Tackle and Tactics
Mike Ladle


Information Page.

Oil rig fishing.

I wrote this piece in the early 1990’s after reading a paper dealing with fishing in the vicinity of oil rigs. It’s still interesting today although I’m not conscious of anyone who fishes around rigs other than the people who work on them:-

Overhead there was the clattering sound of a helicopter and two anglers walking along the sandy spit looked up to see a blue and white chopper heading out to sea. In the distance, just showing on the horizon, they could see its destination marked by a steel platform and plumes of flame streaming in to the sky - an oil rig.

Not many years ago it would have been necessary to cross the Atlantic to the |Gulf of Mexico to see such a sight but now oil rigs are common place in the grey waters of the North Sea and are becoming everyday sights in the English Channel.

Before looking at the American catches in more detail it is worth thinking about what is special about an oil platform. Unlike natural (and most artificial) reefs, these platforms consist of an open meshwork of pipes and girders extending right down to the sea bed, often in considerable depths of water and far from other sea bed “structures”. Because they rise right through the water column the rigs affect not only bottom living fish but mid-water and surface dwellers as well. Free swimming ‘bait’ fishes similar to our own sprats, herrings and pilchards often abound within the criss-crossing metalwork of the platforms and also up current of the obstruction riding its “bow wave”.

In the Gulf of Mexico these shoaling fish attracted predators such as king mackerel and blue runners. Further evidence of the appeal of platforms to fish is the fact that 70% of all boat fishing in the area is carried on around them. Although a great variety of fish are caught from the boats fishing around the oil platforms, only about five species make up the vast bulk of the catches. The spotted sea-trout (rather like our bass), mostly caught by trolling, are typical of shallower water rigs less than about 30 ft deep. A 5lb sea trout is a whopper but the anglers often use up to 25lb BS lines to avoid cut-offs on the barnacle encrusted ironwork. Spotted sea-trout also take live baits well and small mullet on leger gear are popular baits for the larger fish.

Red snapper, resembling a large red bream and mostly caught on bottom-fished baits, are the usual catch at deeper off shore marks. In boat fishing terms snapper are equivalent to our cod - popular and good to eat.

In terms of numbers caught per hour, on shallower rigs, sea-trout and snapper are each ten times as common as any other species. Fishing in deep-water situations produces a much greater variety with no particular species dominating the catches.

On my own ‘patch’ of the Dorset coast where nodding donkey oil pumps have decorated the cliffs for many years, we are beginning to see the proliferation of offshore drilling equipment and production platforms well with in sight of beach anglers. BP were, at one time, granted permission to construct an artificial island in the waters of Poole Bay so they could tap the hydrocarbons in the rocks below. In some respects it was unfortunate that the plan was never realised.

The Americans have much more experience of oil production than us so, not surprisingly, anglers in the states are way ahead of us in exploiting the sporting potential of large marine structures such as oil platforms. “Louisiana has long been revered as a sportsman’s paradise and justifiably so,” say fishery scientists of the Louisiana Coastal Fisheries Institute in a paper dealing with the impact of oil and gas development on fish populations. We can see what it tells us about the possibilities for British anglers. The scientists set out to develop a long term record of what sort of fish were associated with oil structures. They provided catch logbooks for 120 private fishing craft and 25 charter boats in which to record the results of their trips. Here is the first lesson for our own fishery research scientists data collected by anglers can be useful, given the right sort of approach. For almost two years every fish, large or small, caught on the boats were noted with great care. Dates, times, fishing hours, species caught and their numbers and sizes were entered in the logs. In all, nearly 16,000 angler hours of fishing effort produced over 61,000 fish almost four fish per hour. In a total of 1700 trips nearly 600 oil and gas installations were visited and at least 46 different sorts of fish were caught; impressive figures by anyone’s standards.

As far as I am aware there are no comparable figures for British sea angling, although my own records over the years show it is possible to average less than one hour per decent fish by specialising in single species such as thin lipped mullet and no doubt if you included everything you caught (pouting, poor cod, rockling, wrasse etc.) it would be possible to equal or better the American figures (see the final chapter of Operation Sea Angler). It’s likely that the fish will congregate round oil or gas platforms in British waters just like there transatlantic cousins, but for safety reasons it may be some time before we are allowed to fish near such structures. It also appears there is no way of netting or otherwise assessing fish populations around rigs and platforms which is anywhere near as good as anglers’ log book records. In fact the American studies mentioned above have revealed previously unsuspected changes in important fish stocks. There have been one or two studies in Britain to establish how many people go fishing, what they catch and how much time and money they spend on it, but the oil rig fisherman in the USA have shown us the way. It is now time to collect angling records in a systematic way if we are to protect future fishing and really develop worth while improvements in methods.

Oil rigs and work platforms certainly act as instant ‘reefs or wrecks’. Minute marine organisms quickly establish themselves, and fish are always close behind. For safety reasons anglers are generally not allowed to fish from rigs, lines and lost tackle could be a hazard to divers who regularly carry out underwater checks. This means the fish aren’t disturbed. A much bigger plus, is the fact that the oil companies set an exclusion zone around rigs, which means trawlers cant go anywhere near them. The result is instant fish havens and nursery areas courtesy of the oil companies!

So just how good was the fishing? If we break the catches down in to near shore and offshore results its clear that the most consistent catches consisted of snapper taken from offshore boats. Year in year out, each angler could expect to take well over five fish per angler hour in 1987. In the following year this fell to less than one fish per hour, while off shore trolling rarely produced a fish an hour for any species in either year. Compared with other studies on catches these results are spectacularly good. For example, statistics show that American anglers after smallmouth bass or coho salmon only take a fish every six or seven hours, and pike fishermen under instruction from professional guides only manage a fish every three hours or so (I'd be bored out of my mind if pike fishing was generally as slow as this).

If you have any comments or questions about fish, methods, tactics or 'what have you.'get in touch with me by sending an E-MAIL to - docladle@hotmail.com