Although this was the end of November the air and sea temperatures were more akin with the beginning of October than the end of November, the winter fishing had just not started.
The shoals of Pollack, Coalfish and to a lesser extent Cod had just not moved up the Channel. So we were going out to the really deep 60 to 90 meter line to see if the fish were shoaling up in the deeper water. This is a phenomenon which happens every few years and with the advent of "global warming" seems to be happening more frequently. The problem is that these warmer fronts colliding with the Arctic cold makes for stormy conditions, so the opportunity to go deep occurs less frequently and when these "weather windows" between the fronts do happen it is a case of drop everything and go fishing.
We pinged one wreck after another with the sounder and apart from the usual activity from pouting and a bit of ling they were barren. The clouds of fish which at this time of year we expect to find towering above the wrecks were not there. As we sped deeper into the deep blue the sounder began to pick up fragmented shoals of fish in mid water. Stopping for a dip with the feathers we found mackerel, herring and a few pilchard but the big shoals which we could not touch with the feathers were evidently the sprats which had not yet started their migration up the channel toward Plymouth and, a spring tide later, Weymouth.
Four hours on, we were on the edge of the really deep water contour line, to a couple of wrecks which even the netters have yet to find and not surprisingly, there were the fish. So the conclusion is simple. It looks as if we are going to have another of those short but explosive Winter seasons ducking and weaving between the weather fronts.
This situation is not the best, but is one of those seasons when if you want to fish you have to be ready to go at a moments notice. You will have to be prepared to push a bit of weather because in these unreliable conditions the calm weather window might last four or five days or you might find your boat running for home with a gale laden front snapping at your transom!!
Some of the newer larger charter boats have enough under cover accommodation for the full crew of anglers. If you are going offshore for more than a few hours, the ability to get in out of the cold and wet is something which is a must, especially if there are hot cups of tea or coffee and the ability to heat a pie or pasty in a microwave on offer.
If there are a few words of advice to be offered to anglers who have never been to sea in winter conditions they would be very simply, "Buy a Floatation Suit". Often you will see float suits advertised as having so many Newton’s of buoyancy, complete with all the dingle dangles, but the most important thing is rarely mentioned, which is that float suits keep you warm in adverse conditions. In a worse case scenario the buoyancy could save your life, but in truth that really is a long shot. With all the annual checks, equipment, plus the experience and qualifications needed to become a charter skipper today, it is much more likely that the thermal insulation properties of the float suit to keep you warm, dry and comfortable will be the priority reason for its purchase.
Since the original float suits for anglers became available in the last decade, there have been many manufacturers who have jumped on the bandwagon and prices have been driven lower and lower. Buy a suit with a reliable name on it. Sundridge are making some good suits, Penn now offer a good looking suit at a good price, Marinepool sponsor the NFSA teams - so buy the best you can, believe me it is worth it. Oh! And don’t forget a good pair of seaboots with a slip resistant cut sole, knobbly bottomed gardening boots can be lethal on wet decks.
Being on a diet is a noble quest these days, so it seems. Being outdoors in a cold, sometimes hostile environment is no place for calorie counting. Take plenty of "boiler fuel", food high in calories that will keep you warm. Mars bars, biscuits and suchlike are all totally allowable, at least that is what I tell myself.
If it seems that I have dwelt overlong on the subject of personal comfort it is because when you are 20 miles offshore, shivering cold with nothing to eat, then you are in trouble and have totally wasted the cost of the trip.
Tooling up for the job!
Big Pollack and Coalfish caught from a deep sunk wreck in the depths of winter are a totally different fish to the four or five pound fish that are usually caught over inshore reefs during the warmer months of the year. These deep water winter fish are in prime condition having fed on sprats and pilchard for a few weeks. They are some of the most hard fighting fish that you are likely to encounter in European waters and if you are fishing from your own boat with maybe one or two other anglers on board they can certainly be landed on light tackle, but if you are fishing with a full crew on a charter boat, anything less than a twenty pound outfit will result in loss of control and tangled lines are more than likely.
There are some superb twenty pound class outfits available at the moment, some of the tackle manufacturers must have eventually got around to listening to anglers instead of buying them off the shelf at the Beijing show.
Take a look at the newish Shimano Antares and Diaflash rods. An unusual 20lb rod is the Technofish Seachrome rod which comes in two equal halves and I have got to say is very convenient for carrying or travelling. You would never know from its performance that it came apart in two equal halves, a superb 20lb class rod which at 7ft 9inches is very much at home fishing for winter Pollack or Summertime Bass. Good kit!
Whatever reel you decide to use, do make sure that it has a super smooth drag system because on a 20lb outfit these fit, slab sided fish are going to take line. Set the drag with a small spring balance to about 4lbs straight off the reel. By the time the line is threaded through the rod rings and the rod is bent over into a fish the amount of drag will have increased to between five and six pounds which for a twenty pound class outfit is about right in these circumstances. Some of you might even think this amount of drag is to much, but with good line and well tied knots it is about right, believe me.
Good reels are the Penn 310, the Shimano Charter Special or either of the Shimano Calcutta’s - the Diawa Sealine 175H is a good reel at a budget price with good capacity and a smooth star drag.
Load these reels with top quality monofilament or, if you are fishing from your own boat with just a few other anglers, a quality braided line such as Power Pro or Fireline. Use 20 pounds breaking strain line to match the capabilities of the rod so that the outfit is "balanced" one component with the other, this way with a little patience and skill you will be able to land the largest Pollack that swims in our waters, then feel a sense of genuine achievement as your pals click the shutters of their cameras to record that fish right from the sea.
Natural baits such as mackerel strip will catch these superb fighting fish but over the years fishing the "rubber eel" such as the Eddystone or Redgill has become almost an art form. Pollack specialists delight in fishing a long flowing leader from a lightweight wire boom carrying just enough sinker weight to tap the bottom before they commence the fairly brisk retrieve necessary to get the supple tails of these cunning lures flic-flacking up through the depths.
Many of us believe that it is vibrations sent out from these tails which attract the attention of the fish and sometimes the rate of retrieve is as quick as you can turn the handle of the reel. A little known fact is that the tails of these lures can be stretched to increase the amount of vibration that they send out. Simply dip the tail of the lure into boiling water for a few seconds, pull the tail straight extending it by about an inch and set it under the cold water tap. Stretching does not work as well on old lures as it does on new ones.
After every drift take a look at the echo sounder, see where the fish are and try to avoid concentrating on the barren ground. Often you will see the experienced anglers waiting till they can see the wreck just showing on the sounder before sending their lure on its way to the bottom. They will let the sinker tap just once before taking a very fast ten turns to get the rig away from the rusting remains of the wreck and get their lure into the cloud of fish which will be in the faster water above the wreck where the baitfish are being lifted by the action of the tide.
Think about what is happening fifty metres below, none of it is rocket science, and fish accordingly. You will often be surprised and pleased beyond belief when simple logic works. For instance, if the fish are feeding on plump little sprats…. which is going to work best, a slim sandeel imitation or a plumpish shad?? Like I said, it is not rocket science !!