Get your local waterway wired.
Much like 4WDing, fishing is an activity where an intimate appreciation of your environment is critical. Taking note of seemingly insignificant factors around you can play a big part in the outcome of your outing. The butterfly effect is never more apparent than when out on the water.
Estuaries, in particular, are endlessly complex ecosystems. It can take a lifetime of trial and error to halfway figure out what makes these environments tick.
It’s easy to bumble through fishing trip after trip without catching or learning much. It can be pretty humbling, then, to watch a truly skilled fisho approach a waterway with a critical eye, take note of surroundings, and begin to catch fish from the get go.
One commonality amongst those blokes that always seem to outfish the rest of us is that they’re always watching, always curious. Looking for signs and signals as to what’s going on beneath the water’s surface, and tweaking their approach to suit.
If I’ve learnt anything from fishing alongside those guys that make it look easy, it’s to have a plan of attack, but be prepared to resort to plan B, C or D in order to get the bite. Be aware of the weather and tide forecast, but always trust your eyes and your gut over any digital prophesy.
Tides are one of the few significant variables that can be predicted ahead of time. The state of tidal flow will determine where bait sources are concentrated in a waterway, and which species are actively feeding and where.
Popular estuary bound targets like dusky flathead are conventionally easier to hook on a run out tide, where they’ll hole up adjacent to tributaries or draining channels, hoping to ambush an easy feed.
Estuary top dogs like mulloway prefer to hunt lazily and will wait in ambush in the lee of structure like bridge pylons or rock bars while the tide is flowing strongly, and hunt more actively during the slack water at the top and bottom of the tide.
Opportunistic feeders like bream and luderick will often feed more actively around shore based structure like jetties and fallen timber on a building tide, as the rising water levels allow access to food sources that are otherwise out of reach.
It’s worth remembering that tidal flow reaches different parts of a waterway at different rates. Your forecasting site or app of choice will generally refer to the tide at the mouth of a system where it meets the ocean, however the full tidal impact can be delayed by up to an hour or more in the furthest upstream reaches of an estuary.
Natural structure like reef and sandbanks, as well as man made formations like rockwalls and bridges, provides cover and hunting grounds for most estuary bound species.
Fish are almost always more likely to be found in proximity to structure rather than in open water or over a featureless bottom. When trying new techniques or covering new ground, obvious structure points the best path forward.
If you can determine which way the tide or current is flowing, it gets easier to spot potential ambush spots where target species might be holing up, waiting for an easy feed to happen by.
You’ll start to notice patterns in the sort of snags and cover that natural predators like mangrove jack and barramundi like to hide out in, and this information is transferrable from waterway to waterway.
Prospecting sand and mud flats for bottom feeding targets like flathead and whiting is an interminable aspect of estuary fishing. While most flats systems will look nigh identical to estuary newcomers, the nuance becomes a little more noticeable after you start to rack up some hours on the water.
On closer inspection, most mud or sand flat systems will be crossed by a network of drainage channels or drop offs. These channels might only be a few inches deeper than the flats, but they allow water flow and fish movement across large areas of sand and mud flat.
The reason species like whiting and flathead are so drawn to flats systems is the potential rich food sources. Mud flats interspersed with patchy stands of ribbon weed can be home to a diverse buffet of crustaceans and invertebrates including saltwater nippers and soldier crabs, prawns, pippis and several species of bait worm.
It’s easy to see why certain predators adapt to take advantage of these happy hunting grounds. Spend a little time fishing the flats systems in your local estuaries, and you won’t be surprised to encounter trophy sized flatties and whiting patrolling waters barely more than ankle deep.
In more northerly systems, species including golden and diamond trevally, threadfin salmon and even barramundi are well adapted to pick up a feed in very shallow water.
A final aspect to keep in mind is the changing depth of a waterway; how to gauge depth changes and predict where fish might be in the water column.
In a fairly uniform depth system, even subtle changes can be worth identifying as potential fish aggregators. A drop off can provide many predators with an ideal lie to wait in ambush of an easy feed that is pushed over the top of a bank by tide or current flow.
Peppering the edges of obvious drop offs with casts is an effective way of sounding out all sorts of species from bream and flathead through to top order predators like mulloway and big barramundi up north.
If you happen to be fishing with a boat equipped with depth sounder, you’ve got a big advantage over landbased fishos that need to rely on visual cues to locate drop offs and depth changes.
While deep holes are generally worth prospecting for bigger predators, it’s not deep or shallow water in particular that will necessarily hold more fish, but more often than not the contrasting drop offs between different depths that can tend to attract more consistent action.
By the time you’ve taken into account what the tide is doing and assessed the water depth, located structure, flats and drop offs, you’ve no doubt got all the information necessary to get stuck into catching a few quality fish.
There’s still plenty more factors that can affect your results from session to session, however, including water temperature, wind and weather conditions, barometric pressure and fluctuations in the bait species that are present.
That’s what’s so addictive about fishing estuaries, you can always keep improving, and there’s no reason to ever stop learning.