Like many anglers, most of my fishing sessions are focused solely on catching one or two of the more ‘desirable’ species. I spend many of my weekends sat on a rock ledge, thumping out fish baits in the hope of finding a beautifully marked ray or a big snarling huss. 

Finally hitting the target fills me with a feeling of achievement which little else can match, however these sessions don’t always go to plan. Long fishless sessions are par for the course and hammering away at marks for little reward can be mentally draining.

Extravagant species like this tub gurnard can be caught whilst scratching

Another downside of specialist fishing is that you often miss some of the smaller species which are present; this is where a change of tactics is called for. After a few failed missions, I often go for an easy session to reignite the spark that fuels my desire to fish. This is where ‘scratching’ comes into play. For those that don’t know, scratching is a method of fishing for anything which comes along, although it’s primarily aimed at the smaller species which are missed when using stepped up gear.

It requires scaled-down end tackle and small baits, fished at any range from maximum distance to in the gutter. With this sort of fishing it often pays to lob your baits close in – it’s amazing what you can find right beneath your feet!

The ever-obliging ballan wrasse

By using small hooks and light gear, the amount of species you can catch is endless, with some stunning and rare species mixed in with the more common culprits. It’s like a fishing lottery- you really don’t know what’s going to happen next!  

This can make for a fun session, and trying to catch as many species as possible can become quite addictive once you get a few under your belt. This makes it great for getting the motivation back to keep on fishing, which is why I love scratching around after a few blanks on the heavy gear.

A female cuckoo wrasse, a fairly rare catch from the shore

The tackle is simple. For general beach fishing, I would use a two or three hook flapper armed with small needle-sharp hooks. You can use any size you want, but for maximum species-hunting effectiveness I like to use size 6 aberdeens. You can use smaller hooks to target the mini species, all the way down to coarse sizes… Just remember that if a larger fish comes along, you’ll have a real challenge to land it on tiny hooks! Worth bearing in mind if there’s a decent chance of a rogue biggie snaffling your single maddie bait. 1up 1down rigs are effective for demersal species, whilst loop rigs and cascade rigs can also be used if distance is desired, although it’s rarely required when scratching as many species like to sit in the gutter, waiting for food to drift by.

This proved true on a recent trip to the infamous Chesil Beach. A moderate cross/headwind made distance fishing impossible for my (very average) casting capability and I found my baits dropping well short of where I wanted them to go. Not to be outdone, I focused my attention on scratching around with small ragworm baits, hoping for a mixed bag of fish. This proved worthwhile, and my efforts were rewarded with a black bream and a stunning red mullet, two species that I rarely catch in Cornwall and certainly would’ve missed if I’d stuck to my original plan of blasting fish baits towards the horizon.

A stunning Red Mullet taken on ragworm

Another example where scratching paid off was during a memorable session from a few years ago. Me and my good friend were fishing a new estuary mark, with the aim being to catch our first bull huss. We were unsure of how good the prospects were, so we also brought along a fiver of ragworm, which we lobbed out on 1up 1down rigs armed with size 4 aberdeens. What followed was one of the most hectic hours of fishing I have ever had. Within minutes the rods buckled over, producing gorgeous couches bream for both of us, our first of the species.

This continued into darkness, until the bites dried up and we switched to the big baits. I did manage to find my first bull huss, a fish of around 4lbs, however the night fishing was very slow. Once morning arrived, we switched back to the scaled-down gear and continued to have fun with an array of species, with black bream, couches bream, bass and my first ever red mullet gracing our rods all taken on half a ragworm on the scratching rig. To this day, I still consider that session to be one of my favourites; a memory which wouldn’t be so significant if we’d focused solely on the big baits!

Various Bream species can be caught by using light line and small hooks.

Scratching isn’t just limited to the beach rods though. You can use scaled-down tackle on any sort of gear. By using tiny worm baits on microscopic hooks, the array of species that you can find in rock pools, amongst rough ground and down the side of harbour walls is incredible! Bites can be instantaneous at times, making for some really fun fishing on light gear. One of the main targets in these areas are the wrasse. It can be very addictive trying to catch as many species of these colourful critters as you can and there are plenty of other mini species that show a liking to the same tactics. Blennies, gobies, small pollack, rockling, straps and even oddities like topknot can be caught whilst fishing around structures.

My preferred rig for this style of fishing is a dropshot rig, a short running ledger or mini paternoster, loaded with size 20 to 6 hooks, which are baited with miniscule sections of ragworm. Using a lrf or light spinning rod adds to the fun as you feel every kick from even the tiniest of specimens!

The small yet aggressive tompot blenny- a common feature over rough ground
A baby fishes’ nightmare, the scorpionfish; one of the many wonderful species which you might miss on the big baits.

So, whilst specimen hunting is all good fun, it can pay dividends to turn your attention to the lighter side of fishing when the cod, hounds and rays aren’t playing ball. You’ll catch all sorts of species which you would never have taken on 4/0s and a whole squid, and you never know when something weird, wacky and wonderful will come across your baits!

It’s a great way of increasing your species list, and it can be a fantastic and thoroughly refreshing way of regaining your motivation after a series of failed attempts on the big rods.

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