There’s more to our south and east coasts in the holiday season than the shimmering blue yonder.
Since the 17th century thousands of acres of land have been reclaimed from the sea along the Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, Kent and Sussex coasts. This reclaimed land lies at or below sea level. Walls or built-up shingle beaches keep the sea at bay, while networks of dykes provide the drainage needed for profitable arable and livestock farming.
Most anglers ignore these dykes, thinking them too small to hold fish of sufficient size and number to make them worth fishing. They couldn’t be more wrong.
Most coastal dykes are 3-6m (10-20ft) wide and l-2m (3-6 1/4ft) deep. Picking up smaller dykes and ditches on their way, they eventually drain through sluice gates into creeks, estuaries or tidal rivers. On very big high tides, brackish water backs up through the sluice gates, making the dykes permanently slightly saline.
This slight saltiness makes coastal dykes fabulously rich environments: typically clear, weedy and weed-fringed, and home to all manner of shrimps, snails and other small invertebrates — and fish.
Roach, rudd, tench, bream, carp and eels are the main fish, but you also find perch and pike – even flounders and mullet, which find their way in through the sluice gates at high tide.
The really exciting thing is that coarse fish seem to grow big quickly in the slightly brackish water of dykes, and they have a beautiful sheen seldom seen in fresh water. They also seem to be much healthier, rarely showing any signs of disease.
Coastal dykes are lovely, peaceful places to fish in summer, when dragonflies are on the wing and there’s a gentle sea breeze to cool your forehead. Moreover, the sun quickly warms the shallow water, the weed and small invertebrates proliferate and the fish feed actively.
In autumn and winter, conversely, the fish go into semi-hibernation as the temperature of the shallow water falls quickly and the weed and invertebrate life dies back. And there’s nothing in the flat landscape to shelter you when a harsh wind is blowing relentlessly in from the sea.
Where to start
Summer, then, is the time to fish coastal dykes, with roach, rudd, tench, bream and carp the main target fish. Start by looking for the following likely hotspots. Sluice gate The area immediately before the sluice gate is well worth examination: the push of tides scours out a deep hole and introduces a lot of fresh food. Often, too, the water here is coloured, which makes it harder for the fish to see you or your tackle, and can induce the bigger specimens to feed even in bright sunlight. Depressions Look too for spots where the dyke has been dredged a bit deeper than elsewhere – even if by only a few inches. Often such a depression is just 5m (16ft) or so long, but tench, carp and bream in particular like to hide up in these pockets. Junctions Similarly, where other dykes or smaller ditches join the dyke you might well find the slightly greater depth favoured by bream, tench and carp. Pipe swims The hottest spots of all are where fresh water is piped into the dyke from ditches. All sorts of fish gather here, drawn by the influx of well-oxygenated water and titbits.
Good as all these spots can be, however, they are not always reliable – in summer the fish tend to roam up and down the dyke. Give a likely hotspot a go by all means, but don’t spend too long fishing it if it isn’t producing. Go roving instead.
Stalking on dykes
Wear polarizing sunglasses and travel light. Walk slowly and carefully, using bankside cover to conceal yourself from the fish in the clear, shallow water. Keeping the sun behind you makes it easier to spot fish, but you should try not to let your shadow fall across the dyke.
Often you see the actual fish glinting in the sunlight but sometimes you just come across a small patch of cloudy water where they are burrowing and throwing up silt.
Settle down a few metres along the bank from the fish, keeping a low profile. Catapult in some bait – maggots, sweet- corn, worms and breadflake are all good -and keep doing this until the fish are feeding confidently. Now, and only now, is the time to make your first cast with light float tackle. As soon as you hook a fish, draw it away from the rest of the shoal as quickly and quietly as you can. Usually you can take several fish in quick succession before the shoal spooks.
Prebaiting on dykes
Dusk and dawn are undoubtedly the best times to catch the biggest tench, bream and carp. If you have the time on your hands -preferably a couple of days or more – prebaiting one of the hotspots listed above can really pay dividends.
Don’t overdo it, though — half a can of corn, half a white loaf and half a pint of maggots each time is usually enough. The maggots work into the silt but bream, carp and tench soon smell them and set to digging them out with real fury!
There is little to beat the beauty of a dyke at dawn, with the sun rising, the skylarks singing and big, deep-bodied tench beginning to bubble behind the sluice gate. A word of warning, though: make sure you prebait in water at least 1.2m (4ft) deep or the plentiful waterfowl might well get fed before the fish!
Mind you, the birdlife is a wonderful bonus on coastal dykes. You see a variety of swans, geese, ducks, warblers, tits and waders. These and other creatures are much more likely to be your neighbours than other anglers – and that’s what makes dykes such special places to fish.