Fishing Rocky reefs and banks: deep-water enigmas

What you can find

Deep-water reefs and their surrounding banks of shingle and sand often hold some very big specimens of many species.

The reefs described here are not rock pinnacles towering up from the sea bed, but ridges of rock in deep water (over 75m/250ft), surrounded by shingle and sandbanks which are constantly being changed by tidal action.

In shallow waters turbulence at the surface during strong tidal runs reveals reefs jutting up from the sea, but in deep water such tell-tale signs are not as easy to locate. Charter skippers need detailed Admiralty charts to find productive reefs and expert navigational skills and echo-sounders to keep the boat directly over them.

Deep-water banks and reefs are more common than you might think – you can find them all around the British Isles. But the best variety of fish comes from the Channel and off the west coast of Britain.

Often the reefs lie many miles out to sea, so a typical journey may take a few hours just to get there: these venues are not for the amateur angler with a small boat.

Pollack Along the top end of the rocky reef, you can find big pollack. These are not the usual 4-5 lb (1.8-2.3kg) shallow reef fish, but heavy set, double-figure beauties with little of the yellow and gold colours of their smaller kin. Deep-water pollack are dark — almost black – with flashes of red and cream on the belly and gill covers.

Pollack have large eyes to make full use of any available light. Like most deep-water fish, their main source of prey detection is the lateral line.

Pollack mainly eat pouting, whiting, small codling and even herring. Only during very slack water, when the tide isn’t running, do the biggest specimens position themselves high up in the water to feed. When the tide is running fast they seek shelter behind rocks which break the force of the flow. But often they ambush prey as it is swept past.

Ling Slim, long-bodied ling also have large eyes, but they live at the very base of the rock – where it meets the shingle. You can find ling living in dense shoals of similar-sized fish.

Cod are important residents of deep-water bank and reef. And not 10 lb (4.5kg) fish, but the real heavyweights of 18 lb (8.2kg) or more. Many 30 lb (13.7kg) fish are taken over this type of ground.

These big cod, content to work along the edges of the shingle on the downtide side, generally avoid rocky outcrops. They move off the base of the shingle, taking all types of small baitfish that they come across, including herring, a particularly common baitfish at this depth.

These three species – pollack, ling and cod – dominate deep-water reefs and banks throughout the year. Conger are present but hard to catch because of the need to fish on the drift. Anchoring is usually impossible because of the great depth and strong tides.

Pirks are ideal, both for cod (which stay hard along the bottom), and pollack (which are higher up on the reef). Single fish baits with weights up to 2 lb (0.9kg) or more are less reliable at this depth. Tidal runs are very strong over this ground and at this depth. Trips have to coincide with the smaller neap tides when the run is weaker.

Clean, sandy banks

Rays and skates On the crown of the banks you can sometimes find blonde ray. They too may lie buried, waiting to hit passing pout and whiting. You can, on occasion, even encounter tope.

Another of the sand dwellers is the massive common skate. Capable of weighing over 200 lb (90kg), skate prefer to live near scallop beds which are usually located on the sandbanks.

A series of clean undulating sandy banks supports many other species of fish – the quality and size just as good. Turbot and brill Anglers have caught some of the biggest turbot on record from sandbanks. Turbot like to live on the edge of a definite tidal run. They lie buried in the sand with just their eyes showing, hiding in the gutters that run along the lower edges of the banks or at the end of the banks where the tidal run eases. They pounce on sandeels, pouting or whiting which may pass by. You can also find brill in similar areas.

Common skate lie just off the main tidal run, favouring shallow gutters and hollows. They feed on small baitfish but can easily take whole fish which are well into double figures.

When drift fishing, make sure you have enough lead to touch the bottom. Use a long trace of 3.2m (12ft) or more, and whole fish fillet or flapper baits which attract turbot, brill and rays.

Proper clothing

To undertake a trip so far offshore, you need settled weather, but remember it can be very cold at sea — even in mid summer.

A set of good waterproof clothing is an absolute necessity — not only to keep you dry but also to help you retain as much of your body heat as possible. Many anglers now prefer a one-piece flotation suit: these are very warm and have the added safety factor built in. Wear a hat, and always remember to take enough food and two flasks of hot drinks for each person.

Suitable tackle

For reef fishing, use sturdy rods to handle the big fish and the heavy weights which you need to reach and remain on the sea bed. A 30 lb (13.6kg) class outfit, matched with a multiplier reel holding 300-350m (330-380yd) of 30 lb (13.6kg) wire or mono line, is suitable for general deep-water fishing and provides you with good sport when you do hook into a fish.

Nevertheless, a 50 lb (23kg) outfit is more practical, especially when the tide is strong. Even when targeting skate, you can use a 50 lb (23kg) class outfit.