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Fishing the wash

ONE of my earliest memories involves rock fishing at Malua Bay on the NSW south coast with my grandfather. As a six or seven year old I was catching silver bream (sweep) on a kids’ fibreglass rod and red plastic sidecast reel. It was an exciting experience for a youngster and many years later I still remember being fascinated by the soapy water those fish came from.

Being part of that wild dangerous environment left an impression that set the pattern for a later fishing life – I’ve been drawn to wash zones along the NSW southern coast ever since, chasing fish that call the suds home. Up until recently though it’d been sometime since I’d fished the rocks, but after a couple of trips close to home I’m wondering why.

Revisiting rock fishing came about after reconnecting with Sydney fishing identity Gary Brown, who I’d fished with a few times after moving to Sydney in the early 2000s. After catching up on the local fishing we’d soon scheduled a rocks session to chase pigs (drummer), something I’d wanted to do again for a while.

As Gary has written many books (for AFN) detailing fishing locations, both boat and land-based I was confident he’d have some prime drummer spots up his sleeve – I wasn’t disappointed.

Plan B

At first light Gary and I stood on a sandstone platform on the NSW Illawarra coast, staring at a gutter where a wash zone apparently used to be. “I can’t believe it,” Gary said, more than once. “It used to be ten feet deep here … I’d put my gear up the back there and cast into this.” He pointed at a dry sand-filled gutter.

Rough seas had obviously dumped a mountain of sand into Gary’s hotspot since he’d last visited, making it more suited to sunbaking than pig-pulling. “How long ago were you here?” I asked. “Three months,” Gary replied, sounding bewildered. We stood there blinking and thinking. If we didn’t make a move we’d miss the best part of the day. I watched the edge of the platform we’d bypassed to get to this fish desert.

The sea was bumpy and pushing swell hard against the jagged rock edge. There was a deep hole at the point, draining choppy whitewater left and right. The low platform was some metres back from the wash and there were exposed outcrops littered with cunjevoi and green cabbage – prime drummer and luderick food.

We watched for a few minutes as the odd wave exploded on the rockface shooting spray skywards. Despite being wet the area looked fishable and our best option, apart from driving somewhere else. Being only 100m from the car, walking back wasn’t a big deal but we decided to give the untried spot a go.

Back to the future

The swell intermittently rolled whitewater over the platform so we stowed our gear on a raised rock outcrop. Gary prepared the bread berley as I rigged. Having hoped to revisit rock and beach fishing a few years ago I’d bought a Shimano Ultegra 14000. It was finally getting its first outing this trip on an as-new 10-year-old Steve Starling signature Shimano 13-foot 5-12kg rod.

While rigging it was clear that pig fishing had changed since I’d last done it. Using abalone gut for bait was common (it was legal then) and reels were spooled with around 15-18lb tough mono, run straight through to the hook. I’d spooled the Ultegra with 15lb orange Sufix braid and connected it to a Vanish 20lb fluorocarbon leader with a Slim Beauty knot. While the rig was still the same, a small ball sinker running directly onto a strong 1/0 suicide or baitholder pattern hook, Gary had brought fresh prawns for bait – banana prawns, talk about upmarket bait! In contrast to the trendy bait, Gary’s outfit was old school with Alvey sidecast spooled, adventurously, with 12lb mono fitted to a 12-13ft rod based on a Butterworth fibreglass blank – it was the ‘90s all over again.  

In the wash up

Our prawn baits got hit in the first couple of casts. Tap…tap…tap….trevally. They’d responded to bread berley drifting in the wash and were hot to trot. A solid bite and I hooked up on a hard fighting trev of about a kilo that put an overdue bend in the 13-footer. Gary followed with a similar fish that had his Alvey spinning.

After a couple more fish I was seeing the advantages of using braid line from the stones for the first time. Casting was easier with baits landing well into the wash with easy lobs and bites telegraphed up the line like never before.

After a few trevally it didn’t take long to find what we’d come for. With a bait drifting left to right in the current I kept in touch with a high rod and finger on the line as some familiar slaps on the braid became one violent thud and a charge for the bottom. Pig on! Suddenly reminded of how hard the things pulled I stumbled around with rod doubled over attempting to stop a bust up. After some anxious moments I dragged the fish to the surface: a chunky granite coloured pig of around a kilo and a half – it was like seeing an old friend. Shortly after came another pig, a twin of the first, then a short but memorable battle in the suds with something more boar than pig … it was unstoppable!

The bite picked up as the sun rose and the berley trail of bread, prawn heads and shells really had fish on the move. Gary hooked one that had the old Butterworth bent to the grips and the Alvey handles in a blur. Gary palmed the spool and hung on with the rod bouncing from one angry fish. When under control, a wave washed the fish up onto our platform. We were surprised it wasn’t a big pig but a juvenile brown eastern blue groper, its rubberly lips wearing a suicide hook like jewellery. A couple of photos and the groper was quickly released back into the wash. 

The session was over an hour later as the sun got higher, but not before we’d caught a few more mostly small drummer and a few trevally and rock cockies. It had been an action packed session that took place only a short walk from our car and a popular tidal swimming pool. After cleaning the few fish we’d kept, we were sipping cappuccinos at a nearby café. 

More of the same

Gary and I hit the rocks a few weeks later on a busy foreshore at Cronulla, southern Sydney. At first light, shuffling to the rock ledge with backpacks, long rods and buckets we must’ve stood out amongst the local fluoro-clad walkers and joggers (on the subject of “apparel”, Cronulla is in the Sutherland Shire where rock fishers are now required to wear lifejackets, or PFDs – see fact box for more).

Gary had suggested a spot he’d fished previously for bream. Being low tide the wash zone wasn’t producing much white water for fish cover and as a result the bite was slow with only pickers coming to baits. We decided to move further south to another section of rocks with deeper water out front and a good scattering of bommies and a working wash.

A cast near to a section of reef with white water surging left and right immediately brought solid bites and a hookup on a strong fish. It felt pig-like so I went for broke to turn it. After a dart around in the suds there was a silver flash and the fish surfaced in the early light, looking like a pannie snapper or big bream. Once on the rocks Gary identified it as a good tarwhine – distinguishable from a bream by yellow/gold lateral lines, more rows of scales and a more rounded head.

To the ledge’s north Gary was intently casting to a wash area littered with bommies. He’d lost a few rigs to snags but persevered and pulled out a couple of good pigs. He also had a spectacular bust off that resulted in him landing on his backside, thankfully unhurt! The rising tide formed good suds near the ledge and with bread berley mixed in, the fish came on for a short bite before shutting down with the brightening sun. Before we packed up Gary cast out an Egilicious squid jig and pulled out a nice eating size calamari squid. By 9am another fun rocks session was over and we headed home with a few more tasty fresh fish for our efforts. On that, Panko crumbed drummer fillets cooked quickly in hot oil and drizzled with lemon juice come highly recommended!

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