Harbours and piers

There are quite a number of seaward-projecting structures, providing an attractive habitat for a wide variety of sea species. Fish drawn to the security and food stocks of deep-water wrecks, rocks and reefs are also attracted to the underwater.

Summer harbours and piers bristle with rods, but when their walls and platforms are icy and stormswept, the fish are still close by, picking a living from the brickwork or supports Fishing from jetties, harbour walls, piers and groynes into deep water has almost all the benefits of boat angling without that dreaded scourge of many an angler afloat-seasickness! Around Britain’s varied coastline structures of piers, jetties, harbour walls and groynes,especially those in a good depth of water at all states of the tide. These provide abundant marine life in a natural state without suffering a drying-out process twice a day as the tide recedes.

The classic example is the mile long breakwater which guards Plymouth Sound. Two-and-a-half miles out from the harbour and built of granite and limestone, it has become one of the most famous places for the shore angler. It is completely surrounded by deep water, and many species are attracted to the very rough ground. Man has contributed to this by constantly dropping 100-ton blocks of concrete to act as wave barriers. Grey mullet abound in this unique environment, and a bag may contain as many as a dozen fish of 3-4lb.

The rock-strewn sides of the structure covered by a thick mantle of kelp is ideal territory for conger, and many fish weighing in excess of 50lb are holed up in the crannies. Being so far out from the shore, the breakwater can only be fished in good weather and not during spring tides, when the water sweeps right across the stone-work if the wind is blowing from the southern quarter.

Arrangements for boat transportation must be made in advance at the Plymouth Sea Angling Centre on the Barbican, the nearest setting off point. Such an expedition lasts all day and must be planned with care. Adequate warm wet-weather clothing, together with a sufficient supply of food and drink for the day must be taken. There is no way off until the boat comes for you.


Seaside piers have long been the favourite fishing stations for elderly, comfort-loving sea anglers, small boys and beginners who initially require the moral support and companionship of other fishermen as they make their first unsure casts.

One great advantage for young anglers fishing from above-water structures is that they can learn to operate their tackle by lowering it rather than casting. This eliminates the ‘crack-offs’ and tangles associated with multiplier reels.

The tackle should be powerful enough to cope with the conditions—such as the strength and height of the tide—as well as being strong enough to land the fish when caught. When float fishing for bass, for example, on the lower deck of a pier, it would be inadvisable to fish with ‘open-water’ tackle—a light spinning rod, a fixed-spool reel and 5 or 6lb line. The first good bass hooked would immediately dive for cover among the old barnacle-covered iron girders and smash such tackle. For such a snaggy angling condition, a stout beachcasting rod, a powerful multiplier or centrepin reel and 15 to 20lb b.s. Line is effective.

Where double figure cod weights are expected and a long haul-up has to be made, because the powerful rush of the tide makes dropnetting impractical, a stout pier rod about 9 or 10ft in length or a heavy duty beachcaster is needed, together with a powerful reel and strong line of 25 to 35lb b.s. Such tackle may appear to be on the pulley-hauling side, but it must always be remembered that with difficult shore fishing the strength of the tackle must be geared to overcome hazardous fishing conditions, rather than just the struggle of the fish itself.

Some seaward-projecting structures, however, present the gentlest of tides and sandy-bottomed fishing positions, necessitating the use of the very lightest of tackle—almost that used by the coarse fishing matchman. This is particularly true when fishing for harbour mullet which require a very subtle, silent coarse fishing approach.

A great deal of successful pier or harbour wall fishing can be done with the simplest of inexpensive tackle and a few fundamental terminal rigs. Provided the angler, who need not necessarily be highly skilled, studies the fishing conditions carefully, and presents the right bait when the fish are in a feeding mood (which could be at a certain state of the tide or during the hours of darkness—or both) good fishing can be counted upon.

Long casting from piers is seldom necessary or absolutely vital to the making of good catches. Usually fish will be found lurking in search of food around the underwater structure, right below the angler’s fishing stance. A standard length ‘pier rod’, about 8-10ft long, will prove adequate when used in conjunction with a multiplier, a fixed-spool or a sea size centrepin reel. Short boat rods can also be used for pier and harbour wall fishing where the ‘haul-up’ is more or less perpendicular and there are no obstacles. If masses of rocks surround the fishing station and projections of various kinds present a definite hazard to the landing of a hooked fish, a longer rod will be of great assistance. This will enable the | angler to steer his catch clear of the snags and haul it up, either directly with his tackle, or land it by means of a drop-net operated by a neighbouring angler on the pier.

Match tackle with species

Line strength and hook sizes need to be matched to the size and species of fish expected. When the fishing ground is not ‘tackle-hungry’, for example, the pattern and weight of the lead used will be dictated by the strength of the tidal flow and the nature of the bottom which is being fished over. For general pier and harbour wall fishing locations, where the usual catch may consist of the flatfish species—dabs, flounders and a possible plaice or two—small codling, whiting, wrasse, pollack, coalfish and the odd thornback ray and ‘strap’ conger eel, the main reel line could be fixed at a sensible 24lb b.s. And the rest of the terminal tackle scaled down in steps to minimize tackle losses. The reel line to lead link in such cases would con-sist of a length of 20lb b.s. And hook links or snoods of nylon 16lb b.s.

The favourite bottom fishing terminal rig for piers has always been the paternoster, where one or more wire booms are mounted above the lead. This method, if three booms are used with a hook dropper suspended from each, gives the angler a chance to experiment with different baits and the fish have a varied ‘menu’ to choose from. Hook sizes should always match the size of the bait being used so that it can be mounted correctly and neatly.

Baits and hook sizes

Where both large and small fish species are expected, the bait offerings and hook sizes can be varied so that a bottom-feeding flatfish can take a lugworm offered on a size 10 hook and a double figure cod can engulf a small dead sprat mounted on a size 60 hook higher up the terminal trace.

Winter fishing from piers, harbour walls, groynes and jetties may necessitate the use of stout rods and strong line to combat rough weather as well as the energies of the fish. In the warmer spring, summer and autumn months, however, a great deal of fine sport can be had by employing light, fine tackle and the appropriate techniques.

Coarse fishing ‘specimen hunting’ gear is admirably suited to the pursuit of large bass, which in summertime, especially at night, forage around piers and harbour walls. Likewise, light float fishing tackle will account for the ultra-shy mullet, garfish and mackerel which sport around at dusk and after dark in the vicinity of groynes and jetties, especially if quantities of waste food, vegetable matter or fish offal find their way into the water from fish quays or processing factories on the waterfront.

Outsize conger will happily live in shallow water, which makes the species as popular a quarry for the shore angler as it is for boat fishermen. Many harbour walls have a resident population which can be fished for after dark. The long stone breakwater at Brixham has the reputation of being Britain’s number one shore mark for this hard fighting species. Its reputation is justified, as eels scaling 60lb have been caught there, while 20-25 pounders are commonplace.

To avoid accidents and loss of life it is important that all shore anglers, particularly those fishing from angling stations above deep water, observe certain safety rules. Always observe strictly the rules of the pier or harbour wall as far as overhead casting, line strength and sinker weights are concerned. In rough weather, when waves are apt to break over the fishing station, leave the place well alone. On some piers, Tilley lamps and lanterns are banned because they constitute a navigational hazard when shone seawards.

Be careful when using a dropnet from piers or harbour walls with no guard rails and when climbing down perpendicular iron ladders or negotiating steep, weed-covered stone steps. 593

Surface indications

Navigation markers, offshore lighthouses, wreck buoys and beacons; birds wheeling and screaming—all these tell a story: a warning to the sailor, but an invitation to the angler The seabed is somewhat like the land, but hills are banks and valleys are channels. Around the inshore waters of the British Isles, Trinity House has marked these banks and channels with beacons, lightships and lighthouses for the benefit of large ships using the coastal waterways. But they are also helpful to the boat angler.

Navigation markers pinpoint banks that hold bass, rays and tur-bot. The edges of the channels can produce good bags of whiting, pouting and tope. But make sure you do keep to the edge for it is dangerous to moor a boat in a narrow, busy shipping lane. And keep a lookout at all times. Offshore lighthouses mark the reefs and pinnacles that provide excellent sport for conger, pollack and other reef-loving fish. Wreck buoys, used over sunken vessels in relatively shallow water, can guide the angler to cod, conger and pollack and, of course, pouting, which always frequent wrecks.

The tell-tale boil

To find the exact location of the wreck it is necessary to cruise the area slowly looking for the telltale boil. This disturbance on the surface of the water is caused by the tide sweeping over a vessel on the seabed, forcing part of the tidal stream to the surface. The actual wreck will be found uptide of this disturbance, the distance depending on the depth of the water.

Motor well uptide of the boil and lower a soft-iron grapple to the seabed tied onto a rope with a dan buoy at the other end. The boat should then be allowed to drift on the tide, dragging the grapple until it becomes entangled in the wreck.

Release the dan and sail uptide again before dropping the anchor, and paying out. The boat is then moored just a few yards uptide of the dan. This way, you will find that you are fishing the more productive tide side of the wreck.

Lobster pots and buoys

Even if your boat is equipped with an echo sounder, the surface boil must still be located—unless the boat is equipped with a Decca Navigator, which can detect a wreck. By watching the echo sounder as the boat steams uptide from the boil, the hull of the sunken vessel will show on the sounder. The grapple, with the dan attached, is released and the boat moored on the tide side of the wreck.

Surface boil is also evident where there are sandbanks lying in shallow water. When the tide is running fast, the water striking a wall of sand has to climb over it and is therefore deflected towards the surface. Such places are hotspots for turbot, brill, plaice and dabs. Care must be exercised when fishing from small boats, particularly when a stiff wind is blowing against the direction of the tide. Under these conditions, extremely rough water with large whirlpools can be expected.

Crabs and lobsterpots on the surface are worth investigating. If the water is deep, pots are strung together in a ‘shank’ or ‘trot’ and marked at each end with a dan sometimes bearing the registration r s number of the vessel owning them. Do not fish between the two dans and risk tangling in the pots below. In shallow water, pots are often set singly and marked only by small corks on the surface.

Although conventional trawling methods are not possible, rough ground is now extensively fished with monofilament gill nets, which are supported by large orange or red plastic buoys. This type of fishing has put an end to what were previously termed ‘santuary areas’, and is contributing much to the decline of species like the bass and pollack among others.

No one out for a day’s fishing wants to spend half his time trying to catch fresh bait. But mackerel can sometimes prove elusive. On the way to the fishing grounds, watch for birds screeching, wheeling and diving into the sea. When mackerel are chasing shoals of brit, fish are forced to the surface where seagulls, terns and sometimes gannets find them easy prey. The more birds there are, the bigger the shoal of mackerel, and anglers using feathers can catch an ample day’s supply of fresh bait in minutes. Sometimes bunches of guillemots are seen swimming on the surface. There may be no gulls overhead, but it is worth lowering feathers, for mackerel will invariably be present—generally deeper than if there were gulls. Seagulls and terns also betray feeding schools of bass which force such fish as whitebait and sandeel to flee frantically to the surface by their hot pursuit.

Schooling bass can be distinguished from shoaling mackerel by the behaviour of these birds. Mackerel usually move along with the current, following their prey, with the umbrella of sea birds in close contact with the shoal. Bass usually remain stationary, feeding from behind a reef or sandbank, waiting for their food to be brought on the current, and only rarely leaving the shelter of the bank in pursuit. The birds, too, remain stationary. The shoals of small fry are not swept over the bank in a continuous stream but in individual shoals, when the bass will sweep up from the depths, chasing fry to the surface and often breaking the surface themselves in pursuit. Once the shoal has passed, the bass return to near the seabed, awaiting the next shoal, and the seagulls, which were in a feeding frenzy, quieten down and sit on the surface. Shoals of sandeels also muster attendant sea birds over them. Gan-nets, which plummet into the sea like arrows, are often a good indication of the fish’s presence.

Sharks and sprats

When shark fishing, the first indication of a shark in the area is often the simultaneous flight of seagulls that have been sitting quietly in the rubby dubby stream lazily eating morsels that float to the surface. Anglers with floats out nearby can expect a run within minutes.

Shoals of sprats invariably have seagulls in attendance but these are not usually as excited as gulls working over bass or mackerel. (The pickings are not so easy.) If sprats are suspected—particularly in the winter months—there is a fair chance that there are cod and whiting beneath them. Always investigate flocks of sea birds feeding out at sea: it can prove productive unless you are unfortunate enough to discover that they are just sitting over a sewer outfall.

Quite often such a place, unpleasant though it might seem, is a highly productive fishing area as many species are drawn into the vicinity by what comes out of the pipe. The opaque white or grey cloud which spreads quite a distance from the actual outfall can be thought of as a ‘box of attraction’.

Large numbers of grey mullet will frequent this area. The sewer outfall at Sidmouth in East Devon and Town Head at Newquay in Cornwall are among the places renowned for this hard fighting species. Here multiple catches of fish between 3lb and 5lb are made frequently.