Caught by the River

"Back In The Briney You Go, My Beauty" by Chris Yates

4th July 2008

Though it’s July, the mayflies are still rising to the surface of the river in some places and the trout are rising for the mayflies. It’s a lovely time of year to be strolling along the bank, with everything in flower and the swallows skimming the water. But the recent new moon meant that, down by the sea, the tides were big, bringing the bass in, and suddenly I couldn’t think about the river any more…

I am sitting on a rock on the Dorset coast, scribbling this into my notebook while I wait for the tide to turn from the ebb. When it does, I shall pick up my rod and start casting. The sky is full of well-spaced white clouds, the sun is warm, the breeze is soft from the north-east and the sea calm. Not ideal conditions for bass, who prefer a bit of swirl and chop; but come high tide, an hour before sunset, I sense the potential for a bent rod.

I have always been enthusiastic about the sea. This year my urge to migrate to the coast began in early spring, though I didn’t actually cast until the full moon in May, traditionally the time when the bass first move inshore in large numbers. I went in the evening to one of my favourite stretches of rocky coastline and walked under the cliffs for a mile or so, looking for any activity along the shoreline. Gulls swooping on a shoal of small fish, or mackerel on a splashy hunt often indicate the presence of bass, which will strike into the mackerel from below, or ambush the small fry from between sunken boulders.

I began fishing at the first likely looking place, close to a kelp-covered reef. But after a dozen unresponsive casts with my favourite bass lure, a flock of gulls began wheeling around a rocky outcrop, a few hundred yards to my left and I hurried towards the spot.

The whirl of excited seabirds spiralled up and away as I hopped suddenly onto a rock next to them, yet, though the water was clear and comparatively calm, the clouded evening light wasn’t strong enough for me to see what had attracted them. There were a few little splashes between the incoming waves that I took to be panicking tiddlers, perhaps sand eels or whitebait, and I cast over them immediately. My lure was designed to look and behave like an edgy prey fish, skipping across the surface to attract any predator in the vicinity. I felt it was the most obvious method for that situation, but despite 20 minutes of long searching casts, nothing even swirled at me. I switched lures, snipping off the floating plug and retying with a heavy silver spoon that would flicker alluringly through the depths.

I cast five times straight out from the rocks, then once alongside them, letting the spoon sink almost to the bottom before beginning the retrieve. But I reeled in only a yard of line before I felt a resistance so solid that I was convinced I’d snagged a boulder. I gradually increased pressure and the rod jerked back a bit, then lurched forward as something realised it had been nabbed. The reel made a lovely screech as the fish dashed out to sea, but it turned after a short distance and rather disconcertingly headed straight back towards the rocks, getting between two half-submerged boulders and making me wince as I felt the line chaffing against them. I lowered the rod and worked the fish gently but steadily towards me.

I wondered initially whether it was a pollack, but the longer it tussled with me the more I recognised the tail-swipes of a bass. Then I saw the big spiky dorsal cutting through a wave and in a few moments I had piloted the fish along a channel in the rocks and brought it safely ashore – a lovely silver five-pounder, my first bass of the year.

Being the first, it went back into the briny after a photograph. Catch and release is, anyway, a common practice nowadays among responsible bass anglers. Bass, incredibly, are not yet a protected species. If we don’t conserve them they’ll go the way of the cod – and the dodo.

Chris Yates

from todays Telegraph