Every coarse angler ought to venture past the tidal point of a river to where fishing is free. Every sea angler should look to those brackish flats where so many species live off the tides.
Fishing tackle, baits and methods used on exposed harbours and estuaries are similar to those used to cast from beaches and rocks on the open cast. With tide races and cross currents at their strongest at many harbour entrances, tackle must be even heavier than would normally be required for seafishing. Most harbours and estuaries, however, are quiet places where long distance casting and specialized tackle are unnecessary. For the beginner there are mackerel, garfish and flatfishes; for the more experienced angler the challenge of shy mullet and heavyweight conger eels.
To fish in harbours – or anywhere else for that matter – it is necessary to determine the fish’s role in the environment. The next step is to use a suitable bait at the correct depth and location. It is pointless, for ex-ample, ledgering a strip of mackerel for mullet feeding on surface plankton. If mullet were taking pieces of bread from just below the surface you could assemble very light float tackle, bait with a flake of bread and cast near the feeding shoal. As mullet are shy it pays to cut line diameter to the safe minimum of about 4lb breaking strain; the rod and reel can be correspondingly light – a freshwater specimen rod and fixed-spool reel. The same tackle used with slightly stronger line would be suitable for the wrasse and pollack found closer to the seabed. Substituting worms and pieces of crab or fish for the bread should give excellent results. Mackerel, garfish, bass and pollack are midwater predators that hunt their victims rather than wrasse, bass and flatfish hooked from harbours during the holiday season on unsophisticated tackle.
Normal shorecasting tackle to throw the baits well out, so that they lie on the open ground, can be a helpful method. Worms, fish strips and sandeels attract rays, flatfishes, bass and even huge monkfish.
Fishing at night, when the fish are more active, is usually the best time when fishing off harbours. This is especially true when fishing for conger eels which hide during the day and are rarely tempted to feed. As waiting for them to drift past on the tide. They respond to bright, flashing movement and vibration which can be duplicated by a spinner of some kind. Artificial lure fishing is particularly good for these species when their activity cycles are at a peak, at dawn and dusk. Simple, lightweight tackle – fresh water tackle, for example – is perfectly adequate; even a simple handline may suffice. Successful lures range from spinners and spoons to feathers or even a strip of silver foil draped around a bare hook. The abundance of species that take either float-fished or spun baits probably explains why harbour and estuary fishing is so popular with holidaymakers and beginners. If a survey were taken, we would perhaps find that 90 per cent of the seafish caught along the British coasts are mackerel, and small pollack.
Conger eel fishing is a rough, tough sport. Casting out a chunk of really fresh fish on strong tackle, wait for a bite, then be prepared to join in a tug-of-war – which the eel wins more often than not. But it is fun, offering chances to catch one of the biggest species the shorefisher encounters.
The species found in estuaries are usually the same as those in harbours and the angler may not be faced with long casting. There are, however, so many different types of estuary that it is impossible to generalize. The vast Essex Black-water is little different from the open coast, having beaches, sandbanks and channels as well as creeks and mudflats. Some of the West Country estuaries, on the other hand, are no more than inlets used as harbours. As with successful fishing in harbours and from open shores, an understanding of natural history is important. If there are pilings, quays and backwaters, light tackle harbour techniques are best. Where there are sand , spits and shingle beaches washed by surf, fish with standard casting tackle.
Going afloat is your passport to better estuary fishing. Offshore sandbanks and channels attract all kinds of fish. Many of the open sea species tend to concentrate on the feeding grounds at the mouths of estuary systems. In contrast, the upper reaches of many estuaries are unfishable from the shore because of the extensive mud flats between you and the deeper water. On the more popular sailing and pleasure waters, the estuary itself, like the surrounding beaches, is too crowded to fish unless you can get away in a boat.
Dinghy fishing is the finest way to cover large areas of ground. Bigger boats are restricted to the deeper channels and in many estuaries they will be high and dry except for a short spell at high water.
Fish light, and avoid traditional up-and-down techniques. Boat-casting – virtually beachcasting at sea – presents the baits more attractively and covers more of the seabed. Cast well away from the boat and you’ll hook more of the shy species like bass which are scared off by the noise made by boats and anchor ropes splashing. But do not restrict yourself to fishing at anchor – excellent sport with bass, mackerel, garfish and other predators comes with drifting and trolling.
For most techniques, a light boat-casting rod, 9-1 lft long and balanced to 3-5oz, offers easy fishing, plenty of power and very long distance casting when necessary. Use a small multiplier and 10-15 lb test nylon.
In estuary fishing the most significant factor which makes it different from other branches of seafishing is the fact that all estuaries are a confluence of fresh and saltwater. How they mix is crucial to the ecology of the area and therefore to the fishing. If vast amounts of freshwater pour into the estuary, as happens in a fast running spate river that tumbles from the mountains to the sea in a short course, seawater is swamped. The effect is to build up a saline gradient where the sea makes most headway in mid-channel but has little effect closer to the banks, where the water is brackish.
Some fish – flounders and mullet – are attracted to brackish water, but most of the truly marine species are repelled. To catch them you must fish from a boat in mid-estuary. Where saltwater dominates a sluggish freshwater flow and pushes it well inland, salinity is high even close to the banks and fishing is better directed towards the truly marine species (cod, bass, plaice, whiting and conger eel) which require a high salt content.