Beach spinning for salmon

Watching the first sliver of morning sun filter through the low orange clouds, I cast the lure into the gently crashing surf. Letting the lure sink for a second and clicking the bail arm over, I began the retrieve with a sense of calm anticipation. After a few winds of the reel, the lure was back near the surface and I could just make it out between the waves, splashing and glinting seductively in the warm glow of the easterly sun. Almost as if summoned, there was an explosion of foamy whitewater behind the lure. The fish had missed the hooks! I slowed the retrieve slightly to let the lure sink under the water’s surface, and instantly felt the telltale thud of a big salmon as it engulfed the lure. The rod loaded up and I struck firmly to set the trebles. The fish had a blistering run before resorting to sitting side-on in the strong rip. I could tell it was a decent fish by the slow, thumping headshakes getting transferred through the rod to my trembling hands. Suddenly the fish was off again, this time jumping twice in quick succession and thrashing its head around. The image of the fish jumping high in the dawn sun,  light catching the scales and flared gills of the fish, the lure flinging wildly from the fish’s mouth, will be difficult to forget.  After some slower runs, I had the fish behind the beach breakers. Waiting for a wave, I tightened the drag slightly and eased the fish up the beach.

One of my favourite styles of fishing is spinning for salmon off the beach. There is something special about being out in the elements trying to outsmart this awesome Australian sportfish. It can be quite meditative at times, as well as being good for one’s fitness. Apart from being a heap of fun, particularly on super-light gear, it can provide some hugely underrated fillets of fish packed with healthy omega oils. This article will explore some of the techniques and lessons I have learnt over the years and hopefully provide the beginner with enough to catch a few fish and give the experienced angler  a few new tips to help them get an edge when the fishing is difficult.

But firstly, a little bit about the Australian salmon. Arripis trutta, being their scientific name, are a streamlined pelagic species that spends much of its time on ocean beaches and around rocky headlands. They are built for preying on small baitfish, with a set of small, raspy teeth. However, they are an opportunistic hunter, and feed on crabs, prawns, worms, and a variety of other morsels. They are not related to the true Atlantic salmon, and were named for a vague resemblance to their northern hemisphere counterparts. Salmon stocks were fished extremely heavily during the 70s and 80s and crashed during the 90s. Luckily, some smart decisions were made to ban commercial netting for the species, which was predominantly used for cat food at the time, and the stocks have rebounded. Now, catching salmon year-round is the norm, although you will generally only come across the bigger schools in winter. I’m not entirely sure of the current regulations for commercial fishing, but I think they are getting fished again in some areas and I’ve seen them showing up at fish markets here and there. Some argue that the stocks are too high, resulting in an unnatural balance of predator/prey species. I’m not sure about this, so let’s get stuck into talking about fishing!

As is the case with most fish, first you need to find the structure. Salmon usually hang around in beach gutters that are open to the ocean at some point. This enables them to enter and exit the gutter safely. A gutter is essentially a deeper section of water constrained by a sandbar at the back and possibly a shallower channel at one or both ends. Often there will be a pattern of gutters along a beach. Finding a gutter is probably the most critical element to successful spinning for salmon off the beach.  Sometimes you will find fish in the absence of a gutter, but it’s far less common. Other structures include holes, which are often found at one end of gutters, and channels, which may only be fishable at high tide and are essentially small gutters. The most desirable pattern is a series of channels, which open up into gutters, which in turn open out to holes. Often the holes indicate that a rip is taking water back out into the ocean, sometimes indicated by foamy water extending out the back of the surf.

From left to right: sand flat, channel, gutter (middle of picture), hole with rip out the back. Most of the fish will come from the small area adjacent to the sandbar at the back of the gutter, in between the gutter and the hole. However, this is a low-energy situation and on this day, the fish werent there. When conditions are like this, it might pay to focus on dawn or dusk.

The wave and wind conditions are important factors influencing success. Some days I will arrive at the top of the dunes, have a look at the conditions, and walk away. If there is no wave action whatsoever, or if the sea is huge or choppy and foamy, it will be far harder to catch fish. There are a few things you can try in these situations. In calm conditions, covering a large amount of water is the key to finding the fish. You may need to walk the length of the beach, but chances are that at some point you will get some fish interested. Unless there is something for the fish to feed on, catching salmon in these conditions can be very difficult. I have had experiences in flat conditions where the fish are schooling up and feeding on small slimy mackerel and they are a lot of fun! These sessions are generally few and far between and should be relished when you are lucky enough to experience it! The other thing worth trying in flat conditions is focusing only on the most likely looking spots. However, you will know within about 15 casts whether or not the fish are there. By then it is time to move on.

This shot was included to demonstrate that salmon can be caught off the beach in low-energy situations. So even if it looks completely flat, make sure you have a good look through the polaroids for cues such as birds and baitfish, and if youre lucky enough, you might see some tightly packed schools a stones throw from the beach, as was the case on this occasion.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are times when there is too much energy on the beach. These conditions can result in choppy, foamy, sandy and discoloured water. While there’s probably a fair amount of food available due to the sand getting churned up, and the fish are probably there somewhere, the main constraints are, firstly, being able to cast far enough to get out into some deeper or cleaner water and secondly, keeping the lure in the strike-zone long enough for the fish to actually find it. In these high-energy situations, I have tested a few theories that seem to pay off. Due to the reduced visibility in the water, there are two main things to try. If you are fishing with metal slugs, slow it down. I think it’s the combination of the lure swimming slightly lower in the water column, as well as spending longer in the strike zone, that results in more fish. If this is not working, but you are able to cast into some decent looking water that isn’t all sand and foam, tie on a big jig head and a scented plastic. Cast it in and fish it slowly back to shore, with a few twitches here and there. I have found that this can work wonders, especially when you can’t catch them using metal slugs. You might also get some exciting bycatch in the form of jew fish, tailor and possibly bream, when testing this technique.

A nice looking medium energy beach, with wide gutters and varied underwater structure

The ideal conditions are when there are decent-sized waves breaking into a gutter that is partly covered by white-water, but still has sections of cleaner water throughout. Even in these conditions though, the fish won’t be evenly distributed throughout the gutter. Many times I have experienced the fish sitting in a 10 metre by 10 metre patch, usually adjacent to the back of the gutter, under the white-water where the waves wash over the sandbar and into the gutter.  It makes complete sense – the fish are sitting close to cover, but also where any food is getting dislodged in the sand by the action of the waves. Sometimes if the fish are feeding on baitfish, they’ll be everywhere, and are usually pretty easy to catch in these circumstances. But most of the time, they will be concentrated in a small area.

Often this area will be near the back of the gutter, which in many circumstances will be quite a long way out. This is where having the right gear comes into play. I use a 7 foot medium action rod, coupled with a size 3000 reel. On the reel is 8lb braid and a 10lb leader. Onto this, I attach slugs between 20 and 40 grams. It really is that simple. This setup can handle most fish, although if you like a short fight, go heavier. This setup will also enable you to consistently cast around 60 metres or so, or more with the right wind. In most circumstances, this will be plenty to enable you to cover enough ground.

Salmon have no hesitation eating bigger baits and lures. This fish coughed up the little yakka and a decent-sized slimy!

Salmon are voracious feeders, as evidenced by this fish that had six baitfish in its stomach and still managed to smash my lure

In terms of techniques, it’s fairly simple compared to some other types of fishing. Basically you cast the lure into likely looking spots and wind it back in quickly. It pays to try a few different retrieves. Often the fish respond to a medium speed, whereas other times they respond to the lure being skipped as fast as possible across the water’s surface. Slower retrieves don’t seem to work as well, except in really rough conditions when often it’s all that works. Sometimes it can pay to stop the lure mid-retrieve. If there is a fish following, they basically bump into it and this can result in a hook-up. I also find that it can pay to slow the retrieve right down just behind the beach breakers. This can cause a fish that was thinking about having a go to realise that it’s only got one more chance!  I don’t know if salmon are this smart, but you can’t argue with trial and error – or trial and success!

The final things are to fish morning, evening and try to coincide with a high or rising tide. But don’t let the absence of these factors stop you from heading out for a fish, because one of my mottos is that you learn more when the fishing is tough!

That’s basically all there is to it. To reiterate the key messages: cover ground, fish light, and think about where you would be sitting if you were a hungry fish.

Salmon have had a fairly bad rap as a table fish, but have been part of some of the tastiest meals I have had. Fish up to around one kilo are generally the best for eating. Some people like to take out the darker flesh, but it’s up to personal preference really. Some of the more common ways I’ve eaten salmon is in curries and fish cakes, but beer battered or simply grilled hot and fast on the bbq, with a little Asian-style sauce made up of chilli, honey, garlic and soy, they are an absolute treat.

Crispy salmon with Asian-style sauce, salad from the garden and some home-made bread. Delicious

Next time the estuary is fishing a bit slow, think about getting some of your light gear and a couple of small metal slugs and heading down to the beach for a few casts. You may be very surprised at the results! The ability to cover ground and find out where the salmon are holding on any given day will see your catch rates improve markedly, and you’ll notice that heads will be turning when you’re pulling fish after fish up the beach! You’ll also learn a great deal about salmon feeding habits and enjoy some of this country’s beautiful scenery as a bonus. See you out there!

Lee Georgeson, April 2011

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