'Who's been swimming on my reef?'


We already knew from our own observations and the researches of others, that small bass tended to eat shrimps, prawns and ragworm, while larger bass mainly concentrated on crabs and fish. The stomach contents of the few decent bass we had caught consisted chiefly of shore crabs or, less often, swimming crabs. The latter were not the large, red-eyed, purple-clawed velvet swimmers but the smaller species that live offshore on sandy patches. Anyway, hard crabs of various shapes and sizes were commonly found in the stomachs of bass caught on spinners.

The second major item of food was a variety of fish species. Many types of fish were eaten as we later discovered but, strikingly, most were what we subsequently came to think of as 'long thin fish': pipe-fish, fifteen-spined sticklebacks, eels, blennies, rocklings, gobies and dragonets and, occasionally, sand eels. Rarely were sand smelts or young mullet found in the guts, even though the two latter species were conspicuously abundant in and around the area being fished.

One or two other items, more surprising to us at the time, were also noted. The maggots of seaweed flies sometimes filled the stomachs to the exclusion of all else! Large brown woodlice (Idothea) were also present in numbers. In odd instances we found the sort of thing in which angling writers delight but which are of little practical importance: a whole dead mole was in the stomach of a 6.5-pound fish, a mass of chicken bones in another good specimen; pebbles, bits of seaweed, a squat lobster and a masked crab were among other items found at various times.

In short, crab was obviously a favourite food but hard-backed crabs have never, to our knowledge, been shown to be useful as bass baits. Soft-backed and peeler-crabs are available locally but, because of the small tidal range, it takes a good deal of time to collect sufficient numbers for a fishing trip. Also, the area in which we were fishing, apart from a few selected spots that were often occupied by other local anglers, was not conducive to bottom fishing without the use of heavy lines and/or the loss of large amounts of tackle.

In view of these difficulties and our recent experiences, we decided that spinning or float fishing would be our best methods. We tried float-fishing with mackerel strip, squid, and sand eels but under the type of conditions that we were fishing, it never produced as many fish as did spinning. Also, those fish taken on float tackle appeared to be smaller specimens. Because of this we decided to concentrate our efforts on spinning.

We make no attempt to comment on the relative merits of crab or other baits and spinners, but the results subsequently obtained by spinning appear to be at least comparable with those of other anglers who bait fish from the same beaches. A brief summarised account of results obtained by ourselves over several years is presented in the final chapter for the reader's own evaluation.

Over a period of months and years following the modest catches already described, a determined effort was made to try out a range of lures for catching bass. The original balsa-wood Rapala was quite good, but, along with the available plastic copies of the time, it had certain disadvantages. All were comparatively expensive, as they still are, and to lose or damage one could be a depressing experience. With practice, losses of lures on snags became minimal, and a lure would often last a season. It was only when fishing over unfamiliar territory that any losses occurred.

However, as we soon discovered, most bought lures are easily damaged: the commonest problem being broken diving vanes (lips). These brittle plastic scoops often snapped off, either in playing a fish or in knocking against a rock during casting or retrieving it the damage was noticed the plug could immediately be replaced by a spare. The most annoying instances of such damage were at dusk, when feeding fish could be splashing and rolling in the shallow water, and it was only after- several minutes casting without bites that the damage would be noticed. Plastic lures were also inclined to lose lips, in this case because they were not fixed (glued) into the body adequately. The solution to this problem is simple - a couple of oblique cuts with a saw or hacksaw blade, passing through the base of the lip and into the adjacent body, are filled with a resin glue such as Araldite. The resultant bond is virtually permanent.

A second constructional problem was the loss of hooks, usually because the fixing wire loop (balsa wood lures) or screw-eye (plastic lures) pulled out in the course of playing or landing a fish or in freeing the lure from a snag. These problems, although uncommon if the hook fixings had been tested by a good pull before use, were unpredictable, annoying and difficult to prevent because they were due to faults in the method of construction or weaknesses of the material in use.

A third flaw, which was comparatively easy to overcome, was the loss of colour or surface finish. Whether this colour was applied as a simple electroplating, paint, enamel or varnished tinfoil, the solution was to give the new lures two or three good coats of clear polyurethane varnish. This soon became standard procedure, although there was very little evidence that the loss of colour during use made much difference to the effectiveness of the plug.

Plastic, mass-produced plugs, although generally less well finished than their balsa counterparts, had certain advantages. Firstly they were harder and thus less likely to be gouged, grooved and damaged, either in the tackle bag or in fishing. Secondly their greater density sometimes helped casting in windy conditions. Only trial and error would reveal whether a particular lure was any good for catching fish, but in general, any long narrow lure of the `killer' type was worth a try. Plugs of up to ten-inches in length were well worth using and there was some evidence that large lures might tend to select for larger fish.

With reference to the last point, on one occasion in the early 1970's I had been using, with some success, a 9-inch, blue-and-silver plastic plug armed with three good-sized treble hooks. The plug was very easy to cast and on a slow, steady retrieve would submerge to a depth of about two feet. Its action was negligible, only the slightest shiver being visible as the lure was retrieved. Harry, finding himself without a plug, came round one evening to borrow my current favourite for an hour or two's spinning from the rocks.

The following morning he arrived at my gate before breakfast and beckoned me out into the street. Opening the car boot with a flourish, he revealed a beautiful 11-pound bass in perfect condition. Then came the bad news. The sea had been rather rough with an onshore wind and the tide was only halfway in. The first cast had produced the large fish, which was landed after a five-minute struggle. Two casts later my prize lure had snagged upon a submerged rock. Despite prolonged efforts to free it, the ten-pound line eventually parted, whereupon Harry had picked up the fish, packed up his gear and returned home.

In view of the various problems encountered in the use of bought plugs an almost inevitable consequence was an attempt to make our own lures. The basic method of construction is shown in Figure 32.
Stage 1.  Loops formed in central wire.
Stage 2.  Wire glued into groove along belly and plastic lip fixed with resin glue.
Stage 3.  Finished plug
Simple two jointed models were the standard pattern used, partly because they appeared to have a more realistic action and partly because one particular jointed plastic lure had seemed to be particularly effective, producing thirteen fish for one of our number in his first few weeks of sea fishing.

The homemade lures were long, eight to ten-inches, and rather slimmer in profile than bought versions. The sixty-pound breaking strain rustless wire which ran through the centre (glued into a groove sawn along the belly) was bent and twisted from a single piece in each joint, so that there was no possibility of loops pulling out. The hooks were attached by means of split rings, so that both hooks and rings could be replaced when rusted or damaged. The lip was of polythene cut from an old bottle, preferably of heavier gauge than the standard detergent container. The rectangle of polythene bottle was glued into a slanting groove sawn in the underside of the balsa-wood of the body. The surface of the lip in contact with the body was roughened up and fixed with Araldite, or similar glue, securing firmly by the method already described. Unfortunately, the flotsam and jetsam on any beach will provide an unlimited range of material for lip construction.

There is considerable scope for deep or shallow diving modifications by varying the angle of the lip and it is also possible to alter the action by altering the width of the lip. A wider lip gives a wilder action. Generally, something like a 45 degree angle and a width similar to that of the body will be effective. A valuable tip in making any plug, gained from the instruction leaflet in Rapala boxes, is that any lure which tends to swim on its side can be corrected by bending the front attachment loop of the plug towards the side which is uppermost in the water. The action of the lure can also be adjusted by bending this loop down (towards the belly) to increase the amount of roll and yaw. In making the lures the wire should protrude far enough from the nose to allow adjustment without being so long as to be easily bent by accident.

A good sand-eel-type finish can be obtained on home-made plugs by gluing a strip of silver paper (aluminium foil) along either side after shaping and smoothing the balsa-wood. The back and belly can then be painted (grey-green and white respectively) and three or four coats of clear gloss varnish added. Models made and coloured in this way have proved to be very effective even when they showed little visible action and retrieved rather like dead sticks. The major drawback with long, jointed, balsa-wood structures is lack of casting weight and high wind resistance. This is less of a handicap than it might appear because, unless they have been disturbed, bass will frequently feed within a feet of the water's edge. These lures have taken fish consistently wherever they have been tried, in Scotland, north-west England, Dorset, Devon and the Channel Islands. A single mid-afternoon's holiday fishing session from the rugged rocks of Corbiere, Jersey, in May produced several 4 to 5-pound bass.

Trevor has used home made balsa-wood plugs for catching codling from his small dinghy off the Cumbrian coast. Here is his description of the method just as we received it.

(1 ) The plugs

Home-made imitations after the Rapala pattern. About four to six inches long and just lighter than water. Generally with green backs, silver flanks and white underside. I have used jointed and plain, but the jointed ones seem best. Treble-hooks (not very large) at stern and mid-point.

(2) The rig

Stationary plug rig for cod.  In a good flow of tide fish tend to hook themselves.

(3) The gear

The gear is lowered gently from an anchored boat and set so that the sinker is about one foot above the bottom. Method requires a flow of tide. The plug then `works' in the current. There is no real need to hold the rod because bites are very positive and I think the fish usually hook themselves.

(4) Results

I have used this method off the Cumbrian coast for codling. Usually the legered plug has been used on a spare rod set up in the stern of the boat whilst my main attention has been given to conventional tackle using bait (lugworm, king rag, mussel, hermit crab. Bait fishing catches more fish and the fish caught cover a wide range of sizes from around twelve inches long up to about ten pounds, most of them towards the lower end of this range The `legered plug' attracts far fewer bites but few bites are 'missed' and the fish caught are almost always of reasonable size (three to ten pounds).

(5) Variants

Codling can also be caught by substituting a small Redgill sand eel for the plug. I have used this set-up off the Galloway coast. `Sample size' here is smaller, but the general principle that the legered lure attracts less bites than conventionally fished bait but selects for larger fish, appears to hold good.

(6) Stomach contents

I have cursorily examined stomach contents from Cumbrian codling taken on both bait and lure. The major components of the contents are miscellaneous crustacea (crabs, squat lobsters etc.) with the occasional small fish. The occasional fish turn up more often in stomachs of larger fish than in the stomachs of smaller ones. There is no obvious reason to believe that the codling caught on lures contain more fish than those caught on bait (apart from the size difference already mentioned).

(7) General notes

This method, for obvious reasons, is not very useful unless there is a fair tide running past the anchored boat. However, the same method can also be used for drift fishing or for very slow trolling.