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Pelagics from the rocks

EVERY year there’s an influx of tropical pelagic species along the NSW coast. This phenomena is driven by the East Australian Current (EAC), which acts almost like a “superhighway” that transports marine fauna to the sub-tropical waters of the south. The EAC is strongest during the summer months, where its flow can reach 90 centimetres per second.

Some of the first warm water pelagic species we begin to see delivered by the EAC along the coast of NSW are baitfish. Schools of frigate mackerel, slimy mackerel and yellowtail scad start to feed on the surface. The increase in water temperature at this time of year also sees more frequent encounters of big yellowtail kingfish in inshore waters that are in spawn.

It’s around Christmas time that dolphinfish or mahi mahi and billfish turn up in numbers. Inshore, small black marlin begin to appear around bait schools and reef systems. Offshore, striped and blue marlin can be found patrolling warm currents.

Soon thereafter, usually in January, the first sprinkling of predatory mackerel and inshore tuna species show up in the northern waters. Spotted and Spanish mackerel have a cult-like following in the northern parts of NSW and whispers of the odd Spaniard capture spread like wildfire during the holidays. But seasoned anglers will know there’s still a good wait ahead.

Around the end of February, persistent northeast “summer winds” begin to be interrupted by strong low pressure systems, driving southerly winds along the coast. This wind pushes the warm, clear waters of the EAC along the shoreline. Look up the “Coriolis effect on ocean currents” if you want to know why. Consequently, it’s in autumn that the inshore, warm water, pelagic action really heats up…

Target species

The most popular inshore warm water pelagic targets for landbased anglers during autumn are yellowtail kingfish, Spanish mackerel and longtail tuna. These three species have a strong history in Australian sportfishing. Spanish mackerel and kingfish are both impressive looking and hard-fighting, but longtail tuna are, probably, pound-for-pound, the hardest fighting fish in the ocean.

Spanish mackerel and longtail tuna are better targeted in the northern half of NSW. In the southern half, kingfish are undoubtedly the main attraction. Sydney’s rock ledges can produce some big hoodlums in autumn. But it’s probably the pelagic “bycatch” that is the most frequently captured along the rocks at this time of year – species like Australian bonito and Watson’s leaping bonito, frigate mackerel, mackerel tuna, tailor and salmon are widespread. Cobia. small yellowfin tuna and even rainbow runner are also other, more rare, but welcomed, bycatch species for landbased anglers. The diversity of pelagic species you can encounter during a session spinning on the stones during autumn really is quite cool. It is not uncommon to catch half-a-dozen different species on the same lure some days!

There are a couple ways to catch the above fish from the rocks: One way is to use bait, preferably live bait, the other way is with lure. Both methods are effective, but it is catching these fish with lures that this article will focus on.


A range of lure fishing techniques work for the pelagics mentioned in this article. They are fast moving fish that are opportunistic feeders and will attack a variety of lures. 

High speed spinning: this technique relies on speed to fool and excite fish into eating a lure. It’s a very simple form of fishing, requiring a high speed reel or high gear ratio reel and a fast winding action. There is little rod work needed, just cast out and wind in fast. It’s amazing how effective this technique is at times. Pelagics will often attack fast moving lures with serious ferocity. High speed spinning is particularly effective for species like tuna and mackerel. Smaller kingfish will also attack lures retrieved with plenty of speed. The best high speed spinning lures are metal slices and slugs, skipping plugs (GT Ice Cream etc) and skipping pencil poppers/minnows. Soft plastics, bibbed and bibless minnows can also be effective when high speed spinning.

Topwater: surface lures are very effective for pelagics. Floating stickbaits and poppers are particularly good at getting yellowtail kingfish and Spanish mackerel to bite. All of the other fish mentioned in this article will also attack a well presented surface lure. Floating stickbaits and poppers don’t necessarily require a high speed retrieve. The disturbance these lures create on the surface of the water imitates a mortally wounded baitfish or squid; an enticing meal! A variety of retrieves will work for topwater pelagics and often a fish will eat a surface lure during a short pause. Stickbaits and poppers from 100mm and 30 grams up to 200mm and 100 grams will cover just about all pelagic species and sizes of fish likely to be encountered along the rocks.

Spinning garfish: this is a lure/baitfishing hybrid technique that can be deadly for yellowtail kingfish in the wash. Though, most pelagics won’t knock back a garfish along the rocks! For this technique, fresh garfish are rigged on a set of gang hooks, casted out and slowly worked through the water column. For increased casting distance, try adding a small sinker under a silicon “squid skirt” in front of the hooks. The garfish must be rigged straight and neatly for it to “swim” properly. Using a rubber band to fix the garfish beak to the eye/shank of the hook will also make the rig swim better. Working a rigged garfish with slow sweeps and pauses can entice the wariest of pelagics.

Shore jigging: shore jigging is becoming increasingly popular in Australia. It’s already a very popular landbased fishing technique in Japan for a variety of species. This technique relies on a lift-and-drop retrieve using small-to-medium size metals and lead jigs. There is a range of specialised shore jigging gear available in Australia. It can be an effective technique for smaller pelagics like bonito, “rat” kingfish, small tuna and demersal species. However, the top half od the NSW coastline is much shallower than the areas where shore jigging is effective in Japan. For this reason, it has a fairly limited application in NSW and is best suited to deep water ledges from Sydney south.


The tackle required to catch landbased pelagics will depend on the species and size of fish you’re likely to encounter. That said, a good starting point is a long graphite rod rated 8-15kg (or PE2-4) matched to a medium-size spinning reel (6000 size). Ideal rod length is 9-10 feet, though a slightly longer rod isn’t a bad idea. The extra rod length is required for longer casts and handling lures and fish around rocky ledges. This is a versatile outfit that will accommodate the above techniques (with the exception of heavy tackle topwater fishing).

A 6000 size reel will hold about 200-300 metres of PE2-4 braid, which is adequate to tackle most small-to-medium size fish encountered along the rocks. Though, bigger fish, especially kingfish, will require heavier tackle than this. Usually PE6-8 (80lb) lines and specialised topwater rods are preferred for trophy-size hoodlums in excess of 15kg. Like many, I have a few different setups I will use for specific lure techniques and species.

Leader is a carefully considered essential when fishing from the rocks. In many cases, heavier leader size will be required compared to when fishing for the same species out of a boat. A slightly heavier leader is cheap insurance when landing your catch. Fish aren’t too leader shy in the turbulent coastal environment, either. For most small-to-medium size fish, 40-60lb leader is adequate. Again, big fish, especially kingfish, will require a much heavier leader than this and most people prefer a minimum of 80lb leader when targeting kings.

The FG knot is the gold standard for the braid mainline to leader connection. It is a knot well worth mastering if you’re serious about landing a quality fish from the rocks. About a rod length of leader is a good idea in most situations. Tie your leader to a strong solid ring (size 5-7) or swivel (size 1-1/0 depending on lure size) and connect to your lure of choice via a strong split ring. This will make changing lures easier and it’s a very strong connection that has been proven on the rocks.

If you’re after a Spanish mackerel, using a length of single strand wire in front your lure is a good idea. I like using about 15-30cm of 58lb single strand wire connected to a size 5 solid ring via a haywire twist at either end. Be careful not to “kink” single strand wire when lure fishing as it can be prone to snapping when kinked.


Pelagic fish are nomadic. Most NSW rocky headlands and ledges will hold pelagics at some point during the year. The mouths of big estuaries and breakwalls are also good spots to fish for landbased pelagics, particularly fish like bonito, frigate mackerel and mackerel tuna. Longtail tuna and Spanish mackerel swim very close along the beaches at times, too. I have caught and often see plenty of longtail tuna along NSW North Coast beaches during autumn.

That said, the more consistent places to catch bigger warm water pelagics during summer and autumn are the prominent headlands and bays along the NSW coast. Sydney’s Northern Beaches, the Central Coast, Port Stephens and Forster are well known for producing a mix of landbased pelagics during autumn. For Spanish mackerel, the rock ledges between Coffs Harbour and Cape Byron are generally preferred.

Of course, due diligence is required wherever you’re thinking of fishing. It’s important to take into consideration the aspect of the location and how exposed it is to the currents and certain conditions.


Australia records about a dozen rock fishing deaths every year – safety is no joke. It is an inherently dangerous way to fish. Though, the dangers of rock fishing can usually be mitigated through careful consideration of the conditions, being appropriately dressed and being able to swim.

Lightweight clothing and a pair of grippy, lightweight shoes are also essential. Cleats or “rock boots” may also be required on slippery rocks and sandstone rock shelves. A starting point would be Dunlop Volleys, they’re reasonably grippy on most rocks, lightweight and relatively cheap.

In some local government areas, lifejackets are mandatory. Always familiarise yourself with where you’re fishing before you plan to fish it.

Hopefully, the above has provided a “blueprint” of what’s involved when targeting pelagics from the rocks. Autumn is a great time to fish the stones! 

Patrick Linehan is a professional fishing guide at Castaway Estuary Fishing Charters based in Port Macquarie, NSW. Get in touch here:

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