LAST month we covered the most important aspect of beach fishing – reading the beach. I also recommended that anyone interested in learning more about this should make a few trips down to the surf and check it all out. This lets you really understand what’s happening on the beach, and hopefully some of you have been able to throw a line in and have a real look around. If you did, you may have experienced a couple of problems that go beyond basic beach reading.
One of the biggest problems you get when beach fishing is that sometimes the fish just aren’t there! You can also experience a hot bite one minute and then the gutter goes cold the next. Strong sweeps, mangled pillies but no hookups, heaps of bites but the bait stays intact – all of these are common problems. However, when guiding on the open surf beach of South Stradbroke I have managed to turn complete beginners into beach anglers in only a couple of hours, so don’t despair!
There is a real smorgasbord available on the open surf beach, but for the fish that feed there it’s a dangerous and hostile location that’s not always accessible. Fish use tide, light levels, gutters and rips to come into the beach and take advantage of the pipis, crabs, worms and baitfish that are plentiful up against the shoreline and out in the gutters. Part of a beach angler’s education is to know when and where certain fish enter the surf and what they’ll be looking for when they get there.
You’ll notice just how aggressive fish are when you’re beach fishing. The first sign of a bite is often a rod that’s fully loaded up and a fish peeling line from a drag. These fish are there to feed and in the turbulent, highly oxygenated water of the surf they’re quick to jump on anything eatable. This works to the angler’s advantage and also means that we can keep a bait moving in the water. A moving bait is more appealing to our target species.
Keeping your bait moving serves another vital role in the surf – it can keep the line nice and tight on the rod tip. During a fishing session the waves come down on the line that’s lying in the water and pull it down, creating a bow in the line. This is often not even noticeable to the angler, as the pressure of the waves can also create a feeling of the line being tight. By casting out and slowly reeling the line back in you’ll keep the bow out of the line and stay in contact with the bait at all times.
Your retrieve speed should depend on the conditions on the day. There’s no use retrieving slowly if the seas are up and creating a lot of pressure on the line as well as creating a strong sweep, which will push your bait up on the beach very quickly. In this situation, use a retrieve that will allow you to constantly keep in touch with your bait. This may mean that the retrieve is quite fast, but don’t worry about it being too fast for the fish feeding in the strong sweep – they are used to seeing food moving quickly in the rapidly moving water. On a very quiet day with no surf the bait can be left motionless, and I have actually seen some anglers in the surf using a rod holder and sitting back as if they are fishing a quiet riverbank.
As with most fishing situations, the less lead you use the better. I like to try to teach anglers to lighten up as much as possible. However, if you’re fishing a good tailor bite in a fairly strong sweep, with a flock of seagulls diving for your lightly weighted pillie as it slowly sinks to the bottom before getting swept away by the fast moving water, it’s time to go a little heavier on the lead. Lighten up as much as possible, but try to find a good balance.
On days when there is just too much swell and the sweep is making things difficult, you might as well go home. The fish don’t like to be in too close on big days as the strong sweep and churned-up sand all gets a little too much for the fish (as well as the fisherman).
Keeping the bait moving and having a tight line is vital for detecting bites and determining when to set the hook, but there can still be a little uncertainty about what is a bite and what is just a wave hitting the line. The biggest factor in being able to tell the difference is experience, but when you’re just starting out it pays to keep a close eye on the line and the waves. That way you’ll be able to see when the waves contact the line and find out what that feels like. It’s a slow drag that can be quite strong, whereas a bite is often a lot sharper and quicker. Dart and whiting will either hook up instantly or give you a series of short, sharp jabs on the line and they try to rip the bait off the hook. By watching the line and the waves for your first few trips you’ll soon come to feel the difference between a bite and a wave.
The most common question people ask me is what tide fishes better on the beach. The tide actually matters very little because it’s all about the location and the time of day. The gutter that produces good fish at high tide will possibly be dry as a bone or way too shallow at low tide to be fishable. On the other hand, a low tide gutter that had a big school of whiting in it will be too far out and too deep to be any good to the whiting fisherman at high tide.
The biggest enemy of the beach fisherman is the strong southeasterly winds that we experience here in Southern Queensland. To avoid the strong winds I opt for an early morning fish and ignore the tide altogether. Just knowing whether it’s rising or falling is all the information I need. If I find a nice gutter close to shore and as the tide drops, the fish stop biting and the gutter starts getting too shallow, I just move on. Quite often you only need to wander up the beach a little way before you find a better location for that stage of the tide.
If I’m setting up for an afternoon fish and am expecting to fish into the evening I’ll select a gutter that will last for the entire session. To do this I take into account the movements of the tide and work out whether the gutter I’m standing in front of will get better as the evening goes on or whether it will wash out. If a gutter is quite narrow with a shallow sand back to the rear of it, it will wash out as the tide drops. If you have another couple of hours of a rising tide you can fish it and it will only get better.
Fellow QFM writer John Softly talks a lot about distance casting for surf fishing but I prefer to keep things very simple. If there’s a gutter that is close to the shore, or better still, one that is hard up against the beach with waves that break on bare sand, there’s no need for distance casting. Big rods, overhead reels and huge slabs of lead aren’t required. I have taught my six-year-old to surf fish with a seven-foot rod and a size three sinker.
Now, that’s not to say that the big rods and heavy sinkers that are lobbed out a mile won’t land their fair share of fish. A lot of huge tailor prefer to stay out wide and this is a great technique for landing them. However, don’t think for a moment that this is the only way to beach fish. Whiting, bream, dart and flathead all prefer to be in close to shore in mild conditions and I have also caught good numbers of tailor, jewfish and sharks all within a few metres of the shore break. My best catch on the surf beach was a longtail tuna that was caught 20 metres from shore while casting slugs at a baitfish school. Lighten up and fish in close and you’ll do just fine.
Reel choice is a matter of personal preference so I won’t go into it much. I was brought up with an Alvey reel and use them exclusively in the surf, except when I’m doing high speed spinning, but you should use whatever you’re comfortable with.
When anglers purchase a surf rod, most of the time they walk away with a 13’6 monster that, if balanced to the reel and line it was designed for, will cast a mile. I have one myself, but my 10’6” light rod is the one I use almost exclusively, and I also find that the guests I have on the beach prefer the lighter rods. Unless you’re targeting sharks, jew or massive tailor, light rods are a great option. Just be sure to get some advice before you buy and get the best rod you can afford.
First and last light is tailor time. Tailor, like a lot of predatory fish, seem to adapt to the change in light levels a lot quicker than the baitfish do, and the tailor use this to their advantage to move in for the kill. This piece of information should help anglers understand that ‘first light’ means just as the first rays of sun begin to brighten the sky. In summer, I hear anglers talking about hitting the beach at ‘first light’ and not arriving til 5am! I’m afraid that in summer, 5am is two hours after first light and is the middle of the day for tailor. Always judge tailor time as the change in light levels. Once the light has changed and it has stabilized for a while, the advantage is gone.
Sometimes the hardest thing about catching a tailor is getting out of bed, but once those waves start stripping the sand out from under your feet, you start to come to life. And if that doesn’t wake you, a big greenback with his nose in a receding wave certainly will!
1) The gutter in the background is small and very close to shore, but formations like these are easy to fish and can produce some great catches.
2) This ‘rat’ kingfish was caught while night-fishing for tailor in the surf.
3) This is as hard a surf fishing gets!
4) A couple of great flatties for the BBQ.
5) The young ones can have a ball landing whiting on light estuary-style rods in the surf.
6) Taking a break from the action on Fraser Island.Reads: 3373