Bass occupy a special place in the affections of sea anglers. They have everything we look for in a game fish; good looks, good eating, fine sporting qualities. Their capture, moreover, is the almost exclusive prerogative of rod fishermen; for they are an inshore species, practically unknown to the deep-sea fisherman.
Add to these qualities the fact that they run to a good size and can be caught on light tackle, and you have a fish which offers the nearest thing available, in British waters, to the wonderful fishing of tropical seas.
And yet, despite these merits, their reputation rests very largely on the plain fact of their scarcity - coupled with a commendable prejudice against giving themselves up: for they have never been a numerous species - and their cunning is proverbial. In short, they pose a challenge to the discriminating angler. To catch them consistently demands, besides more than the average modicum of skill, a knowledge of habits, tides, and seasons far above that needed for other species. The bass fisherman must acquire this knowledge himself - usually in the hard school of experience. He has no expert professional to guide him to the marks and show him the ropes. Indeed, he will find few to advise him even amongst his fellow anglers, for expert bass fishermen are few and far between - and they are inclined to keep their knowledge to themselves (justifiably so when one appreciates [P.282] the abuses, in the way of over-fishing and indiscriminate seine-netting, to which the fish are occasionally subject).
Let it not be concluded, however, that bass fishing is a closed book to the beginner. Rather does it open up a new and fascinating field of study, as interesting in its way as the actual catching of fish. There is much to be said, too, for learning the niceties of the game oneself, rather than being shown everything by a professional; the hard way, perhaps, but leading in the end to a closer and more lasting appreciation of the sport.
Of this the successful bass fisherman can always be justly proud: his successes are the reward of his own efforts and skill, and of years of patient study. He can afford to snap his fingers at the deep-sea angler - whose catches, however spectacular, are almost always a measure of his boatman's, rather than of his own, skill.
He is, in short, a truly complete angler.
ENVIRONMENT AND HABITS
Bass have little commercial importance and have never been seriously studied by professional naturalists. What is known of their life history comes in the main from anglers themselves. Today, thanks to the accumulated experience of a handful of enthusiasts, we know quite a lot about their feeding, distribution, and growth, and just a little about their spawning. On the important subject of migration we know, regrettably, very little indeed. Reliable information on this can come only from extensive marking experiments, and no one has so far attempted this. To be effective they would need to be done on an ambitious scale—but it would be a fascinating and probably very rewarding task.
Appearance. Though unrelated to the lordly salmon, bass are widely known as salmon bass, and the title well describes their appearance. There is the same steel-blue back, silver belly, and powerful tail. Bass differ, however, in their larger head and scales, and in their "prickly" fins. These spinous fins carry no poison but can inflict painful cuts on unwary hands. The spines are located in the forward dorsal fin and at the front of the anal, pelvic, and rear dorsal fins. There are also razor-like edges to the gill covers which merit special care when a live fish is being handled.
Bass have some resemblance to grey mullet. In the water the two are often [p283] confused - especially when the observer is not near enough to detect the characteristic broad head of the mullet. On the rocky coasts of the south and west, mullet often swim by in full view of rock anglers, and are commonly mistaken for bass. In fact, it is unusual for bass to show themselves, and when they do, they are unlikely to be feeding.
Colouring. Individual bass vary little in their colouring. However, school bass taken over sand in bright sunshine are often a very pale shade of grey, while big fish sometimes have tinges of pink about the pectoral, anal, and pelvic fins.
Large bass are also prone to portliness, and the weight of a really good specimen will depend as much on the quality of its feeding as on its age.
One sometimes gets bass with unusually blunt heads; the "brow" falling away steeply to the mouth. There is a school of thought which regards this as a separate and distinct variety. A more likely explanation, however, seems to be that these fish have suffered accidental collision with the rocks—probably in rough weather, and while still immature. In support of this it may be mentioned that in the Plymouth aquarium there are mackerel, similarly snub-nosed, whose deformity arises simply from a habit of making frenzied dashes against the glass walls of their tank.
Quite often bass carry the scars of earlier encounters—probably with seals, cormorants, or otters (though some undoubtedly arise from accidental injury, probably when feeding in heavy surf). In areas where netting is prevalent, bass also bear, quite commonly, the marks of the seine-mesh on their sides.
Size and Growth. Bass are slow-growing fish. They take at least seven years to reach 3 lb., another five to double that weight. A ten-pounder would be, on average, seventeen years old.
The actual rate of growth, based on the scale readings of more than a hundred fish, is shown in Fig. 22. It will be seen that the female grows rather faster, and reaches a much heavier weight. Female ascendancy in the higher size-groups is strikingly illustrated by the following analysis of the sexes of two hundred fish:
0-1 lb. 50% 50%
1-2 lb. 40% 60%
2-3 lb. 32% 68%
3-4 lb. 20% 80%
Over 4lb Nil 100%
The largest male I have personally examined weighed 3 lb. 12 oz. Michael Kennedy records one of 6¼ lb., and another 5¾ lb., from Irish waters. He also quotes a Sussex correspondent as having had them over 7 lb. However, he adds a warning that the fat which bass store up for the winter months along the walls of the stomach cavity may easily, and quite innocently, be mistaken for the milt of the male fish.
[p284] At all events it is clear that the male bass does not reach anything like the size of the female, and there seems a good case for having separate records, as is done with tope.
Average Size. Leaving aside school bass, the great majority of bass will run 2 to 5 lb. apiece. In average seasons a few may be expected of 5 to 7 lb., and an occasional one over 7 lb. A ten-pounder is a really big one—for most anglers the fish of a lifetime.
A good idea of what one may expect is afforded by the following summary of the weights of four hundred fish taken over a long enough period (and wide enough range) to be fully representative: l½-3 lb.: 56%
3-5 lb.: 32%
5-7 lb.: 8%
7 lb.+: 4%
With school bass the usual run in summer is ¾ to l½ lb. The winter shoals found in deep-water estuaries are rather smaller (sometimes as little as 3 to 4 oz.).
Records. The record rod-and-line bass weighed 18 lb. 2 oz. It was caught from the beach at Felixstowe by Mr. F. C. Borley in November 1943. Several slightly larger fish have been taken by commercial methods, including one of 22½ lb. on a handline from the same beach. Among other large rod-and-line fish of which reliable record exists are:
17 lb. 8 oz. Castlerock (Deny), 1935. (W. G. Byron)
17 lb. 4 oz. Kinsale, 1943. (J. Drysdale)
16 lb. 6 oz. Menai Straits (Bangor), 1935. (T. Browne)
I5lb. 10 oz. " " " 1934. (T. Browne)
14 lb. 6 oz. " " " 1936. (T. Browne)
A dozen others from 14 to 16 lb. are recorded. A feature of the complete list (apart from Mr. T. Browne's remarkable luck) is that a high proportion of the big ones, including the record, came from the fringes of the bass's normal range.
Specimens. The National Federation of Sea Anglers' specimen size is 10 lb.: [p285] a high target and one which many anglers never achieve in a lifetime of fishing. The big-fish lists published by the Angler's News record, over the past ten years, a total of sixty-five bass over that weight—a very tiny proportion of all the bass that must have been caught in the period.
Striking evidence of the scarcity of really large bass was once given me by a well-known family of Cornish fishermen. In many years of netting (they said) they had handled many thousands of bass—but never seen one over 12 lb.
Most bass-fishermen rate an eight-pounder a very good fish—and thereby set themselves a more realistic and practical target than the N.F.S.A. figure.
Element of Chance. Whether there is anything the angler can do to raise his chances of getting a really large fish is doubtful. It is 99 per cent, luck; and in any case every expedition carries with it the pleasing knowledge that the chance of a big one is always present. One feature does, however, emerge from a study of the lists: large bass turn up in "pockets." There are numerous instances of a dozen or more fish being reported, over a period of three or four weeks, from one small area (but always a different area). To quote a few examples, there were minor gluts of the big ones at Padstow in September 1950, at Kingswear in August 1952, and at Seaton (Devon) in December 1953.
The lesson seems to be that the angler after a big one might do worse than follow up smartly any rumours of big fish that come his way; or, should he be the lucky one to first hit on them, keep at them assiduously until they depart (and not voice his successes abroad too loudly—at least while they remain in the vicinity!).
Several minor features arise from a detailed study of the lists, thus:
(i) More are taken from shore than boat;
(ii) Rough weather is better than calm;
(iii) Bottom fishing yields a higher proportion than other methods;
(iv)The most likely bait for bottom fishing is peeler crab.
Most of the fish over 10 lb. came from the south-east coast (Kent and Sussex) and the south-west (Devon and Cornwall). An interesting angle on seasons emerges when they are tabulated:
Number from Number from
Devon and Cornwall Kent and Sussex
Spring 3 18
Summer 2 1
Autumn 21 1
Winter 3 1
which seems to suggest that the time for the big ones is spring in the south-east, autumn in the south-west.
[p286] Weight-for-length. Fig. 23 shows what a bass of any given length (or girth) should weigh. By taking the mean of the figures produced by the two measurements, the weights of any given fish can be ascertained, within an ounce or two. Length should be measured from tip of nose to fork of tail, girth at the thickest point (usually over the front dorsal). Another means of assessing the weight, when scales are not available, is afforded by the formula.
Location. Bass are a warm-water species. In Britain they are found only on coasts washed by the temperate waters of the Gulf Stream. A fairly accurate demarcation line may be drawn from the Thames estuary to Anglesey. South of this they are distributed more or less evenly, and in good numbers. North of it they are scarce.
Probably the most northerly point at which they are caught at all regularly is Barrow-in-Furness. Here the great sweep of tide round Morecambe Bay concentrates the fish, mainly school bass, into the eddies behind Foulney Island. Occasional specimens are also caught from the piers at Blackpool, more on the North Wales coast (especially in the Conway estuary), and then from Anglesey down one is in their true haunts.
On the east coast there are a few isolated "pockets," just north of the Thames estuary, where bass are taken; then from the Wash northwards they are again in the rarity class. The odd specimens reported in recent years from the Yorkshire [p287] and Durham coasts were undoubtedly exceptional fish, achieving unwonted fame solely because of this fact.
The most consistent fishing is found on those rocky coasts which fall west of a line from Exmouth to Anglesey. This takes in Cornwall and most of Devon, the south and west coasts of Wales, and Anglesey itself.
In Anglesey it is noticeable that they are very numerous on the south side of the island, but almost unknown on the north; which bears out the general impression that this is the northern limit of their normal range.
Type of Ground. Bass seldom move far from the coast. Ninety per cent, of anglers' catches are made either from the shore itself or from boats operating close to the shore. There are just a few offshore marks where bass congregate at certain seasons, the best-known today being the Eddystone Rocks, off Plymouth. From many others, like the Gwingeas Rocks and the Dart Mewstone, the glory has long departed.
Bass frequent both rocky and sandy ground. They are particularly fond of estuaries—especially the shallow sandy sort, rich in launce, lug, and other natural food. Unfortunately, such rivers are wide open to the scourge of seine-netting: a night's depredations by netsmen can ruin a river for a whole season.
Deeper estuaries with mud bottoms are favoured by school bass in winter and spring. In rivers like the Dart, Tamar, and Fal, enormous catches of these immature fish are made nearly every winter.
At the entrance to estuaries, or just outside, there are often short stretches of rocky shore particularly favoured by bass. Away from estuaries, rocks are generally less productive than beaches, but there are exceptions. An example is the type of headland where a strong tide races past one side: bass sometimes congregate in numbers in the eddies skirting the race. Rocks at the end of a wide stretch of sand can also provide useful sport.
Piers and harbours are seldom much use for the better-sized fish. However, here again there are exceptions. Excellent specimens have been taken from jetties in the Menai Straits and from one or two south-coast piers; while Looe in recent years has built up quite a reputation for the big ones. However, at Looe there is a special attraction, in the shape of fish-offal thrown over from the pilchard-boats.
Scarcity. Bass are not a prolific species, nor do they grow rapidly. Therefore, although they have few enemies outside man, they never have a chance to get really numerous. To set oneself a high standard is to court disappointment.
Most bass fishermen go about their sport in a humble frame of mind: expecting nothing, but hoping, like Mr. Micawber, that something will turn up.
Taking good years with bad, and fishing only as opportunity permits, the reasonably proficient bass fisherman can expect an average of three sizeable fish [p288] per trip. Blanks will be quite common, but to offset these he will expect, every now and then, to get a catch of half a dozen or so; while just occasionally he will strike a really good day when the bag runs into double figures.
Large catches are, however, exceptional. Generally, they are the result of an unusually favourable combination of time, weather, and tide: a combination, incidentally, of which the average angler, limited to week-end fishing, cannot often take advantage.
All this applies to bass of takeable size—say, over 2 lb. The small "school" bass, up to 1½ lb. or so, are more gregarious—and not, let us admit it, difficult to catch. Bags of fifty to a hundred are by no means unusual in the larger estuaries of the south-west. In fairness, however, it should be added that there is no great merit attaching to these great catches of immature bass, which, if left alone, would one day grow into fine sporting fish.
Preservation. The indiscriminate killing of small fish is probably the greatest single obstacle to the species ever becoming really numerous. So long as it remains lawful, it will doubtless go on. However, one hopes the practice adopted by the more responsible among bass fishermen, of observing a self-imposed limit, will gradually find wider favour. Few self-respecting bass fishermen would think of fishing specially for the school bass, but in recent years the small ones have become increasingly numerous in places where normally one expects only the bigger fish— and one can scarcely avoid them. The answer is this voluntary limit of, say, half a dozen fish, any over that number being returned to grow bigger.
In the south-west bass have another enemy, in the person, or persons, of a family of professional fishermen in South Cornwall. These netsmen make regular expeditions, as conditions invite, to beaches and estuaries all round Cornwall and West Devon. They work by night—silently, efficiently; few even of the locals know when they have been. But for weeks afterwards the scene of their "raid" is quite useless for fishing—they simply clean the place out.
Fortunately for anglers—and for the future of bass—other commercial efforts are puny by comparison.
Feeding. Bass have large mouths and capacious stomachs. Post-mortems usually show that these have been put to good use.
To examine the stomach of a bass is the work of a moment when the fish is being gutted. The results are so informative that this little extra trouble is well worth while. By noting down (and perhaps later tabulating) details of the contents of the stomachs, one gets a very good picture of their feeding habits.
The following list shows the sort of picture that may emerge. It summarizes the food found in two hundred and fifty fish taken from Devon and Cornwall waters; a random selection covering fifty school bass and two hundred sizeable fish: [p289]
Crabs 286 Squid (large, in a 7-pdr.) 1
Sand-eels 157 Octopus (small) 1
Prawn & shrimp 62 Crayfish (small) 1
Small fish* 18 Edible crab 1
Lugworms 3 Edible crab (claw only, large) 1
Stones l Conger (a 10-in. "strap") 1
Rocklice (slaters) (an uncountable quantity in 10 fish)
Sandhoppers (an uncountable quantity in 13 fish)
* including mullet, flatfish, sprats.
Crabs, sand-eels, and prawns are clearly the food in greatest demand: although, equally clearly, almost anything edible is likely to be accepted. Notable absentees from the list are brit, blennies, small pollack, and small wrasse; all of which abound in the area covered (and all reputedly good baits). There is also no evidence of any tendency towards scavenging.
The figure for lugworms is unexpectedly low, as they are excellent baits on the hook. Possibly they are assimilated too quickly to leave any evidence.
The slaters and sandhoppers all came from school bass. Often they were present in great quantity: one youngster of 1¼ lb. contained no fewer than 108 slaters, many of them still alive two hours after capture.
If the list is analysed in another way we find that 44 per cent, of the fish contained crabs and 28 per cent, sand-eels; while 31 per cent, were empty. For all other foods the percentage was under ten in each case. (The total would exceed 100 per cent., as some fish contained a "mixed bag.")
Feeding Factors. Further light on feeding is shed by breaking the list down in other ways, e.g. according to size and sex of fish, type of ground, season, and so forth; and one is led to the conclusion that, subject to other influences:
(i)Appetite increases with size;
(ii) Males and females exhibit no differences of either taste or appetite;
(iii) Better feeding is found in river estuaries than on the open coast;
(iv) Food is difficult in winter; and
(v) Bass feed best when rough weather first sets in after a calm spell.
With bass I have examined from other parts of the country a very similar picture emerges to that revealed by these west-country fish. Michael Kennedy, author of The Sea Angler's Fishes, also finds much the same with Irish bass— though he mentions some areas where fish-foods predominate: sprats, brit, even salmon smolts—and, of course, sand-eels.
Spawning and Migration. It has already been admitted that we know far less than we should do about these important matters. As regards migration, practically the only thing we do know for certain is that there is a marked drift away p from the coast in the winter months. At one time it was thought this seaward movement was for spawning purposes. The more up-to-date view is that it is merely the natural consequence of the cooling-off of coastal waters in mid-winter— with its ensuing scarcity of natural food.
Spawning. All the indirect evidence I have been able to gather points to the conclusion that bass spawn, not in deep water, but on their return to coastal waters in the spring. The exact time seems to depend, more than anything else, on water temperature. In the warmer estuaries of the extreme south-west they are usually early (at Padstow they commonly spawn in March), but even there a severe winter can materially retard matters; after the exceptional snows of 1947 ripe fish were still being caught in the Devonshire Avon in July.
Evidence adduced by Michael Kennedy inclines him to the view that in some areas bass (or at least some bass) spawn in deep water before their return to the coast. He hints also at the possibility of a protracted period of spawning for some fish—as occurs with mackerel. So one dare not be too dogmatic.
Migration. When bass first appear inshore, in March or April, they are often in quite large shoals. They remain in the vicinity of their river mouths for about two months, then, with spawning completed, split into small parties according to size and spend the summer months roving the adjoining coasts. Often, when conditions are favourable, they return to the estuary. In the autumn they re-form into shoals for the winter migration, and shortly afterwards leave the coast. A few solitary fish, usually the old ones, stay on right through the winter.
From this description of their movements (a very sketchy one, admittedly) it will be seen that the likeliest times for really big catches are the spring and autumn, when the fish are shoaling. Most heavy bags are, in fact, made then—generally in May or November.
School Bass. It must be emphasized that the foregoing applies only to sizeable fish. The smaller school bass stay inshore right through the winter, thronging the deeper estuaries and generally exposing themselves to indiscriminate slaughter. In summer they leave these winter haunts and scatter along the coast, often popping up (in unwanted abundance) in places where bigger fish are sought.
Sporting Qualities. Bass need only be seen and handled for their power to be appreciated. Everything about them suggests toughness: the clean lines, the thick scales, the solid head, all serve to equip them for the buffering's they must endure when they feed, as they often do, in heavy surf. In the tanks of the Marine Biological Association, where their hardihood is well known, they commonly survive for twelve or fifteen years.
A Fighter. In view of this it is not surprising that they are held in high esteem as sporting fish. They give a very good account of themselves indeed, on the hook; although individual fish vary in the nature and power of their resistance, one can [p291] always look for plenty of excitement when a bass is hooked. Generally, the initial reaction is a powerful run, straight away from the angler. This strips off anything from 10 to 100 yds. of line and is followed, as often as not, by an equally swift rush back to the angler. After that there are shorter runs, a lot of splashing about on the surface, perhaps a little sulking, then the fish is ready for the landing net.
Sometimes, however, the battle follows an entirely different pattern. I have known fish of good size be in the net within moments of hooking; others, no bigger, run so far and fast, it seemed certain the reel would be emptied of its 200 yds. Sometimes a bass goes off slowly and purposefully, refusing to be hustled into tiring rushes. These are the hardest fish of all to kill and on light tackle may take half an hour or more.
Bass seldom leap, but they often thresh heavily on the surface, sending clouds of spray into the air—and agonizing jars along the line. They are, in fact, never far from the surface, and in clear water can be seen throughout the fight.
Sea conditions probably have some influence on play. Fish caught in thick water (or on dark nights) seldom move really fast when hooked—presumably because they cannot see where they are going. Strength of tackle is another material factor—the liveliest bass cannot show to advantage against excessively heavy gear.
TACKLE AND TACTICS FOR BASS.
To enjoy bass fishing to the full one needs three outfits: a light one, with short rod, for spinning and trolling; a light-medium one, with two-handed rod, for float fishing; and a medium one for bottom fishing. Three suitable combinations are outlined in the chapter on shore fishing (page 277) and need no further comment here.
The pleasantest fishing is afforded by the light casting outfit (No. l). Apart from its main function of spinning, it can be used for driftlining or trolling from a boat, and even, when conditions render heavier tackle unnecessary, for float fishing or ledgering.
It is impossible to do justice in a single chapter to all the ways of catching bass. The following notes describe two of the most popular and sporting methods in some detail, and at the end a few remarks are added on the main features of the other methods.
Rock Fishing with Float Tackle.
Float fishing is practised extensively on the west and south-west coasts. It is effective wherever feeding bass come close in against rocks. Three types of rocky shore are particularly favoured:
(i) Prominent headlands overlooking tide-races;
(ii) Rocks skirting wide, sandy bays;
(iii) Rocks at (or just outside) the mouths of rivers.
[p292] An example of the first type is Start Point, in South Devon. Here bass congregate in the eddies at the edge of the race sweeping round Start Bay, and can be covered from the rocks under the lighthouse. That is a deep-water mark. The second type is much shallower—in fact, commonly dries out at low tide. An example is Whitsand Bay in South Cornwall.
The third type is something between these two. It never actually dries out, though at low water the bottom is clearly visible. The long, flat oarweed grows in profusion, concealing quantities of outsize prawns. Marks of this type are usually well known locally. In the south-west there are excellent examples outside the estuaries of the Dart, Yealm, Fowey, and Fal, to mention only a few. As these are the most popular of the three types, let us pay a visit to one of them: Compass Rocks, in South Devon, a lovely stretch of rocks just outside the Dart estuary, and the scene of many good bags each year.
A Typical Mark. For our visit we will choose a sunny afternoon in late July; a calm day, but with a light westerly breeze to ripple the surface. We park the car at the Castle, unload our gear, and take the winding footpath down to the rocks. For bait we have a couple of dozen large prawns, netted a few minutes earlier at the entrance to Dartmouth boat-float. They are kicking away merrily in their dripping sackcloth bag, and as we go we are careful to shield them from the direct rays of the sun.
The rock walk stretches for a couple of hundred yards around the foot of the cliff to Compass Cove. We are first on the scene, so have a choice of half a dozen spots, all good fishing-marks. We select a short spit of rock on the far side of a gully and cross the ancient footbridge that brings the path over to it. Arriving at our rendezvous, our first task is to hang the prawn bag over the side; the occupants will show their gratitude by staying lively right through the day.
The water is very clear, and as the sun is still high we take care, while tackling up, to keep well back from the edge and avoid unnecessary movement. Bass swim quite near the surface and will be suspicious of unaccustomed silhouettes on the rocks above them.
Selection of Tackle. (Fig. 24.) We note that the tide is just two hours up. This means there is only 7 or 8 ft. of water over the wrack, so we set the float to minimum depth, i.e. the length of the trace (4½ ft.). The float is an ordinary cork affair, red-capped, and secured to the line with a peg. It is just large enough to buoy the 6-dram lead without undue bobbing. The hook is a single size 2/0, needle-sharp and short of shank; as we impale a large, kicking prawn we note how much less conspicuous this is than the conventional long-shanked pattern.
A second prawn is placed in reserve in a nearby pool, then all is ready. Out at the front of our rock the gentle swell is raising a nice little backwash. We swing the prawn into this, look round for a comfortable rock, and sit down to await events.
[p293] The float behaves well, keeping position about 6 ft. out from the rock. This is where backwash is important: were it too strong, the prawn would be dragged to the surface; too "easy," and the prawn would swim into the rock and get snagged. So these are ideal conditions, and our bait is almost certain to be in the path of the bass as they swim round the rocks. Later we shall probably be hampered by cross-currents, necessitating a change of tactics if we are to avoid constant re-casting (with the attendant risk of missing the fish in their brief passage past our rock).
A Bite! The float rides serenely, rising and falling to the gentle swell. It is early yet on the tide, and with a warm sun beating down on our back we consider the possibilities of a nap. While examining this tempting prospect, however, we get our first bite. The float goes down slowly and purposefully for perhaps a foot, then moves off to the right, keeping just under the surface. There is no mistaking this—a typical bass bite.
Value of Self-restraint. This is the moment when the fish is virtually won or lost. If we yield to a perfectly natural desire to strike at once, we pull the bait out of his mouth—or at best get a frail hook-hold in the edge of the lip, to lose him later. We must hold our hand.
Five seconds is not a moment too long. If he is moving off quickly, we even pay out a little line to avoid premature connection. These are agonizing moments, but we contain our impatience, then tighten firmly—and connect with what is obviously a very nice fish. There is a glimpse of a shadowy form, 6 ft. down in the clear water, then he is off in a powerful run straight out to sea. The reel shrieks protestingly, but there is no stopping him; 50 yds. of line are gone before the pace slackens, then a commotion on the surface tells us we have safely negotiated the first round. The difficult part is to come, however. As he threshes about on the surface, fearful jars pass back along the line to the rod. Any one of these may be fatal to the hook-hold; and when the tension suddenly eases, it seems as if he has indeed got the better of us.
[p294] Having met these crafty gentlemen before, however, we wind in hard, and, sure enough, after a few yards resume contact. As we suspected, our fish is doubling back on his tracks. He comes in almost to the rock, clearly visible a few feet below the surface, then turns with a swirl and goes off on another strong run.
The Catch. Several more runs follow, each shorter than the last, till finally he turns slowly on his side and lies on the surface at our feet, a glistening slab of silver in the afternoon sunshine. The long-handled net reaches down, he is drawn carefully over it, and out he comes with not a kick left in him.
No time is wasted in admiration. We remove the hook, put on the reserve prawn, and swing out again. One never knows when the shoal may return—and we don't want to miss their next visit. The rod is laid on a handy rock and a fresh prawn fished out of the bag for the reserve pool; then we are free to admire our fish.
He has taken all of fifteen minutes to bring to net, and we are not surprised when the spring-balance bumps down to a shade over 6 lb. A very nice fish, and one we won't better many times in the season's fishing. We tuck him away in the canvas fish-bag, shade him from the sun, and return to our fishing.
Change of Tactics. At first the float is nowhere to be seen. Hopes of a second fish are quickly dispelled, however, when we follow the floating line round to the gully on our left and find the float tucked in against the side. Evidently the easterly drift of tide has set in, and the float is not going to continue its good behaviour. However, we know a way to circumvent this. Twenty yards away on the other side of the gully there is a similar rock to ours, with an equally nice backwash that can  be put to good use. We cast the float across to the edge of this wash—and find, as we had hoped, that the counter-pulls of tide and backwash contrive to keep the float in perfect position, about 6 ft. off the far rock. Once again we settle down to our vigil.
An hour passes without further excitement. The tide is now well past half-flood, and we increase depth to 6 ft. Another uneventful hour slips by, and the shadows begin reaching out from the cliffs beyond Compass Cove. Soon the sun sinks behind distant Coombe Point, and for the first time the sea before us is in shadow. At once it takes on a new look, a distinct air of promise. One feels, quite suddenly, that all sorts of interesting things can be going on in these mysterious depths. And then our float has gone, and we know that, over on the other side of the gully, something is happening.
A Reward for Patience. At such a distance we cannot see what the float is doing, but we hope and pray the fish is a bass and allow due time before striking. As we raise the rod there is the pleasing "solid" feel, then the line cuts the water to our right as the fish moves out to sea—and we know it is a bass. It proves to be a much smaller fish, barely half the size of the first, but there is a busy five minutes before he is safely in the bag.
The evening draws on. With tide nearly full, the easterly drift ceases and we are able to fish our own rock again. Almost at once we get another promising bite, and after a short but lively resistance a school bass of about a pound is netted, carefully unhooked, and returned to the water.
Another period of inactivity follows. Darkness is not far off, and we are thinking of the journey home and the last ferry, when the float, now barely visible, goes away for the fourth time. Again the luck runs our way, the fish is hooked and duly landed, and presently he is pulling the balance down to a good 4 lb. A nice fish to end the day with.
Other Tactics. This is a fair sample of the sort of sport rock fishing can provide when conditions are right. Not spectacular, but good steady fishing, and conducted in perfect weather and lovely surroundings. On less favourable days one may have to be content with one, or perhaps two, fish. It is, however, very unusual to come home completely "clean." Sometimes the fish pass one's rock only once during the tide, and as often as not that once occurs when the tide is just two and a half hours up. But sometimes the whole of the flood passes without a sign of a fish—then, as soon as the ebb sets in, one starts getting bites. So it pays to persevere right through the tide.
Often when fishing in this way one picks up the odd pollack and wrasse—the latter usually big fish, 4 lb. or so (small wrasse seldom rise high enough in the water to take a bass bait).
The tactics we used at Compass can be used equally well from rocks that overlook [p296] a sandy bottom. For the third type of ground, however (i.e. the headland commanding a tide-race), it is advisable to fish 3 or 4 ft. deeper, and to get the float out 15 or 20 yds. into eddies on the edge of the current.
Rock fishing is at its best from June to September. After a mild winter, however, it is worth trying as early as Easter, while if the ensuing autumn is mild, fish can be expected almost till Christmas.
At marks like Compass the calmest day will yield fish, provided one observes the elementary rules of concealment. Some surface-lop is, however, always an advantage: over a sandy bottom it is essential.
The perfect bait for clear water is undoubtedly live prawn. A single large prawn is best, hooked from side to side near the tail. But if (as often happens early in the season) large ones are unobtainable, two small ones, or even three, are almost as good (see Fig. 26). In thick water, such as one gets after rough weather, peeler crab often kills better than prawn—but it is not much use in clear water.
Beach Fishing. This popular method must account for quite half of the sizeable bass taken each year on rod and line. On the south-east coast, where rocks are few, it is almost the only method in regular use from the shore. Tackle is heavier than in float fishing—sometimes unnecessarily so—but to compensate for this, the beach angler has a better chance of getting really heavy bags.
Beaches for bass fall, broadly, into two types—viz. sands at the mouths of shallow estuaries, and sand or shingle beaches on the open coast. The latter may be steep-sloping, as those at Gunwalloe in South Cornwall and Slapton in Devon; or flat, as on the north coast of Cornwall. Estuary beaches can also be subdivided into two distinct groups. One is the small, very shallow type, which the bass forsake at dead-low water, except on dead of neaps: e.g. the Avon and Erme in South Devon, the Hayle in North Cornwall, the Cefni in Anglesey. The other type is deeper and the bass stay inside the bar all through the tide: e.g. the Camel in North Cornwall, the Taw in North Devon, the Dovey and Glaslyn in Wales.
In good years these estuary beaches can provide first-class sport when conditions are right. Given the correct combination of tide and weather, it is by no means unusual to get eight or ten nice fish in a tide. One should add, however, that such favourable combinations are not an everyday occurrence: in fact, they are fairly  rare, and it is not often that the casual weekend angler can take advantage of them. Should the chance come his way, however, he should seize it, for he can be assured of some really fine sport.
A Typical Estuary. To see what it can be like, suppose we pay a visit to one of the estuaries mentioned earlier: the Erme in South Devon—a good bass river, and, thanks to sensible restrictions imposed by the landowners, quite unspoilt.
We will choose, for our trip, a mild evening in the last week of May. The sky is overcast, and a calm spell of sunny weather which has lasted for the past fortnight appears to be on the point of breaking. There has been heavy rain over Dartmoor during the night, and the wireless tells us there is more on the way, coming on a freshening breeze from the south-west. If both wind and rain materialize we should be in luck, for we know from our table that the tide is just right: a smallish neap, low at sundown. We have, moreover, an excellent stock of peeler crabs, and the experience of an earlier visit tells us that the bass are about and that the low-tide channel runs straight and deep this year.
Favourable Conditions. At five in the evening sharp, we park our car at the head of the Mothecombe slipway and have a quick look round the scene. The tide is two hours back and already floodwater from last night's rain is staining the estuary—the amber peat-stain, characteristic of moorland rivers, that is so attractive to bass. A steady wind blows up the valley, and from the sandbanks down at the mouth comes the gentle murmur of surf. We congratulate ourselves on our timing. We shall be fishing the first tide since this peat-water came down, the first since the weather broke—the tide, in short, when the bass, hungry after a fortnight's calm, should be coming in to feed in earnest. By tomorrow, with the wind up to gale force and the estuary a boiling cauldron of surf, the best of the fishing will be over.
Selecting the Tackle. We pull on our thigh boots, haul tackle and bait from the luggage-boot, chock the wheels, and hastily assemble our gear. The outfit Fig. 27) consists of a 10-ft. spinning rod, 4½ in. reel carrying 200 yds. of 14-lb. line, l¼ oz. running ledger-lead, and 4½ ft. trace of 10-lb nylon.
[p298] Down at the mouth, the rocks overlooking the narrowest and deepest part of the channel are already uncovered, and we make our base at the upstream end of this ridge. A dozen peeler crabs are shelled and, minus their legs and claws, stowed away compactly in an old tobacco-tin. A few drops of pilchard oil are added, and when these have had time to soak in we select a good-sized crab, pass the point of the 3/0 hook twice through the back, then swing the tackle out 40 yds. to the centre of the channel. The lead drifts a little with the current, then finds a hold on the uneven sandy bed.
Weatherproof! With the tide barely half-way down there is still 8 ft. of water in front of us. If the bass are in the river they will not yet have fallen back as far as this, so we prop the rod on a convenient rock and turn to our gear. In the fish-bag we have an old pair of anti-gas oilskin trousers, a wonderful insurance against "Saltash rig." We slip this on over our boots and fasten it tight with stout rubber bands at the knees and ankles. Our oilskin coat is the short wading pattern, and in one pocket is a folded sou'wester—we are thus equipped for the worst the weather can do (indeed, we hope it justifies our preparations).
To be completely independent of our base we pop the tin of prepared baits into the other oilskin pocket, strap the fish-bag to our waist with the rod-bag, and tuck the short-handled net in at the back. All our gear is now actually about our person, ready to hand should it be needed. We are self-sufficient, free to roam the estuary as the tide demands.
Meanwhile the rod has betrayed no sign of a bite, so we wind in and inspect the bait. We note with satisfaction that it is clear of weed and untouched by crabs— the latter (in an area infested by crabs) a particularly good sign and confirming that the bass are on the prowl. We "revive" the bait with pilchard oil and cast out again. The lead hardly has time to settle before a gentle "thud" proclaims our first bite.
The Strike. This is no school-bass "rattle." We strike at once, and the powerful spinning rod takes on a satisfying curve as our first fish rushes away down river. He is not a large one but puts up a lively resistance before we are able to slide him up the sand at our feet: an even three-pounder.
From now on, every minute is precious. The fish are here, but with the tide falling away rapidly they will not stay for long. We must move quickly. Another crab swings out to the channel, and within moments the welcome message comes up the line again—and a second fish is hooked; a little larger than the first, which he duly joins in the bag. Two more follow quickly, and a third makes his escape in the shallows—then the bites suddenly cease.
Pursuit. The fish have passed on down with the tide—and if we are to get any more we too must move. We slither and stumble the fifty-odd yards to the edge of the reef, and where rock gives place to sand again we wade out through the surf, [p299] thankful now for those oilskin trousers, and cast to the deep "pool" just inside the bar. In this pool, still 4 or 5 ft. deep, the bass often stay for twenty minutes or more before going out.
Sure enough, a quick pull confirms our line of reasoning, and another fish is hooked. We waste no time wading the thirty-odd yards to the shore, but play and net him on the spot.
And so it goes on—fast and furious while it lasts. By the time the last fish has left the channel, we have nine fish in the bag and are glad to go ashore and relieve the pressure on our belt. The fish, as is generally the case when they are shoaling, are all much of a size—2¾ lb. to 3½ lb. apiece.
Change of Conditions. While we have been occupied, steady rain has set in; the wind has freshened appreciably, and surf is now pounding quite heavily on the bar. Experience of these deteriorating conditions tells us the flood-tide will be less productive; the fish will come in late, then rush through quickly on their way up-river. However, there may be the odd big one coming in among them, so we decide to see the evening out.
For two hours round dead-low water we try from nearby Meadowsfoot Beach. Nothing touches our bait, however, and at 10 p.m., with the tide an hour in, we repair to the river mouth again.
The tide comes in with a rush, hastened by the following wind. We have only a few minutes at the bar before the rush of water forces us back to our original base above the rocks. Here we make what must be our last cast, and for it we choose the largest of our remaining crabs.
The Vigil. For a long time nothing touches the bait. Night is almost upon us, the rain is falling in sheets, the wind howling through the line. The comparative comfort of the car becomes a tempting proposition, and it looks as if our perseverance is to go unrewarded. At last, however, a faint message comes up the line, a drag so slight as to be barely perceptible against the bufferings of the wind. But as we draw the rod-point back, there is the unmistakably solid feel of a big fish. As he moves off, the line begins to run out, slowly, inexorably.
In the darkness we cannot see what he is doing, and have to meet his rushes and stratagems entirely by feel. Fifteen minutes pass before a dimly-seen shape is slid up the sand to our left and the battle is won. We bear him in triumph back to the car, switch on the lights, and anxiously watch the pointer of the balance fall. Yes, he is a few ounces on the right side of 8 lb.; a splendid fish by any standards and ample reward for the discomforts of the last two hours. We set off on the long drive home in the pleasing knowledge of an evening very well spent.
Minor Tactics of Beach Fishing. The episode just recounted was a sample of ledgering at its best: an excellent evening's sport resulting from an unusual coincidence of favourable circumstances, of which full advantage was taken. More  often, in practice, one has to be content with something a little short of the best. Perhaps tide, season, bait will all be right, the weather wrong. Or possibly, when all seems perfect we arrive at our estuary to find the channel has taken an unfavourable "set": wide, shallow, and winding, with no deep furrow straight through to the sea. The Erme we visited can be very fickle in this matter; indeed, the channel sets perfectly only, on average, once every four years. In other years, catches, even under otherwise perfect conditions, will seldom reach half a dozen.
In these small estuaries a little surf is essential for daytime fishing. If the water is stained or clouded from recent rains, so much the better. At night, however, fish can be expected in the calmest weather, and the clearest water—provided there is no phosphorescence.
In the matter of tides, neaps are as a rule the most successful. On springs, the water falls off rapidly and the bass pass quickly through. Where, however, the outgoing tide, on springs, is swift enough to create a race, bass are often drawn to the area of disturbed water outside the bar, where the race expends itself. A good example of this may be found at the Hayle Bar in North Cornwall. Here, on a calm summer's day, bass from all round St. Ives Bay converge on the turbulent water where the race debouches; wonderful sport can sometimes be had, standing on the bar at low tide and letting the race carry the bait out the eighty yards or so to the fish. It is strenuous fishing, and one must be on constant guard against the ever-moving quicksands.
These estuary beaches fish best in spring and early summer, when the bass return from their winter migration to deep water, and in the autumn, when they are shoaling in preparation for their next departure.
Baits. Baits for ledgering are legion, but the best by far is peeler crab. A small crab, say 2 in. or less across the back (from side to side), should be used whole, but a larger one may be halved. Half of a really large peeler is, in practice, the most deadly bait of all. Pilchard oil may be added with advantage when the water is thick, and when fishing at night.
Among other baits—all good—may be mentioned lugworm, king rag, razorfish, and sand-eel. A slab of pilchard, mackerel, or similar fish is also good—and squid is even better. These are all long baits and require a two hook Pennell tackle (Fig. 28) in place of the single hook used for crab.
Floating weed is sometimes troublesome in these tidal estuaries. In summer the green lettuce-weed often gathers in dense clumps and drifts up and down the estuary with each tide. An offshore wind will keep it down in the channel-mouth  all through the tide—to the acute detriment of fishing. However, an onshore wind— the best for bass—usually keeps it well up-river out of harm's way.
In sandy estuaries another source of irritation, at times, is the presence of quantities of school bass. Usually they keep away when the better fish are about, but on bright sunny days they exhibit a surprising boldness, moving in quickly with the flood and going straight on up into the shallows without waiting for a decent depth of water.
When long casting is unnecessary and there is no great run of tide, it is possible (and much better fun) to use the light spinning outfit for ledgering. Trace, line, and lead are all scaled down to avoid strain on the rod, and the bait is simply lobbed out a yard or two into some suitable deep pool on the edge of the main current (numerous such pools exist in the larger estuaries). Conventional use of the light spinning rod is also of course, possible, particularly in the higher reaches, when the tide is in.
Fishing these sandy estuaries, one does not often run into other species. In the Erme, however, it is fairly common to pick up a large thornback ray. Elsewhere an occasional flounder or codling will be the extent of the variety.
Open Beaches. The technique for sandy estuaries has been described in detail, as it calls for a special appreciation of tide, weather and the other fine points of bass fishing. Fishing from beaches on the open coast is, by comparison, very much of the "chuck and chance it" order. It is also a much more leisurely affair, at any rate on the steeper type of beach, where the rod can be propped on a stand and left to fish itself while its owner relaxes on the shingle.
These open beaches are much less predictable in the matter of tide and weather. Practically the only thing that can be said with certainty is that they are of no use in calm weather—except at night. A point in their favour, however, is that they often produce odd bass right through the winter.
On a long stretch of beach it is not easy to know where to cast with the greatest chance of success. However, it may be stated fairly confidently that a freshwater outfall is always worth trying; similarly, any unusually deep places, and places where the sandy bed is broken by scattered rocks. Possibly the best clues are to be drawn from a study of the flow of the tides, e.g. noting where major currents strike the shore. The position of lugworm and razorfish beds can also be significant.
Many anglers use stiff sea-rods for this sort of beach fishing, in conjunction with "ironmongery" in the shape of a three-hook paternoster. The sport to be derived from such gear (even with so powerful a fish as the bass) is negligible, and one is advised to restrict its use to the comparatively few places, or occasions, when a heavy lead is necessary.
Other Methods. Spinning. Spinning with the light casting outfit is a pleasant and sporting way of catching bass. It can be used wherever conditions are not too  robust for the fragile gear. Probably spinning from rocks and beaches is less effective than the methods which have previously been described, but it nevertheless kills very well in estuaries and creeks.
The best bait for spinning is a fresh sand-eel, mounted on a Pennell-tackle (two hooks in tandem). King rag, similarly mounted, is also good, and I have found a live prawn, retrieved with a jerky action, effective, though its use calls for special care in casting. Among artificial baits, the rubber eel (black or amber for preference) is hard to beat. However, almost every known lure has taken bass at times. Michael Kennedy once told me he had found a 4-in. swallowtail very killing with his Irish bass.
Trolling. This is really the same as spinning, except that the bait, instead of being kept on the move by repeated cast-and-retrieve, is towed behind a slow-moving boat, generally about twenty yards astern and a foot or two under the surface. Any lead that is used should be fixed as far from the bait as the length of the rod can manage.
Trolling is extensively and successfully practised in estuaries too large to be covered properly from the shore.
Driftline. A variation of trolling, with the current doing the work of the boat (which is held at anchor). It is a sporty method, much practised at Teignmouth, Salcombe, and Padstow, where live sand-eels, the bait par excellence, are readily obtainable.
A heavier form of driftline can be used from steep-sloping beaches, using as bait a large slab of squid or fish, which is sufficient weight of itself for casting. The method was described by its inventor, very graphically, in the Fishing Gazette of December 10, 1949.
Driftline in some form or other is also the method responsible for most of the odd few sizeable bass that are caught from piers.
Fly Fishing. Opportunities for catching bass by orthodox fly fishing tactics are nowadays very rare. A closely connected method is, however, extensively practised by coastguards, lighthouse-keepers, and village anglers in the south-west. It consists of casting a rubber eel from the rocks on an unleaded line; exploiting the backwash to make the eel spin without incessant casting. Although the rods used are invariably heavy bamboos, the method calls for a good deal of skill.