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Back to basics – bait fishing off the beach

I spent the long weekend at Arugunnu, a campground in the Mimosa Rocks National Park on the far south coast of NSW. It is a special place for me, as it’s where I caught my first fish and spent a lot of time camping with my family as a kid. The thing I notice most when I get close is the smell: the combination of campfire smoke and the salty, metallic odour of the ocean combined with the seaweed and cunjevoi rotting on the rocks. Aside from the smells, there is also the goannas, middens, birds, wallabies, abalone, angoferas, banksias, cycads, and of course, the great fishing.

I had grand plans of casting big poppers off a rock platform at sunrise, with visions of huge hoodlum kingfish swiping at the popper permeating through my dreams the night before. Sadly, the swell made rock fishing impossible, with gnarly waves crashing across even the most sheltered platforms for most of the weekend. Apart from the option of travelling to a nearby estuary, the only real prospect for fishing was off the beach.

Beach fishing can be hard when the swell is up. The water is churned up, it’s hard to see the structure, and the structure is often out past the shore break. There are usually strong currents running right or left, or straight in or out. It makes lure fishing extremely difficult. Lure fishing is a visual game – you usually need to know what you are casting at, and you need to know that the fish can actually see or hear what you are casting to them. Enter: bait. Bait can be a great option when conditions are not conducive to lure fishing. The difference is that fish don’t have to see or hear bait: they can smell it.

Fortunately, I was with a friend who is an excellent bait fisherman (and lure angler, too), and has enjoyed a lot of success using bait while I have toiled with lures. He was busy with baby things and I had decided to head down to the corner of the beach, where the swell wasn’t so huge, to try for a bream or a yellow-eyed mullet. I had been casting bits of bread dough into the wash for a while but not having much luck, save for a few tentative nibbles. Steve arrived with a small bag of pilchards, rigged up and cast in. He was getting bites straight away, and it wasn’t long before the beach rod loaded up and he wound in a good sand flathead of around 45cm.

I haven’t had much success with sand flathead off the beach, but seeing this quality fish caught was more than enough motivation to tie a sinker, swivel, 30cm leader and 1/0 hook onto my 9 foot outfit and have a cast. It took a little while, but I had a few bites and eventually remembered how to catch a fish on bait. Bite, bite, nibble, bit of a run, strike! Wind the fish in, dispatch it humanely, and repeat.

It was one of those intensely methodical, but at the same time meditative sessions, where you don’t actually think about what you are doing. Sure, you are paying attention the whole time, but fishing like this becomes almost mechanical. It’s an immensely enjoyable way to fish, and I think the skill of rigging up correctly, putting the bait on properly, casting well, and striking at the right time seems to rival lure fishing in some regards. It’s easy to become a purist when it comes to lure and fly fishing, but there is a fundamental pleasure that comes with bait fishing that I hope we, as anglers, never forget. It’s easy to get carried away with lure and fly fishing, but many of us started with the basics. It’s good to go back to them from time to time, as it’s where we learned a lot about this wonderful obsession that we share. It’s another facet to understanding fish behaviour and fishing, and I’d strongly recommend any dyed-in-the-wool lure and fly fishers to give it a go sometime.

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