I’d barely fished a day in my life six years ago. With practically no angling experience I set off for Corinella Pier with my partner Julie Brown and friend Jason Shields in hope of landing the ‘big one’. Now in truth, we had no idea what we were doing. I recall ball sinkers tied directly to the main line and rusty hooks at strange angles attached with cheap brass snap swivels. We waited patiently, and perhaps naively, for a giant, tasty fish to decide that tonight was the night to end its life. We were not alone. There was one other fisherman at the far end of the pier. His surf rods lay beside him motionless, with baits cast out into the channel, much further than ours.
As I retied my rig because it had fallen apart again, the lone angler jumped up off his bucket as his overhead reel began to scream. We raced up to see him. Nodding his head slowly, he confirmed rather nonchalantly that it was a gummy. A gummy I thought to myself, what is that? I didn’t ask. I just pretended I knew and nodded back in agreement. He asked if I would land it for him, so as the mystery fish drew nearer, I climbed down a rusty ladder towards the water. How big was this fish going to be? Was it spiky? Would it bite me? There was a splash behind me and I had the mental image of Jaws biting me on the behind. I don’t remember what happened next, but somehow we managed to get the beast on the pier. Its long, sleek, grey body looked so graceful yet so dangerous. It was, without doubt, the most awesome thing I’d ever seen. That’s when I decided to become a gummy shark fisherman.
It took us 13 more expeditions till we landed our first gummy. It was about the size of a banana, but it didn’t matter, because we had caught it ourselves. The next 6 years was a real learning curve. We came to fish beaches more than piers because they’re less crowded and much more peaceful. Catching a gummy shark from the beach is really a beautiful thing but it takes practice, knowledge and patience.
Most Victorian beach fishermen target Australian salmon. These little battlers are great fun on light gear but to a true gummy fisherman, they’re nothing more than bait. They can be quite annoying because they pick apart carefully presented baits intended for gummies. Don’t be tempted to fish for sambos just because the guys down the beach are landing them one after the other. It’s tough when the gummies are few and far between, but they’re worth waiting for.
It soon became evident that our quarry prefers to enter the surf and feed at night, so all of our fishing effort now takes place after dark. This means warm clothes, waders, a beanie and a good headlamp.
Reading the beach is a very important part of success. It takes practice to identify gutters, rips, sandbanks and channels, particularly at night. A breaking wave and some white water indicates a rise in the bottom structure, probably a sandbank or rocks. If the wave spills towards you, the froth disperses and the water becomes dark again, you’ve identified a gutter. Gutters are fish magnets; they’re little highways that gummies inhabit in search of food. A channel is a similar highway, however it runs at 90 degrees to the beach and brings fish in from offshore. The best spots are deep gutters running along the beach with a channel at either end.
Make the effort to visit the beach at the lowest low tide you can find. That’s when the beach will give up most of its secrets. Imagine what the area will look like on a high tide. Where are the deepest holes going to be?
It’s so important to find some deep water closer to the shore that I don’t always fish the first beach I get to. When arriving, walk over the dunes to check the conditions before unloading gear. If there isn’t a decent gutter about, move on.
The most frustrating thing about surf beaches is what I call ‘www’. It has nothing to do with surfing the internet; it’s wind, weed and wash. Strong wind, particularly from the east or southeast can turn a calm beach into a raging torrent. It will stir up huge sandy waves rendering the area unfishable. Weed is the next nuisance. Those south easterlies bring in thick kelp that can hang about for days. It’s impossible to keep a bait out in the wash with weed about. Wash refers to a strong side current running along the beach. The only way to avoid this is to move in the same direction as the tidal flow. Often, at the end of the beach, you’ll find a rocky peninsula jutting out to sea and a nice big deep hole created by the current hitting rock. This is a very productive spot if you feel like a walk.
I’ve talked to many gummy fishermen and I’m surprised that lots of them don’t berley. As an experiment, Jason and I chopped up a bunch of old pilchards and bluebait and scattered them on the beach where the waves washed the cubes into the water. That night Jason landed a 6kg gummy that was stuffed full of the baitfish concoction.
Another surf veteran told me of a cage he used to fill with berley and stake into the sand when chasing jewies in northern NSW. I built one out of 75mm mesh with 15mm mesh as a covering. It is 1m long and 40cm in diameter. The waves wash it about and it releases plenty of fine berley. It does take some effort to carry to and from the beach, as do the fish frames and pillies we fill it with. But the results are outstanding. When there aren’t enough helping hands around, stake an onion bag into the surf instead to hold your berley.
Like most fish, gummies prefer fresh bait, although they will take a good quality frozen alternative. If you can’t manage to collect your bait on the day you want to fish, get hold of some squid heads, small slimy mackerel, freshwater eel or pilchards.
I’ve caught a lot of gummies on mullet and salmon fillets too. These baits are readily available in the shallows at most beaches. Keep fillets to about 12x4cm. Gummies have a reasonably small mouth and I’ve found that baits larger than these dimensions tend to decrease my hook-up rate.
Nearly every gummy I’ve cleaned has been full of small grey crabs about the size of a 10 cent piece. Although I have experimented with crab as bait, the results have been mediocre. The only other things I’ve discovered in their stomachs are my berley and once, an old red surf popper.
My primary gummy outfit consists of a 7 or 8 wrap surf rod matched to an Abu 7000 C3 Tribute overhead reel. It’s loaded with 30lb Finns braid that’s supple and thin. My second outfit consists of a heavy spin reel. Mitchell makes a reel called Nautil. It’s fully sealed so you can drop it in the surf and not worry about internal corrosion. Jason fishes with one and I think it spends more time underwater than it does in the rod holder.
Everyone has their own preferred rig, but my favourite consists of 1m of 60 to 80lb mono, two hooks and a heavy snap swivel. Gummies don’t have teeth, so there’s no need to use wire. The hooks are 5/0 to 7/0 Owner SSW cutting points. The smaller hook is a sliding hook with Bait Mate wrapped around the shank to stop it from bunching up in the bait. More Bait Mate is also used to bind the fillet to the hooks to prevent crabs pulling it to bits. Star sinkers are attached via the heavy snap and the leader has a brass ring on the end, which makes it easy to swap over. The rigs are best stored on a foam leader holder.
The last of the incoming tide is by far the most productive time to fish southern beaches. Tides that peak at least an hour after dark and before 3am are perfect. I find that later tides, those that peak between 3am and sunrise, tend to be less productive. Perhaps the grey submarines feed as soon as they get a chance?
The height of the flood tide is an important factor because gummies prefer deep gutters. Our strike rate on tides higher than 1.4m is much better. These spring tides occur near the full and new moons. I can’t stress this enough, fish the highest high tide you can! Our best sessions have been when there is almost no sand left to stand on and the entire beach is nearly under water. Use your tide book and plan ahead.
Top 10 Gummy Tips
1. Take a good quality headlamp with a spare battery.
2. Use a clip light on your rod, as this helps to indicate bites.
3. Don’t use cheap snap swivels.
4. Tie your rigs the night before.
5. Fresh bait is unbeatable.
6. Plan your trip in advance according to favourable tides.
7. Take some creature comforts to stay warm and dry. Waders, warm clothes, beanies, a hot drink and a bite to eat can be the difference between leaving and staying for the best part of the tide.
8. Use nail polish to put a small mark on your rod indicating the legal size of your quarry. Add a few centimetres to be sure. It beats carrying a tape measure.
9. Gummies can be caught all year round, but the biggest ones are about during the cooler months.
10. Bleed gummies on capture if you intend to eat them. A cut behind the head will do the job. Clean them on the beach.