BEGINNERS GUIDE: BOAT FISHING

Nothing will keep me out of a boat, given half a chance to get in; but nothing will make me recommend boat fishing to anyone else, either in private or in public. The responsibility is just too awful. I can’t face it.

If you mean to go out on the sea in a boat, on your own head be it. The sea is a really dangerous place. You only have to look at the papers or switch on the radio to learn all about that. It is simply marvellous to be at sea, in conditions which you are capable of enjoying: but it would be irresponsible to urge any beginner to put to sea without proper professional or at any rate experienced guidance.

Go to sea by all means. We’re not the island race for nothing. Sea fishing from a boat, even quite close inshore, is superbly enjoyable (when you’re not sick or terrified, that is). It opens up horizons which are denied to the landlubber. But lub away, be a lubber and proud of it, unless you know someone, or can hire someone, who is really a master of the trade and thoroughly capable. The sea changes as the weather changes—and sometimes before the weather changes. It is OK one minute and you’re in trouble the next. I am no great shakes as a boat-handler myself, though I can cope after a fashion and have owned several sailing boats, and crewed in many more. But I couldn’t begin to write a manual which would teach you how to stay safe while at sea, and therefore I am simply going to say this—don’t go to sea in a boat unless you know what you’re doing or alternatively have someone with you who does. Who really does.

Having said that, as in duty bound, let me say that fishing from a boat is dreamy, man, dreamy. Not only does it open up those new horizons I spoke about, in the fishing sense, but there you are, secluded in a world of your own, absolutely on your tod, free from the workaday world and the frets of ‘longshore life. It’s heavenly.

Needless to say you only go out in a boat when the weather is set fair. It then gives you the opportunity of getting out over various ‘marks’, as they are called, where fish tend to congregate. Nothing could be farther from the truth than the naïve notion that fish are distributed more or less equally or at random throughout the illimitable ocean. Far from it. Fish congregate, just as people congregate ashore. There are vast tracts of empty ocean and often you feel you’ve covered most of them. But when you get over the right mark, you know. You start catching ‘em.

How, then, do you find these right marks, where fish are congregated? That’s just it. The first thing to do is to ask questions of the local talent; the second thing to do is watch them. Every district has its favourite marks. You can’t keep a good mark dark. I can’t tell you where they are in your chosen locality, though I know where they are in mine.

Good marks or grounds vary greatly. What attracts fish in the first place? Well, for one thing, other fish do —but this is not at all a matter of marks. Mackerel, for example, follow shoals of sprats and sand eels. So do herrings. Larger fish also chase shoals of small fish. These are drifting or travelling ‘marks’, not really static marks at all. Wheeling screaming gulls will often tell you where the slaughter is taking place. You hurry there. But local knowledge will often reveal the expected path of the shoals. In these cases you simply prospect around until you find the feeding fish, following the signs. Often you actually see the disturbance on the surface of the water —when it is reasonably calm, of course. But the birds will spot it first.

But marks proper, ground marks: marks geographical, marks immemorial, marks immutable . . . These may be areas of sand, areas of rock, or areas of wreck. All three come as welcome interruptions to the tedious uniformity of the sea bed’s vast expanse of mud, pebbles, and rubbish; and fish of various sorts love them.

Rocks first: why should a rocky area attract fish to congregate ? Plainly, because where there are rocks there is food adhering to those rocks, and shelter within the fissures and crevices of those rocks. Rocks come in at least two different categories: ground rocks, and so-called pinnacle rocks, which are rocks that rise quite steeply from the sea bed almost to the surface. Normally you will find these precipitous rock formations only when you are fishing well out from the coast in deep water. They are all known by repute, but you will probably be taken there, for money, by an experienced professional skipper, who may well use an echo sounder to locate the rock tips.

Some of the very greatest fishing available to us is to be had out around these sea-bed mountains. The trawler has to steer clear, which means that fish inhabit these ridges and gullies almost unpursued—except by their own kind. It is in this environment—though not only or exclusively in this environment—that you may take great conger, skate, rock cod, ling, coalfish; very fine pollack, tope and dogfish, mackerel and whiting, bream and—shark … In a way it is the cream of fishing. Alas, I simply cannot just bluntly recommend it to the beginner, though if your stomach is strong and your purse reasonably well filled, you will get more thrills and learn more in one day out with a professional skipper than all the books in the British Museum could teach you in a lifetime.

Go, then: hire a skipper, or rather share his boat; take your gear or hire his; live and learn. If not prone to seasickness you will have the time of your life. But since it is deep-sea fishing, I really can’t go into it seriously in an article for beginners. For beginners have no place out there, except in the care of skippers who can look after them and teach them far more than any book.

But closer in, within sight of the shore—yes, with proper care, you can have some splendid fishing. I’m sorry, honestly, to keep on grizzling about this safety factor, it’s so un-English and prissy: but when you’ve been in the trade of so-called communications as long as I have, you get quite nervous about advocating anything interesting which can kill or maim your readers, and boat fishing certainly can do that, and will, if you don’t behave rationally. So learn about boat management and about the ways of the sea before you venture forth, or go as passenger to someone who really knows. Sorry. Not another word.

Inshore boat fishing undoubtedly provides better sport, taking this month with that month and bad times with good, than pier fishing. I wouldn’t say that it provides better sport, year in year out, than beach casting and rock fishing, but there is always this nice tingly feeling that you never know what will take your bait next. This is far more the case in boat fishing than in fishing from the shore, I think. One minute you are hooking bream, the next minute a pollack takes your bait; luscious flatfish may be varied by wretched little pout; a great sharky tope may snap your mackerel off the hook as you reel in. You may catch bass, conger, rays or even sea trout. And so on. Infinite variety, infinite expectation: it keeps you on the qui vive and incidentally, if that interests you, it opens your eyes pretty wide to the abundance and variety and the sheer total inexplicability of the all-mighty Providence that is keeping you supplied with the fruits of creation. But never mind about the metaphysics: they’re a physic not everyone can swallow.

The inshore boat fishing we are rambling on about just now is the sort you might do in a dinghy, that is to say a hairy little boat without any living accommodation, without decking, just an open boat such as you get shipwrecked in, if your luck holds. No cabin, as a general thing, no shelter and no cooking facilities and no loo. It may be propelled by oars, which is laborious to a degree you simply wouldn’t believe, until you try it, or by an outboard engine, which is all right, or by an inboard engine, which is lovely, so long as somebody else maintains it—properly.

It may or may not have the assistance of a bit of a mast and a scrap of sail, but the less you the angler have to do with sail, the better. The joys of sailing are a heaven in themselves, and I’ve always found it very difficult to choose between sailing and fishing. I don’t know that they mix too well, though. Still, my old friend Jake, the black-a-vised and piratical free lance who operates from Sunset Creek, he does all his fishing in a lugger with two masts and three sails, namely main, mizzen and lug, mate; he despises the infernal combustion engine with a religious fervour of contempt, and he as I say does all his fishing, which is plenty, under sail. Having been his crew on several fraught occasions—including night fishing for conger—I wish to recommend quite firmly that you do not rely entirely on the wind to get you home.

So you’re out in a beamy, well-found dinghy or long boat or whatever it may be called in the locality (local names vary, including local names for fish, which often seem like a different language and in fact are just that). You are now about to discover the real joys of fishing for the furious fighting fish which, weight for weight, out-fight anything that swims in fresh water, outfight even the barbel, the trout and the carp.

To enjoy this sport, please use tackle that is appropriate. What are we after today? Let’s say it’s bass. The bass, we know, are ‘in’, and with luck they will do what is known as ‘shoaling’ about twice a day. The birds will lead your skipper to the spot where the fish are tearing in and out among swarms of brit (small fry). He manoeuvres the boat up-tide of the shoal and you drift your bait down to where the fury is going on. Ideally you should be spinning, casting a long narrow fluttering spoon ahead of you, tied to a trace of about 6 lb. Breaking strain, connected via one swivel to your reel line. The effectiveness of the spinner seems to be governed to some extent by the current average size of the natural small fish which the bass are hunting. It always pays to carry a variety of sizes, but start off big.

This surely is the best fun, I think, but if you don’t fancy spinning you may drift your hook, baited with a silvery strip or ‘last’ cut from near a fresh mackerel’s belly, with one small weight on the swivel. You can drift the float down if you like, but it isn’t actually necessary, though some of us greatly enjoy watching a float. Occasionally when the surface activity fades away you may still keep in contact with the bass by going deeper, but more often you have to move on. The excitement won’t last a terrible long time anyway, which is the reason why it pays to go out with a skipper who knows what he’s doing.

You have to make fairly long casts at this game—bass won’t stand being sailed over.

Bream, which are strictly local in distribution, give great sport and make good eating. Black bream abound in the English Channel, and can be found elsewhere than at the celebrated centres of Bognor Regis and Little-hampton. You won’t be spinning for bream, but fishing a bait well off the bottom. How far off the bottom, it is up to you to discover. One way of finding out is to rig up a paternoster, bait your hook with worm or mackerel strip, and lower away gently until you feel your lead touch the bottom. Don’t let everything go slack—hold it taut there for a minute or three. Then quiedy raise it, reeling in briskly a few turns at a time, and then resting it for a couple of minutes. By this method you can search the whole depth from right on the sea bed to near the surface. When you start getting bites, note the depth and keep to it. Bream fight like furies. A six to eight pound breaking strain line, and a suitably flexible rod, will make it a sporting contest.

A great many anglers use float tackle when fishing for black bream, and it’s OK so long as you don’t mind the constant reeling-in. And of course the drift-line technique works well in the sense that it enables your bait to cover a big area; but judging just how deep your bait is fishing, and varying this by adjusting the weight of lead, makes extra activity. Some like this; some like to relax. For big relaxers, paternosters or float paternoster techniques appeal.

Flat fish appeal greatly since they are so universally enjoyed at table. (Which is not quite true of some of the round fish. Bass, for example, are to my mind really delicious, with a delicate creamy flesh not dissimilar to salmon trout but perhaps a little more digestible—yet some people don’t fancy them.) Sole, the queens of the lot, tend to live over soft sea beds—sand, mud, who can say? Fm not at all sure that anyone really and truly can put his hand on his heart and say ‘I am going out especially to catch sole with rod and line—I know where to find them and what it takes’. Sole catching is, I’m rather inclined to think, a happy accident which occurs to you when you are simply fishing, fishing in hope, with a bait right on the bottom. You will probably catch sole as often from the shore as from a boat. They are certainly bottom feeders, and take worms, molluscs, shrimps. But the sole has an exceptionally small mouth, and to hook one you need to be using an exceptionally small hook. You want a chub or even roach size hook—No. 10 isn’t ridiculous. So perhaps you can go fishing specially for soles —equipped with these tiny hooks and appropriately tiny bits of bait. But if you do, of course, you stand a fair chance of not hooking fish with larger mouths which take the bait you meant for the sole . . . It’s a cruel dilemma, isn’t it?

The plaice is a great friend and favourite of the inshore small boat angler, ever welcome, dead easy when you’ve found him. Plaice run about one to two pounds in weight on the average, but exceed this greatly on occasion—the record is nearer 8 lb. They can actually be caught almost all the year round and their distribution is very wide, but by and large they are reckoned as at their best in autumn and summer: in winter some of them, if not all, seem to go to deep water to spawn. Trawling did wholesale damage to many plaice grounds but there are still plenty left close inshore. They are much better fighting fish than you might imagine—on light tackle, a plaice will give you plenty to think about.

Plaice love shellfish and worms, and are bottom feeders. Working this out will give you a notion of where they may be sought. Answer—on sandy patches where worms are regularly coming and going in and out, and over shellfish beds which often break up such sandy tracts. The bait to use is what is available, of course, but lugworms, ragworms, razorfish, soft crabs, seem a better bet than strips of fish.

But if strips it must be (because you can’t get anything else) don’t despair. Plaice are not altogether immune to the crime of cannibalism. Quite a few have been hooked on spoons.

But as a general thing, prospecting and exploring a known good sea bed with a moving bait will probably get you best results. I must say I don’t see the point of fishing with a stout rod and 20 lb. Line, when the quarry is plaice. A carp rod, though much too long in a crowded boat, in fact quite vicious and anti-social, is just about right in power and scope. A short spinning rod of the kind known laughingly as ca trout rod’ is just the job—and those very short crank-handled rods, that take the closed-face fixed-spool reel so well, are ideal, if your arm muscles are up to the job of pumping a fish up from the bottom with the minimum of leverage to help you. But the usual run of seven or eight foot glass rod will serve you well, or your pike rod at a pinch.

I have taken part in some very static anchored plaice hunts, and they were moderately productive and moderately sickening. (It’s always more sickening when you’re anchored.) I think you should anchor, when prospecting a plaice ground, but that doesn’t mean you need be content to chuck your bait overboard and rest on your oars. Plaice nose around quite a lot, and the consensus of informed opinion seems to be that a bait has more chance of attracting a plaice if it is on the move—not dramatically: a plaice isn’t one of your piratical predators which spends its time dashing around after prey; but gently on the move. This seems to be especially the case in respect of vertical movement—if you can get your bait rising and falling in the water, the plaice seems to want to investigate it.

One way of doing this is to feed your tackle over the stern and stream it away gently in the water, sinking all the time of course and being carried downstream from the boat by the tide. Eventually you stop paying line off the reel, eventually the old equation works itself out and the weight bumps the bottom. You feel this quite distinctly. (If you don’t, you haven’t got enough weight on to get it down in the stream. Put more on.) When the bait is on the bottom, reel in gently but firmly, very slowly but evenly, at the same time raising the rod tip. (This is where the long rod comes in, of course.) Keep on reeling in and periodically raise and lower the rod.

Chances are that you will feel the quivering pluck of the plaice bite. Take no notice. Just go on reeling gently in. Either you’ll suddenly feel the solid weight of the fish ‘on, self-hooked, or you won’t. But you probably will.

Whiting are not perhaps very ‘sporting’ fish, but all’s grist, and if they were fished for with reasonably light tackle there would be fewer complaints on the score of their faint-heartedness. In autumn a big run-in of much larger whiting accompanies the run-in of cod, their close relatives, and since the cod angler often catches whiting of a pound or two on a thirty-pound line meant for cod, well, naturally he feels a bit let-down. But whiting taken on plaice tackle are all right. They are rather greedy fish, fond of fish above all else, and they are bottom feeders best angled for with a paternoster, I think. A flowing leger is effective in itself, but it depends how clean the bottom is. If it is roughish, a paternoster ending in a pear-shaped lead may be less susceptible to being ‘hung up’. (But everything you put overside gets hung up one time or another.)

Of course there is nothing to prevent you from using two or even three booms and hooks on a paternoster. This distributes your bait vertically in the water and doubles or trebles your chance of hooking something. Naturally, if you do get two or three fish ‘on’ at once, and it is by no means rare when fishing for gregarious fish like whiting and mackerel, then of course you do need a stoutish line and a stoutish rod. Or let me put it another way round. If you fancy the use of really light tackle, good man, but use only one hook. If you don’t, or if you possess only rather stout tackle, why, then, make a virtue of necessity and use two or three links and hooks. Then you stand a good chance of really feeling you have a fight on your hands. (I expect you will have worked it out for yourself that one objection to using heavy tackle, strong lines, is that the stout line itself has vasdy more resistance to the water than a thin line. The tide really feels it and really pulls it. Hence, you are forced to use much heavier weights on a stout line than on a thin [’fine’] line. It all adds up.)

The pollack is a great favourite with boat fishers, and no wonder. It is a real hearty thumper, the pollack, and runs up to jolly good weights. Fish of 20 lb. Have been known, but you will more likely hit one between a pound or two and four or five, at which weight, on suitable gear, he will open your eyes for you. I suppose the South-west has most pollack, but really they seem to turn up pretty well everywhere. I wouldn’t like to say what sort of sea bed they really favour, for although supposed to be rock lovers, and very frequently taken near rocks, they do turn up elsewhere, in the open sea over sand and grit, even over shingle. You can catch them from spring to early winter, for sure.

The pollack is also rather delightfully easy-going about the depth at which he works. Thus, although believed to be a bottom feeder—and it does feed a great deal on the bottom—yet it is often taken by spinning in mid-water, by drift-lining and even by swimming a float down-tide. I think the one thing we can say with some confidence about the pollack is that it likes to be up and doing, on the go, a-chasing something nice.

Thus, although you may well interest the odd fish on your static rig, leger or paternoster, you are many times more likely to interest one if your bait is moving. In fact the pollack is a fish that can be angled for excitingly with spinning gear, including the device known as ‘feathers’, so often used for mackerel, with the glittering ‘jig lure that you work up and down in the water, and with the curiosity known as a plug. I am very fond of fishing the plug. This is a light lure shaped somewhat like a fish, and not a true spinner since it never revolves. Instead of spinning vanes, it has a lip-vane at the front which when dragged through the water causes it to dive, flutter, and wobble in a rather life-like way. Plugs come solid and jointed, and the ones to go for are the jointed ones, which have a mighty seductive sinuous shimmy and wobble. A Hawaiian grass-skirt dancer has nothing on it for seductiveness. At least, pollack seem to think so. But a spoon will do nicely.

Otherwise you can go drift-lining, or float fishing, varying the depth from time to time. Fish strips work, worms at a pinch, but the pollack lure pre-eminently is the live sand eel. If you can get it. Fishermen in the West, certainly, supply them, in exchange for filthy lucre. Those rubber strips known as artificial sand eels are used, but I can’t say I’ve as much faith in them as in a long bright fluttering strip cut from the belly and side of a mackerel.

The great stand-by for all boat fishing is the mackerel. As bait, I mean.

As quarry, too, the mackerel is in a class of its own. When they are in they are in, when they are on the feed they are simply suicidal. They go raving mad. They fight like little tigers, they make wonderful grub. From late spring or early summer right through to autumn, you can find them almost anywhere. The mackerel never lets you down. And perhaps the very finest way of fishing for it is from a little boat.

When, in the early summer, mackerel really settle down to feed on the vast travelling shoala of herring fry, pilchard fry, sprats and sand eels, you can catch them absurdly easily on almost anything bright and fishy. The only way to make this holocaust reasonably sporting is to use light tackle—though, of course, as I said before, if you don’t own light tackle, you can more or less make up for it by using two or three hooks, or even more, and catching several fish at a go. But it just isn’t the same, not really.

If you are fishing one hook only, then a light rod really is necessary if you are to get the indescribable feel of the thing. I think I have said that I fished for mackerel with a two-pound breaking-strain line. Since the mackerel rarely exceeds two pounds in weight, that seems all right. But of course I wouldn’t recommend going so light—four or five pounds is OK, six or seven quite permissible if you are going to use several hooks—including that strange device the ‘string of feathers’, a sort of crude ‘fly sold specially for mackerel, though quite effective on pollack as well.

Genuine fly fishing with a fly rod and fly line and big gaudy sea trout flies is quite possible, I’ve done it more than once, but of course only a synthetic fly line can stand up to the ravages of salt water, the nice old silk line dies the death instanter. And the fly is only effective on the surface. Better your chances with the spinning rod and a small flashy spinner—this is the greatest fun. The whirling blade type of spinner known as the bar spoon is probably best of all, but Devon minnows work wonders. But there is just nothing a mackerel likes better than a silvery strip of . . . mackerel! Drifting a hook baited with a strip of mackerel, spinning a small lively bright lure, trailing a sand eel or even a worm . . . What will not attract this predacious little hunk of heart? Precious little I know of. This is what makes mackerel fishing at once so wildly exciting and so fraught with dubiety—satiety sets in unless you deliberately restrict yourself to trout-strength tackle, and take them one at a time, sportingly. Unless you’re a fish-hog, of course. Mackerel take at various depths, but generally they are pretty well in the top layer of the water. (But occasionally there are some very big ones right on the bottom!)

One aspect of small-boat fishing that never fails to amuse me, though perhaps I am too easily amused, is when the chaps afloat come almost ashore and cast landwards into the breakers, after bass. This is OK, of course, but when you see chaps standing on the tide line heartily casting out while chaps in boats are heartily casting in, you do wonder which of them is making the best of it. But there it is: in a boat properly handled, either at anchor, or with a good man at the oars to keep the boat just so, and make sure it doesn’t get dashed ashore on a big wave, you can certainly get among the fish that feed in the turmoil created by surf—not only bass, but codling, too.

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