Pursued all its life by countless inshore predators, the pout is held in contempt by many anglers and rarely fished for. Here we reappraise the life-style of this stocky little ‘survivor’ One of the smaller members of the cod family, the pouting is hated by the majority of sea anglers. However, not only do pouting form an important part in the food chain of the sea, they often provide the angler with some sport on an otherwise blank day. The angler’s dislike for this species is probably due to the fact that immature fish tend to move in very large shoals and bait intended for better fish is snapped up by these small bait robbers.
Because of their insatiable appetites, pouting are a very fast growing species—attaining a length of 4-5in in their first year. At two years, when approximately 9-10in in length, first spawning takes place during late winter or early spring.
The eggs are pelagic and only take 10-12 days to hatch. The young pout is carried by wind and tide until it invariably finds itself with its brothers in the shallow waters along the coastline.
The pouting is widely distributed all around the British Isles but it is along the South Coast that the greatest numbers are found.
Very small specimens can often be found in rock pools and around kelp beds while fishing for prawns. As the fish grows in size no small creature in the sea is safe from its unwelcome attentions. During its early life the pout’s food consists mainly of very small shore crabs and sand shrimps but later it will attack bigger crabs, blennies, gobies, small flatfish, whelks, hermit crabs and bivalves—in fact anything that has any food value.
The pouting’s habitat
As the pout attains maturity it moves into deeper water, preferring depths of over 20 fathoms for spawning, and is even sometimes found in over 60 fathoms. Whereas the young will be contacted over any type of bottom, adult fish prefer a rocky terrain or, better still, the many wrecks that abound off our coast. Pilings around pier heads also often harbour shoals of immature pouting. As the fish get bigger so the shoals become smaller, and very large specimens are usually lone fish. The average sizes weighed in by rod and line anglers are fish from £lb to 3 lb, although the rod-caught record stands at 5lb 8oz, boated off Berry Head in 1969.
The pouting is easily distinguished from other members of the cod family, being shorter in the body than a cod and deeper in relation to its length. There is a barbule under the chin, but this is thinner than that found on the cod. The caudal, or tail fin is squareedged and there is a black spot—at least as large as the pupil—at the base of the pectoral fin.
Colour varies greatly; in smaller fish caught over smooth ground in clear water there are three or four bands of very delicate pink colouring running across the back to below the base of the pectoral fin, but unfor-tunately this beautiful colouring fades to a golden brown within two or three minutes of lifting out of the water. In older fish the bands are of a golden brown when captured and in fish taken in deep water over very rocky ground or wrecks these bands are almost black and the whole fish itself is a much darker colour. Scales are very small and become detached from the fish very readily upon handling. When landed, pouting have a nasty tendency to attach themselves to anything and everything in sight and scales are rather difficult to remove from skin and clothing.
All through its life the pout is pur-sued by predators and only survives by its ability to turn quickly and dart into kelp weed beds, crevices in the rocks or the superstructure of a wreck. Its short stubby body, however, is not built for speed over a long distance, which results in the pout being unable to out-swim some of its very swift enemies.
Pouting as bait
If a shoal of small pouting are con-tacted in the cod season, it is not usually very long before a shoal of cod arrives on the scene to harass the unfortunate fish—which makes smaller ones a useful hook bait for the larger predators: conger, bass, cod, and tope.
Pouting appear to feed much more freely after dark, although they are caught in large numbers during daylight. Often, when shore fishing, it is not uncommon to go all day without catching a pouting even though they are known to be in the area. Then, after sunset when they begin to feed, pouting may be reeled in on almost every hook at every cast. Unfortunately, this makes it virtually impossible to catch any other species.
Its suicidal tendencies, however, make it a favourite with young anglers. For the competition angler, too, aiming to build up his weight over the slack-water period, when other species tend to go off the feed, pouting is an important fish. At this state of tide, pouting invariably feed even faster, making it possible for the knowledgeable angler, equipped with the right tackle, to gain a lead over his opponents.
The pouting is mainly a bottom feeder except when there is little or no tide, when it will swim two or three feet off the bottom. This is when a paternoster type tackle is recommended, but swivels should be used on each hook snood as the pouting, when reeled up at speed, spins profusely, twisting the snoods tighter and tighter until eventually they break. On stronger tides a nylon trace is best, but here again swivels should be used on each hook link. Baits to use can be almost any- thing—even rubber eels have attracted the attention of these voracious feeders—but undoubtedly lugworm and ragworm are the best, with squid and fish strip a useful alternative.
A pouting bite is most distinctive, particularly when using paternoster gear, rattling the rod top with its vigorous attack on the bait. The strike should be quick and hard in order to set the hook before the fish makes away with the bait. Should you miss, however, leave the tackle as near as possible to its original position, for pout will most likely return and make a second attack —providing, of course, there is still some bait left on the hooks. As the pouting has this ability of removing the bait from the hook without getting itself caught, competition anglers after this species often use a very tough bait—salted razorfish or thin strips of cuttle fish—which even the pout finds difficult to remove from the hook, thus enabling the angler to catch several fish without having to rebait. Such bait can also be very useful in putting the competition angler ahead of his rivals, as a great deal of time can be saved. Tackle is back on the sea bed in double quick time, ready to catch the next unwary pouting. Cost is another factor worth considering as a hundred worms can soon be demolished by a shoal of pouting.
Once having caught your pouting, unhooking the fish presents few pro-blems. Although its jaws are equip-ped with teeth (smaller and not as sharp as whiting) it is perfectly safe to put one’s finger inside the mouth to extract the hook, as there is insufficient power in the jaws to do any harm. The pouting is not a par-ticularly hardy species. Fish that are reeled up from depths of more than five fathoms rarely, if ever, survive. The sudden change in pressure causes them to become bloated and the skin covering the eye inflates giving rather a grotesque ap-pearance. If put back in the sea, they have so much air in their body that it is impossible for them to return to the seabed and they just float on the surface, providing food for seagulls. In the past, pouting have been ignored by commercial netting, but today, with the rise in fish prices, this species is becoming more and more evident on the fishmongers’ slabs. The flesh is rather soft, and deteriorates very quickly in hot weather. Should the angler wish to take some home for food, then it is best if the fish is gutted immediately on capture, washed and kept in a sack or box until returning to port. Under no circumstances should plastic bags be used as this attracts the heat and the fish soon becomes tainted and inedible.