Locating fishing holes in the surf
  |  First Published: June 2005

Last month we looked at reading the beach. If you managed to get down to the beach, you would have seen that the surf generally has a back break, a gutter and then a shore break. Having a keen eye and a little understanding allows you to see the way a gutter moves water to the rip, which then moves it back out into the deeper water.

Now that you have this knowledge, you might want to know just where the fish can be found. Locating a gutter and lobbing a bait into it can certainly catch you a fish or two, but you can take this one step further and improve your chances by learning about the various styles of gutters and where the fish like to feed.

Behind the back break

We already know that the back break is where the deep water meets the shallow and we see the waves rise and break. The water behind this is often used by pelagic species as they move up and down the coast. At any opportunity, these fish can move into the gutters to feed but they can also take advantage of feeding opportunities that exist while they are moving along the coast. As a general rule, the fish that are moving along the back of the surf are not necessarily feeding (unlike when these fish move into the gutters) but they are still somewhat opportunistic and will take advantage of a bait or correctly presented lure when it arises.

Working lures or lobbing pilchards into the back of the surf can account for some big tailor and sharks. If you are having no luck in the gutters and the tide is low enough to walk out on the sand bank of the back break, you’ll find that some good fish can often be caught as they swim by.

Another option is to make a long cast out into a strong rip. If possible, keep the bait lightly weighted and the rip will carry it out further. This is a good technique, as tailor and jewfish will often feed at the head of a rip when the tide is falling, in the same way that a flathead feeds at the mouth of a draining creek, waiting for fish to be flushed from the shallowing water.

Other interesting catches that can be had from the back of the surf are tuna and mackerel. Late in the afternoon, the tuna and mackerel can come in quite close, making them possible targets for the land-based surf angler. They are more of a specialised target though and catching them from the shore is not something I can claim to have had any real success in.

Fishing the gutters

Getting back into the gutters, there are a couple of choices. Some anglers with huge surf rods and big lumps of lead toss baits out a country mile and can successfully fish in gutters that lie a fair way out from the shore. This is a great technique for catching sharks, mulloway and tailor but is not necessarily the best method for targeting fish in the surf.

I have been arguing against long surf casting for many years now and have been successful in guiding surf fishing newcomers by teaching them to select gutters that are close to the shore. While there are a lot of very experienced anglers who are capable of casting and fishing with heavy lead, this is another specialised technique that should be removed from the beginner’s guide to surf fishing but can certainly be looked at further down the track.

Gutters close to the shoreline are ideal due to the amount of food that can be churned up. If you are lucky enough to locate a gutter that sits hard up against the shoreline, the waves will be breaking on bare sand, churning up the pipis, crabs and worms. This attracts bream, whiting, mullet and dart and in turn, these smaller fish will bring in the tailor, sharks and mulloway.

A close gutter is less affected by the waves that come crushing down on the fishing line, keeping you in better contact with the fish. It also means that less lead is required for the shorter cast, which allows anglers to use lighter lines and smaller rods. Even kids can get into the action when fishing shoreline gutters.

Whiting, dart, flathead and bream can be found sitting just behind the shore break where they will be feeding on whatever is washed out by the breaking waves. Using worms, pipis or ghost crabs for bait, it’s best to cast just behind the shore break where the fish will be sitting. The fish don’t like to enter the churned up sandy water but prefer to sit just behind this water and wait for food to get flushed out.

One of the most important things to remember when fishing the shore break is to keep back from the water’s edge. If you’re casting a long way out it makes sense to walk into the water, but if you’re targeting fish that are just metres from the shore, walking into the water will only scare the fish away.

Tailor, sharks, jew and bream love to sit in the deep water of the gutter where they can go after the fish that are feeding a lot closer to the shore. Tailor and sharks will be found chasing mullet into the gutters as well as the annual runs of pilchards and other baitfish. Bream and dart prefer to have a little white water over their heads as it offers protection from birds. Gutters that sit just behind a back break often have a lot of white water washed over the bank and across the back half of the gutter and fish can be found under this white water waiting for the waves to dislodge food. Casting baits at the drop-off where the back break meets the gutter and slowly winding the bait over this drop-off and into the gutter is the best way to work an area like this.

The ideal situation is a gutter close to shore that has a back break washing a little white water over the back of it. When this is happening, I like to make quite a few casts into the shore break while standing well back from the water’s edge. Once I have fished this area for a while, the bites will start to drop off as the fish get spooked or caught, so I walk into the water and cast to the white wash that is covering the back of the gutter. This is ideal when targeting a mixed bag of fish like flathead, whiting, bream, dart and tailor.

If targeting tailor only, make use of the low light levels or fish at night and target gutters that are deep, with access to the back of the surf. A deep gutter with a rip at the back of it is ideal for tailor and it is often a case of just waiting for a school of them to move in and start feeding. On many occasions I have stood on the beach at night for hours without a bite before a flurry of action sees me hooked up as soon as my bait hits the water. Work these situations until you have caught enough or the action dies. Remember to limit your catch as tailor flesh does not freeze very well and the species is often a victim of over fishing.

Whiting and dart are best fished for at the front of the gutter or in the white wash. Bream are more of a wandering fish that can be found in the deeper water as well as the edges of the gutters where the sand is being churned up. Holes also tend to concentrate bream in a small area.

Flathead like the shallower gutters that have a fair amount of dart and whiting feeding in them, but can sometimes be found very close to shore, so stand back for the first couple of casts. I have also noticed that flathead like to sit on the shallow end of the deeper gutters.

Getting out there and putting this information to good use is all that is left for you to do. I am more than happy to receive correspondence from anyone having trouble, or better still, having success at beach fishing. You can email me at the above address. Next month we’ll look at rigging for various species.

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