THE MEAL DEAL
If you understand the feeding habits of fish, you’ll catch more
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.
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.
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.
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. ■