Rips, holes, gutters and sweeps (Part 1)
  |  First Published: September 2003

ARRIVING at the surf for your first solo crack at beach fishing can be a little daunting. To the untrained eye, the open surf beach all looks the same. Tiny variations are what make all the difference though, and once you know how to identify these differences the surf beach takes on a whole new meaning.


A swell works in the same way as a Mexican wave works at the footy. The wave is an energy that moves through the water, and as it moves the water molecules rise and fall in the same way as the arms of the crowd rise and fall in a Mexican wave. This gives the water the appearance of moving forward, but while the energy of the wave is moving forward, the water particles are just moving up and down. It’s not until the wave breaks that the water is propelled forward.

How a wave breaks is by virtually falling over the top of itself. As a wave reaches shallow water, the bottom of the wave slows down (or even stops if the water is very shallow). The top of the wave is still moving its energy forward, so it falls over the bottom and breaks. The big barrelling waves that we see in the surfing documentaries are a great example. The big waves of Hawaii’s North Shore are created as big swells move through very deep water and hit shallow reef. These big swells hit the shallow water and the reef causes the bottom of the swell to slow. At the same time the top of the wave falls forward, creating the huge barrels that we see.

Once a wave has broken, it’s important to remember that unless the wave hits a bank shallow enough to stop the wave altogether, the wave is still alive and well. When this wave rolls over the top of a shallow bank or a reef it will break – but as soon as it hits deep water again it will continue on and form an unbroken wave.

Putting this all together, reading a beach is all about reading where and how the waves break and reform.

Most beaches have the same basic structure, consisting of a back bank, a gutter and then another bank close to shore. In a situation like this the wave moves in from offshore and hits the back bank and breaks (this is the white water we see at the back of the surf). This white water will roll over the top of the back bank until it hits the gutter on the other side. If this gutter is deep enough it will cause the wave to reform as an unbroken wave, and this wave will roll through until it hits shallow water again. Depending on where the second bank is that will create the shore break, this wave will break again before hitting the shore. However, if the water is deep enough between the back break and the shoreline, the wave will roll all the way into shore and dump on bare sand. In most cases there’ll be a second bank for the wave to hit before it reaches the shoreline.

This scene is duplicated all along the beach with just a couple of slight variations. The deep water that we often find sitting between the back break and the shore break is sometimes too shallow to allow the wave to reform. Instead, the wave continues to roll all the way into the shore in its broken form. This is because a sand bank has formed and is pushing the water from the back of the surf all the way into the shore. This water is usually between knee-deep and waist-deep.

This creates a problem for the beach – it now has an excessive amount of water pushed up onto it which it has to get rid of. The way the beach moves water from the shore back out to sea is with rips and gutters. It is ironic that a shallow sand bank is what is needed to create a deep gutter, but that’s exactly how the structure of a beach works.


A gutter always runs along the beach, parallel to the shoreline. Gutters are what are used to transport this excess water along to beach to the nearest rip. Gutters are always positioned between the back bank and the shore break and a good gutter will have the wave reforming as it moves from the back bank through the gutter. White water that is created as the wave hits the back bank can be watched and as it passes over the deeper water of the gutter, you will notice that it reforms into an unbroken wave.

Holes are a smaller variation of a gutter and they will often have a small rip at the back of them. Holes are good options for anglers as they tend to concentrate fish in a small area and are a great fishing option.

In a gutter, the water will move either north or south, looking for the closest rip to exit the beach. This movement is know as a sweep and the more water that is pushed onto the beach, the more water will have to exit the beach and the stronger the sweeps and rips will be. On days where there is a slight swell, the sweep will be minimal but on the days where the swell is up and the white water is rolling into the shore, pushing thousands of litres of water of into the beach, the sweep will often be too strong to fish.

It is a huge help if an angler can see exactly where the sweep runs along the gutters and moves out to see at the rip. Rips are usually positioned at the end of a gutter. If you locate a good gutter with a sweep running north, the northern end of that gutter is where you will find your rip.

A good rip will have waves running straight in from the back bank and if a rip is deep enough, the waves will not break at all. Even if a wave does break out the back of a rip, you can still pick the rip by watching the wave as it moves into the beach. As the water moves out to sea, it meets with the wave moving in and can look like two waves colliding together, causing the incoming wave to stand up on itself.

There are many variations of this and reading a beach is all about looking at all of the options that are available. In some situations, there is no second bank at all and after the wave has broken on the back bank, it can reform and roll all the way into shore before smashing on the beach. On days when the swell is tiny, a high tide will often see no waves breaking out the back of the surf as the small waves roll straight over the deeper water. It is not an exact science and often you just have to work with what you have been given. The beach angler’s job is to look at what the beach is offering and work out from there where the fish are going to be.


If you are interested in learning about reading a beach, or just want to hone those skills for that up and coming September trip to Fraser Island, hit the beach and have a good look around. If you can get at least a couple of beach trips under your belt, you’ll get a lot more out of your next Fraser Island tailor excursion.

Next month I’ll take you through some advanced beach fishing techniques and describe exactly what types of gutters, holes and rips house various fish.

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