The distinctive landscape of parts of southern Britain, with scarplands of chalk and limestone, provides spectacular views and a choice of marine environments to fish. The steep chalk cliffs of the Downs drop dramatically to the sea, and the view from the White Cliffs or Beachy Head offers a stark contrast to the fiat clay coastline of the Weald and East Anglia.
The view from the cliffs also betrays the difficulties you are likely to meet if you fancy a crack at the fishing. It’s often impractical to fish from the top of the cliff over 100m (330ft) from the sea and to fish under them may require a long hike.
For the more adventurous sea angler, these abrupt chalk cliffs offer a real challenge, but those not familiar with this type of terrain can easily fall foul of its dangers. The major risks are rock falls and being cut off by the tide. If you want to explore this sort of ground, a tide table and hard hat are essential equipment.
For most anglers the increasing numbers of coastal protection promenades around the south offer an easier and safer way to fish under the chalk cliffs.
One very popular venue with easy access is Kingsdown Butts between Dover and Deal. It was once an army rifle range, but the area is now permanently open to the public.
At high tide the sea conies up to the base of the cliffs but the concrete promenade that forms part of the Butts offers both a platform from which to fish into deep water and an escape route from the incoming tide. The promenade juts out into the flow of the tide and deflects it. This causes an eddy and produces some excellent fishing at high water.
Chalk is a soft rock, and the continuous action of the waves doesn’t just eat into the cliffs. At Kingsdown Butts, as well as at many other similar marks, it scours the sea floor, creating a web of gullies and ridges.
The tidal zones at Kingsdown Butts are typical of chalk cliff shorelines. The combination of soft rock, waves and tidal action produces a wide variety of habitats, with an equally wide variety of species living on them. Both attract the fish.
A patch of sand between chalk ridges or a weeded gulley invites passing predators to investigate or to forage close to shore, while allowing them a ready-made escape route. Under cover of darkness, bass and eels often patrol within feet of the shoreline.
The action of a choppy sea on the chalk also colours the water. This gives shy fish and other marine life (shrimps and prawns for example) the confidence to venture close to land — even in bright sunlight.
There is often a clear boundary between the coloured water close to land, and the clearer water farther off. This boundary can be the place to put your bait at high tide.
Lots of fish find this combination of cover and abundant food irresistible. During the summer, eels are probably the most common fish at Kingsdown Butts, with the odd flounder on sandy patches. Bass most often come in close during the hours of darkness or when an onshore wind creates a bit of a sea. Pollack, pouting and rockling are also fairly prolific in summer and you may find wrasse and conger too. In winter codling are the main target, with pouting filling in during the lean spells.
Time and tide
The hot time to fish any chalk cliff is as the first flood of a new tide trickles up the gullies — and Kingsdown Butts is no exception. With it come the predators to hunt the crabs, shrimps and small fish hiding in the weeds and chalk crevices.
Once the tide approaches high water, bites sometimes slow down, although you can still catch, especially in the eddy caused by the promenade. The slackest time to fish is half tide down to low water on the ebb.
The size of the tide also affects the sport. A spring tide is often not the best time, since at low water the tide retreats a long way. Even so, the first flood is still a reasonable time to fish Kingsdown because you have access to a decent depth of water. The spring high water provides only variable sport. On a neap tide, high water often fishes better than low water.
Place your baits
The gullies usually provide the hottest action, and the point where two gullies meet or funnel into a sandy patch is better still. This means that these places are often the first ones occupied by anglers – but one of the advantages of Kingsdown Butts is that it doesn’t receive too much attention, especially during the week.
Long-distance casting is only very rarely an advantage – remember that the farther out you put your tackle, the greater the risk of snagging up on the retrieve. Deliberately placing a bait in a gully on the rising tide and waiting for the water and fish to come into it, is often a good ploy.
Close to the high tide mark, the line of green weed is treacherous underfoot, but it provides cover for small crabs and shrimps and the rock is home to burrowing clams and rockworms. You don’t have to cast over it into the gullies to find the fish at high tide. Indeed, a bait dropped right at the base of the concrete promenade often scores.
Time between casts also affects results, especially on the rising tide. The fish may move in past a bait as they forage close to the surf line if you leave it there too long.
If you’re sensible and think about where your bait is fishing, there is some excellent sport to be had at Kingsdown Butts in summer and winter. Look for gullies and don’t cast too far, and it’s unlikely you’ll go home empty handed.