Bass are the sea angler’s ultimate quarry, the epitome of wild power. Few fish capture the imagination like bass, and for Matt Brook they are a life-long love.
Bass are arguably Britain’s favourite sport fish with a huge mainstream level of interest and more cultish followings among British and European sea anglers. Bass are absolutely responsible for my life-long love affair with sea angling that began as a child. Memories flood back of fishing Sandown Bay on the Isle of Wight with my dad, when the mere sight of them thrashing in the surf made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.
The bass enjoys something of star status among European sea fish with its own official fan club, the Bass Anglers Sportfishing Society or B.A.S.S for short. The Society and its members are doing some sterling work aimed at conserving our vulnerable bass stocks. The Society produced a seven point Bass Management Plan and together with other conservation minded stakeholders they are strongly lobbying the Government to protect this delicately balanced resource. The introduction of ‘near shore’ netting restrictions and a review of the current bass nursery area scheme are among the aims.
The European bass is a non-quota species commanding a high market value and is actively and eagerly sought by commercial rod and line fishermen as well as netters. This coupled with harsh winters killing off juveniles before they have a chance to reach open water means this fabulous species is under greater pressures than ever before. Hopefully pressure from interested parties will convince DEFRA to implement fish management measures as soon as possible. All is not doom and gloom however, as for the time being at least there is some fantastic bass fishing to be had around our shores.
Bass live all around Britain, both inshore and offshore. They inhabit estuary systems as fingerling juveniles and can be a bait-robbing pain while flounder fishing. Young bass remain in this habitat until they reach a length of around 6 inches by which time they will be two to three years old.
Until they can reach the comparative safety of the open sea the small bass must run the dangerous gauntlet of predation before moving off into open waters when they are big enough to fend off most predators. It’s at this time that anglers start salivating at the prospect at catching them. Most bass over 5lbs are female and they will reach sexual maturity at a length of around 42cm despite the current, widespread minimum landing size of just 36cm.
Bass are very adaptable feeders with a diverse pallet. There is the classic hunter imagery of bass prowling rocky shores, but they are in fact opportunistic feeders, equally happy scavenging dead marine life from the ocean floor or taking float fished bread intended for mullet from the surface. I have even heard of them being caught on old chicken skin … you know anglers and their stories! And there are of course more reliable ways of tempting bass.
One of the most exciting ways to snare bass is using artificial lures such as plugs and spinners. Rods require to be powerful to bully larger fish away from snags and a fixed spool reel filled with 8-15lb monofilament line, or equivalent diameter braided line is recommended for casting the comparatively light lures. If using braid, a suitable clear leader – ideally fluorocarbon – should be used to absorb the shock of the take and to avoid spooking the fish.
Bass possess particularly keen eyesight and will spot unnatural, artificial ruses from a proverbial mile away if lines are intrusively visible. Lures are best worked around rocky or weedy coastlines and the more rugged the better. Working this type of shoreline will incur some tackle losses, and in most cases if you are not suffering the occasional snag then you’re not in the right place. The best way to minimise loses is to use a ‘popper’ or surface plug. These lures work by just skipping along the top of the sea mimicking an injured or vulnerable fish. This style of fishing is best employed in lower light conditions like dusk or dawn. The sight and feeling of a bass slamming into the popper is very special and one of the most thrilling, solitude-bursting experiences available to UK anglers who chase bass from the shore or boat.
Spinners or spoons such as the Dexter Wedge work most effectively when distance casting is required, and the depth of water is sufficient to allow the action of the lures to perform efficiently.
If lure fishing isn’t your thing then excellent results can be achieved with natural baits. Use a light beachcaster or carp style rod coupled with a balanced fixed spool or multiplier reel. I personally use a Penn 525 Mag loaded with 18lb line for rough ground, and a Diawa 7HT Mag with 15lb line for surf beach fishing – a 70lb shockleader is used in both instances. Nothing fancy is required in the rig department with a basic pennel paternoster or pulley rig is more than adequate for most situations; switching to a clipped rig if more distance is required.
Strong hooks like Sakuma Manta Extras or the Partridge designs are recommended with a hooklength of at least 30lb breaking strain. A specimen bass has an uncanny knack of finding every obstacle in its path during the retrieve, making mincemeat out of terminal tackle not up to the job. If smaller fish are the target on open beaches then a simple flapper rig is most efficient.
One of the most productive types of shoreline to fish with natural baits is where the seabed consists of rocks and boulders. Bass like nothing more than hunting in the broken ground for juicy crabs and it is in these areas that the larger fish normally hunt. When casting into such areas it’s a good idea to use a rotten bottom between the rig and the lead, as you don’t want a snagged lead to end the fight prematurely.
Big baits are well proven for big bass that have a habit of being caught more by accident than design. On sand or shingle beaches large king ragworm, sandeel or large fish baits such as a whole mackerel or squid often account for outsize bass. A mackerel heads with the guts attached can be particularly effective on some venues. There is no need to thrash your bait out to the horizon as massive bass can be found very close in, as little as ten metres out in some instances.
Boat fishing accounts for some huge bass. The principle for catching them afloat is similar to targeting them from the shore, with focus on targeting reefs, wrecks and especially sand bars where a bass will happily spend hours gorging on resident sandeel.
Areas of strong tidal pull such as the Portland Race off Weymouth can produce some excellent bags of bass. A long flowing running ledger, or alternatively a Portland rig carrying a live sandeel are standard tactics, but artificial eels and shads should not be neglected as they have saved many a day when the hunt for sandeels fails.