Friday, 1 May 2009

On Mastering an Art...

The Spring time transition period is well under way, the weeds on the allotment are exploding from their Winter dormancy and any inch of soil left unturned will be covered in small plants in just a few weeks - left unchecked, these vigorous young shoots will outstrip anything I plant amongst them and within a month or two will have reduced them to nothing
. On the canal the perch have woken up. Over the last two weeks the population of yearling perch has, like the weeds, exploded out of nothing. Where before there was a chance that something besides perch would get a look in, now, maggots or worms will be pounced on soon after hitting the water. Worms do tend to produce the better size fish and two and even three year olds fall to them, but maggots attract only the very youngest. Perch, even the tiniest ones, do have enormous mouths and they have little trouble engulfing big baits, they remind me of bass, to whom they are closely related.

I have a lot of experience of bass, and know that once the tiny fish arrive in late Spring then your chances of contacting any bigger fish are seriously reduced if you fish in the wrong places. On the Essex coast millions of voracious school bass move across the mudflats as the tide turns and invade the beaches. You arrive as the water touches the beach, cast into just a few inches of water and the rod top rattles merrily as small bass smash into the worms. The feeding frenzy continues as the tide rises and tails off long before high tide at which point there is not much point in fishing and on the ebb just a few bites will come.

The bites are surprisingly hard to hit and the fish adept at removing worms from hooks without hooking themselves. This remains true whatever you do with the rig, though small improvements can make small differences, and continues to be true until you make the final jump to the ultimate solution.

Perch are similar to bass in many, many ways. They are hard to hook unless they gorge the bait and become hooked in the gut, the mouth being hard and bony. This is not a desirable state of affairs with either fish but especially so with bass as it is illegal to kill undersize fish and retain them for consumption and so the angler who gut hooks a small bass, and with sea fishing this means an eight inch fish hooked in the gut with a 2/0 barbed hook or larger, is going to have great difficulty extracting the hook and will almost certainly kill the fish in the process.

With the canal perch I am currently hooking only half the bites. This is not so bad as the hook up rate for bass which is in the order of just a third or often less. The reason for the low hook up rate for bass is to do with they way they feed, and the way they feed is something you cannot work out fully until you have made the jump, as I have previously mentioned, to the ultimate solution.

When I was into bass fishing seriously, the first two years were spent working out the why and the wherefore. Why bass would be where they would be, why they would never be in the wrong place. The problem with hooking them was only a fraction of the problem, the problem with finding and hooking bass over 14.5 inches (the legal size limit) was the whole problem. If you would find a place where the bass were in numbers you would have to catch twenty to thirty undersize fish before a fish over the size limit would be caught, or put another way, you would have to present a bait to the big fish that were certainly there only to have the bait attacked by the myriad voracious youngsters that swam amongst them. Increasing the size of the hook and the size of the bait made no difference whatsoever, the big bait would be attacked and reduced to particles leaving a bare hook.

One bright morning, it all fell into place, I found where the big fish would be, and the small fish wouldn't. It was a rare exposure of clean bedrock, in this case hard London clay, and it looked at low tide as if it would be devoid of life. Nevertheless, as the tide trickled over the patch the bow waves of marauding bass hunting in just inches of water could be seen. I had four bass that morning, from three to six pounds in weight, but still missed more than I caught. No tiddlers were caught at all.

The reason that the big bass were there was precisely because the area was the worse place for a small bass to be. Big fish are always far faster than small fish of the same species - they all have the same power to weight ratio but the big fish has far more power available and so accelerates more rapidly and to far higher top speeds. On the hard clay the bass were hunting for the few large crabs that had ventured out from their bolt holes and once there had nowhere to burrow, and because they had the acceleration to be able to outperform any fish smaller than themselves, were cleaning up. On the rough stony shingle interspersed with mud and sand that comprised the rest of the beach the small bass had the advantage in short period maneuverability, being able to dart quickly over short distances to hit the tiniest crabs unawares and before they could burrow into the sand and mud, an act which small crabs are able to perform in the blink of an eye.

And these big fish were not hunting for the anglers idea of the perfect crab for bass - the peeler - no, they would eat any crab they could catch, in any state between fully peeled to hard back, and in surprising sizes - the stomach of a 6lb bass could contain up to ten crabs from one to three inches across the back. The crabs would be crushed flat in the powerful pharyngeal pads and once in the stomach, the digestive juices would slowly leech out all the nutrients that crabs are packed with, and eventually dissolve the shell to nothing.

Through all the early trials the first thing that had become apparent was the effect of the weather upon bass, or more accurately, the effect of the weather upon where bass choose to feed - because it is certainly true they never ever do stop feeding unless they are packed so full of crabs that they can fit no more in. On the mudflats in this estuarine environment, the bass would only make the couple of mile round trip from the low water mark to the beach if the weather was bright, indeed the hotter and clearer the better, and the water relatively calm. If the weather was dull, the wind strong and the mud and sand stirred up by the breakers rolling over the flats as it approached the beach, then it was a waste of time.

Bass are predominantly sight feeders, as are perch, and have eyes and brains developed toward successful exploitation of moving targets. They do scavenge also, but still by sight. If the water is too cloudy with suspended silt they will be somewhere in deeper water, where the pickings are harder to come by, but easier to see.

On the hard packed clay it was the case that no bass would be present if conditions were not just so. It was also the case that when they were there, they were still hard to hook. I experimented with hook patterns and had little or no improvement, aberdeen hooks would catch their share but would hook the fish anywhere from lip to gut if they hooked up at all, hooks marketed as bass hooks fared little better. Then in desperation, I tried circle hooks.

Out of the packet and tied to a snood, the hooks looked ridiculous, and putting a worm up the very short shank, led to anything but ideal presentation. I could not believe that the tiny gap between shank and sharply inturned point could ever be effective in hooking fish - but I was very, very wrong. These hooks transformed my bass fishing from a haphazard exercise of chuck it and hope, to absolute perfect certainty. The hook up rate rocketed from 30% to 100% - honestly -100% is what I said, and 100% is what I mean...the ultimate solution.

If a bass, of any size, was to take this hook into its mouth it simply could not escape the inevitable. The hook would find hold, and the most extraordinary thing of all was that the hook would always find a firm and secure hold in precisely the same place - left scissors, bottom jaw. This meant that the fish would always hit the bait and turn sharply right and roll at the same time. And what's more this was what all bass always did. Never any variation on the theme, and whether float fishing or legering it made no difference whatsoever. Also, from that moment on I never gut hooked a bass again, and never lost one either.

Now the only thing that I had to do was find a place where the fish would always be, regardless of weather conditions, and eventually I did - a small creek behind a spit, where bass would gather, again in very shallow water at virtually every low tide. This place always held bass of large sizes, and my fishing there became so predictable that I could easily have gone into business as a commercial bass angler. I could catch to order, no problem. If I wanted bass for an evening dinner party for say ten people, I would go out in on a morning low tide with a carp rod, a pike float, a big olivette, a circle hook and twelve pound sylcast (very abrasion resistant indeed) a carp sack, a priest, a bucket and a garden fork, I'd then dig for king ragworm for half an hour at the low water mark, take my tackle to the mark, and proceed to catch my quota, which for ten people would be three three pounders or whatever was the equivalent on the day. The fish would be dispatched, put in the wet carp sack and stored under a big pile of bladder wrack to keep them cool in the hot sun.

The fish marketed as 'sea bass' in supermarkets are as tasteless as old carpet and probably dead and kept on ice for weeks before consumption but the taste of extremely fresh bass is something that only bass anglers and their very lucky guests ever get to experience, not merely delicious, but actually orgasmic. The flesh of bass goes off very quickly indeed, and this process is accelerated by warmth, in fact when you catch a bass it tenses up rock hard and shoots out its spiny fins (often spiking you in the finger and drawing blood) and radiates a shimmering silver brilliance that is almost impossibly beautiful, but as soon as it it is killed, the brilliance immediately dissipates, and the fish begins to fade. But even a two or three hour old bass that is kept from the sun, prepared and frozen immediately on return, tastes infinitely better after defrosting than the muck parading as bass sold in Tescos

Strangely enough, just when I had mastered the art of bass fishing on the estuary, my life turned inside out and I ended up in Coventry, which is as far away from a bass as it is possible to be! Now the only chance I'll get for a 'sea bass' is down the town centre...


  1. Just come across this article - very thought provoking. As it happens I have just returned from my local tackle shop with a pack of circle hooks clenced tightly in my hand. Did you ever use them with mackerel baits, and if so in what size? Like you I've looked at the gap and bought a size 6/0 pack, but even those look small compared to my usual size hooks.
    I was slowly coming to the same conclusion about the bass moving to the right after hitting a bait - but rolling at the same time? Makes more sense as to why I miss so many bites.
    Because of the 'lip' hooking were you able to scale down your line strength which would make the hook turn quicker/easier?
    Sorry so many questions - great thought provoking blog!

    Tight lines

  2. Hi, fantastic article - one that has got the old grey cells turning. As it happens I had already made the decision to trial circle hooks this year due to the incredibly poor bite to hook-up ratio.

    I agree with the turning right after a bite/hit but never considered the rolling part, but makes sense when you consider how many bites are missed.

    A couple of questions if I may:

    - Did you try circles with fish baits such as mackerel. With the gape of the hook so small does it affect the hooking qualities (have thought about hair-rigging if weed would allow, or am I over complicating it?)

    - I have had many bites that would have gone un noticed if I hadn't been holding the rod with the line eventually being taken slowly (in my experiences, in any direction) as I lowered the rod to avoid any resistance to the take. Hook rates for these takes are even worse but frustatingly often feel as they are from the larger bass as they can be on for a few precious seconds. Any pointers?

    Many thanks for a great blog,


  3. anincorrigible, sorry for the late reply,

    Glad you recognise the terrible hook up rate with ordinary hook patterns. I was pulling my hair out over it, till I tried circles!

    Mackerel would not have worked where I fished, the bass were crab and worm educated, Essex coast inshore is almost devoid of mackerel, but where mackerel is plentiful, circle will still work. The hook mechanics seem to take care of it all.

    Just make sure that the strip is hooked very lightly through the skin, not filling the gape, and it should be OK.

    Let me know how you get on?

    I miss bass fishing so much! Coventry eh?

    Too far from the briny in all directions!


  4. Didn't think the first reply worked, also had a problem with the 2nd - so you nearly had 3!

    Thanks for the response and I will let you know how I get on, although still a little early in these parts

    Tight lines