Reading Water Part 1 - 03 August 2011

 2015-09-02 04:05 PM by

The ability to study the prevailing conditions and come to an accurate conclusion as to what is happening and will be happening in the next few hours certainly enables the shore-angler to make far better decisions.

We have a particularly high-energy coastline and conditions vary greatly as do the species that are most likely to be encountered as well as how and where to best target them.

Gary Player said, “The more I practice, the luckier I get”.  The more time one spends at the beach, the better one gets to understand the various dynamics that affect our fishing.  Not all of us can afford to spend this time, but collectively we can learn from each other’s experiences.  


It is very important to understand how the clarity and temperature of the water affects our fishing.    Crystal clear water is generally very barren and does not support much life.  It is much easier for fish to detect traces of blood, etc., in such conditions because there is very little else in the water to distract from the smell.  You will generally find that extremely cold water or quite warm water is crystal clear.  Any water that has been affected by an up welling generally carries a multitude of life forms, most of which are microscopic or evident in the form of plankton.  In conditions that are really conducive to the growth of plankton and tiny life forms, you will see that the water has more of a ‘soupy’ look to it, generally a green to brown colour – very conducive to good fishing.  There is also a significant difference between silt laden river water and churned up silt as opposed to the colour that one gets in water that is full of life.  Something else that is very important to remember is the fact that fresh water is lighter than salt water even when it is laden with silt and dexterous.  It will float on top of the much heavier salt water.  This provides for some exciting opportunities when you know that the water coming out of the river mouth and floating out to sea is more than likely only on the surface and that underneath the water might well be clean and very conducive to good fishing because of the low light levels.  It is also worth mentioning that particularly in small estuaries one often finds the situation where the top layer of water is fresh, but the water underneath is quite salty and full of fish.

Oxygen content is also a very important factor and generally warm water will hold less oxygen than cold water.  Bearing this in mind, it would be obvious that crystal clear warm water is not usually conducive to good fishing, the fish being shy (bright conditions) and sluggish (low oxygen content).  Warm water with a brisk wind over it creating a choppy environment suddenly becomes a lot more conducive to fishing because of the induced oxygen in the water and more cover for prey and predators alike.  Predatory fish also have a lot more difficulty hunting in crystal clear, flat, calm conditions.  At times like this, they will definitely become a lot more active at night than in the day.  It is very necessary to understand the above when one stands on a beach looking at what’s in front of you and trying to analyse the situation.  It would stand to reason that if the water is calm, clean and with little movement, the places that do have some movement or some white water would be the better option.  Conversely if the sea is rough, there is lots of white water and generally fairly low visibility conditions, the quieter water becomes the better option.



One will find that the bottom half of the South African coastline generally has fine sandy beaches which makes for flatter gentler slopes into the sea.  The further North one goes, the more prevalent coarse-grained beaches become and the deeper the drop-offs and the faster the slope on the beaches.   Beaches are made up of a series of channels and sand banks.  From the swash zone one would normally find a drop-off or lip, forming a trough (A) that runs parallel to the beach with a channel ( C and B ) at either end that runs straight out to sea.  The sand bank (D) at the back of the trough would be broken by these channels leading out and if it is a fine-grained beach that is gently shelving, there may be a series of two or three such troughs and sand banks going seaward.  On a coarse-grained beach one very seldom finds more than one trough and one bank at the back and the water generally tends to be deeper.   To be able to identify these features one needs to have some surf.  In other words, a fairly decent wave coming through that is going to lift and break in the shallower places and stay as a swell in the deeper areas.   If the water is really clean, one can often see the darker deeper blues of the deep water and the lighter colour of the sand in the shallow areas (X).  If the sea is exceptionally rough with rolling white water along the entire beach, it is very difficult to identify features.  By the same token, dead flat calm sea with quite a bit of colour is just as difficult to read, but given the right kind of surf, it very quickly becomes easy to read and quite exciting from an options point of view, especially if the odd set is coming through on a regular basis.  These groups of slightly bigger swells (usually five to seven) will help you see features that may not show with normal waves e.g. a slightly deeper bank or rocks in the water.


Wave Action

It is important to understand the dynamics of a wave and what causes it to do certain things.  To put it quite simply, a wave starts to break when the depth of the water underneath it starts to get to around one and a half times the height of the wave.  The shallower the water becomes as the wave is moving towards the beach, the more the bottom part of the wave starts to struggle to keep up to the crest of the wave.  If the gradient that the wave is moving over is very gentle one will see the top of the swell start to lift and the very top will start to break a little and as it moves shore-ward, the white water on the top will grow as the wave progresses, but there will always be a slope in front of the wave, the kind of wave that one could body-surf down quite easily.  If the gradient however is very sudden and the water goes from deep to shallow quite suddenly, you will start to get a very hollow, crunching type break which you often see at the back of a sand bank on a low tide or when there is a very big swell running.  This is often amplified on a low spring when the water sucks back to sea off the back of the bank or in the swash zone on a steep beach where the water pulling back will cause the incoming wave to hollow out particularly fast and create a thumping dumper.


Once a wave has passed over the bank, it can now reveal to you the gradient on the inside of the bank down into the trough. A very steep gradient is going to give you a very distinct cut-off (E) between white water and blue or calm water, often with a swirling type of action where the white meets the blue (the Kob drop-off).  This cut-off line is often a couple of metres shoreward of the drop-off, in other words, if your bait lands exactly on the line it is going to be a few metres into the deep water rather than on the bank.  If you are trying to land on the bank, one has to try to anticipate how strong the water is and how far it is pushing the white water shore-ward and place your cast a few metres into the white.  The bigger the area is that the white water fades into the blue, the gentler the gradient (no clear cut-off).  One will notice here that the bigger the swirl or the foamy that comes off the bank, the further it will extend white water shoreward and generally one can assume that the fish will be spread over a bigger area on the inside of the bank.


What to look out for

The more water that comes in over the bank in the form of breaking and rolling waves, the more the water piles up in the inside channel and the stronger the current will be running out to sea in the holes on the side of the bank.  It is very important to remember this, particularly when fishing for smelling type fish as it is this current going seaward that will bring big fish into the hole to look for the bait.  Look for the seaward rips, as this is the best chance you are going to get to pull big fish on smell.

Fish feeding activity on beaches definitely increases when the tide starts to push.  Quite often once fish have fed successfully, they will move offshore or move to a resting or holding area where they will bide their time until it is time to go and search for a meal once more and again, this would generally coincide with an incoming tide if on a beach.   Look for the deep drop-offs, particularly where there is a bit of a swirling action in the water.   Look for banks that are showing some soapy water with the odd breaking wave (F), rather than water that is rolling all the time.  Fish like to feed on these types of banks and the takes are often quite dramatic.  I mentioned above the holding or resting areas, because on many occasions anglers successfully catch fish that are not feeding aggressively and not eating the baits, particularly size wise, that they normally would.  Just like any animal, once they have fed, they are not inclined to take big bait, but will often just suck up a tit-bit.  When Kob are not feeding in the churn on the back of a bank or on the shoreward drop-off, they can sometimes be found chilling in a hole and will be tempted with a much smaller well-presented bait.

Isolated banks (G) are brilliant, particularly if the water all around them is deep.  There will often be an abundance of fish on the edges if the bank is still too shallow, but they will feed aggressively on the bank as soon as it is deep enough.  The big predators too will be found patrolling the deep water around the bank.  These isolated banks are easily identified by the calm water all around them, but waves lifting, breaking, rolling and then fading into a swell, show one exactly where the bank is.

When you see sand lifting or churning, remember that all kinds of food items are probably being exposed and fish hang around these areas.  On the beaches that have very fine sand, most fish are very tolerant of this fine sand and can often be caught in it.  On coarse-grained beaches however, the fish definitely avoid being in the churning sand, but will definitely hunt around the edges. 

It is very important to be able to identify current, sometimes referred to as a ‘wash’.  Generally if there is a very strong side-wash on the beach continually in the same direction the whole length of the beach, it is not a very good condition to fish in.  If there is absolutely no current, it is also not very conducive to good angling, but at least one can still fish in it.  The vast majority of fish that we target use their sense of smell extensively.  Current gets them homing in on your bait.  Whenever you stand and watch the water it is imperative that you work out which way the current is going and how strong it is.  Currents that go straight out to sea can pull fish from a long way off.  Remembering that wind will blow anything floating on the surface, one should always try to look for things in the water, bits of weed, etc., that will give you an indication as to which way and how fast the water is moving.  Having established this, you can throw your bait to the area that is going to make maximum use of the current.  Should there already be other baits in the water, you obviously need to position yours where it is the first one the fish will come across when he comes homing in on the smell!

Generally when one looks down the length of a sandy beach, there are long curves with fairly distinct points on the beach.  Quite often there is a hole in the curve and a bank on the point.  Particularly on a low spring tide, these banks are often easy to walk or wade onto and invariably the water on the other side of the bank is very deep.  It is also a feature that is very consistent in terms of producing fish.  Always check out the points on the beach and be there before the tide starts to push.

Very Important: Whenever you look down a beach, remember that what you see from the side is often very misleading.  Do not make an assessment looking left or right on the beach.  Try to get up high or else walk down the beach to the feature that you think you are seeing.  Take some time to watch and allow some sets to come through, especially if the sea is calm.  This will help you to better understand what lies beneath.  You will be amazed how often water that does not look good from the side, is in fact really good when you get to it!

In the next edition we will cover reading water in and around rocky shores, gullys and how to present baits in these various conditions.