How To Use Lures

People have been using lures in the estuaries, in one form or another long before anyone reading this  was born. It’s not something new or any more effective than it used to be, just simply more popular thanks to the fishing media. I know people who were catching bream on lures in the sixties, but the discovery died with them.

Lure sales have gone through the roof and are increasing. Nearly everybody has at least a few in their tackle box these days but more importantly they are actually using them, particularly in the last few years where I see somebody using lures nearly every time I’m on the water. They do work and as their popularity increases we see more of the less traditional lure species like bream, jewies and whiting being taken more often.

I often relate the following story. I was giving my brand new   electric motor it’s maiden run on the upper reaches of middle harbour when I came up alongside another boat trolling slowly along the shore line . As I suspected he was targeting bream of which he already had a decent pair in the boat and as we talked his rod doubled over to a weighty fish that turned out to be a flathead of about three kg. He unhooked the fish , reset the lure and hadn’t moved twenty meters when the rod doubled yet again this time to a school jewie about the same size . He turned and trolled the same stretch and had no sooner started the run when he was on again to what was obviously a much bigger fish.  I looked on in amazement as this guy landed another jewie , this time a thirty pounder.

As with any fishing it was obviously a case of being in the right spot at the right time but it highlighted to me what a well-presented lure is capable of when the situation arises.

Even old ‘stinky fingers’ are seeing the light. I was anchored up on first hole on Berowra with some charter customers when ‘Mullet Gut Mal’ and’ Handline Harry’ drifted around the point. You probably know these guys, there’s a set on every estuary. They are usually anchored up along the shore in a tinny thats seen much better days with four handlines over each gunwale and a keeper net over the stern. They are in their late sixties, very sun damaged and a vocabulary limited to “got a few”(they got heaps) and  “we got them up the river a bit”(bugger off ). Anyway, things had made a big turnaround today. The old riveted de Havilland had a new motor – an electric, and the handlines had given way to shiny new single handed threadline outfits. From the end of their rods hung small diving minnows and they worked them with reasonable accuracy along the rocky shoreline taking strikes and bream as they had every intention of doing.

For me, that really hit home as to just how far estuary lure fishing had come in the last few years and convinced me that not only is it here to stay but it is only going to get bigger and bigger.

It’s my belief that fish feed all the time. By this I don’t mean constantly, and I do acknowledge that there are certainly peak feeding periods, but I think that there very few fish that would turn down a prime food item if it were an easy enough target regardless of tide , time of day, barometric pressure etc.

So the first most important aspect of successful lure fishing is using a lure that represents, as closely as possible , the target species favourite food item and  then presenting it as an easy target. To do this requires a knowledge of the fishes diet, whereabouts and in addition to matching the hatch the skills to present the lure in an appealing and convenient manner. You’ll need this knowledge and skill if you want to catch fish consistently on lures.

A much easier way to catch a fish on a lure is to get somebody in a tackle shop to recommend a lure and a general area, then either cast or troll it regularly. If you want to catch fish regularly on lures, as opposed to fishing regularly with lures , there is a fairly hefty apprenticeships preceding.


Things get easier when you start fishing peak feeding times and prime locations. When I talk about peak feeding times I’m talking basically about the stage of the tide that creates the best access to the fishes food source, not the times laid down by the mauri fishing charts (although they are worth considering too). These peaks occur every day and vary in suitability with tidal variation. By the way, as I write this , I can’t help thinking how much all of this same theory applies to bait fishing — which reminds me again that a lure is a bait — an artificial bait. This concept will sink in more once you start fishing soft plastics.

Adding to peak times are things like noon phases, barometric pressure , salinity and light levels which can all turn a peak feeding time into a hot fishing session .

Peaks for predatory fish , like barra , jacks  , flathead and jewfish , occur on the last two hours of the run out and the first hour of the run in. Their main food source is baitfish, and it is at this stage of the tide that puts baitfish at their most vulnerable.

If you walk around an estuary at high tide you’ll find acres of safe haven for baitfish. At low tide all the good hiding spots are ‘high and dry’. What few, half decent, hiding spots are left will be packed with baitfish. Concentrated baitfish also means concentrated predators. Predatory fish, especially at this time , are prime lure targets.


Predatory pelagic fish which are usually found in the lower reaches of rivers and estuaries are less affected by tides and are much more influenced by time of day namely early morning and to a lesser degree late afternoon. Having said that I have noticed a slight preference for neap tides and, in some situations ,the above low tide theory does apply. Pelagics also tend to shut down on slack water – they generally like moving water which tightens and focuses baitfish schools .

Bream  have, for a long time, been classified as scavenger feeders but we all know now that they are very much an opportunist feeder and will turn predator in the blink of an eye. If you observe bream over the flats at high tide you’ll see them doing everything from cracking oysters along the shore , sifting through the sand for critters to chasing tiny baitfish. They do the bulk of their feeding on the inter tidal zone primarily on shellfish, crustaceans and worms but if a baitfish of acceptable size passes by within striking range then it becomes every bit as much a target. So here we have an example of one of the few lure taking species who’s peak feeding period occurs at high tide.

Every lure ever made will take fish under the right conditions. Before setting off on a top end trip some years back I decided to make some surface poppers. They started off with a piece of timber three by three cm square by twelve cm long. Split rings were glued in on either end and roughly around the middle then they were rounded off on the sanding disk and given a cup face on the bobbin sander. They were then sanded and painted. Time restraints meant that I only got to finish three quarters of them leaving four with split rings in place but still as a square, unshaped , unsanded and unpainted piece of timber. To keep the story short, after losing all the finished lures to various trevally, queenfish and cod ,  in desperation I attached hooks to the remaining unfinished ones and proceeded to catch fish on them without any noticeable drop in catch rate. That says a lot about the advertising hype that goes with lures in regard to design and high gloss paint schemes.


In defence of design and finish, fish have noticeable preference for specific natural food items so why not certain lures, which after all are often designed and coloured to represent the natural prey.

Kingies for example prefer slimy mackerel and garies to yakkas so a lure that represents a slimy or garfish  should do better than one that looks like a yakka especially if the kingies are being difficult, which they often are. Of course if the kingie hasn’t eaten for three days then it will probably eat a lure that represents a block of timber.

Matching the hatch, which is a term used to describe matching a lure to the food item that the target species is feeding on, is a classic example where a lure needs to look quite similar to the real thing. Often fish will be found feeding on a certain size or variety of baitfish and will ignore any offering that doesn’t almost identically match the size of that baitfish. Size shape and action in nearly every one of these situations comes way ahead of colour.

The colour debate will probably go on for ever but lets not confuse colour with flash and splash. A surface popper puts off splash and that alone will instinctively attract predatory fish. A lure that’s got a flashy chrome finish  or carrying reflective prism tape puts off flash and this again will instinctively attract fish . Splash and flash are two natural things that happen very often in the aquatic world and they more than often spell food. Splash and flash have nothing to do with colour and should not be underestimated in their appeal to fish . They trigger instinctive reactions in fish that other variables in lures do not  .


Scenting your lures will add a further attraction but probably wont help much with fish that are purely sight feeders like high speed pelagics. If you are offering slow soft plastic presentations to fish like bream, EP’s barra , jacks , jewfish  and flathead , then scenting your lures will probably increase their appeal.

Ok so which lure to use. Once you’ve matched your lure to something you think the target species might like to eat, you’ve got to work out where to put it both geographically and at what depth . Other considerations will be features like substrate , snags (fallen timber) weed beds and rocks . For example  , if you are fishing heavy timber structure  , your lure choice will have to consider attributes that render the lure ‘snag-proof’. I’m not a huge fan of spinnerbaits. In fact they are quite ridiculous when you put them in context of matching the hatch.  They do have ‘flash’, which is great  , but all up they are an abomination in regards to imitating any natural food item. However in the heavy ‘lay-down’ timber areas favoured by murray cod in impoundments , spinner-baits are my first choice of lure.

So lure choice often becomes a compromise of what appeals to the fisherman, the fish, environmental features, current strength and depth requirements.

Vic McCrystal once wrote , “the success of any lure has a lot to do with your confidence in it”. In other words , ‘give a lure a chance’. Don’t give up on it just because it hasn’t produced in the first 10 casts. In the right situation every lure will produce.  Anglers are renowned for creating their own ‘confirmation bias’  loops by continuously using the lure that worked on the last trip — to the detriment of every other lure in their box. There is no universal lure. Every lure is a tool suited to a specific job. When a plumber goes to his tool box he selects the tool to suit the job. You need to consider your lure box in the same light.


Determining what the fish eats and what its favourite food is, can be done by averaging its stomach contents. Of course until you’ve actually caught one this doesn’t help much and this is where past experience is handy.  The most common item found in the stomach is either its favourite or the most available. Either way it’s the same to you in regards to lure selection.

You might visually observe the fish feeding, such as in the case of a school of tailor chomping into whitebait. That makes things easier especially considering that you don’t always have the opportunity, or might even chose not to, observe stomach contents. Additionally, just because a fish has been feeding on a specific item doesn’t always mean that it won’t accept something else. As I’ve said before, a fish has countless food items on its menu and will quite possibly eat something it has never even seen before – if it’s hungry enough. This is why we get away with some extremely abstract lures.

Locating fish is a whole new article. As a rough guide, you can do it from experience, visually , by finding suitable structure or baitfish with your sounder, by finding the target species with your sounder or by fishing recognised feeding grounds such as up over the flats in the case of bream. The choice of lure will depend on two things; matching the hatch which we’ve already talked about and the depth at which the fish are located.


Obviously if you ‘ve located a school of tailor feeding on the surface there would be no point in trolling through them with a deep diving minnow. Likewise, if you’ve found some Barra on the sounder at thirty feet then a surface popper probably wouldn’t be much use — unless they are very hungry.

If you have found some fish working on the surface the obvious choice would be a surface popper, metal slug , stick bait, spoon or a jig head dressed with soft plastic or feathers. Of course the heavy lures will need to be retrieved fairly rapidly to keep them up near the surface.

Specific depth diving minnows are ideal tools for fish under the surface especially when trolling. It gets much harder to gauge the depth at which a spoon or metal slug for example will run at when trolled. Soft plastics, metal slugs, spoons, bibless minnows , in fact any sinking lure are a much better option for prospecting the depths while casting. Generally though, these types of lures will ride somewhere near the surface when trolled at average trolling speeds.

High speed spinning for pelagic species is very popular and believed by many to be the only way to take them. This is far from the truth and has been brought about by the lack of diversity in lure types used on pelagics. Soft plastic stick baits are often taken on the sink and are otherwise retrieved at a dead slow pace with devastating results. Likewise with strong actioned lightweight spoons. If you are using lead slug baitfish profile type lures with severe negative buoyancy then you will most certainly need a high speed retrieve. Fly fishermen take pelagics on salt-water flies at a dead slow retrieve because the fly is neutrally buoyant and the same will apply to lures.

Other estuary species like barra, flathead, bream and jewies like their lures moving as slow as possible. A slow swimming lure represents an easy prey.

Keep thinking of your lure as a bait, put it where you would put a bait and make it act as if it were alive. Keep your hooks sharp the same as you would if you were fishing bait. If you have ever worked a pilchard on ganged hooks through a tailor school then you will know what I’m talking about because apart from a slight increase in retrieve rate everything else remains the same. All you have to do is unclip the pilchard and put a lure on. The transition from bait to lures is not as hard as it may first seem – even more so if you are using soft plastics.

Article and pics by Craig McGill




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