CHAPTER 1 – KNOW YOUR QUARRY

Introducing The Bass

The European sea bass Dicentrarchus labrax is a beautiful, bristling predator that has long been regarded as the premier saltwater sport fish in the United Kingdom.

It is found in the waters of the Mediterranean and Aegean, along the Atlantic coasts of Portugal, northern Spain and western France, throughout the English Channel and in the North Sea. It is also found on the west coast of the United Kingdom and around the Republic of Ireland.

Until recently, the northern limit of the species had been generally accepted as Anglesey and the River Humber, with only the occasional fish above these limits. In recent years the number of bass reported from more northerly latitudes has steadily increased, and now there are active bass stocks in Morecambe Bay, Scotland and even Norway. This phenomenon is doubtless linked to the gradual increase in summer temperatures of the North Sea and the Irish Sea, as a result of successive mild winters due to perhaps the effects of global warming.

Bass are an inshore species, frequenting a wide range of locations such as sandy beaches, headlands, piers, groynes, breakwaters, estuaries, sandbanks, sand bars, rocky shores, and power station outfalls. The maximum attainable weight is assumed to be 30lb.

Paradoxically the bass is a fish which, unlike many others, spends much of its life in the shallowest waters around our coastline and yet very little of its lifestyle is known. Only in recent years are we getting to understand its spawning habits, where it goes in the winter, why some year classes are more prolific than others, and why the bass can be ‘on’ one day and ‘off’ the next for no particular reason. Maybe it’s just as well for the continued survival of the species that we don’t know too much about its activities, so that much of its time can be spent in peace.

A study of the bass reveals many characteristics which can give a better understanding of its habits and behavior. The bass belongs to the Sea Perch family, having a handsome and powerful body covered in tough, fairly large scales which are firmly attached. There are two dorsal fins, the first and larger having generally eight or nine sharp spines. The second has one or two spines followed by soft fin rays. Both the pelvic and ventral fins have spines and there are two spiny points on the gill cover. The edge of the preopercular bone is serrated and there are also a number of forward pointing spines on its lower edge. The tail fin is forked and comparatively large, denoting a powerful swimmer. The forward position of the pelvic fins allows for rapid maneuvering.

The mouth is large with minute teeth on the jaws, tongue and palate. There are also pads of slightly larger but still very small teeth at the entrance to the gullet, and from this we can deduce that the prey is swallowed whole, the gullet pads acting as crushers. The eye is reasonably large and dark, with a golden – orange rim around the pupil. The eyesight is very efficient, and since the eyes are continuously bathed by the water there are no tear glands or eyelids. Being situated on either side of the head, each eye sees a different picture, i.e. monocular vision, which has no perspective. The eyes are capable of being swivelled in the sockets, giving a limited area of binocular vision (with perspective) beyond the front of the head. In addition the properties of the water will have a bearing on whether the bass can see the bait or not. Sea water contains a certain amount of matter in suspension, (e.g. sand, silt, plankton) making the water murky in various degrees. As the light strikes the rippled surface some of it will go down and some will be reflected upwards and away, particularly if the sun is low, at a small angle to the water. In cloudy or overcast conditions there will be even less light hitting the water. The fish cannot alter the aperture of the eye to bring objects into focus, so it is thought that fish can only see a slightly blurred image, and that it is rather shortsighted and not able to see objects at long range.

How then, do we ever catch anything? Well, fortunately for the fish and us they are equipped with a number of other highly developed sense organs which balance out this visual deficiency.

The nostrils of the bass, as with all fishes, consist of a pair of small apertures, one on each side the snout. The nasal pits are lined with folds of skin to provide a greater surface area to the organs of taste and smell which they contain. The sense of smell is acute, and is a further aid to the location of food. From some distance bass will pick up the scent of a ‘high’ bait, or the amino acid juices of ragworm or lugworm.

The lateral line is dark and runs distinctly from high up behind the head, down to the centre of the wrist of the tai1. This is a mucous canal system, which is associated with the fish’s nervous system. The function of these organs (which are also present in the head of the fish) seems to be the detection of vibrations caused by the movements of other fish. Such detections are useful when keeping station in a shoal, or when sensing nearby prey fish.

From the angler’s point of view, vibrations sent out by artificial lures or livebait may be sensed and arouse the predatory instincts. The downside is that the fish can be easily frightened off by vibrations caused by clumsiness in boats, engine noise, oar movements, and heavy footfalls on shore and underwater.

The lateral line also enables a fish to avoid underwater obstacles where the water is so discoloured that the eyesight is impaired. However, this may be concerned with another ability of fish which is positive rheotaxis, the tendency to swim against the current along the line of strongest flow, and keep the current at equal pressure on each side of the body. This property of fishes has been known about for many thousands of years, and all over the world native fishermen have used it to trap fish by driving stakes into the seabed at an angle to the main flow, so that the line of strongest flow ends up with a trap. We can therefore assume that fish detect obstacles by detecting the pressure changes in the water caused by the obstacles.

A most interesting feature in the biological make – up of the bass is its ability to travel from saltwater to brackish or near-freshwater and vice versa without experiencing discomfort.

So, having covered the senses of the bass which are important to the angler, we should bear in mind that there are only two primary objectives in life from a fish’s point of view: food and reproduction. An autopsy of the stomach contents is not, without proper laboratory facilities, always easy to analyze thoroughly, but when considering it from the angler’s point of view we can gain a sufficient indication of what has been eaten from the new and semi-digested contents. Having such a large mouth, the bass can take crabs of considerable dimensions, and I have noted that three species predominate – the edible crab, the common shore crab, and the velvet swimming crab. Over 70 per cent of the bass I have examined which had food in recognizable form have contained crabs. None however, has been seen alive, despite the fact that I am sure they have in some cases only been swallowed a very short time beforehand.

Sandeels, brit and other fish come second on the menu, and it is not unusual to find them in fish which also contain crabs. This prompts me to suggest that the prowling bass will change its feeding pattern swiftly from bottom to mid and surface water, according to the availability of different food types.

Prawns, shrimp, small flatfish and rock pool fish form part of their diet, as well as cuttlefish and squid, but I have not found these to occur very frequently. I have never found any worms recognizable as such in the stomach, but this may be due to rapid breakdown and digestion, although despite lack of evidence in this respect, ragworm is without doubt one of the finest baits, as is razorfish which again, I have not seen in the stomach. It seems that sandeels and brit do not feature largely in the diet of the northerly rage of bass until about June, perhaps earlier in the south of England and the southwest of Ireland, where warmer influence of the North Atlantic Drift is felt. Earlier in the year, bottom fishing with soft crab, peeler or ragworm will produce the bulk of the bag. Later on spinning comes into its own, and towards the back end (September/October) a white cuddy fly or Mylar goat-tail lure will come into its own. Howeyer, these are only generalizations and sometimes as early as April 1n Cardigan Bay, shoals of good size bass move inshore and can be taken by spinnlng from the beach. This happens particularly on calm, mild days after a blow from the south or southwest has eased down.

Colouration in bass seems to be no more than a matter of the particular area in which they are caught; fish taken from an open surf beach can be light on the back and of almost translucent appearance, yet one caught amongst rocks half a mile down the coast will be dark down to the lateral line and more silvery below.

Eyesight coupled with the ability to react swiftly to vibration are features of great importance to the spin fisherman. A bait lying inactive is possibly being covered by sand or shingle movement of the undertow; when a crab or worm bait is fished on the bottom it is more likely to be seen and taken if it has movement, either from a rolling ledger tackle or a long flowing trace that allows the bait to work attractively in the tide, a spinning lure that does not spin or a plug that does not wobble will not give off the necessary vibrations or colour flashes, and therefore is hardly likely to arouse the interest of a bass.

The main point to remember is that the bass is a predator, and if one considers other predatory creatures in nature, they hunt mainly by movement stimuli. A piece of silver paper on a string dangled and made active in front of a cat will prompt it to attack; allow is to hang stationary and the cat will quickly lose interest. A tiger hunting in the jungle will instantly detect the slightest movement of its prey, which, hand it remained stationary, would possibly have been safe.

Consider then, all of these aspects, and when you have used your angling skill to good effect, treat your bass with care and respect, returning each one to the sea as unhurt as possible, keeping the occasional one for eating.

Author: David Hill

Historical note: This article was written for ‘Bass and B.A.S.S’ and was never published as a BASS magazine article.

© Bass Anglers’ Sportfishing Society 2008

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