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A beginner's guide to fishing from the rocks

December 19, 2019
A beginner's guide to fishing from the rocks

You are faced with hiking over a steep hill to reach a rock platform, but what gear should you carry? How do you work the berley and how do you catch bait for livies? Is it worth casting lures from the rocks? An expert answers the questions and explains how to make time spent on the rocks more productive. With hundreds of kilometres of coast line, plenty of access and lots of outdoor-loving Kiwis it is not surprising fishing from the shore is such a popular pastime.

We are incredibly fortunate to enjoy a country where you are never more than a day trip away from the ocean or some body of water that contains fish.

Fishing from the shore is every man’s opportunity, whether it is a lazy Sunday afternoon dangle at a local wharf or a mission for mega snapper and kingfish at some wild and isolated distant destination.

There have been many articles written on the subject, for beginners and advanced fishermen, and the focus of this article is a collection of tips and approaches to get you thinking about how you go about your fishing – and many are applicable to the boat fisherman as well.

Even though the saying ‘there is nothing new under the sun’ has its element of truth so, too, is the saying, ‘you learn something new every day’.  

Tackle to use

I am a great fan of versatility. I love to refine my gear to fewer outfits that can cover more situations, and when I am carrying tackle a long way I consider carefully what needs to be included and what needs to be left behind.

Work the berley when things get slow and you can attract fish like this school of snapper

For chasing sport fish from the rocks or shore you could get away with two rods. The first is a 15-24kg rod approximately 2-2.4 metres long with guides designed for an overhead reel, paired with two suitable reels – one spooled with 15kg line (e.g. Daiwa SLX50/Sl50SH) and one spooled with 24kg (e.g. Shimano TLD20 or TLD25). This covers the bigger fish like kingfish, sharks and large snapper.

The second outfit could be a rod of around 2.4 metres, rated 10-15kg with a fixed spool reel loaded with 10kg line and a spare spool carrying 15kg (e.g. Penn 850ss, Okuma VS80).

This is not a rule but a recommendation that will cover most situations you are likely to encounter.

Sneaking in a light 3-4kg braid outfit would be possible without adding much weight and it would add a few more light tackle options. I have recently been experimenting with a popper rod like a Daiwa Monster Mesh, rated for 27-37kg line, and a reel spooled with 15kg mono.

It works well, casting lures and baits a reasonable distance with 15kg mono, then I can switch to heavier line in situations when I need to pull out the big guns.

Keep fish fresh

A few years ago I was given a Penguin brand rod bag, and having used it on a fair number of trips have found it to be a good asset, protecting the rod guides from getting smashed. It does add a bit of weight but now that I have a few custom rods that I like to fish with, I am a bit more mindful of the value of what I am pulling through the bush or hauling over the rocks.

This snapper rose to salmon berley, and the white particles visible in the photo and add to the attraction.

I recently discovered another use for the rod bag and that is as a fish cover for keeping the catch cool. Most rock fishermen find a rock pool and dump their fish in, hoping they won’t go off. Trying to pack in the extra ice and somehow try and contain the fish is difficult.

The rod cover material is also used for insulating catch bags (also manufactured by Penguin), so it works well protecting the catch from the sun. The best way to do this is to cover the rock pool – and or fish – with a gap between the fish and the cover so that air can circulate. This helps keep the fish cooler than if they were just in the pool.

Storing hooks

A tip for keeping hooks rust free; often I buy the hooks in plastic packets that have a paper insert detailing brand, size etc. Using one hook and putting it back in the packet after salt water use often means the others start to rust as well.

I now take out the paper insert and soak it with oil. Rinsing in freshwater and drying the hook before putting it back in the packet is also a good idea.

Good quality hooks are getting more expensive and looking after them means more cash for other toys.  

Striking the fish

The strike is the first point of contact with your target. Bait fishing for snapper and other species is not always the same when it comes to the strike, and changing your approach with the species and feeding behaviour will maximise your hook-ups.

Land-based fishing is my game and 15kg is a good all round rig to carry for large snapper and small kingfish, either fishing bait or casting lures.

Snapper will often be the smash and grab type, but I have also found they are good at crushing their food and spitting out the unwanted shells and other inedible pieces. This means soft bait like a pilchard can be crushed and the hook quickly expelled before the fisherman has a chance to strike.

If you are losing your bait and it takes a few seconds to be eaten, you can try and let it run with the bait before striking, however if this doesn’t work then strike as soon as you feel the slightest nibble.

I have hooked remarkably large snapper trying this, and sometimes it was actually a different species than I first realised, like a trevally sucking the bait.

Kahawai often like a small nibble before running with the bait and if you have seen kahawai in the berley trail and want a live bait, raise the rod steadily on the bite until the weight comes on and hopefully this will hook it in the mouth as it turns rather than swallowing and damaging the gills.

Extra hook

One other tip here, if you have small fish stealing the bait attach a small hook to a 20cm length of light line, tie it to the swivel or loop in your leader and target the small and larger fish at the same time.

It’s an easy way to catch a jack mackerel or mullet for extra bait or a live bait without having to change your rig or set up a different outfit.

Snapper will take lures like this Slashbait when it is retrieved with pauses and jerks.

It also helps identify what species are attacking your larger baits.  

Work the berley

If fishing is slow, work the berley. Berley is probably your best tool for increasing your catch, and the more consistent and smelly your trail the better the chances are of attracting fish to your possie.

Salmon berley is particularly good at achieving this as it has a very strong oil content and its white flakes of fish are highly visible in the water. A can of cat food mixed into a bucket and scooped like soup is also a good approach.

Cast a lure

Lure fishing has surged and waned in popularity over the years, and soft bait fishing aside there are more lures on the market now worth trying. Metal lures like Ticers, Stingsildas, Raiders and Grim

It is worth changing the treble hooks on minnow-type lures like this Slashbait to protect fingers.
This kingfish received a treble ‘tattoo’ on its cheek as well as hooks in its mouth.

Reapers are especially good for the common kahawai and other species like kingfish and snapper are also catchable, but quality minnow type lures will consistently catch more non-kahawai species. Rapala CD’s (count down) lures have been around for a long time, with Slashbaits and Subwalk lures being developed in recent times.

They are more expensive compared to the metal lures, but they can provoke strikes when metals fail.

On a recent trip I spent a fair amount of time spinning for a live bait with a metal lure, and couldn’t entice a kahawai with a berley trail but then managed to score one with a minnow lure. It’s worth working the water in front of you beyond what your berley trail can reach, as it can draw strikes and or bring fish into your fishing zone.  

The Rapala Slashbait is a good all round lure, as snapper and kings seem to like them as much as kahawai. I noticed snapper especially will hit them just at your feet, and several small kingfish grabbed them close in and further out.

One consideration is changing the hooks from trebles to singles, and some guys tape two singles together. Trebles need special care as a thrashing fish and sharp treble hooks find soft fingers faster than a king snaffling a live piper.

Fishing the lure with erratic jerks and pauses helps draw more strikes, rather than just a straight retrieve. Experiment with the retrieve, and I would recommend using 15kg line
as all sizes of fish like to eat them.

These months leading into winter typically discourage the smaller fish hanging around, with larger fish being more predominant when they turn up. Try these tips where applicable, work them into your fishing approach and it could be the one thing done differently that reaps rewards.

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