Thursday, February 29, 2024
How to

Estuaries Alive!

Use live baits if you want consistent estuary action on a whole range of fish from barra to whiting.

ESTUARY fishing ranks highly with many Aussie anglers and there’s no more effective way of targeting popular estuary species than by using live bait. Southern species such as mulloway, flathead, kingfish, bream, whiting and tailor are all suckers for a well presented livie. In the tropical north, barramundi, mangrove jack, black jewfish and threadfin salmon will all readily scoff a live mullet, prawn or crab.

Good estuary live baits in southern waters include poddy mullet, yellowtail, herring, prawns, squid, slimy mackerel, crabs, nippers and worms. The process of organising and using live bait can be hard work – it’s certainly more time consuming than opening a pack of lures, for example – but the rewards can be great. Livies definitely catch fish.

Getting live bait, especially live baitfish, can be an art itself. Sabiki jigs have made the catching of yellowtail (yakkas) and slimies a much easier task, although a 3kg handline rigged with a size 10 long shank hook and a small split shot is still a deadly means of snaring some prime livies. Poddy mullet are usually targeted using a very light float fishing rig and bread or dough for bait, or with a baited trap which you can either buy from a tackle shop or make yourself out of a soft drink bottle. If you live in Queensland, the NT or northern WA you can catch bait with a cast net. Check out the Fisho website for an instructional video showing how to use these nifty devices.

Unfortunately if you live in one of the non-cast net states, you have to catch your baits the hard way! Berleying will usually improve your results when chasing baitfish species; stale bread is excellent for mullet, while fish flesh or tuna frames work well on slimies and yellowtail. I’ve seen grated potato send schools of yellowtail into a feeding frenzy, too.

There are countless estuary live-baiting rigs. The simplest live bait rig that I am aware of is used to deadly effect by a good mate of mine, Glen Nicholson, when sight fishing to big whiting on the famed Swansea Channel sand flats on the
NSW Central Coast. Nicho uses a light threadline outfit to cast unweighted live prawns at these “elbow slapper” whiting. The rig consists of simply a light monofilament or fluorocarbon leader with a small thin gauge chemically sharpened hook. Quite a few fishing writers have adopted Nicho’s system after seeing the results he’s produced. Incidentally, live prawns are also a deadly bait on bream as my buddy Darren Mahon will testify.

Dusky flathead are an estuarine ambush predator that can be targeted very successfully through the use of live baits. A simple but effective live bait rig for lizards comprises of a 6kg main line with a running ball or channel sinker down onto a small swivel. Then a 60cm leader of 10 to 15kg fluorocarbon or hard monofilament is attached to the swivel and the rig is finished off with a 1/0 to 3/0 Mustad Wide Gape hook, depending on the size of the baits being used. I would tend towards the heavier leader material if there is a realistic chance of hooking a sizeable jewfish at the location you’re fishing.

At the well-known tourist Mecca of The Entrance on the NSW Central Coast, generations of fishos have fished for dusky flathead using live prawns suspended below a float. The bait is suspended just above the bottom and is allowed to drift with the current or tide. This is a particularly effective means of covering water and I’m surprised it isn’t used more elsewhere.

Live baiting for estuary mulloway is a time honoured tradition. To land a really big jewfish is the ultimate prize for many estuary anglers. Once again, live baits
such as mullet, yellowtail, slimy mackerel and even squid are highly effective when pursuing the mighty mulloway. A proven live bait rig for mulloway comprises a 10 to 15kg main line with a running ball sinker of a size dependant on the water depth, current strength and size of the bait. A size two swivel is used to attach a 400 to 600mm length of 25 to 40kg hard monofilament leader such as Rovex Mono Leader. The preferred hook pattern for live baits is a Mustad 92554 in sizes from 6/0 to 10/0, depending on the size of bait.

There are many other species regularly targeted in our estuary systems by anglers using live baits. The pursuit of yellowtail kingfish in Sydney Harbour and Pittwater through the use of live squid baits is tremendously popular. While rigs similar to those employed for mulloway will be effective, some anglers are using downriggers to troll or suspend their live squid baits at the required depth.

Care must be taken to ensure your live baits are maintained in the best possible condition. If fishing from a boat a recirculating live well is a tremendous advantage, particularly for keeping species such as slimy mackerel, squid, yellowtail and mullet in good condition. For shore based anglers a large bucket or blow up pool equipped with a battery powered aerator is an excellent option, although you may be required to change the water at regular intervals, depending on the number of baits you’re attempting to keep healthy. It’s always the liveliest baits that seem to get the big fish, so they’re worth looking after.


The locked half blood knot is a very reliable and relatively simple connection to tie. Care should be taken forming the knot and remember it should be lubricated with saliva prior to tensioning.

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