The Leven Estuary
  |  First Published: August 2009

The boat swayed gently in the current, I was anchored at the mouth of the Gawler River where it meets the Leven. It was one of those glorious sunny spring days that we long for, and of course, always hope for when we go fishing.

Looking back to the water that was being pushed by the current into the Gawler, I noticed that it was a light shade of turquoise and a little cloudy, just right for some good fishing. Off to my left the incoming tide crept up over the mud flats.

The dark-green sinking fly line snaked out across the water at right angles to the boat. I was fishing a time honoured wet-fly technique. The current would claw at the line and drag it around in a straight line. This would cause the fly to speed up as it swung around in an arc, triggering a natural response from any fish in the area.

With the aid of a pair of polaroids I saw a flash of silver as the fish struck savagely at the fly and a bent rod indicated a solid take. An Australian salmon of around a half a kilo had taken the fly and after a tenacious fight the fish was brought to the boat, admired and duly released.

For many years I have travelled the length and breadth of Tasmania, ignoring the fishing right under my nose. I am glad to say that my return to the Leven estuary has been a very fruitful experience.

What can you catch in the Leven Estuary?


One of the main species is the marvellous Australian salmon. They are nearly always present in the estuary; although the size will vary as migrating schools come and go.

In spring the river can be full of krill, and schools of salmon around half a kilo stay in a back-wash near the main road bridge for ages. I have a lot of fun with these, you can pretty much guarantee a heap of fish on each trip.

While I prefer to fish for salmon with the fly they will take a silver wobbler or other variants, but beware, metal lures landing in the water can scare the salmon.

Soft plastics are a good option as well, you don’t have to keep casting the plastic, just let it trail in the current and give it a pull every now and then. Salmon will take them greedily and I often find that they take them well down.

Bait fishing can be a bit hit and miss as salmon like to attack a moving object; it is their predatory instinct. If you are not getting any bites on bait try retrieving the line slowly, this will often get a reaction.


A much-maligned fish that is also prevalent in the river is the humble mullet. These fish tend to come into the river and surrounding areas when the water warms up in the summer. The very name mullet conjures up different emotions in many people. Some see them as a nuisance and unworthy of any sport. Others slam their eating quality. This is far from the truth. I have caught them on bait and on the fly.

One of my favourite techniques is jigging flies in conjunction with berley. This is important as it keeps the fish in the zone and a feeding frenzy will follow as the fish gather to compete for food. This is a great way to get the kids interested in fishing.

Find a backwash with some relatively deep water and add some berley. You shouldn’t have to wait long. The sea-side of the east break wall with a southerly breeze is quite a good spot. A float is handy here. I have had times when all the berley in the world won’t bring any fish, I don’t know why this happens, but it does.

The rig I use for jigging is quite simple. Tie a medium sized sinker onto your line. Then, tie in two droppers above the sinker about 200-300mm apart. On these droppers I tie on two very small white flies that I tied up myself. Jigging rigs are available from tackle shops if you don’t want to tie up your own.

I usually put a small amount of bait on the hooks to get them going. Drop the line in the water and just jig it up and down. I have caught mullet, salmon and trevally in the Leven using this method. It is not unusual to catch two fish at a time.

Regarding the eating quality of the mullet, I find them delicious, sweet with a soft flesh. Yes they have bones, but so do all fish. There are some good-sized mullet to be caught in the river and I have caught them up to half a kilo. These are the best ones to keep, if you can catch them, as they tend to be a bit elusive at times.

Sea Trout

Speaking of elusive fish, there is none more beguiling, frustrating and irritating as the sea-run trout. The sea-run trout of the Leven River have always been there, I have seen them many times over the years, but unfortunately I have never caught one. It wasn’t until recently that I decided to deliberately target them. In the past I had considered them difficult opponents, kept an eye out for them yes, but not going after them with any particular plan in mind. My goal now was to catch one of these fish on the fly.

It is around the middle of October that the trout appear, sometimes with arrogant abandonment as they cruise the shorelines, scour the backwashes and rise within centimetres of your well-placed fly, only to treat it with disdain and contempt. Still, some anglers manage to catch some of these testing trout. A small fish used as bait is often deadly, the humble spinner, plastic or lure account for a few, and the occasional fish is taken on the fly.

The fish prefer the incoming tide. As the clear water with patches of floating debris and seaweed spreads out over the river flats the trout begin their prowl. No matter that it is daylight, food it seems, is there only thought. Some say it is the whitebait that bring the trout into the estuarine waters, I am not so sure.

Other species

Salmon, mullet and sea-run trout are only three of the species of fish that are found in the estuary, there are others. I have seen barracouta in the river. In fact, one bright sunny day when I was fishing for mullet a barracouta came on the scene. It leapt out of the water and took the mullet that I was trying to get into the boat. What an awesome sight, I was mesmerized as the bright silver and blue sides of the barracuda glittered in the bright sun, its powerful jaws clamped onto my fish. The rod bent double and the fish was gone.

Other fish that I have seen in the river at different times have been flathead, I have caught some of these on the fly, but there was no size in them. Recently, I saw some small garfish in the river. These can be a fun fish to catch on the fly. I will be keeping my eye out for them in the future. One fish that I haven’t seen in the river is bream, even though I have been told they are there, hiding in the most difficult places to fish.

I have caught plenty of small trevally in the river, and in the past where I have found trevally, I have found bream. One day I might get a surprise.

Last year I caught a nice trevally the size of a dinner plate on the fly and I lost another. The one I did manage to boat went into the pan and was eaten for tea that very night.

When to fish?

Finally, that age-old question, when is the best time to go fishing in the Leven estuary? The simple answer is that there is no real answer. With out a doubt the most prolific times are on an incoming tide. As the tide comes in the fish tend to disperse and often move further up the river opening up more areas to fishing. Low tide can be excellent for flathead, mullet and salmon.

As the water warms up more species enter the river on the incoming tide and become more prolific, but as with all types of fishing there are circumstances that prevail for all conditions. Last winter the salmon were in the river all the time and they are still there in spring. Some of the fish I have caught have weighed in at a kilo or more. It seems to me that the fishing in the Leven and along the coast in general is picking up.

I would suggest that you take only what you need and put the small fish back for the future. Just because the rules say that you can keep 15 salmon, there is no need to keep 15. I would defy anyone to eat so many fish. The only salmon I keep are the ones that usually take the fly too far down and I still have plenty in the freezer. Occasionally I will keep a larger specimen.

So if you are feeling the pinch from higher fuel prices, or even if you just want to catch a fish, give the Leven River a try, you won’t be disappointed if you are prepared to vary your techniques.

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