Many of these banks have become extremely well known over the years. They include the Skerries off Devon, the Shambles Bank off Weymouth, the Varne Bank in the Dover Straits, and perhaps the best known—if not for its fishing, its danger to shipping—the Goodwin Sands off Deal.
Sandbanks are caused by currents. In some places, two tides meet, each in turn depositing particles of sand and grit in the same area. Elsewhere, banks are formed by the contours of the seabed which create eddies in much the same way.
Some sailors don’t steer clear of the warning buoys, the lightships, the broken water. They’re the skippers and anglers who know how many fish live and feed in and around sandbanks.
Sandbanks occur in seas throughout the world and many have become famous for their fishing. Two of these are the Grand Banks off New-foundland and the Dogger Bank in the North Sea, both of which commercial fishermen have exploited for centuries. However, it is the smaller inshore banks that provide the best and most accessible angling.
As the contours of a river bank form them in fast flowing rivers. As every freshwater angler knows, eddies provide food and shelter for his quarry. They can be just as productive for the sea angler.
Larger banks, such as the Goodwin Sands and Varne Bank, are easily located by the presence of lightships and lighted buoys. Smaller banks are marked by lighted buoys only, or, if they dry out at low water, by a beacon somewhere near the highest point and a lighted buoy where the edge of the bank meets the deep water.
All banks are clearly marked on Admiralty Charts, which you should study carefully before putting to sea. The chart will show a small red mark, like an exclamation mark, above buoys that are lit, and the sequence of light flashing. This is abbreviated; for example, ‘Gp. Fl. (3) 12 sec’ indicates a group of three flashes every 12 seconds and, because there is no colour abbreviation, it means that the buoy shows a white light.
Some buoys have other aids as well as lights. The South Varne, for instance, has a built-in whistle, while others have a bell built into the top which continually clangs as the buoy moves on the waves.
Before you set out, it is helpful to jot down the name of the particular buoy on or near the bank to be fished, for in a small, open boat it is difficult to spread out a chart, and sea breeze and salt spray will soon reduce it to a soggy mess.
Reading a chart
Lightships and buoys are accurate enough to keep big vessels away from banks, but they give only a rough idea of their exact position. While marking the name of the buoy therefore, also note on which side of it the bank lies, the direction in which the bank runs, and the rough distance to the bank’s highest point. The depth of this point is clearly marked on Admiralty Charts. On up-to-date charts, the depth is shown in metres, on older charts, in fathoms. For example, ‘82’ means the water is_8_fathoms 2ft deep, but a bar under the figure 8 indicates that the bank dries out and is 8ft above sea level at mean low water. If the chart is marked in metres with the bar underneath (2.5), this means the bank is again about 8ft above sea level at low tide.
Do not rely solely on charts to locate the banks, however. On ar-rival, look for rough water caused by the tide running over the bank. This is particularly helpful when locating banks not exposed at low tide. The disturbance is more pronounced if the wind is blowing, especially from the opposite direction to the tide’s flow. But even on a calm day, with just a light breeze, the sea over a bank is noticeably rougher than the surrounding area. The shallower the water over the bank the bigger the tell-tale ruffle.
The Skerries lie a few miles to the south west of Dartmouth and pro-vide superb fishing for plaice, dabs and turbot. April and May are the best months when large numbers move in from deep water. At this time, fish of 4lb are quite common, with a fair percentage between 6 and 7lb. Fish over this weight are extremely rare. The best catches on the Skerries are made when there is a fair run of tide, but it is impossible to fish from an anchored position during springs, when, in keeping with other sandbank areas, water spates across at incredible speed creating a very rough surface. Whirlpools also form, and it is certainly no place for craft under 25ft long, nor unreliable engines.
Tidal action constantly changes the configuration of the Skerries. Deep channels one day may be completely filled with sand the next. Consequently, charter skippers who work the grounds put great store in a graph type echo-sounder to pin-point the deepest parts where a large number of fish will congregate. If a large bank of sand piles up in front of a gully so much the better, as very large turbot will hide at the base on the sheltered side waiting for the tide to bring a variety of food within easy reach. The speed of a hunting turbot is incredible. It can rise several feet to grab a luckless victim, and be back partly buried in the sand in a matter of three seconds.
Just as a trout in a fast river will shelter behind a rock, so sea fish use a bank as a tide breaker and lie in wait for food washed over the top by the current. The highest point of a bank is a few feet uptide from the disturbed water, and to catch the fish on the lee side, you should moor over this point.
The type of bank—sand or gravel —the depth of water over it, and its location all determine the species of fish likely to inhabit it. Similarly, the natural foods in the vicinity dictate the kinds present.
Small food fishes, such as whitebait and sandeels, are found over virtually all banks. So if the water is shallow—not more than 2 fathoms at low water—it is fairly safe to assume that shoals of feeding fish are present. Bass are particularly common, providing the bank is off the southern half of the British Isles. Northern coasts are too cold.
Vast numbers of sandeels swim over sandbanks between April and late October, attracting predators such as bass which often congregate in large packs. Although the black bream is most common over rough ground and around wrecks it has a definite liking for sandbanks, par-ticularly the Skerries where they have been taken to a weight of 6lb.
Brill and turbot
If the bank comprises small gravel and shell rising from deep water of 8-10 fathoms at low water, then there is good reason to expect brill and turbot. Both species lie on the lee side of a bank, waiting for sandeels and other food to be washed into their path. If the bank has several peaks and valleys, then the chances of turbot are even greater.
Besides sandeels, foods found on sandbanks include razorfish (if the bank is entirely of sand) and other bivalves, such as cockles. Bivalves encourage plaice, dabs and other flatfish. Mackerel and scad are found hunting the upper layers of the sea over shoals and banks, and they in turn attract tope. The numerous banks in the Thames Estuary have proved happy hunting grounds for these predators. The most likely tope areas are deepwater channels at the foot of the banks.
Thornback rays are another species commonly found over and around shallow water banks. Margate Sands off the North Kent Coast often provide fine thornback catches in the spring, together with specimen smoothhounds, which search out the soft crabs that shelter in the sand. Painted rays and homelyn, also known as spotted rays, are other species which fre-quent banks. Clew Bay, Co Mayo, Ireland, is a good place to fish for them—on a sandbank where you can see your bait on the bottom.
Over the last few years the Varne Bank has produced some great cat-ches of cod, particularly in summer. The highest point here is only 6-7ft below the surface at low water, while the surrounding seabed lies under 16 fathoms. Masses of sandeels—and hence cod and turbot—are found on this natural breakwater. Because of the fierce tides in the area, the best catches are made with pirks and feathers on the drift.
As well as their abundance of natural food, steep-sided banks have another major advantage—it is virtually impossible for commercial trawlers to fish them. The trawl warps in front of the net slice through the top of the bank and the sweeps and groundline of the net become embedded in it. The trawler is forced to a standstill and recovery of the net is difficult. Needless to say, trawlers seldom work these areas, and the number of good-sized fish available to the angler is consequently higher.
But the rod and line angler, too, should be careful when fishing sand-banks. Even on a calm day tides racing over a bank can cause quite big waves. If there is a moderate breeze, the sea over a large bank can be whipped into broken water despite the relative calm of the surrounding area. So it is unwise to fish from a small boat unless the weather is good. Always tell someone on shore your destination and schedule.