Tackle and Tactics.
THINK LIKE A FISH Part 12 Sorting out the big ones.
"Tell me exactly where to go bass fishing so I can catch decent fish in large quantities?" These questions are often thinly veiled in the letters and conversations which I have had with other anglers.
The keenest and truly enthusiastic followers of our sport are rarely so direct, they are usually much more interested in methods and conditions and less inquisitive about places. In fact most successful anglers are positively reluctant to ask other people about fishing spots unless the information is freely volunteered.
Enquiries about methods and conditions are, of course, intended to acquire a more valuable bit of information than a mere location. I could, if I wanted to, reply to the first question by saying "Go to beach A, walk to point B, stand on rock C, cast in direction D and use lure/bait E". This sort of answer would, sometimes, work but it is a bit like giving someone a lettuce in contrast to giving them a packet of seeds and a bit of advice on how to grow them. Although the latter will be much harder work - in the long run it will be a great deal more productive.
Today we must accept the fact that bass are in decline because of the depredations of gill-netters, trawlers, line-fishermen and thoughtless anglers. This fine fish is, nonetheless, the most popular and the most sought-after species around our coasts (competing for its honour with its rival the cod).
The first bass which most of us come across in our sea angling explorations is the schoolie, which I regard as fish of less than a couple of pounds in weight. These little fish are, first-and-foremost, much more abundant than their larger relatives. It is generally true that the smaller (younger) fish of any species are most numerous. This is a natural consequence of the vast number of eggs that most fish produce and the subsequent death and decline of each ageing year class.
The ravages of old age, disease, predation and fishing, year by year, reduce the numbers of bass until the large, old fish are very few in number. Bass in Southern England breed mainly in tide races, over reefs and shingle banks, in spring and early summer. They are progressive spawners so a female does not shed all her eggs at the same time and may feed actively in between bouts of spawning. The eggs and then the tiny larvae drift with the currents in to sheltered in shore waters, beaches, rock pools, estuary-flats and shallow lagoons. All these situations provide protection and rich feeding for these tiny fish in the first critical summer of their lives.
Anyone who has tried to keep the fry of predatory fish in aquaria will know of their need for active, live food and will realise that it is also essential for their survival in the wild. At about two years old, when they are 12cm to 15cm in length, bass first become the subject of the angler's attention. Initially the small fish feed chiefly on tiny crustaceans, particularly beach hoppers, slaters and mysids (a sort of tiny shrimp). They are very active and voracious little fish at this stage and, because of their high energy requirements will continue to feed freely even at quite low water temperatures. In the part of Dorset where I live school bass are catchable more or less through out the year.
Even in January and February 'flounder fishing' sessions from the wooden decks of Swanage pier will often produce large bags of schoolies. Ragworm is a successful bait and the small silver fish can become a real nuisance at times. No sooner is the rod baited, cast and propped up against the pier rail than its tip dances wildly to the tugging of an 200g 'checker' bass which has taken the moving worm on-the-drop.
All along the sandy expanses of Bournemouth, Studland, Swanage and Weymouth sea front, when an onshore wind has stirred up the shallow sea, anglers' baits are snaffled, in 'short order' by the prickly little fish. On cold winter evenings, enthusiastic followers of the sport will park their cars beside the grain silos on Poole quay. Breathing out clouds of vapour in to the chilly air they will stamp their feet on the grey stones and cast a variety of baits into the deep black water flowing up under the lifting bridge.
Flounders, on their way to the offshore spawning grounds, will sometimes beat the bass to it but, more often, it will be the typical, ferocious rattling bite of a small schoolie, which sets the adrenaline flowing and relieves the monotony. Almost anywhere and at any time small school bass can be caught. In summer they feed, if possible, with even greater fervour. For example, in the Fleet lagoon behind the famous Chesil beach, the flood tide flows like a mighty salt river and by casting a small bait or spinner across the flow a succession of under-sized bass can be taken.
An unfortunate consequence (for the fish) of this insatiable hunger is that in all these places the small fish can be caught in great numbers by accident or even (dare I say it) by intention. But don't do it! With the best will in the world it is not always easy to extract a hook, large or small, from the throat or gills of a greedy fish or to return that fish with any hope that it will recover from the bleeding gill filaments and torn gut or mouth.
As I have already suggested, many anglers will intentionally fish for tiny bass. They may have to (or think that they have to) because of the real or imagined absence of larger fish in their area. The pattern may be due to natural variations in the distribution of fish of different sizes or, in other places, because of the inroads made on larger fish by commercial fishing. Assuming that there are still some decent bass in your neck-of-the-woods (and there are very few places without any) how do you set about catching them?
The first essential is to locate your fish. As mentioned above fish of different sizes choose to live in different localities, even along quite short lengths of coastline. Despite this localisation, I have records of double figure fish taken by anglers from many different shore marks. Excluding the possibility of 'phoney' reports from the angling press (generally intended by the captors to protect their favourite spots) big fish are widespread.
Even in these days of reduced stocks, the extensive shingle slopes of the Chesil beach produce specimen sized fish (often very close in) to legered baits of various kinds, fishing more or less chuck-and-chance it. The Isle of Portland, a huge mass of rock rising steeply from the sea also produces double figure fish; to legered baits, float-fished livebaits and to varied spinning tactics. The tide race, just off shore of the 'Isle', continues to be a source of very large specimens to commercial fishermen using driftlined livebaits.
At either end of Weymouth flat strand, at Weymouth harbour in the west and Preston beach in the east, double figure fish have been caught. Along the many miles of shoreline between Preston and Swanage there are a series of steep rock marks, shallow ledges often strewn with boulders and shingle lined coves like those at Lulworth and Durdle Door. All three types of beaches produced large fish and I know of a 5.4kg fish from Durdle Door on sandeel, a 6kg fish from Worbarrow Bay (caught on a pirk) and an 5kg fish from the rocks of Durlston on a plug, and many more.
From the racing waters of Poole Harbour's mouth and from under the old lifting bridge within the town itself many specimens have fallen to sandeel, live fish, prawn and artificial lures. These days the big fish are much less common - but they still exist.
The point is that along these many miles of coast, over every conceivable type of ground and using an enormous range of techniques huge bass, fish-of-a-lifetime, have been caught. Obviously it is necessary to fish every situation when the fish are present, which will depend on the time of the year, phase and state of the tide, wind strength and direction and so on. It all sounds rather easy and, in fact, it is not too difficult to succeed but like any other good fishing you must be prepared to put in a lot of time and effort if you want to catch quality fish consistently.
The more time you spend on the water, where ever and for what ever you choose to fish, the more you will catch and the more confident you will become. To sum up, pick a place, preferably near your home base, which you know has produced good fish and fish it with an appropriate method over a wide range of tides and times of year-day. There is, in angling as in any other walk of life, no substitute for careful planning and hard work.
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 - firstname.lastname@example.org
Think like a fish.
Inshore gill net at low tide (last week).
A good bass'.
A good catch!