There’s no escaping the fact that sea angling has changed massively over the last twenty years or so. Huge technological advances have meant that tackle has become incredibly efficient, more affordable and ultimately helped us to land more fish. The range of protective clothing for the angler is vast, more resilient to the elements and keeps us warmer and drier for longer. Our vehicles are more reliable, enabling us to travel further afield to sample the sport on offer in other counties.
Fresh and frozen bait is just a few clicks of a mouse away and don’t even get me started on the likes of Google Maps that assist us greatly when surveying potential venues.
But while technology has evolved across the last two decades, have the fish themselves changed? Okay, so I don’t mean have the fish changed physically (they may have done, but I’m not a marine biologist) but have they changed in their number, their movements and general habits? That’s something I can answer as, focusing on my home turf of the Bristol Channel, there certainly have been some enormous changes in this regard during my lifetime.
In the grand scheme of things, my years may not be many in number but for just over thirty years I’ve fished the waters of the Channel and witnessed some remarkable changes taking place. Venues that were renowned for producing a certain species of fish are now devoid of them. Those same venues are now visited by fish that were previously unheard of. Where there have been losses, there have also been great gains, so rather than this being a tail of woe, I prefer to look upon it as an adjustment in nature that we might never fully understand. We simply have to accept it for what it is, be thankful for what we have and fish for what is now there.
Commercial fishing pressure has undoubtedly played its part in these changes, but I refuse to believe that this is the sole contributing factor and for the sake of this piece, I will exclude it. In order to give some examples of these changes, I have selected three venues that I have fished extensively since I began my fishing adventure, up to 2019. These are of course my own observations and though factually they are correct, others may consider discrepancies in the timeline based on their own experiences.
I’m sure that some local anglers will have read this first title and sniggered. It could never be regarded as a premier sea angling destination and carried the nickname of ‘noddies land’ at one time but everyone has to start somewhere and Knightstone serves as an excellent first case in point.
Whiting would figure heavily in catches throughout the autumn and winter. As a newcomer to fishing with limited ability, they were an easy fish to catch and we would pull them out three at a time using chunks of sprat for bait. Experienced anglers in competitive events really cleaned up on this species that would average at around 10oz in weight. Heavier set fish of over a pound in were not uncommon. Codling would turn up among the whiting and occasionally a (often poorly conditioned) double figure fish would make an appearance. Conger would feast on the resident whiting with many larger eels hooked but seldom landed owing to inadequate tackle.
Silver eels were prevalent in the spring and summer at an otherwise quiet time, though school bass and the odd dogfish made the numbers up during this slowest season.
Whiting are now an occasional catch with the bulk of the fish thin and in poor condition. The thick shoals that were resident throughout the colder months no longer visit the area. In turn, there is nothing for the larger conger to feed on and so their absence is also noted. Codling are seldom caught here and when they are, they are small immature fish. Silver eels are practically non-existent throughout the summer months, though bass fishing has seemingly improved, for numbers of fish anyway. Thornback rays are now easily targetable and make up the bulk of catches during the summer months. Small conger also feature.
A venue steeped in angling history as a mecca for big fish and a big walk. But does it still justify that walk?
The cod fishing here is some of the best in the country. Experienced anglers are landing numbers of big fish, inexperienced anglers are also getting in on the action.
During the early spring, specimen thornback rays are the product of dedicated target fishing, with fish well into double figures on the cards. Whiting shoals are vast but pout also feature in catches here. During the summer, double figure bass are on the menu, as are conger eels in excess of twenty pounds. The big eels mop up the whiting that move in to Weston Bay around late September. Occasionally, during the autumn, a huge sole will show up having taken a big worm bait intended for cod.
Anglers from all over the south west now visit Brean Down to target thornback rays. Brean is potentially now the best thornback ray fishery in the country. Fish are plentiful and easily attainable, although the average size is notably way down. Double figure examples are not impossible, but the sheer number of rays now present means it’s a numbers game to get to them. Small congers can be a nuisance and the bigger eels are not interested in feeding here as their food source, the whiting, are no longer in residence during the autumn. Bass seldom exceed seven or eight pounds in weight and if you get one of this size, you’re doing well. Bigger fish are caught but they are a rare find. Smoothhounds now show here during the early summer months. Small pockets of double figure fish pass at certain times with examples well into the teens very possible.
Another venue associated with big walks and big efforts and a reputation as a tackle graveyard. Is it still worth carrying a bucket of leads out along this peninsula only to potentially leave them snagged in the sea bed?
Again, a true cod mecca for the visiting angler. During the autumn and winter there is some phenomenal fishing to be had. Double figure cod are not uncommon and a few lucky anglers land themselves that magical shore-caught ‘twenty’. Numbers of cod are also healthy and under the right conditions, big bags are possible. As with Brean Down, big conger feed here on the whiting that frequent those areas not subjected to huge amounts of tide. The summer months see large bass regularly caught at close range on fish and crab baits, with a good proportion of these fish being over ten pounds in weight. Big rays can be taken in the spring, with the most successful anglers being those who devote some effort into finding them and sourcing prime peeler crabs for bait.
Codling can still be caught here, but they are sporadic and of no great size. They are still worth fishing for, though they’re not climbing the rod tips by any means. Thornback rays are plentiful throughout most of the year and can be taken on practically any bait set before them. Greater numbers of big sole are now landed, possibly because more anglers now choose to target them on the cleaner ground adjacent to the old MOD base. Whiting were once caught here too but are now all but gone. Big smoothhounds are on the cards during the warmer months with fish over twenty pounds in weight having been reported. The summer is now arguably the most productive season at this venue.
Although it is likely that there are a multitude of different factors that can be attributed to these noted changes, it is highly probable that two in particular have contributed towards them. It’s a given that commercial pressure on migratory species such as cod has had a huge impact on their number but the two things that I personally believe are just as responsible are breaks in the food chain and the effects of extreme weather.
The general area I have considered has been subject to various water cleansing projects over the years. Chemicals pumped into the Channel at Weston Bay in an effort to clean the water for the sake of tourism undoubtedly had an effect on its inhabitants. Tiny organisms that form the base of the food chain and are a staple diet of shrimps would have been all but wiped out. Removing this crucial element in the chain can only have had a negative effect. Fish will only be found close to their food source. Remove that food source and the fish will seek it elsewhere.
Take a look at many venues up and down the Channel and the physical changes are plain to see. The coastline here has changed dramatically and even as I type this I’m looking out onto a beach that was once relatively steep, comprised of small stones and featured a pronounced gutter at its base. It is now flat and sandy, with little that would help you identify it as the same place of thirty years ago. If these changes along the coast are so glaringly obvious, then those reported offshore by local charter boat skippers should be taken just as seriously. The Channel is comprised of a maze of sandbars, gulleys and ledges, all of which have changed and moved over the course of time. Presuming that fish use these varying features to navigate, aided by the ebb and flow of the tide, it’s highly probable that their routes have altered to the extent that they are no longer present where they once were and could also explain why they now show where traditionally they are not expected to be.
One thing is for certain: in another thirty years time, further change will become evident. Whether things change for the worse or for the better, I’m sure we’ll all be looking back along the timeline and asking a great deal of questions.