BEGINNERS GUIDE: ROCK FISHING

Fishing from rocks, that is, not for rocks. Not even for rocklings, which are funny looking little fish sporting beards, and sometimes virtually indistinguishable from television directors and sub-editors. There is the three-bearded rockling, the four-bearded rockling, and the five-bearded rockling: all small, drab and relentless in taking baits meant for better fish. (The ‘beards’, of course, are actually barbels. Anyone who has seen the freshwater fish called barbel knows what a barbel looks like. Gudgeon have them, too.)

Of course a great deal of first-rate fishing goes on from boats which venture into deep water and hang about near rocks rising from the sea bed. Yes, but this article is about fishing from rocks around the shore, fishing on your own two feet. Which had better be encased in something suitable, for clambering about on rocks is both wet and slippery. It’s easy to keep out the wet and not too difficult to cope with the slipperiness, but the two necessities tend to clash.

Rubber boots are dry, but dangerous. Hobnails and studs are sensible, but you don’t normally come across them in rubber boots. Every man to his own conclusion. I once fished with a chap who wore football boots. Eventually he broke his leg. Perhaps the best solution is to wear pukka game fisher’s waders, the real M’Coy kind which are actually stocking waders, pulled on over your thick socks, and then topped off by brogues worn over them. Yes, nice, but expensive.

I spent one happy season wearing ex-Govt Surplus dispatch riders’ knee boots, and old motor cycle riding breeches. Very effective: it takes a long time for the water to penetrate well-dubbined leather, with a good gusset-type tongue in the boots. On the whole, despite my present rheumaticky state, I still think it’s better to concentrate on keeping your foothold and to hell with getting wet. One ardent rock fisher whom I knew wore nothing on his nether limbs but shorts and rope-soled sandals. His legs were a mass of bruises and abrasions, very ugly, but he seemed happy and rarely fell in, not what you’d call fell in.

Rock fishing is terrific sport, closely allied to game fishing ashore, with all that intimate feeling you get when you are so near to your quarry, plus the special delights of the ozone and spray and general sea-sense.

What you want, ideally, is a sort of ledge or rim of rocks that stand up proud of the high-water mark, and even prouder of low water; that is to say rocks that have a fair depth of water right up to them, rocks that go down almost or quite vertically into the water.

This is the ideal for productive fishing, but of course some of us have to manage, some of the time, according to where we happen to find ourselves, with jumbled rocks that are not arrancrea so neatly and conveniently— rocks that give on to a good fishing depth only at high water, rocks with gullies and channels between them, complex and broken wracky rocks. Well, they’re all rocks, and given a decent depth of water when the tide is in, you’ll do. But best of all the lovely sort of rock structure I described at the start. And there are plenty of rocks like that round the British Isles, though, perhaps naturally, they are commoner in the West than elsewhere.

Note particularly: if you have to climb down a cliff to get at your rocks, as well you may, make sure that you can climb back. Nuff said ?

Mackerel, bass and pollack are the fish most fished for from rock stations such as these. (But sometimes you catch what you’re not fishing for.) The best methods at your disposal, whatever species you may be hoping for, are spinning and float fishing. True, you may dangle a paternoster in the water if you choose, thousands do, I dare say, and why not? But it does seem a bit of a waste of pleasure, and pleasure being rationed somewhat stringently, it seems a pity to waste any of it.

Yet there can be occasions when a paternoster with a trace that is free to run is obligatory. It all depends on the sea bed near the rocks. By and large, the fish that come as close inshore as this are hunting for food that grows and/or lurks in and around the crevices and surfaces of the rocks themselves, and the weeds that flourish thereabouts. Yes, but occasionally they are not actually interested in the rocks, but in the sea bed just off the rock wall—when that sea bed is covered by weed, or is composed of a rough stony bottom freely interspersed with weed growth.

Such territory harbours a great deal of food which fish enjoy, including of course crabs. If the bottom is very rough and bad, or if the weed growth is heavy—kelp beds can be truly dense—then you are almost forced to use a paternoster with the terminal lead hanging down quite a way below the hook, a good foot or two and maybe even more. (Trial and error again, Jack.) Then your weight will go plummetting down to the bottom, but your bait will either rest lightly on top of the weed, or just nicely within it, or will toddle about in the swirl of water among the stones but not getting stuck in the crevices of the bottom. Crafty old anglers use a ‘rotten bottom’—by which delightful term they mean that the line which connects the weight and the swivel is, well, not actually rotten, but so much weaker than the rest of the line that if the weight gets hung up, and you have to heave-O!, then it breaks first and you only lose your lead.

However, efficient as the paternoster may be, it is also less interesting than the float and the spinner. For float fishing in this situation, simply nothing is better than the carp rod aforementioned. It is just the right strength and weight to cast your bit of lead—an ounce at most, as a rule, even as little as half an ounce; and if the current is strong and you have to go to one-and-a-half ounces, it will still cope. It is light, and it reaches out nicely. And it will certainly handle the bass and pollack you get, and more than handle the mackerel. As I told you, I used nothing but a ten-foot sea trout fly rod for years, and though it flexed alarmingly at times, it was so thrillingly sensitive and responsive, a delight to handle. Stick to the slender float I recommended and you’ll miss fewer bites. Adjust the float, up and down, until you hit on the depth at which fish seem to be taking.

Of course your beach casting rod, if you have one, will cope with the situation. What you need most is a certain degree of length—you are reaching out a bit over the water. At a pinch your pike rod will serve you, of course, or a seven-foot boat rod if it comes to that. Of course it will: you can improvise amazingly. But I’m trying to put you in touch with the maximal pleasure. For that is what fishing is all about: pleasure: otherwise we’d all be queue-ing at the fishmonger’s.

Of course, the depth at which you fish your float bait, and even the manner in which you fish it, will depend somewhat on the style of rock formation you are fishing. It’s all very nice to have a neat shelf poised over deepish water, everything laid on almost as nice and tidy as if you were back home fishing the canal. But sometimes all you have is a ragged formation of scattered rocks, reaching out to sea in a highly untidy fashion and nowhere giving you command of the depths. In this case you may have to manage by fishing little gullies where the water races and creams between individual rocks. You will have to fish very shallow, since the depth of water may be no more than a yard or two.

Initially you might think there couldn’t be any point in fishing these little cuts and gullies and races, but fish do adventure along them—well, bass do for sure—and if you keep an eagle eye on your float, and don’t mind having to make a fresh cast every few seconds, and don’t mind being caught up many times on underwater obstructions—why, then, this can be a productive and wildly exciting method of fishing. When a fish is hooked in a little cut like this he really panics, he moves like a streak in several directions, and you have to keep contact with him all the way.

When I was using my ten-foot sea trout rod as a float rod, I had to use small and needle-sharp hooks to make sure that I got them struck home—owing to the extreme suppleness of the rod, you understand. I fancy this is a good thing because it got me into the habit of honing up the hook point regularly—examining it every single cast, touching it up with the slip of emery every half dozen casts. The sea bed knocks hell out of a hook. I like thin-gauge, fine-wire hooks, but they are susceptible to the bashing they get around rocks. Of course, you don’t really need to use small hooks for bass, which have big mouths, but you can usually hook even a large-mouthed fish well with a small fine hook, whereas a big meat-hook type takes some pulling in—but not much pulling out.

Yes, the carp rod pre-eminent for float fishing from the rocks. But for spinning, which is really the crime de la crème of the game, the salmon rod is ideal. I’ve now given up using my dear old split cane salmon spinning rod—not before time, either—having acquired this very king of rods, the hollow fibreglass Milbro Mariner. It is a royal instrument for the work . You may indeed get away with using a seven-foot light spinning rod, but eight foot is a lot nicer, not so much for the casting as for the playing and landing of the fish when you’ve hooked it. The Mariner, like die salmon rod, is 9 ft. 6 in. long, and casts an ounce or an ounce and a half very comfortably. But suit yourself, of course.

I mentioned earlier that those crank-handled casting rods, which are very pretty and feel somehow ‘right’ and businesslike in the hand, were usually short, about five to five and a half feet, and designed to take the closed-face version of the fixed-spoon reel. True enough; but there is a much longer, double-handed version, such as the Abu Caster 151 at seven feet, the Abu Diplomat at the same length, even the Abu Atlantic 460 with the offset locking reel seat, which is 9 ft. long. All these are double-handed casting rods which will accept a light multiplying reel very happily. They have a rather different ‘feel’ from the traditional spinning rod, but who cares so long as it’s a nice feel ? And they do the job, superbly well.

Rarely indeed, when rock fishing, will you see the quarry right on the surface . No, the reason they are nosing round the rocks at all is because the lower slopes of the rocks, well under water, harbour agreeable food-forms in their crevices and their abundant weed. So you should be spinning fairly deep —but how deep, or rather how deep you dare go before fouling up on the rocks and weed and bottom stones, why, that is what you have to discover for yourself by patient experiment, trial and error. Error can be expensive: it’s no good pretending, spinning from the rocks can on occasion be expensive in terms of lost, snagged tackle. And spinning lures cost a mint of money these days. This is why I recommend that when you have fixed up your spinning gear, before you actually start spinning as such, you make a few trial casts with something both inexpensive and attractive on the end of the line. And what could fill the bill better than a sprat on a spinning flight?

True, even a spinning flight, which is little more than a pin to go through the dead fish, a couple of vanes to make it revolve, a swivel and a pair of hooks, even this costs money. But any modestly handy man can make himself up a score of spinning flights instead of watching television, or even while watching television. All you need is a pair of tin snips to shape the vanes (or your wife’s kitchen scissors), a pair of pliers with a wire cutting device built into them, a hank of trace wire, a swivel, a couple of hooks, and a nail to form the spike which is thrust into the dead bait fish’s body. (You cut the head off the nail with a hacksaw, and hammer one end flat for an inch to take the vanes, and, via a -^ in. hole, the swivel.)

Nothing could be simpler, and after you have made a few of these and caught the odd fish on them, you get so cocky your friends won’t come near you. I’ve known a chap decide to use bleak instead of sprats, when there were no sprats available at his fishmonger, miles inland. Catching the bleak took him ten minutes flat, from his association water on a very dull bit of river. He didn’t actually catch any sea fish on his bleak spinner, though. He was so steamed-up at having no sprats and having to lose time catching his bleak, he drove to the coast with his foot half-way through the floorboards. His little old heap wasn’t really up to it and a half-shaft went just when he’d reached the really lonely bit over the mountains. It did seem a pity. Still, I’ve no doubt bleak would have done all right.

True, they are soft little fish which break up quickly, but so for that matter are sprats. All the best books, in the old days, used to tell you how to bind your spinning fish on to the spinning flight with cotton. When you’ve accomplished this neatly while huddling on a slippery rock ledge with cold spray dashing over you and your fingers either blue with cold or streaky-red with abrasions, you can apply for life membership of the Holier Than Thou Chum Club.

Never mind. A sprat on a spinning flight is a good proposition, and well worth persevering with. Especially for these first dozen or so casts while you are prospecting, finding where the fish are, how deep, what the walls and bottom are like. If you catch a fish or two while you’re experimenting, you’ll feel rather chuffed, as they say in the Brigade of Guards (other ranks section). But when it comes to chancing your real shop-bought spinners, you will be confused by the ecstatic variety on show and sale.

Who can help you here? I personally am very fond of fluttering little bar-spoons, and undoubtedly the fish find them very intriguing, but they are very light, really too light for this job, and although mackerel go mad about them more often than not, it means that you have to use a weight on the trace to get casting distance and to sink them far enough. This is really undesirable: you are fishing fairly badly restricted spaces, as a rule, it is accuracy you want more than distance, and the weight should therefore all be concentrated at the tip, the very end—it’s like throwing a dart or shooting an arrow.

But if you do have to attach lead, so be it. You should have a trace about two or three feet long, no longer, attached to your reel line via the inevitable swivel. You can hook a quickly detachable Hillman Lead on to the top eye of the swivel, thereby lessening any tendency to line kink; or you can incorporate a costly though very lovely Wye lead in the trace—it carries its own swivel; or you can wrap the line round the incisions in a spiral lead; or you can simply fold a half-moon lead over the top eye of the swivel. This is the easiest method. A half-moon lead comes to you as a full moon, with a hole in it, like a Polo mint. It is folding it over that makes it a half moon. I like that lead: it is its own built-in anti-kink device.

Of course you can use Devon Minnows, sinking plugs, anything in the armoury: but I guess the most popular and effective spinner is one version or another of the celebrated long narrow spoon. This really does work: especially the sort which is thick and very heavy for its size, and which has a subtle kink or twist built into it which gives it a lovely capricious flutter and flash and wobble. This type of spoon—it conies in many variations —is not only attractive to bass and pollack, but has the weight you need to flick it out.

Don’t be put off if the tide rips mighty fast and swirly past your rocks. Bass won’t be put off: they are greathearted adventuring fish, the only fish, really, that will come right inshore and nose among the rocks in such a swirl of heavy water. Fish the race with confidence—and plenty of weight on your spoon.

Spinning is emphatically not a matter of simply chucking your lure out and stolidly winding it back in. By no means. You can work a touch of artistry into your retrieve—indeed, you’ll have to. Let the bait rise and fall in the water, varying its depth pardy by the speed of your retrieve (the faster you wind the more it will climb in the water) and partly by raising and lowering the rod tip. Vary the path of the lure, too, laterally, by wagging the rod, even swinging it from side to side. Vary the speed of the retrieve at all times—slow down, twitch it, give a quick couple of turns, stop dead (for a second only!) start again slow, accelerate, decelerate—do everything you can to give your lure an erratic course, down there in the water. Let the rod and line and lure be an extension of your arms and hands: think lure: think fish: project your senses like antennae (which they are) down into the water with that wriggling, quivering, sinuous, dodging, presumably injured, pitiful little lure.

You may also fish a prawn, live or dead, or two prawns for that matter, if you have them, from your rock position. Bass like them very much and will show their appreciation. I don’t think the old sliver of mackerel bait really comes into its own here, excellent though it is elsewhere. Worms may be used, but I think prawn and shrimp and shellfish baits would be more natural and therefore perhaps better.

In the North where men are men they catch coalfish from the rocks; even from cliff tops. Down farther south bass and mackerel are the principal quarry, though pollack are a significant factor, too. Daytime fishing doesn’t produce much in the way of pollack round the rocks, except small ones: dusk and dawn patrols do produce good specimens.

But even if you are simply jigging up and down with a string of’feathers’ for summer mackerel, or a jigger, you will enjoy a session ‘on the rocks’.

I should say that I have mentioned only the best and most popular fish. When fishing the rocks, especially the gullies and channels between rocks, you may meet almost anything—well, not quite anything, but certainly such fish as ballan wrasse (not very nice), or pout (not much nicer) and there is always a possibility, to put it no higher, of hooking bream, which are delicious.

A long-handled landing net—the same one you use inland—can be quite a help in these rocky situations. True, you may lose it, or trip over it. I’ve always understood that these things are sent to try us.

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