Tips to save your skin when fishing the ocean rocks.
As innocuous as going for a fish might sound, rock fishing, specifically, is undoubtedly at the more daring end of the spectrum. It’s one of our riskiest national pastimes, according to government reports.
The NSW state government’s water safety initiative claims that around eight people lose their lives while rock fishing in the state annually.
So, what’s the big appeal to fishing the ocean rocks if it’s so hazardous?
It comes down to risk vs. reward. With the heightened risk comes the reward of a potentially epic catch. If you can mitigate the danger while bringing in a good haul, then it starts to sound a lot more appealing.
Rock fishing’s bad rep and high mortality rate comes down to numbers, primarily. The majority of national rock fishing deaths have occurred in NSW in recent years, with up to a quarter falling to Sydney’s rugged coastline.
It’s not that this tiny stretch of rocky headlands and coves is particularly perilous, just that loads more people are fishing there, and a lot of punters aren’t up to speed with best practice safety protocol.
So what can you do while fishing the stones to minimise risk while boosting your catch rate?
MONITOR THE FORECAST
No brainer, right? You’d be surprised… Plenty of people fishing the ocean rocks don’t bother logging on to check the weather and swell forecast, or take the time to learn how to read forecasts correctly.
When fishing exposed headlands it’s vital to check sea conditions as well as just the weather report. You’ll need to know what the tide is doing while you plan to fish, and how it will effect your spot.
Some ledges might be perfectly safe at low tide, but can get really sketchy once the tide starts to fill in.
Even more important is to know what the swell is doing. As well as the size of the primary swell, it’s important to be aware of what direction it’s coming from as well as the wave period or energy.
Longer period swells are exponentially more powerful and even smallish groundswells can easily swamp low-lying rock ledges.
On the other hand, choppy short period swells can also be tricky to fish in onshore conditions as broken water and spray can tend to mask potentially dangerous waves.
The safest conditions to fish in are generally small, longer period swells with offshore winds.
A good rule of thumb, when fishing a new spot or if you’re unsure of conditions, is to watch your proposed fishing possie for ten minutes from arrival before casting a line in order to ensure that no larger sets are rolling through.
A solid pair of rock fishing boots is the best bit of safety kit you can invest in, period.
Seriously, they’ll save you from going head over tail multiple times per session. You’re just asking for trouble venturing out onto the stones without them.
There are a few different types of footwear styles that are better suited to specific surfaces. Classic rock fishing cleats are a pair of serrated metal plates that are bolted onto the underside of any old pair of boots.
These are perfect for maintaining grip on the slimy sandstone ledges of the NSW south and central coasts, although their design can be a little awkward if you need to trek through the bush in order to reach your ledge.
Studded neoprene boots are a good option if you need to do a little walking through varied terrain prior to hitting your spot. These are a good compromise if you fish different spots around the country with different surfaces.
Another handy option are the Griprox brand crampon style cleats that can be fitted around any pair of boots or shoes after hiking into your spot. Any of the above will provide plenty of traction and peace of mind when fishing slimy algae-coated ledges.
It’s worth bearing in mind that a good set of rubber soled hiking boots are often a better option when fishing the ultra hard volcanic rock ledges of far northern NSW up to central Queensland. Metal cleats can be a bit awkward when walking around these ledges, although it’s always better to be prepared if you’re exploring unknown territory.
Life jackets save lives; it’s as simple as that. Sure, they can be a bit awkward and you can probably get away without wearing one dozens of times before getting into trouble, but the stats don’t lie.
Of all the rock fishing fatalities around the country each year, almost all aren’t wearing life jackets.
While the old school boating style life jackets were a hassle to lug around and wear for long periods on the rocks, modern style inflatable PDFs are lightweight and unobtrusive. They fit around your neck and waist and include a gas cartridge that automatically inflates the jacket if you end up in the brine.
If you venture onto exposed headlands in any sort of swell, and aren’t an extremely strong swimmer, you’d be mad not to invest in an inflatable PFD.
Personally, I don’t fish the rocks when the swell is over about a metre, so I don’t wear my PFD every session, although I do keep one in my pack whenever hitting the rocks and will put it on if the swell starts to build or conditions look at all dicey.
Apart from having someone on hand to help net or gaff your fish and snap a photo of your catch, fishing with a mate just might save your life.
It’s best to plan to fish with a pal whenever hitting the rocks so that if plans go awry, you know that someone has got your back.
A lot of popular rock fishing spots are fitted with foam ‘angel rings’ that can be tossed in the water to help keep an angler afloat that has been washed in by a wave.
Although you can’t necessarily rely on anyone being able to jump in after you in rough conditions, at the very least there will be someone on hand to raise the alarm.
I’ve fished the rocks up and down the east coast regularly for nearly 15 years and have never come close to being washed in, although I’ve witnessed a handful of near disasters avoided by cool heads when conditions abruptly turn dicey.
Rock fishing is a passion for thousands around the country and one of the best ways of bagging a haul of tasty seafood while exploring new ground.
While some degree of risk comes with the territory, the vast majority of unacceptably dangerous situations can be avoided by suiting up with the correct gear, checking the forecast and monitoring conditions.
Knowing when to call it a day or walk away from sketchy conditions is what separates the best fishos from the rest, no fish is worth risking your life for.
MARINE RESCUE HOTLINE
Look up and save the phone number of your state’s local marine rescue branch into your phone before hitting the rocks.
In an emergency dial 000 for assistance when fishing anywhere along the Australian coastline.