Essex is such an underrated county for shore fishing. It has the second longest coastline in the U.K., stretching for over 900km, second only to Cornwall. From the heavily urbanised and industrial Thames, to the busy port of Harwich, the endless coastal bays stretching from Walton to St. Osyth’s and the solitude and wilderness of the banks of the rivers Crouch and Blackwater, the shore angler can choose a variety of settings to suit their style, mood and target species.

I have fished this coastline for approaching 50 years and like to think I know it well. To say the fishing has changed over the years is an understatement. In the old days it was very much a winter destination, with whiting showing from October to Christmas and good numbers of codling from January to the end of March.

The Summer months were generally less productive from the shore and dominated by eels with the odd bass or two. These days the whiting show in dominant numbers from late August and stay all winter with hardly any codling at all. Although, I am pleased to say, numerous very small codling have shown up in good numbers during March this year, possibly heralding a return of decent size fish in years to come. The spring, summer and autumn months however are now incredibly productive for shore fishing with bass numbers matching the whiting and can be readily taken on both worm baits and soft plastic lures. A subject we shall return to at a later date.

There's plenty of bass to enjoy

The winter challenge remains- once you have had your fill of whiting, how to then avoid them and contend with the inevitable winter storms from December through to March. This is where up-river flounder fishing comes into play. Flounders dominate the Essex estuaries upstream, beyond the reaches of the main shoals of hungry whiting. Feasting on harbour ragworm and shrimps, the flounder feeding areas are easily identified by studying the shoreline at low water.

All the local guys who target the flounder population have a selection of secret marks of harbour ragworm holding mud flats and gullies that are protected from which ever direction the winter gales may blow. The flounder, in my opinion, is so underrated as a target species. They reach good size, eat well and, contrary to popular opinion, turn up in good numbers so long as you know where to find them.

A very scenic place to fish in the right light conditions

Flounder feeding patterns are simple to understand and for the angler to ‘match the hatch’. At low water the flounder head for gullies and deeper channels and seem to feed on shrimps. As the tide rises they move up over the mudflats into very shallow water to feed on the ragworm and tiny crabs. Targeting them is straight forward, casting shrimp into channels as the tide recedes towards low water and then using bunches of small ragworm (or harbour rag if you can get them and have the eyesight necessary to thread them onto your hooks) cast short as the flood tide covers the mudflats.

A simple, small hook flowing trace or two up one down rig works perfectly. A recent trip with flounder legend Carl Golding on the north side of the Thames at Rainham produced double figures of varied sized flounders for us over the course of a four hour session.

Simple rigs all all that is required for the usually obliging flounder

In the USA I have seen flounder experts target them over clean ground by using small soft plastic worm imitation lures on Carolina or Texas rigs. The technique is simple, using a slow, twitch retrieve dragging the lure across the mudflat. When finding mid-week opportunities to sneak out on our coast but without bait I too have used this method with good success, especially at night. Knowing a clean mudflat is essential unless you are happy to loose lures on snags of course. 

There is however an alternative method to target the flounder which I am trying to pioneer here in the UK. 

I first wrote about this some time ago on the essexanglers.co.uk blog site. We discovered that, during some time from January to late February when the Blackwater estuary becomes crowded with mid water sprats and herring, the predatory fish turn their attention to mid water feeding. Surprisingly, this included flounder and thornback rays. Anglers who prefer boat fishing can confirm that almost all the fish finder activity is off the seabed and any boat angler who persists with bottom fishing can often return home empty handed. 

Fished correctly, the slider gives the angler the opportunity to mimic a bait drifting down towards a fish holding feature, just like natural bait would.

Over the past two winters I have been experimenting with small sprat fillet baits for flounder with growing success using slider set ups. Sliders give several specific advantages when shore fishing. Firstly, sliding baits along the line through various depths and distances allows you to cover a wide range of feeding zones, critical when fish are following the shoals of mid water bait fish. Secondly and conversely, by casting your weight and stop ring exactly where you wish to ultimately allow the sliding bait to move along and end up, the slider can flow over any rough terrain and into the final gully or rough ground area where predators tend to lurk.

Using sliders is common in South Africa where I first observed the technique, but rare as a shore method here. It is quite simple but will for sure get some curious looks from observing traditional anglers. Keeping a tight line is essential so to begin with I use a heavier grip weight than normal to hold tension. A stop ring is secured with enough distance from the weight to the ring to exceed the slider snood length and thus preventing the slider bait from tangling with the weight as it finally reaches the stop ring. The terminal weight and stop ring set up are cast according to conditions. What is essential is that you need gradient and tide to allow the slider to slide when attached.

Flounder are more than happy to hit a bait in mid water.

So I use long continental rods to give height/gradient and cast to the target zone before walking up tide for enough distance to provide the angle of tidal flow to sweep the slider down stream. Obviously you need a quiet location for this shore method unless fishing from a pier as I do at Clacton where the tidal flow allows a straight, short cast to work perfectly. With the weight set and line tight, you simply attach the baited slider and let the forces of gravity and tide take the bait down the line and through the intended feeding areas.

The sliders themselves come in varied weights, the lighter the baits being used the heavier the slider needs to be to generate movement if you follow. Bite detection can seem a little strange at first. Flounder appear to take the baits mid water, maybe attacking from below. Fish taking the slider as it flows towards the stop ring give very subtle bite indications as there is minimal resistance. Hooks need to be super sharp for the fish to be secured. As the fish take the bait and try to swim away, eventually the stop ring is reached and bingo.

High tips keep a good angle on the slider

This season I have pushed the use of sliders even further. My theory is that predatory fish use structure to hide and wait for distressed fish and food to be swept over obstacles into their feeding zones. Bases of piers, groynes and rocky areas of our estuary inlets are examples of these. I have had real success sliding bunches of ragworm or small crabs over or across these features. 

Critical to success here is keeping the baits just above the structures in the same manner as successful boat fishing wreck-drifting techniques are to take the bait or lures as close to the wreck as possible without getting snagged. What this technique allows is the opening up of hard to reach feeding zones impossible to fish with seabed hugging traditional techniques.

Another flounder that succumbed to the sliding technique

So is the use of sliders harder than normal flounder techniques? Yes. Is it weather, tide and terrain specific? Definitely. Does it beat sitting in a coastal bay hooking six-inch whiting all winter,? You bet it does! Moreover, whist targeting flounder originally, the sliders also work brilliantly for other up-river predators. bass find the moving baits irresistible as do thornback rays who gorge on the seasonal sprat banquet. 

On the piers and beaches, sliders are deadly for dogfish and bass who have learned that ready meals of returned whiting are produced by fishermen on a daily basis. Even dabs will take small slider baits. Dropping a slider into the zone where fishermen are throwing back whiting is ultra productive, especially at ultra-short distance right under your feet.

A nice brace of fish

So to conclude; the Essex coastline is an amazing all year round location that can be whatever you want it to be. From simple pier fishing with friends to the wilderness of river creeks and the total solitude under the stars, a little creativity with methods can be the game changer, especially when the majority of fellow anglers get demoralised with the whiting plagues. The critical factor is to know your marks by walking the coastal paths at low water, recording the regular changes to structure that the winter storms bring.

The flounder are there all winter long and provide fantastic fishing when bad weather threatens open beaches or when you just want to avoid the whiting. Catching flounder successfully just needs a little time to learn some marks and a little thought to match your technique to feeding patterns. But when it all comes together nothing could be more rewarding.

Two chunky flounder.
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