My Year in Review 2021 (Part 1 of 2)
2021… It still sounds crazily futuristic doesn’t it! Yet here I am, at the end of what has been the most successful season of guiding my clients have enjoyed in the South Devon Bass Guide era, in addition to being a year when I released my second book (Bass Lure Fishing – A Guide’s Perspective Volume 1), a new lure in conjunction with TC Lures (the ZIPP WAKE), plus, one in which I managed to smash my personal best twice – including that astonishing 83cm/12lb 2oz ‘aircraft carrier’ of a bass from last month (that is still giving me palpitations every time I think about it!)
But before I delve into our ‘bass-loving world’, as always, I would like to express my sincere gratitude to my clients, my readers and everyone in the fishing/angling trade who has supported me during what has been another challenging year for obvious reasons. I know I say this continually, but I really cannot get over just how receptive my clients (a very high percentage of which return year-after-year) are when they come to visit me. It really does make what I do even more of a pleasure – especially when what I may have just taught all tweaked for you is rewarded by catching, holding and releasing what is in my eyes (and yours I’m sure!) the most perfect, and immeasurably sporting species of fish in our waters.
To Ed at Lure Fishing For Bass, Harry and Jansen at Veals Mail Order, Mike at Tacklewave Ltd/Chesil Bait n’ Tackle , Ben at Art of Fishing, Mick at Mr Fish Jersey, Danny at High Street Tackle, Simon at Osborne & Cragg in Plymouth, Tom at TC Lures, Henry Gilbey, Dave at Drake House Lures, Nick, Graham and Mark at Nick Walker Printing in Kingsbridge, my friend Michael Young who very kindly gave up his own time to proof-read Bass Lure Fishing – A Guide’s Perspective, and Cliff at Sea Angler Magazine (I will be in touch soon with some material I promise!) – ‘Thank You’ for your continued support.
Equipment I’d recommend combined…
At this time of the year I would normally be sifting through all of the kit that have worked especially well for me over the course of the season in preparation for writing a ’10 Items of Equipment I’d recommend from 2021′ post. However, even though I have ‘tried out’ or tested a number of different items this year (including jackets, waders, boots, braid, lures, and numerous rods and reels), in all honesty there simply aren’t enough that improve on what I am currently utilising to warrant or justify writing a separate blog post covering the details.
Instead, as I progress through each month, if and when there has been an occasion or occasions when a relevant or particular piece of kit has proven useful, reliable, robust or downright brilliant I will slip it in for you. Moreover, although I didn’t complete many sessions myself (our house move took up an inordinate amount of my time when I wasn’t guiding, but hey, that’s life) you will also see some of the more significant personal catches that I achieved added into the narrative. So, without further ado then, here is the story of my bass lure fishing escapades and everything associated to it during the first six months of 2021…
Yes, like a maniac, I was out fishing on New Year’s Day (well the night actually), and again on the 3rd and 4th of January searching for my first ‘silver’ of the year, and before the imminency of a third National lockdown became a reality. It was worth the effort too, as on the first two sessions of 2021 the bass happily obliged.
Despite some pretty nippy conditions, and a freezing wind blowing on the second and third nights I recall, even though I didn’t land any monsters (the largest was 53cm which is very satisfying for early-January) it was especially pleasing to be out catching on the recently released Magnetic Weight Shifting (MWS) version of my TC Lures-built Needlefish (here). Of note, was that despite the bitterly cold east wind, in the sheltered bay that I targeted on ‘Session Two of 2021’ the bass were smashing some form of bait fish all over the shop! I couldn’t fail seemingly and below are the fish that I landed during those two sessions.
COVID… ‘Lockdown Three’ 5th January 2021… Thankfully, with fishing permitted as a genuine form of recreational exercise (providing we stay local etc.) thanks to the excellent and persistent lobbying by the Angling Trust, following a blank on the 4th January it wasn’t until the mid-month period that I somewhat reluctantly headed out for a research/development-come-exercise-session – although I felt very guilty about being able to go fishing to be honest…
With the testing of various IMA lures in mind, in addition to thrashing a new Daiwa Morethan 19 EX 87ML 7-35g that I purchased from Japan after a glass of wine to many (that subsequently turned out to be an excellent acquisition I might add, although not quite as good as the amazing Limited Edition Major Craft Sea Bass Custom 7-35g 88M that I’ve settled on!) after visiting and reccying a few new areas I returned to somewhere I knew intimately once the lights went out.
February (Head down)
I won’t lie, with the situation we all found ourselves in again due to this scary pandemic, and how it was affecting people around this period, I had been extremely reluctant to post that 7lb+ beauty up onto social media, and subsequently, up onto my website. But after numerous conversations with some trusted friends and colleagues (who highlighted to me that everyone knows I do this for a living, and that I live within walking distance of the sea) they convinced me that the fishing fraternity would love to see such a splendid capture.
I did share how the moment came about alongside the captures I had achieved prior to the 2021 UK lockdown (here – titled “Only by the night…“), but thereafter, I decided that I wouldn’t go fishing for two reasons: a) I just wasn’t comfortable about it and b) I funnelled this mindset so to act as an incentive to complete a project that I had commenced writing on Day 1 of the first UK lockdown back in March 2020 – my second self-published book: Bass Lure Fishing – A Guide’s Perspective (Volume 1).
The way I looked at it, if I could adjust to having to remain at home for 7 weeks from the 23rd March until the 13th May 2020 then I could ‘cope’ without fishing again for as long as it took to complete the book therefore, I got my head down big time and worked solidly, 12 hours a day until it was ready to be edited and sent to the printers.
I was shattered, and in the early stages of becoming ‘cross-eyed’, but I’d managed it, therefore, with the tides aligning perfectly in conjunction with the forecast weather and sea conditions I decided to ‘treat myself’ with the added incentive of cracking something that is not easy to achieve – a February lure-caught bass, and the opportunity to land one in every one month of the calendar year…
Without a doubt, this felt like one of the most enjoyable fishing sessions of my entire life! The blissfully relaxing surroundings, the owls hooting at each other across the bay, and the whole atmosphere that enveloped me as I stood in the stunningly calm and clear water. In all honesty, I didn’t really care whether I caught a bass or not, but within moments of sensing the tension of the tide through the rod and braid ‘BANG’ – I was in!
In 2019, I landed 18 bass during February, including a very decent 57cm fish. But with the weather shockingly unsettled during the autumn of 19 and on into the winter of 19/20, although I came very close (losing a good bass in late Feb on a prototype Gravity Stick that Henry had kindly given me) I didn’t manage to achieve the feat of catching a February last year, bass so I have to admit to being rather pleased with the 45cm fish above.
And like buses, after waiting to fish for weeks to, and then standing out in the middle of nowhere in the middle of winter until a bass attacked the lure, within minutes of returning her another member of the family turns up – what a lovely evening that was, and one that I felt I’d earned.
March (Fresh hope, a new book, and a PB!)
With a new, and hopefully a full eight-and-a-half month guiding season on the horizon to look forward to (following the truncated and shortened 2020 effort) I began to venture out once or twice a week in March – alternating, as I often do during my personal sorties, between new marks and places that I know like ‘the back of my hand’ with my forthcoming clients in mind.
I did OK too, with a number of small bass eager to wallop the Wave Worms during most of the sessions I completed in darkness. Of significance, was the notable upturn in the air and sea temperature around the middle of the month, as alongside the increased mullet activity both out on the open coast and within the estuaries, I had a very nice bass that I estimated to be in the 6-7lb range make a speculative lunge at the OSP DoLive Stick I was twitching in over a gorgeous stretch of reef in very clear and shallow water – the signs were good!
In the end though, the month of March was all about two major accomplishments: releasing my second book, and surpassing my personal best during a period in the year when I didn’t think catching a bass of that size on a lure was even possible!
Bass Lure Fishing – A Guide’s Perspective (Volume 1)
As I wrote in the blog post detailing what is encompassed within the chapters of this book (here), if I were to describe my second title in one sentence then I would say that it is ‘a collection of events that catalogue and chronicle everything that I have learnt in relation to bass lure fishing over the past 4-5 years, and that I have successfully transferred into my guiding, by virtue of the catches my clients and I have achieved.’
Furthermore, my aim was to write a follow up book that would teach the reader how to catch bass within an all-encompassing array of sea and weather conditions, in addition to an inclusive combination of venues and situations (an augmentation of the rocky/reef oriented ‘The Lure of The Bass‘ that I released in October 2018) such as estuaries (where I have spent 40-50% of my time these past two years), beaches (both steep shingle and shallow sand), rocks, and of course, something that I have come to specialise in, in the guiding sense – catching bass on lures in the dark.
With well over 1000 copies already shifted, to places as far afield as Australia and South Africa, in addition to all over Europe (I didn’t realise there was such a huge bass lure fishing scene in The Netherlands!), the time and effort it took to write the 100,000 words and 304 pages was something I had to do (as I had learnt so much since becoming a professional guide) and that I will probably do again a year ahead of schedule considering the continual learning journey I am on – not to mention the amount of new material based on the client and personal catches achieved since the release of Volume 1. Indeed, as it stands, I may even commence writing Volume 2 very soon, with a projected release date of March 2023, but we’ll see…
You couldn’t write it!
All I am going to say about the capture and release of what was, until recently, the largest lure-caught bass that I have landed at 74cm is you need to watch the videos and read the full story: “The March Marauder” here.
Reading the story myself, and reliving those moments gives me goose-bumps all over again, and if you haven’t read about this beautiful fish previously then I can assure you that if I was a fiction writer I don’t think I could have dreamt up just how remarkable the whole event was – from the afternoon sighting of what must have been the same bass, to moment it hit the lure on the very first cast! It’s quite staggering when I look back now! God, what a fish – in March for heavens sake!
April (Great start – indifferent finish…)
Early season bass lure fishing and guiding is, for me, all about trying as many methods, tactics and venues as possible in order to try and ascertain where the fish are, what they are feeding on and how they want a lure presented. Generally speaking, you’re talking about retrieving a lure slower and deeper than you would, in say, September – and conditions, both in relation to the weather and the sea state will have a massive bearing on where I go, how I approach it, and ultimately, what transpires in relation to catches and what I am learning whilst on the hunt.
A number fascinating aspects sprang to mind when I reviewed the catches my clients achieved in April – a month that saw below average air temperatures, and by virtue of this, an excruciatingly slow rise in the water temperature. Firstly, there were a lot of small (1lb) bass about, which although was to be expected, they were often difficult to track down. However, when we did find them, we caught between 4 to10 within that session – great fun, and great for clients learning how to catch these fascinating fish.
Secondly, unlike previous years (although 2020 was an anomaly as I didn’t see the coastline in April like most of us) to me, there just seemed like there was a severe lack of sand eel about…? We did catch one mackerel mid-month which was an encouraging sign, and there were large, if rather sporadic, shoals of what I think were launce situated 200-500yards off shore – but I think the gannets were hoarding them from above, rather than the bass from below – but I could be completely wrong.
Honing my approach
Two further constituents gradually came into play as the month rolled on, starting with what was a major clue as to how the bass were feeding – the larger fish appeared to only be active at night… Indeed, during a bloody freezing afternoon and evening during the first week of April, my two friendly clients (Hristo and Ivo) had cast and retrieved their socks off for six arduous daylight hours, with the only line of encouragement I could offer at this juncture being that “the darkness could just switch any fish in the vicinity into feeding mode”.
With one of the white Gary Yamamoto Swim Senkos I had purchased over the winter attached (a lure I would recommend, although don’t expect them survive too many snags in the weed or bass attacks) and with my brief to “keep the lure as close to the seabed as possible” being superbly executed by Ivo, I was absolutely delighted to hear the shout of “Yes, I think this is big Marc”, which coming from a seasoned pike angler utilising a ‘broom stick of a rod’ definitely got my attention!
As well as the overall strategies involved, I also cover the capture of the brilliant bass above in my blog post: “Client Catches – Drawing them in” (here). Another client of mine was extremely unlucky on yet another freezing cold night also (I don’t think we’ve ever had so many frosts in south Devon in April?) when, after we’d had to remained in the warming Sun all afternoon, almost as soon as it had become dark, whilst bouncing a 90mm/12g DAM Effzett Kick S Minnow (another great little lure in the same vein as the Fiiish Black Minnow) down in the flow, just as he lifted it off the bottom at the end of the ‘trot’ as it were he got nailed… The way he described the take (a very solid, yet strangely soft thud, whereby everything stopped momentarily) and the way it was dragging line off against the drag I think it was a good one…
Onto constituent number four then, which encompassed the use of surface lures… It’s a method that many of my clients love to master during their time with me, so even though April isn’t the best time of year to utilise them (primarily because the bass are swimming closer to the seabed, rather than at mid-water level I believe, and their energy levels are such that it takes an extraordinary amount of effort to swipe something off the top) in the course of the guided sessions, particularly when we were searching out certain underwater features where I know bass like to hold up, they did get some serious water time.
One session springs to mind that actually set the tone for the majority of the season as it happens… I was out with a regular client of mine, in which despite the water temperature still hovering at only just above 10oC, the sea (calm with just a slight chop) and overhead conditions (cloudy and dull) just screamed ‘surface lure’ to me therefore, that’s what went out into the tide race. He was fishing from the rocks, and the seabed was made up entirely of sand, therefore, we were essentially waiting for shoals of fish to move across the seabed via hitching a ride on the current that was moving right of left.
With the water only around 4ft deep, despite the cold air and sea, the bass were fervent in their desire to hit the Patchinko 125. Of note, was that although only three bass were landed, I could and should have been removing five-times that number off the hooks given the amount of swirls and half-hearted takes. But again, this type of activity paints a picture in my mind, in that I reckon the effort and energy it took the bass present just to ‘have a pop’ at the lure was right on their limits of exertion…
How do I come to this conclusion? Because as the depth of the water increased, the number and ferocity of attacks decreased. Furthermore, when we moved to an adjacent rocky plinth that juts wonderfully into the tide race here, but where the water is significantly deeper, my client only received one swirl at the lure and nothing else thereafter. It was the same story on my estuary marks too – if the water was less than 5ft deep, the bass would grab a top water lure, but anymore than this and they just wouldn’t have it – this is where the soft plastics, and the paddle tails in particular started to be extracted from my lure box more and more often.
May (A change is a good thing!)
There’s no way to dress it up – during the first half of May the weather was absolutely terrible… I mean, since when do we experience frosts during the first week of May in south Devon!!!?? May, it was more like March! And the rain – honestly, at times, this was some of the hardest guiding I’d known – not just because of the inclement conditions, but because the bass were proving to be elusive too. It was tough going for sure, but in the back of mind were two thoughts: the bass that are inshore should become ravenous once that sea and air temperature ramped up a bit, plus, the season and the weather always averages itself out over the course of the year. Thankfully, both predictions proved accurate!
With 23 bass landed during my first 3 Day Package (3 anglers, who rarely know each other, although 80% of the time I have already guided them previously) fishing their hearts out over 6x 4 hour sessions taking in as many different locations, and differing types of ‘bassy environments’ as possible, whilst utilising multiple lure types is what these packages are all about and is what it took to find the bass that I happily placed them onto, and that they managed to land.
To ram the ‘night time is best when the water is cold’ point down my neck even further, it took a late night session in deepest darkest Devon, and a thoroughly nice chap and a very good angler called Den, who stuck to the task brilliantly to place the first ‘client 70’ on the deck for 2021 – what a fish that was too! Gorgeous!
As I always do, I mulled over this capture for days, whereby I finally surmised that without the ‘usual’ numbers of bait fish present, combined with the still very cold water for the time of year (the third week of May) that any larger, and undoubtedly hungry bass were more than likely waiting for darkness to fall, and for the crabs to appear from their hidey-holes and start scuttling about, until they would venture inshore and hoover them up via the least amount of energy the could possibly exert…
The heading of this section perfectly depicts, and indeed, encapsulates my endeavours during the months of April and May. I was finding the bass, albeit mainly smaller ones granted, but what I was really searching for was some kind of consistency to their behaviour, and the type of marks/venue or environment, in tandem with the sea and weather conditions in which they were more likely to be frequenting. Classic early-season methods.
For example, when things clicked into gear during the final week of May in 2020, due to the masses of bait fish surrounding our shores and the easterlies turning southerly, it was all about lobbing medium to large surface lures from headlands and into sections of funnelling or swirling current. In the spring of 2019, it was the metal lures, fished sink and draw into deep water covering a clean seabed, alongside fishing the adjacent shallow surf beaches in the dark with Needlefish lures, as the bass scoured them for sand eels under the Moonlight, that were doing the trick.
The year before, early season when we started to experience the start of what would turn out to an almost continual heatwave (after a brutal winter down here mind) in 2018, nearly all of the bass we landed were hooked at night, over sections of reef, in exceedingly shallow water at times, on the Albie Snax and the Needlefish primarily. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the fishing was so consistent, I could almost predict the ten-to-twenty minute period when they would turn up within a specific feature on some venues.
In short, the key I believe, especially before the sea temperature climbs above 13-14oC and their metabolism kicks in and they have to swim to eat and eat to swim as it were, is that it’s all about being opportunistic in nature: for them, and for us as anglers – with the angler having to suss out just what it is ‘they’ want and where ‘they’ are most likely to find it. It’ll be the same in April + May in 2022, 2023 and forever I imagine as every season will be different to the last. As a treat though, here are some big bass landed in May 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020!
Back on form, or not…
Something else that became apparent early in the season, and that has endured throughout, pleasingly to a certain extent, is that in my quest to find some more dependable fishing for my clients, although many of my ‘staple’ open coast marks from the past 4 years just weren’t firing on even one cylinder, other almost forgotten stretches of the coastline that had once been reliable, but had subsequently become devoid of bass, appeared to come back on form! A silver lining then!
One instance of this saw two clients, casting into two separate gullies that effectively ‘angle’ into the this shingle/sand beach via a major expanse of reef, in which they would be targeting pockets of fish, at range, with the Jim’s and Marc Cowling/TC Lures Needlefish respectively (you can read all about this session here in “Client Catches – On your marks”. In years gone by, this stunning venue had been a regular haunt of mine when the swell had been pushing up the beach by day, and in more recent years when it had been utterly serene by night. For whatever reason though, the bass had been by-passing it over the 2018/19 and 20 seasons it seemed, based on the initially inexplicable, yet later, numerous blanks my friends and I had endured here!
Therefore, when my clients (Henry and his friend) pulled out a few nice bass between them, again, pretty much to the minute as it had become dark, this occurrence alongside many other similar incidences, both here and elsewhere, proved not only that the lone bass were nomadic and the shoals sporadic in the spring of 2021, but that the reasons or circumstances (that was most probably related to a food source, annual migration or general habitual behaviour) that had previously attracted bass to those specific locations were still in place. I do have another theory – seals… But I’ll talk about more in Part 2.
June (Diverse, but decisive)
During the second weekend in June the weather began to warm up at last, but the lack of sand eels was still hampering the inward/inshore migration of the main, spawning bass I felt. Indeed, venues that would normally be teeming with bass at night (such as the shallow surf beaches and certain reefs) remained in a subdued state. Further, as May had proven, it was a case of putting in some serious legwork on a multitude of marks scattered around the 25-30 miles of coastline that I guide on to find them – with Jud (a very good angler from East Devon who joined us as part of a 3 Day Package) finding the best bass during the first week or so of June, on none other than the MC/TC Lures Magnetic Weight Shifting ‘Surf’ Needlefish (see below).
Two steps forward, one step back…
Usually, when the first real heat of the late-spring or early-summer arrives, you can almost bet your house that the fishing will explode as it’s often much like flicking a switch if things have been ‘held back’ because of cooler temperatures. But it’s a good job that I’m not a betting man, as bizarrely, it just didn’t happen… Gradually, and I mean very gradually, as each personal or guided session or day ticked past, with only modest results to show for out efforts, did the fishing improve. At the time, I remember thinking that it felt like it was a case of two steps forward, and then one step back again, as the weather just wouldn’t settle – it was a case of extremes, which I don’t think the bass like one bit…
My scribblings most probably paint the picture that I was bit down in the dumps! However, I have been chasing these mercurial creatures long enough to know that things can change very quickly and dramatically. Ultimately, if you keep putting in the effort, whilst thinking very logically and systematically, that you will get your just desserts.
I’ve written about transitory bass and territorial bass this year quite a bit (and in greater detail within my second book) and one of the interesting aspects to this is that, generally speaking, you tend to find the more substantial transient shoals (the ones that are constantly following the mackerel, sand eels, sprat etc.) around the more exposed coastal zones, with the resident/habitual bass being found around very rough/rugged terrain, sheltered coves, estuary mouths and even well inside the estuaries themselves.
The bass above epitomised and cemented my thought process around this period, as when we arrived on this mark we could clearly see the cormorants working the area. “Sand eels” that’s the only reason there’s so many birds here”, I announced to my three eager clients that morning. And sure enough, as soon as we were down at sea level we could make out probably thousands of them being swept gently through the gullies – easy meat for the birds and the bass.
Having learnt the lessons of thirty bass seasons in my lifetime now, if all you are doing is relying on bait fish being in the vicinity of wherever you intend fishing then, more often than not, you’re going to disappointed – especially when they were as thin on the ground as they were this year for extended periods. No, for me, this open coast game was becoming just too ‘hit n’ miss’ for my liking therefore, I started to turn my attention to guiding and fishing on the estuary mouths at night, with the daylight hours reserved for low salinity, estuarine, brackish, and on occasion, some downright stinking (muddy) and far less scenic venues!
Of course, if you’re bass lure fishing within the estuaries, then a high percentage of the time you will taking about water that lacks transparency. Even if it hasn’t rained for days (which most certainly wasn’t the case during the first half of the year) then due to the mud, sand, silt and more vigorous levels of current often present, added to the affects of the wind if it is choppy enough to stir the margins into a turbid state, you can expect to be retrieving lures through some pretty grotty water – this is when the penny dropped, and I really began to switch onto the use of the soft plastic paddle tails…
With the ‘paddle tail approach’ taking shape and reaping rewards when I was with my clients, in between my guiding exploits, I would keep a close eye on the open coast fishing through some of my trusted fishing companions, in addition to sampling it myself – just to see if any consistency or regularity to the fishing potential transpired. As you can see in the images below of some the bass I landed from the rocks and beaches of south Devon at the time, I was putting a few different rods through their paces too – it’s all good fun!
A blog post that I wrote and released at the time titled “Client Catches – Murky Moments” summarises the use of the soft plastic paddle tails, routinely rigged onto belly-weighted hooks to combat/counter the affects of the tide and to keep the lures close to the seabed, as the bass were still fairly reluctant to whack anything off the top well into June.
Confirming that I’d more or less found the formula (it’ll be something else next year I’m sure, but it’s great to have all of these experiences and techniques in your locker) the highlight was a brutish 61cm bass landed by my client Louis during the final few days of June, from very obviously a very weedy, estuary mark. Would this type of environment be my playground for the second half of the year? Or would the open coast roar back into contention with the arrival of summer, or at the very least, a decent spell of settled weather…
Thanks for reading – Part Two of ‘My Year in Review 2021’ will be released soon!
Have a great New Year’s Eve!