Sea docks – the shady domain of private eyes, press gangs, contraband cargo, cranes and wharves. This is a bit of an old-fashioned image of docklands – which nowadays have gone more up-market. You still get all the hustle and bustle of trade and sea traffic and a lively marina scene, but they are well worth investigating – not for the dodgy dealings or even the water-sports but for the varied sea fishing.
Docks are man-made environments and may seem unlikely angling spots. But marine animals and plants thrive in these artificial havens – miniature versions of the natural sea world. Food is plentiful and many species of fish are attracted to the rich pickings on offer. Another bonus for fishing is the stability of docks. Because they are enclosed areas, the sea bed and water are protected from the excesses of wind and tidal surges that wreak havoc on exposed fishing marks.
A key feature of the sea dock is a deep channel along which shipping travels. It’s not just a shipping route to and from the open sea, but a highway for all kinds of fish.
The channel is a thoroughfare for species like cod and whiting, which come and go as part of their annual migratory cycle. An angler’s success rate with these two species on many sea docks (the Harwich complex in Essex, for example) may exceed that expected of nearby coastal beaches and offshore marks.
In their season too, bass, thornback rays and flatfish move up and down this deep underwater highway. Depending on location and season, tope, monkfish, turbot, dogfish — almost every species on the sea angler’s list – may be found within or very close to a dock channel.
Many of the more common fish stray from the channel during the night or if prompted by tides and food availability. Sometimes they swim within easy casting range of the wharves and jetties. Bass and other species show a strong liking for open, shallower ground alongside the channels.
Deep water, big ships, dock walls and other man-made structures combined with a plentiful supply of pouting and other little fish that feed on both natural food and garbage — to the experienced angler this recipe reeks of conger eel. Haunting the rough ground at the base of jetties and walls, these dock eels do very well for themselves, scavenging or hunting as the opportunity presents itself.
Not only do they grow big but, contrary to common belief, they are happy to live in relatively shallow areas as well. Even when less than a metre (3ft) of water covers a dock bed at low tide, down below may lurk a conger big enough to interest the fussiest of specimen hunters. Bear in mind too that should you locate conger, chances are you’ll also find coalfish or pollack.
The docks attract shoals of surface-cruising mullet – a challenge for the most serious and dedicated of specialists. They generally dislike taking a bait and when they’re feeding on plankton, catch rates plummet to zero. But once established within the rich and putrid soup of a dock environment, mullet often switch to browsing on garbage and fish offal. Even bread and scraps thrown overboard, or dumped from cafes and dockside offices and workshops, are on the mullet menu.
Fish processing plants and other industrial units that pump edible effluent into the dock waters encourage mullet and other species to feed around outlet pipes. Here you stand a much better chance of persuading them to take a bait.
On the Atlantic side of the country in particular, deep water docks are home to mackerel and garfish – the highly active surface and mid-water sporting lightweights. They provide countless hours of fun on spinner, lure and float, and are a natural target for the holidaymaker.
Many docks contain features you might expect from marks farther out. They are all potential fish attractors and certainly worth a crack. Inshore sandbanks, gullies, mudflats, wrecks and small reefs all provide shelter and food for a vast range of small fish and bottom dwellers such as crabs, worms and shellfish – a veritable feast no self-respecting predator can ignore.
Power station and industrial cooling systems are another dockside feature that you shouldn’t disregard. The mesh filters attached to inlets trap all manner of little fish, and you can bet a bass will be prowling nearby ready to grab an easy meal.
Whitebait and brit, being very small fish, may pass through the system to be ejected through the outlet pipe as tempting scraps of fresh meat. Mackerel and garfish join bass and mullet for a free lunch and down on the sea bed, flounders, rays and silver eels are all keen for their share. You can fish these areas with confidence at almost any time of year.
Many commercial docks are gearing up for leisure activities as more power boats and yachts moor up in the marinas. The converted old quayside warehouses and wharves now house shops, offices and places of entertainment.
None of this activity deters fish. In fact the species of fish and their basic habits and preferences change little in up-market docks. The deep water is home to cod. Bass creep into the shallows at night, mullet cruise and browse, while flounders root along the bottom.
Food and shelter are potentially more abundant in a marina complex than around a dirty oil tanker or container vessel. Cleaner waters encourage luxuriant weed growth, in turn boosting the crab and tiddler population. Less pollution on the sands and mudflats sets the scene for thriving worm and shellfish beds.
It’s all good news for sea fishing. Existing docks, for all their environmental problems, industrial pollution and general muck and grime, have always drawn in a variety of fish from the open sea — an abundance too often overlooked by Britain’s sea anglers. But now fishing opportunities are increasing as sport takes an upward turn in once run-down docks. You can find good fishing in the well-kept waters of developed docks and marinas – and the shops are not too far away if you need to fill up your flask with hot tea on a cold morning!