Article - Sea

Fishing in a light sea - Part 1

By John, added on 07/08/2009

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Isak Dinesen once wrote that...

"The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears or the sea"

...I tend to agree with him*.

This summer (2008), many factors, the 'bankside tidying' of a once favourite lake in particular, have seen me on the rebound, seeking shelter again on the coast. Returning to my first love of fishing in the sea. It all started here, and whilst there have been lengthy periods of the coast being king; freshwater fishing has often taken precedence in the years since.

This year has been slightly different though. With more demands on my time than usual, I've finally fulfilled that promise of leaving the carp rods in the shed and getting in more frequent, yet shorter, trips to the shore. I've even sorted a little, cheap dinghy out. It’s just a shame the UK summer hasn't really played ball on that front.

-------------- Fishing in the sea --------------

Fishing in the sea can be many things, hard, frustrating, isolated, dangerous, exotic but it's always wild. Wild in the sense that the quarry won't of ever been given a name, the fish in front of you change from one tide to the next and you might just not see another soul. Yet it can be just as competitive as the busiest bank holiday commercial in other ways. The tide, the weather, the commercial fleet; all at times feel like they're against you. Fishing from the shore in particular often feels harder now than it ever has.

But despite all the gloomy reports of over fishing and environmental decay, there is still hope. There is still great sport to be had around our coast for those that are prepared to go and find it. It also happens to be set amidst some of the most stunning backdrops you could imagine. The like of which, neat chipbark and wooden platforms can’t always provide.

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For many, fishing in the sea is often just a holiday affair, an afterthought, and sadly results will probably be likewise. However with just a little bit more time and effort, particularly over the summer months, sporting rewards are there to had for all. You don’t need any expensive ticket or gear either, a cheap spinning, avon or fly rod will cover a lot of ground.

Though I’ve enjoyed many nights sat in the glow of a hissing Tilly, beachcasters beside me, this summer has been more about the sporting element of the sea. Finding those opportunities and species that can be caught on lighter gear. Believe it or not we are blessed with our fair share of reasonably exotic species that, when fished for with balanced tackle, can give a hint of some of there more tropical brethren.

Having the option of getting afloat certainly helps, as does a temperament that doesn't mind a long walk, investigative trips without a rod, occasional blanks, early starts or late nights. Sound familiar? I guess what follows is written for like minded anglers that already enjoy coarse, carp or fly fishing, but are perhaps looking for something a bit different for a change. Existing sea anglers or salt specialists will doubtfully find anything new in what follows.

-------------- The Bass --------------

Of course the king of UK inshore sport fishing has long been the bass. His striking looks of silver and grey, powerful flanks and all round presence have long made him a favourite with sea anglers.

The hardest part, true to all types of bass fishing, is finding where the fish are. Most bass anglers will keep their favourite marks close to their chests, normally with good reason. So when information gathering, it’s often better to ask questions of the sort ‘what sorts of ground should I be looking for?’ than ‘where exactly can I catch bass?’. Normal tips are to fish early and late, in close, over broken ground, where there is strong tide flow, bait fish gathering/splashing, around obstructions etc. Of course these are all good rules of thumb, but bare in mind bass can be found in such a wide range of habits from harbours, to estuaries to surf beaches and even offshore deep water marks, that nothing beats casting a line to actually find out. Particularly when you then add the variables of tide, moon phases, wind, weather and so on! No wonder hardened bass anglers can appear secretive sorts.

Like with pike, if your after a big one then conventional wisdom would say stick it out with the big natural baits, a mackerel head complete with entrails or crab in particular, fished in close over broken ground or areas of tidal flow. If however you are more concerned with sport than a lunker, then more consistent action can often be had with plugging, fly or even coarse-like float fishing gear.

Even smaller bass can provide excellent sport on light spinning or avon type rods, and they’ll put a nice bend in your average 8wt too. However if juvenile fish are dominant in an area, it makes sense to crush the barbs on your flies/lures/hooks, handle them carefully (minding the spines and sharp gill plates) and slip them back gently. Bass are slow growers, that can currently be taken commercially before they reach sexual maturity, so there is even more reason to look after the little fellows. Incidentally the current size limit for bass is 36cm, well before they are able to reproduce even once..crazy isn’t it. I know I’d have been pretty annoyed if someone hit me over the head at 15 years of age.

-------------- Lures --------------

Perhaps the most commonly practiced method of bass fishing currently is spinning or plugging. Floating, diving plugs in the Rapala mould are always popular and every lure angler seems to have their own favourites. The choice and range of lures on the shelves can seen exhaustive but, in my opinion, a few shallow to medium diving plugs between 4’-7’inches in length, in the more fishy patterns like silver/green, silver/blue, sliver/black, cover most plugging situations. An all dark lure is often recommended for fishing in low light conditions so if this applies (definitely recommended) grab one of those too.

Modern lures from companies such as Maria Chase, Yozuri and Storm seem to find there way into most bass anglers armoury. Some like the ‘Storm Chug Bug’ or ‘Yozuri Slider’ even achieving magic, cult like status with some lure hounds. It has to be said that these normally come with better quality trebles than Rapalas. My own favourite over the last couple of years has been the 4’, Rapala XRap Slashbait in Blue/Silver, quite a small lure but it’s proven very effective as an all round ‘go to’ plug. When the trebles that come on them get too rusty, if I’ve not lost it but then, I normally replace them with better quality VMC trebles. Bass don’t seem to mind a very tatty lure..tempting as it is to retire old faithfuls before they’re lost.

One of the draw backs of some plugs is how far you can cast them. Designs with internal weighting or sliding weights can help, but if you really need distance, or are casting into a head wind, then your better off forgetting the plugs and sticking something compact and heavy on like a good old Dexter Wedge. They might not look as lifelike, but they work sure enough (I think my biggest bass came to plain ole Dexter).

Whilst surface lures and ‘poppers’ have been very popular for a number of years now, and are much fun to fish, the big new ‘thing’ in lure fishing for bass seems to be soft plastics, jelly like plastic lures in all sorts of sizes, patterns and colours that have crossed over from the USA and Japan. Some patterns can also be rigged weedlessly, which means they can be cast into areas plugs, with all their trebles, can't.

I tend to use braided mainline for plugging/spinning, 30lb PowerPro usually as it’s rounder profile seems to be more user friendly than say Whiplash. I do add a thickish fluoro leader though (15-20lb), using Shaun Harrison’s ‘combi link’ carp rig knot (link). This leader is partly for a stretch buffer but also for the added confidence factor of less visibility. It’s probably unnecessary though, I know someone that catches well using bright green braid straight through, with a sensibly set clutch. But I’m a fussy bugger at times and confidence is key. Because of this I don’t like bulky swivels or lure attaching devices either. I usually use a small, matt finish, size 10 ring swivel, the sort you would use for making carp rigs for example (basically a small barrel swivel with a ringlet on the end). The plug/spinner’s split ring then clips onto the swivel ringlet, creating a very neat, twist resistant, secure join that isn’t too permanent either. Lure changes are still fairly easy therefore (if you can get split ring’s apart in low light, with cold, wet hands that is).

Maybe because the basics are relatively straight forward and it’s accessible to all, spinning as a concept is often overlooked or looked down upon by the ‘game’ fraternity. It shouldn’t be, it can be just as much an art in it’s own right and it’s often the most effective method to choose for bass. It certain has been the most consistent method for me.

Plugs aside, another successful, and simple, methods used locally is to fish a un-weighted, rubber sandeel (a reasonably realistic one if possible, not some god awful colour) under a clear bubble float. This at times can actually be more effective than spinning or plugging at because often, at times, bass are preoccupied on hitting shoals of very small bait fish. In addition, with this style, your lure is actually in the water for longer and it’s possible to use the natural current to your advantage, letting the tide take your float into fishy looking areas or difficult overhangs. With a plug or spinner you need to carefully think how to get it to move with the tide in a realistic fashion, mimicking how the baitfish would move naturally in the current. With the bubble float and rubber eel approach you can let the tide do the work for you and just add enticing little twitches and short retrieves from time to time. If you’re after rubber eels, Storm do some realistic looking ones, in varying sizes, that you can add your choice of hook too. Standard ‘J’ hooks will work fine, but semi-circle hooks seem to be getting popular too.

-------------- The Fly Rod --------------

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Perhaps the latest and most ‘in’ way to fish for bass is with a fly rod. Indeed this is currently my favourite way to fish for them. Not because it is the most effective (it normally isn’t) or ‘hip’ method (is fishing ever?), but because having already fished for them with bait and plugs over the years, it’s something new to learn and have a go at. Sort of like a cheap ‘salt flat’ experience for those of us who hate flying, don’t have much game fishing nearby or are just a bit skint.

Although there is a ‘cult’ scene developing around saltwater fly fishing in the UK, with all the expensive gear flooding over from the tropics too, catching bass on the fly isn’t particularly difficult (especially if you start off by choosing conditions that suit casting a fly line i.e. not when it’s blowing a huliee). Anyone that’s been fishing with me with a fly rod of one sort or other, will tell you that I’m no expert at fly fishing at all! In fact I’d never done any fly-fishing at all before I bought a fly rod to take with me on coastal plugging excursions. After a bit of casting practice in the street however, even a duffer like me has been able to catch bass fairly consistently on fly gear over the last few years (mostly smaller ones admittedly, but the odd good fish amongst them).

The hardest part (again) is knowing where to find fish within reach of a fly line. It helps if you can get afloat in a boat or kayak in this respect, it doesn’t make casting a fly any easier of course, in fact it will often make it a bit harder, but it does mean more marks and fish are potentially within your range. I’ve lost count of the times myself and others have wished we had a kayak at hand, sometimes just to have another hr or so on a sandbank that the tide is gradually cutting off.

Having found them then, if you can cast a fly line, it’s often just a case of getting the fly under the water and stripping it back in fairly quickly. Maybe adding a few enticing twitches, stops and jerks for good measure. A line tray of some sort helps. Making your own from a washing up bowl is fairly simple, just drill some holes and put some zip ties in the bottom to hold the line apart and add a luggage strap as a belt (there are some good ‘how-to’ articles online for this). If you’re fancy then there are some well thought out, yet expensive, designs on the market from the likes of Orvis, Mangrove HipShooter etc. I would stick to the non-collapsible type though. From experience they are less hassle to use, especially when wading in the surf.

-------------- Fly Gear --------------

As we have drifted into tackle talk, standard UK saltwater fly fishing fare seems to be an 8 or 9wt rod, a salt resistant large arbour reel and either a floating, intermediate or floating/sink tip type line. The normal floating line is useful when fishing very shallow marks or surface flies/poppers, but more often an intermediate is a better choice. Intermediate lines let you count your lure down and fish varying depths, yet as they are only slow sinking they give you reasonable control (and time) to prevent flies getting hooked on the bottom. If your fishing from a boat into deeper water then perhaps a full sinking line would be required. I’ve not done that much of this style of fishing though, and when I have, I’ve got by with either an intermediate line, with a heavy weighted fly and long leader, or a ‘sink tip’ style line.

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On the recommendations of others, I’ve found the Cortland SL 15ft Ghost Tip is a good all round line to use from the shore or afloat. The running line stays floating but the slowly sinking tip helps search the water column quickly. The clear, low viz tip, once you get used to casting it**, has also given me more confidence to fish shorter leaders, which turn large flies over better and mean less tangles. That said bass aren’t meant to be that tackle shy, and I’d probably agree with that in general but sometimes you do get followers, that don’t take, which makes you think. Again, if something gives you more confidence then I always think why not do it.

As for leaders, some say use heavy tapered Salmon type leaders, others say fish 15-25lb fluoro or normal mono straight through. My greatest mistake when starting out was to use too thin a tippet/point which meant the large bulky flies never turned over properly. I put this down to my general poor casting technique at first until a friend pointed out to me that tapered leaders that end in 10-12lb points still weren’t beefy enough to turn over a weighted clouser. So now for big saltwater flies, I tend to fish 5-10ft of 20lb-ish fluoro (0.37-0.40mm sort of thickness) straight through, not for the breaking strain strength as such, but more because it’s stiff-ish nature helps to turn over largish flies well. Because the leader is now quite stiff, another tip I have picked up, is to attach the fly via a small loop in the mono/fluoro rather than tied hard to the eye. This definitely returns some free, natural movement to the fly, giving better presentation, but I couldn’t honestly say if it’s actually caught me more fish?

-------------- Flies --------------

Bass flies themselves are also fairly easy to tie yourself, the larger hooks and materials no doubt helping. So whilst I still haven’t yet moved on to tying my own trout flies, after a few attempts, I haven’t found it too much of a problem knocking up a few saltwater flies, particularly the baitfish/sandeel patterns. They might not win any prizes but they’re good enough to catch fish on…which is all I need. There’s plenty of step by step ‘how-to’s’ on the net on the subject thankfully. Like with lures, there are many patterns of saltwater flies but again you can get by with a few set patterns in various colours and sizes.

Perhaps the favourite bass fly for most is the ‘Clouser’, sinking well, representing a variety of baitfish and fishing with the hook up to avoid snags, it’s a great all round fly. It’s also fairly straightforward to tie (a good job for me). The most popular Clouser colours seems to be chartreuse/white (always tied on first for me) but black/orange, blue/white and pink/white also do well. With a bit more experience, and taking on the advice of others, I now tie mine much sparser than when I started. In typical water clarity conditions, a sparser fly just seems to ‘suggest’ a baitfish better. I tend to tie two sizes of Clousers, smaller ones about 2-3’ long on size 4 or 6 sized hooks if the bass are likely to be small, and larger ones of about 4’ on larger hooks if not. .

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Alongside with the Clousers, my fly box has a few Deceivers, some epoxy minnows/sandeels, some shrimp and crab patterns, and even a few rubber eels (ok not strictly flies but I’m not a total purist). The baitfish patterns all tend to work, when bass are really hounding and feeding on baitfish shoals, they’ll often take anything shiny just as mackerel do. The shrimp patterns have caught the odd fish for me, and fished relatively statically are a good way to give your casting arm a break. I bought the crab patterns but have never really given them a proper go. Fished on sinking lines they are meant to work very well at the right time, so I got some just in case. No doubt if I ever got the chance to fish for more than a few hours I’d experiment more. As it is, when something works well I tend to stick to it, which means the Clouser is normally the first on and, more often than not, stays on.

Takes when the come are usually firm and frantic, felt in the fingers first, then in the rod, even from a dead drifted or relatively static fly. Such is the sporting nature of the species, that even maller fish in the 1-2lb bracket will take line into the backing at times. This style of fishing is just superb fun.

-------------- One last word on the bass --------------

I admit I have a soft spot for the bass as he was my ever first fish I caught with rod and line as a lad. Sadly, the fact that he tastes good hasn’t exactly done him any favours and being such a slow growing fellow, stocks are always under threat. Yet attitudes are changing slowly it seems and there is always the hope that stocks may be better managed for all stakeholders in the years to come. Till then we’ll enjoy him but let’s put some back all the same.

If your interested in the species and it’s conservation. I would recommend joining B.A.S.S.



* Or actually ‘her’, Isak Dinesen was the pen name of Karen von Blixen-Finecke / Karen Dinesen, the danish author of ‘Out of Africa’ among other works.

** I’ve found giving it a lift and a sort of ‘roll cast’ flick at the end of each retrieve before the next cast helps get the sunk tip up in the water for the first, normal back cast stroke.


Fishing in a light sea - Part 2


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