Joined: Nov 04, 2008
Location: Stubbington, Hants
Wed Dec 31, 2014 6:13 pm
SEASON 2014 – AN ILL WIND WHICH BLEW NO GOOD
When St. Jude’s Storms 102mph winds rattled through the Solent on October 28th 2013, a precedent was set for the coming winter. Twelve major storms lashed southern coasts during the period from December to February 2014, culminating in the Valentine’s Day storm when wind speeds reached 109mph at the approaches to the Solent. Saltwater fly fishers pray for a mild winter and warm seas to engender an early and productive start to the new season. Ostensibly these prayers had been answered but at what cost?
By early March the south coast bathed in glorious spring and the prognosis for the coming season seemed good. However, a survey of several marks along the Solent on March 2nd, during the lowest tide of the year, revealed the full extent of topographical changes caused by the storms. The marks were virtually unrecognizable! Where once flourishing mussel bars stood there now remained sorry stumps of clay, pointing skywards like an old hag’s teeth. Large swathes of gravel flats had been stripped bare, exposing vulnerable silt and mud below. Deep channels which dissected the flats, offering a sense of mystery and the promise of specimen fish, were buried beneath tons of displaced gravel. Perhaps worst affected were the most productive marks of all, the estuaries, whose powerful flows and determined courses had been snuffed by a blanket of gravel and silt. The scene before me was both depressing and worrying in terms of the effect these changes would have on inshore migration of the bass and mullet shoals.
Despite a rapid rise in air and sea temperature during subsequent weeks, water which should by now be teaming with fish remained barren. I began to suspect that the displacement of the protective gravel capping layer from vast areas of flats and shallows had removed certain elements of the food chain, with no enticement for the shoals to take residence on the flats. The situation was further exasperated by the exposed silt rapidly colouring the water even under gentle wave action. A similar story existed along the entire south coast (and beyond!), with the common question on angler’s lips…..”Where are the fish?” The ‘Catch Report’ sections of various saltwater forums echoed this sad fact, with anglers mentioning the occasional sighting of fish rather than fish caught. Parts of Ireland and Wales enjoyed a brief renaissance with sport provided by bass and mullet in late spring but these shoals soon moved off-shore once more, presumably in the absence of a robust food chain. To describe the season which followed as difficult is a massive understatement, particularly in relation to thick lipped mullet.
MAY – I continued to visit my ‘banker’ marks in hope that the shoals might appear with each spring tide but they failed to do so. A warm, still morning on the 31st produced a small flounder to a red-headed diawl bach, the sole reward for my efforts.
JUNE – June was a complete non-event. By the middle of the month, water clarity became noticeably poor in parts of the Solent, with local anglers blaming dredging works taking place in Southampton Water. Rumour has it that the dredged material was being dumped mid-Solent rather than to the channel side of the Isle of Wight, as specified.
The continuing absence of mullet at normally dependable marks was depressing and worrying in equal measures and I realized how fortunate I have been in recent years to enjoy superb sport literally ‘on tap’, with each flooding tide.
JULY – The first two weeks of July were spent on Spain’s Costa Blanca as a family holiday. Myths continue to circulate about the Med being a spent fishery but these myths are probably perpetuated by folk wishing to preserve the incredible fishing on offer for themselves. The range of species available to the fly fisher is simply astounding and on its day the much maligned Med compares very favourably with more exotic (and expensive!) destinations.
Most of the action takes place from day break until the strengthening sun drives fish from the shallows by 10am. Exciting sport with bass on black Klinkhammers can be enjoyed in the period of darkness just prior to sun rise. Lagoons and estuaries are the marks deserving of attention and this is where I spent several early mornings in search of a variety of mullet species, all noticeably predatory compared to their UK cousins. As to be expected, the red-headed diawl bach accounted for many fish but was eventually upstaged by a new kid on the block, the Spectra Shrimp. This pattern is tied with Hends shellback and spectra dubbing and its first swim in the Med brought instant results.
Towards the end of the holiday my daughter Audrey decided to join me for a few hours fishing at the mouth of a nearby lagoon. When fishing such marks it is important to consult local tide tables to identify a falling tide at day break to provide the necessary, food-rich flow from the lagoon, which attracts small baitfish and larger predators in turn. Sport was fast and furious with palometa, inca scad and bass up to a pound falling to green and red headed diawl bachs, great fun on a 6wt. The introduction of a Spectra Shrimp seemed to raise aggression levels further, with palometa visibly chasing the shrimp through crystal clear waters from distance to hammer the fly. The palometa were fairly small but quite violent in their takes and fish up to 3lb can be expected close to shore. Charter boats regularly catch palometa of 15lb off-shore on bait!
Audrey's first palometa
Lagoon flowing into a hot Mediterranean Sea
Back in Blighty, a bona fide heatwave was beginning to exert its influence. The weather may have evoked memories of Spain but the fishing certainly did not. The Solent was now more coloured than ever and despite soaring water temperatures, the flats remained devoid of fish. However, a glimmer of hope emerged during an early morning session on July 26th. A stiff southerly breeze pushed chocolaty brown waves over an area of gravel close to shore. Despite the continued absence of shoals, there was a noticeable increase in mullet feeding as individuals amongst the rolling waves. The fish appeared in bullish mood as they darted through the waves to snatch a prize but despite offering them the normally dependable combination of a ghost buster and red headed diawl bach, I could not gain the slightest response. The reasons for this were two fold. Firstly, individual mullet are considered to be as challenging to catch as the holy grail of saltwater fly fishing, the Permit and secondly, the flies employed are suited to dead drifting on a current towards shoals of feeding mullet, where a strong element of competition tilts the balance in the angler’s favour.
For now though, I had little option but to pursue these individual fish. The bar had been raised and previously reliable tactics required a complete overhaul to meet the new challenge. The simplest approach is often the most successful and I reasoned that a red flexi-worm cast into the path of a feeding fish and left to roll around in the wash may prove to be a trigger. . The evening of August 7th presented the first opportunity to put this theory to the test. A hot onshore wind blew in from the English Channel and I immediately realized that wet wading would have been the sensible option. The sea was coloured but not enough to prevent a handful of fish from prospecting the shallows. I stood knee-deep in warm water, casting a single flexi-worm shoreward to where waves broke over silt. Expectations were low and perhaps this explains my sloth-like reactions when the line tightened a few moments later. The waters parted to reveal a large mullet in the process of throwing the hook and I was left to curse myself. More importantly however, the technique had fooled a lone mullet, even under such poor conditions and I could feel my confidence grow. I returned the following evening with a tingle of expectation and soon found a steady trickle of mullet tracking through the waves towards a submerging gravel bar, no doubt searching for food disturbed by the wave action. I positioned myself 15 yards from the bar, ready to deliver the flexi-worm in the path of the next incoming fish. I placed the fly to the left hand side of the bar, trusting that the combination of wave action and gentle west – east current would roll the fly across the mullet’s path in a natural and irresistible manner. I can only imagine that fish perceive the fly as some form of marine worm. While watching the fly line glide slowly over the crest of the bar it was practically wrenched from my grip. There was no time to react before the fish released the fly. Fleeting regret soon vanished with the arrival of the next mullet. The flexi-worm landed in precisely the same spot and began to tumble across the gravel bed. This time I was ready and upon seeing the passage of the fly line halt momentarily I quickly struck to set the hook. The shallow water washing over the bar erupted as the mullet instantly entered ‘fear and flight’ mode. The large tail struggled for traction before powering the fish through the oncoming waves, scattering fellow mullet in all directions. The fish suddenly abandoned its search for the deep and returned at speed towards the bar, forcing me to frantically reclaim loose line in order to regain contact. Playing a mullet in water less than a foot in depth is a nervy affair. The fish are inclined to jump, twist, flip, head shake and tail slap the leader in a seemingly endless release of energy and my first concern is to steer the mullet towards the nearest area of deep water. With the fish suitably subdued, the 5wt began the arduous task of wearing down the marine equivalent of a Duracell bunny. The words ‘lactic acid’ do not appear to feature in a mullet’s vocabulary but eventually I was able to turn the fish and gently beach it on an exposed bar. The mullet, a fine, plump specimen of 3.5lb required several minutes of nurturing before finding the strength to ghost away onto the flats. As the fish slipped from my fingers the wind suddenly rose in intensity and the first, huge rain drops fell from a now leaden sky. Ex-hurricane Bertha was about to make her entrance, just as things were looking up.
The remainder of August was plagued by highly coloured water and inconsistency of fish movement and I decided to go in search of golden grey mullet as the month ended.
SEPTEMBER – One of my most productive golden grey marks is a small bay with a bottom of mixed sand and mud, which colours up readily with the flooding tide. Despite very poor water clarity, golden greys regularly feed in this shallow, food-rich bay, in considerable numbers. A successful approach is to stand knee deep in the flooding tide and cast a flexi-worm to the first breaking wave. An ultra-slow figure of eight retrieve normally achieves a positive reaction. A visit to the bay on September 1st saw a number of lightning fast fish lost within seconds of smashing the worm, before an enduring connection was made. On this occasion the reel was allowed to sing its song as a ridiculously fast fish crashed through the waves in a series of hops, skips and jumps, leaping five times during the first run alone. Startled mullet also leapt clear of the water as the fish beat its path through the surf, imagining they were under threat. The number of previously invisible fish which came into view was astounding. Most were of similar size, with a few substantially larger specimens amongst them and all quite clearly golden greys. The duel was intense and performed at high speed and I was genuinely relieved to slip the fish ashore on the back of a wave. I was actually shaking! Every cloud has a silver lining, or in this instance, a flash of gold, weighing in at just under 2lb.
Saturday 6th September – Enjoyed a wonderful session this evening while hunting for golden greys. Excessively calm conditions precluded the chance of mullet but I was to be blessed with ‘right place at the right time’ syndrome! A pronounced disturbance some 200m distant on the surf line caught my attention. I was over there quicker than Alex Salmond when spotting a photo opportunity. Large fish were bulging through the waves and my instincts screamed ‘thick lips’. First cast and the flexi-worm was hammered. What a fantastic first run followed and I had a real scrap on my hands. Ten minutes of animated battle continued to suggest my adversary was a mullet but sudden capitulation and the emergence of a large spikey dorsal fin hinted at bass. A plump and resplendently silver bass of more than 5lb to be exact. Next cast provided a similar fish and so it went on until the shoal melted away and the perfect evening drew to a close.
A long walk on September 12th under a silvery moon led me to a new mark. Rumours of Gilthead bream frequenting the locality added a touch of spice. I attached a Spectra Shrimp to the leader for its first swim in UK waters, as there was insufficient current or wave movement to present a flexi-worm. Patience is not only a virtue but also a key ingredient if success is to be enjoyed in saltwater fishing. Almost two hours had passed after low tide when a small group of fish pushed their way between the gravel bars. My first thought was bass! My first cast spooked some advanced and unseen members of the group and I allowed the fish to settle down before casting again. Two slow, short strips saw the line tighten and a fish launch into over drive. The first, blistering run peeled sixty yards of backing from the reel before the fish engaged in a series of short, sharp bursts of astonishing power and energy and I was intrigued as to what exactly had taken the fly. First glimpse of the fish revealed a black stripe to the outer edge of the tail, indicative of a golden grey mullet, which explained the incredibly fast initial run. It would appear that golden greys may be capitalizing on the absence of thick lipped mullet this season and enjoying unchallenged feeding along southern shores. The fish turned out to be a specimen golden grey of 0.8 kilos, with the added satisfaction of fooling the trickiest of fish with one’s own creation.
Finally, Joe Walker delivered the news I had been waiting for. Thick lipped mullet were present in good numbers along the coast of South Wales and a long weekend of mulleteering was on the cards. Early morning on the 18th saw us tramping the banks of a small tidal river, typical of so many in Wales. The strength of the tide in this region means that the weakest of neep tides must be fished, to allow the mullet opportunity to stop and feed as the tide pushes up river. Contrary to the sorry state of affairs on England's south coast this season, South Wales seems to have retained its huge shoals of mullet which appear to be in superb condition. To witness countless thousands of fish flashing past from the vantage point of a footbridge above the river was simply eye watering. And there were some monsters amongst them. Normal tactics are to follow the shoals up river until they choose to stop and feed and then offer them tried and trusted flies such as Diawl bachs (appropriately a fly of Welsh origin) and ghostbusters. This is obviously not a 'normal' season, for the fish visibly side swerved the flies offered to them. Cue the introduction of a new pattern, the Spectra Shrimp. The effect was incredible, with mullet changing direction to actively chase the fly on a medium paced retrieve. Speeding the retrieve further induced several fish to take, including a fine fish of 8lb 12oz, a new PB. The fight was intense, with over 100m of backing heading for the horizon during the longest run. The mullet required only a few seconds to recover and melt away amongst the massed army of thick lips.
Spectra Shrimp exorcises a ghost
The following morning produced sublime sight fishing for rampaging mullet feeding on shrimp in shallow water, as the rising tide submerged a group of sand banks at the estuary mouth. These fish could easily have been mistaken for bones as tails and fins scythed through the clear water to capture shrimp but they were not to be tempted. Eventually the tide pushed through the lower pools with a swagger and a large group of fish came on the feed. Joe and I were quick to introduce Spectra Shrimps to the fray. The mullet moved in packs, accelerating in a flash of silver to snatch their prey. Today’s increased tide brought with it a problem in the form of floating, stringy weed which seemed to develop great affinity for our flies. All too often, mullet could be seen turning away at the last second as the fly picked up weed. Persistence eventually paid off with a 4lb mullet giving chase for more than ten meters to nail the fly in highly aggressive fashion.
An aggressive mullet hammers a spectra shrimp
On the morning of the 20th we were joined by Neil and Jim from derby, keen to catch their first mullet, along with local angler Ade Nash. Spectra Shrimps were distributed and the anglers went to work. The day quickly developed into a frustrating succession of lost fish to all five rods before Joe and Neil roared in unison as they locked into vigorous fish, a first on the fly for Neil and Joe’s first of the season.
Fishing the structure
Joe's hard earned mullet
Neil opens his mullet account in style
OCTOBER – The long period of hot, dry weather on the south coast spluttered and died under torrents of wind driven rain during October’s first week. When calm returned, the Solent was heavy with sediment and the season appeared to be at an end. The rivers now ran high and coloured and locating pockets of clear water where fish might feed the last, forlorn hope. Unsurprisingly, daybreak on the 11th showed the Solent to be the colour of milky tea. I followed the incoming tide as it pushed through the maze of gravel bars towards the distant shore without seeing evidence of a single fish. It was now several visits since my last sighting of fish feeding amongst the bars but those visits had revealed an interesting occurrence. On three occasions while wading towards shore and an area of structure within the river’s flow I disturbed a lone bass sitting in current on the edge of a small bar. I now approached the bar from the opposite direction, searching the water with a diawl bach and spectra shrimp combination. The bar became visible in the clearing river water some twenty meters distant and I sent the flies to drift on the current. As the flies passed the tail of the bar the line drew tight in an explosion of spray and the bass launched into the first of several blistering runs. The 6wt soon had matters under control and as I slid a gorgeous bass of around 5lb onto the gravel I was pleased to see the spectra shrimp nestling in the left hand scissors. A welcome finale to the most challenging of seasons. God willing, 2015 will see a return of the shoals.