Surf fishing basics
  |  First Published: July 2007

Winter is a time when many Victorian anglers hang up their fishing gear to wait for warmer weather. That can be a big mistake! Along the surf beaches, winter is the prime time for Australian salmon. Large schools of these awesome sportfish swarm close to shore in the cooler months and can be caught in large numbers by recreational anglers. John Dalla-Rosa gives us the low down on how to get in on the action.

It’s a cool, crisp winter’s morning and you’re on the beach as the first streaks of daylight appear in the eastern sky. Your hands are numb with cold as you hastily bait your hooks and hurry down to the water’s edge to cast your line. As your bait settles beyond the breaking waves, your mind is full of anticipation as you wait for the strike of a big salmon. All your senses are fine-tuned and your work and home worries disappear as you wait and wait. Then, bang! It all happens – you’re on! The excitement begins. This is what surf fishing is all about!

In this article I will try to explain the basics: what gear to use, where to fish, how to fish and when to fish. Whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned surf fisher, I hope you’ll pick up a few tips to help you enjoy this sport a little more.


First, let’s start with the gear. I see a lot of people fishing with 3m rods. They do the job when conditions are perfect but they’re of little use when conditions are not good – which is quite often! Short rods restrict your casting ability and distance. In addition, with a short rod you can’t hold your line up high enough to stop the side drag from the incoming waves. For these reasons, it is preferable to use a 4.5-5m rod capable of casting up to a 6oz sinker.


To me the overhead reel is superior to the standard ‘eggbeater’ (threadline reel). The overhead reel allows you to cast farther, have more control over your fish and your line recovery is quicker. The only drawback is that you need lots of practice to cast these reels, especially if you are fishing in the dark.

Most surf fishers these days use a threadline, so when choosing one of these reels go for one with a large diameter spool so you will be able to cast longer distances. The more line that goes on the spool with each turn of the handle, the quicker the recovery rate of line too. The Sea Martin is probably the best reel that I have seen in this category.


Line with a breaking strain of 6-10kg is ideal (but if fishing at night I would be using 10kg in case you hook a gummy shark). I am not a fan of braided line when it comes to surf fishing because it tangles and has no give. Monofilament is definitely my first choice.

A standard paternoster rig is the go for all surf fishing (see diagram). Use heavier monofilament line of around 15kg breaking strain to tie your leaders. This is important because the stiffer line won’t twist and tangle as much, and the baits will be presented more naturally. Keep the total length of the rig short to maximise casting distance.

Hook size is dependent on the fish you are targeting, and for salmon the best choice is a 2/0 in an O’Shaughnessy or Limerick pattern (if chasing mullet, use size 6 or 4/0 for gummy sharks). Whatever hooks you are using, they need to be sharp so make sure you change them after each outing – a blunt hook won’t catch nearly as many salmon.

For sinkers, use star sinkers in the 3-6oz range, depending on the weather and the amount of side drag. Use whatever weight you need to keep your bait in the strike zone.

The last piece of tackle is some wire to tie your bait on. The longer your bait stays on the hook, the more likely you are to catch a salmon. Wire is something I always use. You can buy it in the tackle shops or simply unravel some electrical wire. The wire should be a bit thicker than a human hair. Just twist it on about four turns near the eye of the hook. Put your bait on, then wrap the wire firmly around your bait and finish it off with three or four turns back near the eye of the hook. You’re ready to go!


With all your gear in order, all that’s missing is bait. Whitebait, bluebait, pilchards, pipis and squid are all excellent choices for salmon. You can also use a red or blue surf popper on one of the droppers, which is a good way of making sure you always have at least one offering in the water, even if the bait on the other dropper comes off.

Before you start fishing there are other important considerations: the weather and tides. For salmon it is always best to fish an incoming tide so check your tide chart before you go. The success or otherwise of a surf fishing expedition is very dependent on the weather, too. The rule of thumb is not to go surf fishing if the wind is over 20 knots, unless it’s blowing directly offshore.

Once you arrive at the beach, don’t just go racing down to the nearest bit of water and start fishing. Get up on a sand dune and have a good look along the beach. This is called ‘reading a beach’ and could mean the difference between going home with a bag of fish or returning empty handed. Have a good look at all the gutters, channels and sandbanks and pick out the best area. This should be a gutter that has clear green water extending all the way to the deep water offshore.

Once you have picked your gutter to fish, look at the wind direction and side drag (the direction the current is running in the gutter). If you pick the wrong side, you will be forever casting and retrieving your line. Always try to fish at the edge of the gutter where the sidewash off the sandbanks is coming in – that’s where the fish will be feeding.

HOOK-UP and landing

To newcomers, feeling a bite can be a bit tricky. A sinker pulling out of the sand or a wave hitting your line can sometimes feel like a bite, but with experience you will familiarise yourself with the tap of a small fish or the express-train hit of a large salmon.

When you feel a bite, strike hard and quickly, then retrieve any slack line. If you feel thumping you know that the fish is on. If you feel nothing, keep waiting. Most times the fish will come back for seconds, or even thirds, and waiting could well score you a fish that would otherwise have been missed.

Once you have hooked your fish, always keep pressure on your line. If the fish wants to fight, let it and work it into the breaker line. Don’t try to skulldrag it out; instead use the waves to your advantage. Wait until the wave breaks on the beach and guide the fish up the beach with the water.

Try not to bring the fish up in the main wash area because this is where the strongest receding water pressure will be. Bring the fish up through the wave, walking backwards to aid line recovery. Once the wave starts to recede, hold the line steady and walk slowly down towards the fish to minimise drag pressure. Don’t try to drag the fish against the wave. As soon as the fish clears the water, wind and walk backwards and the fish is yours.


Mullet can make an entertaining distraction while fishing for salmon, although if you have a serious yearning to catch them, low tide is the best time. If you want to have some sport with the fish, use a light rod about 2m in length with 3-4kg line and a two hook Paternoster rig (the same rig as for salmon but with size 6 hooks and a 1oz sinker). Use pipis or worms for bait.

On a good day and if the water is clean, concentrate on the waves and just before they break you may actually spot the mullet. The best place to fish for them is right on the edge of the gutter where the water is washing off the sand flats, usually in just 1-2m of water. You only have to cast 15-20m in the wash behind the wave break. Mullet bite with a sharp, ‘tap, tap, tap’ and, once hooked, they put up a good fight for their size.

So go to it! Don’t be scared of the cold. Rug up, dust off the surf fishing gear and get out there after an Australian salmon. You won’t find a better time to chase them than right now!

The author prefers an overhead reel (left) for enhanced casting distance, but most surf anglers use oversized threadlines (right) for simplicity.

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