'O Sole mio'
SOLE AND OTHER FLAT FISH Part 2
Now we can take a look at the flounder, which can be found in fresh and salt water and feeds actively in both. Although the amount of time which we have spent fishing for flounder is small we have caught comparatively large numbers of these fish. Locations vary from the waters of a large chalk stream-the River Frome (five miles upstream of the tidal limits) to the estuary downstream of Wareham and out over the broad grey mudflats of Poole Harbour. Also we have fished along the dune backed sandy beaches of Studland and the holiday beaches of Bournemouth, Swanage and Weymouth.
Generally the flounder is a very obliging fish and during the spawning migration of the adults from rivers to the sea, which takes place in autumn and early winter, large numbers are caught in estuaries. For example, many flounders are caught at this time by anglers fishing from the quays and river banks in the upper tidal limits of the Frome at Wareham. Many of the fish caught are undersized and obviously immature, which suggests that there might be a sort of dummy spawning run by these young fish. Legered earthworm or, even better, ragworm are successful baits in this situation and the former is effective well up into fresh water, with fish of up to 1.5-pounds in weight being taken at times. Legered or paternostered ragworm is also effective in the sea and harbour and anglers casting from the muddy and sandy shores make large bags of good fish, particularly in winter.
The trolled baited-spoon method is effective in summer and some years ago, I took a number of flounders using this technique. Flounders eat large numbers of other fish and, using unbaited spinners, we have taken quite a few both from the river and the sea. One such catch, that included seven fish over a pound all taken in an hour-and-a-half, was made using a No. 3 Mepps Mino. Some good flounders have also been caught (by us) on live minnows fished for trout and sea trout.
Fishing from the pier at Swanage, Harry and I have taken numerous good-sized flounders in both winter and spring using ragworm as the bait and traditional techniques. The fish caught ranged up to 2.2-pounds. On a few occasions we used peeler crab (when it was available) for bait and it resulted in a dramatic improvement in catches both in numbers and in size. Substitution of crab for worm sometimes salvaged long biteless periods by producing one or two fish in quick succession.
Flounders will feed in almost unbelievably shallow water (as little as 2-3 inches deep) and even large fish can be caught when the tide begins to flood over sandy beaches and mud banks. The angler must be prepared to put up with a certain amount of scorn and derision from bystanders if he is to make the best of the tide. He must cast only a few yards out, into shallow drainage gulleys, as the water begins to creep from the deep channels into which the fish retreat at low water. In the early 1960s I spent three years studying the animals of the sand and mudflats on the coast of Northumberland. During that time I caught numerous flounders using a 7-foot spinning rod and 6-pound line. Retreating before the rapidly advancing tide and casting into the water at my feet I took fish of all sizes on worm, cockle mussel and crab, but the largest fish, a 3.5-pounder, was landed on a freelined live sand eel.
A species that seems to have a similar behaviour pattern to our flounder is the American `winter flounder'. Observations made on this fish by using underwater television showed that the winter flounder 'surges' into the intertidal zone in a short period two to two-and-a-half hours after low tide. Later, on the tide, the fish spread out and are presumably less easy to find and catch. Between the tide marks is the major feeding area of the winter flounder.
Flounders spawn in the sea in early spring and peak numbers of flounder larvae occur in March and April. In summer large numbers of tiny `postage stamps' can be seen swimming over the stony bed of the River Frome estuary or inching their way along the vertical walls of quaysides and bridges as though they had been licked and stuck down.
The flounder is in peak condition (fattest) in the period from June to July; conversely, they are thin and in poor condition from February to April, after spawning. In relation to this the fish feed more actively in summer than in winter and almost twice as many of the fish netted from the Tamar estuary in the summer months had full stomachs compared to those taken in winter. The main foods of the flounder are shore crabs, worms and small fish.
The plaice is a close relative of the flounder but is much more a species of the open sea. Both can be caught by using similar bottom-fishing methods. The plaice is a fairly specialised feeder on small `clams' of various sorts. The smallest fish (too small to be taken on rod and line) graze, like tiny marine sheep, on the thin projecting siphons of tellins (clams) or the probing, searching tentacles of burrowing worms. Molluscs (cockles, mussels and clams) make up 25 per cent of the diet of the larger fish. Young plaice, at least, feed mostly in the daylight hours between sunrise and sunset.
Plaice are important commercially and the species has received more than its fair share of study, little of which is of any direct importance to anglers. The growth of the plaice varies in different parts of its range and, as might be expected, is better where the food supply is good. There are however, different races of plaice, which inherit the tendency to grow slowly or quickly. This was shown by transplanting fast-growing North Sea fish into the Baltic, where the fish are slow growing (the transplants still grew quicker than the local fish).
It is also generally well known that the size of plaice is broadly related to water depth and that large plaice are found in deeper water than smaller fish. Like the sole, plaice that are travelling long distances (say to a particular spawning or feeding ground) have been shown to leave the bottom at slack water and drift or swim downstream with the current until the next slack water when they return to the seabed. This is called selective tidal stream transport.
The plaice spawns in winter and large numbers of the larvae occur in January, February and March. The fish spawn in a few restricted areas, one of the main ones being at the east end of the English Channel. The spawning grounds are always such that the eggs and larvae will be carried by the prevailing currents towards sandy, nursery beaches.
Other than the occasional plaice that we caught by bottom fishing with worm, fish-strip or squid and large numbers of plaice between a 0.5-and 4-pounds taken whilst flounder fishing from sandy beaches, we made only one serious attempt to catch plaice in quantity. We fished over a sandy bottom in about two fathoms of water at a spot from which there had been recent reports of good catches. We fished for equal lengths of time with legered and with floatfished ragworm, lugworm, mussel and mackerel strip and both methods took similar numbers of plaice. The only difference in fact was that the float tackle, trotted with the current, took a couple of small brill when a fish-baited hook was suspended a foot from the sea bed.
The dab, as already mentioned, is an active fish feeding chiefly on swimming crustacea. When very young, they feed on mollusc siphons and worm tentacles in the same manner as young plaice. Dabs from the Firth of Forth ate hermit crabs, swimming crabs and hoppers (amphipods) but brittle stars were more important food in St Andrew's Bay. In contrast, another study showed that larger dabs ate more worms.
Dabs are in poor condition (thin) from April to June (after spawning) but they reach their peak from July to December, stopping feeding in winter during their spawning period. In the Baltic, commercial fishing was shown to cause a drastic reduction in the number of older/larger dabs in the population, a good example of the effect of overfishing.
The turbot and the brill are not uncommon around the shores of Britain. Both are highly specialised in terms of habitat, behaviour and food. The brill prefers to live on bottoms of finer sand than those inhabited by the turbot. Even when very young and living close inshore the little turbots favour coarser, gritty sand, but in later life they live further offshore, often on shallow banks of shell gravel, or coarse sand. Both species feed on sand eels and other long, thin fishes with an average length-to-thickness ratio of about seven-and-a-half to one.
For several years we spent considerable periods of time fishing for these fish from charter boats, Mostly over the Shambles Bank. For the knowledge gained in the course of these trips we are in the debt of our skipper, the late Bert Randall. Most of what we learned from him is entirely consistent with the available information on the biology of this fine fish.
Our first encounter with turbot was, as usual, by chance. It was the eve of Harry's birthday in September and, on the spur of the moment, he decided to treat himself and take a boat-fishing trip from Weymouth. He had never before made such a trip so he looked in the telephone directory, picked out the name of one of the Weymouth skippers and rang the number. Were there any vacancies for the following day? The skipper said he was taking out a party of regulars but there was room for just one more. The morning of the fateful birthday dawned bright and clear. Harry took along his own tackle but because of his inexperience, when he discovered that free tackle was provided he decided to take advantage of the offer. The skipper was Bert Randall and the trip was the first of many. On the way out, Harry, always a good listener, was all ears concerning the fishing out of Weymouth.
On the Shambles the water depth over the shell gravel dunes is only a few fathoms at low water spring tides. Just beyond the banks the water falls sharply away to over twenty fathoms. Harry learned of the complex currents around Portland Bill and of the different species to be caught in the area.
During the outward journey from Weymouth Harbour the mackerel lines, some with heavy leads, some with paravanes, were trolled to provide a supply of fresh bait. On this day the mackerel were, for once, plentiful and soon the 'Sea Fisher' was anchored close to the old lightship (now redundant) that used to mark the position of the bank. They came to rest just uptide of the large standing waves formed by the tide race over the bank. The bait was long, tapering, thin slices of mackerel, two such baits being cut from either flank of the fish. Each fillet was hooked once through its narrow end without being touched by hand, a tricky ritual, which Bert always observed. To achieve this he used a unique filleting knife, razor sharp and consisting of a ground down, industrial hacksaw blade.
Harry examined the tackle, a large centre pin reel, a heavy-duty solid glass rod and 60-pound B.S. nylon. At the business end was a Clement's boom and a 12-foot trace of the heavy nylon armed with a 4/0 hook. "Turbot like a bait with plenty of movement " Bert explained. "Let the lead down slowly to avoid tangles." The lead was bounced away on the current until it was felt to cross the top of a ridge. This approach is, of course, easiest from the stern positions in the boat.
When the tide is really running hard on banks such as the Shambles it becomes virtually impossible to fish at anchor. The normal practice is to fish either side of slack water and to shift the position of the boat so as to take advantage of an hour or more lag in the time of the tide on different parts of the bank. It is only possible to fish tide races such as these under good weather conditions because huge waves, as high as a house, will build up and run along the length of the bank quite without warning. For this reason it is essential to fish these banks with a skipper who is familiar with the unique conditions.
To return to the fishing. Harry was, as he would say, gently bumping his 1-pound lead along the seabed when he felt a tentative bite. At first it gave the impression of a small fish pulling at the bait, then there were two or three strong knocks, which caused him to release a foot or two of line. As he struck, the rod bent to the pull of a heavy fish, which, together with the big lead and the fast tide, made really hard work of the retrieve. After a few minutes of arm-stretching line recovery the fish planed to the surface five yards astern. It was drawn alongside, in went Bert's gaff and Harry had caught his, and our, first ever turbot, a speckled beauty of 12-pounds.
The birthday treat went from good to better to fantastic as he landed four more turbot. He was so pleased that he gave away one of his fish to a fellow-angler who had come down from Bristol for the day.
Subsequently, after our first couple of turbot trips, we resorted to our own tackle. Not only were we able to fish considerably lighter but it was much less effort to spend the day reeling in a 2- or 4-ounce lead instead of a 0.5 pound or a pound. The method used was identical to the one already described. A long flowing trace of 30-pound B.S. monofilament, a 4/0 hook and the minimum of lead necessary to maintain contact with the sea bed (nowadays braided lines would make it even easier although if some anglers are using braid and others nylon it is a recipe for disastrous tangles).
Even when the fishing was slow, a trip with Bert was never dull. He had a seemingly inexhaustible fund of a good fishing stories, many of which were an education as well as an entertainment.
On one still foggy morning as we motored out towards the banks he recalled a similar trip when he had taken out a party down from the Midlands. The fog had been dense so he asked the anglers to keep a sharp lookout and give a shout if they could see anything. As they approached the Shambles, much to the amusement of all, Bert produced the antique ear trumpet that he used the better to hear the fog sirens of the Shambles Light and Portland Bill. On seeing the ancient instrument the ever-present wag of the party looked across and said in a loud voice to all present, "I don't know what sort of trip we've let ourselves in for lads, the ****** skippers deaf as well as blind."
There followed a series of successful trips during which we landed many turbot up to 20-pounds, plus large brill and blonde rays. One of our workmates, Ian, decided that he would like to have a go. Ian had always been reluctant to put out to sea because he was inclined to suffer from seasickness. Harry, for once, was unable to go but I went along with Ian. The weather conditions were not of the best but with the odd good turbot and ray coming to the boat it was just enough to take Ian's mind off his internal qualms. When the tide began to run hard the skipper decided on a move; by nipping across the bank it was possible to have an extra hour-and-a-half of fishing in a hundred feet of water on the far side.
With the chance of bream, conger and tope on the new mark, I decided on a change of tackle and bait. As I put my hand into my fishing bag and pulled out a couple of small squid dripping with pilchard oil, the combination of smell and appearance was too much for lan. His face blanched and then turned a delicate shade of green; he had just sufficient presence of mind to set the check and prop his rod in a safe fishing position before he lost interest in the proceedings.
As Ian hung wretchedly over the stern a denizen of the deeps decided to take an interest in his bait. Being of a helpful disposition I picked up Ian's rod in my left hand, struck hard and offered the rod to my friend who groaned and turned away. All would have been well but, as I was about to lay down my own rod, I felt a sharp knock and line began to pour off the reel. Somehow I managed to check the spinning spool and strike with one hand but now I had a problem; a heavy fish was boring about on the left-hand rod and on the other my adversary was headed for France. The day was saved by a heroic effort from Ian, for he took his own rod and gamely, between bouts of sickness, managed to play and boat a double-header of a 2.5-pound black bream and a 12-pound huss. I meanwhile, struggled with the other fish, a 40-pound tope, which was tailed and returned to the sea.
This is not the first book in which anglers have expressed their gratitude to the late Bert Randall. He will always be remembered by us and many other grateful anglers for his unflagging enthusiasm in pursuit of fish. Perhaps the most memorable of his habits was the way in which he would present a fishless angler with a turbot to take home (caught on Bert's own longline). The fish was often worth far more than the angler had paid for his day's sport. Those were the days!