In certain conditions a groundswell mounts in the Atlantic which claws crabs and worms out of our windward beaches with combing surf to feed bass shoals day and night.
Surf fishing for bass—supreme sea fish of autumn and the Atlantic surf-strands—is an emotive experience. It is an unfortunate angler who wades into the surf and is not elated by the sounds of the sea and the kaleidoscope of images that surround him. Any fish hooked in these conditions would highlight a day’s sport; that it should be a bass—a fish strikingly similar to sea trout and salmon—completes the picture.
Such perfection, however, introduces problems of its own. Surf anglers are so intoxicated with their fishing that they attribute to the bass characteristics which it lacks. Bass are said to be exceptional fighters, cunning fish—fish with almost supernatural powers. But they are no more difficult to hook than flounders and pouting.
If there is one lesson to be learnt from surf fishing, it is to accept the superb atmosphere of the surf beach but never imagine that you need to be clever to hook a bass. Surf bass fishing is little different from any other kind of angling.
Good surf conditions depend upon two factors: a groundswell generated over many miles of open sea, and shallow beaches where high and low water marks are distant from each other. In the British Isles this means Atlantic water, and consequently the best surf beaches are in Wales, the West Country and Ireland. They face between south and west and into the eye of the prevailing winds.
The breakers and backwash drive sandeels, crabs, small fishes and worms from the sand and predatory fishes such as bass invade the surf to wolf down the harvest. Bass hunt at all stages of the tide, but on any one beach they tend to follow an established pattern. Sometimes the flood is best; sometimes the ebb, or even slackwater, produces more fish.
Surf and food bring bass It is difficult to predict when the bass will arrive, how long they will stay, or why they come in the first place. Food is a major factor, but many experienced anglers suspect that there are more subjective reasons: perhaps bass enjoy being in the surf. Whatever the explanation, surf brings the bass close inshore and the abundance of food usually makes them keen to feed.
Bass are comparatively small fishes, average fighters and, in the open sea at least, not at all tackle-shy. Long distance casting is generally unnecessary, and the water, for all its apparent churning, has little or no lateral current to sweep away the line. Taking all this into account, there is no need for heavy tackle, except when the waves are particularly vicious.
The ideal rod
A medium casting rod, with a small multiplier or fixed-spool reel, is ideal. The main criterion is lightness, because the tackle will be held all day. But it is well to remember that very light tackle —for instance, the 6lb class equipment recommended by some anglers—can be self-defeating. There is always the chance of a very big bass, a tope, a heavy ray; or that floating weeds and seabed rocks will snag the tackle.
Equipment of the 15lb class is ideal for surf bass, although there are occasions when 25lb line is necessary, for not all surf beaches are of clean sand. Some of the very best marks are strewn with rocks, pilings and breakwaters and you need strong tackle to master a hooked fish before it can take the line around the nearest obstruction.
Another advantage of medium weight tackle is its ability to cast 3-4oz sinkers. A heavy sinker carries the baits more slowly so that they remain on the hook during the cast. Anchored firmly in the sand, a 3 or 4oz grip-wired or pyramid sinker helps drive home the hook by pulling the fish up short as it attempts to make off with the fisherman’s bait.
Self-contained mobile surf-angler
The movement of the water and the shallowness of the beach require an active form of angling where you wade with the tide. Rod rest tackle boxes and anything not strictly essential have no place in the surf. To fish well you must be self-contained and mobile. Spare hooks and sinkers go into a pocket, baits are kept in a bag suspended from your belt or from a cord around your neck. Waders and waterproof trousers keep out most of the water. Some anglers use chest-high waders, but they are not necessary and are detrimental in that wading too far and too deep makes for inefficient casting and can be dangerous in rough water.
Wade into the surf to a comfortable depth, load the hook with bait and cast out about 50 yards. Hold the rod, feeling for bites by looping the line over your fingers. Tighten the line at the least sign of a bite. If you miss wait a little longer on the next bite, or hit even faster. It is impossible to predict how bass will take the bait—one day they tear it from the hook, the next they nibble at length. Trial and error is the only way to establish the precise timing of the strike.
Move up and down the beach with the tide, varying the casting distance, and changing baits regularly, for the surf soon washes out the juices and oils. Bass have catholic appetites and will take soft-back and peeler crab, all kinds of J marine worms, squid and mussels, but the best offering by far is live sandeel. The wading angler can gather this deadly bait easily by tethering a wooden courge to a length of line which is attached to a sinker weighing a few pounds. This obviates the need to return to dry land to rebait.
A fine wire Aberdeen hook bet-ween 20 and 40 is the best type when offering sandeel, and can also be recommended for other types of bait. A 3ft monofilament trace of about 12lb b.s., rigged as a running ledger is the best terminal rig for live eels. The alternative is a twohook paternoster with 6-8in snoods.
Never be afraid to bait big for bass: the species has a hinged mouth and a four-pounder is quite capable of engulfing a side of mackerel. Fish in the 10-12lb weight range will happily attack and swallow quite large fish or a whole squid. This is confirmed by many specimen bass that wdP -rs fall to shore anglers fishing for con-ger after dark from harbour walls and piers. Cornwall’s record bass of nearly 15lb was taken like this. Some baits seem to work better on particular beaches, but King rag or lugworm are universally acceptable. It is good policy to keep the bait moving, so that a lot of ground is covered, and always be keyed up to strike the instant an offer is transmitted to the rod tip. A tight line should be maintained at all times. It is also vitally important to keep in direct contact with a hooked fish—give him slack and chances are you will be bidding him goodbye.
Beaching your fish
On driving the hook home, keep the line tight. Let the fish run if it wants to, for every effort it makes will tire it. Let the waves bring it ashore and wash it on to the hard sand. As the backwash recedes, grab the fish and carry it farther up the beach, taking care not to touch its spines. Those of the dorsal fin are easily seen and avoided, but the knifeedges on the gill covers have slashed many a careless hand.