Why fly-fishing off the coast is worth its salt
Pursuing saltwater species with a fly requires no special tackle and is available all around the UK coastline, offering rods fabulous sport – if you don’t mind getting your feet wet
Chris Ogborne casts into the Westcountry waves
There’s a crystal clarity to the blue sky above, with barely a line where sea meets distant horizon. The sun beats down and seabirds call as they hunt. Golden sandbars sparkle, emerald seaweed cloaks the rocks on the shoreline and colours soften into dusky shades on the cliffs. As the tide turns the first grey shapes appear in fleeting glimpses as they spot the wading angler and bolt for the safety of deeper water. The rod wades slowly, cautiously, along the edge of the drop-off, where turquoise water becomes lapis blue. The floating line lands at the exact spot where the water deepens. In an explosion of spray the silver-grey flank of a feeding bass slashes at the lure. The rod strips line at high speed and the second take engulfs the fly. The battle is joined.
Where is this happening, you might ask? The Maldives? A Caribbean island? Some fabled destination reached only after two days’ exhausting travel?
Actually, it’s Cornwall in summer. The rod is one of a new band of aficionados who are coming to realise that some of the best flyfishing in the world is available right here on our doorstep. A growing number of rods are discovering the joys of saltwater fly-fishing and having the time of their lives for a fraction of the cost of some of the more obvious but expensive “destination” options
The coastline of Devon and Cornwall offers hundreds of miles of beach, rock and cliffs, much of which has fantastic fishing potential if you know where to look. This extends round through Dorset and the south, or up to Pembrokeshire and beyond. Indeed, this potential exists all around the coast of Britain, restricted only by the cooler northern latitudes and vagaries of our climate.
Despite what some may tell you, you absolutely do not need specialist tackle. The
Some of the best fly-fishing in the world is available right here on our doorstep
sea will not ruin your favourite reels and lines and, provided you observe a few simple safety rules, wading in the Atlantic Ocean is not dangerous. Yes, you do need to rinse your gear in freshwater after every session in the sea but it takes just a few minutes with a garden hose and is a small price to pay for the amazing sport that you’ll enjoy.
when and where to go
Quite literally, you can fly-fish anywhere around the coast of Britain, although I’m naturally biased towards my home base of Devon and Cornwall. The summer weather down here is justly famous and the climate can almost feel sub-tropical on occasions. The farther north you go the more there is a chance of colder weather and even colder water, whereas the Atlantic coast of Cornwall is washed by the Gulf Stream and has the benefit of more hours of sunshine than most of the UK.
While we don’t have a clearly defined season, in reality for most people the season starts in May. Prior to that the winds can have a chill factor that affects the fish and the fishing. Sea temperatures around our coast are surprisingly regular – more so than most people think – but it’s when they hit the magical 11°C mark that things start to happen. In the south-west, this is usually in mid May although it can be earlier. We also enjoy an extended season well into autumn; in fact, some of the very best sport in 2016 was rock-hopping in November.
There are so many options and different ways to approach the available sport. In its simplest form, you take a fly rod down to the beach, looking for drop-offs, channels, sandbars, rocks or any other spots where fish will congregate looking for food. Sea bass and mullet will come right into the shallows in summer and the smaller schoolie bass offer great fun on light tackle.
Then there’s the “rock-hopping” option, where you can access deeper water and more species of fish. Mackerel, gar, pollack and wrasse will all take a fly, provided it’s presented at the right depth and with the right retrieve.
At the other end of the scale is cliff hiking, where you’ll be looking for structure and features that bring fish closer to the shoreline in their search for food than they would normally be. All the above species are on the menu here, with bass, pollack and mackerel being the star performers.
Above all, you have to think like a fish. A wide-open expanse of sand with a long line of rocks giving you a perfect casting platform might look good but is there any weed on those rocks? If there isn’t kelp, weed or mussels there won’t be any baitfish and the area is likely to be sterile. Look for the drop-offs, the areas where darker blue water indicates depth, rocks and structure. Tumbled rocks and seaweed hold loads of things that fish eat. Most estuaries have channels marked by red and green buoys – find the channels and you’ll probably find fish.
I’m lucky enough to live on one of the best river systems in the UK, the River Camel, but you don’t have to have a complete estuary at your disposal. I run my guiding business all around the Devon and Cornwall coastline and some of my best bass marks appear in the least obvious places. They can be found on a seemingly barren beach, an unlikely looking stretch of bland coastline or an unpromising set of rocks. What they all have in common is the bit you can’t see – the underwater structure. It’s not the pretty scenery that holds the fish but sub-surface features that offer a supply of food. You won’t always see the kelp beds but the pollack will. You may not be able to see the mass of broken rocks and boulders but the peeler crab that live there are irresistible to bass.
The trick is not to be too proud to ask. There are great tackle shops in most coastal towns and the staff or owners will be only too pleased to point you in the right direction. Buy a few flies as well to complete the two-way trade.
One of the real joys of saltwater fly-fishing is that it’s visual. We all know the buzz you get from catching a rising trout on a dry fly in the river but in the sea this is taken to a whole new level. On occasion you will see fish feeding, either slashing at sandeels on the surface or sending them spraying into the air as they take them a foot below. Most of the time, however, you’ll be watching for indications of fish feeding at depth. Things to look for are the fabled “nervous water”, a patch of disturbed water pushed to the surface by a feeding swirl. Then there’s a ripple going in the wrong direction to the rest, a small upswell in an otherwise flat surface or a hint of a boil or unusual water movement.
What you will not see is the full-on head and tail of a trout, as sea fish rarely feed in that way. Keep your eyes peeled and look out for feeding gulls or terns, a sure indication of baitfish on the surface. And where there are baitfish there are predators.
As I said before, there is absolutely no reason why your normal trout-fishing gear won’t work in the sea. My typical set-up would be a 9ft 6in rod with a #6 or #7 line – in other words, your normal reservoir outfit. This will cover you for at least 80% of the fishing on offer. Exceptions are when we are out stalking specimen sea bass in the evening, when I like to go really subtle with a 9ft #5 outfit, primarily for accuracy and the delicacy of presentation this offers. Conversely, when we are out on the boat or long-casting sinking lines from the rocks then a heavier #8 can be an advantage.
On the beach or shoreline, I reckon that around 60% of my sport comes with a floating line, the remainder being on intermediates or slow sinkers. In surf conditions of medium to big waves you get a lot more control with either neutral density or intermediates. I also favour fluorocarbon leaders here, while on the rocks I’ll often change this to copolymer for the extra abrasion resistance. All you need to remember is to give everything a thorough wash in freshwater after use, not just to get rid of the saltwater but also to remove any sand or debris that’s inevitable in the surf. Five minutes with a garden hose is enough to keep things ship shape and free from corrosion.
I’m a great advocate of the “travel light” approach to fishing and this is never more relevant than in saltwater. You simply don’t need to take all that gear with you. Leave the tackle bag in the car boot. All you need is a small fly box, spare leader material and forceps, all of which can be accommodated on a neck lanyard or in a pocket. This way, you’re free to roam the beach at will, following the incoming tide up the beach, chasing shoals of fish when you see them, or moving from rock to rock along the shoreline. The only extras that I regard as essential are good polarising sunglasses and a line tray. The former are needed to spot the fish and for safety, while the latter will stop your line from washing around all over the place in the waves. The line tray is an absolute must on the rocks, as nothing slices through a fly line like the sharp edge of a mussel shell.
The only area where you’ll need to make changes to your normal trout gear is in fly selection. While there are certainly some reservoir patterns that would work, the vast majority of sea species spend much of their time eating each other, so you’ll need to reflect this in your fly choice. Pretty much any baitfish pattern will work but right at the top of everyone’s list will be the sandeel. Sandeels are prolific and form the staple of most of the marine life around our shores, both fish and birds. Less well known is that sandeels come in different sizes. Early season sees the arrival of the small, 3in “bootlace” eels that you see in huge shoals. Then the more typical “summer sandeels” arrive and at 4in to 6in in length these are on the menu for every predator. Finally, there is the giant sandeel or launce, which grows to well over a foot in length and is a significant meal for a specimen bass or pollack.
In recent years, and in conjunction with the long-established Devon-based fly company Turrall, I’ve developed a series of flies to imitate these varying sizes. Of necessity, we’ve scaled down the launce pattern as a fly of 12in in length is beyond the casting abilities of most rods; however, the fish don’t seem to mind that the artificials are a bit shorter. For stalking purposes, on certain tides or at certain times of the year, we may use crab or shrimp patterns but as the sandeel covers so many options it’s always the default choice.
variety is Key
In trout fishing, I have long been convinced that it’s not so much the fly but the way you fish it that matters. However, this isn’t
The only area where you’ll need to make changes to normal trout gear is in fly selection
entirely true in saltwater; it definitely helps to have a reasonably close copy of a sandeel on the end of your line and most certainly makes a difference if you can fish it properly. Fortunately, this isn’t rocket science and you can take all manner of liberties with your retrieve rates. Variety is the key, with as many changes of speed and length of pull that you can give.
I always tell clients that it’s impossible to fish a sandeel pattern too fast. Even with a high-speed retrieve you’ll often see a bass leisurely following the fly, looking for all the world as though it’s not moving a fin. The secret is in the pull-and-pause, a regular “chop chop” action, using the rod tip to change the direction of the retrieve and that all-important variety factor.
Give your cast a degree of forward lead. If you’re drifting loch style for trout you rarely cast directly at the fish but will almost certainly aim for a spot a few metres in front of its last-known position. It’s the same in the sea, only more so as everything happens much more quickly. Let’s imagine you’re on a sandbar and you’re seeing the fish swimming in towards you. The tide is probably moving at several knots and the fish will be doing the same, so you’ll need to land the fly at least four or five yards in front of the fish. This avoids spooking the fish if presentation is less than perfect and it also gives you time to take a pull on the line to straighten the leader. In this way, you’ll be ready to give that all-important “life” to the fly just as the fish reaches it.
Some readers will throw their hands up in despair at this but my regular clients will smile knowingly. The latter will have experienced wet wading and will understand the huge advantages associated with it.
Apart from the first few weeks of the season, leave your waders behind and enjoy the benefits of wet wading. All you need are shorts and shirt, nothing more. Apart from the wonderful feeling of freedom that you get from wet wading, the real benefit comes from the ability to “feel” the temperature changes as you wade. Mullet, in particular, love to swim in the transition areas between cold and warm areas of water and the ability to feel these changes on bare legs helps you find the fish.
Unlike stillwaters – where you find horizontal layers of varying water temperatures – the action of wind and wave in the sea turns these thermoclines into “blocks” of water. Find the transition area and, more often than not, you will find the fish. Above all, wet wading allows you to wade cautiously and without too much disturbance. Remember your quarry is truly wild and a cautious approach is the best way to catch it.
A Good GUIDE
While this is emphatically not a plug for business, it is the best advice on offer in this article. The use of a guide can be invaluable and can make a massive difference to your day out. There are plenty of good guides based around the coast and they should be able to eliminate the guesswork for you and take you to their favourite spots. We call them “marks” down here. Good bass marks are often passed down from generation to generation and I still use marks today that my dad showed me 30 years ago. A guide will save an awful lot of wasted time fishing in the wrong places.
But a good guide can help you with so much more. He should know the right state of the tide to fish, where the fish will be running in a particular combination of wind and weather, and where fish have been feeding in recent days.
He’ll also keep you safe. You’d be surprised how easy it is to lose track of time when you’re out on the rocks or sandbars, to the extent that you forget your route back to safety as the incoming tide covers the features. A good guide will protect you from your own over-enthusiasm.
So why not give saltwater fly-fishing a try this year? It you’re taking the annual holiday in the south-west it makes a nice break from the beach for a day and it’s an absolutely amazing and rewarding way of fishing. I have regular clients who have been coming back for many years now and are beginning to explore more of the coast for themselves and finding their own secret “marks”.
More than anything, it’s a style of fishing that takes you right back to nature, bringing out the dormant “hunter gatherer” in a way you never thought possible.
Fly-fishing champion Chris Ogborne has captained England at World Championship level, gaining a record number of caps as well as winning the National Championship (twice) and European Championship. He is probably best known for pioneering light-line techniques in trout fishing, a style that he now teaches through his guiding business in Cornwall.
For further information, tel: 07885038203; email firstname.lastname@example.org or go to www.chris-ogborne.co.uk
The writer (left), who advocates wet wading on the Cornish coast, where the mouth of the River Camel offers superb sport (above and far left)
Most baitfish patterns will work in saltwater with sandeel patterns – in different sizes – at the top of most rods’ fly list
Above: the battle begins as a bass takes
Top: fly-fishing the Erme estuary in Devon; the scenery is stunning and fishing here costs a fraction of the price of “go-to” destinations