Mastering the art of how to read the beach

When the swell is up, fishing just inside an estuary mouth can result in beach regulars such as salmon.

by Sean Thompson •

Beach fishing isn’t just a sport, it’s a passion. Get it right and it can be incredibly productive. Not only that, but in our fast-paced world filled with digital gadgets and deadlines, it can be damn good for your mental and physical health. The sights, sounds and feel of the waves as they wash away your woes is something special. Even better if it is interrupted by a screaming reel and buckling rod!

GENERAL RULES

To get your best results from the beach, you need to understand how, where and when to fish.

The number one rule in beach fishing is that you need to be able to read the beach to understand where the fish might be. Inexperienced anglers often make the mistake of just throwing in a line wherever the sand track leads them out to the beach, and then expect fish. Even if there is fishable water there, these same areas are also popular with swimmers and surfers, and thus tend to spook flighty fish.

There are a few other general rules and tactics that will significantly increase the odds in your favour when beach fishing. These include knowing your target species and seasons, having the right gear, and knowing the right time and techniques to catch them.

You also need a few plan Bs and Cs for when the fish play hard to get. When you have some sneaky little tactics up your sleeve, it can turn a very ordinary session into a very good one!

For now, let’s start by learning how to ‘read’ a beach.

CHOOSING THE RIGHT WATER

You can have the best tackle, baits, lures and surf conditions, but if you’re fishing where the fish are unlikely to be, you won’t catch much! This is why it’s is so important to know how to read a beach. Gutters, holes, channels, spits, rips, sweep, back banks… fishing has a vocabulary all of its own, but these areas aren’t that complicated to spot or understand. Basically, the colour of the water (darker water is deeper) and the wave patterns are the main giveaways, and when you know what to look for you’ll maximise your catch rates.

Gutter

Gutters are stretches of deeper water scoured out of the sand, characterised by darker, greener water. They generally have a back sand bank where the water is shallower, and the waves break over this bank before reforming in the gutter, and don’t break again until they get closer to, or hit the shore. Fish like tailor, salmon and dart will prowl the edges of the back bank, and these same fish may roam inside the deeper water of the gutter looking for food.

The shore break of a gutter (where waves are breaking on the shore) is the place to target foraging fish such as herring and whiting. These predators roam in the shallower gutters just beyond the shore, and as the waves break and surge up the beach, the fish quickly follow the water in and help themselves to the worms and pipis exposed, or any vulnerable baitfish.

Entrance

An entrance is often found with a gutter, and it’s like a funnel of deeper, cleaner water that channels faster flowing water from the inner gutters or holes out to the open sea. This is known by swimmers as a rip. A break in the rolling waves can indicate an entrance, and this area is also characterised by more rippled water.

Fish use these entrances to enter and exit the shore-based gutters that hold a smorgasbord of food for them. Fish like to use entrances because they don’t like sand in their gills or becoming disorientated by breaking waves. One entrance to a gutter is good, and two entrances is even better!

Gutters can also vary in size and depth, with deeper gutters tending to hold bigger fish like tailor, salmon and mulloway at the right time of day. Shallower gutters are perfect for smaller forage fish such as whiting and dart. Fish like whiting can be found in a couple of different types of shallower gutters. Examples include shallow inner gutters that fill over an exposed back sand bank at high tide, or shallow low tide gutters that have a blind end. A blind end is where the gutter closes off to the shore or a sand spit and, provided it has a little bit of white water for protection, the fish will feed right up in this corner.

Hole

Holes are pockets of scoured-out sand in the surf which are formed as a result of big seas. They are evidenced by their darker blue/green colour and also by waves, which don’t break at all over them. Holes can either be fully enclosed as they are surrounded by sand bars, or they can have an opening to the sea. These are great locations to fish at night on the high tide for predators such as mulloway, particularly if the hole has an opening or entrance to the sea. At low tide they can be good locations for flathead and bream.

Smaller ‘melon’ holes are indentations of around a metre or so in diameter, and can often be found on sand spits or smaller gutters. Whiting like to forage for worms and yabbies in melon holes.

Channel

Channels are simply very long gutters which are scoured out parallel to the beach. They can run for several hundred metres or even kilometres at times. They act like a fish highway, with fish travelling along them in search of food. If there are few other features nearby to fish, your best option when confronted with a long channel is to look for areas where the beach shelves away steeply on the shore into the channel, or the back bank is within castable distance for species such as tailor and salmon.

Outer channels can be described as a second channel running parallel to an inner channel closer to shore and the beach. These are the highways for very big fish, including sharks and pelagics such as mackerel, tuna, giant trevally and more. You can reach these outer channels at low tide if you choose an inner channel with a close back bank, and cast over it using big grapnel sinkers and running ‘slide baits’ of live fish or big flesh baits out to this deep water. Another alternative is to cast out with a more standard rig but with a big bait into an entrance or rip, and let the fast-flowing rip take the bait out to this outer channel.

Sand spit

Sand spits are areas where the sand on the shore juts out to form a point in the surf zone. These areas can be exposed at low tide and are great worming locations. They are usually surrounded by a hole or a gutter so you can fish from them at low tide, or fish over them at high tide for fish like whiting and smaller dart – provided they have a sufficient coverage of water and a bit of white wash from waves as protection.

Beach corner

Beach corners are another part of the beach fishing vocabulary. These are areas where permanent holes have been chiselled out next to headlands or large patches of rock. These can be great places to fish, especially when the seas are very calm and the baitfish seek shelter from the calm, clear conditions in these locations.

Vantage point

To most effectively read the beach, it’s important to get up on a higher vantage point. This may be a sand dune (provided it isn’t closed for regeneration), a headland or simply the highest point on the beach. Even better if you can do this at low tide during the middle of the day, so you get a clearer picture of the sand build up and areas of deeper water with the sun directly overhead.

Likewise, an elevated view will also allow you to see how close a back sandbank is to the shore, as indicated by waves breaking and spilling foam into the darker, greener water of the gutter. If you’re chasing fish like tailor or salmon, choosing a deep green gutter with a couple of entry points and a back bank within casting distance from the shore should give you a good shot at the fish if they are around.

Another consideration when reading the water is to work out how far the fishable water is to cast to, taking into consideration the tide when you plan to fish. It is no good picking out a great looking gutter at low tide if that same gutter is too far out to reach at high tide.

Other factors to consider include how close the deep water is to the beach, how steep the slope of the beach is, and the swell to determine whether you could reach it at high tide. Steeply shelving beaches tend to be fishable on both stages of the tide because they generally indicate the beach is dropping into deeper water.

Patches of rock are another key feature to look for along the beach. Isolated patches of rock will attract baitfish, barnacles and oysters, which in turn attract predators. These areas are particularly worth a fish when the beach has limited gutters or structure, or when the seas are flat.

If you are in a 4WD and driving along a beach looking for a likely spot, it’s a good idea to have your passengers ‘spotting’ gutters. Your passengers should also keep an eye out for schools of fish, which can appear as darker patches or flashes in the waves. These schools can be tailor or salmon and so are worth investigating.

If you live a long way away from your beach destination, and you want to hit the ground running, you can check out any webcams which might be located in the area you intend to fish. Coastalwatch.com has live camera streaming across a number of beaches across Australia. These not only give you an indication of where the good water is, but also how much activity is going on in that water, like swimmers and board riders spooking your fish, or making it hard to get a cast in.

BEACH CONDITIONS

Once you have found one or more of the locations above and are ready to fish, you might then be faced with some beach conditions that make life a bit tricky. This includes sweep, wind, swell and weed.

Sweep

Sweep (also referred to as longshore drift) is where the water is being pushed either north or south along the beach, and it’s caused by ocean currents or prevailing winds. Strong sweep can be very difficult to fish, so your best bet in these conditions is using a heavy star sinker on a paternoster rig, or fishing the downcurrent side of a rip or entrance of the gutter out to sea. For example, if the sweep is running towards the north and runs out to a rip, you should fish on the downcurrent or north side of the rip.

Wind and swell

Ideal beach conditions for most species of fish is when the surf is neither too heavy nor too light. Too much swell or wind and the baitfish (and the predators chasing them) will seek shelter elsewhere from the dumping waves and churned up sand. Too little swell or wind on the water, and the fish will be hesitant to come in close to shore, particularly during the daylight hours. This is because calm conditions reduce the overhead coverage of foam or ripples on the water, exposing the fish to attack.

Weed

Weed is another factor that can quickly spoil a beach angler’s day. There is no silver bullet when the weed is thick except to drive along the beach with a pair of quality polaroid sunglasses to spot patches of cleaner water. Either that or find another beach.

OTHER TRICKS AND TIPS

Most species of fish have peak seasons when they are much more prolific in a particular region. Find out what the best seasons are for the area you plan to fish, and focus your efforts on the species that you have the best chance of capturing at that time.

Being mobile is another key to sustained fishing success. Being mobile can mean either travelling from gutter to gutter in your 4WD before dusk until you find a patch of fish, or minimising the amount of gear you carry, so it’s no chore to walk from gutter to gutter.

Being mobile means carrying just your rod and reel and all the gear you need in a smaller backpack or shoulder bag. This should include water, a few spare rigs and small tackle box. If you are going to keep fish, bring a soft cooler bag inside your shoulder bag with a small amount of ice or small ice brick. It’s also a good idea to keep your shoulder bag wet and cool if you keep fish in it.

Many modern anglers like to mix it up, and on calm days walk and cast soft plastic lures in low tide using 7’+ light graphite rods and 2000-2500 spinning reels filled with 6lb braid.

Multiple outfits

At the other end of the scale, if you have a 4WD, or find a big isolated gutter on the beach that you are going to settle in at for the night, it can pay to increase your odds by having a couple of different rod and reel combinations. This allows you to fish one stage of the tide with one outfit and change to a heavier outfit for tailor or mulloway towards dusk in the deeper high tide water.

Another option I like, particularly when I have the luxury of having access to my 4WD, is to have a couple of outfits when chasing tailor. I will travel with a medium-heavy outfit for throwing big baits and sinkers if the tailor are patchy and I need to play a waiting game for the fish. This same outfit can convert to throwing big baits after dark for mulloway. In addition, I like to carry a long light graphite rod (12’+) and spinning reel filled with 15lb braid to throw lures when the action is a bit faster.

Times and tides

The change of light period (dawn and dusk) is the best time for species like tailor and salmon, while bigger fish like mulloway will tend to patrol the inner gutters under cover of darkness. For a more detailed article on night fishing, check out my article called ‘The rewards of fishing at night’

The ‘best’ tides vary for different species, and also according to the type and amount of water in the gutter. Sometimes a gutter can only fire up when there is enough water over the back bank or running in the entrance to bring the fish close to shore. At other times deeper water close to shore might only be accessible at low tide. For more information on this topic see my article ‘Best times and tides’

Berley

Finally, berley is a very much-underused technique on the beach and can really improve your results, especially when the fish are otherwise sparse. There are a few different ways to do it effectively.

One technique is to carry a bucket full of a concoction such as bran, chicken pellets, pieces of pilchards, sand and tuna oil. Soak it in water for a while and then throw out a couple of handfuls every few minutes to create a constant stream. A word of warning though, don’t do it when there is too much sweep about or you will take the fish away from you.

An easier alternative is just to slice up a few older pilchards and toss it into your gutter at a similar sort of rate. This can bring tailor and salmon in closer to shore, and even attract bottom feeders.

Last but not least, some serious beach anglers will stake in a large berley cage containing fish offal and frames, and allow the waves to wash it around. This is particularly popular on some of the remote southern beaches of Australia for anglers chasing snapper and giant mulloway. It’s a great option if you have the means, time and energy.

Enjoying the experience

Beach fishing is a wonderful way to get outside and enjoy nature, while also being great for your health. I hope these tips help you catch more fish in your local area or on your next holiday to the beach.

• For more tips and reports from the author, look up ‘Ontour Fishing Australia’ on Facebook.

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