Virtually every time I go on social media these days, I come across posts asking for advice on tackle, tides, weather etc. for bass fishing. What follows is an increasingly predictable stream of replies where people repeat what they have been told for years and believe without question. Very few seem to look into their own minds and experiences for a more evidence-based answer. It becomes frustrating reading through the replys stating that you need to do X, Y and Z to catch bass, knowing yourself that much of the information offered as cast iron fact is simply not accurate.
What is fact is that the bass fishing community is still strongly influenced by schools of thought that are decades old. Some of this information is still good but there is a lot that isn’t. The world has gotten smaller since the brains behind some of this advice shared it with the world and we now know that bass (as well as other species) behave very differently in different regions, in different situations and at different times of year. So, over the next couple of months, let’s look at a few of the big questions in bass fishing and separate the facts from the old wive’s tales.
How many times have you heard that you can’t catch bass in water temperatures below 10°C? In the UK, it seems that many lure anglers pack away their gear as soon as the water temperature falls below this mythical benchmark. Over here in the Channel Islands, the water temperature bottoming-out coincides with the peak of our fishing. I’ve fished many bleak winters in water temperatures as low as 5.4°C with great success. It’s difficult to say if bass feed in even lower temperatures as the seas they inhabit rarely drop below that but, if anything, over here the fish feed harder and they are definitely more greedy than in the warmer seasons. If I’m targeting bass on bait throughout the winter, it doesn’t take as long for a fish to show interest as the summer (although this could also be down to other species not present).
It’s my belief that the movements of bass are all to do with their spawning cycle and nothing to do with their perceived reluctance to feed in colder water. There are several key points which support this statement (not least the fact that we catch bass over here in water well below 10°C). The most obvious one, which I have never seen mentioned, is to do with the annual bass ban. Why is there a ban during winter when catches in the UK are down? Wouldn’t it be more suitable to have a ban when there is an abundance of fish inshore? The reason this ban is in place is due to the bass’ reproductive cycle, when the fish have moved offshore to the spawning grounds. This is the one and only reason why catches over the winter are down, not because the water temperature has dipped below 10°C and they have switched off. It’s just a coincidence that they migrate when the temperatures drop.
Every year is the same, like clockwork. The UK bass fishing slows down and after a few weeks, in Guernsey we start getting dribs and drabs of very good-sized bass. This is the time to really start fishing because the bass enter our waters to feed before they spawn. Once these fish start to show, it signals the start of an epic winter’s fishing with dropping temperatures being no barrier to targeting good numbers of large bass through until the start of April. As soon as April comes around, the bass shoals make their way to the spawning grounds and our fishing starts to slow down. Herein lies another reason why the ten degrees theory doesn’t hold any water because, at this time of year, our sea temperatures are rising well above 10°C yet the bass fishing slows down. Around May time, bass start returning to the UK waters, coincidentally at a time when water temperatures start to creep above 10°C.
As I am writing this, our local sea temperature is 12.6°C, so in theory we should be catching plenty of bass if they only get caught in abundance over ten degrees. Yet we aren’t, because they have now moved out into the deeper water to spawn. Yes, we are still catching a few but nothing like a few months previous, where a 6lb bass would be the normal stamp on a session. This is the real time situation now, which is bad for us but great for everyone in the UK because in two weeks, these same fish will be heading to your shores.
Knowing that water temperature is no barrier to them catching bass, should UK anglers carry on fishing for them right through the year? I say, yes! Even though numbers are down, there is always the possibility of a good fish. Just look at the monstrous 22 pounder caught earlier this year in the Bristol Channel. Yes, it can be disheartening suffering a few blanks but when the potential rewards are fish like that you’ve got to believe it’s worth it.
So how should anglers approach these winter bass given that they are likely to be feeding on different food sources to the warmer months? Here in Guernsey, I only make a few changes to my approach. For example, when fishing off a beach, I like to cast just behind the line of rotting seaweed which has been ripped up and swept in by the storms. The shore line is littered with maggots and small fish feeding on them. The bass know this and feed parallel up and down the shore. In this situation, a surface lure might seem an obvious choice but I’ve found them much less effective than at other times of year. Yes, I can get a few fish on them but not in the same way I can in the warmer seasons. As for rock marks, everything is kept the same as normal. Bass still need to feed and will take anything for their last meal before spawning.
These winter pre-spawning bass will eat anything they see as food, from normal prey like crab, worms etc. to things that you wouldn’t normally expect them to eat. In Guernsey, we don’t have any restrictions on bass fishing throughout the year from the shore. This means we can keep as many bass as we wish, 365 days a year. I release all my bass for conservation reasons, even though I have that option to retain the fish if I want to. Sometimes, however, a bass just won’t go back because of injury – that’s where I’m lucky to have the choice to retain a fish and explains how I’ve come upon some of my findings.
When we talk about bass as scavengers, they really are. I’ve caught winter bass so full of maggots from the rotting seaweed that they were falling out the mouth. One time, I had to keep a bass because its gills were badly bleeding. I’d been fishing in a sheltered bay where there is always rotting weed present all throughout the year. It’s that bad that there is a grey sludge running down the beach into the water. When I got home and gutted this fish it absolutely stank, which I initially put down to the less than pleasant environment I’d caught it in. With every fish I gut, I always make sure to have a look to see what it has been eating. I wish I hadn’t with this one though, as a whole rat came out of its gut, fur coming off and white slimy skin starting to break down. The cavity was also filled with roe, which meant to me that the fish was so desperate for its last meal before going off to spawn that it took the rat.
An interesting feature of the winter bass fishing in Guernsey is the difference between the fishing on either side of the island. The fish we catch on the east side are a lot smaller than those we catch on the west; I cannot recall catching any bass under 5lb on the west coast through the winter. They are all decent fish too with fat, swollen bellies and catches of half a dozen bass over 5lb in 30 minutes to an hour are very common. There’s a simple reason why the fish are bigger on the west coast: it’s the side that faces the spawning grounds.
One of the main factors which determine where we fish is the size of the tide and its order in the cycle of neaps and springs. So let’s look broadly at tides in more detail.
Let’s start with spring tides as these are the ones the majority of people prefer to fish for bass. It’s no secret that these produce a good amount of fish, as the bigger tides bring more opportunities for fish to roam higher ground and take advantage of food sources like maggots living in the rotting seaweed deposited by the previous high tide. In this situation, if I were to fish the top of a spring tide with lures, I’d find a place where the rotting weed is being pulled into the water, making a wide band of what is effectively nature’s ground bait.
In this situation, I wouldn’t wade in the water past the slick, I’d stay on the shore side and cast beyond it, bringing a weedless soft plastic stick bait through the dirty water area. Don’t think that because you’re fishing a weedless lure you won’t snag weed, you will and it gets everywhere, all over the lure and up the line. It’s not pretty fishing but the method can winkle out some lovely fish that are in there feeding among the sludge. Like mullet fishing, there is more chance of catching in a scent trail rather than beyond it.
I’m not a fan of the big tides here in Guernsey, due to the massive range and the speed at which it comes and goes, meaning you have to be constantly on the move. These tides also give you a very limited time to fish as the bass don’t hang around. They feed quickly and leave quickly, wanting to get further out to intercept food being swept out of the gullies as the tide rapidly recedes.
These tides are where it really happens for me when targeting bass. Everything is slowed down from the rush of big springs, enabling you to fish longer and target more prospective areas. The fish aren’t in a grab and snatch situation any more, they have more time to explore areas without wasting time and energy foraging.
Watercraft pays off well in this situation, scoping out areas at low tide looking for pools and gullies is key. One place I stumbled on was on the way out to a flat plateau of rock that stretches out over 300 metres. The first time I fished this place, I was just about to cross over the edge of the reef where it met the sand when I realised that I could hear water trickling out from the plateau into the sandy bay. Where the water was coming from was no more than four inches deep. As I was watching the mini waterfalls, I happened to look down three metres in front of me and saw two bass side by side gently swimming to keep stationary. I would have estimated them to be around the 7lb mark each. With no practical way of fishing for them, I moved further out to the end of the plateau where I came across similar situations, seeing other smaller fish doing the same thing as the larger ones I’d seen.
The session was a blank, which I couldn’t understand after seeing all those fish. I decided to have one last cast as the tide turned to rise, this time tight into the shore. I put out a whole squid snug into the side of the reef where I’d seen the bigger bass earlier. Ten minutes later I was into a fish, which turned out to be my PB at the time of 8lb 9oz. From then on, I’ve always fished the gullies and their exits, as I’ve seen firsthand how shallow the fish will go to hold up, waiting for easy pickings.