Stalking The Flats – “What to Look For”

The most important skill to be learned in order to spin fish estuaries effectively is identifying where fish are likely to be located.

This process starts well before you reach the water. In fact, it starts as soon as you get out of your vehicle. The first thing that I’m looking for are the channels which drain the flat as the tide recedes (capillaries) or streams which feed fresh water into the estuary. I try to target where these capillaries and streams intersect with the main channel as big fish often lie in wait here for small fish and crustaceans to be flushed out as the tide drops.

As I walk across the flat I’m looking for is freshly dug depressions in the sand and shell, roughly 0.5 – 1 metre in diameter. These are often easy to spot as entire areas will be pockmarked with them and they are surrounded by piles of shells and other detritus. These holes are generally dug by snapper as they fossick for crabs and shellfish. See photograph below.


For some reason snapper do not tend to stray too far away from where they have been digging holes as they are forced off the flats by the receding tide. The nearest hole in the channel close to the feeding ground will likely hold fish. Try fishing in the channel directly out from the snapper holes and prospect around until you find where they are holding.

Fish are generally found where they can secure a constant supply of food with minimum effort. If this was not the case, and fish expended more energy collecting food than they received from consuming it, then they would rapidly lose condition and perish.

The spin angler needs to have a basic understanding of flow patterns in order to read the water and pinpoint where fish are likely to be holding.

In any channel the slowest flow is nearest to the sides and bottom. This means that the easiest place for fish to lie in wait is hard on the bottom or against the margins of the channel, which is exactly what happens. The fish spend most of their time holding in the low velocity flows and only move briefly into the more turbulent, faster flowing water to snatch prey.

Often it is possible to get an idea of the depth of estuarine channels by looking at the angle of the shore line. If the shore slopes steeply down to the water then the channel close to the water’s edge will most likely be deep. Gently sloping shorelines invariably lead to shallow margins and channels which gradually get deeper. The angler should be on the lookout for areas where deep channels or ‘guts’ are forced near to the shore as these areas often hold large fish.

The biggest fish always hog the prime lies where food is funnelled directly to them by the set of the current.

In an estuary there are a number of common areas where fish congregate.

Examples include:-

• The confluence between the main channel and any streams flowing into the estuary.
• Behind or directly in front of any rock or bottom obstruction that deflects current flow.
• In the deep, calm water next to an area of turbulent flow. This can often be the calm water immediately downstream or upstream of a sharp bend (a direction change greater than about 45o) in the main channel.
• Under moored boats.
• Horse mussel beds or rocky mounds surrounded by weed.

The photograph taken from behind the angler below clearly shows the deep main channel and a side stream enters to the left of the angler.



Yachts and motor launches are often moored in estuaries. The deeper the keel of the boat the more water is required for safe mooring.

Yachts generally are moored in the deepest part of the channel as they can need up to 3 metres of water to prevent the keel touching the bottom at low tide. In the photograph below where the angler is playing a fish you can see the channel by following the tall yacht masts.

Motor launches do not generally need as much water for mooring as yachts but are not normally tied up in depths less than 2 metres.

Moored boats are real fish attracting devices (FADs) and should be a major target for spin anglers. Fish congregate under boats because they provide shade and often have growths of weed, mussels or limpets on their hulls. In extreme cases these growths can be prolific and, when this occurs, the boat becomes a major attraction for feeding fish, especially at times of minimal tide flow.

Small baitfish are protected from predation under a moored boat (especially from the air) and by sitting close to the hull then they are largely sheltered from tidal currents. Obviously if there is a resident baitfish congregation under a boat then it will also become attractive feeding area for larger predators.

In summer predatory fish themselves often congregate in the shaded areas cast by moored boats and it is always worth retrieving lures through these shaded zones. I suspect that predators may use shade based attack as a deliberate strategy to improve catch efficiency during the day, in much the same way that the change of light triggers heightened feeding activity. Baitfish swimming in bright sunlight would have problems identifying fast moving predators attacking them from shaded areas.

It is best to cast slightly upstream of a moored boat and vary the speed of retrieve to ensure that the lure passes under as much of the hull as possible. When a fish grabs the lure the angler must immediately seize the initiative and apply side strain to make sure that the fight takes place in the clear water between the boat and the angler. Failure to do this will allow the fish to wrap the line around the anchor warp.


NZ estuary channels are often festooned with horse mussel beds. Snapper, in particular, seem to gravitate to these mussel beds at low tide. If the shore line is littered with horse mussel remains then it is very likely that a bed is located nearby.

The lips of the mussel shells are sharp and take a heavy toll on lures so fishing a hard bodied floating lure that will not reach the bottom, or a soft bodied lure on a weighted jig head, is the best bet when targeting these areas. Check out the photograph to see why fish congregate here.



Shags are a reliable indicator of the location of bait fish schools. Often when they have finished fishing shags will retire to the immediately adjacent shore to dry their wings. If an angler comes across a shag with its wings outstretched then it is definitely worth fishing the area thoroughly as larger fish are likely to also be present.


The same cannot be always said of opportunistic scavengers, such as seagulls, as they are more likely to have congregated to consume a decaying fish carcass than be actively feeding on a bait school that is being harassed from below the surface by higher order predators.

Gannets also enter estuaries primarily to hunt bait fish and are useful indicators of the location of bait and channel depth. The angle at which gannets enter the water, and the height from which they start to dive, can tell the angler a lot about the depth at which fish schools are holding. If the gannet plummets vertically into the water then the fish are holding well below the surface. The higher in the air the gannet commences its dive, the deeper the fish school. Conversely low dive heights and less perpendicular dive paths signify that the bait school is not far from the surface and the water is not deep.

The key to being successful is to approach the water carefully, move stealthily and keep your eyes open to see what is happening around you. Often the birds and fish themselves will show you where they are hiding, if you are patient.

Next I’ll discuss the tackle that I use in estuary spin fishing.


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