'On your marks! '
SMALL-EYED RAYS AND BLACK BREAM Part 2
Already we were familiar with the black bream by virtue of the occasional small specimen taken while we were trying to catch bait or as recounted above, on a large bait (usually squid), intended for rays or conger. These sporadic catches were sufficient to suggest that the reputation of these little fish as stout battlers was well deserved. No systematic attempts had been made to catch bream but we had already managed to learn a little about the fish and its habits.
The guts of the bream that we had caught were always full of marine algae, usually stuff which resembled strips of green sea lettuce, looking almost as though it had been cut up for a salad. Most of the fish we caught were females, many of them obviously on the verge of spawning or recently spent. Only once or twice in fact had we caught male fish, fine dark-banded creatures with a bluish cast to their heads and yellow spectacle markings across their foreheads.
Each year the shoals of bream arrive on their rather localised inshore spawning areas. The male fish are larger than the females, this size difference between the sexes suggesting that, like the ballan wrasse, these fish may undergo a sex change. Many breams are potentially hermaphrodites.The male black bream lays claim to an area of seabed which it sweeps clear of sand and gravel. This will be the 'nest ' on which the female will lay her eggs. The males guard their chosen nesting areas jealously, driving away fish, lobsters, crabs and other intruders.
Our first catch of bream came, as is so often the case, more or less by accident. Terry and I had decided to have an early season trip in search of a specimen small-eyed ray. The place we chose to fish was further offshore than the usual ledge mark. For a couple of seasons previously we had gradually extended our field of operations seawards along the supposed line of the ledge, which we had first detected.
The 'heavy 'rods were baited with whole small squid and we set about the usual business of catching bait. An hour passed and nothing was forthcoming with the exception of a couple of swimming crabs. As the sun began to go down in a red haze the boat swung on its anchor line and the tide began to ebb. Terry's ragworm, streaming in the current five fathoms below, was at once taken with a couple of purposeful tugs. The subsequent fight left no doubt as to what he had hooked. Seven or eight times his 'Milbro Ghillie' Salmon spinning rod bent double as the fish struggled to return to the seabed. After a few minutes, however, the strength and elasticity of the 8-pound B.S. line proved too much and a superb hen black bream of over 2-pounds was netted and lifted inboard.
In the following half hour, seven more bream of between 1.75 and 2.5-pounds were boated, all having taken ragworm. Before darkness fell, we took careful note of shore marks so that it would be possible to find the exact spot again. As we later established by use of a portable echo sounder, the mark on which the bream were taken was a depression of the seabed eighteen inches to two feet below the surrounding area and only twenty to thirty yards across. Rarely did the 'bream mark' let us down and every year in early April would find us rowing out to the same spot on the top of a spring tide, confident that, on the ebb, we would catch bream.
The bream caught in April are invariably of good size but, as the season progresses, the average weight becomes smaller. Seemingly (just as in the case of salmon returning to the river) the 'spring fish' are the big ones. So, in the case of black bream, it is the large fish that are the earliest spawners and the precursors of the main shoals. In most seasons the first bream bite would come, not on legered ragworm or squid strip, but on the wire trace and whole squid intended for larger fish. This happened so often that I even took to adding a small, squid baited hook to trail just behind the big bait. As usual, the compromise failed and the few bream caught in this way did not merit the nuisance of constantly reeling in the 'conger tackle' to check the small hook after every little knock. Nor was it worth the risk of loosing a good fish lightly hooked on the bream hook.
Black bream often give the impression of being preoccupied with a certain bait. Thus, on one evening, Harry, Jon and I fished (intentionally) each with a different bait - lugworm, ragworm and squid strip. Using ragworm, I was the only one catching bream. We changed baits, and now Harry, using ragworm, began to catch. By the end of two hours hectic fishing, of the thirty-eight bream caught (all over 1.5-pounds) thirty-six had been taken on the ragworm. On other occasions squid strip would be taken almost to the exclusion of all else. In general, it was found to be good policy to take along both rag and squid whenever possible. Why the black bream should take these baits at all when their normal diet on this mark seemed to be algae, we were never able to decide.
The usual problem in bream fishing off Swanage is the weather. The prevailing wind off this coast is from the south and west and from these quarters the bay is very sheltered. May, however, is a period when east winds can be expected and the slightest breath of east (onshore) wind means no fishing from small boats. At times it seemed almost as though landing the first bream of the year was a signal for an easterly blow. If the wind changed to the east when we were already at sea, conditions could quickly become very dangerous, even for craft larger than ours, and any hint of an onshore blow was indicative of the need for an 'early bath,' whatever the fish were doing.
Not all the hazards of dinghy fishing were due to Mother Nature. It was on a fine calm night that Harry and I set out after bream, as usual full of anticipation. As I pulled away from the slipway everything seemed right but about a hundred yards out I said, 'There seems to be a lot of water in the bottom of the boat tonight.' A closer inspection showed that there was a neat hole of about 2-inches in diameter just below the water line. A fountain of water was spurting elegantly into the air and rapidly equalising the levels inside and out. We looked at each other in dismay and as one man, leaned over to port thus raising the offending hole above the water surface. Harry produced a large plastic bag, which we stuffed into the hole and wedged in place with the butt end of the gaff. With the flow thus abated we bailed out the excess moisture and made a joint declaration not to let it spoil the night. We then proceeded, on a rather uneven keel, to the 'bream mark' and eventually managed to land a 20-pound conger, using the ever-present spare gaff.
After that day the hull was examined with scrupulous care before every trip. We were later informed that the 'little perforation' had been caused by a carelessly parked motorbike that had fallen on our cockleshell; the offender had not thought it worthwhile to leave a note to inform us.