Back To Basics – Surf Fishing
  |  First Published: June 2009

There are thousands of people that go surf fishing during the season, some experienced and some head down for their first time. It is an easy branch of the sport to get into, you don’t need a boat, the beaches are often very easy to access and the whole family can join in as well. To be a successful surf angler, we have to look in the right places and use the right gear otherwise you could go home feeling very hard done by and may not return.
The bad old days

Surf fishing used to about fishing rods long enough to predict the weather, line thick enough you could use for your whipper snipper, sinkers so heavy you can barely lift them off the ground and a stinky old freezer burnt pilchard tied in granny knots to hold onto the hook. Mix that in with that the long haul down the sand, wet jeans and socks lugging a ton of gear and you can see why many gave it away as ‘too hard’.

However with today’s technology in fishing gear and clothing, surf fishing is far more enjoyable than 20 odd years ago.

NEW TECHNOLOGY and new gear

Today’s surf fishing gear is far more advanced than the old heavy fibreglass rods. Japanese technology has taken over creating lighter rods made from graphite. Some of these rods can weigh only a few hundred grams meaning you can hold and cast them all day without getting tired arms; they also detect the smallest of bites unlike their glass counterpart. Their casting performance is also first class.

Reels have also had a dramatic upgrade. Some contain stainless steel internals while others are fully sealed and waterproof, preventing any saltwater or sand infiltrating the body of the reel, meaning it will last you more than one surf season.

Following suit is fishing line. There has been plenty of mention about braided lines over the years; these are without doubt a far better way to fish in the surf. They have a thinner diameter line and almost no stretch, meaning you’ll cast further and detect timid bites easier. You might need to back the drag off slightly as there is no stretch in braid that can lead to the odd pulled hook. Braid also aids in eliminating the interference you get when the waves break along. Although there is plenty more to surf fishing, beginning with the correct gear is the first step.

FIND the GUTTERS, find the fish

Finding the right location to fish in a surf beach is the difference between going home empty handed and not. Some anglers struggle to find where to fish and can’t understand how to read a surf beach. Finding a gutter couldn’t be easier if you know what to look for. To outline it simply a surf beach is predominantly a bunch of breaking waves and white water. But the further you look towards the beach the more you’ll discover it isn’t just that.

To find a gutter, stand from a high lookout point to scan the beach. You’ll notice breaking waves and white foamy water that the waves leave behind. Amongst all the white water, there’ll be gaps where it is fairly calm. These are usually blue or green in colour and are the deepest sections of the beach called ‘gutters’. Surfers know then as the ‘rip’, but all in all this is where the fish can be found. This is essentially where the water that is dumped on the beach by the waves returns to the ocean. It can be quite a strong current, so do be careful.

Not all gutters are deep, nor do they all head out into the ocean. Some gutters run horizontal to the beach or may run on a diagonal. Find this coloured and deeper, faster moving water and you should find success.


Before I think about casting a bait into the surf, I always set my berley trail. I always take the time to do this so that by the time you’re rigged and ready to cast, the fish are already waiting in the berley trail. Fish can (and do) move quickly along the beach, so anything that can be done to hold them in front of you is usually well rewarded.

There are many different ways to use berley on a beach yet the simplest methods are often the most productive. I have found an onion bag is the easiest way to berley by filling it with a block of frozen pilchards, tuna berley log or some chook pellets soaked in tuna oil. Some anglers I have spoken to often use ‘Home Brand’ cans of cat food containing pilchards or tuna.

When setting up, you need something to secure the bag too. A surf rod stand is fine but make sure it is secure. You don’t need a wave pulling the entire setup into the water and have the berley bag wash away. I attach the bag to a long rope, about 10 metres in length. This allows the water to wash it around in the shore breakers. Whatever you do, don’t place the bag too far into the surf; have it so each wave just covers the bag taking back with it some berley. The further in the water the bag is the more of a risk it is having a wave take the whole lot. If you notice the bag isn’t releasing any berley go and give it a kick or squish your foot over it a few times breaking the berley into smaller pieces.

Other berley techniques include scattering cubes of pilchards along the shore line. With each wave a few cubes will be sucked back but if a large wave’s heads up the beach, all your cubes could be sucked in. Alternatively, rather than using an onion bag, you can scoop handfuls of berley into the wash at regular intervals. Remember the old adage with berley – ‘little and often.’


Depending on what species of fish you intend on targeting, there is one rig that can account for all. The paternoster rig is the most widely used and easiest to tie. For those that can’t grasp how to make it, there are plenty of pre-tied paternoster rigs available for purchase. For those that can tie it, my suggestions are to make it from at least 15lb fluorocarbon leader. Although on the heavy side, it does make it easier when fishing amongst sea weed. Hooking a large piece of seaweed could have you break-off, causing you to re-rig. If there is a lot of weed about it can pay to have some rigs already made up to reduce the amount of time you are out of the water. Going heavy will allow you to wind in the weed most of the time and you’ll be able to untangle it rather than having to re-tie.

Each dropper on the paternoster could contain a surf popper on the bottom dropper and a size 1/0 baitholder or 3/0 circle hook on the top. If you’re anything like me, you’ll like to maximise your catch and fish with two baited hooks, one on each dropper.

My paternoster is rigged with a size 1/0 baitholder hook on the top dropper and a size 10 long shank hook on the bottom. Rigging this way allows me to fish a whole bluebait on the baitholder hook for salmon and a pipi on the bottom for trevally, sweep and mullet.

If you’re keen on fishing for something bigger, then a running sinker rig or fixed sinker rig should be used. This is mainly when targeting snapper or gummy sharks and should be tied from at least 60lb leader with 6/0 sized circle hooks.

Once bait is threaded onto a hook it can fall off during a cast, especially thawed out frozen bait. To keep it on the hook wrap it up in elastic cotton or Bait Mate. This keeps the bait from falling off and prevents the ‘pickers’ from totally destroying the bait. Some older anglers use light fuse wire instead of Bait Mate.


When fishing the beach after the berley is set and rigging has taken place, looking where to cast is of most importance. Although many attempt to cast to all the way to Tasmania, it is a fallacy that you have to cast long distances. Casting as far as you can does very little for your success rate, especially when your berleying.

Salmon, mullet, trevally, flathead and sweep will all follow a well-laid berley trail to its source. It is common in the peak of the surf season to have hundreds of fish in the shore breakers waiting for the berley to flow to them. Time and time again I have seen salmon and mullet swimming in the barrel of the waves, just waiting in turn for my rig to hit the water.

So rather than wearing yourself out, make a short cast just behind the shore breakers. Keep your rod in your hand rather than placing in a rod holder and feel the line for the bite. By doing this you can allow yourself to strike immediately so you hook your catch every time. Leaving your rod in the holder can result in plenty of fish missed; by the time you get to your rod the fish can be long gone.

Surf fishing doesn’t need to get to technical, but we want to maximise our success as much as we can. Simply rigging with the right gear, a little berley and your rod in your hand, you will soon see the results speak for themselves. And it can be the most wonderful place to be, especially as the sun raises its head above the horizon.

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