Planning your trip and finding the fish
Many people ask me what my favourite type of fishing is, and I don't need to think twice about it. Light tackle lure fishing in estuaries is, for me, the best and most rewarding fishing available.
It must be a combination of the peacefulness and natural beauty of the river and the bush around it, the bird calls, the solitude and, of course, the potential to catch a variety of aggressive species of estuary fish.I love the challenge of fishing an estuary, finding the fish, working out the conditions and finally getting stuck into the fish.
PLANNING YOUR TRIP
A successful estuary fishing trip starts with good planning. After deciding which estuary you are going to visit, research that system as best you can. Print out a page from Google earth, showing a good aerial view of the river, as well as a page from Google maps.These give you a great perspective of the river, where the holes should be, shallow areas, inlets and creeks etc.
Secondly, get onto the web and check the tides, you want your trip to coincide with spring tides so that there is a lot of movement of water into and out of the estuary. Good tide websites such as Mobile Geographics will also give you the tidal range, so that you can choose a spring tide with the biggest tidal range (difference in height between low and high tide). I like the week starting bang on spring tides and then coming off it, this means a high tide in the early mornings and evenings, with low in the middle of the day.
If you do not already know which fish are in that estuary, spend some time trying to find out what you are likely to catch there. Once again, the internet is a great tool for this. Chat to anybody that you can find who has been to and fished the river that you are going to visit. You may get some good information in terms of holes and good spots as well as what you can expect to catch. The evening before you leave, print out a one-week weather forecast to give you an idea of what to expect over the days that you are going to be there.
Pack your tackle into an easy-to-carry, organised tackle box or bag. I like the bags that take a few smaller tackle boxes so that I can sort my lures into three categories: topwater lures, midwater lures, and lures to work the bottom. My favourite is topwater lures, so that box is usually the fullest.
A few lures from each of these boxes that I wouldn�t ever dream of going to an estuary without are:
- Topwater: Rapala Skitter Pop 5cm and 7cm, Storm Rattlin� Chug Bug 6cm and 8cm, Rapala X-Rap Walk 9cm, Rapala Original Floaters 5cm and 7cm
- Midwater: Rapala Twitchin� Rap 8cm, Rapala Glidin� Rap 15cm, X-Rap subwalk 7cm and a selection of Rapala X-Rap 6cm and 8cm lures.
- Bottom: Bucktail jigs from 1/8oz to 1/2oz, dropshot jigs in the same weight category and a selection of spoons, making sure that there are a few Sea Iron Taunters among them.
Ideally, you will need a boat of some sort to be able to explore an estuary properly. It can be done from a paddle ski or fishing ski but, if you are fishing with friends and family, then a boat is going to be central to your trip.
Something small and manoeuvrable, as well as light and tough, is ideal. I really like the Quintrex Tinnies, made in Australia and imported to South Africa by Yamaha. These are ideal for estuary fishing and have all of the above qualities. I personally prefer one of around 3.5m with a 15hp four-stroke Yamaha on the back and I have put on a Minn Kota® Riptide® Transom-Mount Saltwater Trolling Motor. This outfit makes estuary fishing very pleasurable.
FINDING THE FISH
On my first full day on a new estuary, I like to take a trip up the river on the low tide, checking out all of the holes, channels, banks etc. It gives me an opportunity to see where fish are likely to hold and feed, as well as to spot any dangerous rocks that may be just below water level at high tide.
This recce trip is very important, and gives you a great idea of what that particular estuary is all about. It is tricky navigating at low tide, but if you take it slowly, you will be amazed at how far up the river you can get and how much information you can gather. The first thing you need to establish is where the deeper channels run and where the shallow banks are.
If the water is clear, then this is easy. The deep water appears darker and the shallower water appears lighter. Using polarised sunglasses greatly improves your vision of underwater structure. If the water is discoloured, then it can be a bit trickier. The shallower water generally flows slower (due to friction), while faster water indicates deeper channels.
Check out the formations at low tide and find places where shallow water drops away quickly to deeper water. These are called dropoffs. Always keep an eye out for movement of bait fish and swimming prawn. They usually give their presence away by surface movement, particularly early in the morning and in the evenings. Anywhere where bait organisms are plentiful should be a good area in very shallow water. In that case, predators will be patrolling in the nearest deep water to where the bait is. On a dropping tide, establish where the water is flowing off the shallows into deep water. Game fish will ambush bait at these channelling points.
Structure in estuaries often holds fish. Look out for rocks, sunken trees, dropoffs etc. Take note of these, or mark them on your printout of your Google Map so that you can find them again later on the high tide. If you cannot see the structures, then an eddy on the surface indicates their presence.
Work your lures both upcurrent and downcurrent of structure. Fish around the mouths of creeks flowing into the main river, there are often holes scoured out here by current eddies that can hold fish.
Rocky areas are particularly good in the upper reaches of estuaries, and often hold river snapper and perch. Sometimes these rocks may be exposed at low tide and covered at high tide, and often fish best on a half tide. Look carefully at the rocks � if they have growth such as sun oysters or barnacles on them, then they will be good for fishing over when the tide covers them.
The water below cliffs and rock ledges is often deep and is a great area to target predatory fish. These are particularly productive in the upper reaches of estuaries where resident species such as river snapper and perch will spend the daylight hours.
Watch the water for signs of fish movement; some species, such as springer and garrick, will often give their presence away by breaking surface. Bait fish being chased is a sign of predator action. Take note of where this happens. If a predator is feeding in a certain spot, then that spot is worth fishing � other predators will probably soon be arriving.
Moving into an estuary with the rising tide is a good option. A good idea is to follow the line of clean water and dirty water as it pushes up the river. This can often be productive, with fish entering an estuary on the pushing tide. Fish the mouth area on the low tide and work your way upriver as the tide pushes.
At high tide, you want to be fishing the upper reaches of the river. Follow the falling tide back down, until you are once again fishing the mouth area on a low tide.
Bends in a river create interesting fishing opportunities, with the inside of a bend being shallower and the outside (cut-away bank) being deeper with faster moving water. The cut-away bank often has submerged trees and rocks that have fallen into the water as the bank has been broken away, creating ideal structure for fish. The bank is also often undercut, providing an excellent ambush position for some predators.
On the low tide, also look out for good mudprawn banks. Where there is a lot of mudprawn, there will always be a lot of fish. These creatures are an important food source and a very important part of the food chain in estuaries. It is a good idea to concentrate fishing efforts over and around productive mudprawn banks, particularly on a pushing tide as the water covering the prawn colonies gets deep enough for fish to move in.
If you look carefully at the prawn banks you will be able to see blowholes, where fish such as grunter have been blowing prawns out of their burrows � this confirms that this is a prawn bank where the grunter like to feed.
Do not be put off by dirty water in the upper reaches of an estuary. Often, after rain, the fresh water entering the system is quite muddy. Fresh water is less dense than salt water, and there will be a layer of clean salt water beneath the muddy fresh water. This often provides great conditions for catching fish, as they feel less exposed beneath the muddy water, and it also makes it easier to stalk the fish, as they do not see you.
When doing a reconnaissance trip up an estuary, it is a good idea to focus a lot of your casting with surface lures. When these are twitched slowly with plenty of pauses in between, they attract a lot of interest from predators. Cast to structure and close to the banks as though bass fishing.
Even if you do not hook up on fish, you will get enquiries in the form of a soft swirl or boil on the lure. This gives you confidence that you are fishing the right areas and helps you to map out areas to come back and fish on different tides. Most predatory species in an estuary will eat a well-presented surface lure in the right conditions. This form of fishing is particularly effective at dawn and dusk, but can account for fish throughout the day.
Craig Thomassen is a presenter for Inside Angling. Catch Inside Angling on SS6 on Mondays at 7pm.
Always bear in mind that estuaries are important nursery areas for many fish species. Create as little disturbance as possible and fish in a responsible manner. It is a privilege to fish these sensitive ecosystems and we should not abuse such opportunities. In my view, catch-and-release should be practised in estuaries without exception; if you want to catch a fish for the pot, then catch it in the sea.