Alan Stevens

Reading the beach part 2: the killer clues that tip the odds in your favour

Insanity; to do the same thing and expect different results

Well fellow readers; I hope this blog finds you well and that Santa delivered all the gear you need ready for a fabulous 2021. The change in weather has been a bit dramatic this week and with it the Flounder have duly arrived on the Essex estuary shoreline in numbers, signalling the full winter season has begun I can’t wait to be out there getting my dose of essential socially distant exercise. 

This weeks blog is the second in a trilogy of items focusing on how to radically improve results when beach fishing. How by understanding the forces that determine the shaping of the coastal landscape and the impacts upon what and where fish congregate to feed, you can hone your skills to the point where the odds of a great day’s fishing tip significantly in your favour.

Last week we concentrated on the physical landscape and how to research potential optimal locations. The link to this blog is as follows

This week I will focus on the next step – surveying the shoreline on arriving at a potential mark. How one can assess the conditions to understand where and when the fish will be concentrated into a feeding zone. I will take three different scenarios; the coastal bay, the lower estuary and finally the upper estuary. All of which have very different characteristics but once understood can all deliver a fantastic and varied day’s catch at any time of year

The Coastal Bay

The coastal bay is outside of the estuary and more exposed to the weather, therefore, the main driver for seabed features here is the effect from wind and subsequent wave action. The effects of wave action are mostly beyond the low water mark, so are more commonly hidden from sight. The key thing to focus on is any changes in waves you can see. What we are looking for is changes in the wave shape and where they rise and fall.

The changing shapes of waves are far easier to see than to capture in pictures (sorry for this) so bear with me as follows:

Bay with central cut in sandbar

Here we have a bay exposed to onshore prevailing winds. During a 15-minute observation of the wave action it became clear that the waves rose sharply in two areas around 40 meters from shore before decreasing for a distance of 10 meters and then again rose to the shoreline. This was a telltale sign of a sandbar and trough. Standing in the middle of the bay looking out to sea I observed a section in the middle of the bay where waves did not form – indicating a central cut. Walking to the side of the bay and looking across the bay parallel to the beach it confirmed the wave action and likelihood of the distance of the sand bar from shore. What could also be seen from the side of the bay was another wave area suggesting an outer sandbar beyond the breakwaters giving me another likely target to consider at low water. Let’s look at this in a diagram of what I think is going on here:

A – low water casting target area. B – flood/high tide tide casting area. C- Ebb tide casting area

The water is forced over the sandbars by wave action and then retreats via the central cut. As the tide rises fish will mostly enter the bay through the central cut, feed in the inner trough before exiting by the central cut to feed in the outer trough as the tide ebbs. The length of cast is determined by the distance to the cut or trough being targeted. Accuracy of cast is critical to hit the cut on the ebb and typically the cuts are extremely narrow.

Bay with sandbar and with side cuts

In this bay there was a small cross tidal flow and no central cut observed – instead the waves rose indicating a sandbar but unlike the first bay, no wave gap was observed in the middle of this zone. Instead either side of the bar the waves did not rise, suggesting cuts where the water retreats either side of the bar. Fishing this bay requires different tactics to target the side cuts as the fish enter or leave the bay and then focusing on the inner and outer troughs as per the first bay. Hitting the middle of the bay with long casts on the ebb might look good, but will generate little action in contrast to focusing on the cuts close to the breakwaters.

A – Low water casting target. B – Flood tide/high water casting targets. C- Ebb tide casting targets

The Lower Estuary

Let’s now look at the estuary just prior to joining the open sea. Wind action remains a significant factor on the shaping of the shoreline but here in contrast to the coastal bay we also have to equally consider tidal and river water effects too. So a combination of wind and tide/water flow drives our conditions. 

Firstly, because our prevailing winds are south-westerly, the wind generated forces are greater on the more exposed northern shoreline. Though more challenging to fish, northern shores generally produce greater results. 

However, because of tidal and river flow eroding forces, the bays, cuts, troughs and holes that we need to identify are often much more subtle than the coastal bays. Size isn’t everything as they say, and these smaller features are just as significant in concentrating fish into target zones. 

What we are looking for to begin with are sand bars that run at 90-degrees to the shoreline, commonly of no more than a few feet in height. These bars act like fences in a field to keep the fish in a zone. Often fish are territorial (such as bass) and a small number of large dominant fish fiercely guard these zones.  

Sandbar at right angles to beach line

The bay within the sandbars consists of subtle troughs, holes and cuts just like the coastal bay examples, but in the case of estuary bays less defined. Often exposed at low water, This gives the angler a distinct advantage as the features can be observed and accurately mapped

typical hole where predatory fish sit on ebb tides
a cut leading away from the beach to a hole. One to target.

As the water flows with the tides it comes in contact with the sandbars, at high water flowing over the top but for much of the tide flowing around them, causing a circular flow in the bay. Fish follow this circular pattern, entering the bay via the flood tide cut, feeding on prey being washed over the bar by the incoming tide. They then feed on the mudflats and troughs before departing via the ebb tide cut again seeking prey that is being washed over the sandbar by the now ebbing tide. Finally, the predatory fish pause in holes waiting to ambush the last fish retreating from the mudflats before they too retreat to the outer trough at low water. By knowing precisely where these features are and by moving your position with the tide, following an anti-clockwise walk around the bay you can follow the fish feeding positions through the entire tidal cycle.

A – Low water casting targets. B – Flood tide target zones. C- high water target zones. D- ebb tide target zones

Again, accuracy of cast is critical to hit the right zone. Often the high-water inner trough can be a matter of a few yards from the shoreline and the biggest fish can be feeding at your feet, especially after dark when targeting summer bass.

Lower estuary fishing is like a game of golf. Sure you might need your driver but you win the game with your approach shots and puts. The name of the game here is to use a rod and reel that gives you control, even in the dark where your instinct of direction and distance to position your bait is a game changer.

This cut is no more than 10 yards from the high water line.

Clearly, fishing a whole tidal cycle on the move requires the angler to travel light. Typically when doing so I can walk in excess of three miles. It is also extremely dangerous to do this at night without knowing the beach well. Sometimes it is just fine to sit at the high water line and fish a few hours.

The Upper Estuary

For me, upper estuary fishing is by far the most skilful form of beach fishing and in many respects, resembles a lot of freshwater tactics, which I will explain more of next week.

Here, commonly more sheltered from extreme winds, the dominant force is water flow. The period of tide relevant for fish to feed is short. The advantage here is due to the short feeding period, the fish tend to feed ravenously resulting in intense fishing sessions.

Again, precision of seabed knowledge and casting is critical. Northern upper estuary beaches are commonly strewn with hazards which are like a graveyard for terminal tackle, but provide the perfect habitat for predatory fish.

A killer seabed for terminal tackle

An example here is a small inlet on the north shoreline where we can see at low water an extent of shell and mud flats that runs extends to around 40 yards. Because the fish are moving up-river on the incoming tide, I focus on the downstream bank on the flood tide as typically this is is the side of an inlet the fish enter from. This is paradise for rays who gorge on worms and small crabs here.

This however is ideal fishing ground and next to the minefield in the previous picture
A – early flood target casting zone from east bank. B- mid flood tide zone. C – 3/4 tide zone. D – high water zone. E – Ebb tide trough casting zone from west bank

Beyond the mudflats you can see the mooring buoys, things to avoid casting over, so the fishing zone is defined in my mental map. Moving further into the inlet past two wrecks, we can see shallow areas that are ideal for summer/autumn bass and mullet fishing and again, by mapping the terrain we can hit the ideal spots, no more than 10 yards from the shoreline without the risk of losing tackle. Stealth on the bank is essential as the fish might be surprisingly huge but still are easily spooked.

perfect terrain for mullet and bass on the evening high tide

As the tide recedes the fish exit the inlet via the central trough. As the wrecks are on the east side of the trough I fish the ebb here from the upstream westerly bank ensuring my casts hit the trough but do not go too far and bring the wrecks and boys into play. Using different terminal tackle and baits and being constantly on the move, this type of fishing again requires you to carry only what you need, but for me, provides more satisfaction than any other form of fishing you can find.


Hopefully you can see from this blog that there is so much on offer from shoreline fishing than commonly considered. There really is no need to be frustrated by the autumn plague of whiting as there are numerous options to avoid them. 

How you define a good days fishing of course can be argued from many perspectives. A good day of banter sitting with mates on the beach; lots of fish by volume; a few specimens by size or species; or simply solitude on a small estuary inlet away from modern life – all work for me on different days. Take your pick and very best of luck. But next time you feel the whiting are driving you insane whilst you rebate a three hook flapper, think again. 

Next week I will focus on the final piece of the jigsaw; terminal tackle and bait. How an agile approach and thinking creatively to directly reflect what the fish are seeking to feed upon in any given conditions can make anyone a masterful angler. For now, Happy New Year and see you all in 2021

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