Thursday 31 January 2008

saltwater fly fishing the rocky shore

The rocky seashore is a dynamic world of energy sound and constant motion. Waves crash upon the shoreline and run towards you like a white and green freight train, hissing and roaring; spray is caught by the wind and blown into your face. Sometimes you are lost in a world where there is no other sound other than the booming surf; the air is filled with the strong smell of ozone and a salty mist. Far removed from the constant bickering and demands of mobile phones, television and computers you focus and become lost in the lonely and demanding environment of the rocky seashore. You are insulated from hectic modern-day life in a place where you will find you need your best fishing abilities, maybe not the best presentations, maybe not the best casts, and maybe not too many fish. But the rocky seashore presents the greatest 
challenges to the saltwater fly fisherman. You can fish through those many challenges, the clambering over rocks, the casting into the wind, the waves, the constant catching of the running line in rocks and weed. The balancing act performed with a line tray on slippery rocks. When you return to the car, and take off the gear, quickly now as it has started to rain, you sit in the front seat and before you start the engine you look over the distant shoreline through a foggy windscreen. Having learned another small thing today you smile to yourself, and glow inwardly at what you have achieved, and already you lay plans for the next venture.

As anglers we are presented with a wide variety of rocky shorelines and each has its own demands and each offers its own saltwater fly-fishing opportunities. Rocky shorelines provide holding areas for fish between tides, feeding areas for fish, and cover for both ambush and hunting. Because of their erratic formations, rocky shorelines often create and help to enhance currents and rips. Slacks and eddies are evident at different stages of the tides and time invested by the fly fisher watching the water is a worthwhile activity. These features exist sometimes for hours sometimes for as short as a few minutes. Wave activity plays a hugely important role and they often can be used to determine where fish will lie. Whilst we fish these areas, wind direction and light levels affect how we make presentations and what type of fly we will cast

I like to break down the rocky shoreline into three or possibly four types. Type one is the ‘dynamic’ rocky shoreline. By dynamic I mean that there are rocks on the shoreline that are moved about regularly by wave action. The rocks at this type of shoreline are usually trapped into a small cove and generally display rounded type features and shapes. These areas are often prone to catching rough seas and during such times you can hear the rocks rolling and knocking, as they grind into each other under the waves. Because of the constant motion they endure, no life can adhere to them or indeed to the base rock upon which they lie. They are often not affected by neap tides in respect of their positions and neap tides will generally not cover them completely. During spring tides however, seaweed will often become trapped between them and if the right conditions prevail maggot flies will abound. As the next spring tide arrives and water floods into and over the rocks maggots will be lifted into the sea often in their thousands providing food for bass and particularly mullet. This area is best fished in calm conditions

The next type of rocky shoreline is what I like to call ‘mixed’. Mixed ground to me is where we have a lot of smaller rocks trapped between rocky outcrops with lots of rock pools evident. These areas are less prone to the dynamic changes discussed above and so life has an opportunity to ‘grip’ on here. Seaweed grows freely and offers cover for moulting crabs, butterfish and gobies. Rock pools are often full with shrimp, anemones and small fish. Rocks are covered with barnacles, limpets and periwinkles. These areas are a rich feeding ground for a lot of fish like wrasse pollack and bass and should be visited and targeted frequently by the salt-water fly fisher. This area is subject to some big wave activity and hence there is seldom any sand but because of the protection afforded from larger rock masses it remains protected to some extent from the rigours of tough weather. This area is best fished with an onshore breeze.

The third area of rocky shoreline that we will look at is the area that I call ‘varied’. A ‘varied’ rocky shoreline consists of sand interspersed with rocky outcrops. These rocky outcrops are often not visible over high water but rather reveal themselves as the tide drops and recedes. Over wintertime a lot of high wave activity may create outcrops by abstracting sand or indeed cover these outcrops and a spring visit to many beaches can reveal some big surprises. On a day-to-day basis ‘varied’ rocky shorelines do not experience huge change and are not prone to strong currents. Only after a large storm or periods of prolonged strong winds is there a noticeable change. Activity is based more around and along the rocky outcrops. Covered in weeds with pockets of water and many pools they hold life somewhat similar to the ‘mixed’ area above. Trapped between rocky outcrops are often lugworm or small mussel beds another feeding ground for many of our predators. This area also fishes best with a slight breeze, which creates wave activity

The last area of rocky shoreline that we can see on our coast is that which I like to call ‘permanent’. ‘Permanent’ rocky shoreline is often seen as vast areas of flat rock covered in barnacles up to the high water mark and interspersed frequently with small pools. By permanent I mean that generally on a year-to-year basis these areas remain the same and exhibit very little change. ‘Permanent’ areas of rocky shore generally allow us the opportunity to fish into deeper water from a height. It is often that just to the left or right of a ‘permanent’ shoreline you will see a ‘dynamic’ or even ‘mixed’ shoreline. Washed free of any sand and stone they provide a safe base for the angler to fish from but are often subject to large or even freak waves and should be treated with some degree of respect and care. Around the ends of these permanent structures there are often fast currents and deep water – more opportunities for the fly fisher with short leaders and fast sinking lines.

How do we go about catching fish on the fly from such a wide variety of locations? What flies should we use? Should we use floating or sinking lines? When in relation to tide should we begin our fishing? What presentations should we make to increase our chances? In the previous series of last year we discussed tackle and flies and agreed generally that a #9 rod and line – floating and intermediate would fulfil most of our requirements. A stripping basket or line tray is essential. Flies tend to be the traditional type of white or white and chartreuse – deceivers and clousers. I would also add some brown or brown and red cockroaches and maybe a few sand eel type and crab patterns too. Timings are important in relation to tides, weather and time of year.

Time invested in watching the rising and falling of tides will reveal where and when water activity takes place. Checking and understanding which way the wind blows and how this affects wave direction and hence our fly presentations will greatly increase our chances. Where there is moving water and cover you will generally find predators lurking and hunting but care must be taken in how we approach these fish. Tramping down the beach in our waders clinking and clanking and then proceeding to walk and clamber over the rocks and perching ourselves at the end of the nearest point will only scare every fish in the Irish sea away.

By minimising our noise, visual and environmental ‘profile’ we can often creep up or stalk our quarry. Be aware of things like birds on or near the ground where you intend to fish. If for instance there is a lot of seagulls or cormorants resting up in the area and you manage to scare them off in one big flock by walking up quickly then any fish close by will also see their profiles as they all fly off together, he’ll swim off too. Walk up slowly stopping now and again and bit-by-bit the flock will take off. Cormorants will slide into the water rather attempting a panicked take-off splashing and flapping across the water. All these little things help.

Fishing clousers on intermediate or sinking lines in shallow water in a rocky area will prove very difficult to a beginner, it’s a tactic better kept for the deeper water around the ‘permanent’ shoreline. A deceiver pattern with a nice profile on a monofilament leader and floating line will be somewhat easier to fish in the vast majority of circumstances encountered on the rocky shore. Presentations can be made along the edges of promontories where retrieves are kept to a minimum. When a fly is cast properly, wave action will simply lift and carry a good fly up and over rocks and back again as the wave recedes, once contact is maintained, the correct wave is chosen and slack is controlled this presents the fly very naturally to cruising fish. A constant casting and stripping of the fly, whilst it may be effective from time to time, will not appear natural in many occasions.

Continuous practice and experience at casting into, onto behind and in front of waves will quickly teach you what works best in terms of line management and presentations. I have a preference to fish whilst positioned away from rocks or reefs and try to cast long onto or into them. I cast parallel to the shoreline and try to present the fly and line onto a wave as it rolls over the reef. Casting too early and you get a tumbling of fly and line which is not good, casting too late and the wave has already past and you fly and line don’t travel only to be met with the receding wave and hence pushed further out to sea.
Fish will swim onto and around reefs through waves but not every wave will do this. They have a canny knack for measuring the ‘transport’ systems and they will take a wave that will assist them on the return journey too – they pass over the reefs in and out waiting for that big deceiver to swim in front of their noses. Make sure your there.

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