Estuary tactics and hotspots – Part 1 of 2

Trolling small lures in estuaries can result in captures of angry bream as well as flathead.

by Sean Thompson •

The term ‘estuary’ basically covers the transition zone between the mouth of a river (where it enters the open sea) and the upper limits of its fresh or brackish reach. Estuaries include rivers, bays, harbours, creeks and lakes connected to the sea.

The variety of fish species available in Australian estuaries is nearly as diverse as the types of structure in which to fish. From whiting and bream to barramundi and mulloway, estuaries are a great location to fish, whether you want to soak a bait while relaxing on a chair by the river’s edge, or patrol up and down throwing lures from a boat.

To successfully fish estuaries, anglers need to understand the types of habitat that will hold fish as well as how to fish them. Entrances, jetties, oyster racks, deep holes, rock walls, tributaries and bridges – the list of estuary habitats goes on and on. Anglers also need to know what species to target at these locations and be prepared to vary their location and strategy according to the time of year, the water temperature, water colour and more. This article outlines a number of estuary hot spots and provides a range of tips and tactics on how to fish them.

KEY INFLUENCES

Before we detail how best to target specific areas of the estuary, it is worth outlining a few key natural influences on how and where the fish might reside and feed in an estuary.

Natural influences

Some of the biggest natural influences on estuaries include:

  • Moons and tides;
  • The effect of the wind;
  • Rain and water colour;
  • Water temperature;
  • Whether the estuary is currently open to the sea; and
  • Current and tidal influences.

This article will not go into the detail of the influence of the moons and tides as it was covered in the July 2016 edition of Queensland Fishing Monthly, and it’s also available on the new FM website at wp.fishingmonthly.com.au. The main consideration worth noting here is simply that the tidal movement in the estuary around the new and full moon will be greater, i.e. higher highs and lower lows.

Otherwise, some of the key natural influences on estuary fishing, and their impacts on the fishing, are outlined below.

Making the most of natural influences

Wind

Wind lanes on the water attract insects and fish. You should use the wind to make longer casts and use an electric motor to position your boat when drifting against the wind. Fish the leeward (downwind) side of an estuary in strong winds. Be aware of the effect of winds from different directions, and remember that wind can affect water temperature as it can push currents along.

Rain/water colour

After heavy rain you should fish cleaner water near entrances. Saltwater is heavier than fresh, so deep holes will hold fish after heavy rain. Match your lure to the water colour, e.g. use black/dark lures (for a silhouette effect) or bright lures in dirty water. Fish the rising tide in dirty water as cleaner water pushes into the system.

Water temperature

In winter, the best fishing can be around midday as the estuary waters warm. Shallow bays, water near rocks and muddy bottoms all tend to have warmer water. Look for variations in temperature on your sounder to see if the water too hot or cold. Fishing cooler water at night or early in the morning can be better for some species in summer.

Open or closed

Estuaries that have been open in the warmer months but closed during winter can have great prawning in spring. Estuaries which were closed but open up to the ocean will have fantastic fishing at the entrance as bait tries to escape to the open sea. Closed estuaries will have more even water temperatures, and on average warmer water. Closed estuaries that aren’t commercially fished can have some big fish in deep holes.

Current/tide

Estuary entrances are best fished around the change of tide due to strong current flow. Some fish, such as whiting, will follow the tide up and down an estuary so you should follow the tides as well. Learn the ‘rule of 1/12s’ in terms of tidal movement, e.g. 6/12ths (or half) of the tidal movement occurs in the middle two hours of the tide. Aim your lures to ensure they move with the direction of the tide, not against it, for the best presentation.

Other influences

Man-made influences on an estuary include environmental spills, commercial fishing pressure and boat traffic. However, the timing and influence of these tends to be harder to predict. Anglers should just be aware of them and adapt as required. This means following Fisheries advice in the case of spills, fishing snaggy or shallow areas where commercial nets can’t get into, or moving away from areas that have heavy boat traffic.

Finally, it is important that anglers have a bit of knowledge about their main target species and the best time of year to fish for them. It is no use to fish for them if they aren’t there!

Now we have these key influences covered, let’s take a look at some estuary hot spots and how to fish them.

ENTRANCES

Entrances are top fishing locations, whether you’re fishing from a boat or from the shore. Fishing technique you should employ will depend on the structure, i.e. whether the entrance is rocky, sandy, shallow or deep. Be aware that entrances can also be subject to strong tidal flows, so they are best fished within one to two hours either side of a tide change. Eddies or channels which are located behind the entrance are also good spots, and can be fished mid-tide due to their location out of the main tidal flow.

Some deep estuary entrances, such as Yamba in Northern NSW, are surrounded by rock walls which host big fish such as mulloway, tuna and kingfish at times. Others, such as Noosa in Southeast QLD have mid-depth entrances and are popular locations in winter for tailor on pilchards and lures, and luderick on weed. Some estuary entrances, such as Jumpinpin on the Gold Coast, have deep water inside their entrance which also attracts roving schools of tailor and huge flathead in season.

Others entrances can be quite shallow and are perfect to fish for species such as whiting, bream and flathead. These fish will sit in the surf just outside the entrance under the foam in melon holes and little gutters, or as the tide comes in, they will feed inside the entrance on the flats or in the shallow channels behind the beach.

Entrances can also fire after heavy rain has flushed fish from further upstream. The first few hours of the rising tide are best as new, clean water is pushed into the estuary, bringing with it predators chasing the bait that has been flushed out.

Likewise, the protected water just inside the entrance can also fire for species such as tailor and salmon in heavy seas. Rough conditions force the baitfish inside to seek protection, and the predators soon follow.

Closed lakes which only open to the ocean after heavy rain events, or by man-made intervention, are also brilliant spots to fish. All the prawns, baitfish and other bait that flees to the open ocean will attract bigger predators – everything from tailor and salmon to the mighty mulloway.

BOAT RAMPS

Some of the most underrated and under-utilised fishing locations are boat ramps. This is particularly true if the ramp has fish cleaning facilities, as all the discarded bait and fish offal from filleting brings fish into the area. These spots are best fished late in the day or at night when most of the boats have gone home. If the ramp has a permanent light source that’s even better, as it not only helps you see at night but it attracts baitfish as well, bringing even more predators into the area.

Boat ramps are best fished using very lightly weighted or unweighted fish flesh such as mullet, striped tuna or pilchard pieces, as these will be a common food source for the area. A good choice of hooks is 1/0 suicide or 1/0 circle hooks.

BREAK WALLS

Break walls are man-made structures at the entrance to estuaries that jut out into the surf zone, in an effort to create safe passage to open water for boaties. They are also excellent fishing platforms for anglers, and provide structure for boat anglers to fish as well.

However, due to their rocky terrain, heavy loss of sinkers and rigs can result around break walls if they’re not fished properly. Many of the break walls at the entrance to rivers have a strong tidal flow which pushes rigs around easily, and they soon become snagged. So how should you fish them?

Techniques

From a boat, you should vary your technique according to the tide when targeting the break wall. Due to the strong water flow, plastics and vibes are best cast and retrieved during the hour and a half or so either side of the change of tide. Outside this period, ‘tea bagging’ (lifting your lure up and down) is possible while drifting with heavier jigheads, although trolling is another great technique with deeper diving lures.

Land-based fishing from a break wall offers a lot of opportunities and is one of the most popular locations for anglers to fish at night, given the access to deeper water and good fishing.

Tailor and salmon are popular target species off rock walls in QLD and NSW, and for good reason. The best way to target these fish is to fish the white water right out the end of the wall, or cast and retrieve into the river or ocean towards the end of the wall around the change of tide. Run your light sinker (1-2 ball or bean) right down to your ganged hooks to help avoid tackle loss if you’re casting and retrieving. You can also throw heavier sinkers out and let the bait sit when there is less run around the change of the tide.

Another technique to target these fish is to use a ganged pilchard under a float to keep the bait off the bottom, reducing the chance of snagging up. You can also add a glow stick to the float at night to keep a watchful eye on it.

Throwing metals (like Halco Twisties and Spanyid Raiders), bibless lures (like Duel Adagios) or big minnow lures off break walls is also a great option for tailor and salmon as well as mulloway. Mulloway like to the hunt at the river entrances after a flush.

Bream and flathead are other popular targets off the wall. A good approach is to fish close to the wall, walking your baits. Alternatively you can cast against the tide and let your bait drift naturally with the tide, then retrieve it as it gets close to the rocks.

‘Walking the wall’ involves casting the bait out and then walking parallel with the bait along the wall as far as possible with the tide, then retrieving and heading back upcurrent to start again.

Luderick are another popular species off break walls, although they require a much more specialised technique. This involves walking the wall with small stick floats with cabbage or green weed baits. You can get green weed from the backwaters of nearby creeks, or cabbage weed from the rocks.

ROCKY POINTS AND WALLS

There are of course other rocks, both naturally occurring and man-made in and along estuaries which are also good spots to target fish. Man-made rock walls often drop into deep water and are best fished using similar techniques to break walls according to the tide. Once again, they are great places to ‘walk the wall’ from the shore, or drift parallel to them in a boat with lures, or even bait or trolling beside them during the middle stages of the tide.

Isolated rock patches in an estuary can also hold bream, and are top places to use topwater stickbaits and poppers for bream and trevally, particularly if the rocks are only just covered by water on high tide.

Rocky points are also good spots to target as they break the current flow, and the backwaters created near them will often hold baitfish and therefore predatory species. These are top spots to anchor near with flesh baits.

OYSTER LEASES

Oyster leases are a well-known hot spot for bream. However, several other species are caught around their perimeter including flathead, trevally and whiting. They are attracted not only by the molluscs growing on the racks (and those that fall off as they are farmed) but also due to the amount of baitfish attracted to the structure of assorted posts and racks.

There are a few ways in which you can fish oyster leases and their surrounds. Whichever way you choose, always be polite to oyster farmers and remember it is their private property and livelihood, so avoid damaging their racks and oysters.

One less common but very productive method of fishing oyster leases is to troll shallow diving lures (such as Lively Lures Micro Mullets, Tilsan Minnows and Zerek Tango Shads) in the area between oyster lease boundaries (marked by posts). You can also troll along the outside boundary of a lease. Friends and I have caught some big flathead with this method, as well as the odd bream and big whiting.

Entrances to drains are a great place to target flathead on a falling tide.
Marinas can produce good fishing off the jetties and pontoons.
Permanent light sources at night will attract baitfish and thus predators at night.
A small but feisty golden trevally caught in the busy Noosa River, in a bay away from the crowds.
A hook-up on a big Australian salmon behind an estuary entrance in big seas.
Rock walls are popular fishing locations, but if you don’t fish them properly you can lose a lot of gear.

However, oyster leases are best known for anglers targeting bream by throwing hardbody lures. This technique has been around for a couple of decades, and was made popular by TV personalities like Kaj Busch and Steve Starling in the 1990s. Their captures and coverage had big numbers of light tackle lure anglers (including myself) rushing out to buy some McGrath Attack Minnows.

Since that time, tournament anglers, such as several-times ABT champion and Fishing Monthly Managing Editor Steve Morgan, have continued to popularise throwing small hardbodies, but also soft plastics, vibes and metal blades around the leases. This method is best done with an electric motor going up and down the leases, and requires accurate casting and a tight drag, but it is a whole lot of fun. High tide around the leases is the best time to target bream, with casts right alongside the racks required. If you are game you can also throw surface lures on top of the racks near feeding fish.

Bait fishing around the leases is also an excellent option for anglers chasing bream and flathead. The leases are best fished with bait as the tide just starts to cover them and continues to rise.

If you want to target fish with bait around the oyster leases, try the following technique:

  1. Anchor your boat upcurrent (i.e. the water is flowing past your boat towards the oyster leases). This will allow your berley to draw the fish out of the leases towards you;
  2. Position your boat either parallel to the racks or along the end of a number of racks;
  3. Berley with pea-sized cubes of striped tuna or pilchards, or a mix of unprocessed bran/tuna oil and sand – a couple of handfuls at first, then one handful every five minutes;
  4. Cast your baits (such as whitebait or a striped tuna or pilchard piece) to within a metre of the edge of the racks/oyster posts. Set your rod low and parallel to the water but with a firm drag.

I recommend using a trace of quality 10lb fluorocarbon (like FC Rock) and 8lb monofilament mainline. Once again, I like suicide or circle hooks in size 1/0.

CLICK HERE to continue this article where I’ll cover small estuaries and tributaries, man-made structures such as bridges and jetties, and fishing other productive spots such as flats, channel edges, banks and holes.