Inshore boat angling by Steve Pitts

A few years back we were having a very lean time of it in Dorset. Since the late 80s our bass catches were tailing off to such an extent that it was a major achievement to catch a fish of any size. We had tried every thing that we could think of to improve our catch rate and were still only meeting with occasional success. It wasn’t just Mike and I who were failing to catch either. Everyone we spoke to seemed to be having similar if not worse luck than ourselves.

During the winter and early spring of ’96 I decided to devote less time to catching bass, but by the time May and June had arrived I was as keen as ever and determined to adopt a radical change of tactics.

This change of approach lay beyond the all too familiar lines of gill nets that prevented the Purbeck bass from reaching the shoreline, and out in the deeper water and in the tide races of St Aldhelm’s and Worbarrow Tout. I was going to need a boat for the next phase so my first problem was to find a suitable craft.

I already owned a 3 metre GRP dinghy with 4hp outboard but this wasn’t quite seaworthy enough. Fine for mullet fishing in the local river but something with better sea keeping qualities and more room was what I was after.

Anyone who has tried to choose an angling boat from the array of craft available will know that what a struggle it can be to arrive at a shortlist, but I whittled it down to an Orkney Strikeliner, a Seahog Hunter, or an Alaska 500. I hadn’t bargained upon my wife and kids ganging up and outvoting me into the Boston Whaler, centre console type of boat, suitable for skiing etc. We looked through the classified ads and did the rounds of our local boat dealers and eventually spotted a little used boat, engine and trailer rig for sale in Poole. I have to admit that I was daunted by the possible outlay for such a set-up but was pleasantly surprised when my wife plucked up the courage and approached the salesman. It was four grand cheaper than I had expected but still a lot more than I had earmarked for my bass boat. A family discussion took place over the following week and the outcome was inevitable. A ski boat was what we needed and if I could also fish from it, well that was just a coincidence.

The boat was in fact an Outhill Flying Fox, a make of craft that I hadn’t heard of, but by chance the very same boat was featured in Motor Boats Monthly magazine. M.B.M had run a Flying Fox for five years and they reckoned to have subjected their boat to the equivalent of twenty years ‘abuse’ as they put it… and it was still going strong. The feature also covered a cross channel trip, made in mid-October from Dover to Boulogne, in a force 4. A stiff enough test, I thought, and the boat had passed with flying colours. The magazine described the Flying Fox as a tough 17 footer, with the bow of a sports boat and the flat rear of a dory, giving a balanced compromise between speed and stability. There was no mention of its fish catching abilities but then again that would be down to my crew and me.

The 75-hp Mariner that was fitted to the ‘Fish-Sport’ version of this Flying Fox was given a thorough going over by a qualified engineer and pronounced A1. The trailer appeared to have seen very little water in its two-year life so it looked like everything was shipshape.

Our first few outings in our new boat were in the relative safety of Poole Harbour. It was a big step up from my little dinghy and a lot more fun! Now it was time to get some serious fishing done.

If you re-read Alan Hughes’ article in the last BASS magazine you will get the same outcome of our first dozen or so trips. We zoomed about all over the place to areas that we thought would produce bass but our success was not as immediate as I had planned. We caught a number of smallish bass from reefs and ledges along with some pollack and cracking ballan wrasse. In fact the wrasse outnumbered and outweighed the bass, but we were happy to catch them on our plugs and spinning gear. We spent some time drifting along within casting range of the shore under the impressive limestone buttresses. This is the style of fishing that I most enjoy, actively searching and casting, where it is virtually impossible to access on foot.

The knack is to position the boat so that any breeze or tidal current carries the boat parallel to the shore. If you’re lucky and conditions are favourable, you can follow the shoreline for half a mile or more and cover a lot of ground during each drift. However, any onshore wind can result in a very short drift before the boat needs correcting. It’s worth mentioning that the depth of water is seldom more that 2-3 meters, often much less. You need to keep an eye out for submerged rocks or ledges so it can pay, if you’re in very shallow water, to have an oar or gaff handle at the ready to push away from danger. The centre console type of boat lends itself well to this style of fishing, as without a fixed cabin or cuddy it’s possible to cast a full 360 degrees around the boat. As a result we don’t have to worry if the boat spins around whilst drifting.

We have tried trolling but the large main engine, so useful for getting from one mark to the next quickly, is both thirsty and too noisy. Mike had a Mercury electric Trolling motor languishing in his shed, so we tried using that but even a fully charged car battery was drained in a few minutes. It seemed to be perfect for near silent propulsion and a subsequent up-rating of the battery to a 75 amp/hour, deep cell leisure battery has enabled over an hour of continuous use. This stealth technology has proven very useful on the final approach to our marks or to correct our line of drift in shallow water.

Things were beginning to come together during the summer of ’98 but the frequent poxy weather kept the boat on its trailer for too many weekends. One evening in August we arrived at the slip-way as the sun was dipping towards the ridge of the Purbecks. Our usual jobs of loading up and launching the boat have been reduced to less than 15 minutes so it didn’t take us long to reach our first mark. I had forgotten to pack the depth/fish finder and had jokingly suggested that without this electronic aid we would probably catch some fish. It’s odd, but I guess you rely on instinct, knowledge and observation when you don’t have the gadgetry to rely on. We didn’t need the depth reading capabilities of the Hummingbird as we could see every detail of the seabed through the crystal clear water. We could see the increase in the flow of the flooding tide as it ran over the ledges and slackened over the deeper gullies. As we drifted along, within 30 meters of the shore, Mike recounted the circumstances of previous bass catches with each boulder, ledge and headland that we approached.

Strangely a pattern began to appear. As our plugs were cast, almost up onto the shingle and shale of the beach these reminiscences were accompanied by takes from bass of up to 3lbs. It was as if Mike was predicting each hotspot…, which of course he was. The old adage once a good mark, always a good mark was holding true. It was just that we were fishing them from a different viewpoint. We ended the evening with several fish between us, and a promise to return on the next set of springs.

A fortnight later we were joined by Mike’s son, Marc, who hadn’t fished for bass for twenty years. You’ve guessed it. Marc caught the first fish on a J11, and that turned out to be the best bass of the evening at a shade under 5lb. He was as pleased as punch and so were we. That reminds me; I must send him a membership form!

This article originally appeared in BASS Magazine No: 89, Spring 1999.