Reefs you can only reach by boat – in both deep and shallow water – are great places to contact a wide variety of species.
Catching fish consistently from an offshore reef comes only from learning to read the visible clues at the sea surface and interpreting the picture on the boat’s fish finder. You must also understand the effect of tides on the fish. It’s worth it because reefs concentrate the food supply and attract big fish for much of the year.
When you’ve found a reef, take notes and bearings of areas where upwelling currents appear on the surface. Even in deep water when the tide is running these are quite easy to spot. However, what you see on the surface is some distance downtide of the feature causing the disturbance. Move uptide and the fish finder will eventually show pinnacles of rock or rising fissures that look like miniature mountains.
In shallow water these features can be harder to spot. They may only show as slightly rougher water when the tide is running, and as a gentle dimple effect over calm water at slack tide. In even a gentle breeze much of the evidence is lost. On the biggest tides when the run is fierce all signs on the surface are obliterated.
Shallow water reefs
On shallow reefs like those off the mid-Wales coast, the pinnacles may be only a metre or two (3-7ft) high and the water less than 10m (33ft) deep.
Black bream feed around the base of the pinnacles from May through to September. They also forage along shallow gutters in the reef and around the edges of weed beds. You’ll find bull huss and small pollack in the same features. The huss will be in among the weed, with the pollack swimming some feet off the sea bed around the rock pinnacles themselves. A good place for pollack and bass when the tide is in full flow is along the downtide edge of the reef. There is an overfall marked by a calm area that changes abruptly to an aggressive and confused surface chop, often with white water.
Bass hunt for crabs and small fish on shallow sections of reef- at low water and as the tide begins to flood – often very close to shore. Look for depressions in the surface of the reef, heavy weed beds and boulder-strewn ground with natural alleys. Cod sometimes feed on crabs in May/June and late autumn from similar ground. Where the rocky reef gives way to clean sand you’ll find thornback ray, even when the depth is only measured in feet at low tide.
Shallow reefs only fish through the summer and late autumn period with any consistency, but the deeper ones keep all their species for the bulk of the year. Only in the period when fish are spawning – February to April – is the fishing poor.
Deep water marks
The deeper reefs with depths of between 15-60m (50-200ft) or more are harder to read, but offer the greatest rewards. Again, you are looking for rising rock pinnacles. Pollack are common and you’ll find them from about the sea bed to midway up the height of the rise. The smaller fish tend to shoal close to the rock itself, but the bigger fish prefer to haunt overhangs, shadowy cracks or around outjutting peaks away from the main shoals.
Coalfish like the same ground as pollack, forming tight shoals above them over the tops of underwater pinnacles. Coalies, along with pollack and mackerel, often swim higher in the water at dusk and dawn. The gloom is sometimes called ‘pollack light’ – and the fish may be right at the surface. Ling like to sit just above the sea bed, where pinnacles meet the reef proper. They haunt the smaller uplifts surrounded by weed, particularly on the edge of the tide. Conger live among the debris of fallen boulders and rocks at the base of pinnacles. They back into holes and rely on ambush tactics to take passing fish. Cod are also found at basement level, working the boulders and weed banks and along the lower edges of vertical uplifts for crabs and small fish. Ballan wrasse live much nearer the surface, tight into ledges and overhangs at moderate depth.
Where rocky uplifts stick through the surface, or at the ends of the shallower reefs, you’ll find a tide race – a turbulent area of water. This concentrates the baitfish, attracting predators like pollack, bass and coalfish. These in turn may interest porbeagle shark.
Fish feed at different levels depending on the tide. Cod, pollack and coalies all come up in the water as the tide slackens – following the baitfish. Cod don’t usually stray toe far from the sea bed, however.
Bass also rise in the water, congregating around peaks touching the surface around slack water. But as the run starts, they drop deeper, working the sandeel shoals tight up against sub-surface cliffs. Conger and ling feed best over early and late flood and ebb periods.
Peak tide run times are less productive, though you can still catch fish if you seek out sheltered ground downtide of an obstruction. Often the smaller neap tides are best simply because reduced tidal flow sees the boat’s drift slowed, and you spend longer over productive ground.
Watch the weather
When wind and tide travel in the same direction the surface water tends to be quieter and more subdued. But when the wind opposes the tide, rough white water and deep troughs quickly make a reef a dangerous place to be.
Over many reefs a deep low-pressure area farther out in the Atlantic can cause a definite swell that gradually rises and falls. This can occur as much as 48 hours before the system arrives locally.
Take great care because a deep swell can all but uncover sub-surface rocks that are usually deep and out of harm’s way. Keep an eye on the fish finder, especially while exploring a new reef— low water in a swell can easily lead to disaster.
Sandbars – rich pickings in turbulent water
The tide rushing over sandbars screams fish to any sea angler, says Mick Toomer – especially when the gulls are working the banks and diving in to pursue the sandeels forced to the top in a seething tumult of water.
The action of the tide and the wind in the seas around Britain creates sandbars or banks in a variety of places – you can find them in estuaries, just off sand or shingle beaches and even in fairly deep water miles offshore. They vary greatly in depth. Some have ridges showing above the surface at low tide while others are never exposed. The Kentish Knock, off the Kent coast, is a shallow water sandbank area, while the Atherfield Banks, south of the Isle of Wight, are in much deeper water. All hold good populations of fish.
Most sandbars are continually on the move, changing shape according to the whim of tides and winds. Some have been known to disappear almost overnight when gale-force winds combine with a big tide.
The disturbance caused as the tide rushes across a series ofsandbars is a sight to quicken the heart of any angler. Where the banks lie close together the result is an incredible mass of churning water; where the banks are farther apart the disturbance caused by the individual ridges shows as lines of turbulent water with fairly calm areas between them.
The turbulence on the surface is caused when the flow of water, restricted by the bar, accelerates over it. The speeded-up flow of water washes a host of tiny food items – crustaceans, marine worms and so on – out of the sea bed. Small fish and sandeels are swept along with the water and into the mouths of waiting predators.
When you are fishing sandbars, it’s worth remembering that the ripple or area of turbulent water does not appear directly over the top of the bar. Depending on the strength of the tide and the depth of water, the disturbance could be as much as 20-30m (20-30yd) downtide.
Another point to remember is that the theory – once held by many anglers – that fish hide in the slack water behind the sandbar, waiting for food to come over the top, is not an infallible guide. In fact, many of the target species are elsewhere.
Finding the fish
On sandbars the places where fish gather include the very top, the shallower water in front, the deep gullies between bars, the banks on both sides of a ridge and the slack water behind. You can often find specific fish in specific locations, but bear in mind that these location points may vary considerably on some bars.
Bass One of the most exciting of the sandbar fish, bass are rarely found waiting in slack water. Although they tend to scour the entire area when the tide is slack, they are nearly always found in front of the sandbar or on the highest point of the ridge when the tide is running hard.
Thornback rays These fish, less streamlined than bass, usually inhabit different areas. Where the water is relatively shallow, you can find them lying in front of the sandbar. In deeper water they often congregate in the gullies between bars. Plaice can provide exciting sandbar sport. They are sometimes found in the deeper water, but in shallow areas they gather on top of the bars.
Small-eyed rays tend to inhabit the top of the sandbars, while the much bigger blonde rays are to be found down the back of the bank or in the troughs between banks. Turbot Perhaps the most eagerly sought-after sandbar fish, turbot, sad to say, are now rare. This species definitely lies in wait behind the sandbar, especially where a back eddy leaves a calmer area behind the bar. Sandeels forced over the top of the bank often make for this stretch of calmer water, and the turbot wait for them there.
Three main methods are used for fishing shallow, fast sandbar areas – drifting, fishing downtide at anchor and boatcasting.
Drifting Provided the water is not too turbulent, drifting a boat across sandbars can produce great sport. This should, of course, be attempted only when the water is deep enough over the sandbar to allow the boat to work safely.
Under these circumstances there are few methods to beat live sandeel fished on a 3-6m (10-20ft) long flowing trace. Pay line out until the tackle is at least 30m (30yd) behind the boat before you put the reel into gear. Then, as the boat drifts along with the current, the bait is dragged over the bars and down into the gullies.
The fish are used to snatching at an item of food as it is whisked past by the current, so bites are normally quite positive. Often the rod just keels over as the fish engulfs the bait and the weight of the boat pulls the hook home.
The best way to fish a long trace is to tie a French boom to the end of the reel line and then attach the lead weight as close as possible to the bottom of the boom. The French boom arm stops the long trace from tangling and can help to give a little movement to the bait.
The size of weight to use is a matter of trial and error, although it needs to be heavy enough to keep the bait tripping on the bottom. As a rough guide, use as light a weight as possible when fishing for bass (though it must still be heavy enough to keep the bait on or near the bottom – you can feel it dragging or bouncing along the sea bed); turbot and plaice react well to a slightly heavier lead that creates a greater ‘smoke screen’ of sand as it drags along the bottom.
Anchoring uptide of the sandbars can give good sport. Again, a long trace fished on the French boom usually produces the best results. Use a weight that allows the bait to be bounced through the turbulent water and the gullies and over the sandbars. Remember that a longer trace and as light a lead as possible often prove the best bet when bass are the main quarry. Boatcasting uptide on to sandbars, a fairly new idea, is proving effective for bass. With the grapnel weight positioned in front, or on the very top, of the sandbar, the bites are explosive as the fish pick up the bait and carry on moving through the fast water.