Tapping in to river-mouth riches

There’s little doubt that estuary game fishing is a difficult and demanding sport. While the river angler has to consider the best taking times and weather conditions, the estuary fisherman must also take into account the state of the tide.

It might take a bit more effort in an estuary, but when you get it right you can find excellent fishing. Sea trout in particular become less susceptible to the angler’s wiles the longer they are in fresh water. They are more likely to take a fatal interest in flies, spinners or bait presented to them while they are still in the estuary.

Migratory fish such as salmon and sea trout, entering a river to spawn, must first pass through a well defined area – the estuary. Since these species need time to acclimatize when they move from salt to fresh water, this zone, where river and sea water mix to become brackish, becomes their home – for hours, days or even weeks.

It has got to be right

As the tides fill and empty the estuary, fish tend to move up and down the tidal reaches of the river. Before the fish make a positive move into fresh water, they may enter and leave the brackish water many times.

If the river is low the fish can trickle upstream. But if the water is low and the temperature too high (compared with the stable marine environment of perhaps 10-14°C the fish have just come from), it’s not conducive to major upstream migrations.

The in-and-out movement within the estuary may then go on for weeks — providing excellent prospects of sport for the angler.

If a spate occurs, and the water is right, the fish head upstream, leaving a deserted estuary. The number of fish in estuaries generally increases just before the spring tides which take place twice a month on the full and new moons. But the estuaries may well be largely deserted by fish during the very low or neap tides.

Therefore it’s vital for the angler to make sure there’s a good chance that the fish are present before venturing forth. Study the tide table and get as much local information on the timing of runs of migratory fish as you can.

Another important factor is whether the estuary is noted as a producer of sport -some are, some aren’t.

The presence of large runs of sea trout in the river usually indicates potential sport, but there are no guarantees. A few rivers have poor sea trout runs but produce relatively good estuarine fishing. This is unusual, however. Others such as the Ness sytem, have better fishing in the estuary than in the main river. Always get local information whenever possible.

The best geographical areas for estuary fishing are the west coast of Scotland, the north-east coast of Scotland, north-west England, Wales, south-west England and Ireland. It is no coincidence that these areas also have the best sea trout fishing.

River mouth slobs

There’s no doubt that sea trout are the prime target for estuary game fishermen. Salmon, although frequently present, very rarely show much interest in the angler’s lures until well into fresh water. Sea trout are much more likely to be feeding while in brackish water. Flies and spinners representing food items stimulate them to take.

Also present in estuaries are estuarine or ‘slob’ trout — thought to be an intermediate stage between non-migratory brown trout and sea trout.

The term slob comes from the Wexford Slobs – big brackish areas in south-east Ireland which are inhabited by large numbers of these fish.

Slob trout are resident in brackish water and remain after migratory salmonids are gone. They are formidable fighters and often grow big, particularly in the estuaries of major rivers. Use sea trout tactics or seek local advice for the best methods.

Tidal topography

The shape and configuration of each estuary gives pointers to the fishing techniques and tactics needed. Typical west coast rivers are small, vigorous and steep, with tidal pools at the mouth. They are perhaps the easiest to fish. The movement of salt water in and out of them is clear to see.

As the tide builds the flow of fresh water through the tidal pools slows and deepens and fish sneak into the deepening water from the sea. This is a classic time to meet up with incoming sea trout fresh off the tide. As the salt water finally leaves the pool the current regains its former strength and shallowness, and any fish wishing to remain in the fresh water is more likely to fall to the canny angler. With this type of estuary, sport is best an hour either side of low water.

Estuaries of big rivers, such as those on the Scottish and English east coasts, tend to be wide and difficult for the beginner or visitor to come to terms with. Look for breakwaters, groynes or other such projections into the main channel and fish from there. Other places worthy of attention are small stream mouths or gulleys where the main current slackens enough to offer rest for the travelling fish.

In the big estuaries fish may be available through all states of the tide, although you’ll find them in different locations — well up the river on the flood tides and close to the sea on the ebb.

Big estuaries usually mean there’s a chance of big fish, and big fish prefer to feed on small fish – so spinning with slim, silvery lures is the most popular method of fishing. Fishing with spoons and lures also enables you to get more casting distance and cover more water. Varying the speed of retrieve allows you to fish at different depths, giving you a better chance of locating fish — a slow retrieve fishes deeper.

In the smaller estuaries you should try to keep disturbance to a minimum to avoid spooking the fish. Spinning is normally too noisy a method in the confines of the sea pools, and fly fishing is preferable. A big fish-imitating fly, fished with a smaller one above, is a fair cover-all technique. For instance, a Teal Blue and Silver tandem or streamers and bucktails are well worth trying. Some anglers on the larger estuaries put a spoon or lure on the end of the cast with a Demon or Terror fly on the dropper. This allows them to fish the fly while achieving greater distance and covering more water.