The movement of postflexion larvae of marine estuarine-dependent species into estuaries is critical for the survival of fishes reliant on estuaries as nurseries. However, detailed studies focused on environmental variability experienced by postflexion larvae entering a range of estuary types under varying conditions are rare. This study assessed the in situ conditions (temperature, salinity and water clarity) under which the southern African endemic fish Rhabdosargus holubi (Sparidae) recruits into estuaries. Postflexion larvae were sampled in three biogeographic regions (cool temperate, warm temperate and subtropical boundary), which included three estuary types (permanently open estuaries (POEs), temporarily open/closed estuaries and estuarine lake systems) on a seasonal basis, independent of each other. Rhabdosargus holubi larvae were more abundant in spring and summer, in POEs in the warm temperate region. Models predicted that higher larval occurrence in estuaries is a function of lower salinity (e.g. mesohaline zones of 5-17.9 salinity) and lower water clarity (e.g. 0-0.2 Kd, light extinction coefficient), particularly for warm, temperate POEs. This re-emphasizes the importance of freshwater for optimal nursery functioning, which may be compromised by impoundments, abstraction and climate change in water-short countries like South Africa.