Mike Hennessey has spent three decades unlocking the secrets of a species he describes as the Formula One racer of the sea fishing world… the gilthead bream.
The comparison with the hi-tech machines of the Grand Prix world can be made on two fronts – the sheer majestic beauty of the fish and the raw power they possess once hooked.
Mike, an angling tourism officer for the Kerry and Cork area, is Ireland’s guru when it comes to locating and catching giltheads, and he believes that while they are often difficult to track down, they’re more plentiful than many believe. Mike said “It was 30 years ago when I first saw a picture of a gilthead, which had been taken from the Salcombe Estuary in Devon. My sense of awe, together with a certain amount of envy at the look of satisfaction on the angler’s face, was incredible.
The species was described in an article as a new migrant after arriving on the south coast of the UK, and I was overcome with this sense of adventure and how lucky anglers in the UK were to have this beautiful-looking fish visiting them.
But then I started to hear of a few small fish being taken off the Cork coast and just had to catch one myself. I began researching the species, interviewing anglers who had caught them, and went experimenting on local estuaries, until I eventually managed to beach one that weighed a little over 1lb. “The fight it put up was incredible. Pound for pound its strength and stamina was amazing, with every run testing my skills. And just when I thought the fight was over, it would take off on another searing run.
After that day I put in some serious hours. I was hooked on them, so much so that I would spend every spare moment trying to understand their movements and habits. I believe that they’re more widespread than many anglers think, but you need to know where to search for them, and your tackle also needs to be up to the job and well balanced, because the initial run after a hook-up can often result in a snapped line. This is down to, in my opinion, the greatest powerhouse of a fish to swim in our inshore waters currently. It really is the Formula One racer of fish, and that’s why I am obsessed with the species.”
So, when an invitation to fish for giltheads with Mike and his pal and local specimen hunter Syd Kennedy, a man who has landed 30 Irish specimens over the last 12 months – in a lagoon in Clonakilty, Ireland, was extended to me, I had no hesitation in accepting the offer.
Gilties are more common in this area than many realise. There are so many estuarial inlets in this locality and they will all hold giltheads at some time from April through to September. It’s just a case of observation and tapping into the local grapevine in order to find the fish. The fact is that there might be giltheads right in front of you and you’ll never know unless you fish specifically for them.
Many of the best gilthead marks are in the upper reaches of small estuaries where anglers rarely think to fish. This is the main reason why they are apparently hard to find. They travel a long way with the tide, covering a lot of ground, plus they’re shoal fish, so will be tightly grouped in selected areas and not widespread. They filter out from the main estuary channels, favouring side creeks, small muddy bays and sand/mud drain-off channels. Giltheads can also be found inside small harbours where boat traffic is not too heavy. Here they favour weed beds, shingle banks and patches of mud that they can hunt over. They will also feed around the supports of wooden jetties and underneath boat pontoons.
Where To Find Them
Around The British Isles Giltheads are fairly common around the Channel Islands, but they especially frequent the shallow estuaries of Devon and Cornwall such as the Dart, Kingsbridge, Yealm, Looe, Fowey, Fal and Helford. Giltheads can show along the Dorset and Hampshire coast and around the Isle of Wight. They are also occasionally caught in South Wales, including in the Lougher and Towy Estuaries, and from isolated marks in North Wales, especially around the southern end of the Menai Straits. North Wales is about as far north as giltheads are normally found.
Giltheads are often hard to spot because they tend to travel and feed at the head of the advancing tide, often in tidal pools and channels just two or three feet deep. Mostly they are unseen, but sometimes you can see the tips of their dorsals or tail fins poking through the surface water as they search for food with the flooding tide. They seem to be in small shoals of up to a couple of dozen fish and are always moving.
A Little Crock Of Gold
Before driving to the lagoon we dug the bait that giltheads find irresistible – maddies and lugworms… and the fresher the better.
Mike had chosen a spot where a lagoon of water stood with a drain-off channel heading back down the estuary and, as the flood tide made way, the gilties would move into the pool to feed before moving on.
It was just about low tide, and the perfect time to begin our campaign for the giltheads. As they come into the lagoon, they hunt as a shoal, searching the ground for food, and it’s a case of patience until the fish come past you. These shoals may contain fewer than a dozen fish and they spook easily, so it’s best to keep as low a profile as possible and keep noise to a minimum. The idea is to cast a bait across the lagoon, or estuary channel, as near to the far side as possible. Then let the bait sit still for a couple of minutes, because giltheads will sometimes come to the splash area to investigate. If nothing happens after that couple of minutes, gently twitch the bait back a few inches at a time with a brief pause in between. Gilties often prefer a moving bait to a static one. Bites tend to be a series of tugs and you need to keep retrieving, then there’ll be a wild smashdown of the rod tip as the bream takes the bait.
‘Gilty’ As Charged
Mike opened the account with a cracking bass of 2lb 8oz, but soon the gilties made a show and it was action stations! We could see the odd swirl of a fish out on the far side, and it was Mike who hooked up first. A scream of the reel broke the silence as line was stripped from it, and the fish bored down for the deeper water – then had a very brief sulk and was off again. This happened several times before Mike beached a fish that I felt was close to 3lb, which went straight back.
The sport was hectic, with Syd soon bagging a gilty of well over 3lb, which was yet another specimen qualifier for him. An even bigger and harder-fighting beauty of 4lb followed this, and his manic few minutes were capped off with an Irish specimen flounder weighing 2lb 8oz.
Just when things looked like quietening off, Mike hooked much bigger fish and this had no intention of coming in easily. It went left at speed, doubled back into the deep channel, headed for the shallows, then doubled back again. After a brief sulk it sped off to the left, dragging yards of line off the spool with ease. Mike had to follow this fish, then turn around and run back again as it doubled back into the lagoon. This went on for more than five minutes before the bream broke surface a few yards out. It was a cracker and we weighed it at 4lb 7oz. So that was four bream, a bass and a flounder all in a 30-minute period.
Final Gilty Thoughts
I’ve also been wondering if float fishing would be a good tactic because it keeps the bait on the move and will draw the hunting gilthead’s attention. It’s something I’ve made a mental note of to try when next I get the chance to angle for these incredible-looking, hard-fighting fish.