CHAPTER 5 – GOOD DAYS, BAD DAYS
One Morning In May
“So what time are you going to collect me?” asked my disbelieving friend for the third time that evening, and the answer was the same: “2.00am” “Are you sure?” he replied, “Oh yes” said I, with a hint of glee that shocked even me, “if we are to hit the tide right we have to be on the beach by 3.00am.”
It all sounded a good idea the night before over a curry and a few beers, and to make matters worse he didn’t leave with his girlfriend until 11.30 p.m. So when the alarm went off an hour after I got to bed I wasn’t really in the mood to go, but I felt I shouldn’t let him down. So, with much effort and rubbing of eyes I pulled myself together and set off to pick him up.
After an uneventful journey to our chosen beach we pulled into the car park and another car was already there. Not a good sign – but better than seeing two cars I suppose. We tackled up as quickly as possible without a torch; it wasn’t intentional, just that neither of us had thought to bring one. I’m always in a rush to just get going and often overlook the little things! One day I’m going to forget the rod or reel.
The beach was a good ten-minute walk from the car park, but well before we got there we could see a passable imitation of the Eddystone lighthouse beaming straight up! Why beach fishermen have to use those things is beyond me. We made for an area well away from our illuminating comrades and chose to fish near some old breakwaters. The weather was totally different from the previous week, with a fairly stiff southwesterly putting a nice chop on the water, and low grey cloud giving a misty feel to the morning once dawn had broken. The barometer was falling, and all-in-all it looked ideal compared with the high pressure that had been with us for the best part of a week.
An hour and a half later neither of us had had a touch. My friend had been alternating between plugs and spinners while I remained on the fly. Casting was difficult due to the direction of the wind; if you use the fly rod you will know what I mean when I say it was over my wrong shoulder. The way to get round this is to backward cast – stand with your back to the sea make like you are going to cast up the beach, then when you are ready to shoot the line, instead of letting go on the forward stroke, give your rod an extra firm flick on the back cast and let go, out to sea. You now have your fly presented hopefully about 25-30 metres out; sometimes it goes wrong, but it will save you having your fly hit you in the back of the head, which will happen if you continue to cast conventionally.
We walked a half-mile up the beach casting here and there probing the water with fan casting. By now it was 6.00am and high tide was two hours ago, the water now starting to move out quite quickly. We were on the end of the springs and from past experience this only gives you a short window on this beach. West Sussex beaches are all pretty much the same, lacking the rocks of east Sussex and Dorset, so any feature you can find is a good starting point. Out in front of me at that moment there were no features, so I suggested to my friend that we head back to the old breakwaters. He’s actually a carp fisherman who fancied a change, but by the look on his face he was going to stay a carp angler.
Half an hour later we arrived at the first of the breakwaters, noting a few deep gullys appearing as the tide fell, some of which looked to be good access and departure routes for fish. I checked the time – 6.30am, and started to cast my fly out. Cast and strip cast and strip, about six casts between breakwaters, then move on to the next one. By the third set of breakwaters my mind had started to wander on to warm beds, breakfast and a cup of tea.
At the end of the retrieve I always check the fly for weed while it is still in the water. This time, as I looked down I saw a bass of about 4lb following it, right in the edge of the surf in no more than a foot of water. It was quite spooky to see it ghost in, and with a quick check of the fly I cast back out, now fully charged up with high expectations. As with all things fishy, nothing happens when you expect it to, and after ten minutes of casting and retrieving there were no further signs of bass.
Eventually I made a long cast in a short lull in the wind. It must have gone 35 metres, which may sound long for a fly rod but with a shooting head combined with a double-haul cast, this distance can be regularly achieved. After a few adjustments of line to get it to sit in the stripping basket, I began my retrieve for the thousandth time that morning. I looked up to see where my friend was and saw him two breakwaters away, pouring a cup of coffee! Now I really was torn, as I desperately wanted a hot drink, but I did want to keep fishing. Just where had he been hiding that flask all morning? All of a sudden the line I was stripping went tight, as if I had hooked the bottom, but this was not the bottom because whatever it was moved off suddenly, shaking its head in a bid to rid itself of the item it had just eaten.
Small bass usually stop after a few metres, but this fish just kept on going.
Thirty, forty, then fifty metres later it stopped, and I managed to sort myself out and gain some composure. Quickly I looked at my friend to see if he had noticed but he had his head down attending to something or other. The fish was still around fifty metres out and not doing much so I began to wind some line back onto the reel. Before I had gained more than ten metres it was off again on another long run. It was a case holding the rod high with the drag slightly turned up, to slow the fish down. This went on for a couple of minutes, with me gaining line then losing it, and it was obvious who was in charge. All I could do was hang on until it tired somewhat, and then I would be able to get as much line back as I could. Ten minutes had gone by since I had hooked the beast, and I shot a glance at my friend who had by now noticed my predicament, and was hotfooting it over to me. “Is it a good one?” Just as he said that, the fish surfaced about thirty metres out and just lay on the top. “Christ, its huge” we both uttered in unison, and with that I tried to put some pressure on. The bass gave a kick and was off again. At this stage of the fight I start to worry about the hook hold and how the long fight is affecting the fish, ending up with me being a bag of nerves, especially when I’ve seen the fish and it’s a good one. My friend had moved thirty metres to my right and began to cast his plug out, and rightly so, as there were bound to be more fish present.
Slowly I began to get the upper hand and it surfaced again ten metres out. Now was the difficult part – the fish was practically beaten but how to get it onto the beach without a net, without pulling the hook out or breaking the 8lb tippet? It made one last short run then I waited for a wave to help wash the fish up onto the beach. This came obligingly and once the fish was on the beach I couldn’t believe the size of it! It weighed 9lb 2oz and was by far my biggest bass and all the more pleasing to have caught it on a fly rod with a home-made fly. After taking some pictures I returned it, but it needed a few minutes to gain enough strength to swim off.
After all the pandemonium I began to sort out the mess around me so as to get fishing again. My friend had resumed fishing after taking the photos, but as yet he hadn’t had a touch. I moved about twenty metres along the beach and began to fish again. The first cast was not a good one, and line had tangled around the rod so I began to untangle it. I needed to untangle it quickly because I was using an intermediate sinking head, and didn’t want the fly to sink too deep as there was a lot of bottom weed in the area. The water was about six feet deep so I had about a minute before my line would be fully sunk. After twenty seconds I had untangled the line and was starting my retrieve. After three strips the line went taut and another fish was on! This fish felt like another big one, and it made a searing run out to sea taking a lot of line with it. I turned to my somewhat disbelieving friend and mentioned something about him taking up fly fishing – he didn’t look impressed. The fish had stopped and I started to get some line back, then I felt it shake its head. Suddenly the line fell slack and I had lost it. A sickening feeling at the best of times, and this fish felt as big as the previous one. I think that this fish shed the hook because of the gauge of the wire; both were size 4 but this one was a different brand and thicker than the one that caught the first fish, and more difficult to set with a fly rod.
The tide was falling fast now and so were our chances of hooking any more big bass, as once the water reaches the drop-off most of the fish have gone out of range into deeper water. After noting the times of the takes we fished on for another hour and my friend finally managed a small bass of around eight inches.
I have made a couple of return trips to the same beach but have only caught schoolies, garfish and the odd mackerel. The tides have not been quite right for another dawn raid with fairly low air pressure. Other beaches in the area have yielded a few fish, but I think that for best results this mark has an optimum combination of time of tide, time of day and air pressure.
The gear I used for these trips is as follows:
- 9 foot rods in both 6 and 8 weights, the 8 weight being for windy conditions;
- lines are weight-forward (WF6F) with shooting head 9 weight on the heavier rod, in both floating and slow-sinking densities;
- flies are based on an American pattern, the Deep Clouser Minnow, in a variety of colours, the favourites being orange/white, and blue/white with lead eye dumbbells;
- reels are graphite, for economy and non-corrosion;
- line tray;
- eye protection – to help to see the fish, and save an eye from being lost due to a mistimed cast.
Author: Steve Binckes
Historical note: This article first appeared in BASS magazine no.99 Autumn 2001.
Photo: Keir Sims
© Bass Anglers’ Sportfishing Society 2008