Rock Hopping: Part 1
  |  First Published: June 2011

Nearly all spearfishers have tried rock hopping at least once and many of us, like me, cut our teeth hopping the rocks.

Even for the experienced rock hopping is still often the option of choice, whether it’s because you have no access to a boat or you are simply short of time, many spearos find it easier, more enjoyable and even more successful.

Whatever your motivation there is no doubt rock hopping is where the real roots of our sport lie. I can still vividly recall many days spent swimming along in the local boat harbour as a seven-year-old desperately trying to land something, anything, while Dad walked the break wall above and clambered down the rocks on command whenever a shot was fired to re-load my gun. Good times!

The beauty of rock hopping the Australian coastline is that its sheer vastness ensures a massive amount of options are usually available, especially in the southern half of the continent. Your choice of location is likely to be influenced by a host of things including your ability and experience, the prevailing ocean conditions, the type of coastline, and target species.

Unfortunately in the northern half of the continent coastal conditions are usually plagued by dirty water stirred up by a combination of loose, muddy sediment and shallow inshore waters – not to mention a range of unsavoury hosts like stingers and crocodiles.

However if you are vigilant, patient and choose your location and days carefully even the northern regions can offer opportunities, with the bonus being that their usual lack of access can mean big rewards on those few days of the year you can get at them.

Rock hopping is often where it all begins and there are thousands of young school kids who own masks, snorkels and fins and love the idea of exploring a new underwater world. Possibly the most important first step is to ensure they enter this brave new world with some guidance and a sense of responsibility to look after it.

It’s fine to allow kids to do some initial exploring without equipment that will allow them to capture any fish, however as soon as they take the next step and acquire a handspear or speargun, it is imperative that they are not just left to their own devices.

Issues such as safe gun handling, safe diving practices including entry and exit, correctly identifying different species and understanding fishing laws are fundamental teachings for young spearfishers. Kids need guidance, and the importance of this one cannot be overlooked. Either spend some time with your children teaching them the fundamentals, or ask an experienced friend who may be able to help.

Alternatively contact your local spearfishing club and see if there is someone who may be able to help. The USFA has a fantastic publication entitled ‘The Guide to Spearfishing in NSW’ and this reference contains a host of vital information that is relevant regardless of where you are located.

The best locations to learn to spearfish are usually protected waters like a harbour, quiet headland corner or even an estuary. The main thing to look out for here is any marine park or fisheries closures, which are especially common for spearfishing in estuaries. Once you graduate to more open waters, your preferred location is likely to be driven mostly by ocean conditions and target species.

The most fundamental factor to consider when scoping a location, is choosing your entry and exit points carefully. In particular it is absolutely essential to scope out where and how you are going to exit the water. It’s usually not too difficult to jump in, but it can be treacherous getting out.

If you are going to swim and exit at a different point to where you entered the water, always ensure you have carefully checked out your exit location. It’s a bit late if you’ve swum a couple of kilometres along the coast only to find there is nowhere safe to get out!

Places to look for when entering the water would be a beach corner, a deep protected gutter or possibly a semi-dry ledge with a drop-off. Watch the ocean while you are gearing up. This usually gives you a good feel for what the ocean is doing and what it is likely to throw at you. If a rogue wave does catch you on the way out, the best way to negotiate it will usually be to dive well under it, if possible.

The most important rule to remember is to get in and swim as hard as you can for open water and away from the impact zone.

Exiting is a very different matter. Often an easy launch point is not suitable as an exit point, which requires more protection from the ocean swells. Try to avoid areas where you will need to negotiate a climb out of the water.

A well protected gutter that ends in a shallow beach area is often best if available. A semi-dry ledge that drops into deeper water can be suitable but sometimes risky depending on the size of the swell and your ability to read the ocean.

One fundamental is to always check behind you before you exit. Any surfers out there know the ocean operates in sets, which means larger ocean swells usually come in sets of about 3-6 waves, followed by a (relative) lull for a short period and then more sets.

The sequence is massively variable, hence the importance of checking out the ocean conditions very carefully before you even enter the water. If you can get a feel for the set sequencing, you will be in a much better position when you come to exit the water.

It’s like launching your boat off the beach - patience is the key. Wait in deeper water and keep watching behind you. The sets will pass, and as soon as they do it’s time to bolt for the shore. DO NOT try to outrun a large looming wave – the ocean is very unforgiving and more often than not you will get caught out.

Equally important, always, always unload your gun before going anywhere near your exit point. It’s simple and may mean you miss that one last fish, but the last thing you want is your gun going off as you are trying to exit the water.

Next month in Rock Hopping: Part II we will talk about which gear works best when hopping along the rocks. – Glenn George

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