Anglers’ Tales – Mike Bailey

Brixham Sea Angling Club, South Devon

Post war Liverpool was the unlikely start of my passion for angling.  Yes, as children we played on the mountains of rubble created from the bombed out remains of buildings, and experienced the austerity of food rationing.   However, I lived right on the fringes of the city boundaries, and here there were hedgerows full of birds, with insects and butterflies everywhere, and ditches and ponds full of exciting wild life.  Health and safety would have had a fit but we happily grubbed around in these ditches and by the ponds , catching sticklebacks with their spiky fins either in nets or by using garden worms with a matchstick as a float.  There were also masses of hungry newts of all the species and they too were taken home in jam jars to admire, only to release them later on in the day.

The moment that turned these happy childhood memories into something much more significant arrived when I was just 11 years old.  A friend of mine appeared on the doorstep with a proper fishing rod which he had been given for his birthday.  He wanted me to go with him to the local lake to see if he could catch a fish.  Although I couldn’t afford to buy a rod I was determined to join in the fun, and so procured a long bamboo cane, made a float and borrowed a hook and some line.  The local park lakes were full of small roach and perch but catching them was not easy.  They were very shy and we didn’t have the knowledge to catch them.  I put a large lump of bread on my hook and cast out expectantly.  Nothing happened.  Both of us fished for hours without a bite but just as we were debating whether to call it a day, my float slid across the surface and disappeared.  When I lifted my cane I could feel the tugging and pull of a fish and it ran through me like electricity such was the excitement.  I lifted out of the water a very decent roach for that lake, perhaps 6 ounces in weight.  I was astonished at the beauty of the fish with its glistening silvery – white body and bright scarlet fins. Perfection!  Quickly unhooking the fish it was returned safely to the water, but in that moment I was hooked for life.  My friend never spoke the whole way home as we cycled, such was his disappointment.  He never fished again but became an outstanding sportsman later in life.

Not long after this my parents bought me a fishing rod for my birthday and from that day on I happily fished the local lakes in Liverpool, and later on went further afield to the Bridgewater Canal.  I learned a lot from the amazingly skilled anglers who fished these very challenging venues, but sea fishing at that time in the River Mersey and surrounding coastline was not a viable option.  The river is now transformed and abounds with life but in the fifties and sixties was an open sewer. My memories of that period were of some hardy anglers with very heavy and crude tackle fishing off the embankment walls with a bell attached to register a bite, and occasionally catching flounders, eels and small whiting.

I left Merseyside when I moved to Devon in 1968 after my marriage, having spent the two previous years as a student with my wife to be, working on the beach at Brixham Breakwater, selling beach goods whilst my fiancée worked in the café.

At that time the seas surrounding South Devon abounded with fish, many growing to a good size.  I had a freshwater rod so continued using this to fish for mullet from the harbours and local coastal marks.  I soon started catching good sized mullet consistently.  It was the ideal transition from fresh water to the sea and using the light tackle gave me many marvellous battles with these sporting fish, which were then returned safely to live another day.  I also joined the local angling club at Brixham and started to take part in the various competitions that took place.  For this I needed a range of fishing tackle, as the events took place from boats and shore, and there were a large variety of fish from heavyweight conger to plaice , and all required different methods and tackle.

The majority of my angling now takes place from the shore, with occasional boat trips to the nearby Skerries Bank and my favourite species are mullet, particularly thick-lipped mullet, wrasse, and plaice.  I love light float fishing for mullet, especially in the nearby River Dart, and the very different River Teign.   Wrasse fishing into rocky coastal areas is a huge contrast.  They are not shy biting like the mullet, but fishing with light gear is asking for trouble, as their first instinct is to dive into the weed and rocks.  They are powerful fish and a tough species that survive well after capture to be returned for another day..  Plaice fishing with ultra light tackle and drifting the sand and gravel banks of the Skerries Bank means a good catch of plaice is likely, and on light tackle they can really show their paces.  Some are kept for the table and the smaller ones returned.    If I had only one species to fish for it would be mullet, but they are a late spring, summer and autumn species, so the wrasse fishing takes over for that period of the year when the mullet are absent.

For visiting anglers,  Devon, the Bristol Channel and Severn Estuary all have great variety and many marks either from boat or shore.  For those who enjoy their freshwater fishing as well there are many lakes for the coarse angler and lakes and rivers for the game fishermen.   There are so many wonderful locations, including sheltered estuaries,  many of them very beautiful and although the fishing is more challenging than in the past, the fish are there if you use the right methods and fish marks at the right times with the right baits. Take advice from locals if you are visiting an area for the first time together with fishing forums and information about how to catch the species you are interested in, by looking on the internet and checking locations of marks.

Thinking about my best memory connected with sea fishing is not an easy one for me, having fished from shore and boat for over fifty years.  So many to choose from!   ….. but here are some of the many I considered.

I was very fortunate to be able to fish regularly on the first fast off shore charter boat, Sea Angler, owned by my neighbour and friend Albert King.  We often had massive catches of ling, pollack, cod and conger on mid Channel wrecks.   One day we were anchored on a steaming hot day with the sea as flat as the proverbial millpond.   Fish were coming up thick and fast, but then some of them came up so far, only to then arrive at the surface, bitten in half!   The culprit soon made itself known.  A massive porbeagle shark, the largest I have ever seen was cruising around the stern and ripping fish to pieces as they were being brought to the boat.  A very short but powerful angler announced that he had brought shark gear with him and promptly set up with his massively strong gear and hooked bunches of mackerel onto a double hook set up.

This was dropped over the side and as it disappeared into the clear greeny-blue water, the outline of this monster appeared from the depths and the baits disappeared.  The angler shouted out excitedly that he had hooked it.  Hardly necessary as he was being pulled towards the stern of the boat at a rate of knots and there was no fighting chair to secure him too.  As I remember, we grabbed hold of him as the line screamed off the reel as down and down the massive creature went!  Having reached the basement, the shark cruised around and did what it pleased for the next forty minutes without the slightest impression being made on the monster.  The inevitable happened.  The massive strain on the gear saw the line part and that was that.

Yes, that was a candidate for my short list.  So was the day I fished for mullet in the upper River Teign in water that was only three feet deep.  My float shot under without warning within minutes of starting and my rod bent like a bow and the line screamed off.   I was using 4lb line and what followed seemed like a lifetime.  I had hooked into a very large common carp, not a fat, pot- bellied fish from a lake, but a lean and muscular specimen.  It seemed improbable that I could actually beat this massive fish, but after 1 hour and forty minutes it was in the net, ( the landing net handle buckled then broke but not before the fish was on the bank).  It was weighed at 27lb my largest ever freshwater fish and my wrists ached so much I could hardly drive home afterwards!

Lots more moments over the years.  The 41 lb conger taken on plaice tackle on a number 1 hook on the Skerries Bank, and the blonde ray of 18lb that was foul-hooked through the tail on 6lb class gear, the strange looking bird that was grubbing around in the mud on the River Exe whilst fishing for flounders one winter’s day, (which turned out to be a spoonbill. ) And the very sizeable conger hooked on float -fished mullet gear from the inside of Brixham Breakwater, ( but not landed needless to say!) and so many more besides……..

But in the end it had to be this one and inevitably it relates to mullet fishing and the River Dart……

On this occasion I was fishing on a glorious sunny and warm evening at historic Totnes on a rising tide at a mark called Vire Island.  This venue can produce good mullet fishing if the conditions are favourable although Vire is not really an island at all, just a peninsular with the main river on one side and a leat that runs up to where an old mill used to work.  Float fishing with light gear can provide excellent sport using bread as bait and I was hopeful of catching a few fish.  However, it is such a beautiful spot that it is a wonderful place just to relax even if the fish are not co-operating,

I was fishing right at the end of the “island” and fishing within a foot of the river bank.  My float was shotted right down and just the bright red tip shone in the bright sunlight.  I was groundbaiting every cast as the float drifted slowly past on the incoming tide, optimistic that a bite could happen at any moment.  Every few minutes I adjusted the depth of the float as the tide continued to rise as I was fishing within a few inches of the river bed, where I expected the fish to be feeding.

Although the conditions were perfect no-one had told the fish and there was not the suggestion of a bite.  It was a big tide and as it approached high tide the water was almost lipping the sill and overflowing onto the grass.  This can be a very good time so I was really expecting something to happen at any moment.  And so it did, but not in any way I could possibly have predicted!!!

The water was nicely coloured and as there was no wind at all, it was glassy calm.   Suddenly I noticed a line of small bubbles close to my float and tracing a line under the surface.  Intrigued I watched closely to see what was going on.  The next moment the water was disturbed by a violent commotion and in the swirls I glimpsed a large otter with what looked like a very big eel firmly in its jaws!   The eel was well over 2lb and was struggling furiously.  The otter was determined not to lose its prize, ( eels are a favourite prey of otters).  What followed right in front of me for the next five minutes was fascinating.  The otter dragged the eel under to slow it down by partially drowning it by swimming backwards.  After a minute it would surface before repeating the process.  The eel was still very lively but its struggling had noticeably diminished.  Now the otter no longer dived under but was looking directly at me with its glistening eyes.  Otters need to eat their catch on the river bank, and it was clearly sizing up the available options.

It was only a foot from the side when it suddenly pulled itself out of the water right by me.  I froze at this astonishing occurrence .  The dog otter bared its teeth at me then hissing every so often, started to eat the writhing unfortunate, bit by bit.  I was so close I could touch it but, of course, I stayed as still as a statue, perhaps for five minutes or so that the otter was beside me.  Transfixed in fact.  And then the eel had gone.  The otter looked straight at me, bared its teeth,  and then gracefully slid into the water, with a trail of bubbles my last sight.

Shortly, after high tide bites started, and a few mullet were taken.  But all I could think about was this astonishing sight.  A once in the lifetime event, and one where the fishing most definitely took second place, and in my list of memorable moments comes a firm first.  Fishing can produce the unexpected, but this was a unique and one off.

And this has been one of the great joys of fishing. The unlikely is always possible, and often it is the beautiful location, the chance to appreciate the joys of nature at close hand, which are the huge bonus.    Then there is the variety of sea fish that can be caught, and the many methods to catch them, and the varied venues that can be fished.  Whether competitive fishing,  specimen hunting, or casting a line from a pier or breakwater, the choices are huge.  A chance to recharge batteries for those with busy lives either as on your own or with friends and companions.

So, for me, angling has been an important part of my life, and one which still brings anticipation and enjoyment.  It has given me so much that I have spent time since my retirement trying to help put something back for future generations.   This included four years working on the Finding Sanctuary project as an angling representative, helping to draw up the Marine Conservation Zones for the South West, many of which are now in place, with more of these zones still being considered.  Add to this inputs into initiatives by the Devon and Severn IFCA to produce regulated  angling marine zones on both coasts, and consultations relating to bass and the proposed ban on netting in estuaries for Devon and Somerset,  Many of these are now in place with others likely to take place in the near future.  All of them making the chances of more fish being available in a sustainable way for the future a real possibility, so worthwhile in every way.

And, of course, I have a number of grandchildren.  They have all come with me and caught fish, both in the sea and in fresh water.  The look of excitement on their faces when they catch a big fish mirrors my own all those years ago when I started out.  They have all caught the bug and hopefully will continue to fish in the future.

A positive way to finish this piece!   I am off to do some fishing now!!  Surprise , surprise!   The conditions are looking good for mullet.

brixham