For the many species of fish that come close to our shores, a harbour is as convenient as a road-side snack bar.
Harbour waters offer sanctuary to many small forms of life that prefer not to face the strong tides and crashing swells of the open sea. But this doesn’t save them from the attentions of bigger fish.
Man-made fish food
The purpose of most harbours is to provide an anchorage for a variety of working boats such as trawlers, coasters, crabbers, charter boats and ferries. All these boats provide groundbait in one form or another. When the ferry squeezes out as the tide drops, its propellers churn up the mud and with it a million tiny ragworms and other invertebrates. Fry are whirled about in the confusion. While the ferry was moored up
As for the trammel netsmen – the easiest way to clear the crabs from the net’s filaments is with a large mallet on a block of wood. A quick shake does the rest. The potting boats dump edible trash too. Crabs, fish and gulls clear it up. None is wasted. On the quayside a family on holiday is throwing handfuls of bread to the swans -much to the delight of the gulls. As the swans dabble at the bread, large crumbs break free and slowly drift away under the little raft of dinghies bobbing at their moorings. Beneath them, a shoal of mullet mops up the morsels.
Natural food and shelter
The tide provides its own groundbait too. In most harbours there is a hydraulic effect which pushes animals and plants before it as it floods and then sucks them out again as it ebbs. In big harbours the effect is amplified.
Flounders are first on the scene and as the tide creeps in — the water fingering its way over the sands – you’ll find them in about 30cm (1ft) of water searching for invertebrates. Fish a worm bait on the bottom and you may catch plaice too. Small fry are pushed in by the tide and drawn out as it ebbs but behind them is a barrier – mackerel. Shoals of them also come in with the tide and they’re waiting in the harbour mouth, driving into the fry in flashing, splashing flurries. The fry are helpless – unable to push back into the current, while the mackerel arrow through the water, picking them off.
In the still of a summer evening other fish are in at the kill – coalfish, small pollack, horse mackerel, garfish and school bass -even the mullet pick off a few. This is when a wispy spinning rod (or even a fly rod) can be deadly. With either set-up a slim silver lure works best.
Prawns, shrimps and crabs are all keen to take their share of any bounty that is on offer. Most of these live in the harbour arm -a pile of rocks and cracked concrete that has withstood years of storms — but not without it showing.
The pier has a smart wall on top, but under water it stands on huge boulders, massive lumps of concrete and chunks of old masonry and steel. Over the years the pounding seas have enlarged even the smallest cavities to create a multitude of hiding places – making it a fine place for all kinds of creatures to live. Wrasse and mullet are often happy to feed along the inside edge of the wall but it is generally the outer edge that produces the action. Mackerel shoals, and many of the fish of the open sea, like conger eels and thornback rays, can be caught there at high water. However, many of them are deterred from feeding and disappear when the day is bright and busy.
Float fishing can yield surprises – particularly in autumn when all sorts of big fish are on the prowl. The float may dip and you’ll find yourself fast into a 7 lb (3.2kg) bass or an 8 lb (3.6kg) pollack – and what a run around they’ll give you on light tackle!
Carefully the angler negotiates the stone steps to where his friend stands, a stout gaff in his hand. As they switch on their helmet lights, the thick pole-like shape of an enormous conger is revealed. Suddenly the eel realises its mistake, the water erupts in spray and then boils as the eel dives for deep water.
The angler heaves back on his 50 lb (22.7kg) class boat rod and everything comes up hard. The drag yelps as line jolts off the spool and angler and conger pull for all they are worth. But this fish is not one of the 10-30 pounders (4.5-13.6kg) that live permanently under the harbour wall. Tonight the tackle is no match for this wanderer from some off-shore reef.
The eels backs towards the concrete and rocks, whipping its heavy body from side to side in wrenching jerks. As its tail slides around an anchorage, one final jolt catches the straining line against the sharp stub of a long-forgotten girder, and ping! For a few shocked moments the two anglers stare at the gently rolling waters, too amazed to speak.
A fine way of catching these fish is to trot a light float along the harbour wall using 8 lb (3.6kg) line and small, strong hooks baited with a strip of silver skin from a mackerel or garfish.
Thick-lipped grey mullet hang around most harbours during the warmer months. You can catch them on similar tackle but with more refined terminal gear. For best results concentrate on quiet corners and eddies away from the tide using fish or bread baits. Be prepared for a hard fight from this handsome sporting fish!
By night everything changes. Towards high water, as the last revellers leave the pub and the harbour falls silent, big, thickset bass slip past the flashing lighthouse, hunting any small fish that fail to notice the pack of cruising grey predators.
A nine pounder (4kg) finds a ripped off mackerel head lying on the bottom behind a trawler, and picks it up, confident of its prize. Instinct tells this wily veteran that this is no neatly cut angler’s bait. But the man tending the two little rods by the wall is no beginner either. He saw one of the rod tips dip purposefully – no quarrelling crab this but a real take. He takes up the rod, winds to the fish and firmly sets the hook. At the head of the pier the click alarm of an angler’s reel has been ticking slowly for almost a minute. It is not weed or the tide, for the rod tip twitches every now and again. Then the line falls slack – it’s a conger eel.
The angler reels up line as the eel swims purposefully towards some trawlers, the 2oz (57g) lead bumping along behind. He feels the fish and continues reeling without striking. The conger turns and follows.