Early juvenile Japanese temperate bass Lateolabrax japonicus samples were collected during four cruises to study the spatial and temporal patterns of distribution and feeding habits of the fish in Chikugo estuary, Ariake Sea, Japan. Gut contents were studied by separating, identifying and counting the prey organisms. Plankton samples were collected during each cruise to study the numerical abundance of copepods in the water. Copepod dry biomass and gut content dry mass were estimated. Juveniles were distributed over wide estuarine areas in salinities ranging from as low as 0·37 to as high as 28·81. Considerable spatial and temporal variations were observed in the copepod distribution in the environment and in the food habits of the fish. Two distinctly different copepod assemblages were identified along the estuary: one in the upper river, dominated by a single species Sinocalanus sinensis, and the other a multi-specific assemblage in the lower estuary dominated by common coastal copepods such as Acartia omorii, Oithona davisae, Paracalanus parvus and Calanus sinicus. The gut content composition corresponded strongly with the copepod composition in the environment, i.e. a single species (S. sinensis) dietary habit at the upper river and a multi-specific dietary habit dominated by the common coastal copepods in the lower estuary. Ivlev's electivity index showed that the fish strongly preferred larger copepods and avoided smaller ones. Higher dry biomass of copepods in the water as well as higher dry masses of the gut contents were recorded in the low-to-medium saline upper river areas, indicating that these areas are of particular importance as nursery grounds for the juvenile Japanese temperate bass. It was speculated that ascending to the upstream nursery areas to utilize S. sinensis, which is the single dominant copepod in these areas, is one of the most important survival strategies of the Japanese temperate bass juveniles in the Chikugo estuary.