Getting reeled in - hook, line and sinker

SO YOU WANT TO... GO SEA FISHING
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The Independent Online
You must be crackers. Those rapacious Spanish, French and Dutch have already trawled up anything with fins. All that's left is too small for their secret micromesh nets or so tiny that it never ventures outside a rock-pool. Still, sea fishing has a lot going for it, even if there's very little to catch. For example:

a) It's extremely healthy. (You want fresh air? Try Dorset's Chesil Beach in a force eight.)

b) It suits everyone. If you like company, fish on a pier with hundreds of other idiots. If you want solitude, try a night session on a Cornish beach in winter.

c) It's free or very cheap in most cases.

d) Not catching something gives you wide scope for creative excuses and may prove useful in other aspects of life.

e) Your catch will be edible (unlike freshwater fish, which taste like a dead dog boiled for two hours in polluted water).

Sea angling has three distinct branches, and each demands special tackle. Boat fishing involves hiring an ancient trawler for the day, generally with friends because of cost. The skipper anchors several miles out and tells you: "This is a good spot." It is identical to the rest of the sea and generally proves to be so: that is, you don't catch anything except dogfish and mackerel. You need a heavy rod and reel to cope with tides. Winding in a 1lb weight from 300ft is often more exciting than catching fish. The downside is that you can't get off if you get bored. There is also seasickness. This is like being dead, only worse. Amenities: countless cups of tea in cracked mugs.

Pier fishing is perfect for poor sailors and those who like the prospect of travelling on Japanese commuter trains at rush hour. Expect at least 20 people to tangle with your line during a day. In summer, piers are better for meeting people than any singles club. Don't worry if the pier starts to creak beneath you. You probably have several minutes before the Victorian heap collapses into the sea. Catches are usually mackerel or dogfish. Any old rod and reel will do, but avoid bright orange handlines if you want to be taken seriously. Amenities: Good. Amusement arcades are generally far livelier than the fishing. Food is fine for those keen on chips and doughnuts.

Beach fishing demands preparation, especially if you go somewhere like Southend. Your chances of catching fish are considerably reduced when the water is a mile from your bait. It is free, but you are unlikely to catch even mackerel or dogfish as the fish live far beyond casting range. Amenities: Poor, unless you collect plastic bottles and odd-shaped pieces of wood.

There is one other variety: big-game fishing. This is the quest for fish bigger than you. Unwise unless you are very fit. Generally done in exotic locations such as the Great Barrier Reef, Hawaii and the Bahamas. Hiring a boat costs more than the rest of the holiday added together. Certain fish (mako, great white shark, marlin) may attack the boat. Amenities: Excellent, but not worth the risk.

Anyone can go sea fishing. There are no qualification standards. All you need is a rod, reel, line, weights, hooks and bait. There are thousands of accessories, but these are designed to keep tackle shops in business rather than to catch fish. You don't need electric gumboot driers or a special hypodermic needle to inject your bait with concentrated pilchard oil. Sea fishing is simple: it's only anglers who make it difficult.

In many ways, the sport is ideal for women. In fact, they are probably better at it than men if you believe the theory that female pheromones attract fish. It involves minimal physical effort (I fished one sea competition where a six-year-old finished third) and casting (getting the bait into the sea) takes only a few minutes to learn. Then again, it's smelly, messy and unglamorous unless you go big-game fishing. And the clothing. If you're at all fashion-conscious, don't take up the sport until Versace designs a tight-fitting, waterproof one-piece with a draw-string hood, quilted lining, and large pockets to hold hooks, with a selection of colours that is not limited to fluorescent orange.

Tackling the tackle

Tackle shops make Aladdin's cave look like the last day of a remnant sale. One American catalogue lists more than 300 pages of items. Get advice from a shop where the tackle dealer goes sea fishing rather than one run by schoolkids while the shop owner is out doing a proper job. Those on the coast are best. Avoid shops that also sell paraffin, goldfish and tins of beans, and those that don't offer fresh bait. The basic rule is: short rods for boats, medium rods for piers, long rods for beaches. Expect to pay about pounds 40, with another pounds 20 for a basic reel. Add pounds 15 for accessories (line, weights, hooks).

Pulling the legs off crabs

Bit gory, this bit. The best summer bait is shore crab, at the stage where it is about to change its shell (a peeler). Remove the hard shell to reveal the soft new crab - and stick it on a hook. If you're at all squeamish, try worms. Ragworms are red with yellow legs and have nippers in their head; lugworms look like a very thin, deflated condom. Effective but equally unpleasant. Fish baits (mackerel or herring) or squid are the only worthwhile alternatives. In desperation, use cockles, whelks or winkles. You won't catch anything but they are cheap.

Time and plaice

Well over 100 species are regularly caught around the UK coast. The most common species are dogfish (once sold as rock salmon), which will eat anything, even cockles, whelks and winkles, and mackerel, which will even take a bare hook. The best times, depending on location, are winter for cod, whiting and dogfish; summer for flatfish, bass, conger and mackerel. Play golf in spring and autumn.

Fishing with sharks

Holidaymakers, whether here or abroad, will be beguiled by quayside boats offering fishing with all tackle supplied. Don't be tempted if they are surrounded by pictures of huge catches (this is the equivalent of those glamorous women who decorate the outside of strip clubs) or if the tackle is bright orange handlines. Abroad (especially at Spanish ports), keep away from those offering all the wine you can drink free. You have more chance of catching dysentery than a fish. Take the advice of a local fishing shop rather than a quayside pirate.

One for the wall

Yes, there are a lot of sharks around our coast. Some of them are even in the sea. But Cornwall is not the place to go. Try North Devon, the Isle of Wight or Scotland if you want to catch a shark. A better bet is tope, a shark-like fish that grows to about 80lb. The Essex coast and Wales are very good. There are other big fish. Conger eels grow to more than 100lb (Devon and Cornish ports are best) while north-east Scotland produces giant skate averaging 120lb. For real giants, go somewhere warm. Exotic locations like the Great Barrier Reef, Mauritius, California and Kenya are favourites for whoppers. Unlikely but good spots include the Algarve, Gran Canaria, the Azores and Madeira.

Cooking your catch

Scale and gut the fish. Dip in batter and fry. Add loads of chips.

Come on, you're spinning a line

Vic Sampson, of Dulwich, south London, is the world's most successful great white shark fisherman. He has caught them to 2,500lb. Greater weevers and lesser weevers, common off the south coast, have poisonous dorsal fins. Several anglers have now cast a 5oz lead more than 900ft. The largest fish caught off our coast on rod and line was an 851lb tunny from Whitby in 1933. Its captor, L. Mitchell Henry, used to practise by pulling his car out of his garage by rod and line. The record fish committee now has a separate list of mini-records for sea fish that weigh less than 1lb.

Keith Elliott is a former national sea fishing champion.

How to grab the bait and get hooked

Organisations

The National Federation of Sea Anglers: 14 Bank Street, Newton Abbot, Devon TQ12 2JW. Telephone 01626 331330.

Sportfishing Club of the British Isles: 24 Meadowside, Walton-on-Thames, Surrey KT12 3LS. Telephone 01932 222127.

Shark Angling Club of GB: The Quay, East Looe, Cornwall. Telephone 01503 262642.

Publications

Sea Angler (monthly, pounds 2.10) is the best related magazine.

The road to Southend Pier

By car: Approximately 35 miles from central London. M25-A13 or M25-A127.

By coach: National Express coaches leave London Victoria for Southend on the half hour every hour Monday- Saturday (occasional service, Sundays). Journey time - 2 hours 20 minutes. Day return price - pounds 5.20.

By rail: Trains leave from London Liverpool Street three times an hour. Journey time - 55 or 66 minutes. Off-peak day return - pounds 8.40; and London Fenchurch Street four times an hour. Journey time - 50 or 55 minutes. Off-peak day return - pounds 8.80.

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