Targeting jewies and sharks off surf beaches takes dedication and attention to detail. JAMIE CRAWFORD explains what you need to do to make your dreams of big fish off the sand turn into reality.
SEEING a surf rod double over as line empties from the spool is a sight all keen beach fishos long for. After so many hours in preparation and effort it’s often surreal when you finally get that howling run. With quivering hands you prise the rod from the holder and set the hook to feel the weight of a good fish. Your mind starts ticking over … “was that a headshake?” … and you start hoping that you’ve finally hooked a decent jewie.
Beach fishing can be very rewarding, but it can also be extremely frustrating. There are a lot of obstacles to overcome when fishing the surf, and even when the conditions are right, a lot of hours can pass without any action. You certainly earn every big fish you pull off the beach.
And while jewies are at the top of the hit-list, there are plenty of other worthy “big” targets in the surf, ranging from gummy, school and bronze whaler sharks, oversized salmon and tailor, and (depending where you’re fishing) even a few decent reds. These species may not be the glamorous silver flanked fish we’re all after, but they still put up a good scrap off the beach, and can help to pass the time when the jewies are quiet.
While consistent action off the sand won’t happen straight away, there are certainly a few steps you can take to give yourself a better chance. We recently returned from a beach fishing mission here in my home state of South Oz. Using Google Earth we managed to pinpoint a beautiful stretch of sand, and using these maps we weaved our way through a labyrinth of red-earth dirt tracks before eventually arriving at the chosen beach. And it looked fantastic with steep sloping banks dropping into a deep gutter running parallel to the sand.
After setting up camp we deployed some berley and fished for three days straight. The berley drew in salmon on the first day, which were iced down and used as fillet baits over the following few days. The second day we had some good action from both gummy sharks and whalers. Late that night we scored our first jewie of the trip, and then on the third day we beached a further nine jewies ranging in size from small guys of around 70cm up to fish just over the metre mark. It was obvious our persistent berleying had paid dividends.
Berleying from the beach is a super-effective way of drawing larger fish into your gutter or hole, but it’s often overlooked or done in a way that isn’t beneficial to where you’re fishing. Firstly, make sure it’s safe to berley off your local beach. If there are any swimmers or surfers in the area, move on and find a vacant stretch of sand elsewhere or continue fishing without berleying. The main beaches we berley from are fairly remote and seldom visited by beach-goers.
There are a number of ways you can berley from a beach, but because of the water movement experienced along a surf beach, the last thing you want to do is to throw a bucket of valuable berley into the surf and watch it get sucked out to sea. You want to be able to hold the berley in the shallows where you’re fishing, so if a fish picks up the trail, they’ll follow it back to the source. We usually fill a mesh sack or oyster basket with berley, and fix it between two star droppers. I’ve been using Hexcyl Oyster baskets recently; these things are almost indestructible in the shore-break.
On low tide we drive two star droppers deep into the sand, and run a length of PP rope through the basket and out to each dropper. These baskets have locking swing-doors on either end, so it’s easy to open them up and re-fill with more pilchards, old fish frames etc. As the tide fills they get rolled around in the shallows and the berley breaks up and sends out a trail. It works a treat.
We also bury “pockets” of berley just under the sand on low tide so as the tide fills, these pockets of flavour slowly release. When you set up berley like this is still takes a while for it to kick into action, so you really want to spend a bit of time fishing the hole to really reap the benefits.
While berley certainly helps, there are many other contributing factors for success off the beach. One of the biggest decisions is site selection and choosing a good piece of water. I won’t get into too much detail of how to pick a gutter as this has been covered thoroughly in the past – needless to say, pick your water carefully as this is a crucial decision.
We aim to pick a body of water running parallel to the beach with exit points through the surf. Having reef nearby is a good inroad for predatory species to enter or exit a gutter, so long as the reef isn’t going to come into play when you’re hooked up to a good fish.
Bear in mind a gutter will look very different on the peak of high tide than it does when the tide approaches low water. If you’re going to be stationed in the one spot for a prolonged period, ie, more than just one tide, spend the time to find stretch of beach that will hopefully be fishable even during the low water period.
The couple of hours leading up to the peak of high tide and the following couple of hours after the tide turns have always been considered the best time to hit the beach for jewies. But there’s just as much likelihood of beaching a good fish during low tide if your gutter still retains enough depth.
Here in SA we get a lot of low-water periods around dawn and dusk during the summer months (peak jewie time in our area), so it means we still fish through low tide. We’ve picked up quite a few good fish on the dead of low tide, too. The swell usually lulls as the tide bottoms out, meaning there’s less side current to contend with. Jewies aren’t a fan of strong currents and you’ll find the fish either not entering the gutter or choosing not to feed when the current is ripping.
Weather conditions play a big factor in successful beach fishing. Some locations fish better when there’s some onshore wind creating more chop and white water, but when fishing from high-energy beaches, ie, the stretches of sand that collect consistent swell and boast good gutter and bank formation, you don’t want to be lobbing big baits into a stiff head wind.
It’s a lot easier fishing these beaches with low winds, or even better with offshore winds. It’s pretty hard maintaining a tight connection to your bait when a blustery head or side wind is working against you and forming a big belly of line. Reducing the diameter of your mainline can help, but then you’re compromised if you hook a solid jewie – it’s a catch 22.
The size of the swell will also dictate how easy it’s going to be to fish the beach and also how effective your berley will be. A little bit of swell is a good thing, especially for jewies. Having a mid sized swell around the 1.5m mark generally creates reasonable fishing conditions.
Once the swell has been up for a couple of days, though, it invariably draws clumps of floating weed into the surf – the beach fisho’s enemy. There’s nothing else that can spoil a beach fishing mission quicker than 30kg clumps of kelp. You can persist and fish around the weed if you don’t mind re-casting regularly, but having large clumps wrapped around your mainline will eventually create a weak point.
Also with the larger swell the side current kicks up a knot or two, making it hard for a large bait to hold ground, and this current will also be dispersing and diluting your berley very quickly. If the swell is pumping we normally fish with smaller baits and persist for as long as we can. It’s generally hard going, though.
On the other end of the spectrum, periods of flat swell can be just as hard for fishing, often keeping the larger jew outside of the gutter where there’s more cover. During periods of small swell the berley hangs in the gutter well, and can be very effective when targeting sharks from the surf.
Being on a beach with a change approaching and the barometer falling can flick a feeding switch for jew. We’ve beached some nice fish just as dark storm clouds started to roll in from the west. And quite often, the more intense the approaching change is, the hotter the bite can be. Obviously site selection is still just as important, but if there’s fish in the area, they have a definite feeding response at this time. We used to see it in the fish hatchery I used to work at; the broodstock mulloway would feed more aggressively as a change was approaching.
Day or Night
It’s possible to pull big fish off the beach at any time during the day or night. Water depth and availability of food are the biggest factors drawing predatory fish into near-shore gutters. If there’s enough depth and there’s baitfish or crabs within the gutter or hole, then there’s a good chance a bigger fish or shark will also enter the gutter, be it during the day or night.
We find the smaller mulloway are more active along surf beaches during the night, but the larger fish can be sporadic passing through the gutter at any time during the day. Overall we’ve beached most of our bigger fish during the afternoon high tide, with action on small to mid sized fish just before sunset and into the night (even on low tide). Sunset is a prime time to have a bait in the water for jewies.
Night time is definitely more productive for sharks from the beach (especially gummy and school sharks) with the full moon period seeing larger gummies move inshore to feed. Bronzies can be just as prevalent during the day as they can be at night. We’ve beached most of our big salmon, tailor and snapper during daylight hours, so you can see there are big fish options both day or night from the beach.
It is easier fishing from the beach during the day, for obvious reasons, and for safety reasons we don’t like to fish at night when there’s a solid swell running. Quite often here in SA, the summertime onshore south easterlies abate during the night and can actually blow offshore (movement of air as the land cools). It’s a handy phenomenon, meaning the night time conditions are usually good for fishing.
There aren’t many fish species more cautious than a large jew when it comes to feeding, so offering the best baits possible is imperative when surf fishing. And it’s surprising how much bait you can go through in a session, especially when crabs are on the march or there are smaller pickers in the gutter.
When specifically targeting mulloway our preferred baits include fresh fillets of salmon, tailor, silver trevally or mullet. Whole fish are gun baits as well – especially if alive but otherwise fresh whole is OK. Fish such as salmon trout, mullet, tailor, scad or garfish are great. Fresh squid heads and strips of squid are good as well, provided they are fresh. There’s little point using squid that’s already starting to turn pink. And check baits regularly. After about 10 to 15 mins in the surf the bait is usually starting to take a beating. Renew baits regularly if needed.
Sharks are less particular with their diet in the surf, and will take older fillets or whole dead fish that have been frozen. Aim to use oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, trevally etc when targeting sharks off the beach.
When beach fishing try to use the best tackle you can afford – the surf environment is a harsh one with sand and salt spray constantly attacking your reels. For all of my big fish pursuits off the beach, whether it’s for shark or jewies, I run with two outfits. One heavier outfit is spooled with 15kg mono and a lighter outfit running 10kg. The heavier outfit I fish bigger slab baits or whole fish, and the smaller outfit I usually fish a smaller fillet bait or squid strip.
Whether you fish braid or mono off the beach is a personal preference, but I find mono more forgiving, especially when there’s a bit of weed floating around. The stretch of mono can help a surf sinker to stay put when there’s a bit of surge running through the gutter as well.
Having adequate length and strength in your rod is important for (a) casting bigger baits, (b) raising mainline above any shore break and (c) fighting larger fish. You may get away with a slightly smaller reel, but if you go for a shorter, softer rod you may struggle. Good rod holders are a must as well. I like longer versions for helping to prop the mainline high.
When running the two rods, it’s a good idea to stagger the casting distance. You needn’t cast into the deepest section of the hole to pin a good fish either. Quite often jewies and even sharks will patrol along the tapering edge of the hole, as this is where the bait will likely be holding and the current is generally less.
At the end of the day though, the longer you have a bait in the water the greater your chance. It’s worth persisting even when the conditions aren’t ideal, as you’ll never beach that jewie of a lifetime by sitting on your couch at home.