BEACH fishing along the northern NSW and southern Queensland coastline is popular for good reason. This region has some of the most beautiful beaches in the country, most are accessible, and they are often productive. Generally, surf conditions are favourable while the water temperature is rarely too cold for bare feet.
Unlike many forms of fishing, beach anglers can keep it simple. A backpack and two outfits will cover most options and you can gather bait on-site when the tide permits.
In season, bream, tailor, jewfish, flathead, tarwhine, whiting and dart are common along this part of the coast. Most of these species are strong fighters on appropriately sized gear and good to eat.
Adapting to the shorelines near the NSW Queensland border is easy. As for beaches everywhere, the key is to recognise areas fish congregate in. Tides also play an important role and if you catch on one part of the tide today you can often repeat this pattern on subsequent days. In this article we discuss the beaches you will encounter, how to identify fish holding structure, how to rig, and the seasonal variations that shape a year’s fishing.
The coastline from Ballina to the Gold Coast is dominated by long stretches of surf and sand often with holes and gutters alternating for their entire length. These are fully exposed to the ocean and are usually bordered by rocky headlands.
Some beaches have hard structure such as reef or bommies or a creek mouth. Manmade structure like break walls and sand pumping jetties are also present. A few beaches are shorter or wedged into gaps in headlands and may include broken reef. These hard features interrupt the wave action and form additional fish attracting features.
Finally, we find semi sheltered beaches. These can have a softer or siltier bottom and can be steeper and seemingly featureless. These are rarer and occur where landform or orientation protects the area from direct swell. Beaches just inside bar mouths, in the lee of a headland or break wall or facing north or south are in this category.
It is possible to experience all three types on one stretch of coastline. The beach that stretches north from Hastings Point in northern NSW starts as a semi-sheltered cove protected by low reef. As you travel north the beach becomes exposed to the full effect of the swell and graduates into a classic style beach.
At popular beaches in tourist centres crowds can be a challenge. Dog walkers, surfers and swimmers make fishing hard, but the good news is that in this region there are plenty of beaches that are less accessible and often people free. Even on weekends, far fewer folk are about at dawn and dusk while the night-time is generally people free.
Where are the fish?
In general, we are looking for changes in water depth, where wave action is ‘working’ on the bottom, and baitfish. The following is a short list of spots to try as you work along a stretch of beachfront.
The area right behind the shore dump is a very productive zone. Forage and opportunist species hover nearby as wave energy blasts the bottom exposing shellfish and worms. Whiting, dart, flathead and bream can be right at your feet.
The next zone is a “working edge”. This is where current generated by water draining off a flat is eroding the edge of a sandbar or gutter. Edges are often identified by clouds of sand churning in the water. By swinging a bait over the drop off, the species listed previously can be found.
The area adjacent to structure can be a good producer. Rocks and weed covered reefs are attractive to fish and can hold schools of grazers. The turbulence created as waves break on reef is also attractive to fish. In some cases, reef species like luderick will also be present. The area next to a headland is always worth a cast before heading further along the sand.
Deep holes are popular areas for those who chase jew and tailor. The classic “bulb” shaped hole with a channel running out to sea will often hold schools of mullet and other baitfish seeking shelter and these aggregations attract predators. During daylight hours deeper holes can be devoid of life but after dark, they can fire.
Areas of shallow sand flats can be productive too. A flat next to a headland that maintains roughly a metre of water cover while waves roll through will support predators such as jewfish. These patrol this zone during rough seas or after dark looking for baitfish. My Father discovered this and took some solid jewies on a flat next to a headland that most other anglers walked past.
Some of these zones may not work now but come into play as the tide fills or drains and as wave action and current varies.
Apart from those areas described above, bait is a fish magnet. In autumn and spring baitfish numbers increase as schools of mullet, pilchards and other species travel along the break. Some species like bream will form spawning aggregations near estuary mouths and this activity will also draw in larger fish.
With these spots in mind, get high above the beach you intend to fish, and often you will see a series of holes, gutters and flats. Note the areas churned up through wave action and where the water is flowing after waves break. Note working edges and other fishy locations to try. Once you have a good idea of where to go, work a bait or lure through these zones.
Occasionally, some beaches are featureless or have a single gutter running the full length. These are not good fishing options as fish are scatted and holding bottom can be impossible. Really big swell can also make fishing extremely difficult. In either case seek another option.
For many anglers a light beach outfit featuring a spin rod and threadline reel will catch all the smaller species using either bait or lures. Rods in the 2.8-3m range and a 3-4000 sized reel are perfect. I prefer braid mainline in 7kg, a rod length of 8kg mono to add stretch linked to a swivel below a running sinker and a trace of fluorocarbon in 5-7kg. It is tempting to go lighter, but sometimes you will need to play a larger fish and that’s when the heavier line pays off. The occasional Aussie salmon, stargazer, ray or shark can have you fighting a seemingly endless battle and easing them up with the waves can be a trial on ultralight line.
Bait options include pippies and beachworms. These can be gathered on site if the tide is not too high. Squid strips and blood worms are also very good options. Some anglers pump yabbies at a nearby estuary. They work well too particularly over broken reef. I also use a small blue pilchard bait pinned on a gang of three #4 Mustad 4200 hooks in the cooler months and this catches everything except whiting.
Ball sinkers in #3-5 are ideal. They let the rig move with the surge, but the angler retains contact, and feels the bite. Hooks are chosen to suit the bait and for pippies and beach worm #4 long shanks or bait keepers are hard to beat. I add a small suicide hook in #8 as a keeper (sliding up the trace) if using pippies. This addition helps keep the bait on the hook.
On some beaches flathead bite well on the last hour or so of the run out. A light outfit will throw a 10-14gm jig head and soft plastic tail the required distance and this is an excellent way to chase these fish. You could also use a 2.3m flattie rod and 2500 size reel. Target shallow gutters and holes and work each feature for a dozen casts before moving on. Flatties will also take most baits but can saw you off if you use light trace.
At dawn or as the shadows lengthen at the end of the day, many anglers will seek a tailor or two. A heavier outfit is required to throw the sinker and bait. A rod in the 3-3.5m length is ideal while a spin reel in the 6-8000 or a sidecast are good choices. I use 10-15kg braid mainline and 15-20kg trace. Stick with mono for a sidecast and use a swivel above rigging to reduce line twist. Size 7-10 ball sinkers are perfect, but some prefer star, sliding grip or other styles.
Traditionally, anglers pin pilchards on ganged three or four hook rigs. These are made from #3/0-6/0 Mustad 4200 or 4202 style hooks. Gamakatsu Gangsters and Tru Turn are excellent too. Match the gang to pilchard size. Ganged hooks negate the need for a wire trace.
Anglers seeking tailor often look for a deeper gutter, ideally with foam cover, or a hole. The bite often gets going as the sun sinks below the horizon and can extend into the night.
The same outfit is suitable for jewfish and a slab of tailor, mullet or big bunch of worms are good bait options. For worm bait I use a 6/0 fine wire hook such as the Gamakatsu SL12. A 6/0 long shank hook is also a good option. Place sections of larger worms onto the hook so there are plenty of ends and a good mass of bait. Pickers will tear some bait away but by sectioning the worm you will get “baited” slowly giving jew time to find the worms. Trace length is between 40-60cm depending on water turbulence. Trace in 15-20kg breaking strain is fine.
For tailor slabs a single hook in #8-10/0 works fine. The Mustad 540 pattern was a popular choice, but many now prefer suicide or Octopus style hooks. Make sure it is razor sharp and sitting well clear of fish skin. Place it through the slab twice to stop it slipping down and choking the hook.
If crabs or pickers are demolishing baits quickly, use a small mullet or tailor head with trailing fillet and gut pinned through the lips. This is done by removing the backbone but leaving the fillets attached to the head and is known as “butterflying” the bait. Big heads can be split lengthways. Jew are scroungers and will readily take this bait. Berley with unwanted fish chunks which will often stay in the hole and attract fish in.
On sheltered beaches where the wave action is reduced, keep the sinker weight to a minimum. Over flat weedy reef and when working amongst exposed bommies, use a small ball sinker right on the hook. You will lose the odd rig to snags but the angler who can cast accurately and place a bait in the gaps will catch some great fish.
One technique rarely seen nowadays is bobby corking. This works best in deeper gutters or over reefy flats. Set the depth to allow the bait to tea bag along the bottom. Cast the rig out and walk along with the flow. By suspending a bait below a float, you avoid snags and cover ground. Flathead are particularly vulnerable to this method but nearly all species can be taken.
During the colder months some anglers walk the beach and fire long casts out seeking large tailor. Long powerful rods and 10-15kg braid line will launch a 60-85gm metal up to 100m or more and this can reach the areas these ferocious mullet eaters frequent. Lures include metals and Teflon type plugs (GT Ice Cream, Richters, etc). Long cast style threadline reels are ideal for this purpose.
My brother-in-law spent several seasons chasing fish this way and found slight to moderate swell and the low tide change worked best. While he rarely took many fish, he sent me numerous images of tailor well over the three-kilo mark and reported epic fights. He used a shock leader of two rod lengths of heavier braid and a short length of mono trace in 25kg. The retrieve was constant and quite slow, so the metal flashed, or the plug “waggled” and surfed across the foam.
Seasons and Tides
In warmer months border beaches produce dart by the thousands. From small bait-stealing pests to some near a kilo, these hard fighting fish will provide fun fishing and a few fillets. They are best bled on capture and eaten fresh. They will eat all baits and love pippies, worms and squid strips.
As autumn rolls on, whiting, tarwhine, tailor and bream become common captures. From Easter until July the beach can provide some wonderful bags of fish. High tides on or after dark will also provide anglers who can find a hole with mullet present with a shot at a jewie.
Winter and spring can deliver the same species we find in autumn with the occasional Australian Salmon thrown in. Tailor are often prolific but taper off in quality as summer approaches. Bigger jew are often at their best in the colder months when mullet schools swarm in the surf.
Flathead are common in winter and some great fish can be taken right at your feet.
It is inevitable that anglers will encounter rays and the odd shark particularly over low tide and after dark. These should be handled carefully to avoid teeth and spines and released.
I have found tides influence fish behaviour significantly in this area. Fish like whiting will bite well for a short period then shut down. These “bite windows” are often around mid-tide and seem to be triggered by a surge in water level. Falling tides can be productive and I often target the three -hour period toward low tide when seas are rough.
Apart from rod and reel, anglers should carry a knife, pliers, scissors and spare tackle. I take a rag to wipe my hands. A shoulder bag is a good idea particularly if you are walking any distance. A head torch and small penlight back up is essential after dark. Wet suit booties or waders work well in winter months if you intend to stay late. A bait holder on a belt will save you walking back to the gear and a rod bucket to rest the rod butt in will ease the strain on your arms and shoulders. A PVC tube is useful to stand your rod in to keep it out of the sand.
The border beaches are fabulous tourist attractions and productive fishing spots. If heavy rain has ruled out estuary fishing or swell makes offshore options dangerous anglers can nearly always find a stretch of sand to fish along this coastline. By learning to “read” a beach and then testing each likely spot anglers can usually find some fish. By using fresh bait and a light approach whiting, bream, flathead and dart will provide a good tussle and some delicious fillets. Those prepared to work late can also add jewies and tailor to the list.