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Light tackle estuary fishing for beginners

22 June 2017
Light tackle estuary fishing for beginners

Some of best fishing experiences are the easiest and for North Island fishermen, it doesn’t get much easier than casting a lure off a harbour beach. By beach, I mean in sandy estuaries and harbour entrances, spots that provide easy access to fishable water.

The results have been impressive so I thought I’d pass on a few tips.

Short season

Northern inland waterways start to hold reasonable populations of snapper in late December, becoming less-productive again by the end of April. The peak seems to be in February and March.

Finding spot X

When looking for a productive spot to fish from there a number of key attributes to consider:

1) Safe and easy walking access. The fishable banks of many estuaries have access which is restricted by deep and muddy mangrove swamps. I caution anglers tempted to wade bravely through muddy areas in the pursuit of a secret spot x. It’s a messy business at best and even occasionally a dangerous one. Getting stuck in the mud with an incoming tide comes with pretty obvious consequences

2) Look for relatively deep water within easy casting range of the estuary bank. As little as 1.5 to 2 meters is plenty - in other words, anywhere that offers all tide boating access

3) A good food source is essential. Cockle and pipi beds are an obvious place to start. At low tide it pays to scan the exposed banks for the holes created when snapper forage for worms, crustaceans and shellfish. Yes, this really does happen – see the video for examples

4) Ensure the location offers good tidal flow. As they say in the game “no run, no fun".

Timing is everything

Ideally you want to fish the bulk of the incoming tide so look for a location that offers reasonable casting access to fishable water for at least for two or three hours. This may mean shifting position along the bank three or four times during a session.

Because the water will be shallow it is ideal if you can time your expedition with the change of light. The first two or three hours in the morning or the last two or three hours in the evening offer the sweet spot.

I like to plan ahead, scanning the tide tables the perfect opportunity. The weather is less important as most locations will be relatively sheltered. If it’s been raining heavily it pays to give the harbour a day or two to clear.

General equipment

  • 2 x surf spikes
  • 1 - 2 x frozen berley packs
  • 2 lengths of cord or bungee - approximately 2m long
  • 2 x keyring floats
  • 1 x fish measuring device
  • A portable chilly-bin with salt ice. (Look for one with wheels as this will make the walk in and out much easier)
  • A durable waterproof bag or backpack

Kit for softbait fishos

  • A light softbaiting rod and reel, preferably with an open spool
  • Light jig heads - less than half an ounce should be ample
  • 1 x packet of GULP curly tail softbaits

For saltwater fly enthusiasts

  • An 8# or 9# rod paired with a suitably saltwater-friendly reel
  • A medium sink and/or sink-tip fly line
  • A 9 foot tapered 0X leader
  • 10 – 15lb fluorocarbon tippet
  • Your favourite salt flies - I favour yellow/white or pink/white clousers and crustacean imitations

Getting set-up

Tie a keyring float to the end of each cord. Take one cord and float and securely thread it through an open berley bag.

Tie it firmly to the top of a surf spike and walk knee deep into the water, deploying the berley by driving the surf spike firmly into the sand. Within minutes you should see small bait fish like yellow-eyed mullet and mackerel feeding in the berley trail. The float will help you locate the spike as the tide comes in.

Tie the other cord securely through any loose items you plan to leave on the beach. Drive the surf spike into the beach near where you are fishing. This is to ensure that should you become distracted as the tide comes, your precious belongings (and catch) don't get washed away with the incoming tide.


Softbait fishermen should cast directly across the channel as far as possible and slightly down current from the berley bag. The tide will swing the softbait in an arch through the target zone. Retrieve relatively quickly but with occasional pause as snapper often hit the softbait as it falls. If fish are present you should catch your first one within 10 minutes.

Saltfly fisherman should employ a similar technique to the softbait fishermen, casting as far as possible across the channel, allowing the current to drag the fly through the strike zone. The only significant difference is the adjustment of fly line types. With a medium current, use of the medium sink-rate line but as the flow increases, a sink tip or even a full sinking line may be required to get the fly down quickly enough.

Imitating the softbait retrieval action seems to work well. The pause seems even more important with saltfly as most fish take on the stop rather than the retrieve.

Important: With saltfly fishing always strip strike and never strike with the rod. You’ll be too slow and soft and miss many fish.

Last note

Be realistic about the fish sizes you going to catch up an estuary. You're not likely to be smashing 15 and 20 pounders so always take a measuring stick to ensure your lunch is of a legal size.

We hope you enjoy this low stress method of catching a few snapper. It's a hell of a lot of fun and extremely cost-effective. Most trips cost no more than $30 by the time you buy a berley bomb or two, salt ice, a few softbaits and a bit of gas for the car.

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