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Bass from beaches

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by Nigel Haywood

While looking for bass in estuaries is a fairly genteel occupation, and one not too far removed from river fishing, the surf is something else.

I used to fish beaches a lot with conventional tackle. I remember saving up when I was a teenager for a Mitchell 602AP multiplier, famous, according to the advertising literature, for its "gleaming Delrin sideplates", and apparently beloved of men who "muscle up to the breakers." There's no gainsaying it: beach fishing back in those days was a pretty macho occupation. Maybe it still is, though bass rods and multipliers are a lot lighter, and beach fisherman tend to put a lot more thought into their fishing than simply muscling up to the breakers and throwing their baits out as far as possible.

Even the toughest beach will produce bass on the fly if you approach it right. Because, as you'll have guessed by now, the fish aren't randomly spread throughout the sea. They're going to be where the food is. And yes, the answer is to get your map and tidetable, and get down to the beach at low tide. You're once again looking for fish holding features. You're also, to be honest, trying to find somewhere where you have some chance of fishing without being killed.

A recce at low tide will reveal
fish holding features, such
as the groyne, the off shore bar
and the pool in between
Let's tackle this one first. Storm beaches, beloved of surfers, hold bass. Curiously, on these beaches the fish are pretty arbitrarily spread out, as the beaches are often relatively featureless. They will have various channels cut in the sand, and a bewildering variety of cross currents at various states of the tide. But mostly fish will patrol behind the second or third breaker out, moving along the beach looking for small creatures caught in the backwash. These beaches are difficult to fish with a fly rod. If I had to do so, I'd go for a big double-handed 10 weight, with a fast sinking line and a big fly, probably a Deceiver. I'd wear chest waders, with a waterproof coat over the top for when the waves splashed over me. I'd use a line basket. I'd walk forward and cast quickly as the tide receded: just time for one backcast. I'd walk back quickly as the tide came in and I retrieved. I'd have a good life insurance policy. This sort of fishing is dangerous. I've done it in South Africa: at least the water's warm when it knocks you over (which it will, especially if your line basket doesn't have holes in it and a wave breaks over it). In Britain, I've always looked for somewhere else to fish.

There are, of course, far more types of beach than just storm beaches. And there is something hypnotic about spending an evening up to your stripping basket in a gentle surf that makes it worthwhile seeking them out. My favourites will always be those beaches with a stream flowing into them. This gives an obvious holding area for bass, where the freshwater meets the salt. Pick a tide from half ebb downwards, and you can cheat wonderfully: cast out into the outflow, and let the current take your fly out as far as you choose. Then strip it back along the edge of the current. Deadly.

Concentrate on places where
freshwater flows into the sea
Other beaches worth devoting attention to are those on the South and East coast, where a mixture of stone groynes and wooden breakwaters stretch out into the sea. These form excellent holding areas for fish: if you walk out to the end of one at low tide, you'll see why. There are usually areas left as pools, hollowed out by the currents, often containing prawns or small fish. Fishing these is relatively straightforward: you don't even need to cast far, just work your lure along the edges. As usual, a Deceiver or Clouser, in the inevitable chartreuse and white, is the sensible choice of fly.

I like to use a slightly longer than usual rod on the beach, to help keep the backcast up. In rough conditions, I'll use a 9 1/2 foot ten weight, with an intermediate line. If there's any sort of surf, I'll move to a sinker. Anything else rapidly gets churned up in the waves, and tends to throw your fly back on your feet. A basket is essential. It is very important not to wade in too far. Cross currents can soon have you over, and if you're spending a lot of time worrying about getting dunked, you're not fishing effectively.

The business end of a five pounder
As you move further west, you come across a lot of shallow, rocky beaches. These are some of the finest bass holding areas imaginable, but they require very different techniques. The fact that they're rocky rules out fast sinking lines: you lose too many flies. Even an intermediate is risky. You have to use a floater, and make sure you fish when the surf levels aren't too high. The approach is a lot closer to rock fishing. Unsurprisingly, these beaches provide good plug fishing, which gives you a clue. It is worth trying some large, say 2/0, Deceivers, or perhaps (my discovery of this summer) some of Bob Popovics' Siliclone patterns. Even more enjoyable is to use a popper: the sight of a bass coming up the wave and smashing into your fly gives a real adrenaline rush. Knowledge of tides is vital on rocky beaches. There are often channels that fill rapidly with the flow and can leave you with a nail biting journey back to land. And the fish themselves can become very localised at certain states of the tide.

This leads me to another point. It's all very well being a fly fisherman. But most people aren't. And most people who catch fish in the sea aren't. If you want to catch fish, you're going to have to find them, and you need all the help you can get. Talk to bait fisherman. Talk even more to spin fishermen and pluggers. There's no point going into the local tackle shop and asking where you can fly fish. But they'll certainly know where you can catch fish on spinners. An essential part of recceing is going into tackle shops and drinking their coffee (amazing how many stay in business, the amount of coffee they give to visitors who don't buy anything). Do try and buy something from them, if only a few hooks and some leader material. These are some of the best investments you can make.

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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