Beach Reading Basics
  |  First Published: June 2011

Before you learn about rigs, baits and tackle for beach fishing, it pays to spend some time learning how to read the beach.

Reading the beach is what the surf lifesavers do every morning when they put their flags out. They look at where the gutter, rips and sweeps are and what they are doing before they decide on the safest place to swim. What we are looking at is exactly the same thing but we are looking for the best place to fish.

The mechanics of the beach are very simple. Waves can travel thousands of miles across open oceans before they arrive at the shore of a beach. Waves are nothing more than energy moving through the water. Waves may have the appearance of water moving forward but the water is actually just moving up and down in succession, the same way the arms of football fans move up and down when they perform the Mexican Wave.

As the wave moves through shallow water, it forces the water rise with the contour of the bottom. At this point the wave also starts to feel the resistance of the shallow bottom, forcing it to slow down. The bottom section of the wave slows to the point when the water on top of the wave falls over itself. This is what we see when a wave breaks, and only at this point is the water actually propelled forward instead of just up and down.

The more power the wave has, the larger it will be and the more water it requires to support itself before it breaks. This is why big waves break out further than the small shore break.

Even when a wave has broken, the energy that created that wave in the first place is still alive. So, if the wave hits a shallow area like a bommie or a shallow bank, it will break. However, as that energy continues to move forward, it can hit deep water again, reform and continue as an unbroken wave until hitting shallow water again.

In the aerial shots taken from above South Stradbroke Island, you will notice that the shallow, light coloured sections of the water has breaking or broken waves over it and the deeper, darker water has unbroken waves.


Reading a beach is best done from a high vantage point where you can have a good look at the waves as they roll in.

Start watching from the back of the breakers and you will start to see the waves rising higher as they reach the shallowing water. The wave will continue to rise until the base of the wave slows and the wave breaks. This breaking wave is a sure indication of shallow water, but remember that the bigger the waves, the deeper the water will be that they break in. An average swell of around a metre will break in only waist deep water but a 2m swell will break in a metre of water. By reading where the waves are breaking, and where they are not, will give you an idea of where the water is shallow and where it is deep.

If you continue to watch the same wave, what can often happen is the wave will break, turn into nothing more than white water as it rolls along the shallows before it hits a deep gutter that lies between the first shallow section, known as the back break, and the shore break. As soon as the wave hits this deeper water, the white water will be left behind and the wave will reform into a clean and unbroken energy that moves towards the shore. This is very important to the beach fisher, because these gutters are the highways the fish use to move in and out of the surf zone. Predators cruise the oxygen-rich waters of the gutters to feed on the baitfish and marine animals of the surf.

Continue to follow this wave and you will see it break on the shoreline. This is not where our journey with beach reading finishes, however.

Unlike an unbroken wave, the broken wave does move water forward and all of the water that is pushed up the beach needs to be transported back out to the ocean. This also applies to water that has been pushed over the sand bank at the back break and into the gutter. This is where rips and gutters come into play. In the same way that the gutters on your roof transport excess water off the roof and into your drain, surf gutters do the same job but transport excess water from the shore to a ‘rip’ where it is taken out to sea.

This is all a simple procedure that depends on the amount of water that needs to be processed. A 2m swell, for example, carries much more water into the shore than a 0.5m swell does, and all this extra water creates a strong current that moves a lot of water from the shore to the rip. Known as a ‘sweep’, this can make fishing the gutters almost imposable on a day when the swell is up. On days where there is little or no swell, the sweep can become non-existent.

The surf zone is greatly affected by the tide, so when you’re looking for a place to fish pay close attention to the shape of the beach itself. If the sand is sloping towards the water and the tide is coming in, the water right on the shoreline may get deep. However, if the gutter is looking shallow and the sand is quite flat, this gutter will be too shallow to fish, even on a rising tide.

Shallow gutters or sand banks have a lot of rolling white water covering them, indicating that the water is not deep enough for the broken wave to reform. If a broken wave does reform in an average size swell, you know that there is at least a metre or two of water to work with.

Checking the beach out is best done at low tide and, while you are learning, I strongly recommend that you fish as the tide rises. It’s a lot harder to read a beach during an ebb tide than it is when the tide is making. If you do find yourself fishing a falling tide, keep an eye on the gutter, as you will be surprised to see how quickly it can shallow and become unfishable.

Finally, I would like to share with you my idea of the ideal gutter. When you have access to a 4WD and can drive the length of a beach, it is easy to pass gutter after gutter until you find one that is perfect. Having a 4WD is a great way to learn about reading beaches because seeing one after another will give you an idea to how and where they tend to form and what to look for. I look for a back bank that has the waves breaking over it, rolling white water all the way over that bank until it hits a deep gutter and the wave reforms. Once the wave reforms, it rolls all the way to the shoreline, dumping on bare sand.

What this does is churns up worms and pipis, washes them into the deep water behind the shore break where I guarantee there will be bream, dart, flathead and whiting patrolling. Bigger predators such as tailor and mulloway will also be in the gutter, chasing the whiting, bream, mullet and dart. You may not see this sort of gutter too often but when you do, never drive or walk past it. Oh, and give me a call!

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