Rock Fishing with Lures
You’re sat, perching on a rock below a colony of cormorants. Each cast, dropping your lure into promising gullies, kelp forests and boulder fields. The goal is to tempt something out that’s lurking in the unknown.
You may be expecting pollack and catch a squid. You may be surprised by a fat bull seal, with a vibrant red wrasse hanging from its mouth. It’s not just the fishing that gets us clambering along the rocks, but the whole environment and all the unimaginable life that inhabits it and never fails to surprise.
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Patterns in the chaos
Rock fishing is about trying to discover patterns in the chaos of the sea. The best anglers look at the mass water and make predictions about what will be in it and how it will be behaving today – usually with an exaggerated sense of certainty. They can often tell what species a fish is from the first bite before it’s hooked.
Despite this, there’s always a lot of randomness, and we just have to control what we can. You need to have nailed the basic knots, understand a few different methods and when to use them, and crucially, you need the right tackle for the job.
Three methods for rock fishing with lures
A timeless classic…
Metal spinners like the dexter wedge and the more sleek modern casting jigs that have come after them still work and are fantastic for a wide range of species. They are of course far more prone to snagging over rough ground, but the jigs with smaller, single hooks are much better in this regard. The appeal of a metal is that you can whack the thing to the horizon and fish at your chosen depth easily, covering a lot of ground quickly and efficiently. This is great for rock fishing over clean or cleaner areas of ground but leads to a lot of snags over kelp and boulders.
Weedless soft plastics
Weedless hooks have been around for a long time, but the soft plastics you rig them with have become better suited to British fishing in the last decade. Most commonly, people used to use jelly eels in weedless rigs. These are long, wormlike rubbers with a short curly tail on the end. They work, particularly for pollack, but there are better options for other species. Many anglers prefer paddle tails (lures that swim more like a fish) or straight lures to curly tails in the UK, and I share this bias. Many of the more weird and wonderful lures in the UK have been borrowed from American freshwater bass fishing. They don’t always transfer well to British fish species.
The Fish Minnow (above) is by far the most popular weedless lure in the UK.
I’ve noticed that in the Mediterranean, brighter colours, faster more erratic lure movements and flamboyant lures seem to work very well. I think it’s to do with warmer water leading to faster metabolisms in fish, causing them to feed more aggressively with less need to conserve energy. I think this causes impulsive feeding – snapping at anything that moves and fits in their gob. This also explains the difference between winter and summer bass behaviour, which is completely different.
Another factor that makes bright lure colours and whacky designs more favourable (or at least neutral) is when fish are competing with one another for food, like when you’re fishing in a huge feeding frenzy. Competing fish will hit lures they would normally shy from. In the UK, particularly when the water is colder, I believe fish to generally be more conservative. They prefer slower-moving, less extravagant lures. God bless America but a lot of their lures aren’t like this.
So, when it comes to weedless rigs, I recommend naturally coloured paddle tails and straight tails rigged with a texas rig. There, we’re still friends with the Americans after all…
All you need for fishing weedless:
- Weedless hooks between size 8 – 1/0
- Paddle tail or straight tail soft plastics of the right size for the hooks
- A fluorocarbon line you can tie to your braid as a leader, or else just tie your monofilament line directly to the hook just after pushing on your cone weight.
This weedless rig is best fished by bouncing the lure along the bottom. Cast out, wait until the lure hits the kelp or rocks and then gently retrieve, aiming to keep the lure just above or on the sea bed.
A weedless lure is one with a special curved hook that is rigged on the soft plastic lure so that the hook point is concealed. When a fish bites, the hook point is revealed, but when bouncing your lure on or near the bottom, you’re going to lose a lot less tackle with weedless rigs.
Surface fishing with poppers
Surface lures like the Pachinko are good for bass on late-summer evenings in the UK. Other species will hit them too. This style of fishing is also great for avoiding snags since the lure floats well away from the weeds. It’s therefore possible to catch hundreds of fish on one lure until you eventually lose it, which saves you loads of money on lost lures in the long run. These poppers are typically fished in a ‘walk-the-dog’ style, which involves sharply moving your rod tip from left to right while very slowly retrieving, so that the lure zig-zags, thrashing about on the surface back to you. Often, you’ll see bass swim up to grab your lure just as you go to lift the popper from the water. I would strongly recommend switching the treble hooks from plugs like the Pachinko to reduce damage to fish, since most bass fishing is catch and release.
Rock Fishing Approaches & Tackle
Within fishing, there are hundreds of different approaches you can take and a million different lures to choose from. However, the real skill of fishing is removing the chance and making catching more predictable. That means narrowing down the approach to find what works.
Lost tackle is often significant, and I’d recommend using a braided line with a long and strong abrasion-resistant leader. The braid will not only allow you to cast further out, it will also mean lost tackle doesn’t create so much plastic pollution in the sea. Losing tackle is inevitable when fishing over rough ground since if you’re doing it right, you’ll be fishing right amongst the kelp and rocks, as that’s where many of the species will be.
When rock fishing, you may be better off with a longer rod. If there are any rocks between you and the water, you need a bit more length to pull fish up and over the rocks. It can also be helpful for getting greater distance into your cast if you aren’t fishing over the deepest water and the fish are further out. Some bass anglers use 10ft rods for spinning for this reason, though it’s only necessary on the most rugged stretches of coast, where it isn’t safe or possible to fish directly by the water.
It’s also wise to leave most of your tackle at home and travel light on the rocks, to save you the bother of carrying unnecessary kit while trying not to fall over…
A fishing headlamp is essential when sea fishing anywhere at night, otherwise you can’t see what you’re doing or where you’re stepping. For some species like bass, however, you need to make sure they never shine onto the water or you’ll spook the fish. Other species like squid and scad are strongly attracted to light.
Rock fishing rods
Broadly, you can split lure rods for rock fishing into two types: modern rods and traditional rods. Another way of putting it more bluntly is fancy specialist rods and mass-market rods. Outside the UK in America, the Mediterranean, Hong Kong, Japan – pretty much everywhere actually – what we think of in the UK as specialist lure rods are just considered normal. Shimano even releases special reels for the UK market that are cheaper and made from lower quality materials because they know that we Brits are still using rods that in other countries haven’t been used for a couple of decades.
People who like ‘spinning’ are often anglers that prefer a mixed approach, utilising both bait and lures in the same session. They prefer rods and reels that can cast a lead weight and hold the bottom, or a weighted float rig, as well as classic lures like the Dexter Wedge.
Anglers that use LRF, HRF and Bass Rods are usually committed to only fishing with lures on these setups and tend to spend more on their rods. These rods are significantly lighter with much faster actions. Many consider them to provide much more sport while playing fish since you can feel everything. These rods are also capable of casting light lures without additional weights and allow you to fish with a light braid so you can cast further without the need for the additional weight that compromises lure presentation.
The distinction is very hard for new anglers to make. For instance, this Penn reel is very nice and is 2500 size, which is very small, but it doesn’t fit on my HRF rod.
You would need to buy a modern higher-end reel to go with a higher-end rod. The same is true the other way. If you buy a modern reel and stick it on an old-school rod, it’s going to be a very odd set-up. The line lay is designed for a rod with larger eyelets, which modern rods don’t have. It would certainly never fit on an LRF rod.
Big-name angling brands will create low-cost ‘LRF’ rods and very small reels to go with them. These aren’t really LRF rods, they are just cheap light lure rods that are being marketed as specialist rods.
LRF Rods cast up to 10g and are generally between 7-8ft. The approach is based around finesse, allowing for lure presentations that are more subtle and allow many more fish species to be targeted than can be caught on standard lightweight lure gear. Light Rock Fishing originates from Japan where the tactics were developed to target smaller fish species, after overfishing of larger sport species. In particular, the Japanese enjoy using LRF for targeting ‘Agi’, which we know as Horse Mackerel or Scad, which they like to eat as sashimi.
I do not recommend targeting wrasse or bass with an LRF rod, because there is no added sport when catching reasonable-sized specimens, but significant increases in lost fish due to being taken into snags. You can’t stop a 3lb wrasse from bolting into the kelp with a rod that casts 7g if it wants to. However, for targeting pretty much everything else an LRF rod is ideal. The sad fact is, LRF is so successful in part because it doesn’t rely on the targeting of species that have been overfished. In my experience, LRF anglers typically outfish everybody else by several times over, because they are able to target everything when other species aren’t biting.
HRF refers to ‘hard rock fishing’. These rods cast up to 28g/1oz and are paired with size 2500 or 3000 reels. They are between 6-8ft. You’d need to check the full reel guide, as reel sizes vary by manufacturer. HRF techniques are deployed for the targeting of rockfish species around the world. They are designed for bouncing soft plastics over rough ground. In the UK, our rockfish species is the Ballan Wrasse. These fish smash into soft plastics and fight like hell, crash-diving into the kelp immediately after being hooked. Rock fishing with a HRF rod allows you to feel your lure as is bounces along the bottom. They are much more sensitive than traditional lure rods that might be 9ft and cast 2oz. With experience, you can tell what type of ground your lure is over, or even what type of seaweed you’re going over by the type of resistance you feel.
There is a lot of crossover between HRF rods and bass rods. Many people use the same rod for both purposes (that is, Wrasse and Bass fishing). However, dedicated bass rods are often a bit longer (8-10ft) and reels are often larger. A ‘heavy’ bass rod casts about 45g, which is the upper limit for a bass rod. A rod like that gives you a bit more grunt from the rod to cast against a prevailing wind, and more manoeuvrability to lift fish out of the surf. This is particularly useful on more rugged coastlines or windy conditions, where you need the power to whack a heavier bass lure out to sea.
A longer rod can be useful if you aren’t able to fish right on the water, such as if there’s white water on the rocks. In fair conditions and calm seas, you can fish very close in with lures with no problems.
Spinning & General Purpose rods
The word ‘spinning’ refers to the use of ‘spinners’, which are lures that are designed to spin in the water to attract fish. It’s often used by bait anglers to refer to any type of lure fishing, though it usually means fishing with more traditional tackle. This means using heavier rods that cast further and be used with heavier lines. This kind of tackle allows you to switch to bottom fishing with lead weights or pull 4 mackerel up a harbour wall with no problems. With the bass rods I mentioned above, you would struggle to lift 4 mackerel up a harbour wall comfortably. A spinning rod of 9ft+ that casts 2oz+ lets you do that. If you go to a harbour wall or rock mark anywhere in the UK, probably 90% of anglers will have a multi-purpose spinning rod that casts over 3oz.
With a rod like this, if you wanted to take your lure off and switch to bottom fishing at night for Bull Huss or Cod, you might be able to do that with the same rod. It’s for this reason – this pursuit of flexibility over sport – that people go for heavier spinning rods. That, and a dose of optimism for the size of fish they will be catching!
Rock fishing reels
These reels are 1000-2500 size and are tiny. They can only be used as part of a full LRF set-up.
Size 3000 reels are used for HRF fishing, though if you use a modern lure rod you will need a modern reel to go with it. It’s not straightforward getting the right reel. If you’re using a rod that cost over £60 and casts about 30g/1oz, then you will want to go for a Shimano or Daiwa reel to achieve proper line movement through the smaller, more focused eyelets on your rod. Penn reels for instance are nice mid-range reels associated with quality, but they are not designed for use on light modern rods.
Bass Fishing Reels
Size 4000 is generally best for bass fishing. On a lightweight bass fishing set-up (say, an 8ft rod that casts 20g), you might use a 3000 reel. On a powerful 10ft bass set up for the most rugged coasts, you may even use a 5000 size., but 4000 is usually better suited to bass fishing.
Spinning & General Purpose Reels
There are a few general-purpose spinning reels I can recommend that can be paired with heavier, more traditional rods. View the full ‘reels’ guide for more details. Full guide to the best spinning reels here.
Rock fishing lines
Monofilament line used to be what everyone in the UK used, but then braid came along and changed the game, having certain advantages that left mono largely in the dust. Under a microscope, the braid looks like an interwoven chain of lots of even thinner lines. Braided lines are much more expensive than mono, and although you might imagine they are all similar across the price range this could not be further from the truth.
Cheaper braids that cost about £15-20 are stiff, rigid, and thick relative to their strength. The main way to spot a good braid is to look at the PE rating compared to the strength, which is how thick the line is. A nice braid is thin relative to its strength. After this factor, you can consider how many strands it has. Higher strands are generally better.
For wrasse fishing, I prefer to use a cheaper braid because cheaper can mean the line is more abrasion-resistant because it’s less fine. Powerpro for instance is great for Wrassing.
For LRF fishing sadly I cannot recommend any braid under £20. Once you’ve used £50 braid you won’t ever be able to go back, it changes everything and can actually last a long time. Don’t forget, you’re fishing with a lighter leader, so you probably won’t ever lose all your line, you’ll just have to replace it when it gets old and tattered.
Lines need to be considerably stronger when fishing over rough ground from rock marks. When lure fishing, 20lb braid becomes standard.
It’s essential that your fluorocarbon leader is lighter than your braid.
Best Braids for Rock Fishing
Rock fishing lures
There is a full guide to lures here, so I won’t go into much detail here.
However my experience is that paddle tail soft plastics and hard lures are best over clean ground, and weedless rigs are best used over rough ground (with straight or paddle tails usually working better for me than curly tails, especially for bass).
The Fiiish Minnow provides the best of both with a paddle tail that’s rigged weedless with a heavy enough metal head to be cast with ease. Although expensive, you lose far fewer of these lures than you do equivalent soft plastics that are not weedless. Hard metals are very easily lost when fished over rough ground.
Retrieval & Lure Presentation
A common way that a lot of people fail to catch fish is by casting out and immediately retrieving at a set speed and doing this for an entire session without changing the depth their lure is at. Often, those using heavier gear (with large reels) will unwittingly keep their lure far too high up in the water to have the best chance of fish.
On a day when the fish are lower down, you may never put your lure in front of them. Once you’ve figured out where the fish are feeding, you just repeat what’s working and reap the rewards. This is why it pays to pay attention to the depths other anglers are fishing at to try to get a gauge on where the fish are on a given day.
The main ways to retrieve a lure include
Zig zag pattern
Letting it reach the bottom, retrieving steadily for a while and then allowing the lure to sink back down again. Fish will often hit as the lure falls.
Fishing high in the water
Casting and retrieving quickly so that the lure stays high up in the water. This is necessary if fishing without a weedless hook over shallow rough ground.
Intuitively fishing the right depth!
Casting and retrieving steadily after roughly counting down or relying on intuition to know that the lure is at the depth you want it (which comes with experience).
What most lure anglers do
With each of these approaches, you can of course twitch the lure to make it dance too. A lot of lure anglers end up doing some kind of steady retrieve with a slight sink and draw (pull the rod to speed up the lure for a few moments, but not so much that it creates any slack line as you move the rod back to its original position). New anglers may imitate this – especially when bringing a fish in – but create slack in the line each time they move the rod back, which can lead to fish getting free of the hook. It’s an easy mistake to make that I made for years! The idea that fish like a special kind of lure action is more appealing to many anglers than the dull truth that often less is more. In fact, many species love lures that aren’t even moving. You can fish with lures like you’re bait fishing and still catch fish… The key is experimentation, but I prefer to veer towards conservative levels of lure twitching most of the time unless I notice the fish are only responding to more aggressive action.
Rock fishing rigs
Since most of the fish live amongst the kelp, when lure fishing you’re best off using cone weights and weedless hooks and getting a soft plastic lure right into the kelp. The texas rig is best for lure fishing over rocky or weedy ground. You can then slowly retrieve, or even bounce your lure along the bottom, to draw attention from fish. You will catch a lot of Ballan Wrasse if you take this approach.
When lure fishing, the way you fish will be determined by the ground you are fishing over and the lure you’re using.
To a degree, this has been done so well with sea fishing that most of us use the same rigs and lures over and over again because we know they work. For instance, the Fiiish Minnow is a lure that solves a lot of problems and makes fishing almost effortlessly easy. It has a paddle tail that you can feel wag as you retrieve it. It’s weedless so you can cast it into gullies for Wrasse in the kelp or fish just a few inches below the surface for bass hunting in the shallows. There’s no fumbling about with cone weights, or switching back to a hard lure so you can cast further. It’s versatile and it manages to avoid a lot of the trade-offs with performance that others lures have to make. In life it’s nice to have some things that simply work. This Fiiish Minnow is so effective that it makes its users, like myself, suck at fishing because we can’t be bothered to fish with much else! So, if you don’t want to suck at fishing don’t buy yourself one, but if you want an easy life…
Exploring Rock Fishing Marks
A huge part of rock fishing is about exploring new areas of coastline looking for the best rock marks, and trying to predict what, when, where and how you ought to fish. To find the best marks you need to be willing to try your hand at coastal exploration with Google Maps and you need to know your local coastal paths. For rough guides (which should not be used as a primary source, for safety reasons) – check out our guides to fishing in Cornwall, Devon, East Scotland and West Scotland.
If you seek out your own marks, it may be that nobody has fished with lures in the area for months or years. This is as close to paradise as sea fishing gets.
Fishing from rocks offers the opportunity to explore marks that aren’t fished much – if at all – by other anglers. The best fishing ground in the country is probably a rock mark somewhere that nobody has bothered to fish! To find these places, you need a good pair of shoes to explore the coast and Google Maps to look for promising spots. Needless to say, rock fishing is a dangerous business. You need a buddy for most marks!
For this reason, fishing from rocks places demands on the angler that other places don’t. You’re forced to pack light, fish proactively and explore more ground to find the best spots. If you’re new to fishing don’t let this put you off. Rock fishing can be as easy as wandering down to the far end of a beach, walking over rocks for 2 minutes and casting out.
Rocky outcrops from beaches can be excellent for both bass fishing and bottom fishing as it can allow you to get out past the breakers and fish directly into deeper water. While you can catch all the same species from the rocks as you might from a pier or jetty, rock marks tend to produce a lot more pollack and wrasse.
Use Google Maps
There’s nothing more satisfying in all of angling than discovering a rich rock mark that only you, or you and a small handful of others know. These spots are only reachable if you have exceptional mobility and can be dangerous, particularly to fish alone. The only real way to find these spots is to walk along the coastal path and basically look for ways to get down the cliff. I’m not recommending anyone does this, just saying what a lot of anglers do to find good marks. For instance, if there’s an estuary near you that you know fishes well, you might wander the coast path, look out of any little paths that lead off towards the sea, and then follow them with a buddy. The harder the place is to get to or find, the fewer people will fish there, and the more likely it is to be a good spot.
You need to know the tide times so you don’t get in trouble of course, but the tide also will determine the quality of the fishing wherever you go by the sea. Different places fish well at different tides, but usually, the best fishing is the hour before and after high tide. Bigger tides are also often better. Some marks work well at low tide. These are less common and more precious for that reason!
Safety and the weather
I’ll be honest and tell you I’m a fair-weather angler and unless there’s a competition on won’t fish in poor conditions. Lure fishing from the rocks is best done in low wind and clearer water is better than muddy brown, so fair weather tends to be better. This is particularly true of Wrasse, that love calm conditions.
For bass fishing, they feed on the fry that gets lost in the churn, so that’s where you will catch the most fish. Areas of white water and places with lots of water movement. Bass fishing can be a dangerous business for anyone and people do get in serious trouble or die. It’s a thrill to be in such a chaotic, animated environment and see these silver predators feeding just beyond the waves, and you’ve got to take your own precautions to do it safely.
Whether you’re a serious bass angler or an amateur starting out, it’s a good idea to buy a life jacket.
Rock marks can be treacherous with slippery slime-coated rocks, huge drop-offs into frothing water and tides that can sneak up on you and leave you trapped…
UK Rock Fishing Species
Marine environments around rocky coasts are incredibly abundant compared to the open sea. Bass, wrasse and a huge number of other species thrive over the broken ground. The various seaweeds that latch themselves onto rocks provide the foundations for a habitat with extraordinary biodiversity. The most common and popular species to target from the rocks include bass, pollack, conger, bull huss and wrasse. With lures, the fishing generally revolves around bass, wrasse and pollack. You can of course also target mackerel, garfish and other pelagic species, though they are no more likely to be found at a rock mark than in the open sea.
Since many larger species of fish love underwater structures like wrecks, boulder fields etc, you will find that larger species you wouldn’t catch from a harbour wall will sometimes come close in to shore at certain deep water rock marks. It’s not uncommon to see larger sharks, big conger and larger coalfish and pollack caught from rock marks in the UK.
When lure fishing at a rock mark, much like when lure fishing a harbour wall the first place I’ll cast is directly across the coast, so that I’m fishing right up against the rocks themselves. A lot of fish, especially wrasse, will hug the very rocks you’re fishing from. On a clear day, you can sight fish by your feet for 5lb wrasse.
General Rock Fishing Advice
The main factors that will determine your success in rock fishing are whether there are a good number of fish in the area you’re fishing. Bass populations vary by year and the time of year they appear inshore and leave isn’t exactly regular. The only way to get a feel for what’s about is to go fishing every week on the same coast or else speak to other anglers and keep an eye on Facebook groups in your area.
Once you know how to cast and retrieve without slack line, set your drag properly, tie a decent knot and use a decent leader and lure, it’s mostly going to come down to location choice and timing. If you fish a lot I’m sure you have your own spots where you know exactly where to cast to have a good chance at catching a particular species.
I’ll leave you with a few some mistakes to avoid…
- Fishing with mackerel feathers over rough ground, so you limit the species you’re likely to catch and lose tackle to snags all the time.
- Using a rod that’s too heavy, so you aren’t able to easily detect where the bottom is and spend the whole session in snags.
- Using thick monofilament line that tangles easily and makes it impossible to fish with lighter lures
- Using lures with hooks that are too large even when you aren’t having any luck catching bass or larger pollack
- Fishing with weights over 1oz/28g, so that your lure falls quickly into the kelp and you are forced to retrieve quickly to keep it up. This prevents you from trying other retrieval styles. (this is less relevant at very deep water marks).
- If you are using a cheaper or more old-school fishing kit, your best bet is to float fish rather than fish with lures, or else stick with mackerel feathers but seek out areas of sandy ground to avoid snags.