Alan Stevens

Reading The Beach Part Three – baits and terminal tackle

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“The secret of happiness is variety, but the secret of variety is knowing when to use it”

Well another week has passed fellow anglers and with 2021 upon us I wish you all a happy and healthy year ahead. The weather has remained cold and the estuaries are full of sprats so I guess the thornback and bass will be focused on them for now. I also noticed when fishing a coastal bay this week that the fish were coughing up lots of small shrimp, which might signal a few more codling in the coming weeks to feed on them. Fingers crossed.

This week I will complete the trilogy of blogs relating to beach fishing techniques. The first focused on desktop research to identify new potential hot spots

The second blog focused on scouting these potential marks to identify features that would most likely  concentrate fish into highly productive target zones

Today I will focus on the business end of fishing – the methods, baits and terminal tackle that I hope will provoke some thoughts as to how we might expand our thinking and techniques for the year ahead. 

Let’s begin by thinking about the objectives for a particular session – how will we define success? By volume of fish caught; species; degree of challenge; size etc? Once this is clear in your mind then the venue can be selected to best fit the objectives. With the venue clear then the question is how best to fish it. 

The high level question is do we use fresh/frozen baits or do we use lures? Simplistically, on the East Anglian coast, baits catch more fish overall, but off mixed size and can be dominated by species that we get fed up with such as whiting. On the other hand, lure fishing is harder work and is most likely to produce less fish. However, over the year lures are just as likely to produce as many specimen fish as well as eliminate the species we don’t wish to target. Finally of course, lure fishing can bring locations into play that are not suitable for common bait techniques. But more of that later.

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So focusing on baits first; let’s start with worms, my go-to bait. For me, which type of worm to use is totally dependent on what the mark is telling me. I believe the fish are going to be eating what is on offer at the mark. So, are there blow lug casts or signs of harbour rag? This can vary over very short distances and I always fish with the worm which represents what exists naturally at the mark. There isn’t a 100% rule to where you would expect to find rag or lug but generally on our estuaries it seems that black and blow lug, along with king rag thrive in the coastal bays; blow lug dominate the lower estuary mud flats and harbour rag (maddies) dominate the upper estuary. So if in doubt I will use this rule when buying worm, but you cannot beat walking the shoreline and seeing what is there. 

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Plenty of blow lug and pipe worm cast to indicate which bait to use
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Here there are clear signs of harbour rag (maddies) so the bait to use here is these

When it comes to fish baits, as our coast is home to oily fish such as herring and sprats for some months of the year I tend to fish with these along with frozen bluey. From the beach reconnaissance; if I have identified a fresh water stream entering the sea I target this with sand eels. I am told that bass have a higher tolerance to brackish water than sand eels who become lethargic when swimming in these streams where the salt water content is slightly lower, giving the bass and advantage. The bass follow these streams up the beach on an incoming tide so a whole sand eel cast into one of these streams is a killer summer bait tactic. 

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fresh water running into the estuary is a great spot to target with fish baits

Squid is also a go-to bait for my wraps, combining the squid with worm, fish or more often these days, I am stuffing the whole squid body with herring roe which, this autumn I am finding the best results with out of all bait options. This week I have some crabcart ordered so will try the squid bodies stuffed with that for cod next weekend and let you know how it goes.

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my mid week activity of preparing some squid and fish wraps for the coming weekend

Often to mix things up a little, I will also use tiny artificial baits – especially the glow in the dark ones – tipped with a tiny piece of squid or worm. I love using them around harbour walls, piers and breakwaters on incoming tides. Bass and mullet find them irresistible and now the species hunt is in full swing they might tease a few oddballs out of the rock crevices. We shall see on that one too. 

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these glow in the dark micro-baits work wonders

You can probably see here that the hooks are tiny. For what it is worth – I don’t always subscribe to the big hook brigade when fishing our coasts. A pin whiting will take a size 3/0 hook and the biggest cod I have seen caught  in Essex – a 21lb beauty taken adjacent to Southend Pier – was landed on a size 2 hook with a single blow lug bait. These tiny artificial baits represent what the fish are feeding on in the weed we see along our coast. The other main species on the target fish diet is of course small crabs. I collect the tiny crabs from the weed (no bigger shell than a 1p piece) and tip the worm baited hook with them. No need for buying peeler crabs, just pick these little beauties up and tie them on with a bit of bait elastic and bingo – I promise you. 

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When using baits my terminal tackle selection is quite straight forward. Single or two hook clip down rigs when casting long; flowing trace (with spoon or beads) for flat fish and a two hook flapper for the mud flat mid-range casts. For close-in fishing or when fishing piers I often revert to a three hook paternoster, which I find presents bait cleaner than a flapper rig and produces better results accordingly. I know paternoster rigs are unfashionable here in the UK but they work for me and are hugely popular abroad. My biggest beach caught bass and pier caught thornback of 2020 were both on paternoster set ups. My quirk for 2020 was the experiment with sliders from the beach which for sure will remain in play for the coming year. 

There is however, a whole non-bait world to explore when fishing our coastal waters and that is the use of lures. There are two main reasons to consider lure fishing on our coast;

  1. As written earlier in this blog it can eliminate undesirable species such as whiting
  2. It brings marks onto play that are impossible for ledger methods such as rocky headlands and weedy creeks.

The old saying is true in my experience in that if a mark looks too difficult to fish this is exactly where you should be fishing and this is where lures come in to play. It is a myth that our coastline is too murky for lures, maybe so on the bigger ebb tides or during rainy periods, but the waters clear quickly on flood tides and during dry spells and lures work very well indeed. 

My selection of lures ranges from floating lures, which I use when needing to keep right away from sub surface obstacles, to shads, minnows and sand eels which I cast onto sandbanks and let the tide wash them into the depths and waiting predators which then follow the lure as I retrieve it.

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floating rattle lures (top), various weighted shads/minnows all of which are weedless to avoid snagging, and bottom right metal lures for cleaner conditions

One of my most successful marks this year has been at a rocky corner of a lower estuary which is a graveyard for tackle. However, it is ideal for bass to use the rocks to hide and pounce on passing prey. I cast a floating lure and trot it over the rocks with the flow of water. 

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What I have found this year is something unexpected. My daytime successes have been mainly on dull coloured lures in poor light conditions, but when the light is stronger then brighter lures produce good results. Up to this year I had in my mind the opposite would be true. Let’s see what 2021 brings with these. The best results for surface lures were at night, consistently during bright moonlight. If the moon was not bright then rattler surface lures produced reasonable results.

Finally, my last technique that has worked for me in 2020 is trotting a float with a short trace loaded with maddies at dawn or dusk. Killer tactics for the upper estuary creeks but also deadly around harbour walls such as Halfpenny Pier at Harwich, on Clacton pier at slack water as well as the breakwaters at Jaywick on the ebb tide.

So to conclude; I hope that by researching and investigating new locations and by experimenting with new techniques, our fishing days can remain as exciting as ever. We have so many miles of coast to chose from with infinite tactics and options to approach them with.  My blogs are in no way designed to suggest any mark mentioned is better than another – simply the locations are named or shown in pictures to provide examples of what to look for. The same applies with tackle and baits/lures. The beauty of discovering a new mark through research and time invested getting to know a venue and trialling new techniques makes the eventual catch so much more rewarding, far more so than heading to a mark mentioned here or on a facebook post and lobbing out the same old bait. Essex has hundreds of miles of coastline and I think I have at least three quarters of it still to explore.

So, Covid rules and weather permitting, next week I shall be blogging about the crabcart bait results and maybe the sliders might be dusted off again and loaded with sprats, we shall see. I have found a new mark too to try so can’t wait to be back out again. Happy hunting until then.

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