When the bass bug bites, that’s it, you’ve had it. Nothing, but nothing, can stop you when the bass are in. Feverishly you prepare your tackle. Frantically you try to secure a supply of peelers. Frenziedly you head for the beach -and the waves pounding against the rocks, beckoning… ‘We’re meeting by the kiosk, six o’clock sharp. Don’t be late!’ So where is he? A milk-float clinks and whirs its way along the empty street: Eastbourne early on a breezy, sunny morning in June.
The spectacular backdrop of Beachy Head and its lighthouse go unnoticed by Tony as he waits expectantly for bass to move into the gullies between the rocks with the incoming tide. Lee Hart uses the butt of his rod to test the depth of the water over the rocks. One careless step and you could go head over heels into a treacherously deep gully. Tony casts a juicy bunch of peelers out into the murky water in search of Beachy Head bass. In these conditions the bass come right in among the rocks to browse for crabs.
The rocks claim a lot of tackle so always take plenty of spare hooks and bombs, advises Tony. Better still, prepare some spare rigs so that when you lose one you don’t waste valuable fishing time tackling up again.
A battle-scarred three-pounder for Kim was the best of the day but much bigger bass can be caught at Beachy Head. Although conditions looked ideal on the day, only schoolies showed – but who could complain in such a setting? The bigger and juicier the bait, the better . Tony lashed four peelers on with shirring elastic and squeezed the juice of a fifth crab over it for good measure. He changed the bait every 20 minutes to ensure it was fresh.
Why two hooks? Quite simply, it doubles your chances of hitting a bite! With line over 20lb (9.1 kg) and short casts no shock leader is needed. Aberdeen hooks bend open if they snag up, while the weak bomb link, not the main line, breaks if the bomb snags. Losses are still high and you aren’t casting hard so you needn’t bother attaching the bomb with a link swivel.
Tony steers a plump schoolie out of the waves and rocks and on to the sand as the sea creeps ever closer to the base of the cliffs. It may not be a record-breaker but even small bass are great to catch. Their brilliant colouring and handsome features make them real princes among fish. Tony gently returns his prize. To help dwindling stocks, Tony, Lee and Kim always put back any bass under 2 1/2 lb (1.1kg), not just those under the 36cm (14in) size limit. On Tony’s last cast a fish played around with his bait for ages before taking it (above). Was it the big bass we were all hoping for? Unfortunately, no – it was a greedy pouting hardly big enough to get the huge bait in its mouth! Tony saw the funny side of it though. Kim McGreevy winds hard and fast to keep a small schoolie out of the clutches of the rocks. Kim is a member of Tony’s match team.
According to Tony, bass don’t fight hard in very murky water because they can’t really see where they’re going – ‘If they ran hard they would run into rocks! They just come up to the surface and thrash like crazy.’
Lee pulls up at two minutes past. ‘Don’t say he’s overslept!’ But we needn’t worry, Tony arrives moments later. We don’t wait for Kim. ‘He knows the way, he’ll follow us down,’ says Tony.
Up Foyle Way, up and along the clifftop footpath. Rabbits scatter at our approach, darting this way and that. Their droppings are everywhere on the cropped, chalky grass. All the way the talk is of bass.
Explains Tony: ‘If they’re there, we’ll get ‘em – if they aren’t, we won’t. But if we don’t get any I’ll be surprised — conditions are perfect, absolutely perfect. I can’t promise we’ll catch, though. But if we don’t get any today we never will…’
It’s all to do with the wind and the water, apparently. A spring tide is best but above all you want a good blow. When the sea is calm and clear the bass hang back offshore, hunting small fish by sight. When it’s rough and coloured they come in on the flood tide to sniff out peelers among the rocks. And the cover of the rough, cloudy water gives them the confidence to come right in close, within easy casting range.
Even on a small neap tide with an easterly wind you can catch if the wind’s strong enough. But ideal conditions are a big spring tide and a strong westerly – and that’s what we’ve got today.
The only problem, thinks Tony, might be weed. If there’s, a lot of it about it builds up on youriine until it drags your tackle into the -rocks. Even a little weed can create enough resistance to make a wary biting bass drop your bait.
The tide is right out and it’s hard to believe the sea laps the base of the cliffs at high water — but it does. As Tony says, ‘It’s so easy to get cut off and drown here. I tell you what, if you want to drown, this is the place.’
You must know and watch your tides and allow plenty of time to walk back. Today we’ll fish the tide in but pack up around three hours before high water.
Tony tackles up hastily among the boulders, limpets and fronds of seaweed. The fresh remains of an Alfa Romeo and the fossil of a giant shellfish merit scant attention. ‘This is no place for light rods and fixed spool reels,’ he explains, nimbly following Lee over the slippery rocks towards the
After about a mile we cut down the steps at Cow Gap, on to the beach. But we’re not there yet – we’ve still almost another mile to go, only across rocks now, not grass.
No wonder Tony and Lee are travelling light. A rod and reel, a tripod, a bucket of peelers and an assortment of hooks, weights, swivels and other essential bits and bobs are quite enough to carry.
We’re making for The Fall – so-called, says Tony, ‘cos stuff’s always falling down the cliff there – like people! Last time we fished there we had six bass and lost three. They just went mad.’
Past Head Ledge – another good spot, as the netters know all too well. Happily, there aren’t any nets out there today. ‘You need a really sturdy rod so you can cast 5oz (140g) oflead and a big bulky bait, and a really sturdy, fast-retrieve multiplier so you can bully a big bass out of the rocks and winch it in across the surface.’
He lobs his peeler bait only 40m (44yd) out into the waves, landing it in a gap between two outcrops of rock. ‘Accurate casting’s essential. Try to drop your bait in a gully – ideally right in the path of a cruising bass! ‘But wherever you cast, inevitably your bomb catches in a crevice. So once your bait’s out there, leave it — move it and it just gets jammed solid. ‘When the time comes to reel in and rebait, lean forward and slowly take up the slack, then strike hard to dislodge the bomb and wind like billy-o all the way to keep it clear of the rocks.’
His bait in position, Tony puts his drag on a light setting. ‘People think bass always hit a bait without warning, but in fact eight times out often they nose it first. When you get that first gentle touch, put your reel on free spool and let it take a little line. Then put the reel back in gear, follow the bite round with the rod tip and hit it as hard as you can.’
The only time you don’t need to strike bass bites, he reckons, is when it’s very rough: then you can use a fixed paternoster and let them hook themselves.
Nothing yet but at least there’s very little weed about. Kim has turned up at last and now three pairs of eyes are trained on the tips of three rods. The tide has turned and the sea is streaming in between the rocks. ‘It’s early yet, we’ll catch,’ insists Tony. ‘Don’t worry.’ ‘They’re there, they’re there!’ cries Tony, ‘that was a proper bass bite, a real whack. Normally they come back but I’m still waiting.’ All the while we’re retreating step by step with the flooding tide.
Tony reels in to find his rig all slimed up and tangled – the bite was from an eel. ‘Bad sign that, bad news,’ he says, shaking his head. ‘But don’t panic, the best time of the tide is still to come.’
The tide is starting to push – ‘It’s got a bit of weight to it now,’ says Tony. ‘Give me five minutes and I’ll have one.’
In fact it’s Kim who’s the first to strike silver. He hits a thumping bite, winds like mad and soon has a perfect 1lb (0.45kg) schoolie flashing in the foam at his feet. ‘A small one, but a nice bass,’ he grins, slipping it back into the sea.
Lee has just missed a bite, but Tony is really keyed up now. ‘This is when we should get ‘em, this is the time – here we go!’ He sweeps the rod back over his shoulder and starts reeling hard. ‘Yes, it’s on! It’s only a schoolie, but it’s a bass, it’s a bass!’
Across the waves it comes, turning and twisting in vain protest – a beautiful fish of about 1lb 4oz (0.57kg). After being forced to pose for the camera it heads swiftly back out to sea with a disdainful flick of its tail.
The sea is racing in over the rocks now. More bites are missed. ‘They’re schoolies,’ says Tony, ‘they’re just mouthing the bait. There must be loads of them out there, but they’re just mucking about.’
A fish slams Kim’s rod tip over after playing with the bait for ages. After a brief tussle a 3lb (1.4kg) schoolie comes kicking and splashing ashore. It’s lean and scarred but a splendid fish all the same.
Tony’s winding Lee up for blanking: ‘Me and Kim are the top Charlies, Lee!’ Lee ignores him. His rod tip taps a few times, then the line goes slack. He strikes determinedly, but there’s nothing there! Tony laughs, but Lee takes it in good part – he knows the score.
At 10:20 Kim and Lee start tackling down. ‘Wait up,’ says Tony, ‘I’ve got a bite.’ Minutes pass. ‘It’s still there. It’s a bass, I’m sure of it.’ Finally he strikes and in it comes – a puny pouting, not much bigger than the bait! You had to laugh.