Feature: Shallow water fishing

By: Terry Williams King, Photography by: Terry Williams King

Shallow water fishing Shallow water fishing
Shallow water fishing Shallow water fishing
Shallow water fishing Gurnard caught off Pakiri Beach north of Auckland Shallow water fishing
Shallow water fishing Whether you’ve got a 9m fishing machine or a 3m inflatable, the shallows can provide a fantastic hunting ground Shallow water fishing

Shallow water fishing can be very rewarding, offering big fish and plenty of variety in places other fisherman ignore. Terry Williams King has a few pointers on how to make the most of it this summer.

Shallow water fishing with lures at this time of year is my personal favourite. I class it more as a hunting expedition. The thing that lights my fire the most is just how big a fish you can pull out of some very shallow areas and the variety of species you will encounter. You also cover a lot of ground and often fish places most other anglers will drive past with little or no thought at all.

Many species will hunt in the shallows for easy prey. Predators will use the weed and kelp for cover, ambushing small bait fish swimming the edges — some even call it home. Others will be digging their snouts into the mud or sand, feeding on small crabs, shellfish and crustaceans. They could also be hunting baby flounder on the low sand and mud ridges that lead into the many bays along our coastline.

The best chance

To give you the best chance at success, there are a few things that are very important when fishing the shallows.

Firstly, don't charge around the ocean making a lot of noise in the area you want to fish. One of the many reasons kayak fisherman have become so successful is their ability to be stealth-like.

Survey the area from a distance. Use a local chart beforehand, as this will give you a good idea of depth, drop-offs and any rocks you may need to be aware of. Once you've chosen the area, do a dummy drift away from the propsed fishing zone. This will give you a good idea of the direction in which the boat is likely to head — you need to be aware once you move in closer that this may change slightly due to backwash, shallow currents and any wind from the land.

From here, proceed in slowly to the start of your drift zone. Don't be too worried if you can see the bottom, but make sure you're comfortable with how far away from the shore or rocks you are. Don't endanger your crew or boat for the sake of a fish, and only fish as close as you're comfortable — make sure you still have control of your surroundings. The fish will fearlessly hunt the water's edge for a feed. There's an old adage for rock fisherman: fish your feet first. The same applies here, we are just coming from a different direction.

As you drift, you may find you will have to move out a bit. If this happens, move the boat out, but back and out slightly in the direction you came from. Again, if you want to fish the area again, go out wide in an arc to your starting position and try to make as little noise as possible in your fishing zone.

Crash your bait

One of the best signs to watch for when chasing big fish can be bait fish on the surface (small sprats or piper moving) — this is a good sign that a predatory fish won't be far away. Cast your lure either side of this, as big fish will sit and wait for the right opportunity. I generally like to cast up-current and let my bait swim down a little before retrieving, as this will often result in a strike. When retrieving your lure, don't be afraid to fish it through the depths when you're fishing shallow: fish will happily take your lure from any depth.

Some of the best takes I've seen from big snapper have been up on the surface. It's a sight to see: big red tails flapping in the air as they crash your bait.

Vary the speed at which you retrieve your lure: small flicks as you wind, a slight jerking action and varied sweeps of the rod are all trigger points that can attract attention and a bite. When striking, keep your rod high — trust your knots. You're going to need to apply a fair bit of pressure on the fish, so a tight drag is important. You'll be amazed at how much pressure you can apply on light braid, but this is all pointless if your knots are tied half-arse. Practise, swing on them so you trust them, and this will allow you to apply good pressure to the fish. They will react with panic on the strike, looking for whatever cover they can to dislodge the hook or break the trace.

The depth will dictate how the fish plays, often screaming along the surface, much like kahawai, snapper, trevs and kingies — they will all fight very similarly at the start. It's pretty obvious why, as you can be fishing in as little as three or four meters at times and they have nowhere to go but side to side. Keeping the rod high will apply good pressure and angle to the fish — this will allow you to swing the rod left and right depending on the direction of your quarry. You may need to chase the fish or manoeuvre the boat for a better position during the fight, which is much easier said than done when fishing rocky areas as opposed to sand. There will be many occasions when you just won't be able to stop or control the fish.

The fish will often know where he wants to go (he knows the area, after all), so fishing the heavy drag will try to lead him where you want. This is not always easy. I've found that the bigger fish tend to react in panic at first, so the intial run may not be to an area in which they feel protected. More often than not, I have found the second and third runs are the game changers, so be prepared for the fish to change direction or tactics quickly. If your knots are well tied, this is the time to apply good pressure and swing the battle your way.

If you can stay on top of the fish, great. This will reduce the chances of snagging up, and on the sand or mud you have less on which to break off. But beware: these fish will head right up into the shallows, making it harder for you to get at them, so apply the heat.

If you do get fouled up, be patient — the fish will sometimes swim out from where they are, especially in the kelp. The hook in their gob will still be applying pressure, so panic often sets in again and they will move. Another option is to free spool the fish out. This releases the pressure and the fish may feel they have become free. Releasing can also get you into trouble by tying the line up even more in the fouled-up area, but this is a decision you will need to make at the time.

Shallow water fishing is very rewarding. One good fish can make the day, and often draws anglers back with that one bit of excitement.

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