Words & Images: Jamie Robley
The fringe where salty seas clash with solid rock attract many different species of fish, as well as the keen anglers who chase them. Just like any other angling arena, our coastal rocks come in all shapes and forms, so the spectrum of fishing styles and techniques is equally diverse.
Over the many years I’ve fished the rocks there have been various favourite species ranging from the humble bream through to large predators that can rip out hundreds of metres of line in quick time. The environment is scenic and the air refreshing. So even when fish aren’t in a co-operative mood rock fishing is always an invigorating and rewarding experience.
Despite the popularity of the sport, rock fishing also cops a lot of flak at times – more often than not from ill-informed mainstream media who tend to over-hype any unfortunate incidents. The truth is, much like driving on our roads or swimming at the beach, mishaps mainly occur due to human error or poor judgement. By simply learning a bit about the way the ocean behaves and using a common sense approach, rock fishing is as safe as any other outdoor recreational activity.
Perhaps the very first step in remaining safe is to avoid fishing when the seas are big or swell is increasing in size. Swell forecasts are often part of the evening TV news and there are numerous websites and phone apps that provide a reasonably accurate swell forecast for almost anywhere around the country.
If seas are predicted to rise or get rougher, then any rock fishing trips should be put on hold for another time. A rising swell can be the most dangerous, as it often looks calmer than it really is or may start off calm in the morning and over the course of a few hours turn rough and dangerous. This is a classic period when mishaps can occur.
Along the NSW coast, where rock fishing is so popular, an average swell height of around a metre is generally safe to fish at most locations. Smaller than that is fine as well, but once it gets up towards a two-metre swell it could mean a lot of spots should be avoided. If slightly bigger than average seas combine with a larger tide of 1.7 metres or more, this will only increase the danger.
ROCK FISHING ATTIRE
Suitable clothing and footwear enhances safety and makes fishing more comfortable and easier. Metal cleats under purpose-made rock fishing booties, shoes or sandals are favoured by many who regularly fish low weed-covered ledges, which are particularly common around Sydney. However, different footwear may be suitable for other types of rock spots. For example, I’ve long favoured the old Dunlop Volleys when fishing a lot of ledges on the NSW Central Coast and North Coast. These are soft and grippy, which I’ve found ideal for drier conglomerate rocks.
Lightweight long-sleeved shirts, shorts and a spray jacket are standard rock fishing clothes and I also recommend a decent pair of polarised sunnies. In some places a PFD, or life vest, is now compulsory.
Pelting lures from the stones is extremely demanding on tackle, so decent rods and reels are a must. Skimping on these will soon lead to snapped rods, stripped gearing and seized bearings – resulting in lost fish and frustration.
I’ve used several different Daiwa reels for my rock spinning over the years and have never encountered any problems. Middle-of-the-range models such as the Saltist, Sol, Ballistic and BG reels are all solid performers, but a step-up to Catalina, Basia or Saltiga reels is a good move if larger predators such as Spanish mackerel or cobia are your target.
A higher-speed gear ratio is also desirable when lure casting for bonito, mackerel or any species that respond to an extra-fast retrieve. Generally, this means a ratio of around 6:1 but a larger reel with a ratio closer to 5:1 may be fast enough, simply because bigger reels retrieve more line with each rotation of the handle.
We’re really spoilt when it comes to choosing lines these days. Each year there are newer, more advanced braids hitting the market and they’re just getting better and better all the time. Casting distance is a prime concern for this style of fishing and a finer braid or PE line with a slick surface equates to improved casting performance. While premium quality lines are worth the money, it’s also possible to buy some excellent lines these days without draining the bank balance.
When chasing smaller or average species such as tailor, 12 or 15lb line is generally pretty good. For slightly bigger or harder-fighting fish, including bonito or rat-sized kingfish, then 20lb is the standard and this works well with a mid-sized 4000 or 4500 reel. Going up to 30lb could be better when much larger fish are targeted, but as line gets thicker it can reduce casting distance, so getting it right is a bit of a balancing act.
Fluorocarbon leaders are pretty much the norm for most styles of lure fishing these days. Whilst fluoro can certainly be used when spinning from the stones, I highly recommend a hard-wearing nylon mono and my long-term choice has always been Schneider. Due to the erratic and often brutal fighting style of these fish, the extra stretch and superior knot strength of mono means more fish end up staying connected than when using less forgiving fluorocarbon leaders. The difference becomes particularly evident with head-shaking tailor or leaping salmon, both of which are very good at throwing hooks.
Unlike those who specialise in bass, barra or cod in the fresh, the tackle box for rock spinning can be quite small and basic. Armed with only a handful of 30 to 60g metal lures, it’s possible to catch a variety of different species at the rocks. A favourite amongst many devotees is the Surecatch Knight. This simple chromed metal is a must, especially if tailor, salmon and bonito are primary targets – but it can certainly be beneficial to carry a few other lure types. Surface stickbaits and poppers can be a lot of fun when cast over inshore reef or adjacent to washy points. Tailor and kingfish are particularly fond of surface lures, but others such as bonito, salmon or mackerel also smash them at times.
Another excellent style of lure is a sinking stickbait. Looking roughly the same as a surface lure, they tend to be weighted and so they cast like a bullet and sink slower than a traditional chromed metal. I’ve enjoyed great success with a few different types, especially on tailor and salmon.
Soft plastics also have their place and the two species that respond really well to softies are kingfish and salmon. A slinky, baitfish profile plastic in a light or natural colour is highly effective if either of those species are in the vicinity. When specifically chasing kings, though, I’m a big fan of white softies.
Simply put, those who set the alarm and get on the rocks before sunrise will catch more fish than anglers who prefer ‘gentlemen’s hours’. Sure, sometimes tides may play a bigger role in switching fish on, but the majority of predatory species feed much more aggressively at first light. It’s a simple tip, but one of the most important when it comes to spinning the stones!
Although a variety of different fish swim or feed close to our headlands, outcrops and ledges, some are more likely to show up at certain times or spots than others. In general, tailor and salmon are more common during autumn, winter and into spring and they tend to favour areas with a sandy bottom, scattered reef and plenty of white wash. In fact, a constant foamy wash around the rocks is a good indicator of a tailor spot. Depth is not at all important and both species are often found in quite shallow places.
On the other hand, more oceanic or bigger predators such as bonito, tuna, kingfish and mackerel are more commonly encountered around major, deep-water headlands. Once again, depth isn’t overly critical and sometimes these fish surprise anglers in waist-deep water. For consistent angling success, though, it is better to stick to deeper ledges or headlands.
Current flow is another factor and those headlands or points where current flow is more consistent or stronger will concentrate baitfish and attract more predators. This is why some smaller points can actually be better spinning spots than larger, more prominent headlands, simply because more current pushes past.
Water temperature influences most species and bonito, rat kings, mackerel, mackerel tuna and frigate mackerel are much more likely to feed within casting range from about January through to the end of May, when ocean currents are warmest. Salmon, on the other hand, are around in bigger numbers from June through to the end of October, when water is colder.
So it’s a matter of considering each of the factors listed above to work out which species is more inclined to show up at your chosen venue – then fine-tune tackle and techniques to suit the likely candidates.
Tailor and salmon are perhaps the easiest to fool with lures, but like any fish, there are times when it’s just about impossible to entice a hit. As a starting point, a simple chrome metal retrieved at a slow to moderate pace works well. If it’s not happening, though, a bit of variation such as casting in different directions, briefly pausing the retrieve or some extra rod movement could be all it takes to start hooking a few.
For speedier pelagics such as bonito, mackerel and tuna, a much more energetic approach often pays dividends. In fact, most of the time there’s no such thing as a retrieve that’s too quick for these species. This is where that faster reel comes in handy, but it’s also up to the angler to crank the handle as fast as possible. On some of the more popular rock ledges it’s common to see those who are winding the fastest catch the most fish. Once again, though, a bit of variation such as a sudden stop or ripping the rod tip sideways can turn a follower into a biter.
Kingfish can often get turned on by the most erratic and crazy retrieves. This is especially so when casting soft plastics or surface lures. By this I mean big, sudden rod movements that get a lure darting through the water, and changing the direction of those rod movements so the lure darts from side to side. If kings are around and not coming your way, don’t be afraid to make a fool of yourself by going absolutely crazy with retrieve techniques. Chances are it will work!
A lot of fish hooked when spinning from the stones are around two to four kilos in weight. Not only are they stubborn opponents when they get near the rocks, their bulk means it’s not always a good idea to just try lifting them straight onto the ledge. If at all possible, it’s better to find a lower spot where you can use wave action to help glide them onto that lower area and then get them to higher ground with a series of smaller lifts or by grabbing them around the tail wrist and quickly getting back up, away from the water. This needs to be done carefully and at all times keeping one eye on the water. If it doesn’t look safe then just take it slowly and wait for a lull in the swell.
BAIT, FOOD OR FUN
Lure casting for any species from the rocks can provide a whole lot of fun, but once a fish is landed it’s decision time. Release or keep for food or bait?
Some species such as tailor or kings are generally considered good eating, while others such as salmon or mack tuna aren’t. Obviously it may be a matter of personal taste. For example, I thoroughly enjoy eating bonito, yet a lot of anglers consider them only as bait. Regardless of one’s tastebuds or need for fresh bait, it’s always better to take only what you can immediately use or are able to carry back to the car. Releasing any fish that isn’t really needed is generally the best idea.
Those fish that are destined for the dinner table need to be looked after. Firstly, either keep them alive in a shaded rock pool that isn’t too big, so they’re easy enough to get out when it’s time to pack up. Alternatively, promptly bleed them and keep them in a cool, shaded place. Regardless of the species, any fish left out in the sun or knocked around too much isn’t going to make ideal table fare.