The ever-changing estuary where salt water meets fresh provides the sea angler with a calmer alternative to the turbulent open sea.
The mouth of an estuary is a dynamic environment where the salt level of the water (salinity) is constantly changing as the tide pushes sea water inland and draws it out again.
Tolerating fresh water
Eels, flounders, mullet, bass, sea trout and salmon can survive in different levels of salinity. Their individual tolerances dictate just how far into fresh water they can venture. Those with the highest tolerances can tap into an otherwise untouched food source high up the estuary.
For some, their visit to the estuary depends on the state of the tide or the amount of fresh water flowing into the sea. So you should take these factors into account when deciding how far up the estuary to fish. Silver eels are the most prolific estuary species. From their birthplace in the Sargasso Sea (east of the Bahamas), eels negotiate the Atlantic to enter European river estuaries and reach freshwater streams, lakes and ponds. Spots where fresh water enters the estuary from land drains are worth a try but you can catch them in the shallowest or most unlikely places. Eels are particularly fond of underwater obstructions such as piles, groynes, and disused pipes.
Eels stay all the year round in many estuaries and can be caught on legered crab and worm baits. Because they are so slimy, eels are not popular with all anglers, but even so they are a formidable foe requiring strong tackle. Once caught, you can stop them from escaping by keeping them in a sealable bucket. Flounders adapt rapidly from salt to fresh water, and the early flood of the tide sees this fish nosing its way over the mud, sometimes with less than 2.5cm (1 in ) of water over its back. During a single tide, flounders move far inland to feast on freshwater insects as well as marine worms, shrimps and crabs.
It pays to fish at the earliest sign of the tide flooding and not much beats a big lump of peeler crab, although flounders take most marine worms and are not averse to a common earthworm. Try searching out the estuary with a baited flounder spoon. Retrieved slowly along the sea bed the spoon attracts inquisitive flounders to the ragworm bait by sending up little puffs of mud. In the strongest tides look for deep gullies or even flounder-shaped indents in the mud, made by the fish as they lie up out of the tide. Depressions made by moored boats are another favourite flounder haunt. Plaice and dab are confined to the lower reaches at the mouth of the estuary. Small rag and lug are good baits for plaice and dabs. Big plaice sometimes move on to the mussel beds and become preoccupied with feeding on minute mussels but you can tempt these fish with a crab bait.
The mullet is an ocean-going species that also feels at home in the shallow water of estuaries. The shoals arrive during the late spring and summer. This species’ unique dietary system enables it to survive by sifting food from mud and algae. Having no teeth, but with a long intestine and muscular gizzard, the mullet scrapes and sucks its way along the bottom mud round landing stage piles, groynes, seaweed and rocks, removing microscopic plant plankton from small particles of weed, along with marine worms, crustaceans and some mud. Its unusual diet makes it difficult to tempt but it is a great opportunist and scavenger and often monopolises food scraps. There are two main species of mullet, the smallest being the more obliging thin-lipped mullet which is nicknamed ‘Kamikaze’ in the south because of its sometimes suicidal reaction to a small spoon baited with mud ragworm. The larger species is the thick-lipped mullet, less easy to tempt and more likely to spread panic through a shoal when hooked. Keep a look out for clouds of mud sent up by the mullet as they forage on the bottom, or for tails and dorsal fins showing above the water.
Bread flake, crust, maggots and even macaroni or sweetcorn tempt the thick-lipped mullet. Loosefed bread crumb or groundbait may induce a shoal to feed and if you get them going on bread or small ragworm you may make a killing. Fresh water float gear with line of around 4 lb (1.8kg) is ideal.
The bass is not so well equipped to venture far up the estuary and is usually limited to the sandbanks at the mouth where it chases sandeels and forages for marine worms and crabs. Small school bass move higher into the estuary when freshwater is at a minimum. They mingle with other small estuary species like smelt, small coalfish and gobies and are a target for young anglers alongside stages and jetties.
Gulls and bass are attracted to sandeels which come out of the sandbanks to swim in the shallow water. The sound of a noisy flock of gulls draws the angler’s attention to a feeding shoal of bass. A freelined sandeel fished on light gear can be deadly in these conditions.
Salmon and sea trout run up estuaries to spawn in the higher reaches of rivers – most notably those where pollution levels are low. Provided there is enough water in the river they do this throughout the spring, summer and autumn. On some estuaries, where the levels are low, the river needs to be in spate before the fish start to run.
The baits and techniques for these species are the concern of the game angler, and within the National Waters Authority region a special licence is required before you remove fish from the water. Sea anglers occasionally catch sea trout and salmon by accident when spinning for other species but these fish should be returned.
Rich bait source
When the winter floods have gone, marine life comes closer to the surface of the mud as the threat of scourging cold-water spates lifts. The estuary now provides the angler with a rich source of bait. Common shore crabs rush to shed their shells, the cocks peeling first as they hurry to secure a female (breeding can only take place when the hen is soft). Species like eels, bass and flounder move into the estuary at this time to feast on the vulnerable soft crabs as they moult. The crabs hide in weed, under stones and deep in the mud in their efforts to avoid the carnage and you can find them high up the tidal range.
Old rat holes in muddy banks or in the soft mud alongside groynes and landing stages are likely hiding places. Weed attached to walls and piles close to the water line is often the best place to find peelers. Shake the weed and the peelers fall straight into your bucket.
Marine worms are excellent for catching fish in spring but are especially effective in the summer months. Foraging ragworms lie close to the surface and range far into the freshwater reaches. They betray themselves by leaving hundreds of small holes in the mud and are easy prey for sea birds and bait diggers. You’ll also find king ragworm and lugworm in the sandbanks and mud.
Shingle or shale sandbars conceal sandeels – the main target of the foraging summer bass. You can dig these or net them, or in some areas it is usual to rake them out of the sand with a long curved blade.
You can keep them in a bucket of sea water if the weather is cool. In hot weather it is best to put them in a cool box with sea water and an ice pack.