Hot rocks for the hard days

By Bruce "Captain Swish" DuncanNZ Fishing World
Hot rocks for the hard days

Hey Swish, how did you get on?” “Bit slow but still got six nice snapper.”

“Bugger, we tried six spots and got Jack $#&% all day and yet you only went out for a few hours!”

It is the same thing I hear time and time again, especially over the winter months. Anglers frustrated at not landing a single fish all day or even getting a single decent bite.

Consistent success is just a matter of knowing where to target fish on any day, tide and wind direction.  

Planning tactics

Winter can be tough. Even during summer when the moon phase is bad or the wind and tides are all wrong, just getting the fish to open their mouths can be infuriating, let alone catching them.  

Yet it doesn’t have to be that way.  

The entire coastline of New Zealand is littered with rocks, reefs and very fishable shorelines, so always remember; habitat is where the fish is at.

Fish don’t simply disappear in winter or when the moon phase and conditions are wrong, they just act in a different way. Knowing where to anchor, how to set an effective berley trail and the best bait style given the conditions are the keys to success on the tough days.

The size and type of the habitat is the first and foremost component in the decision making process. After this the angler should consider the food sources and the level of protection fish can find in any given habitat. It’s also worth considering the location’s potential to hold a volume of fish.

A good look at a chart will give a fair indication of where to start looking for hidden hot rocks. Strong curves in the contour lines are a starting point, particularly when they almost envelop a sounding mark.

Knowing what to look for both above and below the water, as well as understanding the bottom type surrounding the target area, will help a skilled fisherman build a plan of attack.

What’s above the surface offers clues

By just looking at the shape and type of rock structure on any shoreline or headland as it leads down to the water’s edge can allow a fair idea of what the underwater structure near to the shore will be like.

Snapper holes showing where they have been feeding on the shellfish at low tide mark

As I have written previously, there are many advantages to checking out a particularly shallow spot at low tide. Often you can clearly see submerged rocks and kelp beds not visible at high tide. More importantly you can see where best to anchor to be able to cast baits into submerged structure, depending on the wind and tide.

Large areas of kelp-covered bottom structure, particularly where there are wide cracks and gutters promise a generous supply of natural food sources, such as limpets, crabs and snails. It is likely such locations hold reasonable populations of resident fish.

Looking to shore at high tide reveals little; it is best to do reconnaissance at low tide.

Explore and explore some more

Most fishing parties heading to and from their favourite fishing spots travel quickly in a straight line, yapping away to their mates without even bothering to look at the depth sounder. The number of new fishing opportunities they miss is astounding.

No matter how many times I have gone over the same ground, I always vary my course, keeping a close eye on the sounder at all times. There is a hell of a lot of small patches of foul or rough ground not marked on the chart.

These lesser bits of habitat are more valuable than Homer Simpson’s doughnuts. They never get fished and can produce the goods when every other known spot is failing.

Build a mental picture

When I locate small areas of foul or a rock, I spend time slowly surveying the surrounding area to understand the bottom type, marking the chart plotter as I go, planning my strategy and anchoring spot to allow for the current wind and tide direction.    

Good habitats are closer than you think. Success at these spots is just a timing issue.

One of the best places to find these unfished patches of foul in is deeper water outside of shipping or commercial traffic lanes, where they have been considered so small or low lying that they were of no navigational concern during the original survey.

In deeper water it is critically important to plan an anchoring strategy. As the target area gets smaller and the water gets deeper, precisely positioning the vessel over the structure becomes exponentially more difficult.

I like to build a mental map of the situation, including the estimated hang direction and current speed (best achieved by allowing the vessel to drift for a minute drawing a line on the chart plotter).

This complete-picture strategy has proven valuable when getting the anchor in the right place, first time.

Structure scan as a tool

One of the most valuable features of my depth sounder/chart plotter combo is structure scan, which enables you to see if the bottom is mud, sand or rock.

Having found some new structure I first mark the middle of the ground on the chart plotter. From the central point I work out in a variety of directions carefully noting and marking where the structure ends and becomes sand. 

Once the whole area is surveyed, including any high points, I now have a clear picture of the ground’s geography.

Knowing the surrounding bottom type of any spot you are targeting is important as I like to hold the boat on the shortest anchor warp as possible. This minimises the way the boat swings on the anchor, allowing me to keep in touch with the bait to detect even the smallest of bites.

More to think about

Targeting exposed reefs or partially exposed reefs requires an equal amount of time surveying. As mentioned above, accessing such a spot's full fishing potential is best done at low tide.  

Semi submerged reef structures will often have wave-formed channels that can allow more angles to fish with different wind and tide directions.

Dark colours indicate this is a resident fish living and feeding in the kelp. Find and mark tiny bits of foul like this that is not on the chart.

Building a comprehensive understanding of the different shapes of the reef give you the edge over others, especially if planning in advance for a shift in the wind or tide direction.

This ability to quickly re-anchor and continue fishing a spot in which you have invested plenty of berley, rather than having to trek off in search of a fresh location is gold – particularly if you are short of time.

Pattern recognition

Sound a bit complicated? Not at all.

Regular success is achieved by putting in plenty of effort over a long period of time. Pattern recognition is the key.

After long enough you’ll know exactly where to go and how to fish long before you leave the boat ramp. Even so, be prepared to be surprised every now and again.

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