Angling techniques used from our wave-lashed rock platforms can be crude or complex. In this sort of environment, the old-timer with a beat up 20-year-old Alvey might catch a lot more fish than a young chum armed with the latest and greatest in tackle technology.
Success on the stones can’t be bought with expensive gear but it can be brought about with the right gear for the job.
When I was a young bloke just starting out on the stones I didn’t have a lot to go by. A few old books like the Angler’s Omnibus were full of information but a lot of that was written back in the 1960s when fish were plentiful and hungry. The rock fishing approach back then leaned heavily towards very long rods, thick line and big hooks.
That sort of thing may have worked back then and, yes, some of it still applies today, but like many other forms of fishing, we have to do it a bit smarter these days to catch a feed or have some fun.
My early times on the rocks were spent at Norah Head and Avoca on the Central Coast. Early attempts at drummer fishing were pretty dismal but it wasn’t too hard to catch pelagics like bonito, rat kings and mack tuna from the huge Avoca platform.
Back then it was all mono line. Schneider, Maxima, Tortue and Fisherman Brand lines were the most popular rock lines because they were (and still are ) tough and highly abrasion-resistant. My favourite quickly became the cheap, tough and versatile Schneider.
My first spinning outfit for Avoca was a black ABU 7000 C overhead spooled up with 7kg Schneider and matched to a 9’ cheapie rod that did the job. However, the outfit lacked the speed for spinning up the bonito.
That problem was rectified by my first big Mitchell 499. The old Mitchell was heavy but could match it in the speed department with the Aussie-made Seascape reels that ruled the roost at Avoca.
Nylon mono lines like Schneider are not only tough, they have the perfect degree of stretch for a lot of rock applications. Too much stretch on the stones means the hook may not be forced into a bony mouth properly when you strike. Once hooked up, a really stretchy line might allow the fish to reach the cover of reef or thick kelp.
Too little stretch and then more stress is forced onto knots, swivels and a fish’s mouth. Fish that fight erratically, jump a lot or do the shakes can throw a hook much easier with low-stretch or non-stretch lines.
While braids may be the flavour of the decade for a lot of fishing, they aren’t always the best thing on the stones. The non-stretch factor is the first point to look at.
I soon realised braid wasn’t the best thing to use for high-speed spinning when the hook-up rate on bonito and kings fell short of what it was with mono.
Once hooked, bonito are very zappy and do a lot of rattling around and without the stretch of mono, a lot of them simply fell off.
The jumping and head-shaking antics of tailor and salmon are the same. They simply shake the hooks out easier with non-stretch braid.
On the other hand, the finer diameter of braid does allow for longer casts on threadline gear and it’s great when making longer casts into churned-up surf hurling baits for bream. The bites are much easier to detect and bream don’t fight with a series of head shakes or acrobatics.
Braids also have their place when drummer fishing with medium to light threadline tackle. When I switched over to using 14lb Fireline for pigs, I simply screwed up the drag and as soon as a drummer was hooked, I just wound in as fast as I could, trying not to let the fish turn its head and gain traction.
I landed more drummer on ‘light-ish’ tackle and the fewer bust-ups were more spectacular, anyway.
So it’s worth considering braid for some of your rock fishing but it’s often best to stick with mono like Schneider or Maxima for the majority of rock applications.
A common mistake in all forms of angling is to go too heavy in the sinker department. This is especially so when it comes to rock fishing.
I always remember the day at Wybung Head when I started pulling some good bream out of the north-eastern gutter in the middle of the day. Not much was biting at Wybung that day so ripping out half a dozen big bream in 20 minutes gained the attention of a few other rockhoppers. Two of them come over and fished next to me.
The poor fellows must have become frustrated as I quickly extracted more bream while the best they could do was snag up on the reefy bottom. If only they would have lost some weight by replacing their bigger ball sinkers with the tiny size 0 I was using.
One of the most universal rock rigs for bream, drummer, groper and trevally is simply a small ball sinker sliding on the line down to the hook. Hook size may be a No 2 for bream, the same thing in double strength for pigs or a larger 4/0 or 6/0 for groper. Suitable ball sinkers range from the minuscule size 00 through to a size 3 or 4 at the most.
In the majority of cases, a size 0 or 1 is right on the mark for bream in slight sea conditions.
Even when throwing whole pilchards on ganged hooks, it can pay to fish with the lightest sinker you can get away with. A lightly weighted or unweighted pillie will appear much more natural to the fish, resulting in more hook ups.
Another way to avoid snags when fishing over reef is to use a float. The most common type of rock fishing with floats is done by those chasing blackfish or luderick, who drift small cabbage baits over reef or under foamy whitewater. Generally this is done with running stem floats, although some may prefer small styrofoam or cork bobby floats.
I prefer stem floats because I can see them easier in the water, particularly from a distance. The beauty of a small bobby float, though, is that they are relatively cheap – which is a good thing for rock fishing, which takes its toll on terminal gear.
A dynamite rig for bream, drummer and trevally involves a small bobby float, weighted by a small ball sinker running down to a little black swivel, followed by a trace of around 45 cm and a No 4 to 1/0 hook.
The depth this rig should be set at depends on the area to be fished, although 2m or 3m is a good starting point. This set-up is very effective for drifting baits like bread, cunje or peeled prawns over snaggy reef or kelp.
Those seeking tailor or salmon can also benefit from a similar rig. This time things are beefed up a bit, with a larger styrofoam float, a trace of 7kg to 15kg mono and a set of ganged hooks. This system also works perfectly at night if you stick a small cyalume light stick in the top of the float to see when a fish takes the bait.
Places like Avoca on the Central Coast and Blacksmiths Wall near Swansea are alive with these lights when the tailor are biting well at night.
Through much of this article I’ve emphasised rigs that get your bait off the bottom, away from the snags. There are, however, times when a bottom bait is the way to go.
Over shallow, sandy spots, particularly at the end of a long beach, a bait set on the bottom will interest bream, tailor, salmon and jewfish.
A good all-round rig to tackle these species is the good old pilchard on a set of gangs. Again, a short trace of around 7kg to 15kg mono should be enough protection against tailor teeth.
A larger ball sinker, that you can get a decent cast with, runs freely above the trace. In most cases a size 5 or 6 sinker should do the job, although a heavier 7 or 8 may be required in a pounding surf.
An older style rig that works well on groper in kelpy areas is a paternoster set-up, with a spoon sinker at the bottom of the rig and a short dropper trace about half a metre above. The lot is connected via a brass ring or three-way swivel.
You don’t see many anglers using such a rig these days but it’s a good option that will get a bait down to the bottom while minimising the chance of getting snagged.
Groper: 3/0 to 7/0 Mustad 542, Mustad Big Gun, Gamakatsu Octopus, Gamakatsu Live Bait
Bream: No4 to 1/0 Mustad 540, Mustad 540NPBLN, Gamakatsu Baitholder, Gamakatsu Octopus
Drummer: No 4 to 1/0 Mustad 542, Mustad 540NPBLN, Gamakatsu Octopus
Luderick: No 10 to No 6 Mustad Needle Sneck, Mustad 4190, Mustad 540, Gamakatsu Panfish
Tailor: 3/0 to 5/0 Mustad 4202D, Mustad 34007, Gamakatsu Gangster
Salmon: 2/0 to 5/0 Mustad 4202D, Gamakatsu Octopus, Gamakatsu Gangster
A lot of people make the mistake of using wire to fish for tailor. There’s certainly no need for wire when casting metal lures and heavy mono will do the job when using ganged hooks and pillies.
Salmon respond to a wide range of techniques. One of the more reliable ways to catch sambos is with pilchard baits, either fished whole on a set of ganged hooks or as cut baits on a single hook, in this case a size 2/0 Gamakatsu Octopus.