The gilthead bream first appeared in the British Record Fish List in 1970 – it was a fish weighing a mere Valb (0.7kg) and was caught off Hayle in West Cornwall. In the two decades since, shore and boat records have been improved twelve times. There can be no doubt that more and more of these fish are turning up around Britain, and that the slight but definite warming of the waters around our coasts is the reason for their presence.
A Mediterranean marvel
It is a most distinctive species. The body is deep and oval, with gunmetal-grey flanks giving way to a white belly, and there is a vivid patch of crimson on each gill cover. A band ofgold between the eyes is a good identification guide when the fish first comes out of the water, but it fades rapidly when the fish dies.
Another distinctive mark is the dark blotch at the beginning of the lateral line. The upper jaw is slightly longer than the lower and the lips are thick. The fish has four to six powerful conical teeth in its upper and lower jaws, five rows of molars in the upper jaw and four in the lower.
The powerful jaws are designed to crush crustaceans and molluscs. Limpet shells have been found in the fish’s stomach, so it is also possibly a rock rasper.
It’s in the bag
The gilthead is appearing more and more frequently in British waters – most notably off Salcombe, South Devon which, according to weather statistics, has the warmest climate in Britain. Eight of the so-far recorded British Rod Caught Records came from a small area a mile above Salcombe called ‘The Bag Deep pits in the bottom of the tidal river that opens to form the Kingsbridge Estuary at this point have an almost unique attraction for the gilthead.
Channel Island waters have also proved attractive to the species, but only two records have come from there: a shore-caught 3 lb 5oz (1.5kg) fish from Alderney in 1973 and an 8 lb 2oz (3.7kg) specimen from St. Sampson’s, Guernsey in 1983.
Salcombe and the Channel Islands have constantly yielded giltheads in the 4-6 lb (1.8-2.7kg) class, and it is inevitable as time passes that new record weights will be established. Since the fish is known to attain a weight of 18 lb (8kg), the potential for improvement is considerable.
Tidal river tenant
The gilthead prefers a muddy or sandy sea bed, and is attracted to tidal river waters. This is exactly what is provided at Salcombe. However, in the Mediterranean it is commonly found in the open sea. It is a shallow water species and is rarely taken at depths of more than about 40m (130ft). The pits which attract them at Salcombe have a maximum depth of 10m (33ft).
The fish only appears in UK waters in the summer. It is rarely taken before mid-June, and rarely after mid-September (not a single fish has been noted by anglers later than September). Rod and line angling for them seems to be far more successful during spring tides than neaps.
Fishing for giltheads
Anglers who have caught the bigger specimens of gilthead bream all agree in their appreciation of the fish’s ferocious attack on a bait and the ensuing battle to bring it to a wide-mouthed net. The strike must be swift and firm and it is essential to maintain a tight line to the fish.
Once on the surface it puts up a most impressive display — this is perhaps the most dangerous part of the entire fight. Every really big gilthead is fully earned — which makes it one of the most attractive species for the dedicated specimen hunter. Nearly all those caught with rod and line have fallen to crab baits.