Few sea angling venues can better the surf beach for atmosphere and heart-thumping angling excitement, with the noise of the pounding waves stimulating the basic angling instinct. But what’s going on underwater and where are the bass feeding?
Surf is synonymous with bass, and most anglers are in agreement that fishing for this exciting and sporting species really takes some beating.
The tactic spawned a cult following and even today a complete range of tackle is produced with surf bass in mind. However, there are many other species found on surf beaches and these vary from venue to venue. Basic fishing tactics are similar in that most of the fish are found inside the surf line and often very close to the shore.
Surf fishing is not for the static angler loaded down with tackle who wants to camp as well as fish. Surf is ever on the move, and therein lies the secret of fishing in it. Some of the best known surf beaches stretch for miles of seemingly endless and featureless sand and surf, although some days the surf dies away, leaving the surface of the sea like glass. Given an onshore wind the sea comes alive as the surf stirs the sea bed, threatening the marine habitat – and that’s the only reason the bass and other opportunist feeders are there.
Water clarity on many surf beaches is influenced by the sand, sediment and silt content of the sea bed and surrounding shoreline. This dictates species in lots of cases. Many of the most famous and productive surf bass beaches have clear water even when the surf is raging, and this happens because the heavy sand sinks to the sea bed rather than clouding the water, which is what occurs when you get the same conditions around large silty estuaries.
In our illustration (page 74) we show the typical surf beach through rose tinted glasses because fish location over miles of surf is still important and not all white water will contain fish. Wind and tide play their part because food disturbed by a large surf may not always be pushed inshore. It often travels along the surf line and creates hot spots in any deeper holes and gullies it settles in.
Many surf anglers suggest it is possible to read the surf and, in many parts of the world, brown water in heavy surf is targeted. In the UK it is important to give your choice of fishing spot some thought – the best fishing is not always in front of your parked car.
HOW TO LOCATE THE FEEDING FISH
Remember that the main fish action is where the surf gouges out the sand
Species distribution in surf is fairly standard. You will find flounders everywhere, particularly in the flat sections (flats) between the wavelets and inside the surf. During the flooding tide flounders sometimes have their noses against the edge of the trickle that floods the sand.
However, the main fish action is always where the surf gouges out the sand, with the overspill of sand and food particles stretching inwards through the wave flats. The third flat from the beach towards the main breaker is the hot spot on a majority of surf beaches.
Beyond the surf the deeper undisturbed water is home to rays, dogfish and the other deeper water species, but from many surf beaches clearing the surf is near impossible because of the distance involved. It’s then that accurate casting comes into play, and because the surf line is always moving keeping your bait in the hot zone of action is very important.
One of the most surprising things that novice anglers find out about a surf beach is the close proximity of some of the species of fish. It is possible to catch bass (quite often big ones), flounders, turbot, dabs, mullet, coalfish and other species with your leader knot in the tip ring, and that is a good reason to fish lighter without a shockleader on a flooding surf beach because power casting is often unnecessary.
In fact a great tactic is to pull your tackle closer as you walk back with a flooding tide because the fish are ever moving in to examine the sand that has been exposed at low water. Some days they will find food exposed or left by a storm, on occasions even the discarded bait of anglers, and that is a good reason to change your bait regularly and leave a trail for the fish that ends at your hook. The longer you leave your tackle in the sea the further out in the surf it gets and this is not always the best tactic, although it is a useful option on some venues.
Alarge bait or baits cast at low tide and then left as the angler walks back with the sea, letting out line as he goes, is a favourite tactic from some of the estuary surf beaches like those in the Bristol Channel, and is also worth considering when it is calm. On most days, keeping your baits in the active part of the surf as it moves is the deadliest tactic.
A: Other species lurk outside the wave disturbance. B: Bass look for food in the surf. C: Low tide lip. D: Wave action dislodges food and spews it inshore. E: The main flatfish action is at the third wave flat. F: Flatfish feeding inside the third wave flat. G: Fish are moving continually on the flood and ebb tides. H: Flatfish will nose the edge of the wavelets. I: You can hold your rod or use a tripod
LEAD WEIGHTS KNOW-HOW
Useful advice on when to use a plain or wired sinker
Powerful surf can drag lines and tackle along the shore, so a wired grip lead is essential if you want to offer a static bait.
There are also several odd-shaped plain lead weights that will stay put in surf, notably the pyramid and the old-fashioned watch shape.
Awired lead weight cast into the main breaker may be buried and difficult to retrieve and so it is important to use the best lead style for the conditions.
Two grip wires in a breakout lead can be better than four sometimes, while the plain bomb, torpedo or pear are favoured in calmer conditions when they can be used to trundle your bait into holes and gullies where food may have collected.
The secret of the surf is putting your bait where the fish are located, using accurate casting and moving the lead weight to find the fish.
BEST BAIT CHOICE
What’s your selection?
Lugworms have the edge for bass, while small ragworms and harbour rag (maddies) take flounders and mullet.
Peeler crabs in their local season can be deadly, although shellfish are favoured on some venues where they are washed inshore in numbers.
Sandeels are not so successful, although a fish tip, such as mackerel, does catch flounders and turbot from many surf marks.
Old lugworms and shellfish also have the edge on occasions.
CHOOSE THE BEST RIGS
Learn to spread your baitfish
Perhaps the best rig is a simple one-up, one-down paternoster. This can be cast at short and medium range, which is often all that is required, and its configuration spaces the two baits as widely apart as possible in a standard casting rig.
Rig length is crucial because the fish are often found in a narrow band in front of the surf and a longer sprawling rig gives the baits more chance of being found by a fish.
Your other options of the same rig include the use of one hook (size 3/0) specifically for bass, or three hooks (size 1 or 2) for fishing for flounders, dabs, turbot, mullet and coalfish.
Adjustable rig stops used to fix hook snood positions allow the snoods to be moved up and down the rig body and are perfect for flapper-style rigs fished in surf. For fishing in or beyond a distant surf line the standard one-up, one-down clipped loop rig streamlines hook baits and offers extra casting range.
STAY MOBILE ALONG THE SURFLINE
Keep gear to a minimum and make sure you have chesties
Setting up camp is not really possible when fishing the surf, so your tackle needs to be compact, minimal and light so you can keep close to the sea at all times.
Fishing 100 yards back from the wave edges is not ideal, especially when trying to judge casting distance. Chest waders are an essential part of surf fishing, not only because there is no chance of erecting a beach shelter, but also because you are always on the move. Chesties keep you dry and allow you to wade and beach fish without fear of getting a soaking.
Most anglers also prefer a tackle box, not least because it keeps gear dry even if floated by those rogue surf surges. Aclip-on side tray saves the need to place bait on the sand where it is likely to get washed away.
Atripod is handy if it incorporates a butt cup and head that allows the rod tip to be raised above the wave movement which, even when fishing close, can produce lots of false bites. Aclip-on bait tray under the tripod holds items you need at hand when fishing the surf. If you like holding your fishing rod, a simple monopod stand will suffice while you are baiting up.
THE WONDER OF WADING
But never be tempted to wade out too far!
There is a natural instinct to wade into surf, especially when fishing for bass, because standing holding your rod in the tumbling water is exciting.
On many venues the surf line is distant, particularly during a big sea, and a few extra yards gained to reach the surf hot spot can be invaluable. However, around the UK the surf beaches have several species that are found almost under the angler’s feet and these include flounders, mullet, turbot and sometimes even the bass.
So wade if you wish, but remember that you may wade past the fish and it may be unwise to go too far or in front of anglers casting in case of a snap-off.
LURE FISHING IN SURF
Remember it's mainly a tactic for schoolies
Fly-fishing, spinning and plugging for bass are all possible from some surf beaches. However, the conditions for this type of angling are not always ideal and fishing with bait is sometimes the only option.
If you want an angling challenge then fishing a lure is just that, but don’t expect record-breakers because the tactic catches mainly schoolies from the shore; big bass are best fished for with a big juicy bait.
HEAR THE CALL OF THE IRISH SURF
Ireland sets the standard with a close season and a bag limit
We could not finish without talking about the Irish surf beaches.
They epitomise what surf bass fishing is about, having had a cult following from the 1950s to 70s when surf bass fishing became the specialised branch of sea angling it is today.
The Irish have also moved to protect their bass stocks with a close season and bag limit.
The atmosphere of a raging surf alone is enough to excite even the hardened pessimist roused by the sound of a noisy but lonely surf beach.
It is addictive – beware!
You have all seen them. They stand on the pier or sea wall and cast for the horizon. Daft really, says Alan Yates, when the fish are feeding close to the wall. Here’s how to do it
THERE’S A BIG secret to fishing successfully down the wall of a pier, jetty or rock face and I am giving it away here for free.
Think about casting from the beach. Nearly all anglers cast to the maximum, but we all know that fish can be found at distances ranging from a few yards to a couple of hundred yards.
So why do 99 per cent of all off-the-wall anglers cast to maximum range when the fish are at their feet? There is nothing I enjoy more than plopping a bait alongside a wall.
Piers are an attraction to fish as well as a natural barrier, a feature they swim along, up and around. Piers funnel fish, especially in summer when various species make the most of the food and habitat.
Piers are full of features and, just like the sea bed, offer fish numerous holding and hiding places. The wall has corners, holes, ridges, overhangs, weed fringes, obstructions and floodlights. Piers may differ and all species may not be common in all regions, but wherever you fish from a pier the wall is worth targeting.
There is always a hot spot, such as a corner where the tide congregates rubbish, inside the end where the tide slacks in an eddy, the slack behind a jutting wall or pile, underneath the café or where tide meets pier.
Knowledge of the species gives the angler an insight into the pecking order up the pier wall. Each species exploits a particular food source or part of the wall and, if you fish pier walls long enough, you’ll soon realise the different depths that various species can be caught at and how these fluctuate within the tide, season, daylight and darkness.
It’s uncanny how some species feed in depth ranges that are so precise and how knowledge of these facts can be used the exploit each type of fish.
I prefer long soft rods for down-the-wall fishing, although heavier tackle is needed for bass and conger eels. A compromise rod may be required in strong tide and you can use a beachcaster, although it does tend to dampen the fun of fishing for smaller species.
The latest long continental quiver-tip rods are ideal, while a heavy freshwater feeder rod is the choice of some. For pollack, scad and garfish you can use braid line, which gives a more direct connection to the fish and bites, as well as combating strong tide, but this does require a soft rod.
Another essential is some form of wall or railing that can act as a rod-rest, so tackle can be suspended alongside the wall. Most anglers construct a rod-rest and there are a number of ways to do this, including a bungee elastic hooked to your reel and tackle box. You could use of the new Rail Monkey to protect your rods when it is propped against a railing. Remember to release your reel drag to avoid the rod being pulled in.
Many pier walls can be snaggy because of the seaweed growth sprouting from the wall. Long rods and a wall rod-rest help keep the tackle clear of this and allow you to fish baits under weed and ledges, rather than in it.
THERE are several rigs that are perfect for pier wall hanging. The wire boom rig is a favourite because it is practical and presents baits suspended and tangle free.
An alternative is a long mono paternoster (twoup, one-down) for timid species in strong tide. It’s a favourite of anglers who fish with long light rods from stilted piers.
Spread the booms or hook snoods over 12ft to maximise the depth covered by baits (longer rods allow longer rigs).
Light snood lines (10lb) can be used to maximise tidal movement on the baits. Mullet and garfish will avoid heavy monofilament line in clear water, others may not be fussy, but if you do go light chose a tough fluorocarbon line.
Species are found at different depths so you can bait each hook differently. For instance, bread or fish strip on the top for garfish or mullet, a head-hooked white ragworm or bunch of maddies on the middle for scad or pollack and a large ragworm on the bottom for a bass.
Hook sizes range between size 6 for garfish and mullet and size 2 for pollack. Use a tough hook at the bottom because that’s the one that can pick up a bonus big fish. Conger and bass hooks start at size 3/0.
Baits in your bucket
DOWN the wall baits include small king ragworms, harbour ragworms (maddies), white ragworms, fish strip, either garfish or mackerel, sandeels, live prawns/shrimps, bread, maggots, sweetcorn etc.
For the biggest species have peeler crabs, mackerel head, flapper or fillet or a small live pout, whiting and smelt to hand.
Head-hook a ragworm so they swim and wriggle attractively. Small strips or slivers of fish cut to resemble a sandeel work best, hook them once. Bread can catch a surprising number of the species, especially if the fishing spot is pre-baited.
MOVEMENT is an effective trick to encourage any fish swimming close to a wall to attack the bait.
The obvious method is to raise and lower the rig occasionally. It’s a good idea to use a marked line; a coloured leader works, so that you know where you are. You can also tie on a stop knot on the line in Power Gum to mark your depth. If you get a bite you can then return to the hit zone.
Another method is to use a lighter lead that will travel and lift in the tide. Drop the rig to the bottom and allow it to lift in the tide to a depth the weight will hold. Altering the weight of the lead can allow you to search out areas of a wall or along/under pier piles.
Species like pollack, mackerel, garfish and scad will attack a moving bait and it often pays to keep the bait on the move rather than leaving it to fish statically.
Freelining a bait with a swan or SSG shot is a tactic that works well in light tide from many piers, especially for coalfish, mackerel, scad and garfish. A small strip of fish from the silver underbelly or a sandeel section is the bait.
Float fishing alongside the pier wall is a fun alternative. You will need to use a sliding float rig with a Power Gum stop knot on the line above the float so that the depth you are fishing can be adjusted easily. Remember the tide will always be moving and it will take your bait away from the feeding zone unless you regularly deepen or shallow up.
Groundbait is a worthwhile tactic. Use a mixture of boiled fish, bread, bran, sweetcorn, freshwater pellets and tinned pilchards, which can all be mashed up and introduced periodically to attract the fish. Alternatively put it in a fine mesh bread bag suspended alongside the wall.
SPECIES DEPTH GUAGE
Garfish: Surface feeders rarely found below 12ft. Bait is fish strip, garfish or mackerel.
Mackerel: Feed at various depths according to their prey. Baits include fish strip, worms and most lures.
Mullet: Thick-lips do feed on the bottom in shallow estuaries, but around piers they feed mainly on the surface or just out of sight, depending upon water clarity. Baits are bread, fish flesh without the skin, maggots, paste and sometimes harbour rag.
Pollack: Eight spool turns up from most walled piers is the daylight target area, but at night they take baits on the top. Baits are a head-hooked ragworm, bunches of wriggly harbour or white rag.
Coalfish: Feed at all depths, but often found within 12ft of the surface. Bait is peeler crabs, ragworms and fish strip. Use beads on rigs.
Scad: Feed just off the bottom in daylight, but on the surface in darkness, especially under lights. Bait is fish strip, head-hooked king or white rag with the latter good in clear water.
Wrasse: Mostly found around the low tide weed fringe where they take up residence. Baits are peeler crabs for big wrasse and worms for small.
Bream: Mainly bottom feeders, but also follow the pier wall up and can be caught very shallow on occasions. Baits are crab, squid, fish strip.
Bass: Found mainly on the bottom, but do feed within 12ft of the surface and on the surface when chasing food, especially under pier lights at night. Baits include rag, small live fish, crabs and large mackerel baits.
Pouting: Mostly caught on the bottom, but do rise several feet on occasions. Most baits catch pouting.
Conger: A bottom predator that will come very close to the surface on occasions. Baits are large fresh mackerel flapper, head or fillet, squid or small pollack and pouting.
Boat angler Neil Evans faces the age-old dilemma of choosing the right colour lure for sea fishing in deep water. He's a little sceptical, worrying that bright hues catch more anglers than fish. The angler from Bedlinog, Merthyr Tydfil, teams up with Dave Lewis to see if we can prove a point and find out whether the colour of your sea fishing lures actually matters...
The colour of lures was a hot topic way back in the 1970s when I started wreck fishing. Some crews argued that when fishing in over 150 feet of water it didn't matter what the colour was because everything looked virtually the same - black.
Others held the view that the choice of colour was critical to success, regardless of depth, and unless you rigged up with the day's hot lure you would probably lag behind in the catch stakes.
So does the choice of lure colour make any difference when fishing deep water, and if so, which are the best colours to have in the tackle box? Searching for the answer is the angling equivalent of finding the Holy Grail and it seems a lot of mystery surrounds that myth.
At best all you can do is grab a mixed selection of lures, go fishing and find out what lures produce the fish. That is precisely what Neil Evans and I did aboard Andrew Alsop's White Waters, operating out of Milford Haven.
We seemed to have drawn a lucky card the day Neil and I joined up because the conditions for wrecking were absolutely perfect with virtually flat seas and an ideal tide to ensure a decent chance of fish.
The wreck Andrew had in mind sat in 220ft of water around 34 miles off St Anne's Head at the mouth of The Haven, and with a steady 16 knot cruising speed we were in position for our first drift a little over two hours after setting off.
These days most wreck anglers target pollack using either shads or jellyworms, though the wide range of artificial sandeels will still take their fair share of fish.
In recent years I have become a firm believer in shads and not just because they are such a deadly lure for pollack, but also because they are more likely to attract all sorts of fish, like bass, cod and coalfish, which also lurk around wrecks.
Neil and I fished with identical dark green shads, which were extremely natural-looking and lifelike, with my choice based on no other reason than they were the first I found in my tackle bag.
I am of the opinion that while the colour of a lure can be absolutely critical in relatively shallow water, once the depth drops beyond 150ft or so colour is virtually irrelevant.
On any day's wreck fishing one or two anglers will always catch the majority of the fish and the others will always be quick to point out that the reason for their success is down to the colour lure they are using. That's the point at which they start switching to the same colour, be it bubble-gum pink or hot orange. You don't need a degree in marine biology to fathom out that as more and more anglers use one specific colour lure, then the majority of fish brought to the boat will have been caught on the same colour lure.
I reckon the more successful anglers use a slightly different technique, often no more than a very subtle change in speed of retrieve compared to everyone else aboard.
It might also be the length of their hooklength is longer or shorter, perhaps the way they have rigged their lure on the hook or even the fact they are using a thinner diameter braid mainline that on the day is offering a slightly better presentation.
Sometimes it is even simpler - the anglers are fishing on the side of the boat that offers better presentation or the fish are shoaled up tight and the same people hit fish time after time.
From the very first drift we were into plenty of pollack. At first they were samples to 6lb, but as the ebbing tide kicked in and started to gather momentum so the size of the fish increased.
Individual specimens over 10lb started to come aboard every other drift and at least two specimens weighing over 15lb were among our final bag of 100-plus pollack.
Remember this was mid-July 2005, so imagine what the fishing could be like in the winter?
WHAT COLOURS WORK BEST?
I bet you all want to know what colour attracted the most fish? As things turned out it was Neil and I who had the most fish with Neil declaring: "This is the best day's boat fishing I have ever had."
During our boat trip I had tried at least six different colour lures and they were all equally as effective as the other, while the rest of the party had fished lures from every colour in the rainbow.
"When there are lots of feeding fish on a wreck, individual fish can't afford to be choosy," said skipper Andrew, as we steamed back towards the distant Welsh coastline.
"On days like these, you'll catch fish on pretty much any shape or colour lure. On other days other colour lures do appear to be more effective with black and orange being the must-have colours in an angler's tackle box."
The moral to this tale is that you should have a wide selection of lures in your bag with a few black and orange ones handy... just in case.
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
Q What course of action should I take when snagged from a drifting boat?
Dave Lewis says: I have found that when fishing on the drift the best course of action, when your terminal rig becomes snagged, is to lock the spool with your thumb to prevent the clutch slipping and point the rod directly down the line. This allows the pressure on the line to steadily build until something gives; hopefully somewhere near the terminal rig.
Some skippers take a few wraps of line around a piece of wood then pull for a break, though I dislike this technique as often I have seen the line break at the surface, obviously resulting in the loss of a lot of line when fishing deep water. That said if your line is getting pulled under the boat this might be necessary to avoid a broken rod. Avoid wrapping the line around your hands, especially if using braid, as you can easily inflict deep and nasty cuts as a result of the line cutting through to the bone.
Has braided line any advantage over mono when trolling or float fishing?
Dave Lewis says: The non-stretch qualities of braid are excellent when trolling, as they help ensure the hook gets correctly set on the strike. The same principle would be true when float fishing. That said when trolling in the UK, which usually means seeking bass or pollack, or float fishing for mullet, garfish or wrasse, I use mono lines that are adequate for these species.