   
Spinnerbaits - in rivers I have caught more goldens on spinnerbaits than any other style.  I like smaller profile fine gauge wire baits with medium to light gauge hooks with a small trailing soft plastic tail and willow blades get the nod from me.  Usually 3/8 to ½ oz do the trick and quality counts where the blades turn at the slowest speed which is dynamite on river fish.  As these lures generally, won’t run that deep they are not a big part of my approach in lakes most of the time unless I am working shallow weed beds.  The finest lure I have found that fits the bill is the Megabass V9 simply by virtue of how slow you can work it and the blades still turn, Japanese quality.  TT Lures Vortex and Striker, Gan Craft Killers Bait, Outlaw, Yella Magnets and OSP High Pitchers are all good and proven.
Soft plastics are dynamite in lakes and rivers and have a special place when goldens are mouthing hard lures and spitting them out just as fast.  Fished quite similar to the lipless crankbaits (hopped or slow rolled) they can be a game changer on a slow day.  I always have a good supply of 1/16 to 1/2oz jig heads with a hook of size 2 to 1/0 depending on the plastic I am using, I love using Hayabusa FPJ960 jig heads for their compact size, strength to wire diameter ratio and sharpness.  Grubbing tree’s is the domain of the soft plastic but that would be a whole other article!  80-120mm Squidgy Wrigglers, Berkley 3-inch Gulp Jigging Grubs, 2.5 inch Atomic Prongs and 3 inch Megabass Hazdong Shads are all great choices.
Crankbaits or hardbodies (everyone has a different name for them) are awesome on yellas! In rivers more goldens are probably caught as cod bycatch on crankbaits than any other type of lure.  It is also my go to lure when trolling lake edges when I am searching for schools.  I prefer to down size and go for slimmer profiles when specifically targeting yellas, it certainly helps with the hook-up rate as the yella doesn’t quite have the bucket mouth a cod does.    Megabass Dive Elbo, is my absolute go-to with its slim profile and tight vibration that for some reason seems to get smashed over many others.  Kuttafurra Therapy and the 75mm Mudhoney and the smaller Stump Jumpers are all good.  
Super sharp and fine hooks allow some missed hits into hookups
Where (locations)
Pretty much any river, backwater, large dam or billabong north of the great divide up into southern Queensland will have a great chance of holding a population of goldens, some of these are local gems that need not be written about but are best discovered by your own adventures.  Well known and extremely popular hotspots include  Windamere, Hume, Eildon, and Blowering.
Where (spots)
In impoundments, as a rule I like to target the windward side of the lake especially if the water is not quite optimum temperature yet as it will usually be warmer.  My favourite area’s are rocky points as these spots seem to hold warmth first, next best being weed bed areas and standing timber on the western (sunny) side of a lake in sub 10 meters.  My little secret it to target windswept points in particular, as these usually create a milky or silty slick that the fish often can be found right in the middle of!  Another hot zone are freshly covered grassy banks.  The worms and critters that come out of these locations create a feeding zone that the perch cannot resist and are synonymous with spring rains and rising dam levels.  In rivers and creeks in spring I like to work the deeper pools especially if there are backwaters present.  Weed beds and laydown timber are of course worth prospective casts as well as my favourite area in rivers with goldens, undercut banks where multiple fish can often be right under your feet; these spots are actually best fished from the bank.  
Golden's thrive in shallow water and deeper impoundments, but wherever you find them they are temperature sensitive fish
Finding the fish
In the impoundments I see three main ways of finding the schooled-up fish and I use all three.  Firstly, when it’s early season and I do not have a fix on where they might be, I head to likely banks with a mindset on covering ground.  I slow troll a couple of crankbaits close to the bank in 3 to 8 meters and actively search for them.  I keep a very close eye on my sonar and of course I am looking for bites as I go, usually this is done on the petrol motor to cover ground.  Down and side imaging is awesome for searching for schools and they will stick out like a sore thumb on some of the more exposed banks that I search on.  If I get a hook up or locate a school on sonar down goes the electric and it’s time to start casting.
Secondly, I will try and work my favorite area’s where I have caught yellas before, either historically or perhaps last time I was out.  I always plot wherever I have caught fish before and it doesn’t take long for rough patterns to emerge.  Cruising slowly on the electric, prospect casting as I go.  If they have taken up residence there is an excellent chance I will be among it, if not I will be pretty much wasting my time. 
Finally, I will bank hop from point to point, only working the most obvious and best spots and cherry pick, this will not get you many friends if the points are busy and you appear to be dropping in so be aware and cruise in on electric motor rather than at speed.
In rivers it’s more of a case of using sonar to locate the deeper pools and weed, usually there are a lot more signals above water in rivers more so than you get in lakes.  
A final word on sonar, the advent of down scan technology and upsells like Lowrance’s Fish Reveal are a god send for yella anglers, enabling amazing target separation between timber and fish, amazing for when goldens are hung up in trees mid water.
The authors Lowrance HS9 lights up with a few yellas ripe for the picking in 35 feet (10 meters) in Victoria's Lake Eildon
Gentleman’s hours
Possibly the best thing about golden perch in spring is that there is absolutely no point to getting up early!  You do not hear that in fishing too often do you!  I find especially ‘early season’ that the fish seem to respond best as the sun is well up and the water is warming as the day gets longer and late afternoon sessions in bright sun can be quite amazing.  As spring wanes into summer early mornings do start to become the way to go however and night sessions can be amazing as the bait soakers will attest.  I find that following the same concepts as spring but a tad deeper can work, but just look a bit deeper - 15 even 20m when it’s truly hot.  Nothing beats the spring sessions where you can sleep in, the fish are shallow and are truly on the job.

Catch and release or keep
Goldens in impoundments, especially relatively clear water ones are magnificent eating especially the smaller models.  Larger trophy goldens are not to my taste as they get a high degree of gelatinous fat that sits along the gut cavity and backbone, I find it pretty poor.  You should not however feel bad about taking a couple for a feed as there are plenty of them and fisheries seem to have them as a priority stocking species assuring good future numbers.  This is a stark contrast to many years ago.  Whilst goldens are a great catch and release species, It is a bit of an unknown truth that golden perch are really a low land shallow water species and their success as a stocked impoundment species is a little at odds with this.  No problems so far until you learn that they can suffer the effects of barotrauma from being caught out of deeper water.  NSW Fisheries conducted studies which found that goldens were susceptible in waters in deeper than 10 meters, in fact fish angled from 20 meters had an almost 20% mortality rate within three days of capture.  This figure can be significantly reduced by using a release weight, or by limiting catch and release in water that deep.  There is no point releasing them to their death!
Don't be afraid to keep a feed of golden perch, the smaller fish are sensational eating