An Irish Anglers World

Modern Day Shore Angling, a Monochrome Sport?

Is over fishing in tandem with a sea angling media more interested in advertising revenue, a politically inept sea angling lobby, and shifting baselines of sea angler perception regarding marine biodiversity limiting the potential of sea angling for modern day practitioners?

Bass it would appear circa 2012 constitute for many Irish sea anglers the only viable inshore species worth targeting; lure fishing being the preferred approach, how boring. A glance through postings on various sea angling forums, social media sites, and the predominance of in particular, bass related copy, within key trade magazines endorses this view. Quite obviously driven by tackle companies through both on and off line media, lure fishing for bass has become big business, boringly big business quite capable of leaving a big hole in your pocket while limiting the modern sea angling experience to walking the dog over a shallow reef at dawn or working the latest lead head slug.

Waiting for a bite, Rostoonstown strand, Co. Wexford, Ireland.

Not withstanding the bass tempting ability of a Maria Chase or Tide Minnow lure, the seduction of soft plastic, or the sudden rush prompted by a well stripped fly, where in all this modern mayhem of celebrity anglers, Tenryu rods, and the next coastal bass fishing festival, does good old bait fishing fit in. Is surf casting for bass and other species old hat? Does bait fishing not work anymore? Have bass lost there taste buds? Who knows, but certainly if yours truly had just arrived from Mars yesterday and decided sea fishing looked like a plan, one would be forgiven for thinking that the only fish available were bass, with possession of a lure rod the only sure fire way to success.

Lest we forget, with regard to the UK and Ireland, the revolutionary title “Hooked on Bass” co written by Dr Mike Ladle and Alan Vaughan, first published by The Crowood Press in 1988, prompted the lure fishing explosion witnessed today on this side of the Atlantic. An often overlooked feature of “Hooked on Bass” is that half the narrative, attributed to Alan Vaughan, is devoted to bait fishing for large bass, in particular drift lining or light ledgering big crab and fish baits. Having been educated in the beach casting school of John Darling, Des Brennan, Ian Gillespie, John Holden, Clive Gammon, and Hugh Stoker where surf casting Atlantic strands was juxtapositioned in equal measure with winter beach casting for cod, Alan Vaughan’s approach to bass fishing, ie, targeting kelp strewn boulder fields proved fascinating.

Early morning bass from a rocky shoreline.

The methods described by Alan Vaughan, backed up by a number of large bass images, expanded shore fishing opportunities beyond standard beach, pier, and estuary locations, by presenting rock marks, which up to that point for most anglers were considered expensive tackle graveyards, as relatively easy and inexpensive places to fish which could deliver a potential fish of a lifetime. Yours truly lost no time in putting A.V’s teachings into practice, casting Pennell rigged fresh mackerel fillets presented on running ledgers into a low water reef mark I knew of, which now and again produced an odd bass or two.

Choosing to fish the location on calm windless evenings, the water ideally slightly coloured by rough weather over the days proceeding, I incorporated no lead into my rigs relying on the large baits used to act as weight. Utilising a ten foot pike rod matched with bait runner reel, always hand held, still vivid is the heavy lean and resultant line peeling off the reel spool as the first bass I encountered while using A.V’s method took a shine to my bait. Counting to five before striking, hoping everything went solid which thankfully it did. The head shaking, tail thrashing power of that close on six pound fish still lives in the memory. What a feeling, I’d taken advice, stepped outside the box, and it worked. Relaying my success to a close friend, he replicated the method and landed two further bass from the same mark, both pushing ten pounds. It was just a step then to adapt Alan Vaughan’s techniques towards other rough ground denizens such as wrasse, conger, and huss, the results over time being equally successful.

Codling, the fish around which modern day shore fishing grew.

Modern European shore angling took off in the 1960’s piggy backing on prolific stocks of Atlantic and North Sea cod. Bass fishing as it presents today is replicating the well worn path cod angling created forty years ago. Shore codding became big business driven by innovative tackle companies, far seeing anglers, and a recreational fishing press hungry for copy. Sounds familiar doesn’t it, however there was a subtle difference; marine fish stocks back then were in reasonable shape both in terms of quantity and diversity. Long distance shore casting was all the rage with beach fishing the preferred approach. Reflected in tackle design and media articles beach rods grew longer and lighter, multiplying reels got smaller and faster, main lines got thinner, and rig design went high tech.

Shore fishing became interesting and accessible resulting in participation levels rising. Bait fishing was king with thinking anglers utilising existing kit or adapting tackle to catch a wide variety of species and not just cod. Lure fishing also was practiced, however in the greater scheme of things, unless holidaying in the Bahamas or Florida (I wish), until “Hooked on Bass” hit the bookshelves it was just another approach.

Blast from the past, a lure caught bass tempted by an ABU Koster spoon.

The intervening years have seen world sea fish stocks collapse affecting sea angling across a wide range of socio-economic fronts. One could debate quite successfully that modern sea anglers have adapted to a lack of fish by choosing interesting ways of fishing for those species that remain, witness the growth of salt water fly fishing, light line lure fishing for mini species, and how sea match angling now targets juvenile fish. General lure fishing sits alongside the above more specialist categories and it could be argued fills the void created by the decline of inshore fish stocks, in particular cod.

Lure angling’s growth in an Irish context has direct links with our bass fishing legislation, those of a particular vintage (and you do not need to be ancient) have seen bass numbers increase post 1990, the year our current bass legislation was enacted, while in tandem a host of inshore fish species right around our coastline have reduced dramatically in size or disappeared completely. This has created a phenomenon where bass have become the dominant inshore target species for anglers, an abnormality created by mans interference with nature.

Plug lured bass from a rocky shore.

Sea anglers born post 1980 began entering the sport through the nineties as bass stocks improved against a backdrop of serial marine decline. Bass are silver and sexy, grow albeit slowly to a large size, frequent a range of differing locations, look good and fight hard, what self respecting sea angler would not want to catch them. Throw in a resurgence of bass stocks coupled with the advent of social media, add a tourist board jumping on the bandwagon who recruit an enthusiastic photographer, and all of a sudden bass are the only gig in town, with every self respecting angler donning chesties and felt soled boots while sporting a baseball cap and waxing lyrical about the latest €25.00 plug or killer latex creation.

Once upon a time bass hammered into Toby or Koster spoons and they still like 32 gram silver Kilty catchers worked in a tide race. However they also had, and still do, a penchant for peeler crab, fish baits, ragworm, or lugworm. Then again so did the various flatfish, codling, coalfish, pollack, gurnard, ray, smoothies, huss, spurdog, and conger to name but a few which would happily snaffle a carefully presented bait. Variety added to the enjoyment of shore bait fishing, the ability to catch a range of species while fishing one location made the sport very interesting and worthwhile. There is no question but sea angling is diminished today due to fishing marks not delivering like they used to. The sea looks inviting, conditions are perfect, yet the message is hollow, a cruel deception.

Shore fishing for estuary bass and flounder at sunset.

Sea anglers today are being deceived by all the clamour bass are receiving, and unwittingly doing the sport a disservice through buying into it. There is so much more to sea angling than chucking a lure with a single species in mind. Allowing for personal preference, the take of a lure caught bass and subsequent fight is without question exciting, it is sad that the growth in this branch of the sport has been heavily influenced by the decline of inshore biodiversity. Sea anglers in their late twenties or early thirties know no better, their benchmark being a degraded ocean.

This acceptance, coupled with the save bass for recreational purposes lobby currently being played out does not help or solve the real issue, which is the decline and loss of our rich fin fish biodiversity, which if restored would transform how most sea anglers under the age of thirty five view their sport. The way forward, no matter how difficult is to champion all species, not just one. Sea angling today is diminished, almost but not quite a monochrome version of what it was thirty years ago. Those who have a vested interest in the resource and could make a difference instead mould to its decline rather then campaign for its improvement, bass fishing being the latest manifestation. If we continue to buy into this, on form the bass will eventually disappear and we will be left catching gobies, blennies, and short spined sea scorpions. Then again, judging by the evidence on certain social media sites some blokes already are.

Casting out at the EFSA Winter Shore Angling Championships held annually in Co. Wexford, Ireland.

Sea angling once a palette of colour is now no more than a black and white image, talked up by a tackle industry wanting to move units, covered by an angling press who shove tiddlers into the camera lens trying to recreate images of yesteryear while pandering to the tackle companies who pay their wages, and sadly represented abysmally at political level by lame dog representative bodies and state agencies who report to a Government that really doesn’t care. Have I expressed an opinion, absolutely; however it’s solidly based in fact. If you want to restore the colour then by all means continue to chase after bass, but don’t forget to tell your local politician about cod, coalfish, plaice, flounder, dab, thornback rays, tope, spurdog, and whatever else you are having. Then pick up a beachcaster, learn to swing that lead, and hopefully if your message gets as far as Brussels, in a few years time sea fishing as you know it will have been transformed. You’ve got to believe………

Ashley Hayden © November 2012