Fishing estuaries more effectively: tides

Graz hooked up to a fish in around a foot of water.
Graz hooked up to a fish in around a foot of water.

The principle is simple and the same around the globe. On beaches, rivers, estuaries and oceans. Find the bait/food and you will find the fish. In all those environments, structure plays and important role in helping you the angler achieve that. Be it a pinnacle that catches the current and concentrates baitfish, a rock bar, a snag that provides cover and a good ambush point, a channel that funnels food off a draining tidal flat. These structures attract fish because they concentrate food or make it easier to catch. Like most of us, fish are “lazy”, that is they use the environment to increase the efficiency of their hunting efforts. Which is exactly what we should be doing as anglers. The environments that produce “easy” food, that attract predatory fish are the environments that should attract us. Just like the fish we can use those structures and currents to our advantage to catch more fish. So in this article, we will discuss a little about how understanding tides and tidal movements can help you catch more fish in estuaries. Overall, the principle is simply tidal movement that concentrates food, will attract fish.

A nice flathead caught on fly just as the tide started coming in. In this case a narrow part of the main channel which was roaring along intersected with one of the main highways (deeper sections of the flat) onto the flat. In four casts I hooked four fish  that were all within a few meters of each other... 20 minutes later the movement and structure that had attracted the fish was gone and the spot had shut down.
A nice flathead caught on fly just as the tide started coming in. In this case a narrow part of the main channel which was roaring along intersected with one of the main highways (deeper sections of the flat) onto the flat. In four casts I hooked four fish that were all within a few meters of each other… 20 minutes later the movement and structure that had attracted the fish was gone and the spot had shut down.

 

Another cast another fish.
Another cast another fish.

So what are some of the things you should look for when you are on the water?

Movement, channels and other food highways: Channels can produce some absolutely wonderful fishing at times. Finding good water movement can often be the key, the tides are your friend. In Eden over summer, massive schools of tailor, whiting, mullet and trevally would congregate in the channels in the last hour or hour and a half leading up to high tide. The congregation of fish coincided with the last big push of the tide, the water started moving faster and the fish arrived, ready to feast of the hapless prawns, worms and baitfish that were being taken along for a ride. If you arrived half an hour early at those very same spots, fish would be very hard to find and just as the tide started to abate, the fish would leave as quickly as they had appeared. The key was being there when a somewhat featureless channel, without a whole load of weed and structure to hold bait and fish, suddenly turned into a fishy McDonalds, providing fast easy prey for the fish to feast on. In that same estuary at exactly the same time, massive schools of luderick would appear on the featureless sandy bottoms at the mouth, feeding on the weed, dislodged from the rock platform at the mouth that was being washed into the estuary. The lesson here is that when you are fishing channels in an estuary, always consider tides and tidal movement. Water movement brings food to fish, meaning they can simply sit and wait for the food to be brought to them. So if there is a fair bit of tidal push, you should be able to find fish feasting on the easily available food. When looking for places to fish in the channels, focus on areas that have lots of “food” holding structure in the vicinity, be they weedbeds, mangroves, oyster leases or sandflats. Look for areas where the waiting fish can hold in the current without much effort, drop offs, eddies, rock bars, pylons and the like.

Graz with a bream pulled from under a jetty leading up to high tide.
Graz with a bream pulled from under a jetty leading up to high tide.

Different channels will work differently at different points in the tide, in different seasons, times of day etc, but as a general rule of thumb, the best times are usually an hour or two either side of either high or low tide. A bit of local knowledge goes a long way here in determining which bits of the estuary fish best throughout the tidal cycle, in my favourite estuaries I have oodles of spots I like to hit up on the run in and run out tides and the time in-between high and low tide, one of the benefits of fishing a single estuary system regularly is you start learn what sort of structure to fish at different parts of the tidal cycle, something that can be easily adapted to brand new estuaries and fishing situations. Once you start to understand these factors it will drastically improve your estuary catch rates. Obviously the size of tides varies and that will effect how you fish and what you target. For example, if you are chasing Jewfish, you want to focus on the “big” tides that generally occur around the new and full moons. If you are lucky enough to have a relatively quick boat, you can also chase the tides up and down the estuary, focusing your efforts on the “peak” point in the tide at the mouth, then motoring up the estuary and fishing that same point in the tide further up the system. By doing this you can fish the ideal tides pretty much all day.

A nice tailor caught in a main channel. Often tailor will form big schools associated with tidal movement.
A nice tailor caught in a main channel. Often tailor will form big schools associated with tidal movement.
A little trevally caught in the lead up to high tide. As the water really started moving as it approached high tide, a bunch of trevors and tailor were schooled up feasting on an easy meal.
A little trevally caught in the lead up to high tide. As the water really started moving as it approached high tide, a bunch of trevors and tailor were schooled up feasting on an easy meal.

Filling and draining flats: Most of my estuary fishing, is flats fishing, there isn’t much better than catching big fish in skinny water. Tide and flats fishing go hand in hand. Filling flats are constantly exposing new, previously unreachable or hard to reach food sources to fish. As they fill and the water deepens they become safer and safer places for fish to feed on the worms, yabbies and prawns that call the flats home. Fishing the flats at high tide can be incredibly rewarding, producing bags of whiting, bream, trevally, tailor and flathead. Once the tide has turned and the water starts to recede from the flats, all of the fish and food that has moved onto them to take advantage of all the “new” territory, eventually has to leave them. This can produce some absolutely amazing fishing on the last few hours of the run out tide, as the flats drain and become smaller and smaller and more and more fish have to leave the flat through slight channels and depressions. Some of the best flathead fishing can be found as the tide runs out, scores of flathead sometimes lining themselves on the main drainage points of a large flat, ambushing all the hapless prawns and baitfish that have been forced to leave. If the flat drains into a main channel, the drop off will usually produce great fishing. The principle is the same as above, water movement concentrates food and the fish flock to the easy meal, making your job as an angler easier. This general lesson, that water movement can concentrate bait fish and thus concentrate predatory fish is transferable to loads of other environments, be it jigging for kingfish or fishing the run-off for barra, the overarching principles are the same.

A flathead lie in one of the channels leading off the flat exposed by low tide. Along this one depression were 20-30 other flathead lies just like this one.
A flathead lie in one of the channels leading off the flat exposed by low tide. Along this one depression were 20-30 other flathead lies just like this one.

 

A nice bream caught on a stickbait worked over a sand flat in the lead up to high tide.
A nice bream caught on a stickbait worked over a sand flat in the lead up to high tide.

Of course there is a fair bit more subtlety to it. Local knowledge can go a long way and time on the water always helps when it comes to understanding the movements and behaviour of the fish in your local estuary. Seasons, moons, the size of the tides and many other factors will all play a role and will need to be factored into how to best fish an estuary. But as a starting point, focussing on the couple of hours leading up to and following high and low tide and being aware of how water movement affects fishes behaviour, your a decent way along the road to getting the most out of your estuary fishing.

Good luck on the water

Flick and Fly

flickandflyjournal.com

Hamish Webb, Dan Firth, Graham Fifield and Lee Georgeson have been fishing the south-east Australian region since 1987. Since then they’ve become avid sportfishermen who are constantly looking for new ways to challenge themselves. They are all scientists and conservationists who are passionate about the long-term sustainability of the ecosystem in which they live. They promote understanding and appreciation of the complex socio-political, economic and environmental issues surrounding fish, fishing and fisheries, while never losing sight of the various motivations that keep them coming back. In English, that means they love all things fishing and have a damn good time on the water, and that’s all that really counts in the end!

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