My approach to SIB fishing changes with the seasons and as the effects of winter start to take their toll on the coastline around me, I gear up for an entirely different line of attack. As much as I adore my lures and light spinning set ups these will not prove effective for the species and environments I will be targeting. My stockpiles of bait increase to an all time high, the boat rods are dusted off, multipliers oiled, and 7/0 hooks sharpened and ready for the monsters that lurk in the depths of a local estuary.

I have covered the versatility of SIBs in a previous article, so it should come as no surprise that they are well suited to fishing my favourite winter marks: Deep water estuaries in search of seasonal inhabitants such as conger, ray and the elusive cod. My SIB sees the addition of 2 vital bits of kit required for the long days spent at anchor on the river. Most importantly, a beefed-up anchor rig composing of a 2kg claw anchor trip linked to 3 meters of 8mm chain leading to 60m of warp. This is far more substantial than the 1.5kg folding grapnel and warp that I usually have onboard no matter the scenario as safety kit.

 The uprated anchor system will allow me to hold position with confidence in 20 meters depth, withstanding tidal speeds of up to 4 knots. The second addition is that of a carp fishing chair to make those long days at anchor a little kinder on the back. This is nestled conveniently at the bow providing a stable position to sit and wait. The carp chairs low centre of gravity and load spreading design make it the perfect perch on a SIB… forget the bench seats! 

I like to focus my winter sessions on days or nights surrounding spring tides when there has been a moderate amount of rainfall in the prior days and weeks. What I’m really after is as much movement in the water as possible. In my view this is when the fish are most likely to move around the estuary system in search of food and with a little bit of colour to the water the most aggressive takes can be achieved. I have spent many sessions on still nights where the water has been miraculously clear and slow moving for a big tidal estuary and the bites just do not come anywhere near as frequently as my favoured “stirred up” conditions. 

Hunting down some river beasts

I like to fish from slack low up to high water, however, I have had plenty of success fishing the ebbing tide. I’m looking to anchor over an area that will hold fish due to a feature that stands out from the rest of the channel. These features typically include the final stretch of a deep channel, where the main channel meets tributaries, areas of contrasting tidal flow and above all else pits. These pits may only have a 1m depth contrast to the surround area, but this is a vital fish holding feature. I like to keep clear of rough ground as this can really get in the way of presenting a decent bait on the bottom and can cause havoc when anchoring. A basic fish finder such as the Garmin Striker 5 I use gives crystal-clear imagery of the seabed and allows identification of features and fish. 

Once the SIB is in position, I rig up two rods – one a 6lb-12lb Ugly Stik paired with a 3500 fixed spool reel. This rod will fish a moderately sized bait such as a squid and black lug cocktail on a 3/0 pennel running ledger intended for anything that may be on the feed. The second rod, a 12lb-20lb ugly stik paired with a 7000 sized multiplier reel is fished with a much larger bait such as whole squid, joey mackerel or whole pouting on a 7/0 pennel running ledger. This larger bait is intended for the specimen conger and cod which are known to be caught in the winter season in deep water estuaries. To keep these baits pinned to the bottom a variety of leads are needed. When the tide is at its strongest a 10oz gripper is required but when I can get away with it, I much prefer the simplicity of an 8oz watch weight. 

A garfish section can prove an excellet caks.

Tidal movement is not the only menace whilst fishing the river. Huge swathes of weed and woodland debris is a constant battle, especially on larger tides. Although this is a massive pain to deal with, I usually consider it a good sign that there is plenty being washed about to encourage the target species to feed. Pin whiting and pouting are the bait fishers sworn nemesis in winter months and despite the use of large hooks they can often annihilate a bait tearing it to shreds or impaling themselves. On nights when I’m overwhelmed by miniature versions of either species, I tend to put one down as a live bait. This has the possibility of tempting a truly epic specimen sized fish. 

I have spent the best part of a decade fishing this river with the above-mentioned methods. It can be an exceptionally testing venue that has probably thrown more blanks than anywhere else I care to think about… so why put so much time and effort into fishing it? Because every now and then the fish of every anglers’ dreams is caught from its murky depths. Reports of double figure cod were not uncommon just a few winters ago with one of the most inspiring catches falling to a well-respected local angler Frankie Costello, a 22lb shore caught cod. Seeing fish of this caliber come from a river so accessible to me fuelled this sort of obsession. 

I had an unforgettable experience in the winter of 2019 whilst using the approach I have detailed above. It was about 02:45 in the morning… the final moments of a rather unremarkable session. There was a bitterly cold blanket of fog smothering the valley. No sane minded angler would subject themselves to these conditions, but the prospect of a double figure cod triggered a somewhat primal instinct inside me to prevail. The ratchet springs to life on my 12lb-20lb Ugly Stik baited with cuttle and mackerel, click…click…click,click,click line is being stripped from the multiplier at a serious rate as I take the rod in hand and prepare for what I know is going to be a proper fight.

At this point, the adrenaline is racing knowing that it is a “BIG” fish. I was in no rush to land this fish, I simply could not afford to bully it on 3/0 hooks. After the first run it was apparent that it was certainly not a conger… the dominant predator of the river as it was taking off in every conceivable direction with no signs of tiring. It was a case of allowing the fish to run as and when it wanted and applying a few desperate winches in between. This persisted for a good 15 minutes, there were moments when I was convinced something would give but by some miracle the unmistakable silver flanks of a gargantuan bass emerged from the muddied depths. 

A welcome silver suprise!

It was quite difficult to control my excitement in that crucial moment of netting the fish, I could all but reach out and lift the fish from the water, but I could not afford to take any chances, so the net was slid into position looking ridiculously undersized for this silver giant. By some miracle the gap was closed and in one clean motion the fish was lifted from the water and into the SIB. Thankfully there was no one around to hear my elated screams as the sense of sheer awe took over mixed with the aftereffects of the adrenaline high. I knew this was a remarkable fish and one that exceeded any expectations I had. At that moment in time, I was not really focused on the weight or length after all I had no means of accurately measuring them. 

After a very brief photo my focus was solely on the release of this magnificent bass. It had just given the fight of its life and therefore required the upmost care and respect to properly recover. I held the fish alongside the boat allowing the current to pass water over its gills to start the steady process. As the feeling in my fingertips slowly faded due to the freezing water, I took the chance to marvel at the incredible specimen before me. I wondered to myself how old it might be… perhaps older than myself… I noticed scarring along its flanks… what could have caused this? Just how many nets, anglers and seals had this fish encountered and survived through its remarkable lifespan. I could feel the strength of its tail fighting against my grip, it was time to let her go back to the depths from which she came. Those brief moments I experienced of watching the incredible fish swim away are undoubtedly my fondest.   

Good numbers of thornbacks are present in the colder months.

I recently had a notable session on the river. It was cold and miserable- just how I like it. Armed with a selection of frozen goodies I whipped together the juiciest cocktail of cuttlefish, black lug and garfish. As I sat back in my carp chair the smaller bait registered some interest. I initially chalked it down to whiting and left it to soak a little longer. As I came to check the bait, I noticed some resistance… this soon turned to an aggressive rattle which resulted in a small thornback ray, to most not a significant catch however this was the first of its species I had caught from the river, which used to be held in high regard as a thornback venue. It was great to see this little specimen and I really hope they make a return to the numbers and size once caught. 

The next few hours consisted of persistent harassment from whiting right up until high water, then as if a switch had been flicked the whiting vanished and in came the conger. It’s not unusual to catch 10-15 eels up to the 20lb mark in a session on the river and they are known to be a nuisance when targeting the scarce cod. I always take it as a good sign when the conger suddenly begins feeding, in my previous experience this has always been the time a good bite will come.

As I was dealing with one eel in the 10lb range my smaller bait shot off, at this point I must stress the importance of keeping you drag set appropriately when targeting big fish so that they can take line whilst you prepare to engage. 

In the heat of the moment, I was convinced a larger eel had picked up the bait. I started to winch hard, but the fish had other plans. The spool on my Penn Spinfisher was emptying, a solid run from a strong fish that you know in the moment just cannot be a conger. I proceed with the upmost care during the fight with sheer determination to land the fish. As the fish nears the surface, I find myself in the familiar position of silver scales and spined dorsal fins breaching the water just feet away from me. I take a split second to compose myself and go in for the net. As before, I waste no time in getting the fish back in the water after a brief picture (hence the shoddy quality!). The release process really is the most rewarding part in my experience. Once again, my efforts have been rewarded, not with a plump winter cod for the table but instead a brief encounter with a beautiful bar of silver.  

Conger are the most common fish to target in the river at this time of year