How to catch a bristol channel smoothound…

When the early signs of summer’s arrival are clear to see, many anglers will turn their attention to the pursuit of the smoothhound. I am blessed to have the Bristol Channel on my doorstep, arguably the most productive smoothhound venue in the country, certainly as far as quality goes, and pretty soon I’ll be beginning my annual campaign, as well as guiding visiting anglers on this popular species. For many newcomers to the sport, the smoothhound will be their first encounter of a fish that pulls back- and one that does so with great gusto. Being prepared is part and parcel of any form of fishing and so here I will share with you how I go about targeting this fabulous sport fish.

Location

Plan where you’re going to apply the hours well in advance. There are an increasing number of marks which have produced fish in recent years, so have an idea in mind on where would be a good place to start. Any of the low water reef marks between Minehead and Hinckley will be worth a look. Trial and error will reveal key times to catch and as a fish that feeds in a pack, find one ‘hound and more will follow. Tide is key, find a consistent run of tide and you’ll more than likely find the fish too. This stretch of coastline is for the most part what one would consider to be broken ground. This means that there will be plenty of rocks, reefs and general obstructions where you are placing your baits and though these present some minor challenges on the tackle front, they are also home to a healthy population of common shore crabs, amongst others, which are of course the primary food source of our target species.

Fish will be present between now and late summer, but it is often the earliest captures which are the most impressive. Every year this stretch produces some excellent fish, so try and get a line in early if possible.

A former client, Ian Wharmby, with a fine hound

Gearing up

As with any rough ground fishing approach, simplifying absolutely everything will ensure you have a better than average chance of success. The ever faithful pulley rig should be tied with small, strong components that are less likely to become caught up between the rocks. In fact, think small and strong when it comes to every part of your rig. The rig body should be tied with 100lb monofilament and the trace using 80lb. Even now, many of my clients are shocked at the breaking strains of line I use when rig making, but as I explain to them, these heavier lines are used to combat the highly abrasive terrain found here and a simple demonstration which involves pulling a short length of 30lb snood material back and forth across the rocks and it’s subsequent destruction is often all that’s need to convince them. 

Hook choice is also crucial. Sharp hooks are required for any species of fish, but the combination of the smoothhound’s comparatively small mouth and its potential size means that increased hook strength for its size is the order of the day. I’ve yet to find a better hook than the Varivas Chinu. The 3/0 size is perfect for a crab bait and the offset point is also turned slightly inwards. The fish seem to find that point just fine, though the rocks not so much. This ensures that the hook’s point encounters minimal contact with the sea bed and stays true throughout a session. This obviously means that it is also less likely to become snagged. A high proportion of break-offs occur when the hook gets jammed in, so it’s vital to choose a pattern that will work in your favour over what might be savage and tackle hungry ground. 

The other obvious terminal tackle provision is some form of weak link system. There are many available, but my personal preference is for an RBC clip. These attach to the lead link and the lead sits on the clip. Upon touchdown with the sea bed, the lead is deployed, attached only by a short length of mono which is less than the breaking strain of your mainline. That mainline should be of around .40mm in diameter and I’d reluctantly fish any lighter than that. It goes without saying that a shock leader should be used, not only for the safety aspect when casting, but again to offer some resistance against the reefs that it will undoubtedly come in to contact with at various times. 


A rod with some back bone to deal with the heavier leads you may need to combat the tides you’ll find here and also to deal with what could be a considerable adversary should be married to a fast retrieve reel. There is little difference in performance between multiplier and fixed spool reels now, though fixed spool users may wish to drop their line diameter slightly in order to gain what could be a few valuable extra yards.

Martin Pearce releases a hound

Bait

Crab, crab and more crab is all that is needed, though occasionally fish will take squid or ragworm. If you have been reading my Bristol Channel forecast up until this point, you will have no doubt been scurrying away crabs in anticipation of the coming season. If you haven’t and you plan to do some smoothhound fishing over the coming weeks and months, get on the phone to your local shop and get your hands on this devastatingly effective bait. 

Select the crabs that are bursting out of their shell and don’t be tempted to freeze crabs that haven’t started splitting, or worse still, those that have expired. Dead crabs really stink and you’ll know immediately if they have gone to the big rock pool in the sky. Even now, I still read articles explaining how you should meticulously remove all of the shell and the lungs prior to freezing, but this really isn’t necessary. 

Freeze crabs in bags of five or ten and mark the bag with the date they went in. The shells will prevent freezer burn and when you come to use your bait, it will be just as effective and full of those lovely juices as it was prior to going in. I firmly believe that frozen crab is just as effective as live, but it really is important to freeze prime bait, not the dead and dying left overs that are reluctant to pop. You may also come across hard back crabs and hermit crabs when you are fishing here and if the fish are plentiful, these also make an effective bait. But don’t rely on this as your primary bait source- go prepared and make those hours spent by your rods count.

Typical crab filled ground is a must for hounds

That first encounter 

The newcomer to the sport will know when they hook their first hound as in the fighting stakes, it’s right up there. Even small examples can really pull back. But first you have to hook one.

If fish are plentiful, they will likely be competing for food and bites will be either savage pull downs on the rod tip or your line falling slack. If the rod tip pulls over aggressively, the fish is likely to be hooked. If the line falls slack, pick up the rod, wind the slack up as fast as possible, raise the tip and connect with the fish. Once your fish is on, a smoothhound fight is usually a combination of the fish swimming towards you fast, meaning you will need to keep winding to keep a tight line, interspersed with lunges where the fish will stop, turn and tear off in the other direction. It is incredibly rare that I give a fish any line by easing off the reels clutch, usually opting to take a few steps forward to counteract if the footing on the venue allows for this. 

Runs are usually short and the fish will again turn and swim back towards you. Tails of smoothhounds stripping a hundred yards of line from a reel are pure fantasy. Once your fish is beaten in the shallows, it can be tailed, but only do this to initially secure your catch. As soon as it is practical, cradle the fish with both arms to prevent trauma to its cartilage and internal organs. If you wish to weigh your catch, please do so using a sling. A large bag for life, compost or rubble bag is very cheap and will do the job, or you can invest in a weigh sling that’s tailor made for the job. 


The majority of anglers release their fish, but as the captor, it’s entirely your decision whether you choose to do this or not. 

I will be guiding anglers keen to catch their first hound throughout the summer months, so if it’s a fish that’s of interest to you and you’re interested in a guided session, I do have a few dates left and you can contact me at www.thegamblingangler.co.uk

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