Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Time and Tide: Mission Impossible

The first thing any self-respecting East Anglian sea angler does before fishing is dig (or find) his own bait. You could go to the shop and buy what you need but you do need deep pockets at £10 a pound for live king ragworm or £0.70 per live peeler crab, especially when you just might be chucking all that money at the voracious green shore crabs and shrimps if the fish are not biting.

Trenching lugworm at the base of the shingle

I know I was supposed to be lure fishing but conditions on our late arrival due to a traffic accident on the A14 and a circuitous detour cross country meant that that particular approach was going to be out of the question till after dark as the tide now was on the ebb and falling fast. I elected to rig up a light lead casting outfit and go fish the creek with worms instead. Molly being a spaniel has huge experience of water in general but living in Coventry hardly any of sea water. She made herself absolutely filthy splashing about in the mud and then against my advice began drinking the backfilling brine seeping into my worm trench...

I guessed this was a lesson that would mature with visible result within the next hour or so!

Dirty, dirty dog

I got plenty of fat lugworm where I thought I'd find them below the worm casts in the first few yards of mudflat right under the very base of the shingle but then dug up a full grown adult king ragworm twenty inches in length and as thick as a finger, a specimen that would have been quite normal at my secret personal rag bed down at the low water mark but that was a freak here yards from the beach. Perhaps it was one that I lost out of the bucket last time I was fishing here four years ago?

It's possible because it really shouldn't have been where it was...

A fully grown King Rag scares Judy half to death...!

Judy wouldn't even look at this 'monster from the deep' while she took the picture. She thought it would poison me to death - I assured her it could do nothing worse than give me a sharp nip in the pinkie (it did) and put it in the bucket for later.

Ready for action. Carp rod, ABU 6500, three ounce lead and a circle hook. Survival outfit courtesy of TK Max...!

The walk out across the flats to the creek and the fishing itself is best tackled with the simplest outfit. No place here for wellies or waders, just a pair of old trainers and shorts will do the trick. When the trainers fill with grot you just take them off and wash them out. The flats are safe enough if you stay to the firm ground but when venturing into the swift running water of the creek itself with its undulating sand banks and sudden sink holes wellies and waders are a serious liability that in the wrong circumstances might just cost you your life.

Fishing in the swiftest, shallowest part of the creek off a hefty reef of Pacific oysters

It's hard to explain the ethereal otherwordly nature of the Essex mudflats and creeks to a landlubber but I'll start by explaining that once you get out of earshot of the beach you are in a very special place indeed. It is renowned as the most haunted place in the whole kingdom of England and for good reason. It is most silent, but in a very noisy way...

The sound of constantly trickling and seeping water and the squeak and phish of innumerable shellfish  spouting and squirting from below the mud as they retreat below the surface in response to the slightest movement of your body is most disconcerting in daylight but especially so at night when it's a freakish unearthly sound that has the faint of heart scampering for the shore long before they come to understand its origin.

Then there's the wading birds. They all sound plaintive but the curlew, a very common bird in these places, has a melancholy call that almost defies description.

This bass was just about legal but escaped the barbecue - another inch or so and it would have been fillets...

At first no fish were visible but as the level fell I became aware of fins slicing through the water over the shallows. I thought they might be bass and cast a bait to them. Within a few minutes I received a rattling bite and pulled into a fish - a bass of about a pound. I thought this would be the first of many and when some large splashes and sudden surges caused by fish well over five pounds began to occur across the fast flowing shallows I hoped for one of the specimen bass that are found here. Unfortunately I couldn't get a bite from them...

I thought perhaps they were preoccupied with chasing something - crabs or shrimp seemed likely. Molly went out to investigate and spooked a group of unseen fish who darted out violently in all directions, spooking the dog herself who then turned tail in a most confused state and came back to shore only to wander back to the beach diligently following the scent trail we'd laid on the way out. Chicken..

Then I began to see the actual shape of the dorsal fins as the fish were tailing and suspected I was casting hopelessly after the other large species that find their way up these creeks, the thick lipped grey mullet, a fish that tops double figures here ( I rescued and returned one from an illegal net once that was as big as any barbel I have ever caught - a second fish just as large was dead nearby so I have no doubt that a British record swims in these waters) but are all but uncatchable as they just ignore worms under these circumstances. However,  I persisted as I have caught plenty of good bass amongst big mullet in the past.

However, nothing happened on this occasion and then I snagged hard and had to wade out into the flow to retrieve my end tackle. I approached the snag and found myself at the centre of a whole pod of huge fish but these were fish that could only be seen by the commotion they made, nothing could be made of the fish themselves but triangular fins arcing out of the water. Otherwise they were absolutely invisible...

I lost the hook on pulling free and then I saw in the far distance that my mother and her boyfriend Nigel had arrived laden with comestibles to join us for an evening barbecue so I decided to turn back and try again later...

Judy flipping the Burgers

Of course I never got to return to the creek that evening so the long anticipated illuminated lure fishing in the dead of night will just have to wait for another day, or perhaps I'll try it out on zander instead as they are plentiful closer to home?  From then on I just sat around enjoying the food, the quiet sunset over the salt marshes, watching Molly duly throw up a couple of pints of brine (ever seen a green dog before?) and the familial banter...

Nigel and Mum at the barbecue

....but those mullet had intrigued me.

I've seen these big fish most times I have fished this area but have never caught one. To be honest I wouldn't know how to go about it. I've heard that to get a mullet on a hook is one of the most infuriating tasks in all fishing and that's from the relatively easy conditions found off a harbour wall where the mullet are well accustomed to eating fish guts and scraps and are educated by a dedicated band of mulleteers to accept breadflake but out there in the wilderness of the flats educating such fish would be all but impossible surely?

I wouldn't mind having a go though. I've heard that hooking a large mullet is an experience akin to hooking that other shallow water loving torpedo, the bonefish. Now that would be a thing, wouldn't it?

And they were certainly feeding upon something - something that had them congregating and competing at a certain state of the tide in no more than a foot of water and often less.

I wonder what the hell it could have been?


  1. Another evocative post Jeff. Good luck for later (are you there long?). We're off to Southwold first week October so hope a few bass will still be hanging around like they were last year.

  2. It was a one day trip Dave, more's the pity as I would have been back for those mullet next day armed with mashed bread!

    Southwold is lovely. Great town to stay in. Last time I was there was in a fantastic thunderstorm with a close strike every twenty seconds. Terrifying! The lights went out and I glanced around and saw the church get struck by lightning killing all the pigeons perched on the weather vane who just fell out of the sky...

  3. Steve in Colorado20 August 2011 at 20:53

    Aren't mullet vegetarians? I know the fry eat plankton and what-not, and older fish eat weeds and moss.
    Were there strands of weed in those shallows where the mullet were feeding? Mossy rocks, perhaps? I know they scrape the moss off of submerged structures such as docks and walls.
    Weed would be easy; wrap a hook and send it down the current into the school.
    Moss might require scraping off with a blade and mixing with some sort of paste (bread?) to help it adhere to the hook.
    Might be worth a try, in any case. And given their total lack of interest in yer magnificent rags- nothing to lose...!

  4. Steve, yes they are veggies. Out on the flats you can see where the shoals have been by the distinctive V shaped scrapes they make on the mud where they've dined on the green mossy weed.

    If I can get back down there thkis year then I'll be given a number of things a go for them and weed may well be on the menu.