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FishTrail » Angler’s Tail – John May

Angler’s Tail – John May


I have fished the Bristol Channel for more than 50 years, since my teenage years , following  an initiation on the local Bristol Avon and local ponds during my school years. One lifetime hobby – “affliction” – according to my good lady that has given me great enjoyment and company.

My first freshwater fish ,a small tench,  came from Eastville Park lake and the first sea fish was a wrasse from Bournemouth Pier closely followed by my first Bristol Channel fish – a dogfish from Porlock Weir.

To be honest the Bristol Channel, after a couple of lean trips’ that took their toll on the contents of my tackle box and left me and my new kit covered in a layer of mud , was second to the comparatively blue waters of the south coast.

That all changed when I met up with a guy of similar physical stature to myself , Wilf Dunstone , a well known angler at the time, who in his words” taught me all I know about fishing the Bristol Channel”. We became very close friends and fished together for 35 years until sadly we lost him 15 years ago. Our exploits and successes were well known.

My first trip with Wilf was low water fishing from the shore at Portishead – not for the faint hearted. We started by using a fork to dig in what seemed to be impenetrable rocks but in no time we had some great ragworm which went straight onto the hook. In the next three hours we had half a dozen codling and a  10lb cod before being pushed off our mark by the incoming tide.

I then realised just how productive this brown water could be and who cares about the mud! From then on my winter shore fishing focused on Bristol Channel cod.

I spent the rest of the year charter boat and shore fishing in south Devon. I fished most weekends with famous skippers of the time from Plymouth, Dartmouth, Brixham and Torquay enjoying the sort of catches that we now have to travel to Norway to achieve. Minehead remained an all-year venue and if the weather was bad I could fish from either the north or south Devon / Somerset coast

Over the years we caught many double figure fish and a couple of twenties as well as codling at various shore marks from Portishead along to Clevedon, Black Rock, Kingstone Seymour, Sand Point , Brean, Berrow , Hinkley, Lilstock down to Minehead and Porlock . All of these marks still produce good catches on their day.

In the early eighties, as a reaction to the two fish limits being set by the south coast charter fleets , I invested in a small [4 metre] boat and decided to explore the inshore waters of Clevedon and Berrow which resulted in me joining The Burnham Boat Owners club at Burnham on Sea and small boat fishing started to take over from my exploits on the beach..

As I got to know the waters and tides of Berrow/ Bridgwater Bay ,Hinkley and Lilstock I enjoyed terrific sport with ray, conger, sole, bass and cod fishing with light, up-tide gear in very shallow water. In recent times there have been less cod but still plenty of sport with good size [20lbs] smoothhound a regular bonus

My best memory is difficult as I have so many – my exploits with Wilf over all those years were well documented and great fun but competition wise it would of been winning both the Murphy’s Southern Ireland Boat competition and the Salcombe Small Boat – three times each and being Runner up in the Dartmouth Festival with a 22lb turbot, fishing with Brian Dash. Club-wise, it would of been being presented with The Wilkinson Sword Award by the BCFSA for services to the sea angling community.

My favourite place to fish – there would be many over the years Salcombe , Weymouth, Dartmouth, Ilfracombe – all have their place –  but throughout my years the Upper Bristol Channel: Portishead to Minehead is “home”.

Fishing the Bristol Channel – it’s different.. There are few locations where you can go for the day. They are usually high or low water marks which generally allow 4 to 5 hour sessions. With a rise and fall in excess of 14 metres and the strength and speed of the tide, there is a lot to consider. The sand beaches of Berrow and Weston-Super-Mare offer easy fishing around high tide but at low water the water literally disappears across the mudflats. Small boats fishing Bridgwater Bay will be 5 miles from Burnham to find a couple of metres of water between the exposed sandbanks that, 6hrs later, will be covered by 12metres of water! Low -water rock marks are generally accessed across unfishable rock terrain to reach a point where you can cast onto sand/ mud or coral where fish feed and you stand a reasonable chance of not loosing to much kit.

It is unwise to fish many of the low-water marks alone because the tide comes in so fast – do some research and take advice from the local clubs and tackle shops – the results will be worth the effort.

Most of the local clubs belong to the Brisol Channel Federation of Sea Anglers and their details together with contact numbers are in their handbook.

Sea Angling to me remains a lifelong affliction. Although without doubt sea boat fishing is my main pursuit now . I continue to occasionally fish from the shore and I maintain my pursuit of big river roach , salmon and trout (all sit fairly well together through the seasons of the year).

Now and the future – I remain vice president of the BCFSA and Vice President Of Weston –Super-Mare S A C in recognition of support that I have given over the years and President for life of Burnham Boats; my true home club and I am a member of Clevedon Pier club. It’s unusual to go anywhere and not bump into old friends .

I have and will continue to sponsor the annual Weston-Super-Mare junior open beach competition,  just recently for the 29th year. I had the pleasure of presenting a 7year old lad with a mountain bike. It is my way of encouraging youngsters into the sport.

Four years ago I was invited to get involved with the relatively new organisation Devon and Severn Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority, specifically because of my knowledge of angling activities in the Upper Bristol Channel and in order to provide details and views of an angler. This initially led to the Angling Zone at Burnham, Berrow and Brean and resurrected the Wessex byelaws for protection of salmon and sea trout around Burnham and Watchet. I find this work very interesting on a factual level but equally frustrating and there is a lot of progress yet to be made.

Most of all I intend to fish the Bristol Channel more – I am far happier with a rod than a pen


John May

Honorary Vice President of the Bristol Channel Federation of Sea Anglers

Lifetime President of the Burnham Boat Owners Sea Angling Association

Vice President of Weston-Super-Mare Sea Angling Club

MMO appointee to Devon and Severn IFCA