by Lee Brake
We've all faced this conundrum. It's the epic mental battle fought in the minds of many lure fishos when they are heading up a mangrove estuary. On one shoulder sits the little drain demon and on the other the snaggy seraph, but what to choose – drain or snag?
Lee Brake with a nice little flathead. Barra are far from the only fish that feeds around drains. - Drains V Snags
Let's have a bit of a closer look at both of these two structure types and see if I can't paint you a bit of a picture of when, where and why you should work drains or snags. Let's kick things off with a look at drains this week and next week we'll tackle snags.
If rivers are the highways of the aquatic world, creeks are the major roads, and drains and gullies are the city streets that feed into these watery means of piscatorial transportation. When the tide is at its highest point, bait and smaller predatory fish push right up into the relative safety of the mangrove systems that line our saltwater estuaries.
There they'll feed and shelter amongst the mangrove roots until the tide begins to drop. Then, the water will siphon off the inundated banks, draining into the drains and gullies before pouring out into the flow of the main creek or river. While all this is going on, drains are the place to fish!
You're too early! This drain still has too much water in it. Note how the mud on the left of the drain is still under water. - Drains V Snags
Predatory fish love drains. When that dirty intertidal water is pouring out of a drain it brings with it everything from nervous poddy mullet and showering jelly pawns to mangrove crabs and mudskippers. It's amazing what'll get flushed out of a drain after heavy rains or king tides and fish like barra, salmon, flathead, jacks and cod will likely be waiting, ready and forming a gauntlet of boofing, swiping, flashing mayhem for any unlucky intertidal traveller.
The biggest trick with drains is knowing when to fish them. Obviously the run-out tide is the go, but don't be mistaken into thinking drains produce all through the out-going tide. Too early in the run out and bait can escape from the inundated banks simply by swimming out of cover anywhere along the bank and too late in the tide, you'll find that the mangrove roots are high and dry and any water flowing from the drains will be running out of the mud, not from over it.
The key is to target drains just as mud starts to show along the edges of the mangroves around the mouth of the creek. Bait will wait till the very last minute before making that mad dash off the intertidal zone and with the mud drying out they'll be forced into the deeper puddles and dips that make up the ever-shrinking catchments of the drains. From there, they'll start to run the gauntlet.
During the Wet Season keep your eyes peeled for tea-coloured water as it means that a drain is "working" even with the risen water levels. - Drains V Snags
As a point to note though, not all drains work the same and at the same times of the tides. The small snaking drains that empty off the flats of shallow headlands between creeks are often only fishable for the first few hours of the outgoing tide. These areas, because there is no clear drop-off, drain gradually and while there may not yet be any mud showing, the fishable window is limited by the draft of your boat.
That doesn't mean these drains don't produce, as fish like barramundi and flathead lay in them and use them as an ambush point to gobble bait moving along the flats. Because of the clear, shallow nature of the water though, it's best to use 'long-cast' techniques so as not to spook these fish. Cast aerodynamic, generously weighted lures like Reidy's B52s, paddle-tailed soft plastic minnows, and subsurface stickbaits and work them slowly and with plenty of action so that they pass over the submerged drains.
Drains are not always in creeks and headlands. This drain was caused by recent floodwaters and was feeding down onto a beach near Weipa. Barra were going ballistic at its mouth in less than a foot of water! - Drains V Snags
On the other side of the coin, there are big drains that will often flow continuously. These are common in the big tidal rivers of the Top End where big wet seasons and low-lying topography create massive floodplains rich in food of all sorts, from insects to the rainbowfish that flourish on them. The issue with a lot of these big drains is that they will often overwhelm the main flow of the river (or the river will rise and overwhelm them), turning the water into a continuous outward-flowing mass of freshwater run-off. The key is to look for colour changes. A major drain that is 'working' is given away by the ballooning colour change around its mouth. In the wet season this will usually see tea-coloured freshwater meeting the sediment laden brown of the main river flow. If you can find these areas where fresh and salt meet then usually the predators won't be far away. Try soft plastic frogs and green-coloured lures that match the inhabitants of floodplains.
Graham Brake with a quality drain-caught barra. Graham was using a iZUMi Shad Alive which swims slowly and naturally with a simple slow wind. Cast into and worked out of drains, it is lethal! - Drains V Snags
Tackle for drain work depends on your lure of choice. Most anglers prefer to toss around medium size shallow divers like B52's, Bombers and X-Raps and, subsequently, a medium weight baitcaster combo (100 size reel and a 6-7 foot 4-6kg rod) with a reasonably stiff tip is essential to rip and twitch these effectively. A 30lb braided line with 60lb leader will suffice. On the other hand, if you're into slow rolling lightly-weighted plastics, a seven foot spin combo with a softer tip would be a better bet.
Lee Brake with one of the barra captured from the beach drain above. This one ate a Gold Bomber fly. - Drains V Snags
Well, that should give you an idea when and how to work drains. Make sure you check back next week when we have a look at snag bashing!