A Touch of Gold

This story first appeared in the June 2018 issue of Black Tide magazine.

In the last few years, there’s been a big increase in interest in gilthead bream as their range expands to new areas of the UK. It’s not hard to understand the appeal. Fishing for gilts promises thrills a plenty, clutch searing battles and a fantastic eating fish as the end reward. As an added bonus, bream fishing also has tactical appeal, being that the species is a comparatively recent addition to our shore fishing diet and there isn’t yet an established playbook on angling for them in the UK and Ireland. If there is one scenario that seems to be synonymous with gilt fishing, however, it is the image of rows of hopefuls lining the shores of estuary hot spots all hoping for the next run. Certainly, here in Cornwall where the estuaries of the Fal, Helford and Hayle have strong reputations for glory past and present, a visit to a popular spot on a weekend morning can see the banks crammed with anglers if the word is out that the bream are on. 

Personally, I’ve tended to do the bulk of my bream fishing in a different environment entirely. Most Cornish anglers are aware that giltheads can be caught from rock marks along the open shore around the county, but not that many seem to seriously try for them and enjoy consistent success. I was fortunate in that, some years back, I had a chance conversation with a prominent local angler who gave me some pointers on the ‘how to’ of open coast bream fishing. He’d been fishing for them for a number of years by this point and it says much for his intuitive understanding of the species that a good deal of what he told me still lies in the foundation of my approach to this day. I was lucky to have such a head start as it definitely helped me to hit the ground running and enjoy success from the off. What I found was that I almost always had my local marks (basically the area between Newquay and Padstow) all to myself and the vibe of the fishing suited me a lot more than the estuary game. The combination of the roaring surf, the cries of gulls overhead and the scream of the baitrunner was a totally intoxicating mixture. The fish may not show to the heavyweight proportions that are sometimes encountered in the estuaries, but the real strength of open coast bream is the high average size with most fish being in the 3-5lbs class and fit as fiddles to boot.

Having done a lot of open coast bream fishing over the last five years or so, I’ve found that success is mostly dependent on a handful of variables. The first is sea conditions. The bream in my area seem to feed most aggressively in a light to moderate surf – the sort of water that lure fanatics would refer to as having ‘fizz’. I always feel happiest when there is a bit of windswell (definitely preferable to a groundswell) and some colour in the water. The second variable is light, or rather lack of it. It is well known that giltheads possess excellent vision and this explains why (taking into account their suspicious nature) results are poor in gin clear conditions and blazing sunshine. When visibility is good the fish can see that something is amiss, whereas in low light the angler’s deception is less obvious. Some of the spots I frequent fish better in the early morning, whereas others seem to be more productive in the evening and even into darkness. The third variable is water depth. I seem to get most of my takes in water that is somewhere between six and ten feet deep. I don’t think the size of the tide is such an important factor in this, what is more important is how the state of the tide affects the depth of the water and whether that coincides with a favourable time in the day.

Another really crucial element for success in open coast gilthead fishing is where you position your baits. The gilts in my area (and presumably further afield) are very much creatures of habit and will follow established patrol routes that invariably take them tight to structure. Features such as fully or partially submerged rocks are magnets for the feeding bream. If these rocks are encrusted with mussels then this is even better. These crunchy morsels will hold the fish for some time as they stop to wrest them from the rocks before moving on. Casting tight to these sorts of spots has been a winning tactic for me. I do lose some gear here and there but then I know I’m fishing close enough to intercept a marauding gilthead. Simplest of all are the spots where the best feature is the one you’re actually stood on. Then it’s simply a case of dropping the bait in and setting the freespool tension with great care.

Many of the better rock marks for targeting gilts in my area need to be approached with caution. If there isn’t a dizzying climb involved and the cast iron promise of the rocks turning into an ice rink at the first hint of moisture, there will be other threats such as the risk of falling boulders and the chance of being cut off by the advancing tide. Familiarity and a keen eye on the weather forecast are the first precautions against these hazards, and ropes and spiked boots are essential to making access as safe as possible. Even with the benefit of experience and the correct kit, it is still likely that regular anglers will be caught in unpleasant situations from time to time. It’s rare to meet an angler who has spent much time fishing my home stretch of coast without a harrowing near death tale of some sort to tell.

It’s hard to talk about gilthead marks and not subconsciously flashback to 2014, when one of my friends happened upon a spot that has become indelibly etched into my fishing memory. The unusually harsh winter storms had scoured out a sandy bay, deepening it by at least six feet and exposing a lot of the underlying rock. This was undoubtedly the most consistently productive open coast bream mark I have yet fished and produced many good fish for me throughout the spring and early summer, including my best gilt to date of just over 6lbs. The next year the bay had filled in with sand again and the fishing was nothing like the same, although people do still fish it and it does still produce. My attention moved elsewhere and I began exploring for hidden nooks and crannies, hoping to find the next great bream mark. Finding and fishing these new places and figuring them out is where a lot of my enjoyment has been over the last few years.

Fast forward four years. I am stood a good height off the sea on a rocky plateau surrounded by turbulent white water, trying to pinpoint where the rocks are in the maelstrom before me. This is not one of my more favoured marks but it has recently produced a few fish for my friend Roy Moore (coincidentally, the same friend who found THE mark back then) and I figure on capitalising on this knowledge. Even with my heaviest lead, a 4oz pyramid, my first lob is quickly towed into a snag and I am forced to break the line and rethink where I’m casting. The next lob finds a clearish spot and I manage to sort both rods out, choosing to drop the second one only a rod length or two out where there is a sandy patch between two submerged rocks. This close in bait (a chunk of peeler crab) is set upon by something very quickly. The rod lurches over, the baitrunner squawks and I leap up to strike into… nothingness. The fish is gone but the mangled bait tells me all I need to know – that was a bream! 

I rebait as rapidly as I can and flick the rig back into the same spot. Again, almost as soon as I set the rod down the tip hammers over and as I grab the rod, it carries on pulling round in my hands spurring me to strike instantly and set the hook. The fish thumps heavily and I can tell immediately that it is a gilthead. Those who have caught gilts before will need no introduction to the sensation of muscular resistance that is one of the hallmarks of their fight. For those who have yet to make the acquaintance of the golden one, their battling qualities are entirely different to that of a bass, a mullet, or little else regarded as a sporting species on these shores. Gilts use their broad flanks to resist water pressure and put your gear under stern pressure. The thick red muscle tissue along these flanks enable them to power away with mere flicks of their tails, producing the scorching runs that they are well known for. Put a fish with these prodigious abilities into a surf environment and their fighting qualities reach a whole new level. This is definitely one of those fish that chooses to get its head down and pull hard for the bottom all the way in but it gives me no major problems and I soon land it, using a wave to skitter it up the rocks to safety. It’s a respectable fish in lovely condition and I quickly slip it into a rockpool before baiting up again.

I don’t bother putting the rod back in the rest after my next cast. For some time I’ve habitually fished two rods and used a tripod, but in the last couple of years I’ve been finding myself more frequently fishing at very short range. Recently I’ve begun to consider the option of just using one rod and touch ledgering when doing this. I used to fish in this way a lot for bass and I definitely found that the improved sensitivity and time to react improved my hook up ratio. The first bang on the rod tip feels like a hard electric shock down the line and again the rod literally curls right round in my hands before I pull back hard. This fish is a runner and sets off out to sea, ripping out line against the clutch. The battle is a little more prolonged than that of the previous fish as this one makes several spirited feints and darts. I soon have the bream beaten, however, and I am not too surprised to see that this fish is in the same sort of size class as the first. Unfortunately, as I go to land the fish the mainline catches on a mussel shell and, despite my best efforts to free it, eventually wears through. By this point my prize has freed itself but I am not too upset. It’s best not to worry about these kinds of incidents – the environment is harsh and it will claim its toll here and there.

The next drop into my new hotspot sees me attract the attention of a different customer: a wrasse. This is given a temporary home in a different rockpool to the bream and I quickly return to the fishing. The next two fish are, surprisingly, much smaller bream in the pound and a half category. They try their best to mount a challenge but don’t quite have the mass to worry the sturdy estuary rod.  It’s unusual to get such small fish on the open shore although they do seem to be becoming a more frequent capture. I take this as an encouraging sign for the future as it has to mean that the bream are breeding successfully in the region. My next flick is met with no reaction and after taking a few photos and returning the fish (with the exception of the first which I keep for the table), I begin to notice that a light drizzle is falling. This is a definite no no for this particular spot and I pack up hastily, hoping to make it back up the cliff in one piece. The ascent is not without incident but that is a tale for another time.

Fishing for giltheads from the open shore in this way is a great buzz if you like your fishing on the more rugged side and it’s an ideal escape if you’re into the solitude vibe. I dream of catching a fish in the 7-8lbs class from one of my local marks, although I have come to realise that if a gilthead of these proportions does become a serious goal of mine I’d be better off spending my time in the estuaries. I think what I enjoy most about open coast giltheading, however, is that it has a special feel all of its own. I sometimes describe it to people as being superficially like light bass fishing off the rocks as you’re using essentially the same sort of kit and bait. The truth is though that fishing for gilts from the open shore has a different character again, one that can challenge and fascinate you and leave you wanting more. I think it’s safe to say that there’s really nothing quite like it.