An Anglesey Memory by Donovan Kelley
It is late November on a calm, dark, quiet night. No weed, no bioluminescence. At last perfect conditions for our small beach-seine. It has been a dreadful year: many planned visits stormed off, only 66 bass in 11 visits made. Now, for the first time we have a chance to restore the project’s fortunes. We won’t get another chance: it is too late in the season.
I get into the dinghy and take the oars. Rob stays on the sand. He picks up the end of the rope, gives the dinghy a push, and switches on his signal-lamp. His is the waiting part, watching and listening while I disappear into the darkness. The dim beam from his lamp will be directed towards where he judges me to be as I run out on the rope, lay the net, and return to shore on the other rope. On him depends my coming ashore in the right place.
I row out steadily, the rope paying out quietly over the stern. A hundred yards out and a louder splash heralds the start of the net. I pull hard on one oar to bring the dinghy onto a line nearly parallel with the shore. I accelerate, and the net pays off rapidly. Dimly I see the red centre-marker disappear over the stern. I alter course slightly so that the lay assumed a shallow “V”. Soon the last of the net has gone and I am onto the return rope. Again I pull hard on one oar, relying on the position of Rob’s light to get my angle right for the run into shore. If I have misjudged my angles I will be in trouble, running out of rope before I am into the shallows. It doesn’t often happen, and this time I get it right.
As the dinghy grounds I throw out the anchor, jump ashore, and grab the end of my rope. A quick flash to Rob and his light goes out, confirming that he too is starting to haul.
As we haul we are alert for any signals coming along the ropes. If we have any bass we will feel them thumping against the net, trying to break through. But sea-trout do the same so we can never be sure. Mullet are more circumspect, moving ahead of the net seeking a way round the wings. Sometimes they jump over the net. Coalfish and whiting just lie quietly in the net.
As our ropes shorten we move slowly towards each other, pacing it so as to be about 30 yards apart when the wings of the net reach us. We cannot see each other in the darkness, but we have done this many times together and usually judge things right. We can feel a considerable thumping and pray that it is not sea-trout. The net comes ashore and we switch on our lights – to see many silvery fish splashing in the shallow water. We close in to get them into the centre of the net and draw them onto the sand. A quick look confirms that it is mainly bass – enough to require the tank. Rob dashes off to get the inflatable while I run to the dinghy for a couple of buckets. Speed is vital now. We quickly fill the inflatable with sea-water and count the bass into it. Altogether there are 25, nearly all sizeable fish, mostly 3 to 5 lbs apiece: clearly 1959-ers. We find one with tag already on. We check that it is holding well with no damage to the number and take a scale sample before returning it to the water. Later the tagging register tells us that we caught it (on rod) a month before at the same site. It is not destined for long life: six months later an angler at Dinas Dinlle, a few miles across the water on the mainland of Wales, catches it again.
We slip into our tagging routine. I do the tagging and measuring, and take scale samples; Rob brings each bass from the tank and takes it back to the water after tagging, pausing to see that it swims off smartly. As usual they all do and are given G ratings in the record.
It takes over an hour to complete the tagging and recording. By the time we finish the tide is already creeping over the sands and into the little estuary on our left. There is just time for another haul before the strengthening current makes the net unmanageable. We run the net out again and commence hauling. Once again we feel fish thumping the net, and once again it is bass. This time we have 29, mostly smaller fish of 1 to 2 lbs or so, with just seven in the 3 to 5 lb class. The tide is now rising rapidly and we decide to do the tagging in a cove a little way up the estuary. It has a steeper beach which won’t be covered by the tide. We row up with the inflatable in tow and are soon into the tagging drill again.
There is one specimen already tagged, a 3 pounder caught on rod in the same place almost exactly a year before. This one’s freedom on release is to be even briefer: it is caught 10 days later by an angler on a nearby beach. Another one, about 2 lb, has a hook in its throat with 2 feet of 20 lb monofil attached. We wonder how it could have broken such heavy gear – and what weight the angler ascribed to it. We snip off the mono but leave the hook. It swims off in good shape but does not get caught again.
Unusually, and perhaps because of the heavy bass presence, we have found little else in the net, besides bass: just one sea-trout, seven large mullet and four whiting. Mercifully there are no coalfish or small whiting – which often get gilled and waste a lot of time.
That catch, 54 from two hauls of our small net, was an exceptionally good one achieved in favourable sea conditions at a time of the year when good numbers are often present on that beach. More often the catch was in single figures for each haul: quite often, none at all. Weather played a big part. Sometimes a sudden change would rule out both netting and rod-fishing. This happened the next day: a strong south-wester blew up and nothing could be done. Rob returned to his home in Cheshire. I stayed on for another day, hopeful that the storm might abate as quickly as it had blown up. If it did I might be able to rod-fish, or even try single-handed netting. This had worked before in really calm conditions, using a stake driven into the sand to hold the outgoing rope, with the lamp strapped to its top. The sea did calm down, but not enough for me to handle the net effectively: I got just seven bass from two hauls. However, with a few more on the final visit shortly after, it helped to bring the year’s total to a respectable figure.
These bass caught in later November, mainly adult fish, were not local Anglesey bass. The locals had departed two months before to their wintering area in the western English Channel. The November fish were bass from further north which had summered off the coast of Lancashire and Cumbria. They too were on their way south for the winter, stopping on the Anglesey coast to stoke up for the long journey ahead. Early in the following year they would be passing by again on their way back north – a month or two before the local fish returned.
These very systematic movements of, mainly, adult bass became apparent when the jigsaw of 100 recaptures from the Anglesey taggings was put together.
The precision of the seasonal movements astonished us. Quite often we recaptured one of our tagged specimens almost exactly a year after tagging, in the exact place where it had been tagged. We marvel at the homing instinct of birds. Surely it is a far greater marvel when fish do it? However do bass manage it?
Using a net to supplement our rod catches was a difficult decision: we had to sink deep-seated scruples. But it was recommended by Lowestoft, and by the Natural Environment Research Council who helped with the cost. With hindsight it is clear that we would never have caught enough bass to achieve our objectives, on rod alone. When bass were present in strength, as on that November night, the net was able to take full advantage of their presence. On rod we would have been lucky to reach double figures, before the shoal moved off with the rising tide.
Netting was in fact a joy in itself. Hard work, but fun – and very informative in a way that rod-fishing could never be. It showed us everything that was present in those shallow waters. Even the smallest fish like weevers were brought in when there was weed in the net to hold them. As with the bass, everything was returned alive to the sea, bar the occasional mullet, mackerel or whiting kept to eat. Altogether we caught 28 different species, some of them unexpected (like the monkfish and lobsters) or even rare in that area (like the solitary black bream and the 3lb twaite shad). One summer there were large numbers of thornback ray off one of the beaches: mostly small but odd ones up to 12lb or so which did the net no good at all, tearing holes in the centre which let several good bass out. Sometimes there was a seal about, and on two occasions one got enclosed in the net. Each escaped without damage to the net.
After Anglesey finished the net was put to good use in two other adult tagging schemes, one in North Pembrokeshire, one in North Cornwall. The Pembrokeshire beaches seemed to be dominated by small sea trout and small bass of the 1976 class (which provided our best single haul, 186). Adult bass were scarce but we tagged enough to confirm that there too they moved to waters of the western English Channel for the winter – and to reveal that exploitation of adult bass was rising (12% in Anglesey (1971-75), 37% in Pembs (1979-81)).
In Cornwall also juveniles predominated, and it was a juvenile which provided our most interesting recapture – on Christchurch Ledge 5 years after tagging. It had grown from ½ lb to 2lb 5oz and was the first instance of a bass adopting for its adult summer life an area different from that in which it had grown up. The tagging scheme in which so many members of the Bass Society participated had for one of its objectives to establish how common this was (it was found not to be usual).
In both Pembrokeshire and Cornwall most of our bass for tagging were caught by rod. But the net had as usual some interesting captures – including in one haul on my local Cornish beach two 3lb giltheads.
The net is now pensioned off to Plymouth University, where it is still in use by marine science students.
From ‘Life with Bass’ by Donovan Kelley