I have been lucky enough to turn fishing into a career. Each week I can be found on river banks, messing around in boats and gazing over wide expanses of lake. Most of the time I’m teaching, but every week I manage a trip of my own. Lately, there have been some changes. Instead of heading for those venues described above I now make for the sea shore armed with neither a Beach Caster or Spinning Kit. My chosen weapon is the fly rod and the quarry are non-other than “Dicentrachus labrax” although I prefer to stick to their common name, Bass. Around two years ago my good friend Simon Gawesworth first introduced me to this exciting new branch of the sport. Having caught so many stocked Trout it was a revelation to catch such a wild, hard fighting fish in unusual surroundings. Abroad Saltwater Fly Fishing is nothing new but believe me over here it does attract the odd puzzled glance! Bass can be found in warm water areas of the British Isles, and are widespread along the South Coast. Searching for Invertebrates and Crustaceans along mud flats their tolerance for brackish water often finds them in the estuaries of large rivers. With thick set, muscular bodies even a fish of a pound will put up a powerful fight on fly tackle.
The equipment needed to pursue these fine fish is very basic. An already keen trout fisher will no doubt have it at his/her disposal and I certainly wouldn’t recommend going out to purchase an array of new kit. To begin with you will need an old or cheap rod in the 9-10ft bracket able to throw a No.6-8 line. Reels need to be in good condition, although the need for expensive disc drag versions is minimal. Something cheap such as the Leeda Rimfly or L.C. is ideal, with graphite reels an excellent choice because they are corrosion resistant. This needs to be filled with around 100-150 yds of good quality backing and an appropriate forward tapered line. In the first instance Floating and Intermediate densities are quite adequate, and go for something cheap, Mill Ends make an excellent starting point and are available for around a fiver. While on the subject of tackle, always remember to wash down your kit with a large dose of fresh water after every trip. Success when Fly Fishing for Bass revolves around being where the schools are and boy do they move fast. Stick with them and you could be in for the experience of a lifetime, lose them and you won’t even get a pull. For this reason mobility is imperative, so always travel light. The only extras you will need are: leader material of 6-8lb; a peaked cap to cut glare; shades to help with the latter, protect your eyes from wayward hooks and look cool!; sun block (u.v. is doubled by reflection); snips and a selection of flies. These should include patterns which imitate crabs, sandeel, shrimps and fish fry. No entomology needed here! Finally there are four items you must never forget when on a Bassing expedition: 1) Tide Time Table. You need to know exactly where and how to find the fish, of which more later. This important item is a valuable aid. 2) Line Tray or stripping basket. Without one the line tangles around seaweed or rocks and can be swept away by the tide, this makes casting at best difficult and at worst irritating. 3) Rag/Small towel. When you find success unhooking should be done carefully to ensure little harm to the fish or yourself. A rag helps to protect hands from sharp fins and a razor like gill plate. 4) Chest waders or old trainers. There are many considerations when wading in Saltwater. The most important is to ensure you keep pace with the tide and watch for water closing in behind you. However warmth and comfort must also be taken in to account. During warm periods I wet wade in shorts and trainers, opting for chesties at cooler times. Once again, do be careful, especially if you have little experience of the ocean. It is advisable to plan trips with a friend, and certainly have the ability to swim. A whistle is also a good idea.
Everything packed away in a small rucksack, it is time to go fishing. But where do you start? Many anglers are daunted by the thought of Rutland Water let alone the prospect of taking on hundreds of square miles of coastline! First thing to do is check the tide guide, ideally you need to be parked, tackled up and ready to go several hours before high tide. A logical starting point to head for is an estuary, of which there are plenty in the West Country. Walk up and down the shoreline keeping the eyes peeled for signs of feeding fish, and beware that much of what you see are Mullet which are extremely difficult to catch.
Once you are on some fish, watch how they move and aim your casts ahead of them. Fish can be found in the first 10 yds of water on a regular basis. Patterns are open to the imagination but as a rule go for Streamers on a #10-4 long shank hooks coloured white and incorporating red in the dressing. Crystal Flash is also a worthwhile addition. Leaders need to be no longer than 10ft, and droppers are optional. A word of warning. I have seen sport so fast and furious that 3 hungry school Bass of a pound each, have simultaneously grabbed all the flies at once! (50+ Bass in a session is quite possible.) Retrieves vary, and there is much research to be carried out in this area. Winning combinations depend entirely on the weather conditions and mood of the fish. If Bass are playing hard to get keep moving and searching for pods of fish keeping it in mind that if you are flogging a boiling piece of water without result, the culprits are most likely Mullet. This shore line fishing can be great on a low tide, but it is rare to contact anything of size. Even so, there is immense pleasure to be gained from 20 odd pounders in an afternoon, and best of all it’s free! Once you have had enough of this, and ensuring you keep a close eye on the tide and time, start scanning for what I term “lagoons”. These oversize rock pools are not present on every beach, but find a rocky shoreline and you’re on to a winner. Up to 1/2 an acre in size I have seen grown men reduce to jelly in the presence of a bubbling cauldron of trapped Bass. Again on the small side these fish provide superb sport and it is incredibly exciting to watch fish split from a shoal to chase a fast stripped offering. Takes are explosive! These “lagoons” hold a valuable clue to tracking down your first monster. As the tide comes in and the pool floods, Bass will pour in over the edge, excited by frightened sandeels and dislodged crustaceans. Fishing at this time can be awesome, with fish in the 2-3lb bracket frequently contacted, and many smaller fish maintaining fast and furious sport. If the floating line is unsuccessful, change to the intermediate whilst swapping between retrieves until something works. My own experience has proved that you can’t experiment enough, with one session yielding fish to a super fast stripped retrieve and yet another needing a subtle dead drift approach. In many ways the techniques employed are not unlike those used in Trout fishing. Once the tide turns it will often come in at break neck speed, scattering the Bass. Keep watching for surface activity or feeding Gulls and where possible, follow. However, NEVER venture into unknown territory, as it is all too easy to become trapped by deep water. If unsure, keep moving inland and at pace with the tide. It is well known that even large Bass are found as little as 50yds off shore, so placing yourself in danger is just a fruitless exercise. A good tip is to make for rocky out crops and sandbars as these features often attract the Bass. As a safety precaution analyse the shore at low tide and make particular note of any deep gullies or drop offs.
A good Bass session can be nothing short of thrilling, especially when an angler using Beachcasting techniques makes an enquiry about your success! Once the Bass bug has bitten, it’s hard to shake off. The fishing can be seasonal, with the best time seeming to be late July into September and early October. My own favourite is August and this coincides favourably with the slack Trout fishing often experienced during this time. Optimum weather conditions are warm and sultry with little wind, and the best time of day is early evening. Remember to check those tide times! There is much research still to be done into this species, and I urge any keen fly fisher to have a go. A small hint, the North Devon coast is an ideal place to begin. Finally Bass make superb eating, but there is a size limit of 36 cm imposed by M.A.F.F., although I feel this is rather low and stick to the 41cm rule preferred by the National Federation of Sea Anglers. To ensure that released fish are undamaged I urge the use of de-barbed hooks and careful handling. (Look out for those sharp spines!) Bass are slow to mature and commercial fishing has decimated stocks, so please do exercise catch and release. Bass above the size limit should be despatched quickly using a humane method such as the priest. I hope that you will give this exciting opportunity a go, and who knows, maybe we will meet up on the rustic British version of the Florida flats.