Category: Medium Risk
BLACK bream have come a long way in reputation as an angling species in recent years, in part because they have a penchant for lures. Before this wonderful discovery, chasing black bream was pretty much a bait-only activity where stealth, an accurate cast adjacent to structure and a well-presented river prawn were generally the key to success. Just about every angler would have caught black bream at one time or another in their fishing career, but nowhere near as many have caught the big blue-nosed versions up around the two-kilo mark. These big fish are wily and exist only in the dreams of many anglers. These days bream anglers with specialised boats and electric motors can be seen quietly working the snags and jetties of most of our southern rivers. The humble bream has been elevated by some to an icon recreational species. Black bream are still targeted for the table, but I much prefer to release mine and feed on alternative more tantalising fish meals (more often than not, purchased from the local fish supply).
Black bream can be confused with western yellowfin bream but are not commonly found in the same areas. Western yellowfin bream have distinctive yellow pectoral, ventral and anal fins and there are 43-46 scales in the lateral line of the yellowfin whereas the black bream has 52-58. Tarwhine, or silver bream as they are commonly known, have a much blunter head shape than black bream. Tarwhine also have more scale rows about the lateral line (6-7 versus 4) and prominent golden lines running along the scales on the side of the fish.
A 2.98kg specimen was taken in the Swan River in 1998 but black bream are reported to attain 4kg, and that’s an absolute monster. A 1kg bream is a good fish for most anglers and a 2kg specimen is a thumper. Recreational and commercial fishing tends to keep the average size down in our estuary systems. Interestingly the largest black bream netted by Murdoch University researchers in the Swan River during research work was a 2.29kg female, 48.5cm long and aged at 21 years. During work at Lake Clifton researchers caught a 2.65kg, 50.5cm female aged at 15 years. Some difference in growth rates there.
Black bream are primarily an estuary and river species in Western Australia, which in effect means that every river system in the southern part of the state carries a discrete population of black bream. Only a heavy flood would drive them from their native river systems into the sea but it would appear that they return to the river again once the flood subsides. This is not really surprising given the vast distances between our rivers in this state. Black bream are often found close to, or amongst, structure be it snags, jetties, rock bars or even dropoffs. In some rivers blackies will cruise the shallow flats looking for various molluscs. A. butcheri ranges from the South Australian border up as far as Kalbarri.
Breeding and migration
Spawning normally occurs between November and January in most south-west estuaries and the Swan. Black bream are multiple spawners, which means they release eggs on more than one occasion during a spawning season. Females can release between 96,000 and in excess of 7,000,000 eggs in a season, depending on the size of the fish, which is why keeping good numbers of big bream in our rivers is vital. The eggs and larvae are planktonic and hatch after 2.5 days and the fry settle in the estuarine environment after four weeks and about 10mm in length. Black bream in the wild are rudimentary hermaphrodites. It sounds uncomplimentary, but what it actually means is that they possess immature ovaries and testes when they are young, but go one way or the other before their first spawning. There is no evidence (at least in the Swan River) that they change sex after their first spawning season, although in an aquaculture situation fish have changed from female to male. Bream reach maturity at between two and three years and at this time are about 21cm. In some rivers, such as the Blackwood, adult black bream can be over 30 years old. They feed on molluscs, crustaceans, worms, fish and at times will eat weed.
Unfortunately there are many threats from a multitude of different areas. Over-exploitation by recreational and commercial fishers puts pressure on stocks, but environmental problems are potentially the biggest danger. It’s highly likely that environmental problems have contributed to the very poor recruitment exhibited by juvenile black bream in the Blackwood over recent years. And we don’t need much reminding that the Swan and Canning have experienced increasing algal bloom problems in recent years, including the disastrous 2003 fish kill wiping out over 200,000 black bream in the Swan alone! Other popular bream rivers include the Murray, Serpentine and Collie and these too have experienced recent fish kills. Acidic runoff from acid sulphate soils is another potentially disastrous piece of news for black bream populations as they fight to contend with so many other adversities. Future state governments must face up to carrying out urgent remedial measures to return our rivers to something like normal aquatic environments, and soon.
Tackle and bait
A light spin stick and small threadline reel is by far the most popular outfit for black bream. Some anglers still prefer to fish 3-6kg mono while increasing numbers are turning to braid in the same line classes. A short 6-10kg mono trace will help to avoid avoid bust-offs on pylons, rocks and snags. I prefer, when occasionally bait fishing, to use a No.1 Mustad Wide Gap hook for river prawns. I try not to use a sinker, but if I must it’s as small as I can possibly use.
For me lure fishing with hard-bodied lures and soft plastics is the greatest way to chase bream. At times this is sight fishing which adds still further to the pleasure of catching this little brutes. The ability to cast a lure accurately will improve your catch dramatically as the fish frequently hold tight against a structure and simply refuse to leave it to have a swipe at your lure, no matter how enticing you make it look. There are several good retrieve styles that work for bream and you will need to master all of them to be consistent. It’s the same with soft plastics – so many lures and so little time! I carry a couple of boxes of hard-bodied bream lures and soft plastics to cover most conditions and circumstances. My hard-bodied boxes include selections of Tilsan Bream and Bass lures, Halco Scorpions and Lasers. I also have some Attack Minnows and Deception Palaemons. My soft plastics are mostly Atomic grubs and sliders along with some Squidgies. I still remember my first trip fishing lures seriously for bream with Augusta guide Bill Anderson on the Blackwood River. I caught 10 bream over a kilo and I was hooked, as they say. Believe me, you owe it to yourself to give it a try.
References: Sea Fishes of Southern Australia by Barry Hutchins and Roger Swainston. Fishing the Wild West by Ross Cusack and Mike Roennfeldt. Comparisons between the reproductive biology of black bream Acanthopagrus butcheri (Teleostei: Sparidae) in four estuaries with widely differing characteristics. International Journal of Salt Lake Research, 8: 179-210. Sarre, G.A. & Potter, I.C. (2000). Variation in age compositions and growth rates of Acanthopagrus butcheri (Sparidae) among estuaries: some possible contributing factors. Fishery Bulletin, 98: 785-799.