Surf fishing is awesome. You don’t need to be a master angler to go home with a decent catch and there’s plenty of opportunity to make it as involved or relaxed as you like – whether you want to cast and retrieve with soft plastics all day or just cast out your bait, whack the rod in its holder, sit back on the beach and sip on a cold one is entirely up to you.
But if you’re heading out for the first time, there are a few common mistakes that when avoided, can vastly improve your chances of catching a fish.
Mistake 1: Don't watch the tides
Heading out for a fish at lunchtime on a sunny summer’s day, just because that’s when you feel like going, is rarely going to be a terrible idea. But keep in mind, your optimal conditions are quite different to a fish’s.
There are also a lot more swimmers and other beach-goers around in the middle of the day which can make it difficult to find a spot to cast your line. While there's no law to say you can't fish near swimmers, it's better for everyone if you give them a wide berth.
There is much debate about the best time to fish, but most anglers seem to agree that low light periods around a high tide are the best times for catching fish and these tend to be even better around a full moon.
Whether you head out early in the morning or wait until evening is largely down to personal preference. But if you want to give yourself the best chance of coming home with dinner, look for a high tide around dusk or dawn and head out to meet it. Tide times can be looked up by location on most weather apps or at the Bureau of Meteorology.
Cloudy days are also good for fishing as these conditions extend the periods of low light and reduce shadows and line visibility that can spook the fish. Of course, you do have to ask yourself – if I spend a beautiful sunny day fishing on the beach and go home with nothing, is that a problem? It’s a question only you can answer.
Catching more fish isn’t the only perk to getting out there early
Mistake 2: Choose a spot at random
Fish aren’t evenly distributed throughout the surf like some kind of delicious sashimi blanket, so choosing a spot because it’s close to the car, for example, is not going to serve you well when it comes to catching fish.
Most species of fish congregate in areas that provide shelter and food. So look for deep gullies and drop offs that have a decent amount of water flowing into them (a pair of polarised sunnies can make these a lot easier to spot). Rocks, seaweed beds and other structures also provide shelter for fish and often make for good fishing.
If you can find a combination of the above elements, it’s likely you’re onto a winning spot. It’s also worth keeping in mind that if the gutter is only a few meters out, there’s no point casting out as far as you can. You want to cast into the gutter – not over it – even if that means you’re only casting a little way out.
You really don’t want one of these guys on the end of your line
Mistake 3: Ignore seabirds
Snapper and tailor love pilchards, bream and whiting are mad for squid. Unfortunately, seagulls, and most other seabirds, also love these things. If you’re a first time surf angler, getting a seabird hooked on a treble-gang hook as it tries to make off with your pilchard can be a distressing experience for angler and bird alike.
There is no cure-all solution for this problem but it is far less likely to happen if you’re aware of the birds around you. Don’t go casting you’re freshly-baited hook past a flock of hungry gulls and you’re far more likely to get it where you want it to go.
If you are unlucky enough to hook a bird, the best solution is to slowly and gently reel your line in until the bird is a few metres away. Then put a cloth over its head to calm it. If you put your hand across the bird’s back you can stop it flapping its wings and hurting itself further by applying gentle pressure (it also won’t be able to peck your hand in this position). Don’t yank out the hook. Cut off the barb and slide it out. Make sure the bird is free of all fishing line before releasing it.
Just cutting the line with the bird still hooked can leave the bird tangled and susceptible to drowning, starvation and predator attack.
Fishing off the rocks can be great if you know what you’re doing, but perilous if you don’t
Mistake 4: casting off rocks
Casting off rocks can be difficult, even for experienced anglers. The water can rise unexpectedly and knock your feet out from under you which can be really dangerous. But not only that, if you don’t cast in the right direction the waves can wash your tackle into the rocks leaving you snagged.
There’s no doubt that fishing off rocks can be great for getting your bait out further than you can from the beach and close to where the fish are, but if you’re not sure what you’re doing you are likely to just get your line snagged or get into trouble.
Your best bet is to wait until you are comfortable fishing from the beach before attempting to head out onto the rocks. As the saying goes – there are plenty of fish in the sea.
Mistake 5: use any old gear
While there’s no need to go out and spend a mint on the best fishing gear available, you do need to make sure the gear you’re using is suitable for surf fishing. Surf rods are longer than other rods because they need to get your bait out further than in other environments like a river or off a boat. If you head out with a rod that isn’t up to the task, you’re going to be in for a frustrating day of fishing.
It’s also worth working out what species of fish you’ll be targeting and the best tackle, bait or lure and rig for that species. Different species of fish feed differently – some feed off the bottom of the water and some feed off the top – so it’s of utmost importance that you get your bait to where they’re feeding and the right rig will help you do this. For a detailed guide, check out Fishing Gear for Beginners.