Spinning off the rocks

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big longtail tuna off the rocks

THE first trickle of warm water moving down the coast heralds the beginning of the land based game season, and species like longtail tuna, Spanish mackerel, kingfish and cobia start to travel down the coast of NSW.

Apart from the use of modern reels, rods and lures, not much has changed since high-speed spinning’s inception all those years ago. The weather, currents, moon phases and tides continue to determine the success of the modern day land based game angler; and with today’s fish stocks these factors can be even more critical to an angler's success.

But, most importantly, a sound understanding of the effects of swell and wind along the coastline are pre-requisites when spinning from the rocks. Any form of rock fishing is dangerous in adverse conditions. My general advice would be that any swell above 1 meter should be met with a degree of precaution before any plans are made. And while some locations can be safe in swell up to 2 meters due to the aspect (facing north, south etc.) and positioning of the ledge, swell above 2 meters is usually unsafe anywhere.

It’s best to check conditions as close as possible to when you plan on fishing. Websites I’d recommend using are the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, Willyweather or Swellnet, which all use sophisticated wave and wind modeling to predict conditions.

Where to go
There is a vast arrangement of headlands, points and breakwalls scattered between Avoca and Lennox Head that have the potential to hold the target species.

In my experience I have learned that the most favourable locations hold the following attributes: depth (is the water at least 3-4m deep at edge of the rocks?), prominence of the headland/breakwall to the coastline, water condition (warm water of a decent clarity) and baitfish (is there a food source to attract predators?).

In contrast to conventional game fishing from boats, there is a limited amount of space at locations accessible by foot. This means that it’s often quite hard to find these spots easily with most partakers in the sport being tight-lipped on where they go. Naturally, you’ll need to explore and research in order to find suitable rock ledges. Google Earth and Navionics are two apps available on a smartphone that I have found really helpful in this area.

What’s also worth noting is that most of the rock ledges and headlands I know and have caught inshore game fish from, always seem to have an estuary closeby. These estuaries are an essential and consistent food source for travelling baitfish such as garfish, slimy mackerel, yellowtail scad and also other prey such as prawns and squid.

east australian current

When to go
Spring to late autumn can see these nomadic fish travelling along the coastline on the North Coast of NSW and summer to autumn generally produces results south of Port Macquarie. However, I have caught tuna, mackerel and cobia well into winter on the Mid-North Coast when the water remains above 20 degrees Celsius.

So, it can be hard to determine fact from hear say when it comes to land based spinning. Quite often I would suggest if it is safe to go (small swell and suitable wind), then go! Some of my most memorable catches have been from times where I wasn’t overly confident in the time of year.

Having a basic understanding of the following points, however, may increase your success by allowing you to concentrate limited time frames around favourable conditions.

  • Weather systems: Quite often people have suggested that inshore game fish are ‘fired-up’ from southerly winds. While I don’t think the wind ‘fires’ fish up, it certainly has a mechanical effect under the water. Southerly (south easterly winds in particular) winds during summer can divert fingers of warm clear water from the East Australian Current towards the land as a result of the Coriolis effect - a south bound current met with opposing wind, forces the warm current to move at a right angle to the wind. Game fish often prefer these warmer currents, so they are more inclined to venture close to the rocks when these instances occur.
  • Moon phase: With the exception of Spanish mackerel, I tend not to believe the light given off by the moon phase (new Vs. full) determines the success or failure of catching inshore game fish from the rocks. However, the effect of the moon phase on the tides is important. I have found that the high tide and first few hours of the run-out tide are the best. My theory to explain this is that close by estuaries and bays - mentioned previously - begin to flush out any baitfish in the system, which then attracts any predators looking to capitalize on this daily occurrence. These natural tidal flows are exacerbated around the peaks of the new and full moon, as the tidal changes are more significant e.g. 2m high with a 0.3m low (1.7m difference) compared to a mid waxing/waning moon phase with a 1.4m high and a 0.7m low (0.7m difference). As a result of these higher and lower tidal ranges around the peak of the new and full moon, more water moves in and out of small and large estuaries moving more baitfish with it. Higher tides also increase the depth of the water around the rocks; this means that shallower locations that have bommies and reefs may attract baitfish when they are submerged, at the same time the increased depth allows timid predators to investigate less conspicuously.
  • Dawn or dusk: Dawn is the preferred time to target game fish from the rocks on lures. This can be attributed to the feeding behaviour of most of the target species, where it is believed that they tend not to feed as aggressively through the night as they are often reliant on sight to stalk and hunt their prey. I believe a high tide in the early to mid morning offers the best chance of encountering these enigmatic sportfish.

spanish mackere off the rocks

What to use
When it comes to fishing gear - reels should be of a high speed (ideally retrieve 1m of line with each revolution of the reels handle), good quality and most importantly hold around 300m of 15kg or PE3 line. Reels such as the Penn Slammer 3, Shimano Saragosa, Stella or Daiwa Saltiga are popular workhorses.

Big baitcasters also work well and reels such as the Shimano Tanx 300 or 400 and Daiwa Lexa also work well. I have used overhead and baitcaster reels for a long time and have found there are definite advantages with casting accuracy and distance with their use. However, they can take sometime to master and gain the most out of.

longtail tuna tackle

Rods should ideally be around 9-10 feet in length, but this can depend on the location, which might suit a longer or shorter rod. I have found 9 feet is the optimal length between casting distance and fish fighting capability. Strong graphite rods suited to handling lines of a breaking strain around 10-20kg (PE3-4) with a casting range of 50 – 100 grams will perform the best when casting appropriate sized metal lures, bibbed minnows, poppers, stickbaits and soft plastics.

History proves that the most successful lure when spinning from the rocks - still to this day – is the humble metal lure. However, there has been a growing trend towards using poppers and stickbaits, particularly for kingfish and Spanish mackerel. Bibbed and bib-less minnows such as Rapala X-Raps and Halco Max have also been working quite well in recent years, but conditions will only permit their use on calm days where you can get low and close to the water’s edge.

fifth element stickbait

Your leader should be attached to your braid mainline with an FG knot. I like to then connect my leader to a solid ring or swivel that is attached to the lures split ring. I personally use 50-80lb nylon or fluorocarbon leader when targeting species such as tuna, mackerel and cobia.

Being meticulous with your fishing equipment, knots and terminal tackle is essential to being successful when spinning from the rocks for gamefish. It is without a doubt one of the more challenging forms of fishing, dependent on a long list of variables. So strong attention to detail can eliminate any potential failures in your line and gear that will increase the amount of fish landed once hooked.

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