Estuary tactics and hotspots – Part 2 of 2

This nice whiting was caught while anchored near the edge of a channel well upstream.

by Sean Thompson •

Last issue I outlined the natural influences that affect estuary fishing, and how to identify productive times. I also covered key locations such as break walls, rocky points and oyster leases.

This month I’ll be focusing on other productive locations, some of which many anglers overlook.

SMALL ESTUARIES & TRIBUTARIES

Anglers can often get caught in the trap of thinking that the more water a waterway has, the more (and bigger) fish there are. This often means anglers concentrate their efforts in the easily accessible and deep, wide sections of rivers, lakes and creeks yet ignore the small arms that branch off these waterways. The same can be said of those mini creeks and lakes that are considered too small to hold decent fish, or which are only accessible at the top half of the tide.

Surprisingly though, if you adapt your techniques and apply a stealthy approach you will be surprised with the quantity and quality of fish on offer. Often these systems are characterised by lots of structure, from drowned timber and snags to deep water bends and shallows. They are hunted by monster whiting and flathead that are rarely interrupted by noisy anglers or boats.

These sneaky little spots can be a lure fisher’s paradise, and bait anglers enjoy great success here too.

However, anglers cannot expect to turn up with the usual tackle and tactics and expect success. These quiet, clear and sheltered waterways mean that the fish can see and hear you more easily, so you need to use finesse tackle and terminal gear. This means you have to downsize everything – from your jighead to your sinkers to the diameter of your fluorocarbon traces.

Baits also need to be presented as naturally as possible; you’ll want to use either live or very fresh bait with very little weight. Overcast conditions and a slight ripple on the water’s surface can also work in your favour.

Narrow creeks and tributaries

While each creek and tributary will be different, many of the smaller systems will be heavily tidal influenced, and this means you want to be fishing closer to the top of the tide. Depending on the system though, that can still give you about four hours, with two hours either side of the top of the tide to either be able to access the water in a boat, or for sufficient water to be covering some of the hotspots/snags if you’re fishing shore based.

A good way to explore such systems is to walk the banks casting baits or lures, or if in a boat pulling up on sandbanks or quietly maneuvering the boat with an electric motor to get you into good casting positions for casting at snags with lures or unweighted baits.

Another way to explore such systems and cover much more water is trolling, which I will cover in a future article.

Shallow bays

Often anglers will dismiss small, shallow bays, either because the draft of their boat is too deep to fish them, or they think the bays are too shallow for decent fish.

However, these locations are brilliant for flathead, including in winter time where these fish can be otherwise shut down due to the warmer shallow water – even more so if it is dark mud, which absorbs the heat. I like to throw soft plastics on light jigheads of about 1/8oz, and also troll these same plastics slowly about 10-20m behind the boat. This style of fishing can be deadly when the flatties are on.

Shallow tree-lined bays, particularly those with submerged trees and rocks, are also great spots to target bream on small hardbody lures and lightly weighted soft plastics.

Deep holes on bends in small tributaries can hold a surprising number of fish. While trolling back and forth, this hole produced four flathead in under an hour.
Big grunter can be a bonus when fishing the edge of the flats into a deep channel.
Kayaks can be a great way to get around shallow flats and bays.
Pumping yabbies into a sieve can be a great way to berley up whiting on the flats.
Bridges are a worthwhile estuary fishing location, especially around and under the pylons.
A nice flathead caught trolling up a small tributary.
Drains, a deep hole, discoloured water and fallen timber – perfect flathead and bream territory.

BRIDGES

Fishing from or under bridges can be another productive location, given the fish-attracting structure supporting them. Some of the best locations to fish near bridges (from a boat or from the bridge) are the eddies formed around the front and the rear of the bridge pylons as water channels past. In bigger rivers, large fish will sit and rest in these locations during the mid tide (or fast run) phases to save energy battling against the current. Fishing large soft plastics or live baits are great options here.

During the slower stage of the tide (one to two hours either side of the change in tide), throwing lures or lightly weighted baits under the shadows of the bridge can be productive. Trolling lures between the posts can also produce the goods.

At night, try fishing the boundary between lights reflected from the bridge and dark shadows further out. A range of predators, from large flathead to tailor and mulloway, will sit at the edge of these shadows ready to pounce on unsuspecting baitfish attracted to the lights.

JETTIES, PIERS & WHARVES

Jetties, piers and wharves are good training grounds for new anglers and kids. Gone are the days when experienced anglers paddled live or dead baits for great white sharks and tiger sharks off the likes of Tathra jetty in NSW, but these spots still produce some good fishing at times for switched-on anglers using live baits or big lures for a range of pelagic fish.

One of the biggest mistakes that anglers fishing these structures can make is casting as far as they can away from the structure. The concrete or wooden poles that support such structures are normally teeming with weed and oyster growth that attracts baitfish (such as yellowtail and mullet, which are great for live bait) and species such as bream and luderick, which in turn attract bigger predators like tailor, kingfish, mulloway and sharks.

Fish will also seek shelter and cover under the shade of such structures, so anglers should fish with baits of lightly-weighted fish flesh or oysters that float down naturally, or with live bait under a float fished close to the pylons. Drags need to be tightened and heavier line used than elsewhere in the estuary, due to the risk of fish breaking you off on the oyster-encrusted pylons. Berley is also a great option here.

Smaller jetties and pontoons are also popular locations for avid lure anglers chasing bream. The trick is to position your boat with an electric motor to get your small hardbodied lure or lightly weighted soft plastic right up under the shadows of the structure where the bream will be lurking.

Some piers, such as the Urangan Pier at Hervey Bay in Queensland, are so long that you can fish for whiting or bream in the inner gutters closer to shore, while at the same time, anglers can be fishing for pelagics on lures and live bait from the end of the pier.

Like bridges, piers are also great spots to fish at night, particularly at the boundary of the where the permanent lights on the water meet the dark shadows beyond it.

In deep water rivers, the edge of bridges and piers can hold fish such as snapper, mulloway and huge threadfin salmon in places such as the Brisbane River. Beware though that it is only ‘permanent’ or constant light sources that attract fish. Short flashes of lights from anglers with headlamps on the water can have the opposite effect and spook the fish.

ESTUARY FLATS

Estuary flats are probably my favourite fishing location of the estuary, as you can hop out of the boat and just challenge yourself against the fish. No technology, just your senses and techniques against the fish!

Bait fishing the flats

If you wade out in the water throwing baits, Alvey reels are hard to beat, as you can drop your rod and reel under your arm in the water while you bait up or de-hook fish. Wading the flats with bait can be extremely productive if you use live baits such as beach, squirt or blood worms or yabbies.

In fact, the natural berley that comes from pumping yabbies or squirt worms into a floating sieve in the water is a great way to attract fish such as whiting. You can then set some rods with bells on to alert you of any bites while you continue to pump more bait.

Once I have sufficient bait, I like to cast and retrieve lightly weighted (size 0 to 2 ball sinker) baits on long fluorocarbon traces of about 1m or so of 6lb line. If possible, I also like to leave a set rod or two while I cast and retrieve.

The areas you want to be targeting whiting and bream with bait on the flats include melon holes and drains, either as the water rises or falls. As the water peaks towards the top of the tide, you should target yabby banks around the mangroves or anywhere there is a bit of run. Creek deltas where multiple drains or small channels intersect is another top location. Another good spot is fishing into slightly deeper water from the edge of high sandbanks as the tide nears low.

Lure fishing the flats

Lure fishing the flats has grown in great popularity in recent years, and for good reason. With a bit of practice and the right tackle, even inexperienced anglers can catch fish like flathead, bream and whiting.

Target areas for the flats will depend on the stage of tide. During a rising tide, lure casters chasing flathead should look for areas where water is running in over shallow water and dropping into slightly deeper gutters. Likewise, ‘deltas’ or areas where three or four drains meet are a great spot for flathead on the rising tide as well. The fish will sit here waiting for baitfish to come to them.

If you’re chasing bream and whiting, topwater lures are a great option on the flats. Shallow flats covered in yabby banks, or melon hole-covered soft sand flats are excellent target areas. Avoid hard sand areas, which are often devoid of bait and therefore bigger fish. Fish the softer sand locations from about half tide up in water less than about 80cm deep. A gentle breeze can really work in your favour here if you can cast with it. The ripples it puts on the water also make the fish less cautious.

Other top target areas for luring the flats during the top half of the tide are the edges of ribbon weed and sand pockets amongst the weed.

During the falling tide, top locations to target fish like bream and flathead on lures are the entrance to drains and creeks, the drop-off from the flats into a channel and once again the edge of weed beds, provided they are covered with sufficient water. Flathead and bream will wait in ambush at such spots, ready to pounce on fleeing baitfish.

Techniques for working the flats include throwing topwater lures (as above), lure casting soft plastics or vibes from a boat or wading, drifting with soft plastic tails (for plenty of action) or trolling. Anglers will achieve better results with light 1-4kg graphite rods with cork butts for a better feel of hits on the rod. So too, braid with fluorocarbon leaders of at least a rod length are also recommended. I recommend 2-3lb braid for whiting and bream, and 5-6lb for flathead.

CHANNEL EDGES

A little-used tactic taught to me by a professional fishing guide is fishing around channel edges lined with ribbon weed using a whole striped tuna. It is an awesome technique to use on bream and flathead. This technique can also be used around rock walls, rocky points and bridges.

Firstly, anchor just off the edge of the channel and cast towards the edge of the weed on the flats. Fillet the bonito into very small cubes smaller than a 5c piece, as well as larger 20cm ones which are your bait. Begin to berley with the very small cubes, and then cast out larger baits well away from the boat (you’ll need a size 2 to 3 sinker) and set the rod in the holder. Also throw an unweighted bait directly out from the stern of the boat.

Keep a steady stream of berley going and leave your rod in the holder, as smaller fish will peck at larger bait until a big fish comes along and swallows the bait. Dawn, dusk and night will yield the best results.

Channel edges are also a top spot for deep water whiting. For more detail on this technique, check out my whiting article by clicking HERE

RIVER BANKS

River banks are popular spots for casual anglers, and can vary from sandy banks towards the river mouth, to grassy banks well upstream.

Both types are great for the ‘set and forget’ technique, with long whippy rods at least 8ft long, set low and horizontal to the water to ensure minimum resistance when the fish picks up the bait and runs. Just sit back on a chair with some bells on your rod and watch the tips. Baits of yabbies and blood worms are perfect for whiting and bream.

You can also throw soft plastic lures for flatties around the sandbanks towards the entrance, or use hardbodies or lightly-weighted plastics for bream around fallen timber further upstream.

DEEP HOLES

Deep holes in estuaries are worth seeking out and fishing. You can either find out about them by asking local tackle shops or motoring around with your sounder in locations with steep banks, sharp bends in creeks, or areas where you note a change in the current or surface of the water as the channel drops into deep water. With a good sidescan or structure scan sounder you can search for baitfish and larger fish like mulloway, big tailor or even snapper in such locations.

Techniques to employ in deep holes include either anchoring or drifting with live baits, trolling with hardbodies (mid-tide), or throwing large soft plastics or vibes around the two hours either side of the change of tide (due to slower run and having a more natural lift and drop with your lure.

UPSTREAM

Finally, heading well upstream in an estuary can have a couple of benefits. Firstly, such locations can be quite secluded and with it comes nothing but the sounds and beauty of the natural bush. Another benefit is of course the fishing.

A variety of structure can be encountered upstream in estuaries, from sandy shallow islands, narrow creeks full of drowned timber, or mangrove-lined creek tributaries in more northern locations.

Generally, such areas are lightly fished, and what’s more, where the salt meets fresh water in such locations, anglers can be offered the bonus of both fresh and saltwater fish. It’s great to be able to pick up bass and estuary perch at the same time as the usual saltwater species.

Big tides around the full and new moon are good times to explore such places, as more water pushes well upstream. A good option is to fish the last two hours of the run-in tide and the first two of the run-out.

Both lure and bait fishing tactics can be successfully employed upstream. If you’re bait fishing, try the shallow sandy flats around the sandy islands, and unweighted baits like live prawns, yabbies or squirt worms around fallen timber. Target the shallows for whiting and bream on topwater lures, and throw plastics and hardbodies at and around fallen timber for a mixed bag of species. If you’re fishing such spots during the middle of the day, fish the shady side of the creeks/estuary.

WRAP-UP

So, there you have it! Estuaries offer anglers many and varied locations to fish with a variety of techniques, no matter the time of year, the direction of the wind or the colour of the water. I hope you can put some of these tips and techniques to good use in your local estuary or at a holiday destination in the not too distant future. In the meantime, feel tree to visit my Facebook page, Ontour Fishing Australia, for more tips, tricks and reports.

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