Looking for cod at Dungeness

Over the last 30 years one name has become synonymous with big shore-caught cod — Dungeness. A classic steep shingle beach that juts out into the English Channel, its reputation comes from the large numbers of double-figure fish – some over 30 lb (13.6kg) — caught here every season. They are lured to this venue each winter by the fast tides, deep water and abundant supplies of food.

Daunting task

Faced with the prospect of fishing here for the first time, you can easily be daunted both by its vastness and the lack of obvious clues to the whereabouts of the fish. Although John Darling hasn’t been here for about six years, he’s confident he can still locate the hotspots.

The trouble is that on a beach like Dungeness, the cod don’t realise where the hotspots are, says John. There’s no need to worry though, because in season the fish are always nearabouts. We’ll start off by looking at The Point which is the most popular mark these days. A lot of big cod are caught here, but then it’s not surprising because an awful lot of people fish it.

The Point

The Point, as the name implies, is the bit that sticks out the farthest into the English Channel. This is close to the narrowest part of the Channel and the French coast at Cap Gris-Nez is just over 20 miles away. This narrowing creates a funnel effect – with the result that the tides here are very strong.

The reason for The Point’s popularity is the great depth that can be reached with a half decent cast, John explains. At high tide, if you can put a bait out a hundred yards you’ll be fishing in about fifty feet of water. If you’re good and can get a lead with a couple of lug out a hundred and fifty yards, there’s about eighty feet.

I’m not saying it’s necessarily a better mark than the rest, but a lot of people fish here because they feel reassured by the depth above their bait. It makes them feel as if they’re boat fishing from the shore.

Dustbin days

Dungeness has always had the reputation of being a long-caster’s beach. This started in the 1960s and 1970s when the accepted hot-spot was The Dustbin. This was a huge eddy made by the flood tide just to the east of The Point. It was a lot deeper than the rest of the sea bed and large amounts of food got swirled around in it, so it was a great cod holding spot.

The only problem was that you needed to cast a hundred and fifty yards plus to reach it – not easy with the sort of tackle we were using then. I’m talking about it in the past tense because it doesn’t appear to be there any more. The shoreline is forever changing here because of the tides. A few years ago they started dredging the offshore gravel banks and that affected the tidal flow and moved The Dustbin well away from the beach. I think it has probably disappeared altogether now.

Large deposit

We walk along the beach to the east of The Point. If you want a demonstration of the power of the tides here, look no farther, says John, pointing to the bay that curves round to Folkestone in the distance. You see the beach there, that used to be a hundred yards or so of muddy sand at low tide. Now you would have to walk about half a mile out to reach the water.

All the shingle gets deposited in the slack water, just as it does downstream of a bend in a meandering river. It’s probably a good spot for dabs and flounders. The bit there, where the fiat sloping sand suddenly meets the steep shingle beach, certainly used to be a good bass mark in the summer. I expect it still is if you get a bait on the edge of the drop-off.

Problems with the blow

As we walk back round to the western side of The Point, John nods in the direction of a huge drag-line excavator which is loading an equally massive lorry with shingle. Eighty tons a time they get in those trucks. They take the shingle from this side of The Point and drive it a mile or so round to the Denge Marsh side and dump it there. Eight hours a day, six days a week – that’s a lot of pebbles. The ironic thing is that the moment there’s a bit of a blow, it all ends up where it started from.

Boiling point

The most obvious feature on the Denge Marsh beach is immediately in front of the Nuclear Power Station. As you leave the relative comfort of the concrete perimeter road to trudge towards the top of the shingle ramparts, you are aware of a vast flock of seagulls wheeling and diving into the sea. Two great boils erupt from the surface of the water here.

Terrific spot in the summer, says John. They’re caused by the discharge of the water used for cooling the reactors. The fish and crabs sucked in by the offshore intakes are mashed up by the filters and squirted out here. By the time it comes out here it’s like a hot fish soup.

Bass, mullet, mackerel and garfish swarm round it. It’s no good for cod, though, because the water’s too warm for them. It’s difficult to fish as well because of all the old nets and debris littering the bottom — you need a boat really.

All this beach here down by The Cross is good, he says pointing into the distance. If more people could be bothered to walk down here, more big fish would be caught from this spot. It’s not quite as deep as The Point, but the tide’s not quite as strong so it’s a bit easier to fish. And remember there’s just the scent from your baits for the cod to home in on — not from everyone else’s.