Related to the freshwater perch, the bass offers some of the best sport there is for the sea angler prepared to use a range of styles: spinning, float-fishing, even fly fishing.
Nobody could mistake the bass (Dicentrarchus labrax) for any other saltwater species. The grey mullet has somewhat similar scales and dorsal fins, but there the likeness ends. The bass, also known as the sea perch, has small, firm scales like its freshwater counterpart. These are silvery and exquisitely formed, giving the bass a striking appearance. The head is pointed with a spiny gill cover and the body is streamlined and muscular to cope with the bass’s energetic role as a predator, which requires it to swim at high speed over short distances.
The solitary mature fish range in weight from 1lb up to about 20lb, with most fully grown bass weighing 2-8lb. The British record fish, taken from a boat off the Eddystone Reef, in 1975, weighed 18lb 6oz, and several fish approaching this size are caught each year from shore or boat.
The bass is well established in British coastal waters but is rarely found north of a line extending from the northern part of Ulster, through the Solway Firth, to the North Sea coast near the Wash. This imaginary line represents the possible limit of its favoured warm-water habitat. Other motives, as yet unexplained, may also account for this reluctance to move farther north.
In summer bass congregate in estuaries and will even move well up river into brackish water, but when the first autumn frost arrive it will leave its inshore habitat and move to deeper, warmer water to keep company with the smaller species on which it preys.
There are well-known fishing centres throughout Britain’s bass-holding area. West of the Welsh peninsula, and up through Cardigan Bay to Anglesey, is one of the best. Farther north, the bass favours parts of the Cumbrian coast and the Solway Firth. Scotland’s only real claim to bass fame, however, is Luce Bay, which is shallow and protected from North Atlantic weather by the Mull of Galloway. West Country waters hold many bass, especially inshore and in the fjord-like inlets of Devon and Cornwall.
Large bass of the Kent, Essex and Suffolk coast scavenge around river mouths and creeks at high tide. On the ebb tide, the same fish seem to drop back with the current to the offshore sandbanks that lie across the mouths of most East Coast rivers. There they feed on immature flatfish, sandeels and marine worms. Most bass, when opened, also contain a high proportion of crabs, which are to be found among the weeds of the estuary flats.
Ireland has a large number of bass fishing beaches. Most anglers, when talking of this fish, will think of the tremendous surf strands of the West. Here, surf-beach anglers enjoy the very best of bass fishing, as the powerful Atlantic breakers throw up lugworm and sandeel in plenty from the sandy beaches and create the turbulent water that bass thrive in. Bass can be found all around the Irish coast, however,
With the possible exceptions of the innermost parts of the Irish Sea, near to Dublin, and northwards up towards Belfast Lough.
The breeding habits of the bass have still to be fully investigated and understood, but it is known that the species either spawns inshore or in deep water during the months of May and June. The fertilized eggs drift to the upper layers of the water, hatching quickly in warm conditions. The fry form shoals and remain together throughout the juvenile stage. During the adolescent stage of growth huge shoals exist that prey upon the fry of other species. They become sexually mature at five to six years of age when they should measure about 14in from mouth to tail fin. The female fish take longer to mature than the males and attain greater weights. There is also evidence that female fish outnumber males by about two to one.
Anglers rarely see the appearance of shoaling bass these days, but years ago there were a number of known angling marks where, during the spring and summer, vast catches could be made by spinning or trolling metal lures along the perimeter of the shoal.
Bass are extremely long-lived and slow growing fish, and these two factors make the species vulnerable to overfishing, whether by rod and line or by commercial fishing methods. For a number of years, angling ‘&! federations and some scientific bodies have been concerned at the disappearance of the bass from parts of Ireland and Britain. Various study programmes suggest that, if present trends continue, overfishing will lead to the absence of bass from some areas of Britain’s coast line for a long period, if not for ever.
There are few sea fish that enjoy the reputation of the bass as a fighter. In the right environment the species gives first-rate sport on rod and line. Bass fishing is usually practised from the shore or small boats close-in, but the species can be caught wherever there are off-shore reefs or sandbanks.
There are many methods of cat-ching bass. Because of the predatory behaviour of the fish, spinning or trolling artificial lures is popular. The bass will take most spun lures but shows a marked preference for the slow-wobbling kind of spoon —probably because this looks very like an injured or frightened fish. The ‘German Sprat’, ‘Shanny’ and ‘Toby’ spoons are typical of this kind of bait.
Spinning for bass also embraces the use of a natural bait that is worked in similar fashion to an artificial one. A sprat or small herring that is fis’hed ‘sink-anddraw’ style over known holding grounds can be extremely effective. Live sandeels are commonly used on the South West Coast.
When the bass are shoaling inshore, boat anglers often watch for tell-tale signs of surface disturbance that indicate that bass are feeding. As the predatory bass lunge through the swarming immature fish on which they feed, the water is whipped into a white spray. Gulls contribute to the scene with raucous screeches as they scramble to pick up floating fish left by the bass.
The boatman should drift the boat to the edge of the splashing water so that the fish are not disturbed and frightened off. A spinner cast out and drawn through the water just below the surface is almost certain of success in most conditions.
Most of Britain’s bass fishermen are shorecasters, using rods that have sufficient power to cast a 4oz weight, yet with enough suppleness to feel the movement of fish and current. They rely on the bass finding the paternostered or ledgered worms that are usually offered. Crabs in both the ‘peeler’ and ‘softie’ stage of shedding the hard carapace, are a bait that can be used to great effect from rocky shore platforms where there is a mass of weed growth that bass recognize as cover for crabs.
Bass also frequent the shoreline close to rock faces and cliff edges. Float fishing takes the hookbait at the speed of the current to where bass will be picking morsels from both weeds and rocks. The smell of a float-fished crab will attract the bass, which hunts by both sight and smell. Worms will also be a good hookbait, but the float technique calls for experimentation with baits—prawns, shrimps and shellfish will all take bass.
The rocky habitat requires different methods again. What might be described as ‘working a lure’ often pays off. Since bass seek out the fry of other species it can be profitable to use lures simulating these. Artificial lures, imitating, for example, the sandeel, can be purchased or improvized from plastic tubing, feathers, wood and rubber.
Feathers can also be tied onto a long-shanked hook to resemble fry. These can be cast with a spinning rod and lead or, better still, presented delicately on a fly line and rod if there is sufficient room to backcast. Do not worry about accurate simulation of the actual fish fry; try rather to create a lure that gives a reasonably faithful imitation of the shape and action of the small fish as it swims erratically along the margins of the cliff face.