The freshwater fisher converted to estuary fishing immediately feels at home—and also feels a great surge of new optimism and pleasure. For though truly sea fishing, or at least salt-water fishing, estuary fishing has some features in common with the most exciting styles of river fishing. Compared with other methods it is relatively confined —you have banks to play with—but is still very much the salt, the dear old tidal ozoney margin between land and sea, and therefore exhilarating; and the fish available are greatly more worthwhile than any the river fisher ever meets, save of course the princely game fish.
Of course you meet those too. Never forget that sea trout are caught in estuaries, marvellous fresh-run sea trout like bars of solid silver, straight in from the sea and absolutely at their prime. You take them by spinning or by fishing a tandem or demon lure with a fly rod and a synthetic (not silk) fly line. Not all rivers have a run of sea trout, of course, but those that do . . .
There are many occasions on the estuaries of really sporting rivers when one finds both bass and sea trout running at the same time. On those thrice-blessed western estuaries you can catch both, with worms, drift-lining, or with the spinner high in the water, or with the fly. I am thinking of fishing from a boat, actually. Estuarial fishing offers fun both to the boat fisherman and the man who stays ashore. But many times, with my feet firmly on the ground, I have spun for both species. This is a just an appetiser, an example of how royally rewarding a good estuary to a good clean river can be.
I know that to a great many converts, estuary fishing will have the greatest appeal, partly because it demands techniques with which they are familiar from their riverside experience, partly because it is the very cream of light tackle fishing in salt water. It is quite true that if you want to try salt water fishing without going to any fresh expense, your freshwater tackle is likely to serve. Well, of course, if you come straight from match fishing, if you have been a toothpick-Moat specialist accustomed to whipping out thousands of immature bleak and roach in order to win some sweep or trophy, then you will not be ideally equipped—in tackle or in mental equipment either. No, a stiff, frail, quick-tipped match fishing rod is not quite the thing. But the Avon-style coarse fishing rod has its place, the pike and carp rods come strongly into their own (or the salmon rod, of course) and although you may still use genuine sea tackle such as you need in other modes of sea fishing, you can get by without it. All of which is a help to’the beginner.
The Avon-style rod of ten or eleven feet in length is in fact a perfect weapon for mullet fishing, and a light ‘trout’ spinning rod is perfectly OK for spinning for bass (and sea trout). I have ruined one Avon rod fishing for flounders, and recommend, on the whole, that the carp rod is the ideal weapon. It has just that bit more to it in terms of strength—and remember it isn’t the fish which is going to kill the rod, it is the snags you may have to haul out, the general wear and tear of casting slightly more weight than you usually need in thinner fresh water, and odd weed snags and rock snags and of course the quite severe attacks which salt air makes on any gear. Whatever you choose, it should ideally be a fairly long and fairly light rod, if you are to get the cream of the sport.
Estuaries vary enormously, as do the rivers of which they are the final segment. It’s not much use fishing the estuary of a heavily polluted river, naturally. Clean estuaries vary from little creeks to vast areas, almost lagoons, which empty and fill twice a day as the tide changes. Whatever the geography of the estuary, it is important that you know it; and the more intimately, the better. Local knowledge is a great help, of course, but it may be even more helpful to scrutinise the area yourself, at dead low tide. Just looking at an estuary at high water isn’t going to tell you very much. And the fact is that estuaries are not uniformly productive of fish over their whole area: there are taking spots and relatively barren spots, and the only way you can tell the one from the other (unless of course you find a kindly and obliging local character who will educate you) is to examine the lie of the land at low tide.
You will see that the bed of the estuary is scored by rivulets, gulleys, pills and what you might almost call ditches—apart from the main channel of the river. It is quite important to know diese depressions, for when the sea fish come into the estuary on the making tide, avid to feed on the rich marine life of worms and shellfish that the estuary protects and nourishes, they certainly don’t want to waste any time. They come trickling up the deeper channels as soon as the tide begins to fill. And, moreover, it is these deeper bits, which sometimes never dry out, that harbour most food. So try to examine the lie of the land before you start to fish: learn where the deep river channel runs, and where these subsidiary runners run. The first fish to arrive, and the last to leave, will be travelling in them. True, when the water is high it isn’t so important to know the latent depths, but you want to get as much fishing out of every tide as possible.
It is generally bass and mullet (and, where present, sea trout) that run in from the sea. The bass and mullet stay only a short while and depart as the tide departs: the sea trout usually run on up towards the headwaters, for they have entered the river of their birth in order to spawn. However, even sea trout sometimes take a few tides to make up their minds, hanging around the mouth of the river as if uncertain, and reluctant to commit themselves.
The species which inhabit the estuary permanently, and do not run in and out with the tide, are flounders. I don’t say they never go to sea, but certainly they are to be found in the estuary all the year round, sometimes well up the river in brackish water which may also sustain some brown trout (if it is that sort of river) which are often called slob trout.
Flounder fishing in an estuary is not perhaps so exciting as bass fishing, well it certainly isn’t, but the bass aren’t always to be had and the flounders are. Flounders even more than other fish of the estuary seem to stick to clearly defined channels. It is as if flounders have runs like rat runs or fox runs. Whereas you may meet roving bass almost anywhere, once the water is high.
It is rather mournful work to catch estuarial flounders on heavy tackle, but with an Avon or carp rod, a fixed-spool reel loaded with five or six pound line, a small lead of about an ounce or even less, and a lugworm or ragworm for bait, you will surely hook some using the simple running leger rig. A plump flounder fried with bacon and mushrooms is a dish for an epicure or a very honest man. The flesh is a little darker and richer in flavour that that of the white-fleshed flat fish such as dabs and plaice, and maybe it is an acquired taste, like the Guinness, that goes so well with it.
A fairly popular and very effective method of fishing for flounders is to drag a baited spoon along the bottom. The spoon is a pretty big affair, and the hook trace trails from it, anything from three to six inches away. The hook is baited with worm as usual—it is the bait which the fish grabs, not the spoon. In fact the spoon is merely a method of attracting the flounder to the bait. It flips and flops slowly along the sea bed, stirring up the sand. Some anglers simply use a fair-sized lead, stopped by a swivel six inches above the baited hook, to do the same job of creating a minute disturbance which, it is hoped, will attract the attention of a nearby fish who might otherwise not notice. It works, too.
Bass, too, are often caught with this form of bottom fishing, and certainly ragworm legered is attractive to them when they are down in the water. Personally I have never done so well with lugworm, though this is the angler’s stand-by in some districts. But bass may also be caught higher in the water, and you have to experiment a bit to find out at what height they are coming in today. It isn’t necessarily the same approach two tides running. This is where the float fisherman scores, of course—he can control the depth at which his bait rides in the water.
One snag of bottom fishing in an estuary is the presence of innumerable small greenish crabs. These are bait robbers par excellence. A way out is to use that trick of slitting a cork half way through and slipping it on the hook link a couple of inches above the hook. Of course, if you happen to be fishing from a boat, at anchor, it is easy to use a paternoster with the hook link well above the reach of crabs. This works well if you can use a boat or a jetty from which you can lower your tackle down almost vertically. But in strong currents, or fishing from the bank, it isn’t so easy, and then I recommend the lcger with the cork.
Whether you use a boat, or fish from the bank, will depend on factors which I cannot anticipate. Some big estuaries are so wide that a boat is pretty well essential to give you proper coverage of the good spots—especially that good spot just inshore of the sand bar which partially seals the mouth of so many estuaries. Estuarial boat fishing is very fine: you can, for example, indulge in drift-lining, sending a live sand eel or prawn or just a worm working down the current. This is marvellous fun, on occasion. You control the depth at which your bait is working by varying the amount of lead on the swivel. Naturally you can send a float down the tide just as easily. They are excellent ways—especially the drift-lining —of exploring the middle depths until you hit on the depth at which today’s fish are taking.
But when the bass are showing right on the surface, then the answer surely is spinning. This is die very cream of the sport. You sometimes see the bass tearing along, actually showing on the surface as they hunt the fry with that immense gusto and avidity of the great-hearted predators they are. If ever there was a time to send your silver bar- spoon or long narrow spoon among them, this is it. Spin it very fast and riding high in the water. Never mind what I said about spinning low and slow—that was rock fishing, this is estuary fishing, and the bass, when they are in this surface-showing mood, want a silvery little spinner that rides high and goes like the clappers. It is all in tune with the mood of the moment: you will surely feel in your bones, if you have the heart of a fisherman, that this is the appropriate method for the moment.
How small a spinner depends—no-one knows for sure what it depends on, exactly, but it is well known that one day a tiny little one-inch spoon, or Devon minnow, is the answer, another day they want a much larger spoon. Personally I think it is probably a question of the average size of the fry they are chasing. If it is a shoal of tiny immature fingerlings, they have tiny fish on the brain. If it is more mature specimens that are shoaling together, that is the size they are accustomed to and their reaction is automatic.
Please don’t think this is fanciful: it is established that some fish do become so habituated to a certain diet, so pre-occupied, as my old pal Richard Walker put it, that for the time being they literally won’t look at anything else. This is true of some freshwater fish some of the time, and of some estuary fish it is likewise true. I think this may be the answer to the bass’s preferences, today for a little ‘un, tomorrow for a bigger one. (We often find that one day the only bait the flounder wants is lugworm, another day it’s ragworm. If you haven’t got the right answer you may be up the creek in the literal sense and the metaphorical one, too.)
I must say that where it is convenient to take a boat out on the estuary, it does give you a certain freedom and thrill which bank fishing cannot counterfeit. This is not only true of the greater variety of techniques which become available to you—you can ‘cover’ the fish so much better from a boat, you can drift your lure down the current, you can fish the vertical paternoster, you can inch up within range when using die fly rod—but there is a further advantage, on some rivers: you can follow the fish as they move upstream and back down again. Bass, certainly, don’t hang about: they are going in on the tide the whole time, and when the tide begins to turn, they are off back to sea even faster. True, if you can move freely along the bank, either on foot or by bike or even by car, you can fish various points within the scope of one tide: but it’s far easier to follow the fish afloat, anchoring at a good spot, up-anchoring and moving on a few hundred yards and dropping the hook again. Oh yes, it’s a royal progress if you have a nice beamy little boat and a good man at the oars or the engine. On the other hand, when you want to pump ship it isn’t always convenient . . .
Never stand up in a dinghy.
Never stand up on the bank either, if you can sit down. Stay out of sight just as you would way back on the clear water stream. Give the fish the benefit of the doubt—they have sharp eyes, alert senses, including a highly developed sense of doubt and fear.
I won’t go on about fly fishing for bass, because although it is delightful and I’ve greatly enjoyed it, it is not quite so sound and reliable a method of taking them, by and large, as spinning. You meet a shoal of bass one day that really seem to prefer the fly, but most days the spinner will do as well or better. This is no hardship to most people, who fancy that fly fishing is somehow exceedingly esoteric, mysterious and in fact damn near mystical. Which it most certainly isn’t. It’s easy.
The ‘fly’ used to attract bass is probably a white feather tied quite roughly to a long-shanked tinned hook. It takes a really determined fly fisher to use one of his expensive sea trout or salmon flies in salt water. My own preference is and always has been the relatively inexpensive two- or three-hooked tandem lure, the kind known as a Demon or Terror. This is two gaudy winged flies connected by a morsel of gut or nylon. It is the best of lures for sea trout, in my experience, and will interest bass sometimes, especially if very bright and light in colour. But they seem to like white best in feathers, as they certainly prefer silver in spinners.
I should think it is very agreeable to cast a ‘fly’ from the bank, using one of those very nice double-handed glass-fibre salmon fly rods that you can get nowadays, twelve or thirteen feet long. I’ve never tried it, having done all my estuary fly fishing, for sea trout and bass, with the old ten-foot trout rod aforementioned, my faithful com- panion through many years. The drill is to cast more or less across the set of the current: it brings the fly skirling and skating across, and the take, when it happens, is a dramatic bang that really sets the adrenalin flowing.
I don’t hear very much said about plug fishing for bass, yet it is one of the most beguiling techniques available to the enthusiast who doesn’t mind risking his money on the end of his line. The plug, if I may remind you, is a curious device shaped very roughly like a fish, with an upturned vane at the head which makes it dive when you reel it in. While under this tension from the line, it wiggles and wobbles, flutters and dives, comes up again, dives down again, all very sinuous and (sometimes!) lifelike.
Jointed plugs make more of a fuss than solid plugs. Some are made of wood, some of plastic. They are probably meant to simulate injured fish trying desperately to get out of the predator’s way—which is why it is a terrible mistake to reel too fast once you have cast your plug. It defeats the whole object of the exercise. You reel very slowly, giving all sorts of help to the performance by your masterly command of the rod tip, which you cause to twitch and switch and sway and nod as you reel in at varying speeds, a turn or two quick, a turn or two slow—but never fast in the sense that a Devon minnow has to be kept moving fast. You feel like Colin Davis conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra.
I am quite fond of plug fishing from the rocks, and in the estuary I sometimes like to have a go when the bass are not quite on top of the water. A bright silvery plug, for preference. There is an American device (now widely copied elsewhere, I believe) called the popping plug. When you hit the reel handle hard, it actually ‘pops’ —it makes a dramatic little disturbance on the surface which sometimes attracts fish.
But never forget the value of your sprat spun on a spinning flight. It is an ancient device which costs the least and still works very well.
The fish of the estuary which has probably caused more bad language than any other is the grey mullet. The grey mullet has turned many an honest man to thoughts of crime. It shows itself right on the surface, at times, dawdling along with the dorsal fin clean out the water. You’d think you couldn’t miss. But you can. The fact is that many mullet do get caught. I’ve caught a few gross myself, but while they are travelling on the surface in this temararious manner, apparently cocking a snook at the angler, they are terribly difficult to catch. So much so that a legend sprang up that they were uncatchable, which is not so. But I think it is true that you only catch them when you find them in the place where they settle down to feed, not when they are showing so boldy, so insouciantly, and on the move.
Mullet fishing is really the very closest thing in sea fishing to the art of the freshwater specialist. You can use light tackle, the Avon rod and a five-pound line and fixed-spool reel are certainly ample; and you can even use freshwater baits. Mullet will take small ragworm, or pieces of ragworm: of that there is not a trace of doubt. But they will also, on occasion, take the cereals which are the standby of the roach and bream and chub fisher—bread, bread-paste plain or with various flavours, bread crust: one hears, too, of macaroni, banana and cheese all being used successfully. And I may say I believe all I hear. There is no point in being dogmatic about what mullet will or will not eat.
Thus I was fishing one calm afternoon on the little estuary of the River Axe, well below Axmouth, in fact at the seaside town of Seaton. There is a deep pool just immediately on the seaward side of the road bridge. I was down on the sand at the water’s edge, fishing tiny ragworms and pieces of ragworm. Various worthy characters were fishing from the parapet of the bridge itself, indifferent to the imminent prospect of having their behinds deeply scored by the wings of passing cars. Just a shade seaward of me, a most resourceful character was lying flat on his stomach on the roof of a little pillbox sort of building, doubtless a shelter for the local fishermen’s gear.
Our methods made an entertaining contrast in styles and in philosophies. The worthies on the bridge were dangling floats into the water: their lines bore a more than passing resemblance to ship’s hawsers, their rods were equal to the task, should they be called upon to undertake it, of hauling the deadweight of a doughty mullet vertically out of the water and up to the parapet. Their baits seemed to be an interesting collection of old offal, fish pieces, lugworm, earthworm, paste, and last week’s bacon rind. The character lying flat on top of the shack, peering out craftily over the water with only his head showing, used a stout rod and line too, but no terminal tackle whatever, save just the hook, tied directly to his line. And his hook was baited simply with a quite hefty piece of breadcrust. He simply dapped it on the surface and minute bits of it broke off gently into the water. He assured me that he had the bleedin’ mullet weighed up, caught no end of the perishers. I’m sure he was telling the truth. In fact I know he was.
But this was not his day. Actually none of us did the slightest good until the top of the tide, that magical moment when all seems in suspension; high water, when for a tremulous few minutes there is no flow at all, you seem poised in a timeless moment snatched from eternity. It was during this slack-water period that I, using the simplest light leger and a small hook (I think it was a carp hook, size 6) baited with fragments of ragworm laboriously acquired, began to get bite after bite. My mullet were not large, indeed they were far from distinguished; but they were the only mullet being caught, the only fish of any kind being landed that afternoon, and they came ashore with gratifying frequency. Gratifying to me, I mean. I did not notice any particular signs of gratification, any outburst of merriment, any especial symptoms of euphoria, among my unfortunate companions. Especially the bums on the bridge.
I claim no credit. It was simply luck. I happened to have the right bait in the right spot. And this is the secret of success at any time. Garry several of these simple lures to ensure that you have the right bait; study the lie of the land and try to put it in the right spot. I’m sure that what made the difference that day was that my lure happened to be fishing at the right depth—I.e., bang on the bottom. Which is where the shoal happened to be routing about. (The prone character who dapped bread on the surface made quite a killing next day.) That floating crust dodge certainly is successful at times. So is cheesepaste, breadpaste flavoured with custard powder, cubes of crust, roughly-torn fragments of crumb. I wonder if maggots would work ? Why not ? I’ll try them one day.
I keep saying that, and I mean it when I say it. But the simple truth is that I don’t fish of set purpose for mullet except once in a blue moon. As the girl said with a haughty toss of her pretty head, there are better fish to fry.
Mullet really are susceptible to ground-baiting.
I haven’t yet mentioned eels, but in some estuaries they are mentioned very frequently, and in terms that would surprise them if they could lip-read. Some estuaries have a big seaward run of eels. These are not to be confused with the conger that haunt the deeps, lurking in rock crevices and skulking among the ruined ribs of wrecks. They are akin, of course, but not the same. The eel of the estuary is the chap who swam in from the Sargasso Sea, where they are bred, travelled up-river in his millions as a tiny elver (nothing tastier or more nutritious than a mass of fried elver) and after some years in inland freshwater, on reaching sexual maturity, if you’ll pardon the expression, set off down-river again to cross the sea to his ancestral home, there to have his one single, solitary sexual spree, propagate his species, and perish.
Perish the thought indeed.
This type of eel, now turning silvery in his sea-going coat, is a nuisance to some anglers, who don’t like his sinuous ways; though of course any resemblance to a water snake is pure coincidence if not bosh. You often get a fierce rattling bite at bottom baits meant for other fish, such as flounders, and on striking (not that there is much if any need to strike) find a yard of eel twisting your line into a right mess. Admittedly, this can be annoying, but I have to say I am very partial to eel, fried, jellied, or stewed. And smoked eel is mighty tasty, too, with a pint of best bitter or even a cup of second-best tea; you need thickish fish for smoking, and conger are best of all. You don’t have to fish specially for eels: if they are there, and your bait is high-protein and preferably fresh, and on the bottom, you’ll catch eels some time or other. Don’t look a gift eel in the mouth, by the way: they can bite, those chaps. I dare say that for sheer furious brute energy and persistence, the Life Force run mad, an eel is the equal of anything that breathes. It’s awesome.