The Ultimate Guide to Estuary Fishing

The word ‘estuary’ basically describes that stretch of a coastal river between its mouth and the upper tidal or brackish water limit. However, estuary fishing has a wide range of meanings for Australian anglers. For as well as the definition given above, an ‘estuary’ may also be a bay, a lake, a mangrove creek, a harbour, an inlet or a saltwater lagoon.

The estuaries in all their forms carry a huge range of fish in a very diversified spread of habitats, so many of which are easily accessible to vast numbers of people. For this reason, it’s not surprising that estuaries are our most popular fishing spots.

Some estuary fish are giants, like mulloway. barramundi, snapper, dusky flathead and sharks. Some are small, like bream. whiting and blackfish, but these supply the basic needs of most anglers. Whatever the size, it is the capture that is important in keeping anglers satisfied.

The key to successful estuary fishing lies in understanding four general areas; habitat. tides and time, bait and tackle.

Habitat: Finding Fish

ln many anglers’ minds fishing is no more than casting a bait into the water and hoping that sooner or later, a fish will eat it. Sometimes this approach works, sometimes it doesn’t. To be a consistently successful estuary angler, a good understanding of the fish’s habitat is essential. Such an understanding helps establish where fish are most likely to be found.

This typical estuary during a runout tide shows the main spots where flathead congregate and feed. Against the tide, they face upstream and feed on small fish and other organisms. Anglers will have most success working sandy, shallow inshore areas, sandbars, sandbanks and the edges of channels and gutters.

Small holes and areas near weeds and snags are also productive spots. By using a knowledge of habitat, many fish that may otherwise be passed over by the fisherman can be located and targeted. Features such as deep holes. channels, weed beds, reefs, bridges, oyster leases. under-cut banks. snags, rock walls, and cockle beds will always hold fish of some type. These features or ‘structures’ should always be primary target areas for fishing effort, in estuaries or any other aquatic environment.

Locating Fish Species

Estuarine species such as bream are flexible in their habitat choice and may turn up almost anywhere, while others, like mangrove jack or cod, are more demanding of particular habitat types. Mangrove jack, for instance, tends to dwell in the matted roots of the mangrove trees that line tropical creeks. Cod like to hole up in a cave. crevice or around a rock pile. though the two species regularly overlap. Mulloway is another very selective fish and often reside around particular formations. especially pylons. reefs and steep drop-offs or holes.

Barramundi patrol the edges of snag lines and tidal sheer lines where smaller creeks join the mainstream. These areas contain prolific bait supplies in most tropical estuaries. and also serve to concentrate food supplies of all kinds.

King George whiting like isolated patches of sand within extensive weed beds, while the east coast sand whiting prefers sandbanks where they hunt yabbies. worms and small prawns.

Snapper tend to seek out reefs. wrecks and deeper areas of broken bottom. particularly if lots of shellfish or crabs live in the same area. ln the large. relatively featureless bays of southern Australia. a single uprising or depression on the bottom is often enough to hold snapper.

Flathead like the edges of channels and holes, although they have a tendency to turn up wherever there is a patch of sand or nearby cover of ribbon weed.

Fish may also be located in various parts of a river or estuary system because of salinity. too. The further away from the sea the lower the salinity. This factor influences the mix of species likely to be encountered.

Some fish, like Yellowfin bream, Dusky flathead, Mangrove Jack, Barramundi, Estuary Cod, mullet and many others. can and do move right up into a system. even entering the freshwater zone at times. Others. such as Silver trevally. Tailor, Snapper, Sand whiting and Flounder. may only penetrate a system as far as the salinity levels allow them.

By fishing an estuary regularly you will soon acquire a good idea of the type of fish that inhabit the various parts of it. Once you decide which fish you wish to catch. it’s then a matter of choosing an area with the type of habitat preferred by that fish. Then. of course. you must tailor your fishing times, tackle and techniques to that species or group of species.

Time and Tide

Time and tide are critical factors to be considered when chasing most estuary fish. These two related factors will largely dictate fish location and behaviour.

Some fish use the low light of dawn and dusk to stage their feeding sprees. Others use the cover of darkness to gain access to shallow waters where they feed during the night.

Many species are strongly linked to their behaviour to the tides and rely on certain phases of the tidal cycle to bring them food. or to allow them access to food-rich areas. Fish in this category include Mulloway, Dusky Flathead, Mangrove Jack, Barramundi, Threadfin Salmon and, at times, bream.

As the tide falls, baitfish, prawns, and other tidbits are forced to leave the shelter of mangrove roots or sandbanks and return to the channels, where predators are sure to be waiting. Naturally enough, these channels often fish best on the falling or low tide. Dusky flathead, in particular, makes great use of falling tides to force prey towards their concealed location or ‘lie’.

Tides can also be important to fish like Sand whiting, Yellowfin bream, blackfish and the many other forage species which inhabit an estuary. A rising tide will give them access to feeding areas like yabby banks, cockle beds, and weed covered shorelines.

At times of big tides, it’s often advisable to fish the creeks that run into rivers as many fish will use the higher water to push into the country they can’t normally reach. Backwater areas of big estuaries are also good spots during these spring or king tide cycles of maximum water movement.

Tidal Considerations

The effects tides have on fishing a particular area depend very heavily on the waterway itself. ,

In the middle of a big bay, lake or harbour tides are not always such a major consideration, as water movement in such places is not great. However, in a coastal river or mangrove creek, the tides will often make the difference between a good catch and a poor catch.

The entrance to any major estuary system is tide affected and fish passing from the sea to the estuary must use this corridor. Most of the fish entering the system will do so on the rising tide and will pause to rest and feed at the top of the tide.

This is when anglers should be looking for fish in the estuary entrances and close to the shoreline. By carefully watching tidal movements and planning your fishing expeditions around them, you can definitely increase your catches.

Carefully note which sets of tidal variables work for you, and look for them again in the future. Fishing success is all about patterns. Define the productive patterns and you are halfway there.

Baits or Lures?

Fishermen have the choice of using either natural baits or lures as a means of catching fish. Both methods work on most fish; the choice between the two techniques is mostly a matter of personal preference.

Predatory fish are the main target when using lures, while bait fishing is more broadly based, and can be applied to every fish given the right circumstances. The novice is best advised to learn the ground rules while bait fishing before moving on to the fascinating world of the artificial.

Collecting Your Own Bait

There are many baits available around the foreshores of estuaries which anglers may use. Some are easy to obtain, others more difficult. All are superb fish takers in the estuary.

Better tackle stores and bait outlets sometimes sell these natural baits alive or very fresh. but in more remote areas. you will need to be self-sufficient in this department. Baits like pink nippers (yabbies or bass yabbies), green nippers. bloodworms. small crabs. shrimps. cockles. prawns and baitfish are all readily obtainable.

Tools for gathering them include fine mesh scoops or drag nets. cast nets. worm pumps. shovels and bait traps.

The fact that some bait gathering is environmentally destructive particularly worm digging in ribbon weed has brought about a range of laws in each state that must be followed. Consult your local Fisheries Inspector for information before you dig. Check also on the legality of bait gathering devices in your area. For example, the cast net which is so popular in Queensland and the Northern Territory is actually illegal in New South Wales.


Worms can be dug or pumped in many areas. and an hour or two with a pitchfork, spade or bait pump will yield enough of these top baits for a day’s fishing. Worming should be done on the low tide as the best areas are usually those exposed during this period. Popular species of bait worm include the bloodworm. squirt worm, tube worm, and blubber worm. Ask for local advice at your tackle store or boat hire shed on which types work best and where they are found.

The Popular Yabby

Without a doubt, one of the most sought-after estuarine baits is the pink nipper or yabby. This is actually a species of shrimp that lives in burrows in the sand of most river flats. Almost all estuary fish love yabbies. especially when they are fished alive and kicking. Yabbies are collected by using a stainless steel pump available at any tackle shop.

The pump is placed over the holes in the sand where the yabbie has its burrow and the plunger is raised as the barrel of the pump is driven into the sand. The extracted sand is then sprayed to the side of the working area. The yabbies are usually seen struggling in the mud and can be picked up and placed in a bucket of water. This water should be changed regularly to keep the baits alive.

For longer periods of storage, drain the water off the yabbies and pack them loosely in damp seaweed or shredded newspaper. Stored this way and kept cool, they’ll stay alive for several days.

Another small shrimp. the green nipper or pistol shrimp can be obtained by turning over rocks near the water’s edge. This sort of hunting will also yield small crabs which make excellent bream bait.

Prawns and Shrimp

Prawns are usually collected at night with either a drag net or by using a bright light and scoop net. Often the large prawns are eaten and the smaller ones used for bait. Prawning will also produce small fish and squid which are handy for bait, too.

During the day, prawns and small shrimp may be obtained by dragging or SCO0ping ‘blind’ through strands of seagrass or similar aquatic vegetation. However. always take care not to damage this vital marine growth. Prawns and shrimp are best stored as described above for yabbies. or snap frozen for long term storage.

Legal Restrictions

Small baitfish such as herring, yellowtail, sprat. whitebait, anchovy, mullet and tailor can be caught by a variety of means. ln some states, notably Queensland, a bait net is legal and can be used to quickly harvest a supply of small fish. Cast nets are also legal in Queensland. Other states have varying restrictions on the use of these implements. The usual method of catching larger live bait is to use a very small hook baited with prawns or dough on a light line. Berley is often used to attract the bait and get them biting.

Plastic, glass or mesh bait traps also work very well, especially for ‘poddy’ mullet. Once again, check local laws on what you can keep and what must be released alive.

Keeping Bait Alive

Most baits are more effective when fished alive rather than dead. This is particularly so in the case of small fish, yabbies, and prawns. Many keen anglers fit their boats with live bait tanks to ensure such baits are in prime condition when the fishing area is reached. It is possible to use any suitably sized container such as a large bucket or garbage bin for a bait tank. So long as some of the water is replaced regularly, the bait will be fine for a full days fishing.

An aerator pump which runs off torch or car batteries can also be used to keep fish. yabbies and prawns alive in a container. An aerator pumps air through a plastic tube and porous air stone which is lowered into the water to maintain the oxygen level in the bait tank. The water will still need to be changed every I 2 hours or so. but the aerator will keep the bait alive and kicking for a long time.

Lures in the Estuary

Lures are no more than artificial baits that attract aggressive fish and cause them to strike. The lure moves through the water like an injured fish or crustacea and is usually eaten for this reason, although some fish hit lures purely on territorial instinct. perceiving them as an intrusive threat to their chosen domain.

Lures are a fun active way to fish and many anglers become devoted to this style of fishing. Lure fishing is attractive because of its simplicity and the fact that it catches mainly good sized fish. It’s also less messy and time-consuming than bait fishing. A selection of lures allows you to begin fishing immediately. without the need to find, gather and store bait.

Estuary lure fishing is effective right around the country on a wide variety of fish. There are two main types of lure fishing. The first one is spinning, where the lure is cast and retrieved. The second is trolling, where the lure is towed behind a slowly moving boat.

While trolling may be performed even with a handline. spinning requires a rod and reel capable of casting a lure either to a school of feeding fish or to a location where fish may be stationed looking for food. The most popular tackle used in estuary spinning is either a threadline outfit or a baitcasting (plug) rig, both of which are usually built around a light-tipped. 1.7 to 2.2-metre rod. Lines may test between 2 and 8 kg, depending on likely target species. Such an outfit is also fine for general bait fishing.

Lure selection is usually governed by matching the type of bait that fish in the area are eating with something from the tackle box. Tailor or salmon chase small pilchards and a small lure cast or trolled near them will usually produce a strike.

The usual prey of fish like barramundi. cod. mangrove jack and trevally is a small mullet, prawn or similar morsel. Matching a lure to a 15 cm mullet would be ideal in most cases. Flathead prefers similar lure patterns to those described. but in a deep diver format. Soft bodied jigs. flies and bucktails are also effective on this species.

Schools of surface fish can sometimes be located by looking for patches of seagulls. At other times a hunting system is used and lures cast at areas that look likely to hold fish.


Estuary tackle can be as simple as a length of line wrapped around a cork or as complex as the most sophisticated rod and reel. Handlines are fine for boat fishing where there is no need for long distance casting. However, rods and reels are versatile fishing tools and offer more options than handlines. Both types of tackle have their uses and appeal. with many regular estuary anglers opting for one rod and reel and several handlines.

The secret with estuary tackle is to fish as light as possible while still being able to handle the fish hooked. Local fishing conditions will generally dictate the most popular style of rod and reel for a particular area. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice from other anglers or tackle shop staff.

Hooks should suit the bait size rather than the fish size, and presentation should always strive for a natural approach with light sinkers suited to the gear and condition.