Are you a visual sort of angler? Do you like to see your bass crash into your surface lure before you feel the weight of the fish? It’s the way Dr Mike Ladle likes to do things – and here he explains why
I often fish for carp and pike and I enjoy both immensely because my favourite approaches are what you might call ‘visual’. So let me explain what I mean by this...
When I’m after carp I prefer to use floating baits such as bread crust or dog biscuits. The anticipation as a fish nudges its way through the reeds towards your bait has to be experienced to be believed, and the final moment when the carp mouths my crust – will it take or won’t it? – finds me holding my breath for several seconds. Exciting? I’ll say it is!
Piking is a bit different, but the thrill is just as great. My spoon wavers along in the clear water and I raise the rod to hold it in position next to a little bay in the weeds. As it hovers and flashes before my eyes I’m totally riveted, almost hypnotised by the motion. Suddenly, faster than the eye can follow, a lean, green streak of a fish lunges out from the weeds, the rod tip plunges down and the reel screams. Again the buzz is almost mind-blowing. You’ve got the message, I’m an adrenaline junky.
Afew years back I encountered a method of bass fishing that is quite the equal of this freshwater action in terms of anticipation and excitement. To begin at the beginning, a pal of mine and a member of BASS, Steve Butler, had begun to experiment with surface popping lures for bass.
Poppers were developed for catching largemouth bass in the USA and according to Steve’s results they were also pretty effective for our native sea fish. In 2001 my pal Alan Vaughan had visited Steve to learn the rudiments of popper fishing. Later that year, when he came down to Dorset to fish with me, Alan couldn’t wait to give me a few tips on the method and I was keen to have a try. To cut a long story short, as soon as I hooked my first bass on a Chug Bug I was addicted.
It may be worth describing a typical popping session to show you what I mean. The lures are quite bulky and fairly heavy, so they cast a long way. After casting they float on the surface either
horizontally like a stick or with the tail hanging down and the head up. Instead of a diving vane they have a flat or concave front end, which causes lots of surface disturbance when you jerk the rod or turn the reel. Chug Bugs, Skitterpops, Yo Zuri Mag poppers, TD Pencils, Bass Busters, and so on are all are effective and work in much the same way, although some make more disturbance than others.
Whatever lure you use it is essential to keep the hooks needle sharp and the line tight from rod tip to popper.
It’s a beautiful midsummer day, the sun is shining and there’s a light, offshore breeze. You’ve arrived at the coast armed with a spinning rod and a reel loaded with 20lb braid. Ashort (1m) trace of 20lb clear Amnesia is looped to the ring on the front of the popper. It’s half tide, and the kelp fronds have just gone below the surface. You cast out your popper, watch it splash down on to the glassy surface and flick over the bale-arm of the reel before tidying the line on the spool with a tug of your hand – no rush, the lure’s not going to sink. Point the rod at the becalmed lure, wind steadily to take up the bow in the line and then make a couple of fast turns of the reel handle and stop. The lure jerks forward, spraying water in front of it.
You watch the popper carefully as it lies on the surface then, after a few seconds, you repeat the two fast revolutions and the splashing movement. If you wanted you could jerk the rod instead of reeling. This would also cause the lure to spray but would be more likely to cause slack line and tangled braid.
When the lure has worked its way back to the rod tip you lift it out, cast again and the whole process is repeated. On your third cast, as the lure rests between two pops, you notice a tiny ripple beside it. This time you give the reel just half a turn. Yes, that was definitely a swirl and was that a glimpse of a prickly fin beside the stationary popper? Again you twitch the lure slightly and you are shocked and thrilled in equal parts as 4lb of silver torpedo rockets from the calm surface with your popper hanging from its mouth.
The fish crashes back in. No need to strike, the non-stretch braid has done its work, the rod is already bending and the fish is on.
As the clutch buzzes to give line your heart still pounds from the excitement of the take. This is real fishing.
Frequently there will be no warning of a take. Your lure may simply disappear in the middle of a huge swirl or, perhaps more likely, there will be a boil and the rod will simply bend to the weight of a fish.
Splashing signals ‘prey are here’
Why are popping lures so effective? Well, most bass anglers will have seen fish attacking sprats or sandeels near the surface. Understandably the little fish try to escape by rushing away in what’s described as a ‘flash expansion’.
If they are just under the surface dozens of the tiny prey fish may spray out and plop back again, like a mini squall of rain falling on the sea. The striking bass themselves may throw up a spray of water. These splashy signals shout ‘prey are here’ and understandably this attracts other predators to the area. The ‘pops’ of your lure give off the same sort of come hither signal and bass from many metres distant may be attracted to the popper.
When the predators arrive they see a little disabled ‘fish’ floating at the surface. A chance too good to miss?
Perhaps surprisingly, bass will come up to attack poppers in quite deep water as well as in weedy, snaggy shallows. I’ve had good fish in only inches of water and one of my pals described to me how he watched several big bass swim up from a ledge a few metres down to inspect his lure. There’s still plenty to learn about this fascinating technique.
Does it matter how long you let the lure pause between pops? Is it best to cause a big splash or a small sprinkle? This may depend on things like how calm the sea conditions are. Is it worth having a really ‘fish-like’ popper? After all, the bass often take it when it’s stationary in gin-clear conditions. Would it help to add a bit of flavour to the lure? Since the fish sometimes look closely before they strike a bit of added incentive may do no harm.
One thing’s for certain, popping is a recipe for heart attacks but if you keep that braid tight and those hook points needle sharp the bass won’t be the only thing that gets hooked.
The weather was so bad it sent shivers down my spine. As horizontal rain power-washed the window I had a feeling how the day was going to unfold... another shiver went down my back.
Slate-coloured clouds raced across the sky as I gathered my gear together and dashed to my car. I really wanted to shoot a proper winter bass fishing feature here in south-east Ireland and I had hoped for a crisp and bright winter's day. I was thankful some clever designer had developed the waterproof camera bag.
I met Graham Hill down on the beach and it struck me how cheerful and positive he was. Not used to blanking on this coastline, the soft Irish weather wasn’t going to dampen his spirits.
Clutching a bucket full of prime peelers and some huge lugworms we headed for the angry surf, which boomed as it smashed onto the beach. By now a pounding south-westerly was screaming right into our faces, kicking up monstrous seas that dumped tons of sand-stained seawater on the beach. I know bass like to hunt in a lively sea, but surely this was ridiculous?
“See that sandbank out there to the right,” said Graham, “see how it calms the sea as it runs into that hole. That’s where the bass will be. It is just about perfect. Give me ten minutes fishing and I will know if it is fishable. The only thing that can mess us up is the amount of weed in the water.”
At least Graham was feeling positive. I imagined a hot coffee and bacon sandwich, but with Graham being so positive when faced with such appalling conditions, it did boost my confidence. I so wanted to see a winter bass.
Bass feed all year in Irish waters, but if you want that special big winter fish taken on bait you should head way out west to areas such as the Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry, where sport moves up a gear from late October until early March.
Like everywhere, catches are reliant on conditions. Graham reckoned bass were also a 12-month option in the south-east, but he noticed a decline in sport after New Year, up until early March. It can’t be that bad though, because he told me he’d seen bass caught on plugs on New Year’s Eve.
The severe gale meant this was the time to anchor juicy baits hard to the bottom with a decent grip weight and try to ride out the conditions until the bass found our humble offerings.
Graham launched a fixed-paternoster rig out into that likely-looking hole, but I wondered if the fish would dart about seeking food in conditions that must have been like a washing machine.
This is what many bass anglers dream about - big booming rollers topped by white crests and the expectation of a bass. If we could control the weather it would be far too easy, wouldn’t it? High-tech waterproofs and chest waders were designed for times like this. The fact that we could hardly see due to the horizontal rain mattered not; it was those tell-tale taps and bangs on the rod tip that had us grinning like madman as the rainwater poured off our faces.
Nobody was out walking their dog today, so we weren’t getting those weird looks from people who think anglers standing knee deep in freezing water are nutters. Little do they realise that the angler is an eternal optimist and if our dreams and hopes could be bottled it would be priceless.
Not looking good
Ten minutes into the fishing and Graham was shaking his head.
Conditions looked good because there was a stunning swell that was effectively being calmed by the sandbank, giving the bass a gutter to hunt in and stay out of the worst of the sea. Yet Graham was struggling to pull in great rafts of weed that had broken his gripper out and washed it along the beach.
Fishing effectively was out of the question. Perhaps that bacon sarnie wasn’t just a dream.
Despite the conditions, Graham was still smiling. Could anything dampen this guy’s enthusiasm for bass fishing?
“No worries,” he said, “let’s drive a few miles up the coast and tuck in behind a little east-facing headland I know. I think I’ve taken you plugging there before, but let’s go chuck some crabs and see what happens.”
I like to hear of decent options if primary plans don’t work out and the chance to shelter from the relentless weather would be most welcome. I was wondering if our little detour would take us past the café I had seen earlier.
Twenty minutes later we were negotiating a slippery bank to the rocks below. One rod each, minimum tackle, a bucket of prime bait and a dream of bagging a bass were all we had.
The moment we negotiated the steep bank it was like a different world. Around the corner to our right the weather was a ripping storm that sent great swell surges crashing into the coastline that we could just make out in the distance. Here in our little hideaway it all looked perfect. There were even a couple of seals working the area, something I knew Graham liked to see.
Baits were aimed where Graham knew the sand began at the edge of some very rough ground. Grippers were wrenched round in the surge, but eventually they found a decent resting place and our peeler crabs started to fish properly.
Meanwhile I couldn’t resist clambering around the corner on some extremely slippery rocks to see what was to our left. Why do rock anglers always have the urge to look for the next corner, the next headland, perhaps the next mark? I paid the price for pushing my luck and finally returned to my rod with a deep cut in my left hand.
Like an idiot I had slipped and grabbed some shark-tooth rocks to stop myself falling in the sea. As I bound my bloody hand with a wet fishing rag I thought this might be a lesson learnt.
As I looked up from nursing my wound I saw Graham whack his rod back in response to a savage, slap-down type of bite. The unseen fish careered round to the right, but steady pressure from Graham soon brought a bass to his waiting hands. Does this coastline ever let him down?
I have yet to see County Wexford fail to deliver the goods and that's why I keep banging on about it having the best bass fishing in Ireland. Bear in mind the horrendous conditions that we faced; anywhere can fish well when everything is right, but how do they perform when conditions are terrible.
Despite my injury I managed to catch a fish, maybe nudging 41⁄2lb. It was a moment of joy, its fins bristled, it was well fed, powerful and eager to run from my hands when I crouched down to release it.
It was getting to the point when the ebbing tide was going to make fishing the mark impossible. With our lines starting to rest across a rocky hell in front of us, Graham got another bite and set the hooks. He kept the pressure on and got it over the rocks to bring it to hand. Graham smiled, the camera shutter clicked and the bass went back. Surely it can’t get any better?
Squid is my favourite bait for bass, says dinghy angler Steve Mills, but he warns other scavengers, like cod and after-dark conger eels, also a have a taste for this cheap and easy-to-use sea fishing bait...
The early autumn period between the end of September and the beginning of November marks an important watershed for South Coast boat anglers. The summer species start to move away as sea temperatures gradually fall; it seems winter in the Med is more appealing!
Most notable among the species that depart the eastern and central inshore waters is the mackerel. I say most notably not because the mackerel will be missed for its sporting credentials but for it is a reliable and essential source of fresh bait.
Anglers in the South West can probably continue to rely on mackerel stocks well into the autumn, but off Hampshire we start to dip into the freezer from mid-September onwards.
Squid then inevitably emerges as the single most important autumn and winter bait for the remaining predatory species. To be honest I would definitely prefer to offer fresh, frozen, white calamari squid than home frozen mackerel that clearly loses much of its appeal compared to the pulling power of fresh bait if it isn’t instantly blast frozen.
What’s more those predators - bass, cod, congers and rays - appear to accept squid with gay abandon. In recent seasons Solent cod haven’t arrived in consistent numbers until the end of October, so anglers have to decide what to target and bass are always high on the list.
While the smaller shoaling bass continue to chase fry and whitebait, the larger fish of 4lb or more become a target for anchored boat sport.
These larger bass are opportunistic feeders. It is difficult to think of a bait or technique that does not catch bass at some point in the year. They move seamlessly from one naturally available food source to another.
Once the sandeels and mackerel have started to disappear for the year they simply look elsewhere. My impression is that autumn bass are more prepared to scavenge and widen their search areas. It is to our advantage that bass are happy to accept a bait that conveniently comes out of the freezer and does not have to be dug, collected or caught and which doesn’t usually cost an arm and a leg.
One thing it can be difficult to do is to exclusively or specifically target bass. They are not the only predator with an appetite.
LIKELY BASS MARKS
So what sort of ground are you looking for? Key features that seem to attract these bigger bass are rock or reef marks or even boulders that are adjacent to some cleaner ground.
Bass like some rough stuff for protection and to escape the tide, plus some mixed open ground close by for scavenging those small fish and crabs that now make up their diet.
I find these type of marks are usually in 40ft to 80ft of water. A chart, a good fish-finder and some local knowledge will help you find such likely bass-holding ground.
Hampshire anglers will recognise that marks like this can be found off Selsey, south east of Utopia, off Bembridge and can equally include vast tracts of the south coast of the Isle of Wight right through to and round the Needles.
WHEN TO FISH
Bass can consistently be taken during daylight but prospects improve after dark. However, this is where the trouble starts. The same conditions that suit the bass are just as attractive to conger eels or even cod.
In fact the problem is even bigger because these inshore autumnal congers are essentially nocturnal and they are busy fattening up in order to survive the winter.
Local marks that appear to be devoid of these eels during the day come alive with them after dark. A dozen up to 40lb can be possible from some marks and some can even be caught on dull overcast days. The only thing that recommends conger eels to me is a 40-pounder caught in the dark on 20lb-class gear can be fun.
TACKLE AND TACTICS
Bass tactics are straightforward. Choose rods and reels according to depth with a spring tide and 60ft of water needing 1lb of lead and maybe a 30lb-class rod. Go lighter if you can, but remember those eels. Braid mainline is standard; I use 30lb braid and a 40lb leader.
End tackle comprises a running leger with a 5ft trace to the Pennell rigged squid bait presented on a pair of size 6/0 hooks. Meaty hooks are unnecessary; I use chemically-sharpened hooks like Mustad Viking (wide gape) or Mustad Ultimate Bass.
Trace strength may depend on the roughness of the sea bed. There is no point in having the trace stronger than the leader. Each time you get stuck you will lose everything. Equally the trace takes some stick under these conditions so you cannot fish too light. Either increase the leader strength or try adding a stronger ‘biting’ length close to the hooks.
I like to present the hooks on a large loop. The top hook of the Pennell is simply threaded onto the loop so that it can slide between the fixed bottom hook and the loop knot. This prevents the top hook from sliding right up the trace and provides a double thickness to resist fish with teeth.
To bait up, thread the bottom hook through the squid a couple of times finally pushing the hook point through its head. Wind the shank of the top hook around the double thickness of the trace loop three or four times to hold the hook in place and impale the hook in the top of the bait.
I prefer to have hook points coming out from different sides of the bait to improve hooking potential. Bait size is according to squid size and I use two squid if they are less than 10cm in mantle length; these fish are hungry.
Both uptide and downtide techniques work well, particularly when the water is coloured. Bass will hit squid baits very hard and missed bites are inevitable if you leave the rod to look after itself. I prefer to hold a rod and make sure that the next bass stays on the hook.
It’s said that ‘When the wind’s in the east the fish bite least’, but it doesn’t apply to Shakespeare beach near Dover, Kent, where you can catch bass from the beach when conditions elsewhere are wrong…
The English Channel has always been a battlefield and at times has been nothing more than a giant ditch that has kept out the enemy. Just last month we remembered the fleet of small ships that brought our troops home from the Dunkirk beaches.
For many, Dover’s sparkling White Cliffs epitomise the Battle of Britain and were the landmark for the returning fighter planes that swept the sky for hostile warplanes.
Down at sea level I have my own memories. From a young age I was drawn to Dover’s piers and beaches where I could always guarantee a great day’s fishing. Later, when I owned a boat and the weather always seemed perfect, we landed so many cod we almost became blasé about the standard of sport. My fascination with the English Channel and the two World Wars led me to dive its depths in search of the many tools of war which litter the sea bed.
The chalk cliffs, that on closer inspection have dark black flint running through them, make an impressive backdrop that every angler in the country can immediately identify. These cliffs, which reach a heady height of 350 feet, spread east and west from Dover, which remains an important and busy port. There are so many angling marks in the immediate area you could write a book on them.
Bass are extremely difficult to track down and a little knowledge puts you on the right track. That’s why I called local rod John Hutton, who has fished Dover’s shores for many years and is an expert bass angler. What he said had me drooling at the mouth, and together with Jason White (pictured below left) from Dartford we planned a trip to Shakespeare beach. The terrain here is quite snaggy so I left my rods at home, and with camera in hand decided to put pressure on John and Jason.
You need a ‘rotten’ rig
Jason has fished Shakespeare throughout the spring and summer months since the mid-1960s with his pal Steve Eggleton. At low tide during the 1960s it was possible to walk around the shoreline of prominent Shakespeare Cliff to Folkestone Warren.
At that time the drill was to fish two hours before low water on a neap tide and two hours after high water.
“Our best results back then came on the early evening low tides, just as the tide started to flood and daylight started to fade,” remembered Jason. “It was not unusual to catch at least three bass a session. Steve and I have had some lovely bass up to 7lb-plus.”
He continued: “We found that an easterly wind pushed food into the rocks and the bass knew this. This was a great indicator for us because we often knew exactly where the fish were.”
I’ve already mentioned the ground is rough and if you don’t believe me, stand on the cliff tops overlooking the mark and you will get a superb view of the landscape…and you might even see France on a good day.
There’s only one get-out card when you fish Shakespeare and that’s fishing with a rotten-bottom rig (pictured above right).
“My reliable rotten-bottom set-up is a three-way swivel and a Genie bait clip, which is clipped into the bottom eye,” said Jason.
“In effect you are clipping the Genie upside down, which will enable you to load the sinker eye on to the bait clip.
The weak link is 8lb line attached direct a 5oz or 6oz lead weight. My 15lb snood tied off the three-way swivel carries a size 3/0 Viking hook.”
Jason’s neat tip to help prevent continual snagging up is to fish with a limp line – tightening up on the weight can pull it into the rocks.
Rods, reels and bait
It always worth knowing what the locals use, and in this case Jason went for a fast-retrieve reel with a light rod - the Penn 525 Mag and Zziplex Profile Lite.
John Hutton used a Daiwa AWB 129 rod and a Daiwa Mag reel. His end rig differed from Jason’s rotten-bottom set-up in that he went for a long trace on an up-and-over rig (shown right), which is excellent for nailing bait hard to the sea bed and keeping the fish underneath the weight. Both are baited with peeler crabs, which are without doubt the number one choice for bass.
“I have tried ragworms, mainly on a float rig, and all I could catch were school bass,” confirmed Jason.
Avenue that actually fishes in an easterly
Conditions were a very light easterly wind with an overcast sky, which was perfect for this venue. This makes Shakespeare unusual in that most venues won’t fish when an easterly is blowing, so it is worth having this mark in mind when conditions elsewhere are wrong.
“Previous trips have produced big silver eels, which always give a good fight, along with wrasse. I’ve also landed codling to 4lb,” said Jason.
On this trip the duo landed two bass each, which just goes to show you can’t beat having the local knowledge, especially when it comes to wind direction, and the rigs and baits that actually work.