Chris assembled his fishing gear, locked the car and began the arduous walk along the shifting shingle to the Dragon’s Teeth, a series of defence bunkers once used by British soldiers in World War II. The Teeth, located half a mile east of Abbotsbury Beach car park, now serve to mark one of the best fishing spots on Chesil Beach.
As October moves quietly into sombre November, cod and whiting anglers, wrapped in warm winter clothing, prepare for big, inshore fish. On this late November afternoon the weather is mild, the sun unusually bright and the sea placid – which means that the quarry will be a long way out.
• By car From Dorchester follow the A354 south to Weymouth; then take the B1357 northwest (toward Bridport) and pass through Abbotsbury. Look for the signs to Chesil Beach as you leave the village.
Note Part of Chesil Beach is a nature reserve. From May 1 -August 31, walking and fishing is prohibited along The Fleet. From September-April you must keep to the open sea side of the beach. A spring tide in winter just after dark on a Friday or Saturday attracts anglers from all over the country to Chesil Beach.
Chris recommends that you do not ‘pump’ the rod when reeling in a fish or the bait. Keep the rod at about a 45° angle and wind in at a steady rate. This is another variation of the three-snood, clipped-up rig. Bringing an assortment of baits – blow lug, mackerel, squid, ragworm and peelers (in the bucket) – is the mark of an experienced angler. Chris winds the snood line around the top hook to secure it. He doesn’t mask the hook points Too many anglers strike too soon, missing the fish. With breakaway leads most of the fish hook themselves.
There’s always an optimistic grin on Chris’s face – even during a relentless night of catching bait-stealing poor cod and pouting. Chris attaches two spare rigs to his rod stand. He then prebaits all the hooks ‘cocktail style’ and places them in the bait clips. This way he wastes no time in rebaiting. Chris gets into the surf, moves behind a whiting and lifts it to the beach. At night you have to use extra caution when landing fish, for the currents are strong.
Chris stakes his large umbrella into the shingle and then kicks stones over the nylon flaps to secure it. Quickly and carefully he arranges the lugworms, red rag-worms, peeler crabs, mackerel and squid and sets up two multiplier reels – filled with 14lb (6.4kg) line and 50lb (23kg) shock leader – and two beachcasting rods. Attaching a lead to his shock leader, he begins casting about 35-55m (40-60yd) into the sea. ‘The sea water,’ he says, ‘works as a lubricant, reducing line friction and abrasion when casting at full power. Casting also helps you warm up.’
Chris then attaches two of his homemade traces. He doesn’t like the crimped ones because they weaken the line; he’s seen them snap off on many occasions.
Before threading the lugworms on the hook, Chris dashes them on the shingle.
Though many people laugh at this, he believes it releases juices much quicker than simply hooking the worm. The more scent released, the quicker the fish locate the worm.
On the first rig, he starts off using a three snood, clipped-up trace with ragworm on the first hook, blow lug tipped with squid on the second hook and just blow lug on the third. He’ll try different combinations of bait until he finds one that is successful. All three hooks are size 2.
On the second rod, Chris uses another three snood, clipped-up rig with slightly larger baits and size 1 hooks. Bait should match the hook size, he says. Don’t put a whole squid on a size 2 hook, for example. Cut the squid into strips.
Chris baits up extra traces – one for each rod – and clips them to his rod stand. ‘Every minute the bait is out of the water is wasted time.’
The spring tide, the highest of the month, is the best time to fish Chesil Beach. Cod, whiting and flatties come close inshore when the water is murky. When the wind is blowing straight in off the sea, the fish may swim inshore during the day, for the water often turns dark and cloudy -offering shelter. When it’s clear, however, they stay a long way out.
Though Chris isn’t a casting fanatic, in times like these one needs to be able to cast 135m (150yd). A cast of only 45m (50yd) often results in a long, boring afternoon.
Chris picks up his first rod and reels in to find that the crabs have quickly and effectively demolished his baits. In seconds he attaches the prebaited rig and casts out about 135m (150yd). Once the bait hits the water, Chris allows line to be taken out – so that the bait sinks vertically. Too many anglers stop the line immediately after it hits the water, and the bait arcs towards the shore, losing precious distance.
He also keeps the line tension tight between the rod tip and the trace when the lead is secure on the sea bed, so the line won’t get buried in the shingle and begin to fray.
Chris reckons you should reel in every ten minutes when crabs are on the prowl. He retrieves his second trace to find a hermit crab zealously clutching the lugworm. ‘I’ll use him for bait later on,’ he says as he rebaits and then begins the pendulum cast.
A good point to remember is never to stand on the right of a right-handed pendulum caster, for the lead is travelling at 150 mph in the first 45m (50yd). If it comes off the line and hits you on the head, it could ruin your chances of landing that double-figure cod!
As the daylight fades into twilight, dark charcoal-coloured clouds appear framed on the horizon. Chris puts on his miner’s helmet – a very handy light. He strongly recommends using one for night fishing -wherever your head goes, the light goes with it. The light can also free your hands, saving time.
He reels in two small whiting on the first rig. The second produced similar results: a poor cod and a pouting. In most cases, when the smaller fish start biting it is a good sign that the larger ones are nearby. His optimism is undiminished.
Poor cod, whiting and pouting keep coming every ten minutes. The way these smaller fish greedily devour the bait is a costly nuisance. As he retrieves the first trace – to discover another small pouting – the tip on the second rod moves slightly and springs back to its original position. It happens again and Chris lifts the rod and strikes positively. A large 43cm (17in) whiting – caught on ragworm tipped with squid – is the result. ‘Too many fish are lost by people striking too quickly. When using breakaway sinkers many of the smaller fish hook themselves. Let the fish take the bait (give it about 10 seconds) then set the hook firmly, but not too hard,’ Chris advises.
Chris walks down to the surf, reeling in and keeping tension on the line. ‘Get right down to the water, and as the fish comes to
Whenever there’s any action, inquisitive anglers flock to the scene, asking about the bait and how far out Chris was fishing. In this session, success was proportionate to casting ability.
It’s high tide, so Chris switches to a two snood, clipped-up rig (size 1/0 hooks), hoping the big fish are nearby. He plunges the squid strips, tipped with lugworm, seaward into the dark sky. The wind has changed from a serene northern breeze to a gusty northwesterly, making casting a problem. Now that it’s dark the problem for most anglers is compounded.
Anglers often cross lines when night fishing, resulting in some nasty tangles. Chris suggests that one way to avoid this is to practise until you can cast without looking. ‘I actually taught myself to cast; I blindfolded myself and went out into a field. I kept casting till I got it right.’
Since it’s dark, Chris expects the bigger fish to move inshore, again showing that never-say-die attitude that too many shore anglers seem to lack. As he places the second rod in the rest, he sees the first rod tip twitch. He reels in on the first rig to find two small pouting. The other rod yields a poor cod. shore, try to get behind it and grab it under the gills if it’s a large fish,’ he says. ‘Don’t pump the rod when winding in; reel smoothly, keeping the rod at a 45° angle.’
The tide is ebbing, but the whiting and pouting keep coming at an unbelievable -and infuriating – rate. Chris uses squid tipped with lugworm and mackerel in a last-minute effort to tempt a hefty cod -that spark of optimism is not yet snuffed out. The beach, once packed, is now empty and forsaken. The two parties of anglers next to Chris packed up long ago – they were unwilling to endure the plague of small, bait-stealing fish in the hope of a brace of cod and whiting.
The tide continues to retreat and is now about 13m (15yd) from where Chris began. The small poor cod and pouting aren’t coming in as regularly. They’ve packed up and moved out to deep water.
The winter wind bites into the shore. Never once dismayed or disillusioned, Chris decides to pack up and head for home.