'Once in a blue moon'
BASS FROM THE ROCKS
The original pictures for this chapter were black and white prints taken by Terry. We think that they illustrate the points really well but it will be back to colour for chapter 8!
Shallow, boulder-strewn beaches are liable to produce bass at any time during the period from about late April to mid-November. The time of day and the state of tide seem not to be critical, in the sense that no time is completely hopeless. At first the great majority of our fish were taken within an hour of high water, on the spring tides, when fishing from the open shore. In recent years the actual techniques of fishing have been more or less standard, and most effort has been devoted to extending the periods in which fish could consistently be caught. This was done by experimentally fishing a range of marks under varying tidal and weather conditions. Two examples can be given to illustrate the possibilities.
'Freshwater Bay' is a broad, gravel beach backed by huge shale cliffs of the type so common in South Dorset. There are submerged rock ledges running out to sea from the beach and much of the bay is extremely shallow with only a foot or two of water a quarter of a mile offshore. This was strikingly brought home to us by Jim, the postman mentioned in the previous chapter. Whilst swimming well offshore he noticed a good-sized yacht heading for one of the ledges. It was approaching low water and only eighteen inches of water covered the flat, rock shelf. Unable to make himself heard, he swam as quickly as he could towards the speeding vessel. When he was about fifteen yards away the yacht struck the ledge and immediately there was panic. People appeared from below decks shouting and donning life jackets. Jim swam slowly alongside and, in his rich Dorset voice said `Afternoon' and then stood up. The water scarcely covered his knees.
Significantly, only a short distance east of the bay lies St Aldhelm's Head, a massive, limestone headland with an associated tide race of the type in which bass are known to spawn. In May and June, during and after spawning, large bass are apt to spend a great deal of time in and around the shallow bays adjacent to the race; bays which in calm, sheltered conditions provide a haven for countless young fish.
Our first indication that good bass were to be taken from such situations came from a lone foray by Jon Bass (truly, that is his name), one of our group who is, by inclination, a fanatical freshwater match fisherman and, by nature, a first-rate observer of fish behaviour. Jon, on an exploratory walk with rod and balsa plug, ventured along the shores of Freshwater Bay. He was looking more than fishing, casting and retrieving occasionally as he went. To cut a long story short, Jon had a bite and hooked an 8-pound bass. As he played the fish in the calm clear water he could see two other fish, of similar size, swimming alongside, probably still with spawning in mind. Having beached the fish Jon quickly unhooked it, cast again and promptly hooked and eventually lost one of its partners.
A couple of days later saw Harry and I parking the car in the cliff top car park at Chapman's Pool. The usual 10-foot spinning rods, Cardinal reels and 8-pound lines were put together. Floating plugs were tied on and hooked onto the butt rings in preparation for the forthcoming walk. Down the winding track alongside the small stream we went, brushing through the overhanging thickets of blackthorn, still with the odd white flower, over the cracked earth of the landslips which scar the coombe leading down to the sheltered waters of 'The Pool'.
Chapman's Pool itself is a good spot for mackerel in late summer and for conger when the sea is rough and coloured. Crossing the slippery grey mud, where the little stream disgorges its water onto the beach, we rounded the curve of the shingle beach under the shadow of the tall crumbling cliffs. The tide was out and still falling slowly towards low water. The sun blazed down onto a clear sea, which sparkled brilliantly as the faintest of breezes ruffled the surface. Through a series of little gravelly bays we trudged and over the rough-surfaced limestone blocks which litter the points between. 0ff came the Barbour jackets as the sweat ran down our faces and we plodded on.
The first view of Freshwater Bay itself was a revelation. The wide sweep of the bay was surrounded by massive dark grey cliffs, fronted by a steep pebble beach. At the near end of the beach was a large wooden pontoon torn loose from a nearby cove where it had formerly been used as a diving platform. It lay half in the water amidst a mass of loose weed. The broad beach was scalloped into a series of little shingle bays and points. A tiny stream trickled down the face of the cliff at the back of the beach and disappeared amongst the stones. At the far end of the bay, a plume of spray marked the descent of another stream over the cliff edge.
We stopped walking to have a breather and to survey the scene. Patches of tiny ripples dappled the smooth blue-grey surface of the bay. Opposite the point where we had stopped, and about two hundred yards out in the centre of the bay, one patch of ripples seemed more persistent than the others. Our attention became focused on the patch and together we exclaimed, `That was a fish!' A rounded grey back broke the surface of the water, and another. `At this range they must be good-sized fish or we would never see them: what do you reckon, Harry? I suppose they must be bass,' I said. 'They couldn't be anything else' replied Harry. `Pity they are so far out, perhaps they'll come in later.'
We walked on towards the beach and Harry continued the conversation. 'They must be damned great fish to be visible from that distance.' 'What's the best plan of action, do you think?' I asked. 'We can split up and work our way along the beach from either end. Give me a shout if you get one,' said Harry, and he set off along towards the waterfall, taking care to keep well back from the water's edge.
Half-an-hour passed by. Casting and retrieving the plugs we worked our way along the four hundred yards of beach. Like a double-sized mirror image, Harry approached me from the far end of the shingle and we were within a rod's length of one another when he hooked a bass of about 2-pounds. I stood behind him as he beached it, unhooked it and returned it to the sea. `Have you noticed that shoal of fish I reckon they're coming closer; they seem to be heading for the corner where that old pontoon is,' said Harry. `O.K. Let's work our way back there it must be just about low tide.' As we approached the corner of the bay an incredible sight met our eyes. The clear water was alive with brit of about an inch or two in length and now, some fifty yards out, the swirls and boils of feeding bass were very obvious and rapidly coming closer.
Soon we could see fish of up to 10 or 12-pounds careering about, only a yard or two from the margin of the sea and gulping in the little fish as though every bite was their last. We cast and cast again, but apart from a 3 pounder on Harry's plug we had no other bites. We were becoming frustrated; clearly the bass were preoccupied with brit. We rummaged through the tackle bags. There were plenty of big plugs but, of course, nothing small enough with the possible exception of a 3-inch, blue and silver plastic wiggler which I had bought to use for salmon. The plug was a very slow sinker with a metal lip and two extremely sharp, nickel-plated, trebles - excellent considering that it was such a cheap lure. First cast with the little plug and I was into a good fish which tore out to sea and away along the beach. The bass was clearly visible in the clear water and took about five minutes before it could be slid onto the beach and lifted, fingers in gills, taking care to avoid the trebles in its mouth.
Back in the corner Harry, one of the world's most persistent anglers, was still casting and retrieving without success. I returned, cast again and immediately was into another good fish. The procedure was repeated as before and it soon became clear that, apart from the brit, the little plug was the only thing the bass would take.
As dusk fell and the tide began to flood the bass again moved out and by mutual agreement we `gave it best' and turned to look at our catch. With slight feelings of guilt we realised that there were twelve fish lying on the beach, apart from the other ten or twelve smaller bass that we had returned to the sea. The catch ranged from 4 to 10-pounds with a total weight of well over seventy pounds.
`How the hell are we going to get these back?' said Harry. `With difficulty, I should think. There's an old pole back there, let's sling them on that.' We collected the pole, which was about six feet long, streaked with oil and at one end decorated with a bunch of stalked goose barnacles picked up as it drifted in the Atlantic. We threaded the fish via their gills and mouths along the pole and then sat down for a five-minute breather before the long trek back.
Now that we had time to take stock we noticed that our hands were trembling like leaves. We stared at the fish and turned our heads slowly until we were looking one another in the eye. `Once in a blue moon!' I muttered and Harry, probably for the only time in his life lost for words, simply nodded his head. It was dark as we trudged and stumbled the two miles back to the car park in almost total silence, both feeling the satisfaction that comes after a good fishing trip.
At the obligatory `inquest' the following morning we considered what had been learned from this success. Low water neaps and calm, clear conditions in late spring and summer cause brit to shoal up in very shallow water close to the shore. The bass, when they are preoccupied with small fish, are difficult to catch except on a `small fish' imitation. We had no doubt that a tube or streamer fly would have been at least as effective as a small plug but it was not until later years that fly-fishing became one of our regular methods for catching both bass and mullet.
Subsequently, we took many good bass from `Pontoon Corner' as we came to know it, even though two years later the pontoon disappeared, as no doubt it had arrived, in a winter storm. Often, at low water of both neap and spring tides, Big bass can be seen foraging along such shingle beaches in the waves which are breaking on the shore. These fish are usually in ones and twos and great care must be taken so as not to scare them, particularly in calm, clear conditions. Usually the first sign of a fish will be the swirl in the water's edge as it sees the angler and swims away.
The best tactics to adopt in these conditions require a very quiet approach along the beach, moving in the same direction as the tidal current. The fish will then be approaching the angler, face to face, as they swim uptide against the flow. Every few yards a series of casts should be made starting with the first parallel to, and only a couple of feet from, the water's edge and then covering the water in a fan-like manner. If, as is often the case, there has been wind or rain and the sea is coloured with stirred up sediment or mud washed in from the land, it probably pays to cast more or less directly out to sea, moving a few yards along the beach after every half a-dozen casts. In the course of an hour or two, quite long stretches of the shoreline can be covered particularly by two or three anglers working to a system. Usually a tide will only produce one or two bass in these conditions but they will often be good fish of over 5-pounds weight.
Apart from the basic spinning technique, using the floating plug, we have tried a variety of other methods. Many of these approaches have produced fish, but none with the consistency of plug fishing. Peeler crab used in coloured water has, on several occasions, resulted in reasonable catches of smaller bass but, according to the published accounts of other anglers, it is clearly capable of better results (See the book "Hooked on Bass" by Ladle and Vaughan.). Similarly, using squid, both legered and float fished, we have had the odd bass, some of good size. Frozen sand eel, the only form in which this bait is readily available to us, is productive in both clear and coloured water, and in fact one of the best bass which we have so far taken, a fish of 12.5-pounds, was caught on a legered `eel' as the sea settled on the day following a violent August storm.
On the principle that natural baits should be more attractive to large fish than are artificials (certainly true with the pike that we fish for) we have spun with dead dace, our most easily obtained 'little silver fish'. This method resulted in a number of `takes' but for some reason, the bass tended to drop them rather quickly. Mackerel strip is a bait widely used by local anglers legering for bass, and decent specimens are at times taken by those `in the know', usually at the cost of a certain amount of bottom tackle. Of necessity, bottom fishing on the snaggy terrain that is often associated with good bass beaches is a rather static business. Because of this sit-and-wait element it is not compatible with the searching approach, which enables the angler to locate small, scattered concentrations of feeding fish. This is particularly important when fishing time is limited.
On the 'rather few' trips when fishing a floating plug fails to produce bass, other species will often fill the breach. Pollack, sometimes sizeable fish of 4 to 6-pounds weight, will be found feeding in (to us) surprisingly shallow water. This is particularly true at dusk, when the anticipated fierce initial pull of a bass sometimes turns into the tearing bite, powerful dive and subsequent rather disappointing fight of the pollack. If pollack are the fish in mind, it is usually most productive to fish from rocky ledges into rather deeper water over thick beds of kelp or wrack. Good bags of pollack were often the result of trips to such venues as Winspit, Tilly Whim and Worbarrow Tout, but we have not done enough of this fishing to observe any consistent pattern in the catches made. On one day the fish caught will be so small that the plug that takes them is larger than they are.
Other trips may be blessed with two-year-old, three-quarter-pounders and these may suddenly be replaced by larger fish of 2 or 3-pounds in weight. The deeper water, at good pollack venues, usually necessitates the use of a weight up trace of the plug (or use of a sinking lure). The exception is the dusk period when even large fish will take at the surface, swimming smartly up from the weeds to take the plug and crash diving back to their retreat. Rather than resort to the use of lead it is sometimes better to fish with a Redgill eel, Eddystone eel or even a Toby spoon or pirk it the water is very deep.
Over deep water, particularly during prolonged spells of hot calm, summer weather, mackerel will also take the plug well although if these fish are present it is usually time for a change to a Mepps or a small silver spoon, the weight of lure being adjusted in accordance with the distance that it is necessary to cast. Wrasse of all sizes are liable to take plugs used for bass. Immediately following the wholesale wrasse deaths which took place in the hard winter of 1962-3 the larger ballan wrasse which were caught were all taken while spinning for bass. This was despite many hours spent fishing with worm or hard crabs at the same venues and the fact that numerous smaller wrasse were caught by these methods. Wrasse, of all sizes, generally seem to lunge out from the cover of wrack or kelp and nip at the tail of the passing plug. In this way they are normally hooked in the lips by the rear treble of the lure. A wrasse of 3 or 4-pounds can give a creditable imitation of a bass until the handsome, mahogany-coloured flank comes into view.
Grey mullet, both large and small, will take plugs (yes they will!), particularly under late autumn conditions of rough and coloured water. The bass and mullet are often found in association on the same shore marks but their approach to moving lures is quite different. The bass normally turns and slams into the lure from the side or totally engulfs it from behind, but the mullet, if and when it shows any interest at all, follows cautiously behind and merely plucks at the tail end. As a result of this behaviour the mullet, like the wrasse, is invariably hooked in the lips by the tail treble.
In conclusion, it is perhaps worth recounting a more recent bass fishing experience, which illustrates that, there is still room for a considerable improvement of catches based on the spinning tactics described. Usually, in the presence of large amounts of loose, drifting seaweed, plugs with their treble hooks are virtually impossible to fish. In these circumstances we would normally resort to a Redgill preceded by a yard trace tied to a swivel. The Redgill's single hook is less likely to fall foul of weed and the uptrace swivel sweeps up the odd bits before they reach the lure. The tail of these lures continues to wag even when the hook is fouled. However, this is not always the answer as we have now discovered.
It was in the middle of November; Jon Bass and I had been running a series of evening classes on sea angling, in Weymouth, and intended to conclude the course with a practical fishing trip to 'Pinder's Corner'. Subsequently the class gathered in the car park having brought along a variety of rods, reels, tackles and baits and were well prepared for the weather. They needed to be. On arrival the wind was howling off the sea, at a good force eight, from the southwest. On the beach, fully exposed to the weather, the surf was roaring in from three or four hundred yards out. The water was filthy and full of drifting weed, virtually unfishable.
To salvage something from the day we decided to try to find a sheltered spot. After a little discussion and a long walk we arrived to find the sea reasonably calm in the lee of a jutting angle of cliff, but mountains of `uprooted' kelp lay in the sea's edge. Everyone set about his or her respective method of fishing in the opaque water. The results surprised even the class tutors. Two small bass taken on legered lugworm and squid were not too much of a shock, but a 7.5-pounder, on a ragworm float fished by a young woman pupil, made the day. In addition to the fish caught, two or three good sized bass were seen swimming in and around the outer fringes of the drifting kelp. A series of trips to the same spot later that year produced no more fish and the event was mentally filed and put down as a fluke organised by some angling deity overlooking the affairs of evening classes.
It was in fact some years later that the significance of the event was revealed when I made another November excursion, on my own this time, to the same area. As I drove across the grass of the cliff top car park, the first smell of well-rotted wrack drifted in through the open car window. Outside the car a stiff onshore breeze was blowing from the south-west and a typically grey November sky was reflected in a leaden sea. I put on the old Barbour jacket, no longer waterproof, tucked my trouser bottoms in my socks and pulled on the mucky waders, still damp inside from the previous day's rainy pike fishing trip.
I put up my 10-foot Legerlite spinning rod, attached the Cardinal 77 reel with a spool of new 9-pound B.S. Kroic nylon and tied on a small link swivel to which I clipped a 6-inch jointed floating plug. A couple of spare plugs were slipped into my pocket. Then there was only the old gaff to sling on my back and the door locks of the car to check before I set off down to the shore.
I slipped and slithered down the muddy steps to the beach, a strip of cobble-strewn grey shale at the base of crumbling cliffs. The neap tide was well out and little waves of shallow turbid water were racing onto the shore driven by the strong wind. Recalling the evening class trip made under not dissimilar conditions, I set off on the mile walk over shifting cobbles. The smooth rocky tables were treacherous with an invisible film of microscopic plant cells and there were huge slabs of cementstone fallen fifty feet from the cliff face. I was heading for that tiny sandy corner which I hoped would again be reasonably sheltered.
Approaching the twenty-yard strip of gritty sand I saw that the water's edge was choked with a mass of kelp, torn free by the previous month's storms. The band of kelp bits was five or six yards wide and surged gently to and fro on the incoming swell. A swirl at the edge of the surging brown weed showed that there were bass in the sandy water just beyond. Wading knee deep in the weedy margin it was soon obvious that there were many fish hidden by the two feet of dirty water. Here and there a humped grey back was breaking the water, both dorsal fins depressed. Two yards to my left a large pale-grey triangular tail fin, characteristic of a bass, waved slowly above the surface as its owner grubbed on the bottom.
The plug was cast five or six yards beyond the feeding fish, a couple of quick turns of the reel took it below the surface and then it wriggled its way back to the rod. For an hour or more I cast and retrieved; many times the lure `swam' within inches of a fish's snout and every time it was ignored. Even more often the treble hooks dredged up a piece of drifting weed and the light plug came in stone dead. Just as my attention began to wander a sharp tug on the rod top was followed by a screech from the reel and a fish plunged away before shearing round towards the rocks on the left. Within seconds it was obvious that the fish was not very large, a few seconds more and a lift of the rod slid it over the loose weed, a flapping, kicking bar of silver. A 2-pound bass is scarcely big enough to keep but this one was too well hooked and the combination of cold hands, leathery mouth, treble hooks, spiny fins and gill covers and lively fish, was too dangerous to handle. Even after the fish had been despatched, strong pliers were needed to remove the trebles, the front one from the scissors and the tail one from the base of the pelvic fin. The fish was carried up the beach, well out of reach of the waves and laid close to a conspicuous boulder so that it would be easier to find.
Back at the water's edge I began to cast again. On the third cast a gentle pull was followed by a sharp strike, which resulted in another hooked fish. This time the struggle was more prolonged but the fish adopted the same tactics as its predecessor, kiting round to the left and in towards the beach. As it lay on its side held on a short line in the outer edges of the kelp litter, to my horror the hook popped out of its mouth. Dropping rod and reel on top of the weed I stooped and, using both hands, flung the unfortunate bass up the beach - a fine satisfying fish of 4-pounds.
A further hour-and-a-half of fishing produced no further bites and the autumn dusk was beginning to fall. `Ah well,' I muttered. `Just a couple more casts.' On the next cast a dragging pull on the rod top was answered by a tentative strike and the water boiled two yards out as a good fish felt the hook. This time I was prepared for the rush to the left and in towards the floating weed for shelter. Already with the rod held high I stumbled through the shallow water and clinging leathery straps, tripping and slipping as I went, but the fish was too powerful. By the time I had come abreast of it, the bass was already nosing under the weed and boring further and further from the open water. The line juddered round the floating fronds and at any instant I expected the hook to give way.
Now the fish was almost at my feet. I caught a glimpse of its silver flank through a gap in the carpet of kelp. Slipping the gaff off my back I pulled the piece of rubber tubing from its point with my teeth, and quickly gaffing the fish and flicking open the bale arm of the reel, I carried it up the beach to safety. An 8-pound fish, hooked neatly in the corner of the mouth. It was a perfect end to a fine afternoon.
The stomachs of the three fish caught under these conditions proved to be stuffed with large, red-brown, marine woodlice (Idothea). In view of this preoccupation it was hardly surprising that so few bites were forthcoming. In fact on two similar trips in the same month, despite the presence of numerous feeding bass, we obtained not a single bite on worm, peeler crab, squid, plug or Redgill. On any recurrence of similar conditions float-fished `lice' or possibly a large wet fly will be our next approach. (It was almost twenty years before I actually cracked the method of catching these preoccupied fish by using an artificial woodlouse fly. The fly was allowed to sink for about twenty seconds and the fish were hooked more or less 'on the drop' ML). Already many bass have taken flies in the course of our combined bass/mullet trips and some details of these methods will be given in the chapter on grey mullet.