Thursday 6 March 2008

saltwater fly fishing in estuaries

The magic, mystery and wide variety of life that often surrounds an estuary make them very special places to fish. These are the places where the sea sneaks slowly into the heart of our landscape twice a day, steals the rich deposits that lie there and runs away with them. Creeping over shingle banks, bubbling along sandy shores and sliding around corners onto mudflats, the tide fills and empties the estuary with its life giving nutrients. Protected from the full force of the open ocean estuaries provide a sanctuary for vast communities of plant and animal life and within the estuary you will find ‘micro worlds’ of shallow open waters, marshes, sandy beaches, rocky outcrops, mud and sand flats. All are protected from the full force of wind and wave by the nurturing arms of the estuary. These are places of transition where the land meets the sea in an intimate exchange of daily natural life.

The estuary fosters an abundance of habitats that support marine mammals, seabirds, fish, crab, clams, worms, cockles and mussels. These animals are linked together and to an assortment of plants and microscopic organisms that form a complex food chain that is influenced by many factors. As the tide ebbs and flows over sandbars and mudflats, complex currents and slacks are created temporarily and then disappear or re-appear at different locations within the estuary. Fish follow and hunt the food using the tide and currents everyday. Fish are keyed into feeding opportunities that the fly fisher must learn to recognise. These are wonderful places where rivers meet the sea and the sea meets the land in a constantly changing environment. They provide without doubt some of the best opportunities and challenges for the saltwater fly fisherman.

The water that flows into and out of the estuary is constantly changing. Because of the constant tidal flows that influence the amount of mixing between fresh water and seawater, things change on a day-to-day basis. Weather patterns like wind and rain further influence the temperature and salinity of estuarine waters not only during the different seasons of the year but also every day. Thus, daily tidal flows combined with changing weather patterns are responsible for fluctuations in water conditions in an estuary. This has a significant impact on the abundance and feeding patterns of fish. The fly fisher needs to get intimate with these influences before he has any degree of success in the estuary.

Fish that live in and around estuarine areas are very interesting because they exhibit a number of patterns that are influenced by changes in daily, weekly and monthly tidal fluctuations and indeed these fish are affected by degrees of salinity, water temperature, current and tidal heights. For example, the daily rise and fall of tides creates flows which help to carry and distribute various food items that fish need. This food gets distributed into and out off estuaries in greater or lesser quantities depending on the state of the tide. Food items in tidal estuarine areas include shrimp, crabs, small fish such as immature mullet, flounders, as well as many types of worms that crawl or burrow on the rich, muddy bottoms of the estuary.

For this reason the saltwater fly fisher should take advantage of tides by fishing when tides are high or just beginning to fall, when creatures that live near the shoreline are more active and fish are attracted by the availability of more food. Certainly, one of the key factors in successfully fishing an estuary is an understanding of the local tide and tidal current. One general rule, however, and I have found it almost always to be true, is that during a falling or ebbing tide the fishing will be better on or near the outside of an estuary. Similarly, the inside of an estuary is usually better with an incoming or flooding tide. This is simply due to where the bait is being carried and ‘condensed’ and how predators are also using the natural ‘transport’ systems provided by tides. The tides and tidal currents are complex phenomena influenced by many things, including the sun and the moon. By consulting tidal heights and tidal current charts the fly fisher can be well armed regarding this important information. Each estuary has its own particular rhythm and a fly fisherman with knowledge of how a local estuary works will increase his or her chances of success.

Fish moving into and out off and sometimes through an estuary, will often not complete the journey in one go. Along the way the fishing paths that they have travelled for weeks or months on their daily journey for food will have several important ‘stopping’ locations. These locations are linked to the type of activity the fish is engaged in; indeed the fish may be exhibiting one or more activity types while at these locations. Resting, hunting or simply shoaling.

Lets imagine we are driving along the west coast of some distant land. We have our fly fishing gear in the boot and we have a few days off work. We have no real plans other than to drive and fish. As we descend into a green valley and look out over some fields, a vast expanse of mud and sand flat, reflecting silver and gold in the summer sun, reveals itself to us. Naked and vulnerable we see an estuary undressed. We stop the car at the side of the road and take advantage of our elevated viewing position. At the narrow mouth in the distance the silent turmoil of pure white surf tells us the water is clear. We note the channels, the water that has stayed in the estuary and where it lies. The corners and bends and indeed some small rocky outcrops where we know rising tides will flow around in the next few hours. We drive to the closest access point we can find gear up and position ourselves midway along the shore of the estuary.

During summer months some fish like bass will choose not to leave the estuary when the tide is exiting. Instead sometimes they will ‘lie up’ within the remaining water that stays in the estuary when the tide is out. These fish are often lying in deeper pools created where current has created ‘waves’ of sand. They may often lie along edges of bends where water is deeper and drop-offs exist. They are resting and maybe digesting and are very shy. One of the most exciting ways to catch these fish is with surface poppers. Now its often not easy to cast a bass popper with a long leader as turnover can be an issue. I would recommend that you try and fish one that is the longest you can. Lining these fish is an issue as they will either simply swim off or refuse to take. Polaroid glasses are always highly recommended.

Watch as to where your shadow falls particularly late in the evening or early morning. The pools where these fish lie are often recognised by having a darker colour than the surrounding areas of water – this usually indicates depth. After much trial and error you will begin to recognise which type of pool holds fish. Try and place the end of your fly line at the edge of the pool whilst your leader unfurls across it or better still along the edge of it– easy! Wait and then pop and retrieve and repeat. There is nothing more exciting than watching the powerful shoulders of a bass create a bow wave in very shallow water, swimming faster now, towards your fly, hoping the next impact will be your popper – boom! All hell breaks loose.

You can spend some time stalking along the estuary after these fish. You probably will have noticed the clarity of water, which is always good. Mullet can also be tackled at this very early stage of tide. As the tide begins to push into the estuary and further up your legs past your knees you will usually notice deterioration in the clarity of water. There is a lot of suspended particles and the water may be feel warmer and have a slight green or yellow colour. Apart from the tidal and current influences within the estuary the fly fisherman should pay particular attention to this water clarity phenomenon.

During a typical summer this ‘unclear water’ moves in and out within an estuary on a daily basis under tidal and wind influences. During periods of very settled weather the amount of ‘unclear water’ can be very small – and as the tide pushes past the angler it may only take one hour or less for the water to become clear again. This of course depends on the location that the angler is fishing within the estuary. During this time fishing often becomes very slack and there is little or no activity. Then, if the angler has remained in the one spot, after some time the water will run clear again, the temperature will drop a little and usually the fish will follow very quickly. The incoming tide then usually remains clear until full tide.

This ‘unclear water’ is subject to many variables, which affect its size, density and temperature, and hence the time it takes for the estuary to push clear. A few days of heavy rain before your fishing will increase this turbidity or a few days of onshore winds will also increase it. The lethal combination of heavy rain and strong onshore winds will often stop fish that would normally enter the estuary from feeding therein. And even as the weather improves their expected feeding patterns will have changed as they hunt closer to the bottom. Sinking and intermediate lines are often the order of the day.

The type of turbidity also affects the timing of the estuary running clear which has a big impact on your bass fly-fishing. Onshore winds will throw particles into the water that are larger than say particles washed into the sea from a mud flat or rain fall. As a consequence clarity returns quicker to the estuary from an on shore wind than from heavy rain, generally of course. This phenomena was particular evident this year as the estuaries remained cold and grey and often brown well into the month of July. Excessive rainfall and cooling breezes affected many fisheries all over Ireland and indeed North Western Europe this summer.

So now the water is pushing well over our knees, we can feel the tidal flow build and the water has run clear. By remaining in the one location we can catch bass and sea trout as they pass us by on their way into the estuary. Maybe we have local knowledge and information regarding a holding spot has been given to us. Bass will hold up for short periods behind sandbars or rocks or other obstructions. They wait to ambush their passing food items. As the tide pushes into the estuary it becomes more difficult for them to hold these stations so they simply slip away and move further up with the rising tide taking up another station. Again and again the process is repeated both on the rise and the fall of the tide.

The technical issues of saltwater fly-fishing in an estuary remain of course as another challenge to the fly fisher. Type of line and presentation are very important, and these can be more important to some species than others. Shy fish like mullet and seatrout are often spooky and more difficult to catch whilst bass remain more aggressive and active. Tactics and techniques vary widely as does equipment and it is probably beyond the range of this article to venture down that road. The important aspects from a saltwater fly fishing point of view is for the angler to develop an instinct or feeling for the many and interesting influences within our estuaries that ultimately will influence his fishing success.

Our own influences are also apparent within estuaries. Pollution from failing septic tanks, poor sewage treatment plants or under resourced facilities, storm water runoff from empty ‘holiday ghost towns’, industrial organic waste discharge, and contaminated runoff from farms using fertilizers or yards with animals can impact on our vulnerable estuarine systems. Estuaries also face loss of habitat due to our obsession with development in delicately balanced areas of natural beauty. Damage is caused by the continued and often-illegal overuse and plundering of estuarine resources. These have resulted in a continued reduction of even protected fisheries like bass, loss of habitat and wildlife, and the destruction of wonderful landscape.

We all have a part to play to protect and maintain our valuable estuaries.

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Forwarded to - The Irish Bass Policy Group (David McInerny, John Quinlan, Shane O Reilly, Mike Hennessy, Dr William Roche, Dr Nial O'Ma...