Australians are well known for their colourful language. It’s not that we’re rough, everyone here talks like that, and although it’s rarely used in its original form (i.e. to describe illegitimacy), in Australia a word such as “bastard” can have a multitude of meanings. We have ‘good bastards’, ‘cunning bastards’, ‘real hard-working bastards’, and ‘truly bad bastards’, ‘genuine bastards’ and ‘lying bastards’. Most however will be of legitimate birth, and if they aren’t, so what?
There’s a great story about a ferocious cricket series played between England (the old enemy), and Australia during the 1930’s. The English deployed bowling (pitching) tactics that aimed to intimidate the very powerful Australian batting line-up – it’s known as the Bodyline series. The bowlers aimed to hit the Australian batsmen in the head or body with a ball harder than a baseball and travelling as fast with the intent to either maim or to force them to defend themselves with the bat and hit a catch into the air.
Things got pretty ugly on and off the field. After one particularly hostile session (a cricket game can last 5 days), the Australian captain, Bill Woodfull, appeared at the changing room door with the English captain behind him, (a “gentleman” by the name of Douglas Jardine), and asked the assembled Aussie players, “Alright, which one of you bastards called this bastard a bastard?!” That covers much of the use of the word.
But there’s also a fish in this country that has become known as a bastard, a blue bastard, and its official scientific name is Plectorhinchus caeruleonothus; in English, blue bastard, which shows great humour on the part of the scientists who identified and named it and honours the fly fishermen who named it and chase it. It’s a flats dweller coloured in the water a pale blue, and it’s become an iconic, much prized and respected fish among fly fishers of this part of the world.
It can be a fish of hair-tearing difficulty, hence the name, and more than one angler has shouted “Bastard!” at these fish. At one end of the spectrum it will completely ignore a fly put right in front of its face, or it might spook from a fly landed a rod length from it, or it might seem to ignore a fly and then circle back around and scoff it, or it might charge a fly like a trevally, or you might not even be able to get a fly on the water anywhere near it. They can be real bastards.
They are usually a pedantic, slow-moving bottom feeder that can sometimes take what seems like minutes to make up its mind whether or not to eat a fly, following it, hovering over it head down and tail up, and watching. Sometimes you move it and they spook. Sometimes you move the fly and they follow it, sometimes you move the fly, they spook and then come right back to it and eat. It’s not often that you’ll get two similar bites, but when they do bite look out.
They feed on the flats in water from two to four feet deep and can often be detected by the plumes of sand and silt their feeding generates. They’re always found with reef nearby and feed over the sand during a rising tide, through the top of the tide, and into the falling tide. In some places they retreat to deeper water on low tide, or they lie up among the reef structure, and if it’s not too deep or discoloured, you can still fish for them during that time. They’re usually found in slightly discoloured water, often discoloured by their feeding activity.
Being slow moving, they’re hard to spot unless they’re out over the sand. Their usual pale blue colour is a clue that sometimes gives them away, but identifying them among the blue/grey stains of their freshly dug holes can be a challenge. But freshly dug holes don’t move and also provide a fixed background for detecting moving creatures, and even though they’re slow, these fish do move about. Their tailing, even in water too deep for the tails to break the surface, often gives them away.
Unlike so many other flats fish, the window for a shot at a blue bastard can be ridiculously long. It has been a belief that if they know you’re there, you may as well move on - but usually you don’t know that they know you’re there, because their behaviour doesn’t change much. They’ll continue to feed while you foolishly think you’re still in with a chance and frantically change flies, look for better angles, and try to get all sneaky.
Every now and then, just to mess with you, they might look at your fly if you get it close enough to them. This is when they’re being real bastards and where they got their name. And then sometimes, after 10 minutes of changing flies, twitching, stripping, not moving, doing your full repertoire of possible retrieves, the fish will charge the fly from 6 feet away and inhale it.
When they do bite it’s usually on the first cast and it’s usually when they’ve come across your fly during their meandering feeding path across the flats. They don’t usually like to see the fly arriving, they’re into self-discovery, although on fish that have never seen anglers before, you can get away with them seeing a dropping fly; I know of several occasions when they’ve eaten it “on the drop”, or at least have been attracted by a sinking fly. But not often.
They’re a fish that often needs to be teased into grabbing: take it away from them, let them look at it, take it away from them again, and so on. Eventually they may or may not bite, they may spook or they may go back to feeding. Sometimes I think they’re actually playing with us. They can be such bastards, and often they’ll follow the fly right to the rod tip. I’ve had these fish tailing on a fly for 20 or 30 seconds without eating it, just looking at it.
They fight very powerfully. They aren’t particularly fast and they always know where the nearest bit of reef is, but they won’t often be complete and utter bastards by burying their head under a rock ledge, or into the mangroves. If the surrounding water is relatively clear of reef, let them run, or you will just need to try and stop them. The shallower the water, the easier it is to mess with their ability to swim through side-strain and pulling them from underneath and rolling them – that tactic completely messes with these bastards.
If you’re ever visiting tropical Australia, put these fish onto your target species list. Permit and trigger fish shrimp patterns work well. Just be prepared to shake your fist at them when they give you the full treatment and shout loud “BASTARD!!!”
I like to use a #9 SALT HD for much of my flats fishing with a SPECTRUM MAX 9/10 reel, RIO’s Flats Pro StealthTip line and a 10 foot tapered leader with 20 or 16 lb FluoroFlex tippet material.