Fishing Estuaries | An Overlooked Fly Fishing Option

You know trout live in tidal estuaries year round right? And with the majority of NZ’s population living somewhat near the coast, chances are there’s a river mouth open near you.
Fishing estuaries throughout the winter and into spring can provide fishing opportunities to maiden fish which have not moved upstream to spawn, returning hens and year-round estuary dwellers along with random bycatches which can include kahawai, flounder and mullet.

You will be fishing all day looking for that often short window when everything is right and the fish suddenly appear and are on the feed. Sometimes this window can last for hours, but most often it will be a short period of time where you need to make the most of your day. This window can change daily according to conditions so be prepared to spend more than ‘half hour down at the local’ if you want the result.


Fly Fishing Estuaries Gear


It’s not blue ribbon water. You aren’t often likely to get that pristine, backcountry hike in, and you’ll probably need to swap that box of dries for a handful of big, meaty streamers.

The best anglers I know are all adaptable and multidimensional and at worst, your casting will be less rusty come opening day. There is no downside to getting amongst it in an estuary in winter.

As springtime estuaries warm and the first stirrings of fish appear with the whitebait, it's all uphill from here as temperatures rise and the smelt appear. There is some great tidal water fishing to be had in the spring. Despite the majority of New Zealand anglers living in close proximity of tidal water, relatively few take advantage of it, often citing low catch rates and unfamiliarity in approaching often large, featureless bodies of water.


Even in seemingly larger, empty-looking expanses of water structure abounds everywhere. Drop-offs, tidal seams, faster current channels and softer edge waters all qualify as places where trout can concentrate in different conditions.
  • Structure can change as tides rise and ebb so it pays to visit your local at different tides to see where you should be as the tide floods in. Accordingly, be prepared to move about.
  • Sandbars may concentrate currents, as tides rise or fall over them, that sloping beach may concentrate the current and resultantly, direct baitfish and of course corners, bridges and other in-stream obstacles can all direct or stall the flow.
  • Blind casting everywhere will soon get tiring and somewhat boring in big water but like the increased success we enjoy when casting at sighted, summertime fish, casting at identified structure WILL result in a higher catch rate this spring.

Ten tips for fishing estuaries this winter and spring

  1. Look for inlets, weed patches, deeper holes or calm spots in the lee of points and bank extensions. Just as summertime upriver fish love structure and cover, these fish do too.
  2. Look for deeper shorelines. The difference between shin-deep and thigh-deep water can be all it takes to locate fish.
  3. Keep your eyes moving. Look for fish themselves, bow waves, movements or swirls. Often the days are calm and water clear, so be prepared to sight fish.
  4. These fish move and so should you. Fish each spot slow and thoroughly, but keep walking and cover ground, particularly on new water. That high and dry patch of rocks over yonder may become the hotspot on the incoming tide.
  5. Estuarine fish are apex hunters so land your streamer quite a ways in front/beyond the fish to avoid spooking them and to give yourself time to control your line and commence your retrieve. Trust me, they’ll notice it.
  6. Cast along or at an angle out from the shore. These fish will be moving in from the salt, or patrolling the shoreline, drop-offs and current lines so retrieving your streamer at say 45 degrees from the beach will keep it swimming in the likely hotspot for longer.
  7. Baitfish aren’t generally strong swimmers so cast up current and retrieve your flies back in the direction of the flow/tidal push. Swinging will work, but you will hit more fish by working with the current than against it in my experience.
  8. Take various lines. Sometimes it’s too shallow for high-density lines but across the channel the tidal pull can make your floater redundant.
  9. Approach the water low and slow. It may be big water, but fish are often found close into shore and like those of your favourite backcountry stream if they see you, its good night nurse.
  10. Watch your back, especially on the incoming tide. Within moments, that ankle-deep trickle you crossed earlier may be uncrossable on return, especially on the West Coast where tidal movements can be extreme. Likewise, when fishing the river mouth never turn your back on the waves. Never.
    Ronan Creane with a sea run estuarine brown trout

    Chris Dore is a battle tested fly fishing guide with over 15 years of professional guiding experience, battling the demanding, ever changing conditions that our New Zealand rivers throw at us.

    In 2006 Chris became one of the first New Zealanders to successfully pass the internationally recognised Federation of Fly Fishers Certified Casting Instructors examination and has since taught many thousands of anglers to up their skillset.

    For more in person and on river fly fishing advice and upskilling why not book Chris for a day or three?