How to ‘read’ the water

Fol­low our ex­pert’s ad­vice to im­prove your chances of catch­ing a bass

Sea Angler (UK) - - Contents - Words and pho­tog­ra­phy by Henry Gilbey

Find the hotspots for bass suc­cess.

Do you ever look at the water and won­der what is ac­tu­ally below the sur­face? It seems the more you know about var­i­ous fea­tures, such as reefs, gul­lies, holes and sand­banks, the bet­ter your chances of con­nect­ing with some bass.

Yet I see an­glers blast­ing out lures and baits with lit­tle thought about what is in front of them. So, I will do my best to help you work out what is go­ing on un­der the sur­face.

Firstly, stand back a bit. Don’t just rush down and fish straight away. Take some time to have a look around and use the sig­nals to tell you where the po­ten­tial fish-hold­ing and, of course, fish-mov­ing fea­tures might be.

Good old-fash­ioned leg­work will teach you loads about fish­ing spots as well, espe­cially when so many of these shal­low, rocky bass marks dry out on a larger spring tide. By all means use things like Google Earth to look for po­ten­tial spots, but noth­ing beats get­ting out there on a calm day around low water on a spring tide and do­ing some ex­plor­ing.

A good way to start your read­ing the water process is to be in the same lo­ca­tion around high water. You can now see how the water is be­hav­ing as it washes over gul­lies, for ex­am­ple, or breaks over sand­bars. You will be amazed how some of these seem­ingly in­signif­i­cant fea­tures pro­duce tell­tale water shapes. Re­mem­ber, bass come close in to feed and we­need to find out where and when that hap­pens.

“Note the shape of the wave and think about how a wave breaks”


Let’s look at a clas­sic beach lo­ca­tion that you might fish with a lure or bait for bass. Here, there is a gen­tle surf rolling in, the beach is flanked by rocky head­lands, and all that tum­bling water tells you so much.

1 Gully:

The an­gler on the left is stand­ing right at the start of a nar­row gully run­ning out to sea. You can tell this by the small waves break­ing to the left and right of him, but not di­rectly in front of where he is stand­ing.

It doesn’t take much of a depth dif­fer­ence to see this kind of wave ac­tion, but as the small waves hit the slightly deeper water of that sandy gully, they lose power and don’t break as uni­formly as they are do­ing over a sand­bank on the left and right.

2 Sand­bank:

Note the shape of the wave and think about how a wave breaks. As swell moves in from deeper water and hits shal­lower water, it forms waves. Although not large waves, of course, they still have to be­have like this. A gen­tle swell is rolling and break­ing with a lovely uni­for­mity, and this tells me that those waves are hit­ting shal­lower water, and with the long shape of the wave, I be­lieve that they are break­ing over a small sand­bank.

3 Gully:

The an­gler on the right is fish­ing a long and fairly wide sandy gully that runs al­most from the shore just be­hind me, out along­side some rocks and then out to sea.

Look closely at how the waves are break­ing to­wards the beach from where I’m tak­ing the photo. They are far less uni­form to the right of where the an­gler is stand­ing. Re­mem­ber, if a wave breaks down and doesn’t form when oth­ers are, there is a good chance you’re look­ing at some slightly deeper water - the change in depth does not need to be much for this to hap­pen, or for bass to be in that gully.

4 Hole or gully:

There is a bit of a hole or gully that runs left to right just in front of where I am stand­ing to shoot this pho­to­graph. As the tide floods in and forces the two an­glers to come in a lit­tle shal­lower, I would be fish­ing through this sub­tle un­der­wa­ter fea­ture.

Re­mem­ber, as well, that the sand on beaches shifts and moves over time and after storms, for ex­am­ple.


I would guess that a lot of you go lure fish­ing for bass over this kind of ground – fairly shal­low, with plenty of rocks and weed be­set with deeper gul­lies.

Although the an­gler here is not wear­ing po­larised sun­glasses, I would strongly ad­vise that you do be­cause they help cut glare from the water sur­face and help you see what kind of ground is down there. I took this photo with a po­lar­is­ing fil­ter on my lens.

1 Rocks:

The water is fizzing up be­cause it is break­ing over rocks that are shal­lower than the ground around them. That sandy, coloured rock on the right might not have the break­ing water, but be­cause you are wear­ing po­larised sun­glasses, you can see it per­fectly clearly. I would be very in­clined to work some lures around these bits of struc­ture.

2 Dark water:

The darker water in­di­cates rocks and weed un­der the sur­face; this is clas­sic kind of bass ground.

3 Sandy chan­nel:

These are some very ob­vi­ous gul­lies among the darker, rocky ground. I would guess they are mostly sandy – per­fect chan­nels for bass to use for hunt­ing. I would be look­ing to move around this spot and try to ac­cess all that dif­fer­ent ground.

4 Gully:

For now, though, there is a rea­son this an­gler is stand­ing where he is – look at that big gully or ‘cor­ri­dor’. This kind of fea­ture should scream at you to get your lures or bait in there. Do not walk past this kind of ground.

“Never for­get how com­fort­able bass can be al­most right be­neath your feet”

SHALLOWISH To Medium Depth Rock Mark

Rougher con­di­tions here, which can make it harder to fig­ure out what’s un­der the sur­face due to more waves and white water, but if you apply what you have learnt so far, you’ll get a good idea of what’s go­ing on.

1 Rock:

It may be fairly rough, but there’s the top of a rock pok­ing out of the water and a nar­row line of white water break­ing over what we must as­sume is a bit of reef, which is that lit­tle bit shal­lower than the sur­round­ing rough ground. The an­gler is casting to­wards this area.

2 White water:

While I would usu­ally be in­ter­ested in water be­hav­ing dif­fer­ently, the amount and shape of white water here, com­bined with rough con­di­tions, would most likely stop me casting into this. Why? Be­cause it looks too shal­low – the tur­bu­lent con­di­tions are suck­ing back that much water. I reckon all I would do is get my lure stuck in the rocks.

The darker-look­ing water be­hind all that tur­bu­lence, though, is very in­ter­est­ing. Fish it with a long casting lure and then get your rod tip up and try skip­ping your hard lure in and over that shal­lower ground.

3 Gully:

My eyes can’t help but be drawn to this big-look­ing gully. Waves are break­ing all over the place due to the rougher con­di­tions, but stand back and watch closely. Read­ing the water is not all about big, ob­vi­ous sig­nals, and that tur­bu­lence below the an­gler, which then gives way to slightly smoother water, in­di­cates that there’s some slightly deeper water run­ning across into this bay. I want my lures in that area.

Be­hind you!

Don’t for­get to turn around. Same mark, same day, but my friend Mark Quin­ton is very good at fish­ing the ground very close in to shore, rather than blast­ing lures to the hori­zon all the time.

We have all made this mis­take, but never for­get how com­fort­able bass can be al­most right be­neath your feet, and espe­cially when very low light and bouncy con­di­tions such as these give them what I be­lieve is a greater feel­ing of cover and se­cu­rity.

Mark made the right call be­cause he nailed a 5lb bass right in tight to the shore­line. In­deed, the fish must have hit his hard lure lit­er­ally a cou­ple of yards from those rocks you can see be­ing swamped by the waves. Where Mark is stand­ing, and with the water smash­ing around, that line would be a nat­u­ral an­gle to work a lure along those rocks.

Read­ing the water takes time to re­ally get to grips with, but the signs are there and, as you have seen, they are not hard to un­der­stand – look with fresh eyes and I bet you start catch­ing more bass.

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