Rock fishing: three rules for life

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Getting swept of the rocks is a terrifying and life threatening ordeal…even for anglers wearing life jackets (image: Scott Thomas).

APOLOGIES for the length of this one but at the risk of sounding preachy, I’m calling today’s fishing report “The rock fishing three rules for life”. If you can bear with me to the end you’ll discover why.

We were up before dawn on Sunday morning to arrive at a rock ledge just on sunrise. A run in tide, overcast conditions, no wind and the BOM forecasting a swell of under a metre. Good conditions all around! I’d fished this spot previously and had good success for drummer and snapper so hopes were high for a good day. I had tried to get back on a number of occasions but every time I was confronted with a swell of at least 1.5 m and decided it wasn’t the best option. But today was looking the goods. So I rigged up and watched the swell for a period of time while I waited for my mate to arrive. Mindful of the recent opt in by the local council for rock fishing life jacket regulations, I had a jacket with me and, knowing rangers to frequent the spot, I put it on. My mate arrived and we got the burley trail started. The plan was to fish in a deep swirling gutter running perpendicular to the ocean facing rocks that stood about 6 feet above the water below. The benefit of this was that the gutter had constant white water as the waves rushed into the crevice and held a good variety of fish. Fishing the gutter also meant you were at least a good 20 m back from the exposed ocean rock face so it had the safety benefit as well.

We started fishing and within a short time we’d landed a couple of fat but slightly undersized drummer. Periodically, the breaking waves would send ankle deep water across the rock face as it drained into the gutter, but it was also becoming clear that the swell was a little more powerful than the forecast had led us to believe. The first sign was when a larger wave broke across the rock face and nearly sent our burly bucket tumbling from a higher rock into the gutter. In retrospect that was the sign to move, but the sign wasn’t heeded. Five minutes later I watched another set roll in. This one looked a little bigger and as it broke over the rock face the water was definitely higher than anything we’d seen before. It rolled towards me across the shelf and as it was upon me I realised this was going to be more of a problem than it had first appeared. Despite being 20 m back from where the wave first broke it arrived at my location around waist high. I’m no light weight and I was wearing rock spikes so I held against it for a brief moment but inevitably it managed to sweep my legs out from under me and on my side it dragged me across the rocks and into the gutter.

The gutter was a washing machine of angry swirling white water. If not for the jacket I’m not sure I would have found the surface, but after what seemed like a disoriented eternity of holding my breath I managed to break clear. Trying to swim in the gutter as a useless exercise. Whichever direction you tried to head in you were defeated by the churning water. And it was exhausting. Constantly buffeted by the water rushing over my head any attempt to swim to a point of safety was mostly futile. In the few moments of calm I’d start to swim towards a low ledge but before I’d made any real headway a new wave would wash into the gutter and take me in the opposite direction. Fortunately with the jacket I could stop swimming and rest on my back while my mind worked overtime to figure out how I was going to get out of there. Because of the distance between the gutter ledge and the water I’d brought a carbon fibre ISO fishing net with me on the day and my mate had the presence of mind to run and grab it and thrust it into the water. It extends to 5 metres and I was able to throw out an arm and get my fingers into the netting. Slowly he was able to pull me back towards the gutter wall. The water was still pulling me in all directions at once and as it dragged me around a corner of rock the carbon fibre bent, twisted and then began to crack and splinter. Slowly the net webbing also began to pull apart against the strain. But it had served its purpose. I was able to reach and tuck in against the rock wall. Hanging on for dear life I crab-walked carefully along the ledge to a crevice that offered some hand and foot holds. I was then able to climb far enough to reach my mate’s outstretched hand and adrenalin did the rest as I was up and over that ledge.

All up I probably wasn’t in the water for more than 5 minutes. It felt like half an hour. We walked (I hobbled) back to our gear and sat in stunned silence for a while. Apart from a few scrapes on my leg and waist where I was dragged over the rocks I was intact. My rod and reel were gone and my ISO net was also well beyond salvage, but the only lasting damage on the day was economic.

So now I ask myself, what did I learn? What I learned were the three rules of life for rock fishing. None of them will be surprising to anyone, but observance of all three of them was necessary to get out of that situation.

Rule 1: Wear the life jacket. Even if not compelled by regulation, wear the jacket. I’m a reasonable swimmer but in those conditions you won’t last long without support. When selecting a jacket I would also recommend one of the slim foam models rather than the manual inflation. In those early moments of disorientation it’s not going to be easy to have the presence of mind to remember to find the inflation toggle, and if your canister is old or decides to malfunction…

Rule 2: Always fish with a mate. With your life jacket you’ve managed not to drown on your first dunking. Now what? How do you actually go about getting out when the water is rough and the rocks walls are sharp and high? A helping hand was vital for me.

Rule 3: Carry rope. On this occasion an ISO net performed the function but an abrasion resistant rope with a small flotation device like a tennis ball would have been invaluable.

So that’s the story and those are the rules. Like many of you who read this, I also thought it’d never happen to me. I check the weather. Don’t take silly risks. Wear all the right gear. But it still happened anyway. In an instant. On a relatively calm day.

If you’ve made it through to the end of this epic I wish you all tight lines and safe fishing. And do yourself a favour – follow the rules.


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