I think it makes sense to begin with this, though it is perhaps the least exciting method, simply because it is the easiest and most popular.
But it can be exciting enough, in all conscience.
In a special way this is the perfect form of fishing for the beginner; in another way it is the most unsuitable. It is great for the beginner because it takes him out over deep water on his own two feet. When he arrives at the end of the pier, or thereabouts, he is already standing over deep or deepish water—therefore he has no casting problem. And it is the casting problem which (for no good reason) puts the beginner off. So, if you are bothered about having to learn to cast your lure out, stroll along the pier instead. It is the superlative ease of access to deep water which makes the pier in one sense perfect.
Where it is rather unsuitable for the novice is that it tends to fix you with the old impression that sea fishing was something not wildly exciting, almost urban, done in company and done with stout gear out of proportion to the small fish usually caught. A man who has never fished anywhere else except off the end of a pier does not really know how wildly exciting the lonelier, more arduous forms of the sport can be.
Well, never mind. Some of us don’t want to take too much trouble, some of us actually like the company of our fellow men. To such easy-going souls—and note I don’t say they are not the salt of the earth—to such gregarious chaps, the pier is the place.
Not the most productive place, as a general rule, in terms of fish caught. But there are exceptions even to that rule, as indeed there are exceptions to every rule—that’s one of the things fishing teaches us more surely than any other. Deal Pier produces some very fine specimen cod every winter. Some West Country piers—and even Bournemouth—produce some very good bass from time to time. And all piers produce fish. But naturally, there being a certain amount of to-and-fro and hubbub and conviviality associated with a pier, not to mention boats coming and going, it follows that high summer and the pinnacle of the holiday season are not just the best times to fish.
But when a making tide—an incoming tide—coincides with early morning, or evening, then even the most popular pier can produce good sport. And in the off season you can sometimes have it almost to yourself. On some piers you may fish at night, on others you are not permitted to. If there is one thing you dare say about fishing without fear of instant flat contradiction, it is that night fishing is more likely to produce good catches (other things being equal) than day fishing.
Overhead casting is prohibited on many piers, for the sake of the casual passer-by who does not greatly fancy being impaled by a flying great hook adorned with segments of worm, or stunned by half a pound of lead. You can quite see the point of this prohibition. But wherever you go on piers, you see anglers doing their level best to get their bait as far away from the pier as they possibly can. A human aspiration, but so misguided. The beauty of pier fishing —some curmudgeonly parties will say its only attraction— is that it cuts out the need for casting altogether.
For consider: what is a pier? Look at it at low water. Take a cruise around it in a little boat. Climb down the lattice-work and rub your nose in the underwater con- struction. What do you see? Why, you see an abundance, an infinitude of fish food, all clinging to the piles! Why go further? The piles and girders are sure to be heavily festooned with weedy marine growths; and the weedy growths are heavily infested with marine life, a teeming population of small organisms on which small fish love to prey; and apart from the infested weed growths, the piles and girders and beams are sure to be encrusted with molluscs. Molluscs, my friend—luscious crackly stuff that costs you good money at the fishmonger’s, when you can get it—lovely stuff like mussels. All this goodly grub attracts small fish—and small fish attract big fish. One of the cardinal rules of fishing for predatory fish is this—get among the small fish, if you can—for they are bait for the big fish.
Now you will see why there is no need to get your bait away from the pier. The fish are literally under your feet! Just lower away, vertically. There are exceptions to this, and we shall come to them in a minute, but by and large, just lower away.
Lower away what? Your float tackle, your paternoster, your flowing leger. Lovely terms, their origins lost in the mists of antiquity.
A paternoster rig is perhaps the basic terminal tackle for the static pier fisher. In essence, it simply means that your weight is tied right at the very end of your line, so that it goes down to the sea bed, touching it first. Now just a little way above that lump of lead you fix something called a boom, which stands out roughly at right angles to the vertical line, and on the end of which you tie your hook.
That is the basic principle of the paternoster. In practice there is plenty of room for variation. Sometimes the boom is a slip of rigid plastic, with a swivel immediately above and below the line end, and a trace and hook tied to the outboard end. But that is becoming rather uncommon. A simple method is to have a three-way swivel tied in the line, about a yard above the lead. The line to the reel is tied to the top eye of the swivel, the line to the weight is tied to the bottom eye, and the trace is tied to the middle eye which is at right angles to the other two. This is quite the simplest method. But you will find in any marine tackle shop a brass wire paternoster rig which takes the place of that single swivel and which has the virtue of making sure the hook length or trace stands well out from the reel line. This helps to prevent the trace getting wound round the reel line while you are making your cast.
There is nothing to stop you having two booms and two traces if you wish.
Fishing the paternoster is simplicity itself. You simply let the weight take the line off the reel, controlling its run with a finger or thumb, until you feel the weight hit the bottom. You then put the check on the reel, rest the rod against the railing, and wait until something bends the rod tip. It’s very restful, of course. You will certainly get along well with a simple centre-pin reel, in fact it will suit you best. To while away the tedium, some anglers still use one of those jolly little bells, clipped to the rod tip, to wake them up when something happens. And why not, if it gives pleasure ? A slightly more awake method is to take a bit of the reel line in your fingers and wait for a pluck at it. Your fingers are quite the most sensitive instruments you are likely to acquire.
The leger tackle is a variation of this static procedure. In this case your line is threaded through the weight —or through the brass ring which protrudes from the weight. The hook is duly tied on to the end of the line. Now the weight is ‘stopped’ about a yard or even two yards from the weight—some simply clip a half-moon lead over the line to act as a stop, some I’ve seen even using a e split shot, but that needs a deal of pinching on if it is to hold its place. In fact, it is far better to use a swivel as the stop. In this case you tie your hook to one end of a piece of monofilament about a yard long, and a swivel to the other end. You then pass your reel line through the weight, and tie it to the top eye of the swivel.
The leger has this advantage over the paternoster —when a fish takes hold, it can move away without much resistance. With a paternoster, the moment it takes your bait it must feel the anchoring power of that lump of lead. With the leger, it has at any rate a few feet of slack before the line, running through the eye of the weight, tautens up against the reel check. I personally have a notion that the leger is a more sensitive rig than the paternoster and a better method of hooking fish.
But if it has an advantage, so surely it has a drawback. The bait is lying absolutely on the sea bed. Now this is all very well, since you are by definition Bottom Fishing, with a vengeance. But on the actual bottom of the ocean there roams a creature called the crab. The crab in crab salad is a virtuous beast indeed, none more so, but the crab that roams the ocean floor nibbling at baits meant for fish is not as a rule—in fact, not ever—the luscious sort you see in salads. They are usually miserable little greenish things, inedible and a thorough nuisance. You don’t always suffer from their depredations, but when you do, it can turn an honest man into a monster of depravity in short order.
Happily there is a remedy for this sad state of affairs. If you find yourself suffering from the attentions of beastly little bait-robbing crabs, take that cork out of your pocket which you have craftily carried for this very purpose, and slip it on the trace a few inches above the hook. I should make that razor-blade cut half-way through the cork at home, at leisure, if I were you. Nasty when you do it on the pier and cut it right through, and not a spare in sight.
The cork will keep your lure just nicely up out of the reach of the crabs, and you have a quite effective rig working for you now.
I’m not absolutely mad keen on either of these tried and trusted methods myself, but more people use them than use any other methods, and they can’t all be wrong. When you are fishing down from a high pier you pretty well have to stick to them: there’s practically no way out. Legering and paternostering are vertical with a vengeance: they are highly economical of elbow room, and elbow room is often at a premium on a really popular pier. But if there is a lower stage of the pier to which you have the right of access, bringing you down much nearer to the surface of the water, then you can profitably indulge in float fishing and a variation of drift-lining, both of which are more sensitive and more productive, on the whole. And more fun.
True, you can use both these methods from the top level of a high pier. It’s just that they don’t work quite so easily, you have to work harder at it, you are not so closely in touch with your gear and therefore with your bait. But it can be done.
There are several valid variations of float fishing from a pier. At least three. You can combine float fishing with legering and with the paternoster, and you can float fish almost as if you were fishing in the canal at home.
To involve a float in your legering or paternostering will almost or quite certainly mean the use of a sliding float. Obviously, if the depth of water is greater than the length of your rod, and it surely will be, then you can’t fix your float at the appropriate depth on the line and chuck it out. What you do is fix a stop on your reel line at the appropriate distance from the bottom or terminal tackle—a distance slightly greater than the depth of the water, and that you have to estimate, if you haven’t surveyed the ground earlier, by dropping in a plummet—a weight tied to the end of the line. This stop is a bit of nylon, or valve rubber, about a quarter of an inch long, tied in to the line with a clove hitch. In the old days it used to be a bristie. Your line then passes through the middle of the sliding float, or through top and bottom rings which stand off at right angles from the body of the float. You heave the whole load over the side, the weight runs to the bottom, the float slides up the line till it reaches the stop. And stops. Easy.
Using a sliding float with a paternoster, make sure that the paternoster is free to run. Ensure this desirable state of affairs as follows. Tie your weight to one eye of a swivel, by a bit of monofilament about a yard long, at most. Pass the reel line through the other, or top, eye of the swivel and tie it immediately to one eye of another swivel. To the remaining eye of this second swivel, tie the hook trace —a good yard long, more if you fancy it streaming away in the current. Now, when a fish takes hold of your bait, he can run with the line— and your float will be the first to know.
I make a bit of a thing of this because with the standard brass-wire paternoster rig which I mentioned a little while ago, though certainly it ensures that your hook trace stands out well away from your reel line, it does mean that the fish gets no free run—he is up against the resistance of the weight as he moves with the bait.
Similarly with the float-leger method, make sure that on taking the bait the fish is free to move away before he comes up against a lot of resistance. The float must be the first to know— otherwise you might as well not bother with a float.
But of course there is another way of float fishing, a very free and ancient and exciting way. And that is simply to fish your float in what is called ‘mid water’, meaning anywhere between a foot off the bottom and a foot from the top. The reel line goes straight down through the float rings (exactly as in freshwater fishing) to the hook, and various weights as may be found necessary are nipped on the line a little way above the hook. You can of course incorporate a swivel between float and hook, and in fact it is a fairly good idea, if only because it helps to cut out some of the dreaded line twist when you have a fish fighting at the end of the line. And a swivel is a very convenient place on which to hang clip-on leads. All true: but don’t forget, will you, that every swivel means two knots, and every knot means a weakening of the manufacturer’s stated breaking strain of the line. Not that this often matters: 80 per cent of stated breaking strain is more than enough, in most cases. But tie a really careful double- or treble-half-blood every time.
This ‘mid-water’ float fishing is terrific, and I much prefer it to leger or paternoster, if only because you’ve got something to look at apart from the rod tip, it’s lively and pretty and less static. But—you mustn’t forget that the float will wander in the current, or tide, and while this may be exactly what you want it to do, it may not please your neighbours over-much if they happen to have their gear anchored firmly, and vertically, to the bottom, and you get caught up in it. This is another reason why free-ranging mid water float fishing, like drift-lining, is best done from the lower levels of the pier, if you can get there without getting either arrested or severely injured, or even drowned.
Near slack water, which means the odd half-hour at most when the tide is pretty well full and reluctant to turn and start all over again, in calm weather you can float fish happily right in close to the pier. Experiment with with various depths—start shallow, with the float only a yard or so above the hook, and, if you get no response, move the float up a little at a time until you are fishing on the sea bed. This is the only state of tide which allows you to fish the float almost as you would in a lake or canal. At other times the movement of the tide will sweep your float gear along, and either you will have to cast continually out away from the pier, fishing a short stretch as it returns, then casting out again, or, taking the opposite stance, you will be able to stream your float gear in the current, out and away from the pier.
This is just what you want to do when the mackerel shoals come inshore and create their usual wild excitement.
True, they are among the best of fish, both for eating and for the sport they provide—if you use appropriate tackle. Yet I cannot quite understand why the cry goes up ‘the mackerel are in’, while other summer fish seem not to provoke the same excitement. The garfish, that long-snouted, thin bodied, streamlined fighter which is usually or at least often around when the mackerel appear, is if possible an even finer fighter, dashing and leaping like a rainbow or sea trout. Many people seem to believe that the garfish is inedible, probably because of those funny bones, which do turn green when the fish is steamed or boiled; but in fact the flesh is very good eating, as despised foreigners know quite well. It is less oily than the mackerel’s, but no less palatable.
Float fishing in this mode, swimming the bait at all sorts of depths from two feet to quite near the bottom, will serve to catch mackerel and garfish when they are swimming around off the pier. Drift-lining comes into its own in the same circumstances. For this you need nothing but a swivel about a yard from your hook, and a lead clipped on to the top eye of the swivel, or a half-moon lead folded over the line to nip that top eye tightly. You merely drop the bait and weight into the water, at your feet almost, and let the current take it away. It will sink, of course, but not too far.
You keep in constant touch with it by stopping the reel every few moments—when you clamp down on the reel, the weight and bait naturally rise in the water, an undulant swaying movement which adds greatly to its attractiveness, making it all so natural and lazy. I may say that this trick of trapping the reel every so often pays well when you are drifting the float, too—every time you stop the line being taken off the reel, up comes the bait to search a new layer of water. Then you release it and off it goes again, steadily but slowly sinking until you brake again.
Either with the float, or merely with the drifting weight and bait, you are in constant touch and will feel a knock, even if you see nothing. Perhaps this drift-lining is the most effective method of bait fishing in a current flow — there is virtually nothing to alarm the fish or rouse its natural suspicions, everything is simple, and streamlined and cunning, you feel the touch and whoosh, you clamp everything solid and swing the rod top back firmly and swiftly. And you feel the fish kicking on the end of it all. It’s a strange and exhilarating feeling.
Mullet approach some piers in high summer, and it is almost irresistible, at any rate to some natures, to try for them. But the mullet is a desperately crafty fish, not exactly shy, I’d say, but supernaturally cautious and fastidious, and to catch them regularly is really among the most difficult exercises in the sport. Stealth and fine tackle are prime necessities for mullet—and since mullet grow big and burly, fine tackle can mean frustration, fish hooked and lost. (A mullet’s mouth is very soft, and if you rough them up the hook hold gives way all too readily.) But stout tackle means that you never get a chance, anyway. So there you are. It’s not much use trying to catch mullet when the pier is crowded; quietude is called-for. You may have a chance early and late—especially late, on those piers which allow night fishing. Likelier, though, I fancy, from a small harbour jetty than from a populous seaside-resort pier. You can fish for them with ordinary roach tackle, but a good compromise is that sort of middleweight coarse fishing rod known as the Avon style. In fact this is a perfect rod for the sport. Widi a centre-pin reel loaded with something like five-pound breaking-strain line, you can send your float subtly down the current, with a fragment of almost anything on the hook, fishing it merely two feet below the surface, and trying ever-greater depths until you get among them. A scrap of tiny ragworm is as good as anything, but mullet have been caught on all sorts of bait—even macaroni! They certainly eat bread—and cheese. But sticking to marine worms and bits of fish makes sense.
Some anglers in the West Country even fish for herring from harbour walls and jetties, at the appropriate season —preferably fishing by night, with a bit of ragworm on light float tackle suitable for roach, fishing fairly deep.
A word about floats. The floats one sees used in the sea are a striking and multifarious lot, but generally speaking they are bright and they are big. Too big, I often think. True, you need to see your float, but never think that the sea fish is an idiot. If the fish feels the resistance of the float as it is drawn down through the water, that fish has (generally speaking and with a few exceptions) enough sense to realise that there is something fishy going on and to release the lure smartly. The big bung habit dies hard, but really a fat ‘pike float’, which is what you so often see in use, really isn’t the most intelligent approach to sea fish. (It isn’t the most intelligent approach to pike either, come to that.) Try to select a float which is above all slim, a float which offers the least possible resistance to being drawn down through the water. Often it will have to be a big and buoyant float, capable of carrying a load of lead and of being seen in the roily sea: but it should be slender for its length. The old goosequill threaded through a length of cork or balsa wood, the whole thereafter nicely painted and varnished, is as good as anything. But of course there are lots of plastic floats available, if you don’t enjoy making your own—a delightful pastime for the murky winter evenings, I may say; sometimes better by far than watching the box.
Not everyone knows it, but there is a cunning device known as the self-hooking float, which is bound to appeal to some mentalities. This is a good slender float with a wide circular disc of stiff plastic sheet, two to three inches in diameter, slipped down over the top quill or pinnacle of the float, and glued in position. The theory is that an eager-biting fish—such as the mackerel, pre-eminently—diving on the bait, pulls the flat of the float down on to or into the water, with a bang. The resistance so suddenly set up— and it really is a considerable resistance, as you can imagine —stops the hook short in its travel downwards. But since the fish is by then committed to its dive, the point enters and the fish is hooked without any assistance from the angler, who is assumed not to have noticed anyway. Striking a quick bite at a distance really is a bit of a problem; co-ordination of eye and hand, the dear old reflexes, can’t always be relied upon to be adequate to the demands of the moment.
Then there is the natural elasticity of the line, and the big ‘bag’ of line in the water, and wind resistance . . . you can go on elaborating the factors which make for missed bites. The self-hooking float helps to eliminate some of them. Still, it feels like cheating—to some of us fastidious nuts.
Bass and pollack, two of our greatest medium-weight sporting fish, may be caught from suitable piers in summer, in fact any time between April and early October, depending on where you are and what the weather is like—and has been like, months previously. With the coming of winter, the pier is used mainly by cod and whiting fishermen, in a general sense, but there is always the odd flat fish to be hoped for. Fishing on the bottom, certainly, is the thing for the winter months—not much use fishing mid-water then, for there won’t be many fish swimming at that level. Nor anywhere near the surface.
Spinning can be indulged in, provided you have access to one of the lower platforms. Like drift-lining and mid-water float fishing, it can really only be practised from a platform near the water level: from the top storey you should only expect to fish vertically, on the bottom. I will be going into spinning techniques fairly thoroughly later on, when we come to rock fishing and estuary fishing, so I’ll say no more about it here.
The pier fisherman’s baits are about as varied as his quarry, and it really does pay to notice what is popular in a given district—or even to ask. One thing is pretty sure—where there is a pier, a bait salesman won’t be very far away. As a rule. Of course it is cheaper to dig your own ragworms and lugworms, but the time factor, not to mention the energy factor, militates against this healthful pursuit for many of us. I should guess that an absolute majority of pier fishermen use lugworm as a bait. It’s all right, of course—often it’s the best there is. But don’t forget that fish are the greatest fish-eaters in creation. Strips of mackerel or herring are always useful, the fleshy parts of crustaceans, prawns and shrimps, sandeels, small fish entire, pieces of squid, razor fish, mussels—there is practically no end to the list of fishy baits. Don’t forget that a useful bait for bass is a piece of kipper. Yes, honestly. It’s strange that some fish, not especially nice to know, are very finicky about fresh bait—conger, for example —while some fish which are simply pure and fresh and shining (and exquisite to eat) will gobble up pretty stale and stinky old stuff. Pilchards attract bass, by the way.
Soft crab is a great bait, but obtaining it is not so easy. It is when a crab has just thrown his old hard shell, having outgrown it, that he is tender and especially attractive to other creatures. But to find soft or ‘peeler’ crabs is an art in itself. However, ask around. A really obliging (or even rapacious) local dealer may get you some, but you may have to buy a lot of beer.
Some people fish for flounders with maggots. In estuaries, at any rate. But I’ve never seen it happen on a pier.
Earthworms die rather quickly in sea water.
Mackerel prefer mackerel. They really do. Actually I do most of my mackerel fishing elsewhere, but if I were on a pier and the mackerel were ‘in’ I’d back little bright strips cut from the side of one of their own brethren to equal or beat any other bait. Problem: what do you catch the first mackerel on, before you can start using mackerel a as bait for mackerel? Answer, a sprat. They love sprats. It is in pursuit of vast shoals of sprats, or sandeels, or pilchards, that they come close inshore in summer.
When the mullet are right on the surface it isn’t a lot of use to offer them conventional fishy or ‘natural’ baits. I think I mentioned macaroni. Bread is also reasonably effective. (’If they won’t eat bread, give them cake’, said Marie Antoinette. Or almost. I have approached this state by mixing custard powder in my bread paste, just as I do ashore. I don’t know that it made it work any better. A bit of floating bread crust I once saw do considerable execution when fished from a jetty in the West Country. But since I was standing alongside the floating crust expert, and catching them lower down in the water on bits of ragworm, I’m not sure what that proved.) But I do fancy that a touch of pilchard oil mixed with the bread paste really pays off. So far as anything can be said to pay off in this branch of fishing. Mullet are real worthwhile targets: they can tax the patience of a saint, yet on occasion they can give great rewards. I’m not too happy about including them in this pier fishing section, but hedge a bit because I did say pier or jetty, and while the seaside resort pier may not be much of a mullet ground, the jetty, especially within a harbour, very often is.
Generally speaking, it’s the old flatfish, cod and whiting in winter, and bass, pollack and mackerel in summer. A pier’s not a bad place to begin, perhaps, if you love the human race.