An Irish Anglers World

The Humble Flatfish

I love catching flatfish, especially decent sized flattie’s that bounce the scales down beyond a pound or further. A rare catch today in these over fished waters of ours, but if sought out can still be found and provide not only great sport but a tasty meal as well. For the purposes of this piece I am not including flounder, a species which deserves an article in its own right, instead plaice and dab will feature, two fish which used be abundant and grow to a fine size when this middle aged angler started fishing, but sadly are more noticeable by their absence nowadays as the 2012 sea angling season kicks off in earnest.

Plaice are a fish very close to my heart, thank you Dad for introducing me to the spotties off St David’s, that memorable day which I can recall so vividly after 40 years kick started a passion which has and will last a lifetime. Father shooting a long line over the turn of the tide as I rowed, then two hours later as the ebb picked up roles reversed I hauled. Every two fathoms (12 foot) a lugworm baited Mustad spade end 2/0 hook linked by 2 foot of cotton cord to a waxed cotton line, the marker buoy and small fisherman’s anchor lifted and placed neatly to one side as directed, I began to coil the line into the specially constructed two compartment box.

A plump plaice from a secret mark.

A chuck chuck through the cord and then gliding up knobbly headed, oval in shape, bright orange spots set off against an olive green back with an opaque white underside, my first view of this magical fish. Aged eleven, full of excitement and wonder, I stowed the fish in the opposite section to the coils to prevent tangles and kept hauling. Memory doesn’t allow me to place a weight or size on those fish but a good number came aboard and by today’s standards they were massive. Along with a few codling that haul cemented a young boy’s relationship with the sea and what lies beneath for all time.

It also gave me the first of many plaice marks which I duly noted and fished over my teenage years, and the basis for a wealth of information, both handed down and learned through experience, as to how these prized fish operated and fed within the then food rich, shallow, tidal inshore waters off north Co. Wicklow. Alongside the plaice depending on the mark one could expect to pick up dab and occasional lemon sole. Not that I had the understanding or wherewithal at the time to target them but some very big black sole resided there too. Trammel nets shot by my father and uncle close to shore and between the two rivers on the south beach in late summer yielding Dover sole to over weight, unheard of today, it’s a pity we did not photograph them.

Dab from an inshore mark off Greystones, Co. Wicklow.

The plaice it became apparent fed best over the turn of the tide, approximately 1.5 hours before and an hour after, with dead slack water more or less a blank period. Spring tides yielded more fish with the ebb besting the flood. Lugworm was the bait and although I learned to festoon my snoods with bright red beads, I do not think they made much of a difference, however inclusion of an ABU Rauto spoon on the running ledger below the weight most definitely did. Positioning, then anchoring over a known mussel bed was vital and this always yielded the biggest plaice and most consistent catches.

Boat fishing gear, certainly off St David’s consisted of a heavy spinning rod about 8’ long matched with a light multiplier or fixed spool reel, while on the Kilcoole bank we used class kit due to the strong tides and subsequent heavy weights that were required to hold bottom. In principal we liked to use the lightest leads possible, down to 2 ounces, and would adjust them according to the strength of tide. The idea was to trot the baits towards the fish searching out the ground. Also plaice react to visual stimulus and like a moving bait, lifting the end rig before then releasing more line to place the weight further down tide more often than not induced a take.

Boat caught plaice.

Bump, bump, bump the bite was so recognisable, a heavy knock to which simultaneously line was fed. I always used two up one down traces incorporating 18” snoods above and 2’ below to which I attached 2/0 fine wire Aberdeen’s, most times plaice would attach themselves to the ledgered hook but many times they would rise up and take the bait offerings above. To this day when fishing for flats I will not use less than a 2/0, there are not many big fish out there now and I certainly do not want to catch small ones. Lugworm did the business off Greystones out fishing rag to the point where I just did not use it, certainly when boat fishing.

Where plaice and flatfish in general just slide in, manifesting as a dead weight when shore fishing, I can tell you that on light balanced tackle from a boat if of a decent size they put up a good fight, large plaice swimming in circles while flexing their whole body from head to tail, diving for the bottom repeatedly and not giving up. A landing net is essential, you do not want to lose the basis of an excellent meal, and I say this from pained experience witnessing a four pound plus Kilcoole lunker lost at the boat side for want of one. On landing invariably the hook is well down the throat, plaice have a gizzard for crushing mussel shells, retrieving by carefully working under the gill cover being very careful not to damage the gill membrane it is possible to extract the hook and turn the bend before pulling the hook out whence it came in. In this way the fish can be returned if not required.

Waiting for a plaice to bite.

When shore fishing for plaice, the principals are exactly the same, find an area rich in mussel with a good pull of tide and plan to fish over the slack water period, say two hours before and one hour after. Calm settled conditions are best and in fact my diaries show that bright days coupled with flat calm, gin clear water allied to a spring ebb tide produced the best hauls. Two sessions stand out, 21 plaice to three pounds plus between Francis O’Neill (God rest you Fran) and I, along with a thirteen fish individual catch one late June afternoon back in 1988. What is memorable about those catches, and they were just the exceptions, catching good flattie’s was expected back then along the Wicklow beaches, was that none were under 30cms and most would have been well beyond.

Rigs were and still are two hook paternosters utilising beaded 18” snoods to 2/0 fine wire Aberdeen’s. Five ounce grippers were used exchanged for plain leads as the tide eased. The cast could be full on or a lob depending on where the fish were lying. Bait in clear conditions was ragworm tipped with mackerel or if the water was cloudy lugworm tipped with mackerel (thank you to Mick Doyle for that little tip which still applies today). Once the gripper had settled in it was left to fish for five minutes, if no bite occurred a yard or two of line was let off the reel so causing the baits to move, this practice could induce a bite. Fish would show their presence by a tap, tap, tap on the rod followed by a slow pull down, or the rod tip bent into the tide would straighten with the line going slack as the plaice swam inshore. Either way the fish, or sometimes two, was invariably hooked the rod tip curved over to the feel of a satisfying weight. Let me tell you there is no sweeter sight in shore fishing then to see a large spotty flapping up the shingle.

A fine shore caught dab.

As readers may have gathered most of the text used in this piece has been written in the past tense, an unfortunate fact which we have to live with in today’s world, our inshore waters sadly are not what they used to be. Good plaice fishing marks in 2012 being few and far between, but thankfully all is not lost hence the article. The methods used twenty five plus years ago still apply all that is needed are the fish, and they still exist albeit in certain very defined out of the way areas. The front cover of this year’s specimen book giving ample evidence, I wish that I had kept my mouth shut.

I jest, having copped the mark which produced that fine fish three years ago after studying charts and asking lots of local questions, I fished it and caught plaice to a pound plus. On the next occasion fish to 1.5lbs materialised, then I knew and stated to a friend that before long a four pounder would come off it, the evidence for being overwhelming. Three years on it happened and I am delighted for that tourist angler. On form and even allowing for the images in this article the venue will remain lightly fished, and the plaice from my notes are only present for a short couple of months anyway.

A welcome bonus amongst the plaice in this area are some cracking dabs with many going a pound plus and one to date breaking the specimen barrier. Rigs are exactly the same as described for shore fishing above with lugworm, in particular stale lugworm proving a deadly attractor. A feature of the fishing which stands out a mile is the ability to really whack out a bait. Distance is the key, with notes showing that the best catches have come to the angler who fishes the furthest. How far is hard to say but certainly with two baits up one hundred yards is the minimum for success to be assured.

Double header pollack and plaice.

I am delighted that recent years have provided ample evidence to me that decent sized flat fish can still be caught from both boat and shore around this great island of ours. That this piece has not become a vehicle for nostalgia, but instead carries a relevance, along with tried and tested information which sea anglers today can use to their benefit. That with a modicum of effort and a little bit of research any would be sea angler can search out and lure a species of fish which thankfully is not completely lost to us, and hopefully never will be….

For further reading, click on: Dab Hand.

Ashley Hayden © March 2012