THE MEAL DEAL

If you un­der­stand the feed­ing habits of fish, you’ll catch more

Sea Angler (UK) - - CONTENTS - Words by MIKE LADLE Pho­tog­ra­phy by MIKE DOB­SON

Feed­ing habits help you catch more.

When I was a young­ster, if I went into a fish­ing tackle shop to buy hooks the per­son be­hind the counter would gen­er­ally ask “fresh­wa­ter or sea?” If I replied “sea” out would come a tray of crude im­ple­ments with rough eyes and thick wire, all larger than a size 4 or there­abouts.

Things have changed quite a lot, but there is a ten­dency to as­sume that sea fish are less dis­cern­ing and eas­ier to catch than their fresh­wa­ter cousins. There’s more to it than that.

Rag­worms, lug­worms, crabs, squid and mack­erel prob­a­bly make up 99 per cent of the nat­u­ral baits used by sea an­glers. There’s no doubt that th­ese old faith­fuls are good for many fish.

Of course, there are of­ten lo­cal spe­cial­i­ties that do the busi­ness, such as sandeels, clams, ra­zor­fish, mus­sels, prawns and so on. The strik­ing thing about th­ese baits is that they are all of a de­cent size. Even the worms, prawns and mus­sels are usu­ally large enough to re­quire a good-sized hook to avoid them be­ing masked.

In con­trast, fresh­wa­ter fish­ing mostly in­volves hooks smaller than a size 10 or 12, and size 6 hooks are re­garded with ridicule by many coarse an­glers. I know what you’re think­ing – most coarse fish are pretty small. How­ever, there are some hefty spec­i­mens to be had, no­tably pike and carp. In­deed, carp of 20lb-plus are not un­usual and grow far big­ger.

When was the last time you landed a 20lb-plus fish from the shore? I sup­pose if you’re a conger spe­cial­ist you may get one or two. There­fore, the rea­son for us­ing big hooks is not be­cause they will al­low you to play and land heavy fish. As I’ve sug­gested, it may be to cope with chunky baits, but even that is not al­ways the case.

LARGE BAITS

I’m a great fan of large baits for big fish in most sit­u­a­tions. Big fish gen­er­ally eat large items of food. How­ever, this is by no means uni­ver­sal. Sub­stan­tial dol­lops of grub are rarely abun­dant on the seabed and it may take a lot of search­ing and en­ergy-sap­ping swim­ming to find them.

Preda­tors can find it hard work catch­ing big, alert, clever, fast-mov­ing items of prey. On the other hand, if it’s pos­si­ble to find masses of small food items it’s of­ten just a mat­ter of open­ing your mouth and shov­el­ling them in. Bear in mind that many of the largest an­i­mals in the sea, such as whales, feed al­most ex­clu­sively on rel­a­tively tiny, but ex­tremely abun­dant, crea­tures.

Small-sized an­i­mals of­ten gather to­gether in vast num­bers to feed on fine par­ti­cles of food or as a pro­tec­tion against be­ing eaten, and for those preda­tors ca­pa­ble of cap­i­tal­is­ing on this it’s just what the doc­tor or­dered.

Take a sim­ple ex­am­ple. Many fish lay mil­lions of eggs that will hatch to pro­duce enor­mous shoals of tiny help­less fry. Most of the abun­dant, smaller species of sandeel seem to spawn in the win­ter months. Spring and early sum­mer then sees an ex­plo­sion of tiny sandeels here on the south coast. Th­ese lit­tle fish are much too small to im­pale on a nor­mal sea hook and even the titchi­est plug or spoon is usu­ally a good deal larger than they are.

Nev­er­the­less, big bass soon learn to lo­cate the mid-wa­ter con­cen­tra­tions of th­ese tasty lit­tle ba­bies and will gorge on them un­til their stom­achs are bulging. Strong tidal cur­rents, which are noth­ing to a pow­er­fully-swim­ming bass, ren­der the sandeels vul­ner­a­ble. In spring and early sum­mer, the bass gather in shal­low wa­ter over reefs and rocky head­lands to eat their fill and they may be­come pre­oc­cu­pied with prey only a cou­ple of inches long. At this time, the fly-an­gler with his small fry im­i­ta­tion or the lure fish­er­man armed with a suit­able small plug, soft­bait or spoon may make their best catches of the year.

NU­TRI­TIOUS FOOD

A sec­ond ex­am­ple is pre­sented by the thick­lipped grey mul­let. They feed largely on mi­cro­scopic par­ti­cles of de­tri­tus and/or al­gae, which are not an op­tion as baits. Nev­er­the­less, given the chance, mul­let will read­ily take big­ger, more nu­tri­tious food items if th­ese are suf­fi­ciently com­mon and eas­ily found.

Where mul­let swim, bass are of­ten in at­ten­dance and they will eat ex­actly the same types of food. The lar­vae of the sea­weed fly

(Coelopa) are a clas­sic mul­let food. Th­ese mi­nus­cule, wrig­gling pack­ets of pro­tein can be present in vast num­bers wher­ever weed is cast ashore and, for nine or 10 months of the year, given the right con­di­tions, mul­let and bass guz­zle them.

The mag­gots float on the sur­face of the sea so that’s where the fish feed. Mul­let gen­er­ally skim the sur­face film by swim­ming along with open mouths, while feed­ing bass can be dis­tin­guished by the way they do a ‘por­poise roll’ as they grab a mouth­ful. The sport they give on fly or float gear when you use a 6lb ny­lon cast armed with hooks from about size 10 to 14 is un­be­liev­able.

BAIT BO­NANZA

The fi­nal case of a bait bo­nanza is pre­sented by the marine woodlice (Idotea). Th­ese lit­tle crus­taceans col­lect in their mil­lions where there is a sort of weed soup in the wa­ter’s edge. Bass and mul­let do feed heav­ily on th­ese swim­ming woodlice which, as in­di­vid­u­als, are not much more than an inch long.

This time it is the bass rather than the mul­let that seem to be the ex­perts and fish of all sizes will cruise right into the thick sus­pen­sion of weed to fill their bel­lies with Idotea. As with mag­got feed­ers, the fish may be tempted with flies re­sem­bling the food ma­te­rial.

The main prob­lem is that weed can clog even small hooks, and drapes it­self on the fly-line. Since the fish are of­ten near the sur­face or in very shal­low wa­ter, it can be bet­ter to try and dis­tract them into tak­ing a large, weed­less, soft plas­tic lure.

The ex­cite­ment as a dou­ble-fig­ure bass grabs at your sur­face lure is in­tense, and the sub­se­quent strug­gle to land a big fish through a mass of weed may be nerve-rack­ing. ■

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