Calm before the storm
A small window in the Bristol Channel weather produces a successful cod session before Storm Frank hits hard
Dave Lewis samples some cod sport.
By Christmas I had all but given up hope of getting afloat for a mid-winter cod session in the Bristol Channel. For many weeks a near continuous succession of Atlantic low pressure systems had tracked across the ocean and headed directly towards the British Isles, each one delivering strong to gale-force winds and torrential rain.
Every time I had tried to go fishing the trip had been aborted, and I had long passed the point where I would try to plan another attempt by picking out a suitable tide and ordering fresh bait.
What I needed was a break in the weather; I needed a brief slot of fine and settled conditions long enough to get out and soak a few baits. Then, in the week between Christmas and New Year I spotted what looked like the opening I’d been waiting for.
Immediately, I got on the phone to skipper Rob Rennie, owner of the immaculately maintained Offshore 24 called Lady Jue 4, which operates out of Penarth. Rob confirmed that he, too, had seen the break coming, the problem was it was the one day of the week when he was not able to fish. So that was that…or so I thought.
Within an hour of putting down the phone, Rob rang me. It was good news; he had rescheduled an arrangement, contacted one of his regular crews and had ordered the bait. Was I still keen for a day of cod fishing? Of course, the answer was yes.
KEY To SUCCESS
A few days later we slipped out of Cardiff Bay Barrage lock gates a little after seven in the morning. When we cleared the Wrach Channel, we turned to port and headed at high speed across a flat sea towards the fabled upper channel winter cod grounds above the English and Welsh Buoy, anchoring over a mark south of the Middle Grounds sandbank.
I can clearly remember the first day I fished this once hugely productive deepwater, mid-channel mark; it was around 25 years ago with another Penarth skipper, Tony Busby, aboard his Offshore 105 called Channel Warrior, and on that memorable day we caught huge numbers of cod between 8-15lb. The action had been near constant, and the article that followed in this magazine certainly helped make the name of this little-fished area of the channel.
However, that was back in the early 1990s, the glory days of Bristol Channel cod fishing, and there is no dressing up the fact that the magnificent fishing we enjoyed each autumn and winter for many years has long gone.
That said, Bristol Channel cod fishing today is not all doom and gloom, far from it. In recent years numbers of fish have shown
signs of making a comeback, with reasonable numbers of both codling and better-sized cod, including one or two 20-pounders, showing on many days.
My observation is that each year the peak of the season seems to be getting later and later, and that throughout the season we get various high points when fish are more abundant, followed by leaner troughs.
The key to success today is to keep your ear to the ground and to keep in touch with good proactive skippers, such as Rob Rennie. Then, when the fishing does start to spike, do your absolute utmost to get afloat as soon as possible.
Conditions were ideal, even the sun made an all too rare appearance over the eastern horizon beyond Bristol. Clearly, the word had got out that a few fish were around because half-a-dozen boats were already anchored and fishing.
However, with various weather channels predicting that Storm Frank would be hitting the west of the country later that evening, bringing with it gusts of wind up to 60mph, we knew we had just the briefest respite from bad weather to enjoy.
It is a well-known fact that throughout the upper reaches of the Bristol Channel, the best fishing invariably coincides with an ebbing tide. As the anchor took hold, we l had just over an hour of the flood tide remaining to fish until, following a brief period of slack water, the tide would turn and start to run out to towards the west.
Nobody aboard Lady Jue 4 really expected too much to happen until then. A big fish can come at anytime you have bait in the water, though, and we soon heard that a superb 20lb 4oz cod had just been caught aboard a private boat fishing just astern of us.
Our crew of six were experienced anglers who had travelled to Penarth from Swansea for the day. This, in itself, is a sign of the changing seasons in the Bristol Channel; it wasn’t that many years ago that the absolute pinnacle of the cod season at Swansea Bay was throughout the Christmas and New Year Period.
One thing was for sure; if fish were present, we were going to catch them. We had an excellent selection of the very best cod baits, including both black and blow lug, along with frozen squid and cuttlefish. As is usual when fishing the fast-flowing, heavily-coloured waters of the upper reaches of the Channel, almost everyone chose to fish uptide, using a big bait to ensure the strongest possible scent trail, and if we had to wait a while for the first bites of the day, then so be it.
As things turned out, the first fish were boated almost as soon as we started fishing. First off, we had a run of whiting, and then, as the tide eased, we caught several strap conger eels up to around 14-15lb.
Just why the Bristol Channel has such a healthy population of congers has always been something of a mystery to me. For the most part, you are fishing clean, open,
“Clearly, the word had got out that a few fish were around because half-a-dozen boats were already anchored and fishing”
relatively featureless ground consisting of sand, mud and peat, rather than the rough ground, reefs or wrecks associated with this species, yet for most of the year congers are one of the area’s most abundant species.
As high water passed and the first of the ebb started to run, quickly developing into the fast-running torrent the area is noted for, all eyes concentrated on the rods. We were waiting for the first telltale double nod of a rod tip, followed by the characteristic slack line as a decent cod engulfed a bait and made off with the tide, breaking the grip weight free from the bottom in the process.
First to hook a fish was Sean Wood, and, due to the healthy bend and rhythmic nodding in his uptider, we could see it was a decent fish. Ever so slowly Sean worked his fish towards the boat, Rob waiting with his landing net for it to emerge from the chocolate-coloured water.
The key when playing fish in a very strong tide is to take your time. The immense flow of water puts considerably more strain on every component of your terminal tackle than an unaided fish ever could. Try to rush matters and it is likely you will rip out or straighten the hook, or snap the line. Sean knew what he was doing, though, and a little over five minutes later Rob hoisted an immaculately conditioned eight-pounder over the gunnels.
Next to require Rob’s netting service was Lee Davison, who boated another fish of similar size. Word on the radio confirmed that the rest of the anglers fishing on boats around us were also starting to catch fish at a steady rate.
All too soon it was time to start the engine and run back to Penarth. By now the last of the ebbing tide was being opposed by a rapidly freshening south-westerly wind, the forerunner of Storm Frank.
Lady Jue 4 would certainly be confined to her berth for at least two or three days. Hopefully, after that another window of opportunity might give another crew the chance to catch some prime winter cod.
Take your time when playing fish in a very strong tide
Skipper Rob Rennie with Sean’s first
cod of the trip
Lee Davison with another prime cod
of around 8lb
Our excellent selection of cod baits included squid (top), lug (centre) and cuttlefish (above)
To book a trip with Rob Rennie aboard Lady Jue 4, tel: 07831 805100 or email: customcharter @aol.com