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The art (and science) of light-tackle rock fishing

The term scratching comes from when competitive anglers are fishing for smaller edibles in tough conditions, to “scratch” for points. It almost always involves angling in rocky structure. By Lloyd Pereira

I’ve fished next to some of the best scratchers in the country, and there is definitely an art to it – from reading water to selecting the right bait in the right area, trace configuration and then tackle. I’m going to run you through the basics I have learnt along the way.

In Durban (my home town), the scratching is generally below par, and I must admit, I’m guilty of not fishing this style in my local waters…. But whenever I do, I absolutely love it and need to be dragged off the rocks.

The exciting part about scratching is it keeps your mind active and tuned in. There are almost always plenty of bites, different nooks and crannies to throw at, and sometimes to get squared up with a bigger bonus fish.

Water conditions:

You must have working water if you want to successfully target edibles in rocky terrain. Flat water means less oxygen in the water, no turbulence to stimulate the fish’s metabolism, and the fish are far more exposed to predators. If it’s flat, they sulk in their caves or go into deeper water.

By working water I mean waves need to be breaking over the reef. If it’s calm, flat and looks beautiful, you will struggle.

Tides:

You can catch fish on all tides, in all facets … but you will catch more fish on the right tide for that specific facet. In most facets of fishing, I find a pushing tide works best. With scratching it is no different!

I tend to find an hour after low tide to about two hours before high tide to be the best (three hours), but I’m normally on the rocks on the dead low or even a little before. You will be surprised how quickly six hours can go when you are scratching rocky terrain and getting fish.

Baits:

With scratching, I love to use local fresh bait. But there are only three real baits I use when scratching in the rocks during daytime hours: chokka, pink or red prawn, and then my local bait favourite, cracker shrimp or sand prawn.

The chokka I like to use in a blob bait style, which requires no cotton – and, in my opinion, the less cotton you use, the better. The chokka blob bait is deadly for bronze bream and, for some reason, works better in cooler water. Also, I have noticed that the bigger bronze bream have been caught on chokka. If the blacktail and peckers are wild and your baits are getting eaten off within seconds, move to chokka blobs; the bait will stay on longer and give the bigger fish enough time to find your bait.

Prawn baits are easy to tie, very effective and a must in the arsenal. I like to cotton on a third of a toothpick to the shank of the hook and going up onto the line. This gives me structure around which to build my prawn bait. A lot of fish will peck and sample a bait before engulfing it. I like to tie half of the prawn onto the hook and toothpick, and have the other half, or at least third, hanging off the bottom; that, in general, is the first part a fish will start feeding on. Give the fish a false sense of security on his first sample! Well, that’s my theory …

In the Eastern Cape, some of the anglers use banana essence on their prawn. It sounds bizarre, but it did work when I tried it. To be honest, though, so did normal, plain prawn.

Sand prawn or cracker shrimp is a natural bait and should always be in your box – freshly pumped and ready to be eaten. I generally fish two hook traces (terrain-dependent) and almost always have at least one hook with sand prawn. I fish a sand prawn with half a toothpick tied up the shank of the hook and onto the nylon, tail on the nylon, and the head and claws around the base of the hook and hanging freely below. It depends on the clarity of the water and the diameter of line I’m using, but if it’s calm, I’ll scale down on line diameter, hook size, and use one cracker shrimp. If it’s good scratching water (working), I’ll use two or three crackers together.

Traces:

I’ve tried many different styles of trace and keep coming back to the basic dropper loop.

The reason why I love the dropper loop system is there is less hardware in the water (swivels). I have noticed on several occasions that the dropper loop trace has out-fished the swivel trace!

If you are fishing in an extremely foul area and get stuck a lot, I’d fish a one-hooked trace, but generally with the style I fish with the grapnel, I almost always get away with two hooks. The major risk you have with two hooks is not getting stuck and losing your trace; it’s getting stuck with one hook while you busy fighting a fish on the other.

So on a long piece of fluoro I’d tie two dropper loops, far enough apart so the hooks are not going to get tangled. I generally use between 0.40 and 0.50. Unfortunately, bronze bream can wear through 0.40 with their teeth, so that is a risk you take for going light. Siglon Fluorocarbon has been the leading fluoro brand for the past 10 years and still is; I stick to that. Why go light? Well, the lighter you go, the more bites you will get. Fact!

Hooks:

I like to use Mustad Chinu; depending on bait, I range between sizes 4, 2, 1 and 1/0. The Chinu has an offset point for high point exposure, is extremely sharp, and has a light gauge so bait movement is as natural as possible.

The other very effective, cost-effective and probably the most popular scratching hook in the country is Mustad 92247NI. This hook has a longer shank and has bait-holder barbs at the back of the shank to stop your bait from sliding down. The 92247 also has an offset point for high point exposure.

Sinkers:

For sinkers I range from a wire grapnel to a normal teardrop. If there is a heavy wash or turbulence, a teardrop sinker is going to move around until one of your hooks get stuck … then it’ll break off. But if you use a wire grapnel and loosen the wires slightly, the sinker will land and hold where it landed. The hooks will move around in a 2ft radius around and you are fine!

When you want to wind in, wind down so that your rod is in line with your line; lift quickly and the grapnel spike will pop down – and then you need to wind as fast as you can to get the trace to the surface. If it’s not too washy, use a teardrop sinker by all means. Overweighting your sinker is another way to avoid washing around.

Tackle:

I’ve tried different variations of tackle for scratching and have come full circle. I like an 11ft to 12ft rod, relatively stiff and fast taper, with a large arbor casting grinder with 25 to 30lb braid. The reason for the length is it’s nice to fish with a lighter stick, and you need to scale down.

I prefer a stiffer rod such as the 11’6” Poseidon HMG Ultra-Light. It’s sensitive enough for bite detection, throwing 2oz to 4oz, etc, but it locks up quickly, so you can connect to a fish and bully it around rocks when needed. I’ve tried 11ft spinning rods and they don’t have the backbone for quick hook or bullying. The Poseidon Ultra-Light is also light as a feather …

I’ve used the smaller spinning reels. Once again, I felt they were just short on what I needed. I like a big power handle to wind fast and get that trace up to surface, to avoid getting stuck. I also like the wide arbor reel for the occasional situation when you want to be able to put that long throw in. The Daiwa Windcast 5500 does all that and also has a very small, but strong, gearbox, which keeps it light. It may look big, but I’m about functionality, not looks! Also, the Windcast has a quick drag (QD), and I find that handy when scratching.

The braid often comes down to personal choice and previous experience. I’ve use the Mustad 25lb braid for many years and I find it phenomenal, spinning or scratching. The other very good “value-for-money” braid is the Triple Fish Gator, and if you want an eight-weave braid, the Triple Fish Orange. You want between 25lb and 35lb. Braid may be very thin, but it still drags. It’s porous, so water holds on to it. The heavier the braid, the heavier the sinker … which is not what you want!

Area:

The Transkei and into the Eastern Cape has the best scratching in the country; this is because the human population hasn’t decimated the fish stocks. So when going to the Transkei or the Eastern Cape, do yourself a favour and pack in all the scratching gear. On many occasions I’ve had more fun scratching than in the shark or kob sessions.