How to

Better Beach Fishing

Other than plain old luck, the heart of most successful fishing hinges on three main elements. These are: knowing where to concentrate your fishing efforts, when to do it and how to do it most effectively. With the “where, when and how” in sync, more consistent fishing success is assured. However, certain kinds of fishing require the emphasis of one of these factors to be greater than the other two. With beach fishing, the choice of location – the “where” – is by far the most important criteria. Due to the nature of the beach environment, this comes with its own set of challenges.

There’s a lot of info online in regards to beach basics so I’m only going to do a brief overview for this article. To find out more go to the Fisho website and search “Beach Fishing” in the “Practical” section. You’ll get several detailed articles and videos on this topic plus other valuable beach fishing advice. But for now, here’s a recap on the key feature, the centre piece if you like, in all beach fishing – finding and fishing gutters.

Anyone who’s had even remote exposure to beach fishing will have heard the term “gutter”; but what is a gutter? Very loosely, it’s a deeper section of water relative to the surrounding area caused by the constant movement of water and sand on the beach. Gutters are formed when waves push water into the beach and break or dump. The excess water and associated energy needs to go somewhere so it returns via the path of least resistance. It does this by shifting sand at the weakest point. The sand is in turn deposited where the force of the waves and current is minimal. When this action is endlessly repeated wave after wave, the emerging pattern is for deep sections to be scoured out and the sand deposited elsewhere.

As you can see from the accompanying illo, the deeper water is called a “gutter” and can be broadly identified by an area of deep blue or green water where the waves tend not to crest as much as the surrounding areas. The shallow areas are known as “sand banks” and are identified by consistently breaking waves and white foamy water. Where the waves hit the beach is known as the “shore break”. These features are keys to the fish holding potential of a beach. They are the reasons why the fish are there – or are not there, as the case may be.

One common misconception with beach fishing is that gutters need to be long channels of deep water running parallel to the beach with sandbanks behind them. While features like these are great, they’re not essential. All you need is some deep water flanked by shallow stuff. This could be in the form of a channel gutter as described above but could equally be an indentation of deep water with shallow sandbanks either side or it could be a wedge of deep water like a channel with a dead end. All these features will be enough to attract and hold fish.

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Finding and fishing a gutter is the key to beach success

Hopefully you now understand what a gutter is and how to identify one. Let’s now examine why we look for these specific spots on a beach. Like most animals, fish need food, comfort and shelter. Forage fish like bream, whiting or dart are generally looking around for food items disturbed by the action of the surf and will sit on the deeper side of the gutter or shore break picking off crabs, worms or shellfish dislodged by the wave action. This deeper water is free of annoying sand suspended by the turbulence of the waves. When danger is near, the fish can bolt into the shallow, turbulent shore break or sandbank. They use the foamy water to hide. For this reason, when targeting forage species it pays not to throw your rig into the middle of a gutter. Cast it just off the back of a sandbar or close to the shore break. This is where the fish will be looking for food.

Remember also that fish seek comfort. This means that they’re not likely to want to sit in the middle of a strong rip. Instead they’ll often hold up in a stationary position at the end of a rip where the flow drops off or in a deeper hole where they have some protection from the current.

Hunters

Active, schooling hunters like salmon and tailor cruise up and down a beach looking for the entrances to these gutters. When they find one, they head in looking for a meal, because they know other fish are likely to be holding up there. Often as predators enter a gutter they will surf in on the waves, dropping out like dive bombers from above when they sight prey. If they find food, they’ll stay, so if you hook a fish, keep it in the water as its fighting action will excite others in the school. Once they have moved off, don’t be too disappointed because that school or another may very well return.

As you may have worked out from the information above, the key to good gutters and reasons for fish being in certain places is dependent on the action of waves. Without the waves, all of the reasons for the fish to be there in the first place disappear. There are no food items for the foragers to feed on, no white water for them to hide in and therefore no reason for them to be there. Predators know this and therefore have no reason to hunt the beach. These calm, flat days are usually pretty poor for beach fishing. Go estuary fishing instead.

On the other hand, many anglers are put off when conditions get rough. However, provided there is sufficient depth in the gutter, the fish will still be actively feeding.

In fact, they may be feeding more aggressively as the heavier surf action will dislodge more food, making foragers more active and thus turning the predators on. The trick for heavy surf is to use a rig that maximises the time your bait stays out in the strike zone, such as an anchor sinker. See the Fact Box for more info on anchor sinkers.

Patrick Brennan

Fact box: Beach techniques

Foragers – Dart, Mullet, Bream & Whiting

Outfits: While these forage species aren’t really big fish you still need a decent outfit as you may need to cast quite heavy sinkers to fish for them. I suggest a light to medium action surf rod around 3.2 to 3.8m in length. You still need this length to keep your line clear of the wave action and keep you in touch with your rig. Check out the Nitro Sniper, Shimano Aerowave Composite Surf AWC12WBL or the Gary Howard 22048 Surf Special. A 4000-5000 sized reel is about the right size spooled with five to seven kilo braid and a 10-15 kilo casting leader. You can go lighter but if you hook a big salmon, jewfish, shark or ray then you’ll be in a world of hurt. Oversizing slightly keeps you in the race if a larger fish comes along but still keeps it pleasant. If you’re happy to fish lighter then do it as it will result in more bites from your target species.

Rigs: I reckon a running sinker rig is best for forage fish. I use a ball sinker running to a swivel then a fairly long trace of about 80-100cms. Start off with as light a sinker as you can to enable you to cast the distance you want. This may be as light as 20 or 30 grams. I then use a 6-8 kilo trace of about 80-100cms in length down to a circle hook. These are awesome for beach fishing when you are having trouble keeping in touch with your rig.

Fish will mostly hook themselves with circles. The hook size depends on the type and size of bait. Just make sure your hook is suited to the size of your bait rather than the size of fish you are after.

Baits: The best all-round beach bait is definitely the beach worm. If you can catch your own then that’s best in regards to freshness and price. These work really well for bream, whiting, mullet and jewfish but everything else that swims along a beach eats the humble old worm. If you want to target bream specifically then cubes of striped tuna are my gun bait. If you can’t get stripy then use pilchard heads or tails. Another good all-round beach bait is the pipi, or cockle as its known in SA.

Time and Tides: I like to fish the last two hours of the run in tide and the first hour of the run out for forage fish. If this period coincides with dusk then that’s pretty much perfect but don’t worry too much about it. Just fish the tide period.

Techniques: When targeting forage species I use a reasonably small sinker (relative to the conditions) to begin with because you initially want your bait to move about in the current. When you start getting bites, upsize your sinker to slow down or stop the movement and cast directly back into the area where you were getting bites. Ensure your casts are around the edges of wash zones like the back or edge of a sand bar. Also, don’t forget the area right at your feet in the shore break. This can be a prime feeding spot for foragers.

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This rig is ideal for bream and whiting off the beach.

Predators – Salmon & Tailor

Outfit: As with forage fish, the ideal outfit for predators may seem pretty heavy. I suggest a medium to heavy action rod of a minimum of 3.8m in length. The power of the rod is intended to allow you to cast heavy sinkers in rough conditions more than to allow you to fight small to medium sized fish. Check out the Nitro Surf Assassin or Messiah, Gary Howard 22085 Fish Seeker mid mount, Shimano Aerowave Composite Surf AWC12WBH or one of my old favourites, the Silstar Power Tip PC-1202SFM. Match this with a 5000-6000 reel spooled with 10-kilo braid and a 15-20 kilo mono casting leader. Again, this may seem like overkill for the target species but you’ll be pleased you have it if a big jewfish or shark latches on!

Rigs: Unlike the forage fish that tend to wait for food to come to them, predators are actively seeking out prey. Therefore, rather than using a mobile rig, I prefer to place a bait in a likely thoroughfare and keep it there for the passing fish to find. To achieve this I like to use a paternoster rig with some kind of anchor sinker. I’d usually start off with a star sinker and again keep it as light as I can to start with. I’ll only up-size if it is moving about too much. However, even a light anchor sinker would be around 90 grams and go up to 180 when the wave action is dragging the rig about. Sometimes, when conditions are really rough and there are large waves and/or a strong rip, a star sinker (even a really heavy one) can’t hold bottom. In this instance I’ll go with a grapnel sinker. These can be hard to find but specialist tackle retailers will be able to track them down. I tie my casting leader to a large three-way swivel. From there I tie a length of about 90-100cm 24-30kg mono to the bottom eyelet and tie a loop in the end. 

The loop is to attach and quickly change sinker sizes. From the 90-degree eyelet I tie a length of about 50-60cms of 24-30kg mono.

At the end of this I tie my hook. As you see below I almost always use pilchards or other small fish for bait so I tie ganged hooks to the end. I only use a three-hook gang for pilchards, usually 4/0 size.

Baits: My go-to bait for these predators are pilchards. They have proven time and time again as a reliable and productive bait. If you can get small fresh slimy mackerel or yakkas or garfish, then these are good too.

Time and Tide: I’m not at all influenced by tide when fishing for predators other than taking into account how it will affect the gutter I’m fishing. My principle concern is to be there at the right time, namely dawn and dusk.

Techniques: If your gutter has a clear entrance or exit then cast your bait smackbang in the middle of the most prominent of these two features. If you can’t tell, then cast into the deepest looking end. If you’re fishing the main section of the gutter or a gutter without an entrance or exit, like an indent gutter, cast out to the deeper edge of an obvious sand bank. Unlike most other forms of fishing, beach fishing lends itself to as many rods as you can comfortably fit into a gutter. You increase the chances of fish finding bait but also holding any passing fish while other baits go into the water. You may need to experiment with sinker types and weights depending on how much water movement there is.

Finally, when you get a bite, don’t strike straight away. Let the fish have a couple of bumps at the bait then strike. You’ll get more hook ups this way.

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The Paternoster rig is ideal when targeting predators in the surf

This article was published in the January 2014 issue of Fishing World

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