BEGINNERS GUIDE: FISHING FROM THE SHORE

From the shore or beach, that is. I’ve heard it referred to, time and again, simply as ‘beach casting’. As if there were nothing more to it than the act of casting. Well, there is a bit more, a good bit more; yet it remains ever and always true that the act of casting really is extremely important —or can be, in certain circumstances. Which is why it pays to practise until you can cast your bait out a fair distance. True, you may catch fish ten yards out—by heaven, ten feet is enough at times, when the bass come rarin’ right in almost to dry land, chasing their prey. But on other occasions, and in other places, you may find that if you cannot get your bait out 100 yards you might as well stay at home.

Sea fish are almost certain to be ‘on the feed’—unlike freshwater fish, which don’t feed perpetually. So catching them boils down to four simple operations. We may break it down—we should break it down—into these four components: (a) Find the fish, (b) Present to its notice a bait which it will accept, (c) Hook it. (d) Land it.

So simple. But you can go wrong on all four counts. (a) This must be ranked as the first and most important need, for without it, all is lost. Now where, when faced by a ghastly great expanse of ocean, do you decide that the fish are? They aren’t just anywhere and everywhere, be sure of that. They are, in a crisp word, where the food is. In a succinct phrase, they are in the larder, rummaging on the shelves. Now where is die fish’s larder ?

The answer is as various as the types of shore or beach which you may fish. Fortunately, it is entirely logical.

If you are fishing a plain sandy shore with a gentle slope, the fish will be coming in behind the breakers, probably behind the third breaker, though I wouldn’t like to bet on it. Maybe the fourth. The waves are hammering the sand and innumerable worms and tiny organisms are being washed out by the surf, and the fish are following up. So on this sort of shore—cast well out into the breakers and you won’t be wasting your time entirely.

However, you can improve on that general rule very considerably if you will take the trouble, or spare the time, to examine the area at dead low water. You really should do a Sherlock Holmes bit on this—it may prove the most important, the most productive part of your expedition. Note carefully, first, if there are any outcrops of rocks —trifling little bits of things they may be, but they matter. Merely a patch of stubborn stones rising a tiny distance proud of the sand will do. Fish head straight for these irregularities. Well, it stands to reason, doesn’t it? Faced with a great vast featureless stretch of underwater sand, wouldn’t you, if you were a fish, head for anything that looked slightly interesting, anything to make a change? And, of course, there is food for fish lurking around those bits of rock.

Another feature which the eagle eye should spot, and note, is any depression, any rivulet, any gully or channel whatsoever. This is really important. Fix it in your mind: take bearings and hang on to them. The sea is going to look awfully featureless when the tide comes in. Line up any landmarks that are going to enable you to pinpoint the deepest gully or creek you can find (or, of course, patch of rock) when it is hidden under the eau. It is very near a stone-cold certainly that fish coming in behind the advancing surf are going to spend a lot of time in nosing around those gulleys, pills, creeks, rivulets or rocks. For they are where the small stuff lives and hides, they provide some shelter and much sustenance. If, when the tide comes in, you can place your bait spot-on, bang where you planned to do, right on the spot where the fish are hunting around, you’re home and dry. Well, not dry exactly.

But of course not all beaches are gently shelving sand. There is the steep-to shingle beach, any amount of it. This is a very different proposition. Shingle, as is well known, is sterile from the point of view of fish food. The stones composing it take a fearful hammering from the sea, nothing can live in them. So it’s not a lot of use letting your bait lie on the pebbles.

Nor, though, is it a lot of use hurling your bait out on to the sandy bottom which lies beyond the shingle. For the fish ain’t all that likely to be swanning around on it. Where are they, then? They are crowding into the bait parlour or snack supermarket which is strictly localised at that very point where the shingle gives way to the sand. There and virtually nowhere else are they to be found. And for why? I’ll tell you why, comrade and brother-inarms. They are huddling and elbowing there, in the ditchy little bit of a gully at the junction of sand and shingle, because it is precisely here, at the angle between the shingle bank and the sandy gentle bottom, that food galore is put at their disposal. What happens is that the waves wash and knock the abundant small food life out of the sand—and hurl it landwards until it is abruptly stopped, halted and anchored by this slope of shingle which rises from the relatively level sand bed. So a fair mass of food accumulates just at that point, I should perhaps say that line where sand and shingle meet. Fish have had longer to find this out than you have: they’ve been doing it for countless generations. So they’ll be there, nosing around. And your bait had better be there, too.

Just how far out the shingle changes over to the sandy bottom, needless to say, is a fact which you simply have to know. Kind local anglers may confide in you. Unkind local anglers may conceivably try to mislead you. You may copy their casts, though of course you may be wasting time by doing so—they may not be locals at all, they may be strangers as clueless as you. No, the one certain way of finding out is to have a real good gander at dead low water. Generally speaking the junction is possible to spot— it may be the low-water mark itself, though not necessarily. But you can always consult an Admiralty chart, ask at the Town Hall, or even take a swim.

Find it you must. On such a beach, it will make all the difference to your sport to know where it is. True, you always stand quite a fair chance of catching the odd fish on the sandy reaches well beyond the junction of sand and shingle. But fewer, and fewer by far, than if you can hit on the line itself.

The right spot isn’t always ‘a mile’ out, as at Dungeness with its famous, or infamous, ‘Dustbin’. It may be close in: all depends on the steepness of the beach, the underwater geography which is so important, and so interesting, to learn.

Too often it is a devil of a distance. Keep plugging away until you have that 100-yard cast under your belt. In judo terms, your Black Belt.

And now let me say right away, just to cheer you up, that I have caught bass when wading in up to my knees —caught them behind me. Yes, I mean that bass have been between me and dry land—when I’ve been only a matter of a dozen yards out in the water. This has happened when wading in thigh boots, spinning parallel with the shore, off the Sussex coast—why, God bless us all, I was within casting distance, at the time, of a row of bungalows. Their owners could have caught bass that day from their bedroom windows. This was not far from Wittering, I may say, thereby starting a stampede. (But where you’ll park your car is another story.) Oh yes, the day does dawn when bass come right in almost to dry land, dashing in after their prey, wildly excited in the spume and surf. Though the day I’m remembering was actually calm . . .

Beaches vary in another way—the way they face. The Atlantic storm beach is an extreme example. Facing the might and power of the open sea, it is lashed and pounded by gales which started, perhaps, a thousand miles out in the ocean. Such beaches, fully exposed to the West, taken an almighty hammering during gales. Needless to say it is no use fishing them at the height of the storm. Even the bold bass won’t face that crippling surf. And even if the bass could, you would never be able to keep your bait down, not even with a stone of lead. The power of the surf and the undertow to move great weights has to be seen to be believed. It can be seen by any interested onlooker in oilskins who cares to anchor himself somewhere and watch the rocks a-roll.

The time to fish a storm beach is when the storm is over. Not the moment it goes quiet, but during the next three days, after a real good ‘un. Preferably, I would say, about four tides after the peak or crest of the storm. Then you will find great lakes of spume and foam lying between waves which are still powerful, though calming down. The bass will be there then, avid for the multitudinous food supply that has been washed up out of the sand and grit.

Not all bits of beach, of course, even in the exposed parts of the coast, actually face right into the eyes of the wind. The coast is often very ragged—bays and promontories giving you a choice of three different aspects all within a brief stroll. Use them accordingly. Fish the bit where the sea is just nasty enough.

Don’t omit to make full use of such heaven-sent aids to fish and fishing as that curious invention of man, the groyne. Wherever groynes have been built out to sea in an effort to resist erosion, use them—use them at all times, but especially after rough weather, or even during rough weather. It will not have escaped your agile mind that the sheltered side of a groyne does not only provide low-water shelter for sunbathers and picnickers: it provides high-water shelter for fish, from the hammer and pressure of the tide. When a heavy sea is running, there are havens of relative peace to be found right up close in on the sheltered side of a groyne. Note which way the sea is running—it often runs not straight in, but at a sharpish angle to the land —and use the groyne accordingly. You can often fish right up against the woodwork (or stonework) with great success. But this is real heavy-weather advice.

Some anglers stand on top of the groynes, thereby obtaining a pleasing illusion of effortless superiority. I doubt if it is really worthwhile, apart from the not inconsiderable danger of being washed away in the furious undertow should you lose your footing. You don’t need the extra casting distance if the fish are coming in literally under your feet, and I’ve never thought it too good an idea to stand over the fish. It isn’t quite so important, to practise the time-honoured fresh water doctrine of ‘fine and far-off’; but sea fish aren’t all idiots, it’s still better to ‘study to be quiet’, absurd though such advice may seem when you can’t hear yourself shout for the noise of the wind and the waves. But a habit of dissimulation, of caution and stealth, is a good thing to acquire. In fishing, I mean: not in the human dealings of life, where a frank and manly straightforwardness is much to be preferred. Though I don’t know … (b) Baits for shore fishing are as various as for anywhere else. Some say this, some say that. Ask around locally, as always, and use whatever is to hand. You can usually buy a grisly species of highly emaciated and under-nourished lugworm. Well, it works, if you can force yourself to load the hook with what amounts to folding money. If you can’t gather your own bait, you just don’t have any option but to pay. Never forget, though, that the blithe locals who are selling you this rubbish have not actually parted with money for it themselves. Ho no, monsewer: they have taken a gentle stroll at low water and done a bit of back-bending. Which is what you should aim to do, unless, like me, you have a rooted and almost religious objection to back-bending.

Well, there it is: you pays your money or you takes your choice. When an abler and younger man, prone to drink excessive quantities of stout and eat lots of unhealthy fried food, I spent hundreds of hours bent double, digging away with a garden fork for ragworms and lugworms, upending razor fish, scrambling over rocks and dabbling in rock pools and prizing off all manner of shellfish thereto adhering, barging about with shrimping nets, even setting curious and highly ingenious baited traps for prawns. It’s all good clean healthy fun, and saves you pounds. Do try it. The snag is that you get so keen on bait collecting you don’t have any time (or energy, for that matter) left for actually fishing with it.

It is my firm opinion, and I don’t have many like that, that you can catch fish from the shore on virtually any fishy bait.

But I keep on meaning to experiment with butcher’s offal—the sort of grisly stuff from a cow’s or sheep’s insides that honest women sold themselves to unscrupulous butchers to get a pound of, during the war. (Or so I’ve heard tell.) I’ve not had the nerve to do it yet, but may I say on a slightly more serious note that I really don’t see why not—a hungry fish, and thank heavens most of them are in a perpetual tizzy of hunger, or at least appetite, or greed, which tots up to the same thing, will eat almost anything nutritious in the high-protein line. Bass are known to fancy a bit of something high—high tea for a good bass may be a hunk of herring long past its prime, a fish head that the cat wouldn’t look at, a deplorable remnant of mackerel that failed to find a friend ashore. So why shouldn’t they fancy a morsel of lights or tripe?

Among the baits known for certain to have procured fish for the shore fisherman are lugworm, ragworm, squid, bits of squid, cuttlefish, razorfish, any shellfish you care to name, pieces of mackerel, sand eel, herring, pilchard, and kipper. Yes, mate, kipper. My own trouble is that I like the kipper too much to share it.

One of the interesting innovations in pike fishing, during the 1950s, was the use of sprats and herrings as bait. These salty sea fish began to be used as pike baits on waters that had never felt a touch of salinity—and very successful they were, and still are. Up till then, it had been assumed that only freshwater fish, dace and roach and gudgeon and the like, were suitable baits for pike. I really don’t see why the reverse should not hold good—a roach for a bass, say, a piece of dace for a cod. One day when I’m feeling desperate, certain that I shall fail to procure the usual sea-food baits, I mean to take a few freshwater small fish along, and try it out.

I’d like to return to the question of sole fishing, for a moment. Few anglers fish for them from the beach deliberately, but more might do so if it were commonly realised how many soles come in quite close, and how easy they are to catch on the right tackle. I diink you should choose a relatively calm day, when you can use your very small hook (size 6 at most, 8 for preference) baited with a small scrap of fish or worm, and, using a very light paternoster or better still a free-running leger on fine nylon, not more than five or six pounds breaking strain, fish of set purpose for those delicious fish. They don’t run large and they don’t, of course, really rank as a sport-fish: but who cares when they come to table? I like to try this method with a glass carp or Avon rod, a one-ounce lead, a fixed-spool reel and a bit of real creamy calm surf, hardly recognisable as surf. Fish near the low water mark —they rarely follow the rising tide inshore. (c) Hooking the fish is sometimes a very simple operation, but it can be quite baffling, even frustrating. There is considerable argument amongst experienced anglers on this very point. Now sole, which we have just been discussing, hook themselves. Some cod will hook themselves, sometimes: others won’t. Bass are immensely variable in their bites. It is notorious that the smaller ones do go at the bait so madly that they often hook themselves. But big bass can bite so gently that you hardly feel them. The question that arises is, How do I strike? Or do I strike at all?

Generally speaking it is a safe plan to strike when you feel a pluck, strike decisively and with malice aforethought. You may miss a few fish this way, but fewer, I think, than you will miss if you leave it to them. Some fish give a ‘rattling bite—a real chain of little knocks in tremendously quick succession, described by tradition as a ratde and recognisable as such. Bream are such biters and so, conspicuously, are plaice. The take of a codling is decisive, but the approach of a real big cod is more deliberate. One of the factors is that to attract a real big cod, you must use a real big bait—a whole bunch of worms, for example, if it’s worms you are using.

When cod fishing, I think you may safely leave it to nature. You may certainly use a rod rest, which takes the strain off vasdy. Elaborate tripods are on sale, fit to carry expensive cameras. There are bipods, which are utterly adequate, the fishing rod forming the third side of the triangle. Or you can lash a pair or trio of sticks or canes together and cope perfectly. You really do want a rod rest when fishing for hours, possibly all night, forcod—it may be hard weather, for cod, though available in the smaller sizes at almost all seasons, come to their glory in autumn and winter. Then you may well want to light a fire, or at least a portable gas stove, and brew up, or fry bangers or bacon, or both. You really must keep up not only your strength but your spirits. A tired, hungry fisherman is an indifferent fisherman, in the most exquisitely exact sense of the word.

Not that it needs a really alert angler to spot a good big cod bite. Bang goes the rod tip. You will find you have all the time it takes to seize the rod, strike hard with an enthusiastic backward swing, and reel in. With the heavy gear needed for fishing out in winter surf for cod, you should have no problem in driving home those big strong hooks. Even so, one day, you’ll live to regret not sharpening them.

Bass are a more tricky proposition when it comes to the hooking. As I said, some bass, including big ones, bite very gently. Some on taking the bait in their mouths swim strongly towards the shore, don’t ask me why, but they do. Thereby taking off your line even the light stress of the weight, putting a big floppy bag into the line, and the wind up you. I know it isn’t universally agreed, but I think the safe thing when bass fishing in the surf is to keep the rod in your hands and strike smardy at the slightest knock.

Even when you have got the hook home and felt the weight of your bass, all is not over—not until you have him on dry land, and not always then. On feeling your fish, belt back up the beach smartly. You may be fishing standing actually in the water; you should certainly be right at the water’s edge if not actually in it. Now get up on indisputably dry land, and keep the pressure on. There is some similarity between playing a bass and playing a salmon, or a sea trout. You have to keep a strain on, in case the hook has only just lightly snicked it on the outside, even, of the mouth—this is more likely to happen with those very big ones, that take so gendy and cunningly. If the line goes slack the hook may fall out, and your chagrin will go on increasing as your estimate of its size increases. As it surely will. (d) But the worst moment is when the bass feels the shingle on his belly, when his back comes up out of the water and he realises he is about to enter the alien element. Added to his panicky struggle at that moment may be the force of the undertow as the wave surges back. Needless to say you use a wave to help the fish home and dry—but unless you pounce on him smartly he may yet get back into the water. A hand in that spiny, wounding gill cover is the only sure answer. ‘Everyone’ recommends the use of at least two hooks, often three. It seems to be the universal method, so naturally I pass it on to you, as in duty bound. I am in a minority, possibly a minority of one, in that I vastly prefer to use only one hook and one bait. Doubtless it reduces my chances of hooking a fish, but doubtless it improves my morale by the certain knowledge it brings that I am using the most simplified gear possible, in the most sporting way. On a steep-to beach I use a rolling leger, which sways and wanders around nicely.

I use a simple rolling leger for cod, too: simplicity and pared-to-the-bone terminal tackle appeals to me deeply, though I am as big a sucker for elaborate casting gear, rods and reels, as any man.

While beach fishing for cod you may well catch whiting, for which you need no particular prescription, or dabs, which are very tasty indeed, despite their small size and lack of fighting quality. Well, how should they fight, when hooked on massive gear designed to haul in cod weighing many times their weight? But no-one objects to a dab on the plate, I find. If you really want to go dab fishing, just dab fishing, there is no law against it whatsoever. Rig up a lighter rod, of course, with the sort of gear you use for sole—but a bigger hook will serve, say a No. 6 or even No. 4. Bait it with lugworms for preference.

Worms will also attract whiting, if you should wish to concentrate on those fish, which are rather smaller in the south than in the north and which are much nicer than they smell when casually boiled for the cats. Sprats or herring pieces, always available in winter, seem the best bait. Again, though, you are more likely to hook whiting when not really trying. More a boat fisher’s fish.

Perhaps a distinction should be made between the codling and the cod. The cod grows to a great size, twenty-pounders are common; the codling is simply a young cod of about four or five pounds. Codling is to cod as lamb is to mutton. Of course they are exactly the same fish at different stages of growth, but their habits vary a bit. Thus the small stuff seems to hang around, whereas the big chaps come in close only during the autumn and winter. In really bitter weather cod come amazingly close inshore. Whereas very cold water drives most fish offshore to the warmer deeps, where they go to spawn, anyway.

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