'Who's been swimming on my reef?'
PLUGGING FOR BASS Part I
We have realised that "Plugging For Bass" was incomplete in the original version. In order to add the extra material we have now divided the chapter into two parts.
The southern and western coasts of the British Isles are almost at the northern limit of distribution of that superb sporting fish, the bass (as global warming increases they seem to be creeping further and further north). As is now well known the bass is a slow-growing fish in this part of its range. Large specimens of 10-pounds weight are normally in their late 'teens and twenties. It is an active fast swimming fish, passing a great deal of time in the shoal water of reefs and estuaries and, at high water, is often found between tide marks within a few feet of the seashore.
There is a great deal of folklore regarding bass angling, some of which has a foundation of fact based on experience. As will already be apparent, for some years our bass catches consisted primarily of school fish weighing less than a pound. These were, and are, easily taken on legered ragworm from the beaches in and around Poole Harbour, Swanage and Bournemouth. An occasional larger fish of 2 to 4-pounds succumbed to our baitfishing activities from shingle beaches such as the eastern end of Swanage Bay, Worbarrow and Durdle Door. These fish were pleasing to catch, but because there was no discernible pattern to the catches they gave us little satisfaction in terms of understanding the species.
A little known study by scientist D.B.Carlisle gives a glimmer of insight into the way that bass sometimes behave and, because of this, is of extreme interest to anglers. Carlisle spent many hours observing fish by means of underwater swimming on and around an intertidal reef in South Devon. The reef was inhabited, when the tide was in, by two large bass and seven average-sized thicklipped grey mullet. The same nine fish came onto the reef each day and were recognisable as individuals by their characteristic scars and damaged fins.
When the tide began to rise, all the fish, bass and mullet, arrived on the reef as soon as the water was deep enough for them to swim (six to nine inches deep). Whether the water was calm or rough the fish came in and they would even swim in with the breaking waves. The two bass came and went individually but the mullet arrived and left as a school. The fish left the reef when the water was still deep, about one hour after high tide as soon as the ebb current began to run strongly. Whilst they were on the reef each of the fish kept to its own area. The territories of the mullet overlapped with those of the bass but the two species took no notice of one another. The two bass, however, rarely encroached on each other's area.
When undisturbed, the bass lurked in gullies or around the waving fronds of wrack, waiting to pounce out upon passing sand eels or to take shrimps moving on the sandy patches. When a bass was chasing food it kept all of its fins close to the body until the last instant, when they were spread to act as brakes as the fish turned to seize its prey. In contrast, if a `strange' bass entered the territory of one of the residents it was driven off by the owner, which `attacked' with fins spread and mouth agape, in characteristic threat display.
In this case, at least, the bass were available on intertidal rocks and feeding, even in very shallow water, on most of the flood tide. Since they clocked out an hour after high water, a cessation of bites would be expected then. Also, after catching one or two good bass in the area it would clearly have paid to move on along the beach and fish the next territory, and so on.
Small bass may be found inshore in the south of England throughout most years. The larger fish arrive in spring, essentially for spawning, which takes place in the month of May. Spawning occurs on shallow reefs subject to fast tidal currents, or in shallow estuaries. (Since this was written the information on bass spawning has been much improved. The fish spawn as they return from their overwintering areas in the south west starting in March in the western English Channel and continuing until June in the southern North Sea and off north Wales) Bass can adapt without much difficulty to fresh water, but do not usually ascend estuaries beyond the point where crabs and shrimps are abundant. In the autumn and winter large bass tend to leave the vicinity of the shore when the sea temperatures fall from about 13°C to 9°C. On the Irish coast this is in October-November and they return in late April. In Poole Harbour large (double-figure) bass are occasionally taken by netsmen as early as February and March. Sea temperatures are probably the main factor affecting the seasonal migration of bass.
As we have said, our early efforts at bottom fishing with bait produced only school bass and `accidental' larger fish. The significant events of our first real attempts to catch bass took place in the period 1968-70. Several times, Terry and I, both indefatigable spinners, had spent hours spinning from rocks and beaches or trolling artificial baits from hired rowing dinghies. The normal lures used were Toby spoons of various sizes which proved quite effective for mackerel, garfish and small pollack. On two or three occasions, however, much fiercer pulls than those of the usual `small stuff' had resulted in good fish being hooked and subsequently lost after a couple of seconds' contact. These mystery fish were the subject of some speculation but the general view was that they were likely to have been bass. It is possible that the wish was father to the thought.
On one occasion, during a day out at Weymouth with the family, I spent an hour or two on the pleasure pier intent on doing a spot of spinning while the others shopped. The sun was blazing down from a cloudless sky and the pier was crowded with holidaymakers. A big spring tide was ebbing hard and a strong flow of clear, greenish water was leaving the harbour and flowing out between the piers. A few minutes spent peering over the railings, watching other anglers fishing with worm for wrasse and pollack, revealed a steady progression of small shoals of good fish leaving the harbour with the flow.
Encouraged, I clipped a small, silver pirk, an ABU Lurette, onto my 10-pound line and cast well out into the fast-flowing water. First cast, as the lure jinked back across the tide, wallop! - a good fish took it and was hooked. After a minute or so of hectic action the fish escaped. Ten minutes later a second fish was hooked and this time was only lost after being played to the base of the pier, where it was clearly seen to be a bass of 5 or 6-pounds.
The immediate feeling of disappointment at losing yet another fish on a `spinner' was slightly tempered by the fact that I knew, this time for sure, that the fish had been a good bass. The bass had been hooked, under far from ideal conditions, when other anglers using float and bottom tackle were landing only small pollack and wrasse. The next piece of the jigsaw came from a totally unexpected quarter. Trevor, an angling friend now returned to the north, had been trying, with some success, to catch a `freezer full' of mackerel for the winter bait supply. He trolled from his small plastic Romany dinghy, powered by a little Seagull outboard. One of the lures that had been used to good effect in these efforts was a small, floating, balsa-wood, Rapala plug on leaded trolling tackle. It seemed to some of us that these lures, with their close resemblance to sprats, sand eels and sand smelts, and their tendency to dive and work, even when reeled in slowly against a strong flow, could prove useful when spinning under conditions such as those I had experienced from Weymouth Pier.
1 & 2: Pirk and Toby Spoon (used in early days and in deeper water)
3: ABU Killer (one of our first floating plugs. Bass up to 11¼-pounds were taken on these lures)
4 & 5: Home made floaters (Number 4 has taken bass of over 10-pounds and number 5 has proved effective in sizes up to 12" long)
6 & 13: Redgill and balsa-bodied Mepps (both are useful in dirty conditions amongst bits of floating weed)
7 & 15: Streamer flies and floating maggot-flies (used with a fly rod for bass and mullet)
8: Small Japanese slow-sinker (used for fry-feeders)
9 & 10: Rapalas (until recently our most consistent shallow working floater)
11: The 'Tesco Special' (cheap foreign made floater very effective for bass of all sizes)
12: Rebel J30S (the current favourite. Responsible for many large bass including one of 12½-pounds)
14: Rebel crayfish (a recent acquisition useful for bass and with potential as a wrasse lure)
On the next trip to Weymouth, a brand new medium sized, green and silver, single jointed, floating Rapala was in my bag. A visit to a Weymouth tackle shop to buy some new line revealed that a local spot, the 'Ferry Bridge' had been reported as fishing well (for bass). A quick conference resulted in a change of venue and we asked to be directed to the bridge, anticipating the usual `you should have been here last week', when we eventually found the place.
We arrived to find that the Ferry Bridge (now replaced by a new concrete structure) in fact carried the Weymouth-PortIand causeway road across the narrow outflow of a huge tidal lagoon, the Fleet, which lies behind the famous Chesil Beach. A hundred yards seaward of the road bridge a rusty and defunct railway bridge, now demolished, also crossed the narrow neck of water. The tide was already beginning to flood and the sea was flowing steadily into the Fleet between the piles of the bridges, gin clear but with the blueness of deep water. Several anglers were already float-fishing or bottom-fishing with ragworm or small prawns from the railway bridge and on enquiry we discovered that they had landed a few small pollack. Shoals of small silvery fish, apparently sand smelts, were clearly to be seen twisting and turning in the shelter of the bridge supports.
We decided to try spinning from the sandy shore of the boat park, which flanked the water between the two bridges. In this way it would be possible to cast our small Toby spoons across the current and fish them round, more or less, as in a river. Immediately we were into fish, small pollack of one-half to three-quarter-pounds that put up a fair show on our 8-pound lines and light spinning rods. Two hours later our joint catch had topped sixty pollack, all of a similar size and all of which were returned to the water.
By now the tide was flowing fiercely through the channel and beginning to flood over the sand on which we stood, making it difficult to control the spinners, or indeed to prevent them skating across the surface. At this stage I remembered my plug - were these not ideal conditions to try it out? I clipped it onto the link swivel and climbed up onto the railway bridge. Most of the other anglers were packing up or had already left because they were unable to keep their tackle down in the fast-flowing water. One chap, on seeing the plug, volunteered the encouraging information that he had "...never seen anyone catch anything on spinners from the bridge".
Never one to be put off easily, I dropped the plug onto the water surface downstream of the bridge and allowed line to peel off the spool as the lure drifted away. After seventy or eighty yards of line had gone, I gave a turn of the handle to bring over the bale-arm and held the rod pointing downwards until the lure had submerged well below the surface. Slowly I began to retrieve, one turn, two turns, wrench!
The rod curved sharply over and the check began to give line. The fish boiled on the surface, still seventy yards downstream of the bridge. I played it along towards the point where the rusty ironwork joined the shore and Harry lifted it from the water onto the rocks. A two-and-a-half-pound bass! I could not have been more pleased if it had been a record fish. Shortly afterwards the same technique produced a second bass of three-pounds. We talked about them all the way home, our first reasonable bass caught, more or less, by intention.
It was later in the same year that we took the next important step in learning to catch bass consistently. Harry was going with Jim, one of our local postmen, to fish from the boulder strewn shore of Durlston Bay. Jim an expert skin-diver and a keen angler, knew a good deal about the local fishing, especially in relation to trolling for Bass from his outboard-powered dinghy. The next morning at work, I could see from Harry's face that the trip had been blessed with success. In fact, the good news was that Jim had caught an eight-pound bass on a small Mepps spoon. The bad news was that he had damaged his ankle in landing it without a net. In trying to kick the fish up the beach he had booted a half-ton cementstone boulder by mistake, effectively putting paid to his shore fishing for the next three months. Harry, using a No. 2 Mepps Mino, had four bites and landed one bass of about 3-pounds. It was enough to make the rest of us green with envy.
The following weekend I put my spinning rod into the car after lunch, collected Ian, another member of the group, and drove down to Durlston. It was a superb early summer afternoon and the sun was reflected from the oily surface of a flat calm with only the slightest swell to disturb the wrack cast up along the tideline. Fifty yards from the car park half-a-dozen anglers were casting a miscellany of floats and tackles at a small shoal of grey mullet which were hanging almost motionless at the surface. Ian succumbed and joined the group, casting his No.1 silver Mepps repeatedly towards the fish, which appeared totally uninterested in everything.
Never one for crowds, I walked off along the shore `giant hopping' from one huge grey-yellow boulder to the next. Clearly there was no one else game to walk in the hot sun and the rest of the beach was deserted. I rounded the first prominence of the cliff, every so often making a couple of casts with the floating plug on which I had caught bass at the Ferry Bridge. Every inch of the plug's progress was clearly visible. It wriggled sinuously through the clear water seeming, to me at least, to be irresistible. Although the lure was working well, I had a few qualms about the possibility of deceiving fish, if fish there were, under the bright clear conditions.
Fifty yards further on, the boulders were larger and there was a noticeable change in the sea's edge. The water had taken on the colour of strong tea where the lapping swell was disturbing a huge mass of rotting kelp trapped between the rocks. A swirl in the water two yards out could just have been a submerged boulder; there were plenty of them. There was another swirl! I took a few slow steps closer and then I saw them - bass- and big ones! A dozen or more fish ranging from a couple of pounds up to, perhaps, double figures were grovelling about within a few feet of me. With bated breath I flicked the plug out onto the mirror surface and began to retrieve. One of the smaller fish turned and grabbed it, hooked itself and headed out to sea. I played it along the beach away from its fellows and lifted it carefully from the water. A sharp tap on the head with a handy rock and I was able to unhook it. I returned to the feeding fish and cast again. Three more casts without any sign of interest and I remembered Ian.
I hurried back along the beach and, when I was in view of the aspiring mullet catchers, shouted and waved my arms to attract Ian's attention. Curiously, none of the other anglers took any notice of the excited calls but Ian reeled in and strode along towards me.
We were soon hurrying back to the hotspot. The fish were still there and we exchanged strings of excited superlatives. Ian cast out his small Mepps and it was promptly seized, the little green solid-glass rod bent into a circle and the six-pound line parted with a sharp crack. The check had been set too tightly on the cheap fixed spool reel. Meanwhile I had hooked another fish, again one of the smaller ones, and was leaping from rock to rock like a kangaroo, with thoughts of Jim's damaged ankle passing through my head as I tried to keep pace with the fish which was running parallel to the beach.
Five minutes later, after I had returned the fish to the water, - it was lightly hooked and came off after being beached - I hurried back to find Ian landing a slightly larger fish. `I've already lost two others,' he called. Having dealt with Ian's bass, a five-pounder, we turned back to the sea, but the fish were no longer there. Perhaps the ebbing tide had signalled them to leave or perhaps the commotion caused by playing the other fish had scared them off. Anyway, we were well satisfied with one fish each to take home and several other bites on Mepps, Tobys and the floating plug.
In the course of that afternoon, never quite repeated in exactly the same way since, we had learned quite a bit. We had confirmed the presence of very acceptable bass close in to this rugged, boulder-strewn, wrack-clothed shore. We had shown that, sometimes, they would take spinners with gusto. The Mepps and Tobys used by Ian seemed to be attractive to the fish, but to prevent them sinking and snagging up on the weed and rocks a foot or too beneath the surface line control had to be perfect. There was no time for overruns or messing about in the very shallow water. The floating plug, in contrast, was attractive to the fish, could be cast quite far enough and, most important, could be retrieved as slowly as desired or even left until the occasional `bum cast' was sorted out.
That trip was the first of many in which we tried to work out the optimum conditions and the best methods for catching bass from the rocky beaches between Swanage and Weymouth. There were obviously two very different alternative approaches. Firstly, bottom or float fishing, as employed by many other anglers in the area. Secondly, spinning with natural or artificial baits.