The following information is based on personal experience over the last 35 years fishing from various south coast ports from Newhaven to Weymouth and across to the island of Alderney. It is intended to just give a taste of the terrain where I have found Bass and the techniques that I have used to pick up the fish. I have deliberately stuck to bait fishing the different locations as I am in no way qualified to write knowledgeably about lure fishing. However more of my time is being spent on discovering more about lure fishing and I hope to learn much more over the next few years. I would encourage the reader to keep an open mind with your fishing and remember that there are no hard and fast rules when chasing Bass.
Inshore Wreck Fishing
by Clive Hodges
To be very clear, it is perfectly possible to catch Bass from wrecks far from land or in very deep water. I have done both when fishing from charter boats and it is almost impossible to return these fish if you choose to do so. They suffer the bends in the same way as Cod and Pollack do and their swim bladders will inflate as they come up. As 90% plus of my Bass are now returned I focus my Bass fishing on wrecks in less than 100 feet of water.
Due to the shoals of Pout on the wrecks that I fish dead baits are pretty much a waste of time. There is one exception to this rule though. Many years ago before I perfected live baiting for Bass I fell upon a technique that was the subject of an article by Stuart Arnold in one of the magazines. My understanding is that the technique was created due to the fact that a Mackerel flapper fished in and around a Pout infested wreck lasts about five minutes with only the head surviving the attacks. However if you cut the Mackerel into two inch chunks, those baits will survive a little longer.
By anchoring uptide of the wreck and deploying some chunks as ground bait you can catch Bass on chunks used as hook baits. The hook is inserted one side of the top fin with the point coming out the other side. This appears to last a little longer from the Pout attacks. Be warned that this is a war of attrition with the Pout. I think what happens is that the Pout devour a number of baits and by doing so generate a source of smell that any Bass present can home in on. If the Bass turn up before you get fed up feeding Pout you can take a few decent size Bass off the wreck. The other downside though is that in 60-100 feet of water you might just wake up a few resident Conger. They make short work of 30lb flurocarbon trace line and quite often will bring the session to a close. Chunking for Bass though can be a good technique.
My main plan of attack on inshore wrecks though is to fish live baits on the drift. In my book there is no such thing as a wreck in water that is too shallow. If you have some structure in water less that 40 foot deep I would definitely plan to present the live bait under a float. Set the float so that it fishes six feet clear of the shallowest part of the structure and then set up the drift with the float away from the boat. The plan, which is a real challenge to execute, is to get the float to go over the structure without your boat doing the same thing. The other challenge, as I only use circle hooks with live baits now, is that you have to wait for the float to sink before you can apply pressure to get the Bass away from the structure.
On deeper wrecks the live bait is fished on a Portland rig directly below the rod tip. Your aim is to have the live bait fishing in the bottom 12-15 feet of water which, if the water is clear, is plenty close enough to get a take from actively feeding Bass. I always fish the lead on a weak link tied to the bottom swivel of the Portland rig so that if just the lead unexpectedly catches structure that is all that is lost. 30lb flurocarbon will survive the odd scrape against the structure but check it before each drift. Stuart Arnold told me that he once had a Bass on the surface that he was convinced was over 20lbs. As the angler shortened up on the line the Bass made one last bid for freedom and the trace parted, it transpired that the angler was aware that the trace had been damaged on a previous drift!
You have to exercise a level of restraint when using live baits presented on a circle hook. Whilst I cannot claim to have seen a Bass take a live bait I do firmly believe the following and what I have experienced matches the theory. I believe that a Bass will first charge and kill the live bait without taking it down. It then returns to the bait as it drops through the water and takes it head first before turning and swimming away. If there are just a few Bass present then the gap between kill and take can be 30 seconds or more but if there are enough Bass on the wreck then the gap is much shorter, driven I believe, by simple competition for food.
When fishing this technique I will first feel the live bait becoming more active as it tries to swim away from the Bass. Then the first hit normally feels like a little bump or knock. At this point you must do nothing, don’t move the rod or touch the reel. Several different things can happen next. Sometimes you get a series of additional knocks and then a lunge, just wait for the weight of the Bass to come onto the rod, which will set the circle hook and then ease the Bass away from the wreck. Sometimes all of the weight comes off as the Bass is coming up through the water column in which case reel until you start to get weight on the rod, the Bass will realise something is up and it may then dive for the bottom. Sometimes weight comes on straight away and you’ll need to hold the fish away from the structure using just the give in the rod to do so to prevent the fish diving into the structure. But sometimes you get nothing, you know the live bait is dead but the Bass doesn’t return, in which case you just have to put it down to experience and return to set up another drift with a fresh live bait.
Occasionally a circle hook will turn back into a bait or lie flat against it so that the Bass is not hooked. One particular time I had this happen where I had a good hit near the bottom, the weight then came on the rod tip and I commenced to fight a decent fish. However half way up the weight came off and it was clear the fish had not been hooked. As I slowly retrieved the bait (always do this as a second take is always a possibility) it was taken again. As the fish came into view I could see that it was accompanied by half a dozen other Bass, all of the fish were 8lbs plus! The fish with the bait in its mouth dropped it and it was immediately taken by one of the other Bass. This time the fish was hooked properly although at 9lbs plus I didn’t see it for a while. As this fish was hooked in the lip the only explanation that I can come up with was that the hook was in some way masked for the first two takes.
The location of the fish on the wreck can vary each time you pay a visit and you need to spend time hunting them down. Some wrecks will hold fish on one particular part of the structure. Some wrecks will only fish at a particular state or direction of tide. Sometimes the Bass are uptide of the wreck and sometimes they appear to be down tide, although I am convinced that often a Bass will follow a live bait some way away from the wreck. I’ve had live baits become nervous as they come over the wreck and remain nervous for thirty or forty yards past the wreck before getting a take.
If you do fish with a fellow angler I encourage you to share information during the drift. My brother and I often fish opposite sides of the boat when drifting in order to keep the live baits apart and cover more ground. Getting double hook ups is not uncommon and sharing when a live bait is becoming nervous helps to raise the concentration levels.
There is a learning curve to live baiting and there is a learning curve to drifting a wreck. I started off using treble hooks in the nose of a live Mackerel. It is a very successful method, well practised by commercial rod and line fisherman but unfortunately has a 75% plus mortally rate for the Bass. This is because a Bass will take the bait down head first once it has been killed so the treble ends up in the throat of the fish. I spent a lot of trips not catching Bass as I tried different ways of hooking the live baits. Reading US magazines put me onto circle hooks and BASS members Allan Hughes and Simon Frobisher helped me considerably by sharing their practices. By becoming a member of BASS you will instantly have access to a lot of information on live baiting on the BASS members forum.
Learn to use your plotter when drifting wrecks and mark the outline of the wreck. If you hook a fish away from the wreck drop a symbol on the plotter, it may happen several times over the years and represent a holding area. If you hook a Bass on the wreck make a mental note of where that fish was hooked. Set the boat up at exactly the same angle for each drift, each day this angle can be different to allow for the wind that may be blowing but by repeating the angle of the boat at the start of the drift you will have a greater chance of repeating the drift over the same part of the wreck or intentionally drift over a different part of the wreck. The aim is to get to the point where you can intentionally cover one particular part of the wreck each drift. As important as finding where the Bass are on a particular day is knowing where they aren’t so blank drifts are also a source of information.
I have a small number of favourite wrecks and they can produce big fish at the right time of year under the right tide strength and state. I don’t sleep the night before these trips because I know that everything is right. I have been on those wrecks when I’ve seen other boats approaching and I have drifted off of them and moved away. I can always go back to those wrecks another day but I can’t live with the risk of being the person who might unwittingly show someone else where the big Bass are or be party to that person killing some of those Bass. Those big Bass that I so enjoy catching and taking photos of are the future of the sport, they are the successful spawners, to have grown that big they are the best of the gene pool, so they need looking after.
Be thoughtful when bringing them into the boat, a set of lip grips won’t damage the fins in the same way a wide mesh net will. Don’t dangle an 8lb plus fish by a lip grip though for photos but support them under the belly with your free hand. Do weigh an 8lb plus fish in some sort of weigh sling that supports the fish along its length. On return to the water support the fish as it gathers its senses. My brother and I have both spent several minutes waiting for double figure fish to recover before release. Keep the fish upright and don’t let it flop over on its side. A tell tale sign to look out for is the pectoral fins starting to move which shows that the Bass is trying to keep itself upright. By holding onto the tail at this point you are in the best position for the fish to let you know when it is ready to go. You won’t be able to hold onto a big Bass by the tail when it recovers its strength.
Whilst I love every aspect of hunting for Bass the ultimate thrill is watching a double figure fish swimming gracefully away, down through the water column.