Tactics for fishing creeks and saltmarshes

Small creeks and saltmarshes – where the water is brackish – remain one of the last unexplored environments for sea anglers.

Long after the open beach, the rocks and the broad expanses of big estuaries have given up their secrets, creeks and saltmarshes remain a mystery. Maybe it is their gentleness: there’s no roar of wind and pounding surf, and the surface of the creek is just rippled slightly by a wayward breeze that meanders among the thickets of spartina and eel grass.

The creek defies many of the natural laws of sea angling. There is barely any depth, little fierce current and the water tends to be brackish. It is a hostile environment for most sea fish – but not for all. For some it is a peaceful larder where they can go quietly about the business of eating and living, undisturbed.

A muddy environment

Creeks are small estuaries, usually tributaries of a larger estuary. They split off from the main body of water and then may subdivide again, forming a network of interlocking fingers, each one growing smaller and shallower.

The fertile mud of the creeks is home to scores of tiny creatures which colonize huge areas. Lugworm, small ragworms, shrimp, crabs and a dozen different kinds of shellfish are there in abundance – as well as countless animals so small that only the hungry fish can spot them.

The bottom of the creek is usually sedimentary mud, some washed down from the hills, some brought in from the sea on each flooding tide. Occasional clean patches of gravel and bright sand appear at the junction of two creeks or with the main river where a fierce cross-current washes the bed four times a day. There is the odd patch of small pebbles exposed by years of erosion — but mostly it’s just mud.

The sides of the creek may also be mud, but it is harder – compacted and baked by long summer days and drying winds. The banks of the creek are flat. Depending on how high the tide rises the bank can be rich pasture land with highly prized sea-washed turf. You may even find some hardy shrubs such as the tenacious gorse.

Finding the fish

Birds are the obvious predators on the mud dwellers. What you can’t see are the fish that have had first call on the unwary creatures.

Fish swim up silently with the advancing tide and scour the creek until they sense that the water is standing still. Then, when the tide begins to recede they drift back with it to await the next flood.

Three main species of fish come into the creek on the rising tide – eels, mullet and flounders. There are also smaller species such as rockling and gobies, and some very young fish that stay in the safety of the estuary until they are strong enough to withstand the open sea. However, the targets for anglers are the big three. Flounders are present for much of the year. In most areas they leave in March and April to spawn in deep water, returning to the rich feeding of the creeks when they are finished. The flounders tend to leave and return in dribs and drabs however, so there are fish present even during this period.

Around much of the British coast they move offshore in winter to deeper, warmer water. In sheltered areas of the south and south west they often do not leave at all except during the hardest of frosts.

Flounders follow the rising tide in only inches of water with an impudence that defies all the normal rules of fish shyness. If the water is clear and the sun shining, they bask in the warmth almost as if they were trying to get a sun tan.

They spread out right across the creek, but the key to catching the best and the most flounders is to study the creek at low tide when there is no water. Memorize where the channels run – this is where the current is always stronger, even when the tide has covered everything. The flounders gather in these channels, waiting for food to be washed up or down to them. There are two sorts of eels – the silver and the yellow. The silver eels are those which have been living in freshwater and have now developed the urge to enter the sea and migrate thousands of miles across the Atlantic Ocean to their breeding grounds in the Sargasso Sea.

The second type of eel caught in creeks are yellow eels. They are the same species as the migrating silvers, but are not yet sexually mature. Some have remained in coastal regions and estuaries, while others ascend the rivers to live and feed in freshwater. All have a yellowy hue.

Eels are powerful swimmers and don’t mind feeding in the centre of the main current flooding into the creek. Getting tackle to hold firm on the bottom here is one of the main problems for anglers. Mullet begin to cruise into the creek in the early summer, staying until late autumn when the water temperature begins to drop. They then go out to sea and sink to deeper, warmer water.

Creeks are ideal for the feeding habits of mullet. They are a ‘vacuum cleaner’ fish, systematically slurping their way over the soft mud, sucking and blowing into the black soup to dislodge tiny animals. You can see the tiny grooves the mullet have made when the tide is out.

Both thick- and thin-lipped mullet like the brackish water of creeks. Thick lips tend to prefer the top ends of estuaries and creeks, but thin lips are often found cruising almost into fresh water. It is surprising how far up the creek they come.

You can sometimes see shoals of mullet rippling the surface on a calm day, almost as if they are sucking in spent flies like a hungry old trout. They search the whole creek, rummaging around old landing stages or boat moorings for any tasty rubbish that has been thrown overboard.

The netsmen clearing their nets provide plenty of titbits that the gulls have missed. The gutting may have been completed even before the land came into view, but a few scraps and little whiting always appear after the vessel has tied up and is being hosed down ready for the next trip.