If you are prepared to return your catch and not eat it, and put up with murky water and a vista of dockyards and chemical works, there’s some excellent sport to be had on our larger industrialized estuaries.
Your local estuary may have a bed of mixed ground – gravel, boulders, mud and sand – in which case there’ll probably be all kinds of fish there.
Perhaps the two most prolific and obliging estuary species are flounders and eels -making them a popular target for match anglers. During the summer you can catch both flounders and eels, dabs (they are in fact all-year-round fish) and, if you are lucky, plaice too.
Flounders love a bit of mud to bury themselves in and if there are any gullies in the estuary then so much the better. The secret of catching them is simple – use a bait that is the same as the flounder’s natural food. Peeler crab seems to be a favourite but flounders’ tastes vary from one estuary to another. In some parts of the country harbour rag – also known as creepers and mad-dies – are best.
As is often the case in fishing, though, there are no hard and fast rules. On different occasions shellfish, mackerel strip, lug-worm and ragworm may all prove successful for flounders. Eels travel farther up the river than any other species and seem more able to tolerate polluted water — you can catch them anywhere in an estuary from its mouth, right up the river. But the highest concentrations are found around obstructions: rocks, piers, jetties and sewer pipes. They are extremely fond of a crab diet but if you can’t get hold of fresh or frozen peelers, rag-worm and lugworm are an excellent standby.
Plaice enter some estuaries in spring and although they fall to much the same tactics as flounders, they make a pleasant change. Baby mussels are a favourite food of plaice so, not surprisingly, you often fmd them around mussel beds – but the bait which seems to work best for them is peeler crab. Both plaice and flounders can be found in really shallow water, so don’t be afraid to cast short and search some rather ‘unlikely’ looking spots.
Dabs are usually found on clean sandy ground but they tolerate mud. They are very obliging fish and the best bait for them is usually black lug tipped with a small sliver of mackerel. You can catch them off beaches, walls, jetties and piers. Night time is best. Dabs and other fish like to wait behind sandbars for food washing over them.
Some species are considered more as visitors to our estuaries, arriving to spend a short spell in the calmer, sheltered water during the cold winter weather before returning to the open seas. Whiting If your local estuary has any shrimps then there is a good chance that around October or November the whiting move in – they love shrimps. However, shrimps are too fragile to use as a bait for whiting — they can remove shrimps from the hook without being caught. Black lug and mackerel are far better.
Fishing on the sandy parts of the estuary is usually better after dark. This is when the shoals move closer to the shore and even inexperienced casters can reach them. A three hook rig usually works best, and if the fish are in you can expect to catch them two or three at a time.
Codling and cod move into some estuaries around November and December and stay during the winter. They like a bit of rough water or a strongish current, and prefer the deeper parts of the estuary. Constructions such as walls and jetties are good spots because they help you cast to deeper water you couldn’t otherwise reach. Cod eat virtually anything but the best bait is lugworm, with frozen peeler crab second best. If there are any rocks in the estuary then crab may outfish lug. Other good baits for cod are ragworm, mussel, squid, mackerel and live small whiting for bigger cod.
Gathering fresh bait
The mixed ground that you find in many estuaries makes them a good source of fresh bait. Looking for and collecting bait also helps you to build up a better picture of the estuary — giving you a clue to where the feeding grounds of certain species are. Lugworms can be found in the sandier beaches -just look for the tell-tale sign of a spiral cast in the sand. You can dig them from their U-shaped tunnels with either a spade or fork.
Ragworms prefer beaches with a mixture of mud, sand and gravel – usually there are mussels on this type of ground. The best way to pinpoint worms is to walk over the ground looking for a little squirt of water to come up. If you see a squirt then dig as close to it as possible and you should soon see the ragworm’s trace – its tunnel. Usually you can see which way it has travelled and follow it. A garden fork is best for this.
Harbour rag (creepers) love mud, and the blacker it is the better. The difficult part about collecting them is not the digging but picking them out of the mud. Their small size and the wet sticky mud make it a very messy business. Because creepers are so small you should fish them in bunches on the hook.
Peeler crabs A crab peels because it grows too big for its shell. A new shell forms under the old one and, when the crab is ready to shed its old small shell, the sides split and the crab eases itself out. The new shell is soft, making the crab extremely vulnerable – at this stage it is called a ‘soft-back’. Fish love them. The best stage to find them is just as the old shell is starting to peel.
Peelers are found in summer (except in Devon, where they can be found all year round). Look for them in any nook and cranny that provides shelter — under rocks, stones, weeds, tyres and around wooden piles. You don’t have to use a whole peeler in one go – it’s more economical, and attractive to the fish, to cut them in half with a pair of scissors. Because they are so soft, tie them on to the hook with elasticated thread -shirring elastic — which you can buy from wool and hosiery shops.