You and I live on an island with some of the best coastal paths in the world. We have access to the rich North sea, the Celtic sea, the Irish sea and the English channel. We have the gulf stream bringing us warm water straight from Mexico and a plethora of species that make sea fishing in the UK as unique as that of any tropical ocean. Read this guide, grab your tackle and get out there!
It’s hard to summarise sea fishing without patronising experienced anglers, or overwhelming the less experienced. Whether you’re new to sea fishing or your skin is so salt and wind damaged it’s peeled off completely, I hope you find some useful tips here!
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Photo Credit to Matilda Björklund
1. Go sea fishing at high tide at dusk or dawn – especially on big spring tides
Last summer, I invited my boss and his kids sea fishing in Cornwall. Covid meant I wasn’t able to take him, so I left him with three pieces of advice instead. This guide contains 23 tips, but if you only have time for three tips, let it be the first three.
Spring tides are generally when you catch the most fish because the water pushes in the bait fish and the larger fish follow. With a spring tide, the difference between high water and low water is greater than with a normal tide, but the time it takes to go in or out remains the same six hours. This means the flow of water is stronger. Big tides churn up the seabed, bringing up more food for bottom feeding species. To find out when there’s a big spring tide, use BBC Tides and look at the number in metres of the next high tide. If the number is much higher than is typical in that location, you know it’s a big tide. You will often find that when a spring tide coincides with dusk or dawn, the fishing is extraordinary.
2. Fish for what’s there
While you may have a particular species in mind for a fishing trip, it’s worth being prepared to switch your approach and target something else entirely if those fish aren’t biting. Often this happens with people targeting bass, mackerel or those bottom fishing. If there aren’t any bass about, why not try for ballan wrasse instead? If you’re using mackerel feathers and casting and retrieving for hours without results, perhaps you should try fishing on the bottom instead. I’ll admit, I typically don’t stick with one approach for more than 20 minutes if I haven’t caught a fish in that time. Others will prefer to persist and try to win through time investment. This isn’t a bad strategy for those willing to fish for 6-8 hours in a session, but that’s not going to work for a lot of people. Change things up when they aren’t working!
3. Use tackle that’s fit for purpose
There are broadly three different approaches to fishing.
- Bottom fishing / Legering: You can fish on the bottom on the seabed with a bait and wait for the fish to find the baited hook. Typically done using a long rod that can fling heavy weights to the horizon!
- Float fishing: You can use a float to suspend the bait somewhere in the water column so it’s off away from the bottom. Light fresh water gear is very satisfying to use for float fishing in the sea.
- Lure fishing / Spinning: You can cast out and retrieve a fish imitation known as a lure or spinner to deceive a fish into biting. Modern lure rods are often very light weight with a fast action and typically cast 60g max. They’re between 7-10ft. You need a longer rod for rock fishing over rough ground and a shorter one from harbours.
If you can only own two rods, I’d suggest a 9ft spinning rod that casts 28g (1oz) and a 12ft beach caster that casts 6oz. You can buy a generalist rod that is between 8-10ft and casts about 3oz, which is great for mackerel fishing with feathers, however it will make significant compromises in other areas.
4. Think about where the fish are feeding and keep your lure or bait there for as long as possible
Some days you’ll see people that catch 3x more than everyone else put together on a busy harbour wall. I was at a mark where one angler had been fishing all week and not caught a thing. Another was catching a fish every cast. The productive angler was figuring out where the fish were and keeping his lure in that area for as long as possible. I observed that he only got bites immediately after casting. The fish were hitting lures far out as they fell through the water column. Once you started retrieving, you were actually pulling the lure away from where they were feeding. So, after casting, you needed to allow your lure to sink where it was with a slack line all the way to the bottom, then retrieve for about 10 seconds. This was where the fish were striking. There was no point fishing anywhere else. After the first few seconds of fishing, he retrieved his lure back in again very quickly to cast once more where the fish were. Why waste time fishing anywhere else? That is how you catch an unreasonable quantity of fish!
5. Aim for a natural presentation of your bait or lure
Mackerel feathers are the most efficient way to catch mackerel in a feeding frenzy, but even these unfussy fish would rather hit a casting jig when they’re a bit more tentative. It’s a better imitation of a bait fish than a feather. When fish are feeling shy, huge lead weights do not help entice them. This means that you have to fish with a lighter rods and present lures with more finesse on those occasions. However, the light game angler will come up short if their goal is to catch as many fish as possible when the fish are ‘in’. Natural presentation and finesse matters most when fish are cautious and least when they are impulsive, in a feeding frenzy.
6. Use braid to increase your casting distance & reduce plastic pollution
It’s actually much more common for anglers to fish too far out than too close in. However, sometimes you do need the distance. In those cases, you benefit from using braid. After switching to braid, I never went back to mono or light flourocarbon. When the fish are further out and you need to be able to cast a reasonable distance to reach them, cheap monofilament line won’t allow you to cast as far. Braid is like string, in that it is made of lots of fibres wrapped together, which makes it very strong and very thin. Braid also has no stretch, which makes detecting bites much easier. Finally, braid breaks down over time, making it a better option for having a low impact on the sea.
7. Expect to catch fish
This may sound bizarre, but confidence does increase your luck with angling, because it makes you fish with a higher expectation of catching. When you give up hope of catching fish, you fish sloppily. Notice how when people start getting bites they suddenly start fishing faster and with intent focus – that’s what expectation of fish does!
When you’re expecting to catch fish, you think about the optimal depth to fish and about how to present your lures. This is proactive fishing, and you get rewarded for it! I admit however that I am a hypocrite here, as I do tend to fish very lazily and get sloppy in my approach, but I have seen that those that don’t do this do catch more.
Credit to Oban Jones
8. Try fishing down the side of the pier wall
Use a size 8 hook and weight with a little bait on the end and fish directly down the harbour or within 10m from the mark you’re fishing if the water gets deep immediately. Most people fish too far out and miss out on a lot of fish.
Bottom fishing in this way can be highly effective and is also good for introducing people to angling, including kids. Even just fishing a few metres out is a fantastic approach. Yes, other people on the harbour will think you’re doing it wrong, but don’t worry, there are often plenty of fish close in. Kids don’t need to be able to cast at all, you just need to tell them to keep the line tight and wait for bites. To do this, you’ll want a small baited hook and an appropriately weighted sinker for your rod. If you can’t tie a blood knot or another decent fishing knot, learn, as that will ruin your chances of landing anything substantial. Even experienced anglers sometimes have knots that fail, so any double granny-knots you tie are very likely to fail, especially if you hook a decent fish.
9. Know how tide affects the places you like to fish
I know anglers that fish for 12 hours in one session, and they tend to get very ‘lucky’ by fishing that way. That kind of commitment can yield incredible results. However, your chances of easy fishing are increased if you know what tides your local area fishes best on. From Mevagissey harbour in Cornwall, I find 2 hours after a huge spring tide is the best. If you don’t know the area, Facebook groups or the guides on this website are a good bet on finding out when to fish a particular spot. Otherwise you’ll need to know a local, or just go for trial and error! Most places fish best on a high spring tide that coincides with dusk or dawn. Different species do have different preferences, though.
10. If you’re lure fishing, use a light modern lure rod not an old fashioned rod
When lure fishing, I recommend using a modern lure rod so that you’re able to effectively cast smaller lures without using additional weights. This way, you can simply tie your line to the lure and you’re fishing! If you use old fashioned rod that casts over 2oz for lure fishing (like most rods in the tackle shops), you will be forced to use lures that some would argue are too large for most British fish species, or else use additional lead weights in order to be able to cast effectively. This creates more faff for you when setting up and makes it far harder to detect bites from fish. There are many reasons that modern lure fishing is worth giving a go (primarily: it’s extremely fun!), yet it hasn’t caught on fully in the UK. Perhaps it’s because many anglers prefer to use the kit they grew up using. Fishing and nostalgia go hand in hand…
For nearly all anglers, I’d recommend owning a spinning rod that casts less than 40g. You’ll also need to buy an appropriate reel for such a light rod and suitably light line to match.
11. Your line should feel smooth without bumps or signs of damage
Another example of lazy fishing costing you fish is continuing to fish with line that you know is damaged. Perhaps your flourocarbon leader has become rough to touch in areas, but you cast out anyway. Or maybe you can see whispy frays coming from your braid… You will most likely get away with this, but it’s a gamble. A decent fish will cut you off, perhaps at the last minute just as you see it emerge on the surface…
Don’t be lazy, tie on a new leader and upgrade your line!
12. Bring disgorgers so you don’t have to harm fish you plan to return
Most anglers these days want to preserve fish stocks. It helps if we return fish in good condition if we’re going to release them rather than eat them. Without a good pair of disgorgers and a bit of patience when unhooking fish, this is impossible, so every angler needs a pair! It’s also just convenient and it makes fishing more enjoyable when unhooking is easier. Just a pair like these will do the trick.
13. Always check the wind
Strong winds, tides and currents can result in tackle being dragged along the bottom, which can cause tangles in your terminal tackle when bottom fishing. For those using light weight lure set ups, wind may make casting impossible. Float fishing with an onshore wind is also out of the question. When light weight lure fishing, I will stay at home if the wind exceeds 12mph unless I’m fishing in a very sheltered spot, such as behind a headland that blocks the wind. I am a bit of a fair weather angler, mind. Check the wind speed and direction to make sure it’s on your side.
14. Use balanced tackle
When fishing, strain is applied to your tackle. This could be a fish fighting, your hook getting caught on the bottom, or simply strain from your weight as you cast it out. Your rod will absorb some of this pressure. Your reel, if adjusted correctly, will take out line when pressure reaches a certain level. If your rod is heavier, you are forced to use heavier lines or else your line will be prone to snapping. If your rod is lighter and your reel therefore smaller, you are forced to use lighter lines and lighter lures. If there is a mismatch in your tackle, things will go wrong on lots of different ways.
If your line is too heavy for your reel, the line won’t cast well at all and will get into birds nests. If your line is too light, the same will happen. You should match the strength of line to the size of reel you’re using. Also, investing more money in fishing line is a very good idea. Once you’ve fished with higher end line you will simply never be able to go back. Cheap braid and monofilament causes far more trouble and frustration than the money you save buying it.
The snapping of line is a common sound on harbours across the country, mostly because the rods people use are heavier than needed, the weights are heavier than needed and the line is forced to take a lot of the strain. With a lighter rod, you can use lighter lines without the risk of snapping off. With an ultra light rod, you can use 3lb line while sea fishing. For beginners, you will be using 15lb line with weights below 2oz. If you’re using weights of 3oz+ then 20lb is advised.
This is not just a mistake made by people new to fishing, on any given harbour there will be a few people whose tackle is mismatched. It’s very common to see people fishing with huge reels on light rods, for instance.
17. When float fishing, try using fresh water fishing gear
For float fishing, it’s common to use a light weight rod that casts less than 4oz and is close to 10ft in length. A carp rod would be ideal for most sea anglers when float fishing. This is because when you lift up your rod to tighten the line when it’s gone slack, a longer rod will be capable of removing that slack quickly so you can begin retrieving quickly once the fish has taken the bait. With a shorter rod, it would be tricky to tighten a slack line while float fishing, and you may miss fish if you aren’t able to strike and retrieve quickly once the float has gone under. You don’t need a heavy rod. You can land just about anything in the British sea on a carp rod, except perhaps a conger if it has bolted into it’s hole, or a blue fin tuna!
18. If you’re fishing from a beach, use a proper beach caster.
If you’re fishing mostly from beaches with bait you’ll be wanting a beach caster. If you fish shallow beaches or estuaries where the water gets deep slowly, you may want a continental style rod of 14ft so you can cast much further. A continental style rod is just a long beach caster with a fast action so it casts much further. This isn’t necessary for most people, since casting distance is rarely a limiting factor.
Each of these approaches requires different tackle. Broadly speaking, a rod for bottom fishing will be capable of casting heavy lead weights, at least 3oz but likely up to 8oz or more. This means the rod will not bend easily and will be less sensitive, you won’t feel all the bites of the fish. From a harbour wall, the rod needn’t be too long, since you won’t need to cast far to reach the fish, and may be able to fish directly down the harbour wall. From a beach, the rod will need to be at least 10ft so that you can cast a long distance and reach deeper water. If you’re fishing over rough ground, you’ll want a stiffer tip for pulling fish away from snags.
19. Have a rod especially for mackerel fishing with feathers and keep it separate from your other tackle
If you’re using mackerel feathers and want to be able to pull 4-5 mackerel up a harbour wall at once, then you’ll need a generalist rod. Many of the rods in tackle shops in the UK fall into this category. They cast about 3oz and are 8-10ft long.
20. Pay attention to water clarity
When the sea is clearer, the fish show a greater preference for coming inshore at night. When the sea is rougher and the water murkier, fish will come closer in during the day and species like conger and dogfish are more likely to be caught in the daytime. An onshore wind can push bait inshore, which the fish follow. Just like when fishing a lake, it’s generally better to fish with the wind in your face, because the fish will move in the direction of the wind. If clarity becomes too poor however, lure fishing can become tougher since fish have reduced visibility. It’s worth noting that some people fish very successfully for bass at night in murky conditions with black lures. So, your chances aren’t ruined if the water clarity is poor. Personally, my favourite conditions are clear water with a bit of summertime algae that adds a slight cloudiness to the water, to keep fish from being too cautious.
21. Explore new ground
How much of fishing is luck and how much is skill? I’d say that fishing is 60% local knowledge about locations and timings, 30% choosing the right tackle and approach and 10% luck! In fishing competitions, it’s striking to see that the same people often win year after year. In a competition I entered every year for a while, the rank order anglers finished in stayed strikingly consistent. This to me indicates that results and skill/experience are very closely correlated, contrary to popular belief amongst non-anglers, that believe fishing to be about luck over skill.
The fact is though, you get lucky more often when you know where to fish. It’s very hard to be successful with fishing if you don’t invest the time to figure out which places fish well at which times!
22. Know in your bones that the sea is deadly
Take precautions. Don’t fish from sketchy rock marks alone, bring a charged phone, check the weather and tides before you fish, tell someone where you’re going, don’t wear waders or wellies or you could sink if you fall in, you know the drill…
23. Know your sea fish species inside out
Part of the joy of fishing is appreciating the extraordinary array of your catches. There are always more species out there than you think, and even after decades of fishing you can expect the unexpected from the sea. Check out our species guides for more information on British fish species.