Is there a sidecast and beach rod outfit gathering dust in your garage? DAVE RAE has a couple of these outfits and recently he gave them a dust-off and got back into some “old’s cool” fishin’!
FOR me, sidecast reels and long rods bring back fond memories of WA pilchards, gang hooks and either a deserted beach or a rocky point. After years and years of zero activity in these environments, I’ve recently revisited my teenage roots with some good old-fashioned bait fishing. Guess what? I’ve had a ball!
The past 10 years have been a blur of fast-lane fishing for me. Braided and gelspun lines, high end graphite rods and reels to die for plus state-of-the-art sonar and GPS. Most of this fishing has had a lure-only bent. If I was using bait, then 90 per cent of that was slow-trolling livebaits for mackerel or billfish.
Of late, I’ve had a hankering to revisit my roots. Perhaps it’s age or maybe it’s a result of a reigniting passion for riding waves (teenagers keep you active if you let them). Perhaps it’s the look of the totally sexy gutter that lies between home and our local secret surf spot … Whatever it is, I had to get some angling sand between my toes.
So this afternoon I raced home from work, extracted a sidecast and bent tip beach rod from the highest level in the surfboard rack and hosed off the spider webs, dust and half a dozen discarded mud wasp cases that had been built in and around the reel seat.
Ten minutes later I was on the sand, defrosting a handful of garfish in a bucket of seawater. It was a beautiful afternoon with not another soul in sight. The sea was calm and a line of clouds and rainstorms off the coast promised the possibility of a colourful sunset.
The first bite came about 15 minutes in, and I got the shock of my life when the “salmon” started shaking its head 10m from the shoreline. I hadn’t felt the same thing from the beach for eons, and as that fish powered back and forth, just beyond the break, I got a peek at the side of a respectable school jew. It wasn’t to be though, the hook pulled as I tried to hold the fish against the receding wash, and even though I dived on it, I was a beat of the tail too late …
I didn’t hook another jewie, but I did enjoy three solid salmon, one tailor around the kilo mark and a magnificent sunset. Perhaps I should have stayed into the night and chased the schoolie’s big brother – after all, I did have the best bait of all – a fresh tailor head!
What it did, though, was make me wonder why I hadn’t fished the beach in 10 years or more. It’s so close and so easy and, provided you go about it the smart way, it’s a reliable means of catching a feed. If I’m honest, I think my reticence came from the thought of dropping expensive gear in sand or giving it a bath in the shore break … I’m really comfortable with my “old gear” and don’t expect that to change because it’s pretty much indestructible. Alvey sidecast reels are sand and salt proof; no bearings and all metal parts cope with a regular dunking … which is how I wash the sand off. Just walk into the water and put it in. If I tangle the line it’s a simple matter to unscrew the spool, fix the problem and do it up again.
My rods are pretty robust as well, Butterworth FSU4120s (with an extension glued up the butt) or M7144s for lighter work. All my beach rods look like they’ve been leant up against the wall of a hot tin shed for the summer because they have tips that are bent. These aren’t a mistake, and I don’t know if they still make them, but they were popular in the club scene when I used to chase tailor without a sinker; the idea being that when line twisted on the tip, you’d drop the rod to horizontal and line would roll off the downward hanging tip. It worked too.
We had a heap of fun chasing tailor, salmon and bream from the beach with long bent tip rods and Alveys. Kept me out of trouble it did … well, almost!
Every so often, someone would hook a big fish. Reel handles would rap knuckles, there’d be yelling and swearing and other blokes giving the hapless angler curry. On one occasion the lucky angler was told to hurry up, or his line would be cut because his big fish was upsetting the tailor school.
As a 15-year-old, I was fishing with Mike Hurst, my commerce teacher, on the South Coast of NSW. We were fishing the state Rock and Beach Titles and I remember standing beside Harry Fuller, a Yamba legend, when a jew grabbed Harry’s gar. I was in awe as he handled his old cedar sidecast, and midway through the fight he turned to me and said, “Now I can talk to him, son!” What he meant was that he could “up the pressure” because he was back onto 15lb line – the fish had got him down to his 12lb backing previously. He landed the fish, a 78lb cracker. It remains the largest mulloway I’ve ever seen in the flesh.
There’s no doubting that Alveys and fibreglass rods are as tough as nails, but there are some significant downsides as well. It’s not a bed of roses; if it were, then the high tech gear would never have become so popular. First off, the old gear is so robust because there’s a lot of it. Rods have thick, fibreglass walls and sidecasts are solid wood, fibreglass or lighter plastic – but compared to a graphite rod and quality threadline, they weigh a tonne.
Another downside is an Alvey fisherman’s constant companion: line twist. Without swivels, line lasts about one decent trip. Therefore I leave good line off my sidecast and use the cheap stuff and change it regularly.
A great deal has been written about the “art of reading a beach” so we won’t go into too much detail here, but I will state that there’s great value in taking a good look at the water before walking across the sand and chucking in a line. Understanding rips, currents, banks and gutters isn’t that hard, but without it you won’t catch as many fish. Fish are concentrated in deeper holes and gutters according to the availability of feed, time of day (height of the sun) and shelter. Deeper water looks bluer and has less wave action through it, rips have a ruffled surface as water moves out to sea and cover is provided by white-water and foam spreading over the surface. A good place to fish is always along the foam-covered edges of deeper water with a rising tide if possible.
A most extravagant example of this intimate understanding was relayed to me a few years ago by a true legend of our sport, Mr Pat Britton. Sadly Pat is no longer with us, but he was a master storyteller and he assured me this was a true one. I just hope my memory has it right.
Anyway, here we go … Pat grew up in a time when the farmers grew vegetables and sold fish. His Dad did both. It was an era of ply rowboats and extreme fishing. When he was a kid, his Dad and he rowed out to sea from Avoca Beach, in search of jewfish, and found a whole school. With 43 decent fish on board, the skiff rode with little freeboard left. Pat sat on top of slippery fish and as they came close to the corner of the beach (guided by the Tilly Lamp they’d left burning on the back of the truck), it became apparent that the swell had come up. Rather than risk losing everything, Pat’s Dad threw the fish overboard and surfed the boat to shore … remember we’re talking in the dark! What amazed Pat at the time was that his Dad didn’t seem distressed at the loss of what Pat called “a week’s wages”.
Rather he loaded the boat and sat down for a smoke or two. When Pat’s Dad finally started the truck, they didn’t go home but headed midway along the beach, got out with the lamp and headed onto the sand, right to where every single one of those fish had washed up high and dry. According to Pat, his Dad had used the rips and currents to land his fish for him… that’s got to be the ultimate in “reading a beach”.
In a perfect world the best beach rig is one that will allow the angler to cast the desired distance and yet not anchor the bait in one spot. It’s a bit of a juggling act, and not always possible, but it’s always important to consider.
The universal rig is simply a ball sinker above a swivel with a 30cm trace to the hook. This rig works for everything as long as you adjust the size of the ball sinker to suit the conditions, and the strength of the line and size/style of the hook to suit the target species. When chasing whiting, try a size 6 hook, a 1/0 for bream, a 3/0-4/0 gang for salmon and tailor and a 6/0–10/0 hook when pursuing mulloway.
Line strength is not as vital on the beach as it is from the rocks because there are no rocks to cut the line – you’re more often than not fishing the wide open spaces on a beach. Adequate line sizes are in the order of 4-5kg for bream, 7kg for tailor and salmon and 10-15 kg for mulloway; any heavier is overkill. Take your time with larger fish and don’t be tempted to put excessive pressure on the line when holding it against a receding surge at your feet. If you can’t hold a big fish wash it up with a wave and then step behind it to hold it with your ankles. Other than that, try stepping on it as it comes back down – but ignore all that when sharks with teeth are concerned!
Beach worms, pipis, WA pilchards and tailor heads are my favourite beach baits. Worms catch just about anything and are well worth the effort it takes to catch them; worming is kind of like a fishing trip all in itself. If I had more time to gather them, I’d use them more often.
Apart from the gar-caught specimen mentioned at the top of this story, all of the school jew I’ve caught from the beach have been tempted by beach worm baits, which makes them a favourite even without the countless bream and whiting that have also hit the sand.
Pipis are a great bream and dart bait as long as there is a “pipi beach” nearby. They aren’t as common in my neck of the woods (NSW North Coast) because they are a commercial target.
Pilchards are well-known but perhaps the same can’t be said for tailor heads. A freshly stomped tailor head makes for a really good big jew bait; simply stick a 10/0 vertically through the front of its mouth and cast out. The beauty of the head is that its relatively tailor and bream proof, so any bite you get is likely to be a jew or shark.
As far as rock fishing goes, it’s either peeled prawns or fresh white bread for drummer and bream, green weed and cabbage for luderick and pilchards for tailor.
Know the Bite
No matter whether fishing rocks or beaches, it pays to learn to recognise a species by the bite you’re getting because you can then respond in a species specific manner, which adds greatly to a successful hook up.
Whiting bite like a machine gun – simply wait a sec and lift the rod, if they’ve swallowed the bait you’ll hook up. Bream knock the bait. So lower the rod tip and count to three before lifting. Tailor feel like a typewriter. Don’t ever strike a tailor because they usually chop the bait from tail to head – start a slow retrieve and they’ll hook themselves. Strike once the rod loads up if you feel the need. Jewfish either hit like a train or give the bait a couple of solid hits before moving off. When to strike is a contentious issue amongst jewie fanatics, so all I can say is what I do – which is wait till they race away from me, and then strike hard two or three times. Getting the hook in is hard, but once set, it will be unlikely to come out. Luderick are timid biters. If fishing with weed bait and a float, count to five before striking. At night in the pools, the bite is really hard to feel; it’s more like the slightest weight – again, count to five before striking! Drummer are easy – the bite is solid and when they move off, lift the rod and start winding.
On Rocky Ground
If you’re a capable swimmer and have the know-how to be able to keep out of harm’s way, the ocean rocks are a great place to fish. If you’ve never tried it make sure you tag along with an experienced rock fisherman. I owe a lot to three top blokes: my Year 10 Commerce teacher Mr Mike Hurst who taught me the good stuff, Steve “Pale Whale” Wallace who drove me around and let me carry his berley sack over bush tracks and up and down slippery goat tracks into seldom visited fishing spots and my dear friend Vic Riley, who shared cars, boats and tents on many a sidecast angling adventure!
Look for rocky points with deep water, sheltered bays with areas of white water and try the high tide shallows after dark. All are productive locations, particularly early morning and late afternoon.
Rigging for the Rocks
Old school rock fishing is about bait. There’re a number of baits that have been popular since the year dot. Bread, prawns, cunjevoi, WA pilchards/garfish and fish strips are just a few.
Bait fishing from the rocks is heavy on tackle. Hooks, sinkers and lines all snag, tangle around or get cut on the rocks themselves. For this reason, it’s wise to minimise the expense by keeping tackle simple and avoiding the use of heavy ticket items.
There’s no need for braided lines and complicated rigs. Two favourites are a small ball sinker straight on top of the hook or an unweighted gang of hooks used below a swivel.
Having a Ball
One of my favourite forms of rock fishing involves a ball sinker and hook approach, with the sinker just heavy enough to slowly sink the bait through the water column. Fish love moving bait, particularly one that wafts to and fro with the water – no doubt that’s what natural food items do.
Bream, black drummer (pigs) and luderick all respond to this rig in the right conditions. Bream and pigs go for prawn, white bread and yabby baits, while a big cunje bait is prime tucker for big pigs and a fresh yabby is a la carte for any luderick patrolling the shallow pools on a high tide after dark.
Plenty of soaked white bread, dispersed in small handfuls, will bring fish to your feet, and on the right day, will have you catching them at a rate that would put a switched-on tailor angler to shame. The lighter the line the better, with 5-6kg being popular, although my old mate Vic Riley is peppering me with emails of 3-4kg pigs that he’s landing on old fashioned 8lb line. He says he lets them run into cover and waits for the next set wave – at which time most swim free. It’s a repeat performance until they tire out, and then he washes them out as a luderick angler would. Nice work Vic!
It’s a style of rock fishing that works everywhere I’ve tried it. Even off coral reefs where you have to get the fish out before they hit the coral or become reef shark fodder. Exciting stuff and reliable on red throat sweetlip, coral trout and mackerel … if they don’t bite you off, that is!
Hanging with the Gang
Floating unweighted pilchards from the rocks is another winner. Simply pin your bait on a 4 x 4/0 gang, cast it out and work it back very slowly, adding plenty of pauses into the retrieve. Often the fish will be hanging deep, so a long pause or even a backwind will do the trick. I’ve watched an angler catch some huge tailor by letting the backwash take his bait back out to sea another 20m past the end of his cast.
Fishing unweighted pillies from the rocks is a deadly tactic that once mastered will be a favourite style with many. I caught my first ever snapper from the rocks on a pillie and a number of nice jewfish as well. Also, if I remember correctly, my one and only 1.5kg bream! That said, just about anything that swims will nail a pilchard at certain times: tuna, sharks, kingfish … you name it. Never underestimate the humble pillie!
Old style rock and beach anglers have a couple of very practical accessories that make life both comfortable and much easier. Shoulder bags for fish and tackle, a bait bucket and a berley bucket hanging from the belt are a must as they eliminate the need to walk back to gear with each fish. A waterproof raincoat, to the knees if possible, will help keep you dry and free of fish slime, while a pair of waders is ideal for the beach angler, particularly during cold winter nights. Rock fisherman must wear safety shoes that are appropriate for the rock surface they are fishing from. Usually this means soles with metal plates or screws wherever there is slippery slime.
See you out there!
A teacher by profession, Dave Rae lives on the NSW North Coast. An established angling writer, Dave is best known for his “back to basics” approach and commitment to helping young people get into fishing. This is the first of many articles from Dave that will be published in Fisho over coming editions.