Many fishermen fortunate enough to own a boat would seldom spare a thought of targeting large fish in the surf or any fish land based, demeaning this style of fishing for those without a vessel. Those that do partake in land based angling, often limit their options to the usual suspects, chasing salmon in the surf or pinkies off a pier. This kind of attitude towards a style of fishing that still has a relatively low participation rate is causing many fishermen to miss out on some of the most exciting fishing that they will experience. Attracting and hooking a large gummy or any targeted shark species in a boat is an exciting fishing experience, doing this in the surf at night with a five foot shore break crashing in front of you, with a 20 knot wind blowing a freezing South Westerly in your face with the light of your torch the only visual aid while you are trying to direct your partner armed with a gaff as to where the fish is enough to convert anyone. It is a challenging, very rewarding style of fishing that provides great sport fishing and a great feed if successful. Although this “how to” is based on targeting Gummy Sharks, many of the principles of it can be applied to surf fishing for any sharks on any beach they inhabit. Obviously if you preside on the Western or Northern coastlines of our country Sharks are a pest to you, however, our colder climate sharks are some of our most accessible game species and a Gummy or Bronze Whaler tastes a hell of a lot better up to 20 kilo than many warm climate species.
Where to find them
What you really need to be looking for is a an ocean beach with nice deep gutters or holes, don’t worry too much about what locals say or if you have never heard of a gummy shark being caught there before, if there is a gutter and the conditions are right, you have a good chance of getting a gummy. All the pictures in this article come from the same two spots and in six years of fishing both these spots for salmon during the day and gummy sharks at night, I have never seen another soul fishing them and they are both within a 90 minute drive from Melbourne. If you’re unfamiliar with any beach you are planning on fishing from, taking a day out when the sun is up to do a reconnaissance mission is a great idea. Targeting this species at night is your best chance of success so a bit of re-con the day before or so will familiarise you with whatever tracks you need to walk down and enable you to see the hole or gutters that are present. There are many ocean beaches that stretch along our southern coast that are home to some great holes and gutters, your best bet is to get out your map, gps or jump on google maps and suss out some beaches. Keep in mind though that these beaches change shape in and out of the water on a regular basis due to the hard ocean pounding they receive, so don’t expect the same hole you caught a fish in a few weeks ago to still be there! If you have absolutely no idea on how to recognise a gutter or a hole on a surf beach I highly recommend you do some serious research into them first, basically if your bait is not sitting in a gutter your chances of landing a gummy are pretty slim. There are Youtube clips that will show you how to read holes and gutters. As I said earlier your best bet at landing a gummy on a surf beach is at night. Gummies will use the cover of darkness as an advantage when on the hunt. Optimal conditions are not conducive with comfortable fishing so don’t expect to be landing fish on a still and gentle night. A big swell which generally comes along with a big wind will provide you with the best conditions, it will be cold and windy but you have a better chance of catching a shark or two and that’s why you are there. The combination of a rising tide and the big swell will push more water up the beach thus putting more water into holes nearer to the shore and deepening them to provide a more enticing feeding ground for a large shark. The deeper the water, the better! This big swell also rolls in and stirs up a lot of food which gets the whole food chain going.
When to target them
With any style of fishing you have to go when the conditions are right to achieve success and after many hours chasing gummies in the surf I think I have refined the “when” part pretty well.
You want to fish the rising tide, I have never had much luck on a falling tide. Have your bait in the water two hours before the high and keep fishing for two hours after. I have found most success within the first hour and right on the change.
Two days before the full moon and two days after, same goes with the new moon, I have found both cycles to be as successful as each other. Keep in mind though that moon phase is the least important aspect of the conditions, if you can see the other conditions all coming together-GO!
As discussed earlier you want a big swell, not stupid big, but big, I have never had a hint of a bite in calm conditions. If the swell has been rolling in heavy for a few days prior to the day you’re thinking about going, you may encounter your worst enemy-WEED! Weed is evil and will ruin your night, if you are experiencing enormous clumps of weed (that will weigh up to 50kg) pack up and go home!
The gear to properly do this style of fishing is slightly specialised. I have somewhat refined it over the years and this is what works best for me.
The right sinker in this style of fishing is integral to your setup and is as important as your rod, hook and reel. You need to be using 6 oz sinkers. You may think 6 oz is excessive but in order to fish those big swell conditions it’s the minimum weight to keep your bait from ending up back on the sand or half way down the beach. I prefer rocket style sinkers as they cast better and don’t bury deep in the sand the same way star sinkers do (which can be trouble). Grapple sinkers are ok and you can drop an ounce or two in weight, but I find by the time they settle and have held ground your bait can have moved from where you intended it to be. Bomb sinkers are probably your next best option if you cant get Rocket sinkers.
Your rod is one of the most important aspects of your set up. You need a rod that is greater than 11 feet in length and that can cast weight in excess of 6oz! It needs to be rated at 15-24kg. There are not many rods off the shelf that will do this but they are out there and most of the major rod companies have at least one. If you want this style of rod I highly recommend you visit a proper tackle store and don’t go to BCF or K Mart. The guys at a tackle store will understand what you’re trying to do and will probably have something to suit your budget. You need a rod of this length and casting ability as you will be needing to cast six oz sinkers plus a big bait and you need to cast them distance to reach those holes and gutters. You may find this difficult at first but you will get the hang of it eventually-practice makes perfect. I prefer a rod with a fast taper, it aids in setting the hook and is better to fight and control the fish, remember, you’re fighting the fish, the current, the waves and maybe some weed too. You will also be fighting enormous and very annoying bi-catch such as skates, sting rays and eagle rays-these ocean based specimens can be ridiculously big and will try to spool you so you need to put some hurt on them!
I find a 4500 size reel to be ideal, the smaller spool size of a 4500 as opposed to a 6000 or 6500 greatly aids in casting distance and balances nicely with modern, light-weight graphite surf rods. There are a heap of dedicated surf reels on the market these days in both overhead and spin and they are all pretty good with spool designs that aid in casting distance, however, a reel with a good drag that can withstand the most punishable fishing conditions you can imagine is what you want. Your reel will fall in the sand, cop a heap of salt spray and get bait and gunk on it! Reels with a separate free spool function to your fight drag are very convenient as you can set the free spool and easily walk back to where you are standing on the beach after you have made your cast.
Line, shock leader, leader/rig
I will not fish any less than 24kg and I fish braid. You need 24kg to fight the pests and the greater abrasion resistance it offers, you will be constantly working your drag to suit conditions so 24kg is a safe bet. I then tie a shock leader of 60-80lb mono to my braid via an Improved Albright knot, I run the shock leader twice my rod length ensuring that there are a few good wraps around my spool. The shock leader is important for a few reasons, it aids in abrasion resistance from the elements and the sharks rough skin, provides some stretch to shake the shock of casting such heavy weight, the initial strike and the general fight conditions, it also wont cut your finger like braid does on the cast. I tie my shock leader to my main rig via a barrel swivel to an 80-100lb mono dropper loop rig of about 70-80cm in length (if you don’t know the dropper loop knot youtube it). I dress my dropper loop with lumo beads, don’t go too crazy, just use a few. As an extra precaution I tie my sinker to the end of the dropper loop rig as a breakaway, there have been times where I have lost great fish due to my trailing sinker becoming snagged during the fight so now I would much prefer to lose my sinker rather than my fish! To do this I tie a swivel to the end of the dropper loop and tie 20lb mono from the swivel to the sinker.
Hooks and drag
This rig and set up is all based around the use of circle hooks. You should have your drag set at around 4-5kg with a good quality circle hook of about 8/0 or 9/0. As you’re using big thick baits (I’ll get to that) you want a big hook with a wide gape to ensure maximum penetration when the fish strikes. 4kg of drag is about enough to efficiently set the hook and you can adjust if necessary, you’ll be surprised how much 5kg of drag with a fast tapered 12 foot rod can hurt when fighting on the sand! I also shrink heat all my hooks when fishing for sharks, sharks don’t like metal and that sixth sense they have seems to be able to detect it well, covering up all metal bits definitely improved my catch rate.
Bait and berley
My favourite and most successful bait is without a doubt fresh squid. It stays on the hook and gummy sharks love it. Don’t use old frozen squid, catch it your self or buy it fresh from the market. The other most successful bait I have used is tuna belly flap and fresh Australian salmon fillets. Cured eel, cuttle fish, octopus and other fish fillets have never been very successful in the surf. I strongly am against berley, I believe it just brings pests and maybe helps out the bloke 100 metres down the beach. If you have a fresh a bait out and a gummy is in the vicinity, it will find it. Remember to use big baits, don’t be shy, big baits catch big fish!
The fight and landing the fish
After you cast your bait into the gutter or hole you have found it’s time to set your rod in a good rod holder that is at least a metre in length. Be sure your line is tight and that the sinker has set in the sand nicely, there will be rod movement from the waves but you will see the rod move slightly in conjunction with the sound and sight of the swell crashing. Use a glow stick on the tip of your rod so you can see what is happening to your bait and patiently wait for that strike! The first hit from even a five kilo gummy will be huge and your whole rod will aggressively buckle over, often the whole rod holder will go over if you’re not quick enough. Remember to keep calm and don’t strike as you’re using circle hooks. Be patient and expect that the shark could run in towards you so wind and don’t give it any slack. Depending on size, gummies in the surf can have multiple runs and even sit out deep, just be patient. Have your mate ready with the gaff and spotlight and look for that dorsal fin. Don’t be too rushed to gaff the fish, let it do it’s thing and time it with the waves, if he is out of reach in shallow water make sure your drag is not too tight as gummies will have an explosive last run and use the receding waves to aid them. The angler doesn’t need to get his feet wet but the guy on the gaff may have to. Always gaff from behind the leader and keep an eye on the water. Be sure to be wearing a head lamp and have a nice long gaff and this whole scenario will be a very exciting, noisy adrenaline rush! Once that gummy is safe and up on the sand it is an awesome feeling. Bleed the shark and enjoy. Remember that although you have your feet firmly planted on the ground, the same caution should be taken with this style of fishing as what you would rock fishing. Ocean beaches have extremely strong currents and unpredictable waves, don’t turn your back on the water and don’t ever wear waders, if you go over in waders you may never come back.
It all may sound like a lot to take in but it’s all pretty simple, the hardest part is casting the heavy weight big distances to reach those gutters but it doesn’t take all that long to master.