Fish like the interaction between land and sea and this means the shore wash zone can deliver some excellent results. Story by Laurie and Julie McEnally
Anywhere along the coast that has an active surf washing over rocky shores, headlands, bommies or islands, will hold good table fish. Fish are drawn to these areas because of the amount of food available. Usually the deeper the water near the wash, the more likely it is to hold good fish. The fish species vary enormously around the continent, but the fishing technique remains fairly standard no matter what area is being worked. Only the tackle and rigs change to suit the species being handled. Each area has its challenges and by the process of elimination the best wash fishing areas can be quickly established in most areas.
Where to Fish
The best spots are the deep edges of headlands and cliffs, offshore bommies and reefs that have a breaking surf, and the wash areas of offshore islands. These areas are rich in bait fish, cunjevoi, sea urchins, crabs, octopi and other fishy foods including seaweeds for the herbivores. The activity of the ocean wash provides a constant movement of food in the area and the highly oxygenated water activates the fish and provides ideal conditions for them. The turbulent water and the combination of weeds and rocks also provides cover for a huge range of fish. For many species, personal safety is far more important than food and the rocky washes provide an excellent habitat.
Choice of Styles
For the fisherman seeking to exploit these surroundings, the options are very wide, though the usual tackle required in most situations is simple, but fairly strong. A rod and reel from 2.2 to 3 m and capable of throwing a range of weights, is the basis for most spots. Good casting is necessary in many locations. The rod should have a light tip but plenty of strength in the middle and butt sections. The reel can be either a threadline or sidecast rig fitted with 6 to 10 kg line. Many bottom fish that inhabit the wash areas are keen on reefing the angler, so it pays to use tackle that can be persuasive on tough fish.
A second outfit can be a little lighter for handling pan-sized fish like bream, tailor, trevally, sweep, leatherjacket and all manner of bits and pieces up to a kilogram or so. A single-handed casting rod is fine for this rig, with line from 3 to 5 kg. To complement the range of options, a couple of handlines are always useful. One should be light, in the 6 to 10 kg class and the other can be 'brutal' in the 40 to 60 kg class. The handlines are very successful on a range of fish and are the top tool for floating baits down a berley trail. The heavy line can be set to handle some of the very big fish that turn up frequently in wash areas. Mulloway, snapper, cod, kingfish, cobia, samson, sweetlips, coral trout and others, all need solid tackle to stop them quickly and get them to the boat.
Planning the Attack
The way the system works is to find a likely area that can be fished safely. Care should be taken to moor the vessel close to the wash but not in a position where it will drift or be blown into the surf zone. This usually means picking a spot which allows the boat to lay alongside the wash, rather than lying directly in the path of the waves. Skilled use of the wind, current and sea direction can help with boat positioning. A good heavy anchor and chain are needed to both hold the boat and smooth the rise and fall of the boat once it is moored. Both sand and reef anchors should be carried, as it is sometimes necessary to drop anchor over sand and then position the vessel near the rocks. Short pronged reef anchors provide the best grip over hard bottom.
Once the boat is securely moored, a berley trail is started and lines can be set for a variety of species. The berley can be any mixture of bread, fish, pilchards or whatever can be obtained. Berley is often the key to big catches and in getting fish to bite. It is almost essential in this form of angling and the more the better. With the boat in position and the berley trail established, the real fishing gets started. Baits vary with the species expected, but include pilchards, fish strips, cunjevoi, prawns, squid and live baits of various kinds. For many qualify fish like tailor, salmon, trevally, cod, snapper, big bream, kingfish, mulloway and tropical reef species, a well rigged pilchard on a ganged hook rig is hard to beat. This bait can be fished with or without a small sinker, depending on conditions and the casting distance needed.
The bait is usually retrieved slowly, after being allowed to sink a little. A short 45 cm track of 20 kg nylon is handy on this rig to lift fish aboard and protect from cut-offs. The track should be joined to the main line by a small swivel. The same rig can also be cast away from the boat on the seaward side and allowed to float around in the current. This may not produce as many fish, but it does score some good ones at times.
Strip baits of cut tuna, bonito or other small fish can be floated in the berley trail for whatever comes looking for a feed. These strips should be about the size of the little finger and cut neatly to make it easy for the fish to swallow. Strip baits are fished either with the light rod or handline and a minimum of lead right on the hook. The line is paid out as the bait drifts down the berley trail. When a fish takes the bait, it will start to move off and a little line is fed out to make sure the hook is well down. Then the reel is put into gear and the hook set.
Using Live Baits
Live bait can be set for large fish on either a heavy handline or a sturdy rod and reel outfit. The number of medium to large fish that take live bait, even in shallow water, always makes this style of fishing worthwhile. The bait is usually anything that will fit on the hook - yellowtail, slimy mackerel, tailor, trevally, pike, sweep, whiptail or anything else under 250 grams in weight. Live baits can also be set on the surface for anything that might happen to swim past.
The live bait rig is usually fished straight under the boat to stop it snagging and to keep it away from the other gear. A 7/0 or 8/0 size 92554 Suicide hook is used with a 1 m nylon trace to a swivel with a 100 gram barrel sinker running on the main line. This gear is lowered to the bottom and set with the sinker about 2 m off the ocean floor.
A number of specialised fish species also live in the wash areas and while the general tactics work well, a few extra rigs and tricks may be needed to land leatherjacket, drummer, groper and others. Leatherjackets are hard to catch because of their very small mouths and beak-like teeth. The rig for them is No 4 longshank hooks, rigged on droppers with the sinker right on the bottom. Best baits are prawn and squid. The rig is fished right on the bottom with plenty of lead. As soon as the grating bite of the leatherjacket is felt, the line is lifted sharply hooking the fish. This style of fishing is most effective with a handline. The same rig is also good on sweep and other fish in southern waters.
Drummer and groper can be caught around washes by casting baits of crab, prawn or abalone gut right into the white water sections of the break. Usually a sturdy rock fishing type rod with 10 to 15 kg line is used, much the same as off the stones. Plenty of bread berley will help get the drummer biting. This is no nonsense fishing with tough fish in rough country. There are no beg pardons. When the fish is hooked, it is bullied out of the white water and then fought to the boat. Both drummer and groper are only too happy to reef an unsuspecting angler.
There are small tasty items available in the washes too. Garfish are very common in the berley trail and can be caught with unweighted baits and small hooks. Squid are also found in many areas and are best taken with a pilchard impaled on a multi-hook squid jag, or with a squid lure like the Yozuri prawn.
Like rock fishing, most of the shallow-water action happens early in the morning or at dusk and then into the night. To be successful demands very early starts and plenty of berley to get the fish biting and keep them interested. Night fishing should only be undertaken by anglers who have fished the spot by day and know its moods. Knowing the underwater geography is very important too. This simple style of fishing needs only an observant eye and the willingness to try various spots until consistent producers are located. Wash fishing is fun and it is often available when other types of offshore angling are out. It can be enormously productive too, with good catches available on a wide range of species. All this, plus the economy of fishing close to shore, makes it a good way to procure a feed of fish.