Turbot Fishing

The turbot is a highly prized flatfish and, as the current rod-caught boat record was set relatively recently, it would appear that there are still plenty of big fish in the sea [embers of the Bothidae, one of the three groups of flatfishes, the turbot (Scophthalmus maximus), the brill (S. rhombus) and the megrim (Lepidorhombus whiffiagonis) are common round the southern coast of the British Isles. The others in this group are comparatively rare; the topknot (Zeugopterus punctatus). Eckstrom’s or Bloch’s topknot (Phrynorhombus regius), Norwegian topknot (P. norvegicus) and scald-fish (Arnoglossus laterna).

The turbot can be distinguished from the brill by its diamond-shaped body, an absence of scales, and the bony tubercles on the upper surface.

On both sides of the mouth, situated at the end of the snout, are equal bands of numerous, slender and closely set teeth lacking canines. When fully extended, the mouth is usually large – with a sizeable specimen it is possible, though not really advisable, to insert the hand.

The eyes of the turbot are on the left side. A dorsal fin extends to the head, ending in front of the eyes, while the anal fin, although reaching almost around the body, is somewhat shorter, having about 47 rays as opposed to the brill’s 60-odd. In both, the lateral line curves strongly over the pectoral fin.

The colouring of the turbot depends to an extent on its environment and the depth of water, being from mid-brown to a light sand. Many specimens are variegated and speckled with light and dark marbling, very often with greys also present. The blind side of the turbot is an opaque white.

Spawning takes place in offshore waters from April to July, or later, a female turbot of, say, 23 lb, shedding an estimated 14 million-plus eggs. The young turbot has a long pelagic life, drifting gradually into shallower waters and developing a swimbladder. At 2in it has lost the swimbladder and become entirely demersal. Small turbot, at this stage, are often caught in the shrimper’s push-net in less than 2ft of water, but they gradually move into deeper water.

The turbot is a shallow-water fish, rarely taken in depths of over 40 fathoms. My own records, compiled over the last 20 years, show that all catches were made on or close to sandbanks, in water of between 4 and 12 fathoms. The favourite en-vironment of the turbot is around sandbanks situated in deep water, where sandeels, sprats and other immature fish abound.

Muddy or gravelly bottoms in the estuaries of large rivers, where young fish are usually present, also hold an attraction for these large flatfish. Big specimens are taken off the many wrecks off Devon and Cornwall and littering the sandy bays around the south west and west coasts of Ireland. Many small turbot up to 4 lb are taken by the surf caster baiting with mackerel strips.

The species is almost entirely fish- eating, obvious from its large mouth and sharp teeth. Considering its bulk, the turbot is a surprisingly strong and rapid swimmer. Sandeels and sprats are the chief food, and in addition small flatfish, whiting and pouting – in fact, any small fry – are readily taken. The author has never found worms or crustaceans in the stomach contents.

The record turbot (boat) is 33 lb 12oz, taken in Lannacombe Bay, near Salcombe in South Devon, by Roger Simcox in 1980. The current shore fishing record is a magnificent fish of 28 lb 8oz, caught by JD Dorl-ing at Dunwich Beach, Suffolk.

Characteristics of the brill

The brill lacks the angular diamond form of the turbot, being more oval in shape. There are no tubercles on the uppermost side, but cycloid scales are present on both. The brill, with the same geographical range as the turbot, and frequently found at a similar depth, is invariably caught on the same ground. While the col- ouring of the two species is similar, the brill often has a greenish tone with shades of brown.

This species is almost exclusively fish-eating, exhibiting a preference for sandeels and sprats. It attains less than half the weight of the turbot, and while the boat record is a 16 lb fish from the waters off the Isle of Man in 1950, a fish of 10 lb is con-sidered well above average. The spawning period is similar to that of the turbot, although it starts a little earlier, in March, and continues until late July.

The return of the turbot and brill from deep water to the sandbanks in earlier spring excites the imagination, for of all the species none re-quires greater understanding if the angler is to be successful. The author’s findings on the subject are based on his personal experiences over a number of years and embrace a study of the turbot’s habits and an analysis of recorded catches.

Both turbot and brill are limited in distribution and are not scattered haphazardly over the seabed. On occasions they can be taken on the most unlikely fishing grounds. However, to be certain of locating these fish in quantity, the angler is advised to study the Admiralty charts of deep-water sandbanks, for here is where they feed on sandeels.

Among the better-known banks are the Varne out from Folkestone harbour, and the Colbert Ridge close by, the Shambles bank close to Portland Bill, the famous Skerries bank at Dartmouth, and the sand-banks extending from Start Point to Salcombe in Devon. They are headlands interrupting a natural tidal flow. The composition of banks can vary considerably – the Varne Ridge, for example, consists entirely of hard, clean sand, while the Shambles is of sand, shingle and broken shell, the latter coming from the vast shell beds beyond the bank itself. Although most sandbanks re-main constant, contours are con-tinually changing as heavy seas and fast tides rip gullies out and build up ridges.


The feeding habitats of turbot and brill are distinctive, for they do not feed at regular intervals, but accor-ding to the state of the tide. During slack water they become listless, ly-ing partly submerged on the seabed, blending with the sand, shingle and shells of the sandbank.

Turbot are stimulated into activity at both the ebb and the flow of the tide. Lying in ambush, they rise suddenly from the seabed to pick off small fish being taken along in the strong tidal flow. They are not af-fected by sudden bait movements, although this is natural enough when one considers their need to chase small, active food fish. This knowledge is a great help to the angler, for if he misses contact with his first strike, and returns his bait to the bottom, the turbot will come back again until it is either captured or has taken the bait off the hook.


Some anglers consider slack neap tides more profitable than the stronger springs, but so far as turbot and brill are concerned, the author does not agree. When bait and lead are bouncing on the seabed directly under the boat, the fish are at rest, but when the tide strengthens and the bait streams away, they become active.

There are anglers who maintain that during strong tides it becomes difficult to hold bottom, regardless of the weight of lead used. This could well be true in deep waters, where the water pressure on the total surface area of line is responsible. On sandbanks, however, where the depth is often between four and ten fathoms, water pressure is much less. Here, it is rarely necessary to exceed 14oz of lead, even during the spring tides, and if tides are especially strong, wire lines are recommended, needing very little lead.

Baits for turbot

Bait is important. Without doubt, sandeels are the favourite diet of the turbot and brill. These species are not alone in their weakness for sandeels, for mackerel also chase them until whole areas of the sea boil in the efforts of the prey to escape. To represent the sandeel, filleted flanks from a freshly caught mackerel make excellent turbot and brill baits. Strips an inch wide are cut the full length and the hook turned twice through one end only, so that the free section moves realistically in the tide.

If neither mackerel nor sandeel is available, small, immature fish of most species can be used successfully. I often bait with small whiting or pouting, and using a fine baiting needle to mount one on the hook, I lash the tail along the nylon snood with cotton elastic. The hook must be located in the mouth of the bait, for turbot, and most other fish, will avoid the sharp spines of the dorsal fin by swallowing the bait head first.

The behaviour of the hooked tur-bot should be discussed before the tackle is described. In slack water it can dive repeatedly, but it would be wrong to praise the turbot’s fighting qualities. Yet many are caught in strong tides, and these fish should not be regarded lightly. They are wily enough not to expend their strength unnecessarily in violent movement, but use their extensive body area in concert with the tide to impose a great deal of pressure on both angler and tackle. In this way, the weight of a turbot is magnified several times, so that the strength of tackle must be chosen accordingly. A rod in the 30 lb-class is suitable. The reel, preferably a multiplier, should have handles that disengage when line is conceded, otherwise the angler can have his knuckles badly rapped. Avoid plastic or metal fabricated spools as these can burst or distort under extreme loads, especially if loaded with monofila-ment, the elasticity of which creates high pressure on the spool’s flanges. One-piece machined spools are designed to overcome this problem, and are available in sizes small enough. A main Hne of 35lb b.s. Is advised, while traces and hook snood should be 50 lb b.s., for turbot laying back against the tide can quickly bite through lighter line with their sharp teeth. Braided lines with less stretch can be used, for bites are more pro-nounced and the hook can be set in a positive manner. But I prefer monofilament, because its elasticity, plus the cushioning effect of a flex-ing rod tip, imposes far less strain on the hook when playing a fish. The turbot’s mouth is large, so there is no point in using small hooks, and 60 or 70 are the most useful. Three distinct types of terminal tackle are recommended, all based on the conviction that turbot and brill respond to a moving bait.

The first is a two-hook, long flowing trace, the main line passing through a running boom with lead attached. The fish can pick up and swim away with the bait without feeling the resistance of the weight. The trace, roughly 6ft long, can be clipped to a link swivel which has been attached to the end of the main line. If the fish is deeply hooked the trace can be removed and replaced by another without loss of fishing time. Weights should be as light as possible, depending on tide strength, to allow the bait to be trotted down-tide, so that fish are not disturbed by seeing the boat’s hull.

In strong tide I often use the sink-and-draw technique, substituting a single hook mounted to a 6ft nylon snood, again attached to the main line by a link swivel.



Scophthalmus maximus line above the link. This tackle is very useful with the lead bent into a half-moon shape to prevent spinn-ing, for by lifting and lowering the rod tip, the bait can be kept moving.

If the tide is very light, and to get the bait covering as great an area as possible, I sometimes use the same rig, but attach a float above the lead, controlling it by a stop. This method allows the bait to drag along the seabed, tempting the turbot to bite. Remember that a moving bait is natural to turbot and brill; they ex-pect prey to move off quickly.

Many turbot hooked in a strong tide will adopt the same attitude as the skate, curling up against the flow. With fish of 18 lb or over, it is sometimes difficult to break this hold, and line simply cannot be recovered. When this happens, let out a short amount of line. This controlled release frequently disturbs the turbot’s posture and if line is recovered immediately the fish will not be able to regain its hold.

If the turbot surfaces well down-tide of the boat’s stern, the person netting the fish may attempt to han-

FISHING FOR TURBOT die the angler’s line. This must be avoided, for the natural stretching of the line, coupled with the cushioning effect of a flexing rod tip, minimizes hook strain. The angler should move towards the bows and bring the fish near enough to be netted by the skipper at the stern.

Gaff these fish in the open mouth, or just below the head. To safeguard the flesh from blood contamination, make an incision about 3in long in the top, close to its tail, and allow the blood to drain away.

The turbot angler must master the art of fishing sandbanks. This in-cludes an understanding of tackle and methods, and a knowledge of the turbot’s moves.