Surf fishing - back to basics
  |  First Published: May 2005

This report is the first in a 12-part series which will take you through all aspects of beach fishing. I’ll start by discussing the basics, and in later issues I’ll show you some more advanced techniques and how to specialise in targeting different species.

When the editor of Queensland Fishing Monthly asked me to write this series, straight away I thought of crisp spring mornings with the sun rising over the Pacific, waves rolling, washing the sand from under my feet as big whiting attacked freshly pulled beachworms. Naturally, I told the editor, I would have to do extra research for these articles, take photos of fish being landed, bait being gathered and anglers working over a gutter. A tough gig, we agreed, but we’re up for it.

So if you don’t own a boat, know nothing about soft plastics and lure casting, live within an hour or so of a surf beach and love to fish, do yourself a favour and grab a subscription – and I’ll take you through all you’ll need to know about fishing the awesome Queensland surf.

Beach basics

The most important factor in fishing the surf is being able to read the beach. Long distance casting, having the right tackle, even using the right bait – they’re all useless if you don’t know how to pinpoint where the fish will move in and out of the surf zone, and where they will look for a feed.

The mechanics of the beach are very simple. Waves can travel thousands of miles across open oceans before they arrive at the shallow water of the 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 up. 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 moving forward instead of just up and down.

The more power the wave has, the bigger it will be and the deeper it will 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 bombora or a sand bank, it will break – but as that energy continues to move forward, it can hit deep water again, reform and continue as an unbroken wave.

If you are not sure if you understand this, just read through it again and have a close look at the diagrams. Knowing the basic mechanics of wave action is the key to reading a beach. Understand this, and the rest is simple.

Finding gutters, banks and rips

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. The bigger the waves, the deeper that water will be that they break in. An average swell of around a metre will break in only waist deep water so, by reading where the waves are breaking and where they are not, it 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 hit the shallow water of the shore and break its last break. 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 that 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.

Tidal variations

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.

Next month I will take you through the species commonly caught from the beach and just where you can find them in the surf zone.



Back break - The shallow water at the rear of the surf zone where the waves first start to break.

Shore break - The shoreline of the beach where the waves break for the last time.

Gutter - Deep water that sits between the back break and the shore break.

Bank - Shallow area that make the waves break, creating rolling white water that does not reform into a clean, unbroken wave.

Back bank - Sand bank that makes the wave break over it before the wave reforms in a gutter.

Sweep - The current that moves water from the shore to a rip. The sweep can move in any direction and is often dependant on the angle of wind and swell.

Rip - A strong current that moves water from the gutters to the deep water behind the back break.

Hole - Deep water that sits where a gutter would normally be. These are little more than tiny gutters that can sometimes be a combination of gutter and rip.


1) A perfect shoreline gutter that shows the white water rolling over the back bank before the wave reforms, indicating deep water, then finally breaking hard up against the shoreline. Getting a cast into the gutter is simple enough but that shoreline will be loaded with whiting, bream and dart, with tailor moving in at first and last light.

2) A shoreline gutter that stretches for a kilometre or more. Note the waves breaking on bare sand, churning up a smorgasbord.

3) This is why it is best to find fishing holes at low tide. As soon as the tide starts to flood, holes like this come alive, concentrating schools of fish and, in turn, attracting plenty of predators.

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