Variety is the spice of life & Dipper sets forth to embrace the idea

Casts in the fading light

One might consider a rod more suited to trout an odd and limiting choice for coastal fishing but the vast nature of the ocean can soon be made to feel much smaller once it is broken down into features.

Variety is the spice of life so the saying goes it’s just one of many similar sayings that apply to a number of aspects of life, as well as angling of course, and after spending most of my spare time this summer sitting peacefully beside a quiet and still old estate lake it was only natural that a rod was secretly stowed away in the car on a recent coastal break. 

Now, I would class myself as an all round angler, someone who has spent time dabbling in all branches of our fair sport – hobby, pastime, obsession. Whatever you wish to call it. Quite some time ago I had a period of a few years where I was mainly sea fishing, close to home in the Bristol Channel, and while on occasion I still make a trip to scratch the itch, the brutal nature of the tackle and methods needed to extract a fish from such a harsh environment can lack a little subtlety and feel. So on this trip to the coast I decided to ignore convention and take an old fly rod with me, just the rod, reel and a couple of fly boxes thrown in a bag, this way I could wander to my hearts content, fishing as much or as little as I wanted. 

One might consider my choice of rod an odd and limiting one for coastal fishing but the vast nature of the ocean can soon be made to feel much smaller once it is broken down into features. Quiet bays, rocky ledges, inlets and tidal creeks can feel as intimate as any pond or river, and rather than the fly rod be a hindrance it can provide just the quiet presentation needed to tempt what are as wild a fish as you’ll ever come by.

Minimal but appropriate tackle for quiet presentation

Luckily I’ve known this corner of the south west since childhood so it only takes a quick look at a tide table and maybe a glance at the leaves on a tree and I’ll know exactly where I should head, due to the shape of the landscape there is always somewhere sheltered from even the harshest of blows meaning there is always somewhere fishable.

The tides that coincided with this trip were of the larger spring variety, which straight away brought one or two special places to mind. The first was a tiny little beach made up of marble sized pebbles, perhaps only thirty yards long in its entirety, it nestles between a large finger of rock that points seaward and a huge reef made up of granite and boulders covered in bladderwrack and barnacles. 

During summer storms the relentless pounding of waves throws all manner of seaweeds up on this arc of pebbles, this seaweed then gets left on the beach until the next set of bigger spring tides whereupon it gets washed back into the sea, along with the larvae of sand flies that have laid their eggs in amongst it while it was high and dry. This brings mullet close in and queuing up to mop the tasty little treats as they float out to sea on the surface, especially if it’s happening as the light fades in the evening. 

This was the case when I finally managed to get out to wet a line, and as I climbed down off the coast path along the finger of rock I could see there was already a good number of mullet patrolling the waters edge. I stayed perched on the rock while I put up the rod, watching as more fish joined the buffet, before long there must have been at least twenty mouths cruising along the surface for the sand fly grubs, extremely exciting and intense enough to make the hands tremble as a fly was tied to the light leader. The pattern I chose from the box of home tied concoctions was a small curved grub tied with a foam back to hopefully keep it in the surface film amongst the naturals I was hoping to imitate.

Keeping a low profile and creeping down off the rock and onto the pebbles I inched closer to where most of the fish seemed to be congregating, I kept maybe fifteen yards away, put my bag down and knelt where the water lapped the pebbles. Pulling some line out I flicked the fly into the melee, one fish spooked and left the group while the others just carried on nosing the surface. Rather than retrieving the fly I just kept in touch with it, trying my best to keep it in the area of the most activity, sometimes it drifted out and beyond the fish and other times it caught up on the floating weed whereupon a successful retrieval was sometimes in question! 

The dining lasted for an hour and after countless casts and fly changes I still failed to make contact with a fish, by this time the water had dropped down the pebbles and the weed was once again out of reach for another twelve hours until the next high tide. It was almost dark now and although most of the mullet had left I could just make out the splashy rises of other fish a little further out, I replaced the grub pattern with one that resembled a marine woodlouse, these often propel themselves around in the edge attracted to the same beached weed as the mullet and the aggressive rises suggested food being pounced on rather than helplessly mopped up. 

A few false casts later the fly plopped into place and I began to ‘figure of eight’ a jerky retrieve, the tasty looking imitation hadn’t travelled more than a foot before there was a swirl and the old rod hopped over, remembering the light leader I let the fish take a run into open water before gaining line on what was obviously a modest sized bass. I leant forward and plucked him from the waters edge, immediately he flared his gill cover and inflated himself with attitude, a lovely fish barely two pounds in weight, freshly minted and picture perfect in every way, as all fish tend to be from the sea, after a moments admiration he shot off to no doubt gorge on some more woodlouse, or perhaps he’d change to sandeels now? 

Time to head back for a late, fishless supper. The following evening I was back at the pebbles edge, as were the mullet and once again I failed to fool one, so a day later I took to the deep water of the headlands at low tide, in hope of finding some sport. 

On some of the fresh waters I fish it can sometimes be necessary to arrive at first light or even earlier to be the first in a particular spot, thankfully this is rarely the case on some of my favourite spots on the coast, although I guess it doesn’t hurt when it’s at the base of a two hundred foot cliff! 

After a half hour mid morning yomp along the coast path a ninety degree turn to the right had me leaning back as I made my way down the steep sheep track, through the long grass and gorse until my boots clomped onto slabs of granite adorned with pale green and yellow lichen. A quick look over the edge and down into the deep water of the rocky bay had the imagination fired up before I carefully climbed down onto the grip of the newly exposed barnacles, I dropped the bag off my shoulder and put it down carefully (it contained lunch), then set about putting up the rod. 

The floating line I had used the previous evening whilst trying and failing to tempt a mullet was swapped for a sinking one, and the fly I plucked from the box was a simple and flashy small Sandeel looking affair. I fished from the left hand side of this bay which juts out from the cliff leaving a perfectly straight edge, it drops into between ten and twenty feet of water depending on the size and state of tide, the bay itself is filled with heavy kelp but along this edge there is a clear sandy run, perfect for running a lure or fly along, standing on the edge and looking down into the depths it appears to be a uniform vertical wall of rock down to the sea bed, but having swam along it I can tell you it’s massively undercut, a perfect safe haven for fish. 

Standing on the edge I swished the rod back and forth and worked out a little line, casting the fly along and close to the rock, I shook out a little more line as the fly and line began to sink out of sight and after counting the line down began to strip the fly back, soon the line and fly came into view, it seemed to be working nicely so on the next cast I counted a little longer as it fell down into the darker water, as I started to retrieve the fly it became hooked up, I pulled the line tight and it came free, a little soft weed on the point of the fly was the culprit. 

I repeated the cast and retrieve half a dozen times before a seal popped up beside me, not fifteen yards out and looking straight at me like some kind of Labrador of the sea, only it probably weighed 500 or so pounds! It did occur to me that this could be the reason behind my lack of sport, after all to see such a creature swim is to witness a true master of its environment.

A fin footed wonder

I put the rod down and watched as the fin footed wonder skirted the bay, bobbing up every few seconds to keep an eye on me, I grabbed the camera and fired off a shot or two before he eventually moved out of the bay and headed further round the coast, there’s a nice inaccessible beach not too far away, perhaps he was looking to haul out on the sand for a midday siesta? 

A few more casts and it was just about low tide, there was next to no movement in the sea so it felt a good time to stop for lunch. I reached inside the bag for the precious cargo, a pasty, but not just any pasty, this pasty came from a newly opened local bakery and while I have been a fan of a certain named maker of savoury treats in the past this new pasty boudoir beats them hands down, they even put poppy seeds on the top!

A proper pasty

Long after the Cornish cuisine had been washed down with a flask of tea and all rock pools had been inspected it was time to pick the rod up again, hopefully the first push of the flood tide (and lack of seal) would find any fish on the hunt for a meal of their own. Out went the fly, dangerously close to the rock this time, I began the retrieve, felt a tap, and while the sinking fly line softens the sensation of a bite there was no mistaking that the fly had been grabbed when the rod bent round! 

Holding the rod tight and out away from the edge to stop the fish finding sanctuary I began to make line until the fish was in open water, an orangey flash gave away its identity as I bent down and eased it to the surface, I slid it across some wet kelp and into a rockpool for safe keeping. A Pollack, not huge but huge sport on the light fly rod, and every bit as pretty as a wild brown trout, from the darkest brown to an antique amber with hints of mauve, copper and gold, a creature of the kelp, with a huge eye for low light and powerful oversized fins for combating current and prey.

Pollack, a huge eye for low light

I slipped it back and watched as it cruised vertically back down to its ambush point, to be honest I was satisfied but had another hour before I had to be back so I made a few more casts and tempted two more, both of similar size with the last being a wonderfully strong burnt orange colouration, as vivid a fish as I’ve ever seen and terrific way to end my day.

A wonderfully strong burnt orange

I packed the rod away and started the climb back up the rocks, the rising tide now meant there was less barnacles before I got to the slabs, as I wound my way through the yellow gorse I wondered when I would be able to fish here again, sadly we were heading home the following day, halfway back up to the coast path I turned round to take a last look(and catch my breath), over by the rocks on the right hand side the seal made his way back into the bay, he looked over to where I was stood earlier then spotted my silhouette further up the cliff, he bobbed for a second as if to say see you next year then submerged and disappeared into the kelp, I hope he saves me few. . .

Writing & Images Dipper – Cornwall, Summer 2021