If the Olympic heavyweight boxing champion had fins instead of fists he’d be a black drummer.
Also known as rock blackfish and pigs, black drummer are the street brawlers of the sea and encounters with these bruisers are usually short, brutal and one-sided.
I used to do a fair bit of fishing for black drummer along the South Coast rock ledges but it had been a while – maybe a decade – since I’d tangled with one. I’d moved on to concentrate on pelagic species such as salmon, bonito and tailor – fish I considered tough enough opponents.
But that was until I recently reacquainted myself with the ocean’s version of a prize-fighter.
So there I was, perched on a small rocky outcrop, a decent wash at my feet, holding on grimly as my 8kg surf outfit bounced almost uncontrollably in my hands, courtesy of the first fat pig I’d hooked in 10 years.
Forget your bonnies and sambos, these guys pull! While the fight lacked the acrobatics of an Australian salmon or the sheer speed of a mini-tuna, it was one of the most exhilarating tussles I’d had in a while.
I don’t know whether it was good luck or good management but after a few seconds I managed to turn the kilo-plus fish and soon had it on the rocks. With its muscular shoulders, impressive paddle-tail and thick scales, this black drummer was perfectly suited the rough, churning, foam-filled gutter that I’d just extracted it from.
A lot of anglers refer to these gutters and channels in the rocks as ‘potholes’. This one, on a ledge just south of Batemans Bay, was typical of many you might find at any one of a hundred locations on the South Coast.
At low tide on a calm day, these holes are clear, shallow and virtually fishless. But add a bit of a swell and combine it with a rising tide on dusk and you have one hot fishing spot.
And it’s more than just black drummer that call these possies home. In addition to rampaging pigs, South Coast potholes regularly produce trevally, blackfish, bream, leatherjacket, silver drummer, groper and even the occasional snapper.
The term pothole can be used to describe any open gutter, channel or hole in a rock platform. Most headlands and rocky outcrops have at least a few of these features and provided they meet certain criteria, all can be fished with a degree of success.
Any hole that is at least a couple of metres deep at high tide and features a bit of whitewater is a great place to start.
It’s even better if the bottom consists of a mix of broken weed and rock, interspersed with patches of sand. The most productive potholes also tend to be in the vicinity of cunjevoi beds or areas of cabbage and green weed.
Tides play a key role in successful potholing. Fish tend to frequent these formations only when there’s sufficient water depth and cover.
That means they’re usually locations where fish move in to feed on a rising tide and quickly leave on a falling tide.
Of course, there are exceptions but if you want to experience the best that potholing has to offer, fish the last two hours of the rising tide.
If conditions are right, the fish that inhabit South Coast potholes can be caught at any time of day. A decent supply of foam and whitewater will provide them with the cover – and courage – they need to venture out, even on the brightest day.
However, it’s no coincidence that almost without exception the best pothole fishing is at first and last light or under a cloudy sky.
If I had to create the perfect potholing scenario, it would be to fish to the last hour of daylight coinciding with the last hour of the rising tide.
Potholing after dark can be hazardous but well worth the effort if you are careful and confident. Drummer and bream in particular will continue to bite well and truly after the sun has set. In fact, they often do not come on the bite until nightfall.
Potholing can be done year-round but Winter is traditionally the peak time. Drummer, blackfish, groper and trevally relish the cold conditions and June and July also tend to coincide with the run of yellowfin bream and snapper along the rock ledges.
More anglers also concentrate on these species and this style of fishing during the cooler months because many other options shut down.
South Coast anglers can always rest assured that when the game fish disappear north with the warm water, the flathead and whiting go to sleep and even the tailor and salmon are a little hit-and-miss, there will always be something lurking in the local pothole.
A sturdy 103.2-metre to 3.7-metre rod with a centrepin, Alvey or medium- large threadline reel loaded with 8kg to 15kg monofilament should provide enough grunt to extract most fish from their lairs.
But play it by ear. If the terrain is super-rough and there’s a realistic chance of tangling with a groper or oversized drummer, use 15kg line as a minimum.
Conversely, if the swell is low, the sun bright and the fish flighty, it may be worth downsizing to 6kg or even 4kg line and a lighter rod.
Rigs don’t get any simpler than that used for South Coast potholing – a small ball sinker running freely down to a medium-sized hook is ideal. The bonus is you can fit an entire day’s supply of terminal tackle in a single film canister.
A selection of small ball sinkers ranging from 000 to No 1 or No 2 will suffice. Successful potholing is all about using the smallest sinker you can get away with.
To achieve the perfect balance, experiment until your bait is moving freely in the wash without sinking too fast or getting thrown back in your face by the swell.
Drummer, bream, trevally and the like don’t have huge gobs so unless you’re soaking a red crab for a big groper, stick to hook sizes ranging between No 4 and 1/0. A smaller hook will also help hook fish such as leatherjacket and blackfish.
I’ve left berley until last but, in truth, it’s the crucial ingredient in productive potholing.
Berley mixes are like old family recipes that have been handed down from generation to generation. Each recipe has its ‘secret’ ingredient and everyone reckons theirs is better than the next bloke’s.
In reality, bread, breadcrumbs, fish scraps, prawn heads, tuna oil and cunje and cabbage scraps all work. You can use a combination of a few or all of these – it doesn’t matter.
Berleying should be the first thing you do on arriving at your location. I throw in a few handfuls of my chosen mixture, then start rigging up.
It takes about half an hour for the fish to respond. Once they do, small handfuls thrown in regularly basis will keep them around throughout the session.
Bait is all about personal preference. Some potholers won’t go past a lump of cunje – and understandably so. It’s free, sticks to the hook and doesn’t attract pickers in the same way other baits do.
Bread also deters pickers and is a top bait for drummer and bream.
Cunje and bread may have their devotees but as far as the best all-round bait for potholing goes, you can’t go past a prawn.
A mate who is a gun drummer, trevally and bream chaser uses nothing but cooked prawns purchased from his local supermarket deli. These seem to work more effectively than service-station-bought frozen prawns and, when bought in bulk this way, they tend to be more economical.
The advantage of prawns is that they will catch everything, from drummer and blackfish to bream and trevally.
It’s a double-edged sword, though. The downside is that prawns are a nightmare to use if pickers such as sweep, toadies and kelpies are prevalent.
Jimmy Savitsky with an average South Coast black drummer plucked from a foam-filled pothole. Even modest-sized ‘pigs’ like this pull like freight trains.
A nice little pothole luderick. Normally vegetarians, luderick will regularly take flesh or bread baits if they are used in conjunction with a steady berley trail. This one ate a cooked prawn.
With its muscular frame, hulking shoulders and oversized paddle-tail, black drummer are built for power.
A typical South Coast rock ledge perfect for potholing. Broken reef plus a bit of wash equals fish.
Bream are a popular pothole target and some absolute thumpers are caught from the rocks in the cooler months.
Terminal tackle for South Coast potholing is wonderfully simple. A pea sinker running straight down to a small-to-medium-sized hook should do the trick.Reads: 4231