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Putting it all together: Estuary Bass

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by Nigel Haywood

Having looked at a general approach to saltwater fly fishing, and some of the thinking behind choosing tackle, I thought it might be helpful to give some ideas on how to put it all together. So the next few articles will cover ways of tackling various species of fish in various environments.

Bass are probably the most sought after species for the flyrodder. They grow to a good size, with even school bass - fish in the 1-2lb category - fighting well on balanced tackle. One of the easiest places to find them is in the many estuaries around the British coast. Bass are fairly tolerant of fresh water, and can be found a long way upstream of the estuary mouth. They are particularly good targets for someone dipping his toe into the salt for the first time. In an estuary, you can usually find somewhere sheltered, when the open coast is unfishable. One of my favourite spots on the South Coast is on a bit of an estuary facing north: even the nastiest South West wind blows nicely away from my right shoulder, making it fishable for me, as a right hander, when I wouldn't even think of risking life and limb on a nearby beach. You can also fish estuaries with much lighter tackle: I'll happily use a 6, or at most, 7 weight outfit for 90% of my fishing.

Look for places where the
current goes over a point
But let's go back to the rules. Location is vital. Fish are no more spread evenly throughout an estuary than they are in the sea at large. Ideally, you will spend as much time as possible on the water, and get some idea of where the fish are and when. But your first step, having found a suitable looking estuary (and just about any you find on the map will have bass in them), is to get a tidetable, and go and recce the estuary at low tide.

This will teach you your first lesson: tide times are usually given for ports on the coast. You'll find that the further inland you go, and the more convoluted the estuary, the later high and low tides will be.

What are you looking for in a recce? Just about anything unusual about the estuary's contours. Sand flats, bars, sudden drop-offs, cut away banks, rocky promontories: anything, in short, that affects the flow of the current. Some will be clearly visible at low tide; others you will have to deduce by looking at the surface of the water, as it goes smoothly over a deep and riffles over shallows.

A small fish on
a calm afternoon
These are places where, at various states of the tide, you will find fish. Look on them as edges, a key concept in finding fish. Bass will happily hunt for food. But they prefer to expend as little energy as possible in doing so. Edges form natural larders. Small fish, prawns, crabs, even swimming worms will look for shelter out of the current. Where they lurk, bass will come looking. But even edges which don't form shelters, such as the inside of a bend, are worth exploring: stunned or dying fish will be swept through them, forming an easy interception for a bass holding position just out of the main stream.

But edges are not simply geographical. Time is another factor. Different states of the tide affect them differently. For an hour or so around high or low tide the water tends to stand about. It's often an unpleasant time to fish, as all sorts of flotsam and jetsam, usually clumps, or, more infuriatingly, small pieces of weed, float about and get caught in the line. Then for the first hour or two of the flood or ebb, the water starts moving quickly, reaching its maximum three or so hours into the flood, and usually three and four hours into the ebb. The effects of tides on estuaries would provide enough material for a book, so I can't go into much detail here. Again, your own observation is essential. You'll notice, for example, that currents are much less strong on neap tides. Fish are attracted to different features at different stages. An obvious example: the shelter provided by a sand bar will be on one side of the bar on the ebb, on the other on the flood.

You may catch the
occasional nuisance fish
Against this, you need to know where the bass are likely to be at what states of the tide. In most estuaries, they'll move up with the flood, and drop back with the ebb. Some features, such as oyster beds, will hold them most of the time that there's sufficient depth of water. You need to learn the pattern.

One of the most important edges for bass is light. They tend to be at their most active either at first or last light. They will take a fly happily in the middle of the brightest day and in the middle of the darkest night. But, if your life depended on it, I'd go for first light. Apart from anything else, it's likely to be a much more peaceful time, with the water less likely to be disturbed by power boaters, jet skiers, or (as happened on one memorable occasion) sailing boats with their keels missing drifting straight at you.

Once you've done your recce, and picked out two or three promising features, fish them hard. I'd go for a mobile approach, with the minimum of tackle. A 6 weight rod, saltwater-proof reel with a floating or intermediate line, and a range of smallish flies is all you need. A net and a line basket are pretty well essential, and I like the versatility of waders, even though bass are often very close to the shore, and getting in the water too early can frighten them off pretty definitively. My fly selection is pretty limited, and covered by an earlier article. Copper Fredes are good, as are Fritz Shrimps, small Clousers (difficult to cast heavy flies on a 6-weight) and Deceivers. Size 6 or 8 is often enough. I've also grown fond of Hairwing Butchers, though these can attract all manner of nuisance fish.

But before you head off, a plea. Most estuaries are bass nursery areas. You're allowed to fish them from the shore, though not usually from a boat. There are times when they are full of very small bass. Handle them carefully, or even stop fishing. You can do a lot of damage, and the future of bass fishing - which is still precarious - depends on these stocks. Barbless hooks are a good start. Can I also put in a plea for not bashing bass on the head as a matter of course? By all means keep one or two, if you want to eat them (providing they're bigger than the local minimum size, which may be bigger than the national one -36cm). But please don't regard them as the equivalent of stocked trout, and fill your freezer.

Nigel Haywood was brought up on the Cornish coast, and has fished in the sea for as long as he can remember. He tied his first saltwater fly over thirty years ago, and over the last ten years has focused almost exclusively on the fly rod.

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