Although lure fishing has become immensely popular in recent years, there’s no doubt that natural baits remain highly effective when it comes to catching a feed of fresh fish. Species like bream, flathead and whiting are particularly fond of food that lives around our estuaries but so too are blackfish, flounder, jewfish and others.
Gathering or catching natural bait can also be a fun activity. Kids really love this sort of thing and it’s a healthy way of keeping them out of mischief during the school holidays.
So let’s take a closer look at the variety of natural baits that exist in most estuary systems and how to catch them.
Prawns are perhaps the most popular of all estuary baits but they are also expensive. A scoop net and strong light may cost anywhere between $30 and $100 but if you get keen it’s quite possible to catch well beyond that value in fresh prawns.
Perhaps you’ll end up eating them rather than pinning them to a hook, but either way it’s more enjoyable to catch your own anyway.
Prawns are easiest to catch during the week around the dark moon phase.
So grab a tide chart or check the tide predictions at the back of Fishing Monthly. Here you will see the moon phases.
In January we can see that the dark moon phase is towards the end of the month. The full moon is on Sunday, January 11, which is generally no good at all for prawning and the weeks either side of the full moon are also not good for prawns.
Shallow areas with a sandy bottom are preferred for catching prawns but the better spots also have some weed growth.
It’s a good idea to wear some old sandshoes or wading boots when walking around the shallows at night, because nasties like bullrouts, fortescues and stingrays also live in shallow, weedy areas.
But don’t be put off by that, they are not overly common and tend to be scared off by strong lights and human footsteps.
Shrimp are a smaller than prawns and are highly effective when used as live baits on a size 6 to 8 hooks. Because shrimp are so small it can be a good idea to put two or even three on the hook rather than just the one.
Shrimp cling to weed, sticks and any kelp that has drifted in from the ocean. Large clumps of kelp can be lifted out of the water and shaken over a flat surface where shrimp that have fallen out can simply be picked up and placed in a bucket of water.
A small net with very fine mesh can be raked through shallow weed beds to snare any shrimp clinging to the weed, although it may take a while to find a patch of them.
Pink nippers or yabbies are extremely reliable baits that appeal to all estuary species. For these you’ll need a bait pump and the best two brands to look for are Alvey and Wilson. There are short and long versions of these bait pumps and I recommend the longer ones.
Low tide is the best time to pump up some nippers on the sand or mudflats.
Look for areas with plenty of holes that indicate the presence of nippers. It’s easier if the tide has left these flats exposed because then you can simply pump the mud out and pick any nippers up that you see.
If, however, there is some water covering the flats, a sieve may be required into which to pump the mud and the nippers can be picked out from there. A sieve can be made to float by attaching blocks of styrofoam around it and then you can tie a thin rope to it and tow it around with you as you go.
Pink nippers work best as live baits and can be stored in a bucket half-filled with saltwater. A small battery-powered aerator pump will help them stay alive for much longer and it’s a good idea to keep them in a cool, shady spot until it’s time to go fishing. Change the water every couple of hours if you can.
Green nippers are similar-looking creatures that live around mudflats where weed growth is also present. Some green nippers can be pumped or dug up with a small spade, but the best way to get them is by standing in the one spot and trampling on the mud until a puddle forms.
Green nippers will float up into the puddle and from there they can be stored in a bucket, just like pink nippers. Don’t expect to find green nippers as easily as their pink cousins, but they do make excellent bait so it could be worth having a look for them.
Several different types of marine worm inhabit our estuary systems. The main ones are squirt worms and bloodworms. Beachworms can also be used with great success in the estuary and are particularly good on whiting and bream.
Bloodworms live in sloppy, muddy areas and aren’t always easy to find. However, the smaller squirt worms also make a first-rate bait for bream, whiting and blackfish.
Squirt worms can be found on the same sandflats or mudflats as pink nippers, but it’s not too hard to find a few in sandy spots anywhere around a waterway, especially the quieter areas.
Look for plenty of small, tubular holes a bit thicker than a match protruding slightly above the sand, where a bait pump can be used to suck them up.
Another way is to place the bait pump over the hole and plunge the handle down; the compressed air actually blows these little worms from their U-shaped holes.
Squirt worms are about the width of a match and tend to break easily so you’ll need to take care when gathering them. Again, store in cool, aerated saltwater.
Soldier crabs, hermit crabs and black rock crabs all make top baits, especially for bream.
Once again, low tide is the best time to look for them and you’ll find soldier crabs on open sandflats, rock crabs along rocky areas and hermit crabs towing their shell homes on their backs along sandflats or mudflats adjacent to weedy or rocky areas.
A small bucket is the only thing that’s required when gathering crabs, but you’ll have to be quick because they all scurry away and burrow into holes in the blink of an eye.
When it comes to hermit crabs, you’ll also have to extract them from their shells, which can be a bit tricky!
Arrow squid and the larger calamari squid can be caught in the deeper tidal waterways.
You’ll need a light rod and a few size 2 or 2.5 squid jigs for the arrow squid and sizes 2.5, 3 or 3.5 for the calamari.
Squid are more active early in the morning, of an afternoon and through the night. Look for areas with some weed or kelp growth, adjacent to rock walls, points, bridges and jetties.
At night, squid tend also gather around places that are illuminated by overhead lights. Simply cast the jig out, let it sink a little and then slowly wind it in, giving it a few pauses along the way.
Be careful not to get ‘inked’ by squid, which can be very messy. Alive, whole or as cut baits, squid will interest a range of different fish, with jewfish and kingfish being particularly fond of them.
All manner of freshly caught fish can be used as bait, although the better bait fish are mullet, herring, tailor, garfish and yellowtail.
Bait traps, purchased from most tackle outlets, can be used to trap smaller poddy mullet but light line and small hooks are used to catch most other fish to be used as bait.
White bread can be used to attract mullet, garfish or yellowtail and can also be used as bait to catch them. Tiny pieces of peeled prawn or squid are other good baits for garfish and yellowtail, rigged on hooks as small as size 12.
Such fish make top live baits for flathead, jewfish and kingfish or can be cut into strips for bream or flathead.
It’s very important to remember that there are regulations in force for catching or gathering natural bait of any kind.
Most tackle shops can give you a NSW Fisheries guide with details regarding bait gathering so you’ll know what’s legal and what’s not.
To avoid a nasty fine, always remember to carry your fishing licence with you while bait gathering. Fisheries officers are out in force over the Summer holidays and don’t accept excuses like ‘ I didn’t know’.
Regardless of the legalities of bait collecting, a golden rule is to not take too many of anything. Whether it be pink nippers, crabs or worms, if a lot of people take more than what they can immediately use, over the course of time whole colonies of these little creatures can be wiped out.
Good quality whiting can be caught with baits that are gathered around the estuary. They are particularly fond of worms and pink nippers.
Bream will take a variety of baits that naturally occur around estuary systems. Worms, nippers and small rock crabs are some of the better baits to use.
It’s hard to beat live prawns as a first-class bait. Bream, flathead and whiting can’t resist such an offering.
The author’s simple poddy mullet trap is a plastic cake container with a small hole cut out of the lid. A few sinkers are placed in the trap to hold it down and a few white bread scraps placed inside the container attract the small mullet.
Small poddy mullet are the best flathead bait you can get when used alive, but also make excellent whole dead or cut baits.