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Bassing in East and North Devon, Summer 2020, a good year? By Dave Gooding
BASS FISHING IN EAST AND NORTH DEVON: I’ve been a fisherman ever since I was 5. Living 20 meters from the Grand Western Canal and nearly as close to the Rivers Exe and Lowman. I was thriving on catching course fish, big tench, pike and perch, eels, and wild brown trout.
We spent summer holidays and most weekends in the family caravan just above Orcombe Point, Exmouth. We’d be fishing for pollock and flounder in the working docks and also bass fishing for schoolies using ragworm on a float in the evenings. It never seemed to rain. I love fishing; I always have.
Fast forward 55 years to the time when my children had left the nest in 2005 and time was aplenty with twice yearly long summer holidays in SW France along the Cote D’Or with sun and warm water.
This magnificent stretch of 200 km of golden sand with big tide races and huge tide ranges reinvigorated my love of the silver slab. It was here, in the warm sun, using metal 60gm lures. We’d cast 70mtrs over the breakers, aka the locals, that it all started again for me.
homemade metals in deep pools and catching Maigre
Lazy evenings spinning with homemade metals in deep pools and catching Maigre, a localised subspecies of bass. These had spotted sides a were normally a couple of pounds at best. But unmistakably, this BASS had its striking silver flanks and a black back.
There were also common bass, big beasts that fought long and hard. This was where I caught my PB, two 70cm plus beasts on an outgoing flood tide, at noon on a hot blue hazy 35C day. I never weighed them, but they fed the campsite for two days.
Now I’m an old lazy fisherman in his 70’s. I wait for the right tides, don’t fish if it means getting up early or wet and love a pint with mates at day’s end.
20lb braid with a 15lb fluorocarbon leader
I fish light, a trout landing net over my shoulder, polaroids on my head, a pair of cycling gloves and half a dozen lures in a box in my pocket. This means I’m mobile and don’t stay long in the same spot…I get bored!! I use a 20lb braid with a 15lb fluorocarbon leader. Then, a Savage CCS 12-40gm 8ft 6inch rod and a Daiwa 3000LT reel. Its mid-range. I treat my kit well and wash and clean it after every trip with fresh water.
My reels last me 3 or 4 seasons, but because I fish in the waves, they take a pounding. All my lures have single hooks. I changed them a couple of years ago after seeing the damage treble hooks had done to schoolie’s flanks, gill covers and gills.
Size 1/0 for 125mm of over and size 1 for smaller. It’s far easier to unhook, and even deep down, lures come out quickly, and I hardly ever have to use my fishing pliers. Hook-up seems the same, but maybe I was rubbish in the first place. I do take fish to eat, but only if they are bigger than 45 cm and smaller than 60 cm these days, but only enough for my wife and me.
So it was in mid-May 2020, and spring evening walk in the setting sun with Mrs G along the promenade at Exmouth. Then, the 3-mile walk along the beach to Sandy Bay, letting the world go by after lockdown. Gazing out towards Start Point, the gulls were diving at something….bass driving baitfish over the shallow sandy reef.
The very next day, I was THERE, and it was the start of a long, lovely season for me. The daily drive from Mid Devon to the coast, fishing the period 2 hrs below and 2 hours above low tide.
Some days the north coast, some days the south, I was spoiled for choice. There was bass plenty of bass about. Not big ones to start with, just fighting schoolies to 35 cm, caught initially on my tried and tested plastic. The Savage Gear sand eel straight through 125, fished lazily.
I’d been reading loads on forums about the newer plastics around and had picked up a few in April/May that I thought would be good but had yet to be used in anger. I played around for a week or so with these lures catching really well, 4 to 6 fish a session.
My lures are mainly surface or subsurface
The coastal bits of East and North Devon I tend to fish are at best 3mrs deep, mostly less than 2. My lures are mainly surface or subsurface, and I concluded that my go-to plastic was the Asturie 110 in 500G. It’s a floating lure and has got great action and allows me to fish it on the surface, just subsurface or a little deeper if I impart some movement with my rod tip. You can fish it “lazy” or use a faster retrieve for slightly deeper water and it’s deadly! It also casts like a bullet. Back up was the Patchinko 125 and, for the mega distance, the Savage Sand Eel 125.
I was fishing alone, and I like company, so I posted on social media, asking if anyone would like to join me for a fish and beer. However, I said I would mentor anyone struggling to catch. A local lad approached me from Exmouth and an experienced fisherman who usually fished the murky Bristol Channel.
The young lad had done most of his fishing with a beach caster but in 2 years of trying hadn’t had a lure caught bass. So now was the time to invite them both to join me.
Firstly Robbie, my young “student”, joined me on the seafront at Exmouth. From the outset, it was clear that both of my “students” were decent fishermen but just lacked finesse at working the lures or indeed having the right ones.
A couple of coaching sessions, twitch, stop, lift the tip, slow, fast…all the stuff we do as normal to entice the fish when our normal retrieve isn’t working. My now seasoned mentors were starting to catch bass, not as many as their teacher, but catching nevertheless, and I heard about it daily on messenger!!
deeper marks at Budleigh Salterton and Sidmouth
Some days we’d go to deeper marks at Budleigh Salterton and Sidmouth, and some days further up the Exe Estuary towards the dock. However, on other days I’d go solo to the rocky marks around Welcombe Mouth or Hartland Point in North Devon.
We always found that fishing the down and up was best, and we’d always have a pint at the end of the day. Come to the end of July, I’d caught more than 100 bass. Good fishing, but I caught nothing bigger than 45cm, so something had to change.
It was the weather, that’s what had to change. So far it had been a fantastic sunny warm summer but early July saw the weather break a bit with heavy showers, overcast skies and some dark flat seas.
The advantage was more of the grockles stayed at home, the beaches were quieter, and the fish were hungrier.
50 meters out and went off like a train
My first “better fish” hit on a flat sea, sunny/cloudy day, after morning rain. The tide had turned, and there was a good easy swell but no breakers. It hit me over a shallow weed bed, some 50 meters out and went off like a train.
Lesson 1….make sure your drag is not too loose when you start fishing. It took 30 meters off me before I realised, tightened it up and managed to turn the fish. Measured at 55 cm and close to 4 lbs, it was the start of some bigger fish for us all.
The next few weeks, my average catch went up, up and up, as did the average size. We were all catching on very shallow or surface lures, the Patch 125 in Lieu or white and the Asturie 110 in 500G. Nothing much else was working.
Fat fish, stuffed with baitfish
By mid-August, I’d caught more than 200 best 57cm, a big fat fish stuffed with baitfish and weighing nearly 5 pounds and a high proportion of fish over 35cms, 80% in water 1mtr or shallower.
By late August the schoolies seemed to disappear maybe to deeper water but I still managed a big 5 in one day. It was from a mark I spied on in June and I’d like it from the start, all from the same spot at long range with a Patch 125. Best 56 cm, smallest 53cm and half a dozen 30ish in pouring rain.
All the fish literally smashed the lure, and one jumped at least half a metre in the air with my Patch in its mouth…epic. Unfortunately, no one saw my fun as they were all working!!
It was nearly over for me; the shorter evenings and an impending house move curtailed my daily fish. However, like most things lovely, I had a final swansong. In early September, I nipped out for a quick couple of hours on a perfect big tide as the light faded.
Gulls were bombarding the sandbar (again), so quickly waded out, and soon we were all in…I got 20 odd schoolies, 4 seagulls and a couple of terns….they do fight well!! Then I finished off bagging a 55cm bass 2 meters from my feet as I lifted the lure out in near darkness. It scared me to death. We must have caught 60 or 80 between us. So a good pint or two was had by all.
We all managed more fish in September, nothing big but fish. And so the season finished for me with only a single October trip, a blank. You win some, you lose some. I am now preparing for April and May with new lures and more enthusiasm for a 60 cm when the beasts return from the deep.
A little about the areas I fish.
On the south coast it’s Lyme Bay, virtually everywhere has fish but you need to put the time in to find them. The Teign, Exe and other estuaries teem with schoolies, safe from commercials, but it’s tough to get anything 40 plus here though.
Other well-known but favourite areas are Budleigh Salterton (deep shelving beach that holds good mackerel and Sea Trout too), Seaton, Jacob’s Ladder, Sandy Bay to Exmouth Docks and around Shelly Beach, Dawlish Warren….(don’t get caught on the Spit on an incoming!) Dawlish and Teignmouth Beach.
The north coast areas stretch from Ilfracombe to Bude (I know it’s Cornwall, but!). Up here, I always wear a life jacket as the seas can be big. The big sweeping sandy beaches at Woolacombe, Croyde and Bude hold decent fish but loads of surfers and swimmers too.
most dangerous estuaries in the UK
The Taw/Torridge estuary is another hot area but beware it’s one of the most dangerous estuaries in the UK. It’s harder to get to places that are best, down tiny winding roads, steep footpaths and cliffs to the sea that we locals keep to ourselves but are horrible in the wet.
Well-known easy-access areas are Hartland Point, Speke’s Mill, Welcombe and Marsland Mouth but beware, keep to the rocky beaches that give escape routes unless you know the area well. There are great coves “just around every corner” that hold good fish but make sure you have an exit strategy. Keep an eye on the big fast incoming tides or take a guide. Get caught out and you’ll be driven against the huge cliffs by massive Atlantic swells, with no escape except in a box or by helicopter. It’s dangerous ground so be careful.
I identify likely new spots using Google Earth. I find it’s reasonably easy to see the underlying ground in most areas. Others swear by Google Maps in satellite mode. However, at my age, luckily, most of the coast I fish is pretty well known to me.