Fishing from shallow shingle, sand and mud beaches

Predicting the whereabouts of fish on the sea bed is similar to looking for rabbits and foxes on dry land. Some species of marine animals, such as crabs, shrimps and small fish (the rabbits), tend to live close to shelter and food. Predatory species (the foxes) may travel long distances during a tide, foraging for food.

Just as there are large areas of dry land that probably never see a rabbit or a fox, so there are expanses of the sea bed almost barren of fish. You wouldn’t hunt rabbits in a concreted car park!

Once you accept that casting blind into the open sea could well leave your bait where the fishes ain’t, fish finding is easier to understand. With many shorelines, the likely features are quite obvious.

The rocks and kelp of Atlantic cliffs, for example, are clearly among the best places for predators to hunt – and for you to fish for them. On the shallow mud, sand and shingle beaches that are so common around British coasts, the clues are often much more subtle. But they are there if you know what you’re looking for.

Small, but attractive

In shallow areas where the tide retreats quite a long way, a low water foray can reveal a lot to the thoughtful angler. From a m • a few centimetres deeper than the sand around – can be highly productive. The fish often use these depressions as paths from one feeding ground to another.

Many such channels come into their own at the beginning and end of the tide. Even a gutway only slightly more than ankle deep can hold enough water for the fish when other areas are too shallow.

As the tide floods, the fish often move into the gutways before moving on to the shallower areas. Similarly they drop back into them on the last of the ebb. At these times even quite an insignificant-looking gutway can be packed with fish. Breakwaters and outfalls running out to sea help concentrate prey and predators. Some species of fish tend to swim parallel to the shore – sometimes as close as the gutter at the bottom of the beach. When their path is blocked by a breakwater or outfall, they are forced to turn seaward and swim round the structure if they want to keep looking for food.

Fish moving along the shore are searching for food, so a bait placed in their path along a breakwater often scores. Aim to put your bait at the very end of the structure. The tide frequently scours a depression there, forming an area of shelter and hence distance the sea bed may appear uniform and fiat – but this is misleading.

Close up, there’s a lot of information if you look at it from a fish’s point of view. A couple of small rocks or half a car tyre may appear uninteresting to the casual stroller. But to a small crab or shrimp they are an area of shelter – and it is these prey animals that the bigger fish travel to find. The subtle signposts are there – even if you have to look quite hard to find them. Apart from small objects and debris on the sea bed there are other seemingly unimportant features to note. For instance, a shallow depression in the sand or mud, perhaps where a boat has been lying, attracts the fish when the tide rolls in.

These depressions are often softer than the surrounding sea bed. Small creatures take sanctuary in the soft mud – so again they’re a beacon to feeding fish. Featureless hotspots are also something to watch for – no matter how hard that sounds! There are often places which regularly outfish the surrounding areas for no readily apparent reason.

Even close inspection at low tide reveals no clue. Perhaps these are simply on the travelling route between regular feeding areas. Whatever the reason – you’ll only find these places by remembering where you’ve caught fish before and talking to other anglers.

The big ones

Not all the features on these run-of-the-mill beaches are hard to spot. Many fish-holding zones are very difficult to miss. Mussel or bait beds always attract fish. Where bait diggers have turned over part of a worm bed you can have some cracking sport. Indeed, some anglers actually dig over an area of the sea bed in front of their chosen position to increase their chances of fish.

A gutway or gulley in the sand is another classic fish-holding hotspot. The gutway doesn’t need to be deep to be favoured by the fish. Some tiny depressions a natural restaurant for the fish.

Putting your bait at the end ensures you have the best chance at any fish which are going round the breakwater. It’s also waiting for any fish which have come straight to the depression to feed.

More difficulties

In some areas the tide doesn’t roll back very far even on shallow beaches. It’s a lot harder to build up a comprehensive picture of these venues. It can take years to find all the hotspots but clues on dry land can give you a head start.

The steepest part of the beach often drops to the deepest water. An area of rocks above the tide line may well be part of a ridge which continues under water, providing food and shelter to all kinds of marine life. Tide rips, streams running down the beach and any kind of man-made feature are definitely worth investigating.

Even with no obvious features the results of matches always give you some help. If you keep a note of the more successful areas, a picture soon emerges. Roving matches can be particularly informative. The top local anglers know most of the hotspots and usually head for them. If you get to the beach several hours before the match starts you’ll find that some areas have more than their fair share of anglers already staking a claim. Make a careful note of these places!

The less obvious the features, the more time and effort you have to put in to unlock the secrets of the beach. But it’s worth it because it puts you in line for the most satisfying experience in fishing – catching when all others around you are blanking… and knowing why!