Estuaries are remarkably diverse areas to fish. Depending on your location and the techniques being used, an estuary session could see you hooking into anything from whiting on poppers from the flats, bream from heavy cover, through to knee-knocking monster jewfish or barra around rock bars and deeper holes, proving there really is something for everyone in these locations.
But as fun as they can be, estuaries can also be head-scratching places to fish. Usually sensitive to rainfall run-off or water temperature and atmospheric changes, estuarine environments are constantly changing and equally so are the fish holding areas within them. But by becoming acquainted with the estuary hot spots, and knowing when to fish them, you’ll be in for a rod bending day out more often than not!
Man-made structures punctuate many estuary systems, and are fish magnets. These can vary from larger structures like rockwalls, through to jetties, bridges, oyster racks, pontoons and much more. All these are prime hangouts for many high profile angling targets, providing the basics of shelter and food, and are focal points for a lot of fish life.
Rockwalls are a significant structure, and create fantastic habitat for many estuarine fish, both big and small. However, rockwalls are not always that easy to fish. Snags can be a problem, heavy tidal flow can make targeting particular spots difficult, and on the popular systems the fish that live along rockwalls can become very well educated. To have success, you’ve got to fish the right part of the rockwall at the right time.
As a general rule, most rockwalls will fish best on a run-out tide, particularly if the rockwall you are fishing is anywhere near the mouth of the estuary. During this stage of the tide, try targeting the very base of the rockwall, where the boulders meet the sand. This can be done by drifting carefully weighted baits along with the current or casting lures such as heavily weighted soft plastics. If you’re targeting larger fish such as mulloway or barramundi, you may find the slack tide worthwhile for getting baits or lures along that sand/rock ‘ambush zone’. In fact, on some of the larger, deeper systems, the slack tide is just about the only time you can fish the base of a rockwall.
At the very end of a rockwall it’s common to find a swirling back-eddy created by the flowing tide pushing around the end of the rocks. These tidal vortexes concentrate baitfish and other food items and so are always worth a shot.
Another common man-made feature, bridges offer two things to estuarine fish - structure and cover. The structure comes in the form of those big pylon supports that hold the bridge aloft and additionally create both a source of food and shelter for all manner of estuary dwellers. Bream and luderick are particularly fond of prizing a meal off the base of bridge pylons, while larger predators such as mulloway, flathead, barra and trevally like to use the break in the current. The pylons also create as an ambush spot.
The shade a bridge provides is useful both day and night. In shallow estuaries, most larger fish will seek a nice shady spot to sit during the full light of day which makes casting up underneath the bridge a likely tactic. As most bridges have overhead lighting (particularly road bridges), night time also sees a solid light/dark edge that many fish like to hunt along. Drifting baits back through this edge can be winning technique.
Moving into the more naturally occurring estuary features, channel edges are possibly the most common fish-holding features of any estuary. The line at which shallow water drops rapidly into much deeper water is patrolled by all sorts of estuarine fish species, both big and small.
But with most estuary systems riddled with deep channel edges, the obvious question surfaces – what makes a good channel edge? What you’re looking for is a well defined channel edge that drops very rapidly into deep water. On the shallow side of the edge you ideally want a wide area of shallow mud or sandflats that become exposed on a falling tide, and possibly even contain smaller drainage channels that run to the main drop-off.
As the tide falls, the water retreating off these shallow margins brings a veritable smorgasbord of fish-food over the channel edge and to the larger fish waiting there. It’s for this reason that picking the time of tide to fish a channel edge is crucial, and usually means concentrating on the second half of the run-out tide and again at the start of the run-in.
Many anglers dismiss the shallow waters found over estuarine sand and mudflats in favour of deeper water spots. But this is a big mistake. There’s a lot of food items to be found in these shallows, and estuary-dwelling fish know it.
Although your fishing time will generally be limited to the few short hours around the high tide, fishing the flats can be very productive. The best results here are usually achieved by covering ground; drifting and casting small lures is a great technique. Alternatively, you can target small features such as drainage channels, weed bed edges and such with natural baits.
Always remember that any fish feeding up on the flats will be very spooky, particularly when the water is clear and conditions are calm. So it’s really important to utilise a stealthy approach and refined tackle and rigs.
Any type of structure will attract estuary fish, and natural timber snags and thick weed beds are two of the most common forms of submerged estuary structure.
Timber snags, usually in the form of old fallen laydown trees or mangroves, become more and more numerous the further up an estuary you travel. All sorts of fish from bream and estuary perch to mangrove jack and barra hold up on the snags, and the deeper the water a snag sits in, the more fish it’s likely to hold. Pepper the best looking snags with lures or lightly weighted lures or live and dead baits and you will have success.
Weed beds are a somewhat different story in that fish tend not to hold on them as they would a timber snag pile. Instead, you’re more likely to find predatory and browsing type fish cruising along the edges of thick weed searching out a feed. In this situation, fishing baits or lures along the weed bed edges and continually moving and working new beds is the best approach.
In most estuary systems you’ll find a naturally occurring rock bar – that is, a solid rock structure. These are serious hot spots, especially for targeting larger fish species in tidal estuaries.
There’s a couple of ways to fish a rock bar. In a ‘deep’ water situation (i.e. in water of greater than five metres deep), trolling back and forth over the rock bar can bring great reward. In fact this is a common and sometimes devastatingly effective barra technique up north, which can also turn up black jew and fingermark amongst others.
Alternatively, try anchoring well up-current from the bar and drifting baits towards it. You can also use your electric motor and fish vibes and soft plastics over any decent fish soundings.
Along the edges of an estuary, small ‘feeder creeks’ that drain into the main body of the system are a pretty frequent sight. While usually found in the upper reaches of an estuary, in very tidal systems they can also be common all the way down to the mouth.
On a run-out tide, water drains quickly from these feeder creeks, and opportunistic predatory fish will stack up at the mouth of these creeks to gulp down small baitfish, prawns and other such prey that is swept out of the creek. No surprises then that this is also a good spot for you to cast a line. Also try targeting any obvious lines between clean and dirty water that may form as the water rushing out of the creek hits the water of the main estuary body. Predatory fish love to hunt along these lines.
Last but not least on the list of estuary hot spots are the deep holes. These are the places where those anglers after a real trophy set big baits and wait for a monster to swim along. And it’s a trick that works!
While it’s important not to become obsessed with deep water when chasing fish in an estuary setting, those deep, dark holes you tend to find around rock points, at branches in the estuary and along steep banks do quite often hold the biggest of predatory fish to be found in a particular estuary.
Just remember to fish these spots when your quarry will likely be holed up. The bottom of a low tide can be a good time, as can the middle of a sunny day when the big fish are after a safe place to have a snooze. Fishing the deep holes – either with set baits or working lures through them – can take patience and a thoughtful approach, but the trophy fish results can be worth it. Good luck!