'You should have been here yesterday!'
THE HOW, WHERE, WHEN and WHY
In the mid-1960s coincidence brought together in Dorset a group of enthusiastic anglers from various parts of England. Their angling experience ranged from fly-fishing in the picturesque rivers, lakes and tarns of Cumbria to handlining for coalfish and flounders from the greystone jetties of Northumbrian fishing villages and fishing for roach and perch in the less picturesque ponds and canals around Liverpool.
Harry, Terry and myself - a Scouser and two Yorkshiremen - were the mainstay of the group. Since that time the number of fanatics involved has fluctuated over the years but the originators fish on to the present day (in varying degrees - Terry has moved back up north and tends to fish during holidays) despite the demands of wives, children, mortgages, violent sport, and even the dreaded gardens and allotments. Because of these commitments, fishing time is and always has been at a premium, so it was continually necessary to try and obtain the best return for our efforts (hopefully the best chance of catching fish). The same must apply to many other anglers although a fair proportion of writers seem to regard the catch as a surprise bonus.
Necessity is the mother of invention and this book relates how we streamlined and modified our approaches to sea fishing. By careful consideration of the habits of fish and their food, by observation, by experiment, by hard work and above all, by persistent application of methods appropriate to the fish and the sea conditions, we have managed to improve our catches.
At first we fished in a more or less random manner over most of the coastline from Bournemouth to Chesil Beach. We used traditional sea fishing rods, tackles and baits. At least twice a week, throughout the year, rain, hail or shine, we made our pilgrimage to the sea. From the angling weeklies, glossy magazines and books we absorbed every scrap of information about the local angling hotspots and the fine fish being caught in our area.
During the summer months we fished in daylight from Poole Quay. Sitting on the quayside, under the feet of strolling holidaymakers and floatfishing or legering between the ropes of the moored yachts and freighters, we caught small bass, wrasse, flounders, gobies, sand smelts and mullet. In the dark winter evenings, clothed in murk and drizzle, after the holiday makers had gone, we added rocklings, small pouting and poor cod.
The steep shingle slopes of the famous Chesil Beach provided wrasse, mackerel, pollack, small bass, flatfish, whiting, eels and bullheads. From other beaches, cliffs and ledges in between, the results were the same with only the proportions of the various species changing. A good fish meant a red-letter day.
Clearly, summer and winter, day and night, a considerable variety of fish were feeding close inshore but we were mostly catching only the smaller and more gullible specimens. It was a difficult pill to swallow, but it was painfully obvious that we knew little of the nature and the habits of the fish we sought. A decision was made to set about collecting hard facts, rather than hearsay, on the food and feeding, migrations and behaviour of sea fishes. The object was to improve our catches in terms of regularity, numbers and size of fish and to fish selectively for particular species.
All the experts, local and national, had their own favourite hypotheses as to how fish could be caught. Most of these were found wanting for lack of information on where and when and all were generally unconvincing because they left the question why unanswered, apart from vague speculation. Only rarely were theories backed up by detailed accounts of the resultant catches. (Nothing seems to have changed - if anything it is worse - ML).
The question of what to fish for was clearly an important one. Firstly it was dictated by the species which were known to occur along our local shores. Secondly it was a matter of which of these appealed to us most, an appeal which has changed over the years as the major problems posed by each were more or less solved. Having decided what we wished to catch, four main factors had to be considered, those being the ones on which we would base our approach.
Firstly, where should we fish? Details were to be found either in published articles, by asking local anglers or, more reliably, by watching other people fish, and by our own trial and error. Shores in different parts of Britain are inhabited by characteristic and different species of fish and within each region certain spots have acquired, sometimes deservedly, reputations as good places for particular fish. Much of our local coastline appeared rarely to be fished and still less mentioned in the press. Information was only to be obtained by trying it out.
Secondly, there was the time of the year and time of day to be considered. Broadly, it seemed sufficient to look at the year in terms of twelve months. The day could be divided into four periods - daylight, darkness, dawn and dusk. In shallow waters pouting and conger are recognised as mainly nocturnal, whereas wrasse and mackerel are usually caught during the hours of daylight. Dusk is often quoted as a key time, particularly for pollack. In most cases it is uncertain to what extent these impressions are due to the habits of anglers and how much they result from the behaviour of the fish in question. Exceptions to the rules are commonplace.
The third factor to consider was the state of the tide. Springs or neaps, ebb or flood, high or low water - which is the best? The frequently quoted advice is to find the best state of the tide for each fishing place. Rarely is this advice accompanied by the essential bit of information on how to do this: presumably the tedious process of trial and error is implied.
Finally, the weather is of great importance. Bearing in mind the obvious point that some exposed beaches and rocks are not only unfishable but down-right dangerous in rough weather; and also the much quoted liking of bass for a good surf, very little attention is normally paid to weather conditions.
In short, what are the right places and the right times? If we knew all the answers we would be out fishing instead of writing a book; at this moment, on some beach, the conditions are perfect for making a good catch. There are so many possible permutations of place, time, tide and weather that for an angler to find the correct combination every time would make solving Rubik's Cube seem like light entertainment for chimpanzees. However, by a reasonably systematic approach, by noting recurrent patterns of events and, above all, by many hours of observing and fishing, it has been possible to develop methods in which we, at least, have confidence. Of course we don't catch good fish every time we go fishing, but then - who does?
Subject to the vagaries of the climate of the British Isles the seasons of the year come around with pleasing regularity. Associated with these seasons are the annual breeding and feeding migrations of various species of sea fish. Among the best known of these is the spring dispersion of huge shoals of mackerel from the Continental shelf off south-west England and from the regions offshore of southern Norway. In November and December the fish are massed on the sea bed and feed little, taking only small numbers of crustaceans, worms and small fish. From December to February the mackerel move in towards the coast and, during this period, migrate towards the surface of the sea during the hours of darkness, gradually forming surface shoals. In this phase of their migration the mackerel eat small fish such as the tiny silver pearlside, only an inch or two in length and having a belly lined with pale-blue luminous dots. In late winter and spring the fish move into their spawning areas before spreading out around our coast. During this shoaling phase mackerel feed mainly on copepods, little drifting crustaceans about the size of rice grains.
Good commercial catches of mackerel are often taken in what fishermen term yellow water, rich in copepods. Poor catches are associated with grayish water having an unpleasant smell. In the June to October period (when most of us catch them) the fish range along the coastline and their diet changes to small fish such as sand eels, together with some shrimps and prawns. Later, they return to the overwintering areas offshore. Along the coast of Cornwall, winter mackerel are caught on trolled feathers.
A second example of seasonal migration is seen in the cod which, in British waters, spawns in late winter and spring when water temperatures are about 4-6°C, one of the main spawning areas being in the eastern section of the English Channel. After spawning, the shoals of cod disperse into the feeding areas. Congregation for spawning seems to be the only systematic seasonal movement of these fish.
Examples such as these could be continued indefinitely, but knowledge of migrations is only of value to most anglers if the movements result in the fish coming comparatively close inshore. For much of the time large concentrations of spawning fish, whether they be mackerel, cod or other species, are far beyond the reach of beach or small-boat anglers. In a few cases, such as that of the black bream, an understanding of the spawning migration and habits is essential to consistent angling success. In other cases the information is only of academic interest.
Superimposed on the seasonal spawning and feeding migrations are the activity patterns of each species. For example, the responses of fish to water temperatures. Those fishes that are near the northern limits of their distribution, such as conger and bass, tend to be more active in the warm months of the year. In contrast, cod and haddock are caught chiefly in winter and are chiefly distributed to the north of Britain. The main geographical area occupied by the cod lies between the water temperatures of 0°C and 10°C and the annual mean isotherm for 10°C almost cuts the British Isles in two. Within the area which we fish, the sea temperature at Swanage reaches its minimum of about 7°C in February and for most of the year is well above 10°C. (Presumably the effect of global warming will be to shift these zones northwards and the fish will go with them). Most fish feed actively when the water temperature is well within the range of the area in which they normally live, i.e. neither too warm nor too cold.
Apart from the direct effects of water temperature, day-length etc. on the fish themselves, there are also the indirect influences of these factors on the fish's food supply. In the normal year the spring months and lengthening days herald the development of a massive growth of microscopic drifting algae, itself stimulating an outburst of small planktonic (drifting) animals. This zooplankton is soon supplemented by the numerous drifting larvae of bottom-living worms, crabs and clams and also the innumerable fry and young stages of the fish themselves. All these tiny, vulnerable creatures provide food for larger fish.
On a daily basis, the twenty -four hour cycle of daylight and darkness is the trigger for the rhythmic activity of many small animals. The best known of these patterns is the vertical migration of the plankton. This involves the active upward swimming of crustaceans and other forms at the approach of darkness, followed by the reverse movement in daytime. Although the creatures which make these migrations are small, the depths which they cover are surprisingly great, commonly ranging from as much as twenty fathoms (say 40 metres) deep at noon, up to the surface at dusk and returning again to the same depth just before dawn.
Obviously it is an advantage to fish such as mackerel, horse mackerel. garfish or herring, which feed on these creatures, to make similar migrations to those of their prey. This is precisely what they do. Herrings form shoals on the seabed in daylight hours and swim almost at the surface of the sea at night. However, when the water is turbid due to storm disturbance or dense plankton growth the fish will also spend the hours of daylight nearer the surface.
Larger predatory fish also swim towards the surface at night to feed on mackerel, horse mackerel and the like. Hake, for example, are near the seabed in deep water during the daytime but feed almost exclusively in mid-water in the hours of darkness.
Of more obvious importance to the shore angler is the curious behaviour of the night-tidal plankton. Every sandy beach is inhabited by a great variety of clams, worms and beach hoppers which, at all states of the tide, spend the daylight hours well hidden in their burrows. They are normally only to be seen by washing a spadeful of sand through a fine sieve. At night the beach hoppers, in particular, emerge from their hiding places to swim actively in the surf. At this time they become available to foraging pouting, school bass and dabs. One of the main reasons for this behaviour is the dispersal of male beach hoppers in their search for mates. In consequence there is a much higher proportion of males in the surf than burrowing in the beach. The number of these animals in the surf is greatest in July and there are other peaks in April and September. Most are swimming just after dusk and before dawn. Rough conditions also cause an increase in the amounts of activity, but most still occur after dark.
A daily cycle of activity is also shown by the common brown shrimp which lives on sandy beaches. Normally, when the tide is out, these shrimps burrow in the sand below the low water mark. As the tide rises the shrimps leave the sand and disperse by swimming in the water. Bright light partly prevents swimming behaviour so that most activity occurs on flood tides in the hours of darkness or, notably, when rough seas colour the water.
All this nocturnal activity, often centred on two periods round about dusk and just before dawn, is closely associated with the feeding habits of small fish such as pouting, rocklings, poor cod, gobies and sole. In our area pouting and poor cod are often so numerous that fishing for other species after dark, with small baits, is scarcely worthwhile but remember - where there are little fish there will usually be predators.
These are just a few examples of what is behind the success of angling at particular times of the day or year. Additional cases related to commonly used baits will be given in the following chapters. Too many variations occur for all the possibilities to be dealt with but the angler should be able to work out the best approach for the fish of his or her choice.
A peculiar phenomenon, rather different to the above, is the so-called selective tidal stream transport behaviour of fish. This occurs in some species which are of interest to the angler. Inquiries among Dutch commercial fishermen revealed that in spring, prior to spawning, the common sole swims up to the surface of the sea. This takes place at night when the tidal currents are flowing towards the coast. When they reach the surface, the fish lie immobile and adopt a posture which presents a large surface area to the water currents. In this way they are able to drift, with a minimum of effort, from deep water feeding grounds towards inshore spawning areas. There is some evidence that the fish may navigate by the stars.
A similar form of behaviour has been noted in the plaice and it would seem likely that other fishes use the same means of transport. While night fishing from a small rowing dinghy on calm nights in late summer, the authors have observed, in the light of a torch, small groups of three or four garfish drifting passively with the ebb current, a foot or two below the water surface. Possibly this is an example of a similar energy conservation measure. In any event it is a tiny but fascinating piece of the piscatorial jigsaw puzzle.
In the following chapters it will be clear that most of our fishing is done from rock and shingle beaches or from small rowing dinghies. We have little experience of grip-leads and 200-yard casts, of cliff climbing methods and heavy tackle used by anglers here or in other parts of the country, or of flying collars and thousand-pound catches of pollack and ling from wrecks. This is not because we have any aversion to these methods, but because we feel that success only comes by specialisation and our eggs are already distributed across a wide range of baskets.
We read of, and discuss with awe, some of the catches of other anglers; our hope is that the ideas and approaches described in these pages may provide food for thought for the beginner and expert alike, whatever their pleasure. Perhaps it is not too presumptuous to suppose that someone may catch a few more fish after reading of our failures and successes.