It hadn’t been the greatest summer here in Wellington, but it finally arrived.
For so long the weather had been windy and unsettled, forcing me to cancel several planned trips and making conditions on the beach less pleasant when they went ahead. But all things (even bad things) must come to an end, and eventually I struck that apparently rare combination of nice conditions and a weekend. This saw me spending an idyllic Saturday catching quality scale species on a deserted stretch of coastline. Hallelujah!
I’ve enjoyed many such days in the past, and at face value there was nothing to separate this particular day from them – except I’d been separated from my 14-foot surf rods for longer than usual. Instead, I’ve been satisfying my fishing fix with a few boat and kayak trips close to home. As a result, I found myself noticing things about the act of surfcasting that I normally take for granted. Things that contrast with boat fishing and make it a logistical challenge all of its own.
I’ll start with casting. Having got used to simply dropping a line over the gunwale, casting a bait 75m with a 14-foot rod feels very unwieldy. Many times I’ve taken friends surfcasting for the first time – some of whom have done copious amounts of boat fishing – and they’ve really struggled to meet the minimum cast length and accuracy to catch fish. Apart from the length of the rod, the energy stored in the rod and generated through to the cast can see sinkers flying in all directions until good release timing is developed. It doesn’t take forever to learn, but it sure is a heck of a lot harder than most other fishing scenarios.
Developing a consistent, repeatable casting action is key to surfcasting success, and in some locations (notably shallow surf beaches where deep water is beyond the breakers) an advanced level of casting skill may be necessary to catch even a kahawai.
Next comes the responsibility of monitoring your rods for bites. Again, this is relatively simple in boats: place your rod in a holder right in your vision and within reaching distance. Even if you have your back turned, you will hear the ratchet go if a fish bites; within seconds you can have the hook set and the fish struggling to escape.
Surfcasting is a different scenario. Long surf rods need to be visually monitored from a distance to avoid craning your neck, complicated by the fact you’ll probably want your rod spikes down near the water and your possie further up the beach on dry sand. From there you must keep your eyes trained on your rods, even while rebaiting replacement traces and attending to other miscellaneous tasks.
If you get a bite, you’ll likely not hear it. In my estimation only about 50% of surfcasting bites result in an audible howling of the ratchet because: one, long surf rods and long lengths of nylon absorb huge amounts of energy; two, fish are just as likely to run sideways or towards the beach as directly away; and three, fish caught from the surf are often not huge or capable of pulling line.
Even when line is pulled, an offshore wind or your distance from the rods may mean you don’t hear the ratchet anyway. Long story short, keep your eyes firmly focussed on those rod tips!
Fish hooked from the beach are played along a more or less horizontal plane rather than the vertical plane of boats, and generally involve more than 100m of line out (having gone down or into the water to cast and then marched back up the beach to your rod spikes). Furthermore, the mainline is nearly always thin-gauge nylon, because this is needed to achieve decent casting distances and absorb the energy of incoming waves (critical for keeping your sinker anchored). A scenario like this gives fish reasonable odds of spitting the hook (for example, if full of beans, they can easily create slack line by running along or towards the beach).
All this contrasts greatly with the boat experience of winding up tight on various species reluctant to leave the bottom, all the while using braid with minimal stretch so it’s much easier to maintain a taut line.
Bait presentation is also much more difficult. There’s no casual threading of fillet baits onto a hook and gently lowering them into the depths. No, surfcasting baits get seriously hammered, starting from the time they are hurled out at high speed to crash into the water, and are then grabbed and worried by assorted fish and sea creatures while soaking. Worse, even if the bait survives all that, it gets dragged and bounced back through the surf when retrieved.
This sees the surfcaster constantly preparing and rotating baits, even if no fish are biting. Fifteen minutes in the water is usually enough for the current or pickers to wash out or diminish baits if a fish doesn’t eat them first.
So the regular winding in and inspection of baits is essential; it’s rare to wind in a bait that doesn’t need replacement, re-securing, or more bait elastic. Consequently, genuine downtime on the beach is difficult to find, unless you have plenty of traces prebaited.
Even peripheral tasks are difficult. For example, it’s hard to gut a fish or rinse your hands, as is easily achievable while on a boat. The surf can be dangerous to enter too, so while there may be water as far as the eye can see, getting into it may not be an option. This is particularly the case on steep beaches, which often have a wicked ‘lip’ and undertow.
However, in places where you can get into or close to the water, I recommend taking a spare bucket and filling it up with water. The sand will soon settle on the bottom, leaving clean water that’s ideal for rinsing hands, cleaning bait knives, rinsing fish etc.
The best surfcasting normally occurs at night and this presents some specific challenges that boat fishermen rarely have to worry about, since most are in port by the time darkness descends. Headlamps, reflective tape and lumo sticks are the ‘go’ for shore fishers; without them, night time on the beach is a dark and hopeless place to catch fish. But arm yourself with these accessories and you have every chance of experiencing that special sight: upon hearing a reel scream, your headlamp’s beam pierces the blackness and homes in on the reflective tape of your fishing rod, which is bent over towards the horizon at 90 degrees!
Whilst beach fishing has its challenges, it can be much more comfortable and relaxing than a boat-fishing session ever can be – especially for people who are not natural sea dogs. With feet on dry land there’s no risk of seasickness and considerably fewer safety considerations to heed. And, of course, it lacks the responsibilities of running a boat!
Personally, I find surfcasting quite a different experience, where the time goes by faster. Perhaps this is related to the way I approach surfcasting: for me it is a busy pastime and certainly not the deckchair and beer-in-hand pursuit many people mistake it for!
It's certainly not been my intention to dissuade people from surfcasting. Rather, it’s to spell out some of the unique logistical challenges involved. With time you will take them for granted – and anyway, what sort of worthwhile hobby doesn’t present some interesting challenges?
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