There is no escaping the general consensus that nationally, fish stocks are low and it is harder than ever for recreational sea anglers to find something worth catching. This may be true for some parts of the country, but down here in the Bristol Channel, I beg to differ. A recent social media post I made regarding the capture of a species of fish not normally associated with the location it was landed got me to thinking about just what we are catching, what has been traditionally caught and what may be yet to come.
But the fact remains, that on the whole, the Bristol Channel as a fishery has improved drastically over the last two decades, though possibly not without some sacrifice.
When I began my sea fishing journey in the early 1990's, the humble thornback ray was far from common. It was considered a fish that required some thought, dedication and perseverance to locate and lure to a bait. Anglers who enjoyed success with the species were held in high regard. Low numbers were ultimately attributed to commercial fishing activities that all but wiped the species out. Fast forward to the present day, the end to long-lining in Bridgwater Bay and the species is now positively thriving once more. So much so in fact that local anglers refer to these fish as 'flat rats' and cringe at the thought of happening upon one. How times change!
Yep, undoubtedly the thornback ray is a success story. But back to the early 90's and really for most anglers, it was all about the cod fishing. Healthy numbers of big fish fell to the skilled anglers of the time who as usual were the ones who knew where to fish, when and how. As a young angler, I did OK, but I often looked on in awe at some of the catches making the headlines of the angling press. But above all else, the one species of fish that you could pretty much guarantee from almost any mark on any tide was the whiting. Three at a time throughout a tide, these eager fish would feed ferociously on the fish baits lay before them and I probably cut my sea fishing teeth on these fish. As time went on, cod continued to be caught. Some seasons were better than others, but then out of nowhere, the channel appeared to be almost devoid of the species it was once famed for.
From the start of the new millennium to the late noughties, cod catches from the shore were absolutely minimal. There was much negativity as anglers tried to comprehend just what had happened, but throughout this time no one had stopped to think about whiting. The shoals that were once thick had vanished, but anglers who were so preoccupied with the plight of the cod had literally failed to notice. To this day, the whiting fishing is not a patch on what it once was, though it is generally accepted that the cod fishing still rotates a cycle whereby high numbers of small fish present one season will return year on year, their size increasing but there number dwindling as a result of commercial pressure outside of the Bristol Channel.
So far, you could say we have a little bit of positive and little bit of negative. So where are we now?
As I've already discussed, thornback ray numbers are very much on the up providing some fantastic fun for new anglers who are looking to catch their first 'big fish' from the shore in the Bristol Channel.
Everything discussed thus far regards species of fish generally associated with the colder months (although the thornback is now very much present throughout the calendar) but where does this leave us with the summer fishing?
Well this is where I believe the true success story lies. It really is better than it ever has been in my opinion with greater numbers of the seasonal favourites than we have ever seen, species frequenting marks they have never previously been associated with and even a few rarities thrown in for good measure.
Bass fishing is as exciting as ever with my guided clients enjoying some frantic sport over the last week or so landing some prime examples on light tackle.
Smoothhounds that were once associated with an annual Whitsun pilgrimage to the north Devon coast and then maybe for a limited time on the reef marks east of Minehead, are now landed as far north as Portishead. A low tolerance of fresh water would suggest that in order for these wonderful fish to move ever closer to brackish water, there has to be a reason. Perhaps an expert in sharks may be able to explain this, though my theory is that there are simply more smoothhounds to be caught than ever before.
But back to the species that kicked off this blog post and I have yet to actually name. The bull huss. Traditionally found west of Minehead, it was last year when fishing from the shore in Weston Bay that a client landed a huss. The fish was caught from a muddy sea bed, not the usual location for these fish that like to frequent the kelp strewn rough stuff. Was this fish lost? It certainly got me thinking and although it is the only example I can recall from this specific area, I had vague recollections of similar fish landed not too far away, but over a far more craggy terrain. But then, just a few days ago, a friend was fishing a couple of hundred yards along the coast from where my client landed his fish caught what at a quick glance appeared to be a dogfish. Only on closer inspection did he realise that it was actually a small but perfectly formed bull huss.
Other anomalies that have drawn my attention in recent times include large blonde rays landed from the shore as far north as Clevedon, plaice from the sea wall at Kingston Seymour and pollack in Portishead marina, but it would be impossible to document each in any degree of detail here.
Without a degree in marine biology I'm really not qualified to comment on the science behind fish movements, but it's certainly fun to speculate. These are my personal findings and accounts of fishing here as I can recall and I'd welcome any further contributions.
One thing is for certain though, the fishing here is fantastic right now and if you would like to sample what the Bristol Channel has to offer, get in touch and I'll do my best to help.