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Groping the hang of rock fishing
  |  First Published: June 2010



Rock fishing has recently hit the headlines with several experienced anglers losing their lives to the sea, but rock fishing can be a very rewarding and successful fishing style if you’re sensible and always respect the ocean.

Groper and drummer are two of the favourite rock species chased by anglers in NSW, so let’s take a look at some simple tips to get you into a few of these tough brutes of the washes.

The fish

Groper are found all around the rocky foreshores from southeast Queensland around the south coast to the lower region of WA. They are most common along the sections of rock where these is a large amount of food.

These areas are evident by lots of weed growth, shellfish, cunjevoi and if there's a bit of white water washing over it, all the better. Groper will come into shallow water but they tend to be very hard to extract from these areas, so I usually opt for the deeper areas.

Drummer can be divided into two species, the silver drummer, (or buff bream as they are known in WA,) and the black drummer, which is not a drummer at all but actually the rock blackfish, (not to be confused with the luderick which is also known as blackfish).

These two species are unrelated genetically. Black drummer are confined almost exclusively to NSW, while silvers are distributed right around the southern half of Australia and even overseas. They are both schooling fish and are found in much the same habitat as groper.

Gear and tactics

Groper and drummer are tough customers and due to their habit of diving straight for cover as soon as they are hooked, light sport tackle is definitely out for these two species.

To successfully catch these fish consistently anglers will need a 12ft rod in either 6 or 8 wrap with a light tip – I use a MT 144 8w Snyder.

This needs to be coupled with a large E-type Alvey. The E type is not common but does have the advantage over the A type in that it is direct wind, where the handles are bolted directly to the spool. It still has a star drag system but if you decide you want to crank then you can bypass it.

The A type doesn't have this option but is still superior to any other type of reel as you can still clamp down on the spool with your hand. Alveys also enable light weights to be cast on relatively thick line.

This basic set up puts you in the picture, but it certainly doesn’t mean you’ll win every encounter!

The light tip on the rod is essential for casting the lightly weighted, or even unweighted, baits. For the same reason, the temptation to use very heavy line must be avoided. Line rated around 30lb is the best compromise, as it’s light enough to cast the light weights, but also has the grunt needed to pull these powerful fish away from cover.

A pea sized, or smaller, ball sinker is threaded on the line free running and then the hook is tied straight on – it's as simple as that.

In really good conditions you can get away with using no sinker at all. The baits used, especially cunjevoi, have good casting weight, but in rough, windy conditions anglers may need the addition of a small ball sinker to help them keep the bait down in the water.

My favourite hook for both drummer and groper is the Mustad 542 in 1/0 for drummer and 3/0 for groper. The hook is tied straight on to the end of the line with no trace or swivel, just a small free running ball sinker if it is required.

You will clearly understand the reason for using such a simple rig when you have re-rigged for the twentieth time after bust-ups and snags.

BAITS

Fresh cunjevoi is the number one bait for drummer with live red crabs being the groper’s favourite tucker. There is an overlap in the two species’ diet, which includes things like abalone gut (now banned for use as bait in NSW), marine plants (weed) and a huge variety of shellfish. Drummer also have a taste for bread which is a very important ingredient in the all important berley.

Collecting cunjevoi and crabs is an exercise that must be done with extreme caution. Both of these baits are found in the intertidal zone (the area between the low and high tide marks) and when it comes to ocean rock platforms this zone can represent an extremely dangerous area.

Keep in mind there are bag limits on cunjevoi and red crabs. There are even exclusion zones where intertidal harvesting of any kind is prohibited. Check out the regulations for your location before you go.

Cunjevoi is the easiest to collect as long as a mate watches the water for you. You can simply knock the tops off the cunje and extract the insides.

Red crabs, the preferred variety for grouper, are generally found much closer to the waters edge whereas the green crabs (aka scotchies) are found as far back as the rubble pile at the back of most platforms.

The only thing these bent little critters like better than thick weed growth is being upside-down under a ledge, which is a similar trait found in most crustaceans as those of you who dive for crays will know.

Being a bit of a wimp I find a glove allows me to explore a crevasse or holes more aggressively, which more than compensates for lack of feel and definitely saves the hands from numerous cuts and spikes otherwise incurred.

You never really know exactly what you are going to grab down in a hole. In addition to crab bites, you must also beware of urchins, eels, and barnacles. If you are really lucky you might even grab a blue ringed octopus, as they feed on crustaceans.

I've found that crabs stay alive longer in wet weed rather than a bucket of water, especially the scotchies. So a bucket half full of kelp with a lid, kept in a cool place is the go.

If you want red crabs for bait then you must be prepared to get wet and place yourself in some dicey country. It's a dangerous pastime and all precautions should be observed including having a mate on watch to warn you of incoming waves.

Red crab collecting requires skill and total commitment. If you are fishing in winter and have drawn the short straw of collecting the red crabs, then bring along a change of clothes as you are assured of getting wet. As a consolation the effort involved in collecting reddies is well worth it.

Collecting green crabs is generally a much safer affair as they are found under ledges and rocks well back from the water’s edge. A single pronged spear and quick reflexes is all that is required for gathering green crabs.

It’s best to use the crabs live if you have a good supply. There are drawbacks to this method as when the crabs reach the bottom they will latch on and bury in, which usually results in a bust off. On the positive side, if groper are present then a live crab rarely makes it to the bottom. Cutting them in half lengthways is another alternative especially if you are low on bait.

To rig a whole crab, turn the crab upside-down and push the hook up through the triangle shaped flap at the back of the shell. The hook should come out through the top of the shell leaving the point and barb well and truly exposed.

If you are using half crabs, break off one of the legs and push the hook through the socket and out through the cut side. If possible then push the hook through the spare leg and down towards the bend of the hook. This will help secure the bait and stop it coming off when you cast.

Other suitable baits include sea urchins, shellfish, starfish and prawns. Sea urchins attract plenty of bites but the effort involved in placing them on the hook sometimes becomes too much. Perhaps strapping the hook to them with a rubber band or something might work but I've never tried it.

Groper will take cunjevoi occasionally but something else usually snaps it up first. Green king prawn are a reasonable alternative if local baits cannot be obtained.

Berley

Berleying, especially for drummer, is highly successful. My mix consists of half a bucket of sand mixed with two loaves of bread (and water of course) with a couple of handfuls of chopped cabbage weed.

Once this is thoroughly mixed then pack it into the left over cunjevoi shells, (after the cunjevoi has been removed for bait of course). This then acts as a handy berley bomb that can be thrown a good distance and disperses the mix evenly as it sinks to the bottom.

Fishing

The technique for targeting drummer and groper is very similar to that known as wash fishing. The unweighted or very lightly weighted bait is flicked into the selected area and is allowed to do its own thing. You may find that you need to feed some line out occasionally to give the bait a natural, free floating appearance. There is very rarely a bite as such from a big groper or drummer, just a tightening of the line as the fish moves off.

Take up the slack, strike hard and hang on: adrenalin will do the rest.

If groper are your main target, it may pay to fish days that are more idyllic than those you’d chase drummer in. The benefits of perfect conditions for groper are twofold.

Firstly calm seas give access to some of the better locations that groper prefer. They also feed more actively on the top half of the incoming tide.

Ideally arrive at the water on the dead low tide on a nice calm day. Then spend the first couple of hours collecting crabs and maybe a bit of cunjevoi by which time the tide would have reached the groper’s optimum feeding period. Then you fish and hopefully connect to some serious rock thugs.

The second half of the incoming tide is such a good time to fish because the green and red crabs are actively out and about feeding in the crevasses and football sized potholes on the intertidal zone. At this time the groper make their move, taking advantage of the newly accessible food sources.

Facts

If you are looking for some excellent guidance and tuition for rock fishing I would thoroughly recommend a trip out with Big Al Bellissimo from Bellissimo Rock and Beach Charters.

Al runs drummer and groper fishing trips on Sydney’s northern beaches and with 40 years experience, knows the game better than anyone. Contact him on (02) 8922 2651.

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