The bass is a distinctive fish in UK waters, with nothing to confuse it with, bar the black bream, which is much more oval in shape. The bass has two dorsal fins, with the first carrying eight to nine sharp spines. There are also sharp spines on the gill cover. The body is streamlined, shallow in profile and heavily armoured with big scales. Over sand the bass tends to be light grey to grey-green on the back with silver sides and a white belly. When working reef ground, rocks and mussel beds it’s often a dark blue, almost slate blue, on the back. The odd specimen can also carry a black spot on the gill cover and have a yellow tinge all over.
The bass is found off southern Norway all along the western European coast into the Mediterranean and North Africa. Although it remains commonest in the southern half of the UK, its numbers have increased further north over the past 20 years or so, with fish now commonly found off the west coast of Scotland – some showing occasionally from the beaches in the Orkney Islands and on the north and east coast of Scotland. The Yorkshire beaches also show a good run of bass nowadays, with the Holderness coast seeing fish as early as February most years. The bass is also found throughout Ireland, though it’s the southeast, south and southwest coasts that have the largest numbers of fish.
The bass breeds from late January through to late May in deep water offshore, though some believe that the bass breeds at the head of estuaries from May to June. The estuary-inhabiting bass feeds mainly on crabs and sandeels but will also take worms, broken shellfish, shrimps, prawns and small fish such as smelt, flounders, dabs, pipefish, shannies, butterfish and juvenile sea trout, and even small bass.
School bass – bass up to about 2lb in weight – can be caught throughout the year. Adult bass fresh from spawning, however, show first towards the end of March in the south, mid-April to the end of April/beginning of May off the East Anglian coast. Further north it’s usually late May onwards that sees the fish that are really worth going for. They stay until October in the north but can linger as late as Christmas in the south. Early in the spring, until about mid-June, it’s the presence of peeling crabs that brings the bass into the estuary. The crabs are a reliable food source and it’s no surprise that once they start to show, it’s only a couple of weeks before the bass numbers are building quickly. By mid-May bass will also actively hunt sandeels and, as their numbers increase, small sea trout, mini species and small flatfish.
The best tides are middle-sized ones building up, through to the very biggest spring tides. As soon as the spring tides start to drop back, bass numbers will also ease away. They can be caught on smaller neap tides too, but there are usually fewer bass running the estuaries, where the likelihood of big fish is more remote.
Although bass will work the estuaries in calm, warm conditions, it’s in the roughest weather where the big bass are more commonly caught. During gales big bass will come to feed inside the smaller estuaries. They will also tolerate some freshwater from the hills, but will not stay inside the estuaries if the water is very acidic after heavy rainfall and flooding. Daylight fishing can be productive but it’s at night when the best fishing is enjoyed, especially when low water falls in the dark and they move into the estuaries.
Bass wait in numbers at the mouths or bars of our smaller estuaries and will move in as soon as the new tide starts to push in. They use the tide to help them travel often a mile or more inland. Initially they’ll move through the main channel working seed mussel beds and any patches of rocky ground. They will gather around small jetties, piers, harbour walls, breakwaters and through small harbours. They move into the drainage channels that are drawing water off the salt marshes, targeting crabs, small fish and sandeels, but also work through weed and muddy boulder ground sniffing out crabs and small fish. Other good spots are where smaller estuaries bottleneck and narrow, forming fast moving currents. Bass use this to push sandeel shoals up against it, which makes them easier to pick off. Bass can still be caught on the ebb but are wary of being cut off and tend to work the edges of the main channel as they drop back. They especially like areas where surf is evident as it breaks over shallowing sandbanks on the seaward side.
For bass fishing a 1oz to 3oz, 11ft 6in bass rod is perfect, matched with a light 5000-sized fixed-spool such as the Penn Sargus or a similar Shimano reel. Line strength need be no more than 12lb to 15lb. Anglers fishing in rough weather and in estuaries where the tide run is fast, with maybe some floating weed and with big fish in mind, would choose a 2oz to 4oz bass rod, again 11ft 6in in length. This would be married to either a 6000-sized fixed-spool reel or a small multiplier such as an ABU 5500 or 6500C. Line strength would be 15lb, possibly up to 20lb if fishing in among snags. For any casting also add a shockleader; these should be 30lb for leads up to 3oz, and 40lb for leads up to 4oz. Always use a clear leader for daylight bassing because bass can shy away from bright colours.
As we’ve already seen, from late March through to June fresh peeler or soft crabs will be the magic bait for feeding bass in estuaries. However, from mid-May onwards, and especially from mid-June when the crab peel falls away, the bass will move on to a fresh-fish diet, targeting sandeels and smaller fish. Worm baits tend to catch the smaller fish. To bait with peeler crab, first fully peel a dead, but fresh, 50p-sized one, then cut the body in half. Push the two halves up onto the shank and bend of the hook, leaving only the hook point clear of the bait. Then bind the bait to the hook with some good tight turns of bait elastic. Big bass will hit big baits but baits above the size of a standard small matchbox will see your bite ratio reduced. Frozen sandeels make good estuary bait. Simply pass a long-shanked hook down through the mouth and out through the gill, then stitch it twice more in and out of the body to leave the hook point clear about halfway down. Add a few turns of bait elastic around the head for casting security. Later in the season and into autumn, a fillet of mackerel or bluey, or whole squid, soft crab or peeler crab, or bigworm baits, will take bass as they feed up for winter. Also good estuary bait, especially after an autumnal storm, is razorfish and mussel.
At the heads of smaller estuaries, look for areas where patches of boulders and shingle run up against clean sand. Bass will work the edges here because it’s where food washes up and becomes lodged in among the stones.