Rock Stars: Top winter rock fishing species

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Dave with a stunning Eastern blue groper.

IF the last couple of years have taught us anything it is the need to be adaptable to life and the changes it can bring to our norm. Isolating from one another and modifying our behaviour, and expectations, have all assisted in the reality we faced. For some it was a massive life experience and for others it is, merely, the way we fish. Often, we loath seeing other people where we fish, and apart from a mate fishing away from us there were no issues satisfying the strict implied rules.

Rock fishing in the cooler months can be a challenge for many. Cold, windy mornings and deserted coastal fringes serve as a reminder and contrast of the Summer months not too long ago. It isn’t just the weather and water that has changed, but the types of fish that are offered from the wash of the water that gloves the rocky shoreline. I must confess to loving this time of year if only for the solitude and the mixed bag that is on offer with very little real effort it takes to collect.

Drone images provide a great view of the coastline and can help dial in where you should fish.

Location
There is no doubt the coastal strips of the country are a favoured recreational area and visiting anglers need to plan fishing from the rocks with a mind to the prevailing weather and sea conditions. The structure and nature of rocky headland can vary dramatically over a few kilometres of coast and provide an array of opportunities and target areas for different species. Unfamiliar rock platforms and spurs of rock can fish differently according to the direction of wind, waves, water depth and seabed so some homework needs to be considered.

Perhaps the greatest tool any angler has, when fishing a new area, is the use of Google Earth and the detailed satellite images that cover the globe. A bird’s eye view of the entire coast allows the angler to zoom in to a particular spot and assess or speculate the water depth, reef and rock structure and from that, determine the species of fish that could be targeted. It also allows a hint of the angling techniques and the best weather conditions to fish the platforms. While static images, taken who knows when ago, are useful it is our own technology that can be used to instantly assess an area for fishing in the form of a drone. Looking for gutters, deep water and bait fish are all managed from above the area you fish and should be recorded for viewing and scrutiny at home.

For the most part, rock fishing is fundamentally about catching a feed of fish and being safe. Where the angler is greeted by an aggressive south-easterly squall and corresponding rough sea condition, the north side of headlands would be an appropriate, safe location. Adversely the large seas rolling over a rock gutter and producing a blanket of white water may be ideal for a lure caught mulloway or jumbo tailor, it all depends on your required comfort level and target species. No matter what situation you put yourself in, an automatic PFD is good insurance for you and your family. It will provide a conscious (or unconscious) safety net should you go in the drink. They may also be a legal requirement in your area, so check the rules and abide by them.

The snell knot – a simple knot that can help to increase hook up rates and make a true running sinker rig.

Tackle
For the angler that wants to target a feed of fish from the stones there are a few details of terminal tackle that will improve your catch and it is these details that can make a massive difference.

At the pointy end of your terminal tackle it is the knot that connects your hook, if not the hook itself, that will improve your take home effort. A turned in or out eye on your hook allows you to tie a Snell knot to the shank of the hook and it can double your hook up rate in some circumstances. The knot works on two levels – it holds the hook in line with your leader and provides a straight or direct pull on the hook point when you strike. Knots like blood knots tied to the eye of a hook can slip around, almost a full rotation of the hook eye and offset the power of the strike. The other advantage of the Snell knot is that the running ball sinker will never nestle over the knot and become jammed or fixed. Effective wash fishing depends on the separation of the bait and the sinker creating a weighted line and a virtual short leader for the bait to drift and waft with the surge of the waves.

As for sinkers, you only need sufficient weight to counteract the surge and drag of the waves that can elevate your bait to the surface. Sinkers around the rock are not to anchor your rig to the bottom. They are simply to provide the carry to get your cast to the right spot and then to sink your bait slowly to, or past the fish. Then by mending your line, winding up the slack and keeping in touch with your bait you will be in a far better position when it is time to strike.

Keeping terminal tackle to a minimum is good practice because it reduces the likelihood of getting snagged and caught up in the weed and rocks. The short distance you are casting reduces any troublesome line twist, so swivels are redundant.

The winter run of bream from the rocks are generally big mature specimens in good condition.

What is on offer?
Your intended geographical location will determine the species available during the depth of winter. The seasonal change in estuaries and a flush of freshwater has, by now, driven the bully mullet from the river systems. Along with the mullet, schools of spawning luderick and bream move out of the estuary and along the beaches and rock washes. The bream and luderick travel and spawn on the coast, mixing with fish from other estuaries to guarantee a diverse gene pool that the returning juveniles carry to the estuary and lake nurseries.

Luderick will appear in a burley trail at any time and can be caught on saltwater yabbies, green prawn pieces and green weed. I’ve written of the night time luderick fishing from the rocks before and the bonus of targeting spawning schools is that they are all mature fish so you will get a large proportion of the catch the same size, generally better than legal.

Tailor and salmon follow the bait schools and can be caught from beaches and headland rocks as their transient behaviour provides a casting opportunity. Salmon can be in such numbers that they blackout massive areas of water while tailor can make spasmodic appearances through any spinning session. Early morning spinning or bait sessions will generate various success and I will seek information from the local tackle shop as to whether there is any tailor around at that time before I invest too much effort in chasing them.

If the location allows, and to optimise your daybreak period, it is often worth floating a ganged garfish or pilchard under a bobby cork while you fish the wash for bream and other table fare. Fished from reel like the Penn Slammer III Live Liner, with the free spool mechanism, you can set the tension on the spool and wait for the fish to find your bait. When you pick the rod up and crank the handle the drag kicks in and your fighting the fish. The system works just as well when live-baiting in the estuary or from the rocks.

When spinning from the rock I have a rough rule of thumb that if the bait schools like slimies are rippling the surface I’ll throw a pencil popper or surface lure, if not, I’ll throw a metal slice. It is pretty simple but seems to work.

Unless you want to target blue groper specifically, they will come as a significant by-catch to your bait fishing efforts under the wash of white water. Some days the legal groper will outnumber the pigs and bream and to target trophy fish the best days are flat seas, with westerly winds and big red crabs as bait. On these days, with clear water, it is possible to sight cast to the big, bright blue groper but as a rule they are caught and lost as a consequence of fishing for other species.

A small container of hooks and sinkers, a few lures and a weighted float keeps the tackle down and helps the angler be more mobile to find the fish.

Bait and Berley
For the most part some form of berley can be incorporated in any rock fishing session to attract sedentary fish to an area. Even pelagic fish can be enticed to an area where bait schools are aggregated with berley. White bread is convenient and cheap and when cast into a wash has an attraction to all manner of fish. Bream and rock blackfish can be focused in a gutter or hole with the introduction of metered berley which should be fine enough to offer promise but, in fact, feeds the smaller rubbish species and distracts them from your bait.

Mashing a few loaves in a bucket of sea water and throwing onto a rock on the wash line will ensure a better stream of berley into the water than casting out into the water. The waves will disperse the berley over a period with subsequent waves and help break up the sodden pieces. Remember that you should always cast a few baits before you start the berley just in case you have cracked a hot spot straight up. No need to draw in all the rubbish fish like toads and butterfish if you do not need too. Save the berley until the bite window fades and you need the added attractant to reinvigorate the fish.

Natural baits like cunje, crabs and yabbies all have their constraints. The time to collect, limited bag limits and the impact on the intertidal zone all need to be balanced with the convenience of bait prawns bought from the local tackle or bait supplier.

You should NEVER use cooked or green prawns from the supermarket for bait without boiling for an additional 4-5 min. This will render any white spot disease inert and serve to firm up the prawn flesh.

While prawns cover the broadest range of species from the rocks, do not discount quality fresh white bread balled on the hook for bream, pigs, and sometime trevally. Fish flesh baits like garfish, which can be caught on site in the berley, or commercial bait fishes can be used to target winter run bream, tailor and trevally specifically at the general exclusion of pigs, luderick and groper.

When the opportunity presents, you can diversity the bag with a little soft plastic casting.

When?
When rock fishing anglers are looking to put a mixed bag of species together there is little doubt that a rising to full tide at daybreak is the key, while those chasing pigs and the occasional bream can relax and fish a rising tide at any time of the day, or night. The most attractive feature of rock blackfish fishing on a cold winter’s day is that they rely entirely on high water to access the growth of the intertidal area. As the tide drops other deep-water gutters and crevices in the rock platforms become target areas as the fish retreat.

Of course if you intend to collect fresh cunje from the rock platforms, a low tide is necessary unless you are lucky enough to be able to gather it from the local beaches after a howling sou-easterly swell, salt it and freeze it for future use.

Early morning spin or bait sessions increase your chances at tailor, salmon, and bream and when it is done from a breakwall you have the added advantage of water movement, both in and out of the estuary. These manmade rock walls are a great night-time option for bream and mulloway through winter. The walkways are often lit and the illumination spills onto the various safe rock perches closer to the water line. The ends of break walls, where the waves break, are good spots to search for rock blackfish of an evening and luderick through the day on a runout tide.

The options while rock fishing seem endless and it is about getting to know your intended target area and seeking local advice on the “secret” spots that everyone knows about. Rock fishing in winter has more options than most people think.

Winter rock fishing species and rigs:

Rock blackfish 20 - 40lb leader, No1-2 ball sinker, 1/0 -2/0 SSW Octopus hook / 542 Mustad – Prawn, bread, cunje baits

Blue groper 30 - 50lb leader, floating crab baits or 00 – 1 ball sinker, 3/0 – 5/0 circle hook – Red and green crabs, squid and incidental baits for other species

Bream and silver trevally 10 -15lb leader, No1 ball sinker, No 1 – 1/0 bait keeper hook – Prawns, fish flesh, cunje, squid and bread

Luderick 10lb – 15lb leader, 00 – 1 ball sinkers, No 6 – No1 bait keeper hook, yabbies, green bait prawns, cunje

Salmon and Tailor 15lb – 20lb leader, 3/0 ganged hooks with a weighted float, garfish and pilchards. Spin tackle and surface poppers or chrome slices.

Misc – There is plenty of disappointment fishing from the rocks. Kelpies, the magicians of the ocean that can make a hook 3 x the size of their mouth disappear without a trace. Butterfish - the bait piranha, crimson wrasse, wirrah cod, green eels and toads all play a roll in the ecology of a healthy coastline so treat them with the respect you would treat a prized species. Other species like leatherjackets, snapper and mulloway are possible from the stones but are generally a non-target bycatch while fishing for a mixed bag.

Rod and reel
Rods in the 3 – 3.6m length are generally long enough to fish the rocks, but it depends on the terrain and water you are fishing. Reel sizes of 5000-6000 threadline are perfect and should you want to fish a floating bait the same size in a LiveLiner style reel is ideal. Spooled with 20 – 30lb braid and leader connection with
an FG or Improved Albright and that is it. There is no need for any other terminal like swivels as they are just another thing that will get caught on, in, around the rocksand kelp beds.

 
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