My Year in Review 2020

My Year in Review 2020

Before I write anything else, I would like to personally thank every one of my clients, my readers and anyone within or outside of the angling world who has supported me and my business during what has clearly been a difficult and unsettling year. By working around the various restrictions and regulations we’ve all had to abide by this year, I do feel extremely fortunate, and am very grateful to have been able guide as many clients as I have during this truncated season. Furthermore, if anyone reading this post has been affected by the pandemic in any way, then I sincerely pass on my best wishes to you and hope that you can look forward to 2021 with optimism.

On a far more positive note, whilst showcasing the beautiful and incredibly varied South Hams coastline, and teaching and mentoring some of the nicest, funniest, most determined and receptive people I could ever wish to meet, we have enjoyed some marvellous moments and created some wonderful memories whilst pursuing the enigmatic bass.

Incorporated within the text here are my musings and conclusions during a year when many obstacles, both life and fishing related, were overcome – this is My Year in Review 2020.

January (Frosts a Few)

Commencing around mid-September 19, after almost 4 months of relentless wind and rain, like all of us, my patience with the weather was beginning to wear a little thin when, out of the blue, a wedge of High Pressure arrived during the third week of January!

Proof that they were still there, even in late January. What a pity the opportunities to safely venture out onto the coastline were severely limited by the weather.

Gone were the damp, murky, bloody horrible conditions, replaced by a succession of crisp (very crisp in fact!) ‘blue sky days’ and ‘sparkling starlit nights’. The upside was that it remained settled long enough for the water to clear, the downside was that the daylight fishing wasn’t worth bothering with and the nights were exceedingly cold! Indeed, at -3oC and with ice forming on the recently uncovered shingle and seaweed around me (in addition to my dry bag!) I was exceptionally happy to sense that ‘THUD’ through the prototype rod I’d recently been handed to test, and even happier to hold and release the modest 50cm bass (above).

With the Jet Stream set to ruin things again, a couple of nights later I sneaked out into the dead of night to a mark that I can only access for a few hours – landing my final two bass of ‘My Season’ (which in my head runs from the 1 March – 28/29 February) on the White Wave Worm Bamboo Sticks in the process. You can read the full blog post I wrote depicting these freezing cold captures here.

February (Frustrating!)

February 2019 will go down in my bass fishing annals as one of the most significant, enlightening and pleasurable months I have ever experienced, for the simple fact that I managed to consistently catch what were very late winter bass (here). Landing eighteen in total during that magical month (with the largest at 57cm here) I knew I would be extremely hard-pressed to achieve anywhere near the same success in 2020 – especially with the long range forecast models continuing to spew storm after storm at me.

Amazingly though, a ridge of High Pressure ‘lopped’ over the UK during the final hours of January and into the first few days of February, enabling me the chance of connecting with a ‘phantom February bass’… Late on during the first session, when the prototype Needlefish I’d designed and the usually reliable Wave Worms had failed me, fumbling around in my warm pocket I discovered another prototype – this time the ‘Pulse Tailed’ Gravity Stick that Henry Gilbey had kindly left me…

Days like this were few and far between during the autumn of 2019 through to the early spring of 2020.

Why not? were my thoughts, and you know exactly what happened next… Literally right at the end of the retrieve, within a strengthening tide race in the pitch black, a decent bass nailed the lure, rising instantly to the surface, whereby it shook and thrashed its head, whereby it made good its escape. Cruel… But what was equally cruel and rather unusual, is that the next time I managed to squeeze in a session amidst the continuing foul weather, and with Henry in tow this time (I was eager to assist him to land his first ever lure-caught Feb bass), we both managed to hook into a bass each, but somehow they both wriggled off of the large single hooks!

March (Mournful)

With the imminent release of my Marc Cowling Signature Needlefish I was especially eager for the Gales and downpours we’d endured for the best part of 6 months to relent (sod off more like!) so that I/we could all head out fishing! Once again, a 48 hour lull between low pressure systems allowed me to eek out the tiny bass below on the 12th March, during an evening when someone who has become a good ‘remote friend’ of mine (Mark Cooper in the Channel Islands) sent me a short video and a photograph of the bass he’d recently caught on the MC Needle’ in daylight (also below):

Although Coronavirus was sadly filling every front page and News bulletin I was brimming with anticipation for the new season, and had all of my bookings set out ready to commence in April when, on the 23rd March, the Country was of course locked down and what was a tragically mournful period began.

May (Sensitive)

On the evening of the 13th May I vividly remember heading out fishing for the first time in nearly 2 months and feeling extremely nervous and apprehensive. Moreover, in a strange way I actually felt ‘guilty’ to be heading out to enjoy doing something I am so passionate about once more – honestly, it didn’t sit easy with me.

Could I have guided one-to-one from the 13th May? Possibly. However, as the majority of my clients live more than two hours away I decided that ‘encouraging’ them to take their exercise and venture down to this part of the world, one that had seen comparatively very few COVID cases, would be a very insensitive thing to do. Furthermore, many of the bookings I had in place between mid-May through to mid-June (my 3 Day Packages in particular) involved my clients staying at the fantastic Chillington House BB Hotel – a venue that wasn’t permitted to open it’s doors until the 4th July.

Slow start

Alongside continuing with a major project (big hint!) that I had started just prior to and had worked extraordinarily hard on during the lock down, I decided that if I couldn’t guide I should utilise my spare time to seek out new marks and/or fish those venues that had ‘screamed’ bass at me for years, but for a variety of reasons, I’d never actually fished.

Leading up to that first evening session, although the weather had been completely and utterly amazing during the lock down (was this a blessing?) the wind had been blowing off of a cold continent and North Sea for about a fortnight, meaning the air mass was chilly and so was the sea. Despite this, like many, having been largely undisturbed for a few months I expected the fish to be literally crawling up the line!

Not so, as although I caught quite a few bass up to around the 2lb mark (below) during each of the sessions I conducted during the third week of May, it was decidedly ‘slow’ out there – not that I was complaining as I was just grateful to be there. One thing that was highly apparent though, was that the bass just would not take a surface lure over the course of these initial forays. Indeed, it was all about slow moving, deeply fished soft plastics, such as the slaloming Albie Snax or various paddle tail patterns such as the Fiiish Black Minnow or Spro Guts Bait.

Turned on

Yes! As the wind turned and began wafting in some warmer and dryer air from the south, that first savage hit ‘off the top’ from the bass pictured immediately below was, after a long winter and spring, a blissful moment! Thereafter, with the sea temperature climbing to close to what I believe is the magical ‘surface lure conducive figure’ of 13oC, the flood gates well and truly opened!

Not the biggest bass I’ve ever caught, but right up there as the most welcome! At last! They were looking up and eager to hit their meals splashing, slithering and snaking across the surface.

Over the next few muggy evenings, and significantly, as the tide heights increased with the air and sea temperatures, the bass seemingly moved in en-masse – chasing the now prevalent pin sand eels. By day, the bass were now ‘destroying’ the Patchinko 125 or 140 retrieved within the vicinity of the many intimidating tide races at my disposal. And it got even better, as now, the better fish also began to show (see below):

My first ’60cm/5lb’ of the year and the first of many that would attach themselves to a Xorus Patchinko in its various guises over the course of the season.

As the light dimmed and the stars came out all hell would break loose along my local beaches – with my Signature Needlefish accounting for a dozen or more bass on consecutive evenings whist stood, knee-deep, in the gentle surf. The images below capture all of those jubilant late-May events, in addition to a blog post I wrote titled ‘Things are looking up!‘.

However, something that I really wasn’t expected, from the point of view that you rarely catch a big bass when the small ones are in ascendancy, was the 68cm beast (below) that almost took the Major Craft prototype rod out my hands when it walloped the Needlefish only a few metres from my feet. I don’t mind admitting that this seminal capture made all of the effort associated to getting the lure out onto the market (via Lure Fishing For Bass, Veals and Chesil Bait n’ Tackle) worth it. I actually had a moment on that beach, all of which you can read about in a post I wrote ‘The Needle has landed!‘ in which a former client of mine describes the capture of a 64cm bass, on the MC Needle, from one of his local marks.

June (Joyful!)

I’d had my fun, but now, with bass everywhere what I really wanted to do was guide, as teaching someone and then witnessing them land a fish whilst utilising a method I may have just taught them is pretty addictive you know! But with all of my bookings during the first half of June made up of clients travelling to stay overnight, I had to make do with inviting Mr Gilbey up from Cornwall for a socially distanced fish-a-thon!

Although I was concerned it was going to be one of those days when a five pounder became unstuck (as I was about to left it onto my ledge) the session went extremely well, especially considering the lost fish and tiddler bashing of our previous ‘meets. The full story (both from mine and Henry’s perspective can be found here (A Writer’s Retreat) and here.

I’ve just got to add this little snippet into this post though… My lovely wife stands over my shoulder while I’m writing this, adding in the photographs and says of the first image below, “Ooooo, is that you 5 years ago? To which I click on the next picture and tell her they were taken about an hour apart! “Blimey what a difference!” is her good-natured response! That’s the magic of photography, and a well concealed double chin and a lock down hair cut – or lack of…!

Patterns

I was catching some lovely bass up to 62cm, both in daylight and in darkness (below and that you can read about in my ‘Finding the formula‘ post) whilst enjoying the overall freedom to fish a multitude of differing and generally ‘new’ venues without any added pressure. But as I thoroughly looked forward to guiding my first clients of the 2020 season during the second half of June three facets or patterns of ‘bass behaviour’ became startlingly apparent…

The first was that they would be ravenous whilst ‘hanging around’ a specific area on one day or even tide, and then I’d return sometimes within 6-12 hours and the sea would appear to be completely devoid of life. Secondly, even this early into this procrastinated season, I was beginning to notice a direct correlation between my successful sessions and the building tides (neaps increasing in size up to springs not to be confused with a rising or flooding tide), the numbers of bait fish (sand eels) and the mackerel chasing them all being much closer inshore. Thirdly, in conjunction with all of this behaviour the gulls, terns, cormorants and seals would very obviously be on higher state of alert.

Welcome

Whether I’m mentoring returning clients (many of whom have become friends) or complete strangers, to be welcoming them back, albeit under a heightened sense of appreciation and trepidation alongside the various measures to mitigate the spread of COVID, was the best felling ever. Moreover, with every fish I’d landed tinged with a level of contrition it was time now time to do what, believe it or not, I love doing more than catching bass myself – placing my clients onto them!

The final week of what transpired to be a rather unsettled and windy June brought about a number of challenges – some of which I’d anticipated and some of that I hadn’t foreseen. The fishing was difficult initially, with tiny neap tides confirming my thesis that the bait fish, mackerel and therefore the bass were offshore – an observation also confirmed by my diver friends who said the bass had ‘disappeared’… Marvellous timing eh!

Linking in to the above, the second challenge (one compounded by the reopening of the hospitality sector into July) was brought about by the necessity to ‘avoid’ certain car parks, beaches, roads and tracks because of the sheer number of people ‘out n’ about’ plus the visitors (completely understandable given what everyone had been through) descending upon the West Country in general.

July (Jostling)

My meticulous planning took on yet another dimension as I attempted to solve the dilemma of: a) finding the fish and b) jostling for position by ensuring we weren’t trumped by a beach BBQ, flotilla of paddle boarders or a Jet Ski race! But with a great deal of effort and perseverance, from both my clients and I, the catches started to rack up.

Observations

All in all, it was going well, but there a couple more elements to how the season was unfolding that were puzzling, or rather intriguing me – yes I think about this stuff too much sometimes…! During the three previous seasons since becoming a full-time, professional guide, and especially since we’d discovered the virtues of lure fishing at night, if we’d had a poor return for our efforts in the daylight I knew that my clients’ chances would be significantly enhanced, both in regards to catching more and possibly a much bigger bass, once the Sun had set.

At this juncture though, these almost ritual night time occurrences just were not happening – although when your clients are grinning with ‘blue sky bass’ such as the two belters nudging 5lb below (that you can read more about here and here) I ensured that I kept my overall perspective firmly intact.

A secondary observation (one that was cementing my belief that the exceptionally sunny and calm weather we’d experienced, in tandem with the lack of commercial fishing pressure during the first lock down, had encouraged massive bait fish shoals to form) was that the bass were simply ‘following the food’ and therefore deviating from their regular patterns of behaviour.

Furthermore, if the larger mackerel (not the joeys I hasten to add) were either observed harassing the sand eel and the sprat/whitebait that had now arrived between 4-6 weeks earlier than expected (another sign that nature was confused by the spring weather) or if we caught a bass early into a session, the general pattern of events would involve my clients landing ten or even a dozen or more!

Essentially, with the bass utterly fixated on small, splashing, shimmering objects it was a case of find them and you will enjoy a red-letter day… But finding them wasn’t always easy out on the open coast which is why, once I’d witnessed bait fish in all of the estuary systems that I stalk, that I attempted to really narrow down the odds by focussing on these more concentrated pockets of fish activity – hence the name of the blog post I wrote at the time ‘Odds on favourite‘.

Rare

There was one particularly sultry evening out on the open coast however, when after a special day spent swimming and playing on the beach (to the extent that I was almost too knackered to go fishing!) that I struck gold – or rather an awful lot of silver! You can read the full depiction of what is a rare sequence of events in the Striking it lucky! post I wrote, but in summary I enjoyed one of the finest sessions I’ve ever experienced, culminating in the capture and release (thankfully) of the 70cm+ bass below:

A proper ‘beasty’ that gave one hell of an excellent account of itself, which is one of the reasons I only took one photo on the 10 second timer and released her very quickly.

August (Awful timing!)

The start of August saw me guiding a number of clients in and around the mouths of estuaries by day, and those often lonely, windswept shingle beaches at night. What’s more, there were two very specific lure types that were doing the business so to speak, with the Patchinko 100 or 125 in clear water daylight environments, and the White OSP DoLive Stick come nightfall – the gallery below typifying these events.

Having worked my socks off during August 18 (when I was completing my book ‘The Lure of The Bass‘) and again during August 19 , I’d promised my family that I would take 10 days off during the August/ summer holiday this year. Historically, August is the month here in Devon when both the sea and the metabolism of the bass are at their apex – meaning the fish are usually so ‘hepped up’ chasing down the white bait, that the fishing can be somewhat variable.

Unfortunately, after quick session at the start of my ‘holiday’ (no business related activities allowed!) when I nailed countless bass between 2-3lb and lost a better one (and the Patchinko) to a hungry seal, just when the fishing was ‘red-hot’ I had to step away from it all. And it gets worse! On the final day of my fishing and guiding sabbatical bloody Storm Ellen and then Francis ‘rocked up’ to completely obliterate the coastline.

It was extremely tough going in and around the Bank Holiday period, and although most of my clients caught admittedly small bass and were very happy with what they’d learnt and achieved (one client did land over a dozen) I felt that maybe I shouldn’t have scheduled in the time off earlier in the month…

A good mate of mine whose Family had purchased a series of guided bass fishing days with me at the end of August for his 60th. Good on you Mike, for landing one of the better bass!

September (Searching…)

The topsy-turvy nature of the season continued into what is usually (for me anyhow), one of the ‘best’ periods in the year – early September. Extremely conscious that from mid-September last year the weather was by and large horrendous, I was almost praying and close to conducting a ‘non-rain dance’ in the hope that those late August storms weren’t a sign of things to come. However, also in the back of my mind were all the memories and the records of previous years, and the optimism and realisation that over the course of a season, the weather and the bass fishing always evens itself out. Therefore, weather permitting, I expected the autumn to produce – and produce it did…

During those first two weeks of September, in between the largely successful guided sessions (again, albeit when mostly small bass were landed) even though the fishing was extraordinarily difficult I took solace in the fact that it tested me and my abilities (subsequently enhancing my skills) to think outside the box.

When the usual tactics aren’t working, I tend to approach my fishing with an experimental viewpoint when my back is against the wall, and by utilising some new lures (the Savage Gear Gravity Sticks and a Weight Shifting Version of my original Needlefish), some old tactics (popping surface lures in a fast flow) and yet again, fishing some new marks, in addition to places I hadn’t visited for some time, I began to pick out a few nice fish again (see below and the post I wrote called ‘New Lures, Old Methods’ here):

Gradually, as the state of the beaches and the quality of the fishing returned to something resembling normality I welcomed a party of 3 anglers, down for 3 days of intense ‘bass chasing’. It started well too, when Ash (a really top bloke from Sussex) hammered out a bass larger than it looks (he’s got massive hands honest!) on a lure that he really wanted to learn to use (a Needlefish over reefy terrain), followed by another the following night on one of mine.

However, when his new friend Pete (another great person to be around) took it upon himself to venture along the muddy bank, armed with the knowledge he has gleaned during his previous sessions with me, to land the cracker below on a ‘popped’ Spittin Wire I knew the season was about to ‘take off!’ The piece I wrote ‘Out of the doldrums‘ is my attempt to capture those memorable moments, as well as the trials, tribulations and tactics drawn from years of experience to catch, what were at the time, bass that were proving difficult to locate and indeed catch.

This one meant a lot!

For whatever reason (the still shoaling bait fish becoming more sporadic or a significant drop in the sea and average air temperature signalling it was time to fatten up?) the fishing both on the open coast and within the estuaries just clicked back into gear – the two I landed below using two very different methods (that you can read about here and again here) being testimony to that…

October (All about the OSP)

I have never had a client lose more than one ‘big bass’, but on this particular 3 Day Package one of them (Michael) lost one on each day! One at night in the surf, one at night when it threw the hook after being pulled through the weed, and one that just completely outpowered him and snapped his line around a snag – gutted!

But for another member of the party Rob (these guys rarely know each other prior to the sessions incidentally, which I think creates a supportive team ethic and a fantastic dynamic to the sessions) after two days of completing everything I’d asked to the letter for ‘didley squat’, his luck changed dramatically! The 72cm PB monster below took his belly-weighted White DoLive Stick and then took him for a merry walk along the foreshore before he eventually managed to land her – with a great deal of help from the third member of the party (Peter).

What a fish!!!! The second largest bass a client has landed with me, and by far the largest in daylight at close to 9lb – Rob’s reward for the sheer perseverance he displayed. You can read the full story, as well as the reason why I wasn’t by his side when he landed it, here!

A couple of days later, I had the pleasure of guiding a complete newcomer to fishing, let alone lure fishing for bass. Over the course of those sessions, the phrase ‘duck to water’ simply doesn’t do justice to what my client (Jeff) achieved. I have to admit that it was just supremely satisfying to witness the joy that two of the fish in particular (below) brought to him, the one in daylight yet again snatching the White Dolive Stick. The full story can be read in my post ‘Beginners luck?

Promise

The only promises I make when guiding my clients is that I will provide them everything they require, be it equipment, knowledge or instilling confidence, and that I will give them 100% of my effort when planning for and seeking out the wily old bass. That said, I did make Ian (a returning client who’d lost a good fish with me two years previously) the pledge that he would latch into (and land this time), an even bigger bass on these tides at this time of the year – no pressure then!

The fishing was worryingly slow on Day/Night 1, but on Day 2 it all came together in the shape of his new personal best bass of 67cm (below). The Dolive, yet again (this time in the deadly Wakasagi pattern) working its magic and prompting the aptly named blog post I wrote here.

I was on a roll, and with a returning (and usually very successful) client (Steve) about to arrive with his friend Dave, I was even more expectant than I usually am that they’d soon be holding up some prime Devon bass for the camera. Sure enough, during two immensely enjoyable sessions they both landed some quality bass – with Steve’s two crackers gobbling up the Dolive on Day 1, and Dave’s smashing (from the sound it made) his Patchinko 125 into next week, alongside Steve’s excellent capture on the Spittin Wire on Day 2 also (see all below):

The blog post I wrote covering these sessions (Ending on a high?) was written and released just as the Country entered into it’s second lock down between the 5th November and the 2nd December. What this meant for me is that although I could continue to fish, the fact that people could only travel to purchase food, medicine or drive to work prohibited them from travelling to me for a guided session.

November (Noteworthy)

After catching up with my admin and finishing all of the DIY jobs I’d promised to complete all summer long, during the first week of November, over the course of a few evenings I plotted out all of the remaining places on Google Maps that I’d earmarked as ‘potential marks’. Then, taking into account the long range weather forecasts (that appeared very favourable and would keep the weather settled overall) during the primarily warm and sunny month of November I embarked on something of a exploratory run of sessions with the surface lures in daylight, and with the prototype Magnetic Weight Shifting Needlefish getting a regular dunking in the dark – the latter being more successful initially see below):

With the water extraordinarily clear all around the coastline and the way up the rivers systems almost into freshwater (due to the lack of wind and rainfall) I managed to cast a lure into places that I’d only ever zoomed over with my mouse or double-clicked on. Moreover, the superb weather brought an influx of bait fish close inshore (hence the continual use of surface lures and either the Patchinko 100+125 primarily) and with it a late season bass bonanza. For all the detail, my posts ‘Fun in the Sun‘ and ‘A Purple Patch‘ offer an insight into how I approached these venues and precisely how I ‘worked’ the lures.

When the going did get a little tougher, and I was required tuck in out of the wind and fish some murkier water, a lure that I’d taken a shine to after witnessing it moving through the water by a nice chap who’d purchased my book came to the fore. Of course, if you’ve read my recent 10 items I’d recommend from 2020 post (here) then you’ll know that the lure in question is the weedless paddle tail lure, the Sunslicker Swimish. Below are some of the more significant catches I achieved with it:

December (Decent at first…)

Although it was now officially winter it really didn’t feel like it. Therefore, I kept on selecting the two lures that had served me so well throughout 2020 and that, given the sunny overhead conditions, the still abundant bait fish and again, the spectacularly transparent water, would provide the greatest chance of catching during those first few days of December. And they did indeed keep on coming as you can see below and can read about here:

Encompassed within the final highlights of my personal fishing adventures in 2020 was receiving the ‘final sample’ of the 8 8″ 7-35 Major Craft lure rod (visible in images above and below), in addition to utilising the finished product of the second generation Magnetic Weight Shifting Needlefish I was about to release. Both products came through with flying colours (as you can see below) during a period when the weather finally changed, and with it the behaviour (as you’d expect) of the bass – meaning it was all about amending my tactics accordingly – something that you can read about in ‘Switching it up‘ post.

Party trick

In a similar way to the start of this delayed season, after catching some serious bass when ‘fishing solo’ throughout November, once I was permitted to guide again in December what I really wanted to do was place a client onto a fish in the same bracket – especially while the weather was still so good.

Top of my list for his rescheduled session was Pete, the familiar face from September’s 3 Day Package who managed to essentially bring the curtain down on my 2020 guiding season in style by repeating his ‘party trick’ of nailing a quality bass (at a whopping 66cm!) on a ‘popped’ Spittin Wire. There was indeed ‘time for one more’ as the blog post (here) suggests, the capture and release of which we reflected on with immense gratitude at the time, and that given the current situation around the Country we will certainly treasure.

A great way to end the final week of my guiding season – a stunning (if rather muddy) winter bass.

Stay Safe

I would like to wish you all a Happy New Year!!!! Please stay safe and well, and ready to get out there on the ‘bass trail’ again in 2021!

Thank you for reading.

Marc Cowling

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