Bass Fishing In Other Days by Donovan Kelley
I have recently been going through my old Fishing Gazettes preparatory to disposing of them. It will be a wrench to see them go, but they take up yards and yards of shelf space and neither my son nor my son-in-law would want to take on that sort of commitment. To soften the blow I have taken copies of articles, letters and reports on subjects which interest me – bass, mullet and tunny chiefly. What do these early references tell us about bass fishing in the first half of the century?
Answer, not much – at least in the earliest years, up to 1929. In that period there are only eight major references to bass. Two deal with the huge assemblies which used to be commonplace in those days at certain offshore rocks, in this case the Eddystone and the Dart Mewstone. However bass are regularly mentioned in the routine coastal reports and it comes over clearly that they were not only abundant but much sought after. A report of October 1916 records bass of 10 and 13¼ lb from Southsea Pier; another (Nov. 1924) a catch of 72 weighing 200 lbs by 2 rods off Tenby; and in 1928 one of 62 weighing 150 lbs from “the mouth of a famous South Devon stream”; and many more in like vein.
The popular method was fly-fishing from a boat easing down the wind to a shoal feeding at the surface on herring fry. Writers were unanimous that for the method to succeed the bass had to be on the surface. A light double-handed fly-rod was recommended, with a large white/silver fly or a bright salmon fly. A dried piece of soleskin shaped like a small fish often replaced the fly. Places particularly mentioned were the Bideford Bar, the outer Thames banks, and various spots on the south coast. A catch of 20 weighing 65 lbs was taken at Steyning (1909). Bass caught by the method were usually small fish of ¾ lb to 2½ lb. Occasionally all the fish in the shoal would be rather larger, and one catch at Bideford Bar was of 5 fish weighing 4 to 9 lbs (1916).
In this earliest period there is hardly a mention of shore-fishing – unless landing on one of the Manacles rocks can be so described: the author caught many good bass and pollack from the rock, casting with an 18-foot greenheart salmon fly rod. A strong man, evidently.
In the 1930’s bass got much more coverage. This was the heyday of the British Sea Anglers Society and members often wrote of their experiences, particularly off the Cornish coast. A regular contributor was Col. J. O. Clayzey, who gave exciting accounts of his fishing at Gull Rock and the Manacles, and in the Fal estuary near his home. Guy de Maupas described the fishing at the Gwingeas Rocks near Mevagissey where he lived. Fly-fishing was now fading out of the picture: the herring fishery had collapsed, and with it the huge shoals of brit which had so often brought bass to the surface. Shore fishing still got scant mention, but Major Lea Birch of Brixham was starting to write about the rock fishing in his area, extolling the virtues of float tackle and live prawn for bass. Dr. Gordon Reeve was experimenting with American plugs for salmon and sea fish and wrote many articles giving the results of his experiences and those of others with whom he was in touch. He was probably the first to catch a bass on plug, at the Manacles in 1936. Others followed his lead at Dartmouth and elsewhere. Favoured plugs were the Pal-o’-Mine and the River Runt Spook, both jointed. (I still have my Runt – but I never took a bass on it).
An unusual report in 1937 told of a mullet hooked in Penarth Dock which, just as it was being lifted from the water, was seized by a large bass. Both were successfully landed. The bass weighed 9 lb 13¼ oz.
Compared to to-day commercial catches of bass were infrequent before the war. They were made with large commercial beach-seines and were reported as unusual news items rather than as something potentially harmful to local stocks. I noted the following –
- December 1927 Approx. 3800 lbs from Chesil Beach, Portland; sold for £100.
- February 1932 “Several thousand” netted at Coverack, average 3 lbs.
- Feb 1933 15 tons netted at Sennen Cove, many 5 – 6 lbs.
- Feb 1934 1040 netted at Coverack, average 4 lbs, best 12 lbs.
A foretaste of to-day’s problems occurred in 1936, when a report from south-west Wales noted the concern felt by both anglers and commercial fishermen at “poaching by Breton trawlers within the prescribed 3-mile limits”.
In those pre-war days anglers and fishermen, and indeed scientists, were largely ignorant of the life history of the bass. I found only two references which showed an interest beyond the mere catching of bass, and their numbers and size. In October 1918 a reader sent in scales from a 10½ lb bass he had caught at Looe and gave his assessment of the age at 17 years. A feasible age. (He was 20 years ahead of me in the scale-reading field). In September 1936 John Garrad (“Seangler”) reported finding a shoal of very small bass in Portsmouth Harbour many of which had black spots on their sides. We now know of course that most first-year bass have these spots when they are about 3 to 4 inches. They disappear in the following year, never to return.
In the war years, 1939-45, very little appeared on any aspect of sea angling. An exception was an informative article by “Lemon Gray” on bass and mullet fishing at Seaton in East Devon. F. C. Borley’s well-known Felixstowe fish of 18 lb 2 oz got a full report (1943). It displaced W. G. Byron’s 17½ lb fish from Castlerock in Northern Ireland. Byron wrote later of a huge fish lost when he had to leap up the rocks to escape a killer wave. It appeared from his very detailed description that it would have been a 20 lb-plus fish.
After the war sea angling, particularly from the shore, was increasing rapidly in popularity. In 1946 to 1950 there was improved coverage, notably with articles on bass fishing at many places including Eastbourne, the East Devon beaches, the Exe and Teign estuaries, Salcombe and Woollacombe. As a result of the great increase in adult stocks during the war, when fishing virtually ceased, there were huge numbers of school bass present in the estuaries. It had not yet dawned that the killing of these immature bass might jeopardise the future of bass fishing. Not once in the FG’s of 1901-1950 was there a reference to conservation. This report from Exmouth in September 1946 was typical of what was happening in south-western nurseries –
During the past week-end anglers were packed elbow to elbow on the pier hauling up school bass as fast as they could bait their hooks with ragworm. Mr. Parkin, with four hooks on his cast, frequently landed four fish at a time, and his total for one venture amounted to 150.
Small-bass catches of that order were still regarded as something of an achievement. Several years were to pass before the need for restraint became generally recognised; and many more before statutory restraints were introduced.
The Fishing Gazette continued publishing for several years after 1950. The times were turning against small publishing houses however, and in 1966 it closed down. There were several articles on bass in those closing years. Some were by me – a fact which inhibits commentary here. There were also some interesting reports of catches. One which I particularly remember was of 10 bass weighing an astonishing 104½ lbs caught by three Weymouth anglers at Burton Bradstock in 1953. That must be one of the best catches of really large bass ever made from the shore.
Like many traditionalists I lamented the passing of the F. G. For bass anglers it left a vacuum that lasted for 8 years. Then the BASS Magazine was born – and has gone from strength to strength. Long may it continue.
From ‘Life with Bass’ by Donovan Kelley