After hearing much doom and gloom surrounding the current standard of fishing on Dorset’s Chesil Beach, it set me to thinking. Just how does this legendary bank of stones compare these days to when I first set foot upon the famous shingle, way back in 1987? 

It is fascinating to witness how it has changed over the past 34 years. The fishing now is hugely different to when I started out as an excitable 7-year-old, fishing every Weekend with my Stepdad. 

In those early days we lacked casting skill, finesse and knowledge but still managed to catch what would now be considered some fantastic bags of plaice and dabs. The interesting thing was that they were all along the bank and we even caught plaice over 3lbs from areas like the bird sanctuary at Ferrybridge together with big dabs which are now seldom seen. 

Flatfish numbers have been up and down over the years

By 1990, the dab fishing was all but finished and the numbers of plaice reduced massively. Some believe that the great storm of 1987 destroyed the mussel beds that once lined the seabed and over the subsequent years they found little reason to visit. Although I continued to have good sessions with Flatfish all through the 90’s and noughties, the numbers and average size were well down, and those dabs had vanished. 

I assumed we’d never see flatfish again how I’d remembered them as a kid, but then in 2011 out of nowhere, we had an incredible season on the plaice. Small 8-12oz fish mainly, but huge numbers, with bags of 20+ fish common place. This seemed to fuel some excellent future years and the one that lives long in the memory was 2016. A dozen or more fish a session was possible, but it was the average size which excited me with so many of these fish between 1lb 4oz & 2lbs. The sole fishing was outrageously good as well with both numbers and size, whilst I also beat my long-standing dab PB with a fish of 1lb 6oz. 

A nice Chesil sole

2017 Was also pretty good but from 2018 until now, it’s been tough. Yes, it’s been possible to get 7-8 fish on a good day, but the average size has been poor. When was the last time we saw a 4lb plus plaice? Even after the millennium, there was a realistic chance of a 3-4lb fish with lots of 2’s to keep the imagination fired whilst catching smaller samples. My own PB of 4lbs 9oz was caught in 2004 and several other big fish showed that year. Nowadays a fish over 2lb is usually a season’s best for me. 

It’s a similar story with the Sole fishing. We have lots of 8oz-1lb sized fish, but recent seasons have been hard in finding any number of better specimens over 2lbs, although I was lucky enough to hook one at 2lb 5oz last year after a lot of effort.

The demise of certain species has been replaced by the return of others. I can never recall anyone catching more than the odd ray before the turn of the century. If they did, it was an occasional Undulate or maybe a Small Eyed from the shallower end of the bank. An ISAC League match around 20 years ago at the Eastern end, saw me pegged next to former World Champ, Joe Arch. He caught a fantastic bag of Spotted’s and Small Eyed’s which at the time seemed frankly, quite incredible. From then on, numbers seemed to steadily build, year by year with Spotted’s, Small Eyed’s and Undulates the dominant species. By about 2014, we began to catch big numbers of 5-6lb sized Thornbacks from certain parts of the beach and at around the same time, small tea-bag sized Blondes which I didn’t really think much of at the time. Fast forward to 2021 and at the point of writing this, I’ve landed more than 70 Chesil rays this year, with specimen sized fish from all 5 of the species mentioned. Every year 20lb plus Blondes are now caught and I can confidently say that none of this would have been remotely possible even 10 years ago. 

One of many plentiful and very welcome rays

Thank goodness for the rays, they have filled a deep Winter void left by one of our cult British fish, the cod. 2015 Was phenomenal, with masses of 4-7lb sized fish fuelled by crazy numbers of smaller codling in the two previous seasons. Since then, it’s been the worst I can recall. Chesil always seemed to cling onto a decent standard of cod fishing, long after iconic venues in Kent, Suffolk, etc fell by the wayside. Years like 1997, 2007 and 2014 produced bags in excess of 20 codling on certain marks along the bank, mainly 2-3lbs but followed by many 5-7lb fish in the following years. Even the bad years were good compared to many areas and you always had a chance of that lone big fish too.

The last few Winters I’ve hardly fished for them as it’s been far less effort to catch a specimen sized ray and the trauma of having to wade through increased hordes of pout and whiting to catch a couple of modest codling is just not fun anymore. More positivity has come in the form of smoothounds. We always got a few, never as big as our Hampshire neighbours, but these days they are present in far greater numbers than I can ever recall. 4-8Lbs on average, but the odd double is possible, and they add a bit of welcome spice to a mixed, summer bag. 

Don't go expecting a treble shot of cod these days...

Equally the Black bream fishing is far better than it ever used to be. As a kid we got the odd micro sized fish around the Chesil wrecks but these days they can be present in enormous numbers through late Summer and autumn, with lots of fish between 12oz -1lb 4oz and a few pushing towards 2lbs or more. Numbers of Tub and Grey gurnard have also soared in the last 3 years and the once rare Grey is now prolific in certain areas of the bank. What on earth has happened to the beautiful dragonets we once used to see though?

One of my biggest recent concerns is the mackerel. In my opinion they are in massive decline. The worry is that every year is getting worse and it’s hard to see it ever improving. Unfortunately, a big shoal will be present on a few days each Summer and most assume that all is rosy. The sad fact is that outside of the odd shoal, background numbers are almost zero and I can now see a time when they might realistically be a fish of the past.

The stamp of black bream has massively improved

Trigger fish have also declined to a level where they are hardly present these days. They turned up at the end of the 1980’s in small numbers, returning each Summer whilst steadily increasing in volume. The peak seemed to be around the early noughties when the numbers were just staggering. Some marks along Chesil would consistently produce 2-3 fish a cast for the duration of a session and if I’m honest there were days when they could become a little tiresome. 

It was around 2010/11 when they started to become less reliable and have declined ever since. I don’t know the reason, but it did seem to coincide with 2 consecutive cold Winters which many believe may have caught them out during their migration back to warmer climes. Whilst I have no evidence to support this, it seems the only credible explanation I have. 

A more recent trigger from Chesil, being caught in 2020.

In summary, I’d take pre-millennium Chesil over todays offering. The variety was greater, the quality of the smaller species was better, and the seasons were more defined due to the sheer quantity of different options which had to be given a time slot. 

These days, great fishing can still be had, but we do rely heavily on rays and finding decent examples of smaller species seems to get tougher year on year. Pre-1990, we hardly ever saw a dogfish, this has added to the challenge for specimen hunters but turned match fishing on its head! 

Personally, I’ve tried to embrace this constant evolution and as a consequence, my once favoured marks and times of year have radically changed. Similarly, areas of the bank I used to hate are now my go to spots! There is still no other clean shingle beach that I’m aware of in the UK that can compete with Chesil on it’s day, and it does have a few!

Undulates are all along Chesil these days