Dab Fishing Techniques

Though thousands of tons of dab are trawled every year from accessible inshore waters, millions more remain, buried up to their eye-sockets in sand, ambushing everything edible in sight.

The dab is the smallest member of the Pleuronectidae family. Like its very close relatives, the plaice and flounder, the dab starts life as a round fish. During the early stages of the dab’s life the left eye moves around the head until it takes up its final position above and in front of the right eye. This enables the fish to lay on its left side on the seabed with no impediment to its vision.

Effective camouflage In the adult fish the colouring varies slightly, but generally the back or right side is sandy brown with orange spots and black flecks. Camouflaged in this way, it is almost impossible to detect the dab’s presence on the seabed. The underside or left side is generally a translucent whitish blue. Sometimes, however, when the fish is in prime condition, the underside can be mauve or even slightly pink, although this colouring is usually confined to late autumn fish heavy with roe. The scales on the coloured side are spiny and overlapping and if rubbed with the fingers from the tail towards the head, the skin has a very rough texture. Flounders and plaice in comparison are smooth, making this an easy way of distinguishing the dab.

Other features that distinguish the dab from plaice and flounder are that the lateral line on the dab is strongly curved, almost semi-circular, around the pectoral fin, and there are no ‘bony knobs’ on the head ridge as there are with plaice. Because the dab does not grow very large, it is often misidentified as a small plaice, but even when only 25mm long the dab’s characteristics are easily distinguished from that of a plaice of the same size.

Distribution and habitat The dab can be found almost anywhere around the coast of the British Isles, and is abundant in inshore waters along the European coast ranging from the Bay of Biscay to Iceland. It is even found in the White Sea and the Baltic. Preferring shallow water, it is most abundant in depths of not more than 20 fathoms and is found in large numbers in sandy, shallow water bays where it competes with the flounder and immature plaice for the available food. Larger specimens tend to prefer banks of sand or gravel where they will be found feeding just off the main tide run.

Dab Limanda limonda

DISTRIBUTION: up some of our widest rivers and is caught regularly in the Thames as far up as Gravesend. Large numbers are also caught in the Clyde and adjacent lochs.

Spawning takes place usually in depths of 10-20 fathoms. A female fish of some 20cm will lay approx-imately 130,000 eggs in the early part of the year; from February to May on south and west coasts and from April to June in the northern North Sea and Icelandic waters.

Growth and development

Dab eggs are pelagic—floating on the surface and approximately 0.7-0.8mm in diameter—and very much smaller than those of the plaice. Eggs laid in early spring may take up to 12 days to hatch, whereas those laid in the late spring, when the water is warmer, may hatch in as little as three days. The newly hatched larvae measure about 2.5mm and for the first 10 or 11 days of life they are entirely dependent on their yolk sacs. The larva continues to lead a pelagic life and it is during this time that the metamorphosis from the round to the flat condition takes place. This process is completed after about 45 days, when the young dab larva drifts inshore. When about 25mm long, with all the characteristics of the adult fish, the dab is to be found on the seabed. Unfortunately, at this stage of their lives, countless young dabs, along with many immature species of sea fish, are killed annually by shrimpers, both push nets and trawls taking their toll. Dabs mature at two years when they will have reached a length of about 14cm. A five-year-old fish would measure approximately 25cm, the average size of fish normally caught by anglers. The British (rod-caught) Record stands at 2lb 12!4 oz and was caught by R Islip, boat fishing in Gairloch, Wester Ross, Scotland in 1975. This is a very large dab and fish weighing over Vmb are rarely encountered.

The diet of the dab varies con-siderably, depending mainly on the availability of the food in the area. Pink shrimps are much favoured together with small shore crabs, soft, slipper limpet and most bivalves. All forms of worms are also taken, together with whitebait and sandeels.

Fishing for dab

Because of its love for shallow water bays the dab is frequently en-countered by the shore-based angler. In many localities the dab is fished for exclusively, as it feeds freely during calm settled weather conditions unlike the codling and whiting which prefer heavy surf, resulting in uncomfortable angling conditions.

Daylight hours are usually the most productive for catching dab, but some good catches can be made after dark. Because of the dab’s small mouth, small hooks are recommended—preferably a short shank Kirby, no larger than a size 4. Bait depends much on the locality being fished, but as a general rule, lugworm is most favoured. If the worms are on the large side, they should be broken so as not to overfill the hook. A large black lug is sufficient for four or five hook baits and a large blown lug will make two or three adequate baits.

The bait need not necessarily be fresh. In fact, badly blown lug will invariably catch more fish than will fresh, the big disadvantage being the difficulty in keeping such a soft bait on the hook while casting. Ragworm is another very good bait, particularly if the water is clear, but again only small sections of a worm should be used. During the late autumn months, fish strip will often account for good catches. Small portions of filleted sprat or small slivers of herring can be used to great advantage especially if there are shoals of sprat or whitebait in the area being fished. In using small baits, the dab invariably swallows the hook and it is not uncommon to catch two or even three on a single cast.

Terminal tackle should be kept simple; a two or three-hook paternoster rig will take plenty of fish and the angler gets no bother with the terminal tackle tangling or becoming twisted when casting. When fishing from a shelving beach great distances in casting are not required as dabs will oblige by coming almost up to the water’s edge in search of food. The bite is usually of the short rattling variety and may be confused with a small pouting bite. It is best, therefore, to wait for the second or sometimes third bite before making your strike.

Dab’s favourite bait

Although not predominantly a shoal fish, the dab appears to move around in small groups. Having taken the bait, for example, the struggles of the hooked fish attract other members of the group to the remaining baited hooks. When seeking dabs from a boat, the ideal location is an area of the seabed with a sandy bottom and an easy tide. The best conditions are during settled weather, with calm seas and clear water. Fish can be encouraged into the area by lowering a rubby dubby bag full of mashed-up shore crabs to the seabed. Dabs are partial to the squashed crabs and the abundance of food will keep the fish in the area of the baited hooks. Worms—particularly stale ones—are a favourite bait both in shore fishing and from boats, where stale worms do not have to stand the rigours of beachcasting. Slipper limpet and hermit crab tails are also good.


The best rig for boat fishing for dabs is undoubtedly a pattrace, consisting of a short twohook trace, which will waver in the tide, and a third hook which fishes about 30cm off the seabed. Dabs will often take a bait that is well off the bottom, hence the need for this top hook. Again, small hooks and small baits are the order of the day. If the bait is too big it will only result in many missed bites. Once the baited rig has been lowered to the seabed and no bite has registered after a few minutes, the rod top should be raised 2 or 3ft.

The movement of the bait often encourages the wary fish to make a grab at it. If a bite is missed, allow the tackle to return to the seabed immediately; the fish will usually makes another attack on the bait. If this happens, delay the strike, allowing the fish plenty of time to swallow the bait and hook.

The best sport will be had as the main tide run eases just before a slack water period, and again immediately after slack water as the run builds up again. Many areas that produce consistently good cat-ches of this flattie during the sum-mer months tend to tail off during the early autumn. This usually heralds the arrival of the whiting and cod. It is very noticeable that big catches of dabs are never made if either of these species are prolific. The slower moving dab is unable to compete with the speed of the whiting for the available food, and in the case of the cod, the dab itself provides food.

The dab is not fished for commercially to the same extent as plaice. The reason for this might be that the flesh is softer and does not keep as well as plaice. A large dab in good condition, however, gutted immediately after capture and eaten the next day, on the bone or filleted, is thought by some to have a superior flavour to the plaice.