All round the coast of Britain the story was the same; cod just hadn’t come inshore in anything approaching the numbers seen in previous years. Whatever the explanation, it meant that Mick Chapman and Tim Fagg were going to have to be very lucky to fulfill their promise of a codling or two.
Still, they couldn’t have picked a better venue in the South-East. Dover’s Southern Breakwater, known as the concrete boat by those that fish it regularly, is one of the most consistent shore marks there is. In a year when most shore anglers didn’t see any cod, it still managed to produce no less than 54 of them on its best day in December 1990. That was long past now, and it was late January’s wind and rain that swept across the harbour.
Mick and Tim fish for Folkestone Tackle in league matches. They also fish all the Kent and Sussex Opens. Match angling is a serious business and they spend about nine hours bait digging before every match. In 1990 Tim won the World Rock Championships with Mick fifth. They’ve won many big Opens between them – the result of hard work and dedication. In winter the species you can catch include cod, whiting, pout, plaice, dabs and flounders. In summer there are often bass, conger, scad, garfish, eels, mullet, mackerel, plaice, dabs, pout, smooth hounds and dogfish Mick brings in a small pouting from the outside of the breakwater. These small fish are so greedy they can swallow all but the largest of cod baits. Tim unhooks a dab which fell for the charms of yellowtail lug tipped with white ragworm. He was using a Pennell rig on the outside, hoping for a cod. Big baits like this create a great scent trail to attract the fish from a distance. Is this the big cod Tim and Mick were hoping for, or is it a snag? As it turns out, it’s a snag. There are many of these which have attracted anglers’ lines over the years. Each new break off makes a snag snaggier and easier to find with your own tackle. Match anglers always come prepared with plenty of bait. You’re won’t catch very much unless you can attract fish to your hook and tempt them to feed. With a soft bait like it’s often best to tie it on the nook with elastic or cotton. Use the very thinnest you can find for a most attractive bait.
You need to replace your baits before they become washed out or are taken by crabs, while still giving fish the maximum time to get at the bait. With three hooks and plenty of fish -leave your rig long enough to hook three fish. Experiment to find the optimum length of time.
A whiting of over a pound (0.45kg) raised hopes of a cod as it picked up the bait from the outside of the breakwater wall. Still, it’s better than more pouting. The Breakwater usually sees three cod runs a year. October has the main one with another in January. Codling move in during February while the bigger fish are offshore.
You can also fish from the Prince of Wales and Admiralty Piers.
Not a bad bag of fish for the table accumulated by Mick and Tim. Many pounds of smaller fish were returned, though they were large enough to have counted in a match. It’s quite unusual to catch pouting of this size from inshore marks in January. Most of them have moved offshore to feed over wrecks and reefs and to spawn in the deeper water. Mick watches his rod tip as something bites. A cod would probably pull the wired lead free, get swept round and so be harder to land against the tide -unless Mick’s fast enough.
The only access to the breakwater is by boat, and you’ve got to pay the ferryman (on top of the ticket you need to fish the breakwater). The boat drops anglers at the western end of this man-made shelter, which is half a mile from where Mick and Tim want to fish. This makes for a bit of a trek, especially when you’re carrying loads of bait and gear. Being match anglers, they’ve got enough variety of bait to catch almost anything that swims.
For cod fishing at this venue, you need a mid-day high tide. This allows you to fish both the flood and slack water, which are the times when you’re most likely to catch. So, by the time the baits are cast seaward, the tide is beginning to pick up speed.
You can fish both outside and inside the harbour, but since cod are far more likely to come from the outside, that’s where both Tim and Mick make their first casts. With the speed of the tidal flow, a 7oz (200g) long nose fixed-grip lead is essential to hold bottom, but you don’t need to cast it very far. They gently lob their baits out about 60m (66yd) – the water’s so deep off the wall that there’s no need to cast farther.
The water’s going through at quite a rate now, and Tim reckons it’s time to give the inside a go. The tide is much less fierce on the inside – obviously, that’s what the breakwater is there for — and you can get away with a 150g breakaway lead.
You do need some sort of wired lead though, as one young angler eloquently demonstrates by sending his line and plain lead shooting round every cast to tangle with Mick and Tim’s gear. They step over to put him right. Surprisingly, this brief course of instruction doesn’t begin with a demonstration of the speed of the tide from a watery point of view (that is, with the throwing of the lad into the harbour). And indeed, our young fisherman seems quite pleased to have picked up a tip.
In addition to holding the bait still so the fish can get to it, wire grips on a lead serve another purpose, as Mick explains. ‘They’re stuck to the bottom, so they act like bolt rigs, and the fish just hook themselves…’ ‘That wasn’t Mick’s idea,’ says Tim, ‘He couldn’t have thought up something like that for himself.’
Mick laughs and continues, ‘For big fish fixed-grip leads are much better’ than breakaways. If a cod picks up your bait, you’re much less likely to get a slack line bite with fixed wires because they can’t get the lead off the bottom so easily. And the easiest bite to miss is a slack liner.’
For the rods on the inside, Mick and Tim are using standard match tactics, namely a three hook paternoster which gives a great scent trail, and allows you to pull in three fish at a time.
A bite, a bite, my kingdom for a… and there it is – rattle, rattle on Tim’s rod tip. He waits (‘give ‘em enough time and they’ll hook themselves’) and in come the first fish of the day. The bottom two hooks of the three hook paternoster, both with yellowtail lug tipped with white rag (low husky advertising voice – ‘Probably the best bait in the world.’ -Mick) bring in a dab and a rockling. Perhaps not the greatest fish anyone’s ever caught, but it’s a start.
Twenty minutes go by, nothing happens. Then there it is – the rod tip rattle that means the fish are playing our tune again. It’s Mick’s turn to pick up his rod, and bring in a 4oz (110g) pouting, this time taken on white rag tipped with peeler (‘Probably the second best bait…’ and so on, and so on.)
They came at last, and more and more and more. Rockling by the paternoster load; dabs, too, some of them big enough to eat, and pouting as well. The feeling is that while this is a very encouraging start, it’s about time the big hooks on the outside received some attention.
Both Mick and Tim are still fishing one rod on the outside, with a 1.2m (4ft) flowing trace to make the bait move attractively in the tide. Tim started with a Pennell rig while Mick has been using a wishbone. The Pennell gives better hooking than other rigs when using big baits, with most fish being taken on the top hook. The wishbone rig allows you to fish two baits close together. This gives the scent trail of a big bait to attract a big fish, while also allowing you to take a small fish on each of the two hooks if there are only small fish about.
Finally yellowtail lug and white rag produces the first bite of the day from the outside, but as soon as Tim leans into it he realizes that this is not the fish he wants. Up to the top and guess what? It’s another dab. It’s a wonder it can keep up in all that tide. He’s a dab hand that Tim – and he’s had all the flatties so far. ‘He can keep them,’ says Mick as his lead on the outside pulls free and swings round in the tide. He retrieves, and it’s another fish from the outside, a bit bigger too. Despite it being the biggest fish of the day so far, Mick isn’t that impressed with the idea of posing with a pouting pushing the pound (0.45kg). ‘Pout this big are usually offshore by now,’ he says, ‘annoying the wreck anglers. My mates’ll laugh when they see this,’ he continues, as the picture is taken and the fish is recorded for posterity as ‘Mick’s pouting’. ‘I dunno. It’s the best fish I can remember seeing you with,’ remarks Tim.
The inside is still producing a stream of dabs and rockling with the odd pouting just to make it all worth while, but it’s gone quiet on the outside and then… Wham! Mick’s lead pulls out as something takes -the first codling of the day – all 2oz (57g) of it. ‘Right species, wrong size,’ says Mick, as he puts it back to grow up.
The tide rip is now so fast that holding bottom, even with long nose fixed-wire leads, is beyond realistic hope. They decide to abandon the outside until things slow up. After all, there are still fish to be caught on the inside and codling do sometimes come into the harbour.
The big baits go back over the outside wall, but the bites are still coming from the inside. Tim pulls in a flounder – it had clearly got lost – most flounders are caught at the other end of the breakwater.
Fifteen minutes pass and the tide is as slack as it gets. ‘If there’s going to be a codling, it’s going to be now.’
Almost on cue, there’s a cod bite from Tim’s rod on the outside, but it’s another one of those tiny fish. ‘It’s a good sign for the future – next year it’ll be a codling of 1 1/2 lb (0.7kg).’ Shame about this year, though.
Two minutes later, the act is repeated on Mick’s rod, but this time the mini-fish is a bass of 3oz (85g). Mick unhooks it and puts it back quickly. After all, there are few enough bass as it is. Throughout all this juvenile action, the bites have not stopped from the inside, and while Mick is dealing with his bass, Tim gets a real rod-rattling bite. ‘That’s a flounder,’ he says, and he turns out to be right to the tune of a nice 3Alb (340g).
A minute later, Mick has a similar bite and after a short wait, he’s into a flounder of 1 12 lb (0.7kg). ‘Oh, I see,’ says a slightly disgruntled Tim, ‘every time I get a fish, you get a bigger one. Well, if that’s the way you want it…’ He lets the threat hang in the air, and then goes to pull in another brace of small pouting and a dab.
A big red edible crab holding on to Tim’s bait comes from the inside, followed a couple of seconds later by the waves coming crashing over the outside wall. If you’re not careful, it can be a cold, wet wait for 3.15pm when the ferry comes to pick you up.
Two charter boats return to harbour, which is not a good sign for the fishing, this early in the day. ‘It is quite lumpy out there, so maybe someone just got seasick,’ says Tim, being philosophical about the chances. He goes on. ‘We should have had a codling by now though.’ ‘Still,’ puts in Mick, ‘I wouldn’t have expected to catch nearly so many fish this time of year.’ Always look on the bright side of life.
Mick catches the tastiest food fish of the day – a 6oz (170g) whiting from the outside. This is swiftly followed by one of lVilb (0.6kg) to Tim, and so he gets revenge for the pouting and the flounder. A few minutes later, a third tiny codling takes a lug/crab cocktail – so it really is looking good for the next few years.
The tide shuttles back and forth, an eddy effect caused by the harbour, and for the next two hours fish continue to come from the inside while the outside is ominously quiet. They try casting farther – about 200m (220yd) – but if anything that brings even less success. There are no more rock-ling and most of the fish taken are small pout and dabs.
Waiting for the ferry the other anglers on the breakwater discuss the day. It seems the only other fish caught were a rockling and a flounder. On hearing this, about 15lb (6.8kg) of sizeable fish (fish over the size limit, and therefore big enough to be weighed in at a match) with some big enough to eat, doesn’t seem so bad. Most of us want to catch any fish that are around, and by imitating the matchmen – putting a good bait where the fish are feeding for as long as possible – we won’t go far wrong.