Going For Gold

Dawn. A ghostly mist hangs over the mirror-smooth surface of the estuary. Your cast is gentle but the impact of the two ounce lead is as subtle as a depth charge, the pulsing rings ruining the smooth complexion of the water. You don’t worry too much about this though as while there is always the risk that this little bit of disturbance will send the fish scattering for cover, there is also every chance that it will be as good as a call to breakfast. You exchange a confident look with your mate – everything looks tip top and you can feel in your blood that it’s going to happen this morning. You turn around to begin setting up your second outfit when your mate sounds off urgently, ‘You’ve got a bite!’ You turn to see your rod quivering in the rest as the impact of the first knock subsides. Then, as you watch, the tip rips over and the reel starts making a noise like an angry hornet stuck in a jam jar. Seemingly in slow motion, you snatch up the rod and turn the reel handle to engage the gears. There is brief contact and then… nothing. The fish is gone.

If you’ve spent anything like a decent amount of time fishing for gilthead bream, I’d bet a tenner that this has happened to you at least once, if not regularly. Their ability to exert so much pressure on the take that they can easily pull your rod in yet still spit your bait out without getting hooked can drive even the most patient angler crazy. But how do they do this? In ‘Improve Your Gilthead Fishing’, I spent a day with legendary Plymouth angler Martin Larkin discussing his approach to fishing for gilts. All the nuts and bolts of his technique are outlined in that article but he shared a lot more information with me on that session and put me onto one really enlightening video that helps answer that question. Besides that, the footage contained in this video also sheds light on how gilts move and behave in their natural environment and contains valuable clues for the giltheader who is serious about targeting a big one. Martin has kindly agreed to let me share these discoveries and more with you so let’s get started!

Gilts On Film
Martin's favourite video - click to watch

This video has nothing to do with angling, it’s footage of a couple of Italian guys diving on reefs inhabited by healthy numbers of gilts. UK divers and spear fishermen report that the gilts around these shores are very spooky around humans in the water but the fish in this video are much bolder – to the point where the cameraman actually has them feeding out of his hands! More interesting than how tame the fish are is the fact that we get to see how gilts take prey in their mouths up close and the reaction of other fish in the shoal to their buddies picking up food items. 

Martin reckoned that he had watched this video many times, ‘It’s got over two hundred thousand views – at least a thousand of those was me!’ He joked. The first thing that struck me watching it was how quick and confident the gilts are in the water and the way most of the other reef fish hold off them. The only fish that seem comfortable mixing it up with the gilts are their smaller cousins the white bream. Martin has found that this definitely applies in our waters too, even when gilts are rubbing shoulders with other dominant species like bass and wrasse, ‘Everything else goes quiet when giltheads turn up on the scene,’ he said. ‘They bully the other fish.’ After watching the video, it was apparent to me that they are also more than happy to bully each other, as when one gilt picks up a food item, it’s often quickly surrounded by others trying to steal it and even giving chase (check out 6:10 and 11:05 for examples of competing and 9:40 and 10:15 for examples of chasing behaviour).

The guy in the video is feeding the fish whole mussels and we can see why the common advice to use hard baits to select for bigger fish has solid foundations as the smaller fish seem to lack the jaw power to cope with them as effectively as larger ones (compare 6:50 to 9:30). Also common are fish picking up and dropping mussels that are too large to fit in their mouths easily (10:00). However, bigger fish seem to be aware of this and (as you can see at 5:40) a larger bream is happy to hound a smaller one with an outsize piece of food until the smaller one drops it.

Golden Opportunities
Giltheads are renowned for scorching takes but they can give all sorts of bites

But how do these observations about gilthead behaviour help us in our fishing for them? For one, the footage helps us to draw links between the feeding habits of gilts and the bite indications that we see on our rod tips. One of the trickiest puzzles we face in our gilthead fishing is when to set the hook. Sure, if the fish hooks itself and rips off and all you have to do is grab the rod, fair enough, but giltheads are capable of giving very subtle indications. It’s been really noticeable this year in my open coast fishing that the gilts are rarely tearing off with the bait. Much more common is a series of gentle taps, twitches and tightening/slackening of the line. It appears to me from watching the video that this kind of bite is caused by the bream eating in an unhurried, uncompetitive situation. The gilt picks the bait up and tries it out. If the fish decides it wants to eat the offering, it then passes it from the smaller clasping teeth at the front of its jaws to the larger molars at the back. Once it’s crunched the bait with its crushing teeth, it will either reject it or swallow it so it’s just a matter of being patient and waiting for the fish to hopefully take the bait further into its mouth before attempting to set the hook. If the bait is rejected before it is moved further into the fish’s mouth then the chances are slim (in a typical legering situation) that your hook would have found a hold in the front of the jaw or lips with a chance strike anyway. 

We also see in the video that a gilt belting off with its food doesn’t necessarily mean that it has taken it well into its mouth or even that it has a good grip on it. In a more competitive situation, a fish will often pick up its meal any which way it can and scarper to get away from its bullying brethren. So those sizzling tearaway takes that you don’t connect with most likely take place because a bream has tried to swim away with a poor grip on your bait and the hook not in a favourable position to find a hold in any softer part of the mouth. Your strike then pulls the bait straight out of its jaws. The natural instinct may be to reel in in disgust at missing such a sitter but Martin thinks that the better tactic is to leave the bait out for another couple of minutes, just in case one of the chasing pack picks it up.

In situations where you suspect that there are large bream to be had out there among smaller ones, Martin suggests that you can use this knowledge to your advantage. ‘When you’re getting a lot of bites, loosen your drag,’ he says. ‘If you’re fishing with a hard bait like a whole crab, the smaller fish will try to pick your bait up and run away with it but they will end up dropping it and a bigger one will come in to take it.’ He adds, ‘You can tell when that big fish picks up your bait. The power of the take and run is something else.’ Fishing like this undoubtedly takes confidence and patience but it’s a sound strategy for picking out those bigger gold bars from the pack.

Chasing the Big Girls
Martin Larkin has his sights set on a double figure bream

Talking to Martin about his encounters with big giltheads is exciting but also sobering. Martin has hooked much bigger bream than he has landed and these leviathans have managed to evade his clutches despite his impeccable big fish pedigree. From Martin’s accounts, there are two main causes of these losses: firstly, the hook has a weak hold and unintentional slack allows it to drop out; secondly, the fish bites through the trace. Listening to Martin’s ‘one that got away’ stories, the latter is a common outcome of an encounter with a serious gilthead from the shore. Martin now uses braided hooklengths when he is targeting big gilts and, after hearing his tales of devastating losses when using mono and fluorocarbon traces, I suggest following his lead if you are seriously setting out your stall for a golden-bonced brute.

Obviously, to catch a big bream you have to find and fish a location that they like to frequent and feed in. Martin has many examples from his estuary fishing of places that produce quantity over quality and vice versa, as well as spots that are capable of both. One of the key elements in an estuary spot likely to produce a big bream is water depth, ‘The big gilts don’t like to go too far from where they have a fair depth of water over their heads,’ he says. ‘That’s why you don’t hear of monsters caught right up in shallow creeks – they feel happier feeding if they have deep water close by to escape to if something spooks them. That’s not to say that you can’t catch a lunker in only a couple of feet of water,’ he continues. ‘But there needs to be a decent depth nearby.’

If you are fortunate enough to hook a real bruiser, Martin has some advice, ‘Big gilts often shoot off on a long first run. If you have open water in front of you, it’s best to just let them run against the drag as far as they want and then work them back. Don’t try to stop a big gilt when it’s really running hard unless it’s going for a snag.’ While it may be tempting to try and bully the fish, especially when it’s showing signs of tiring, Martin advises caution, ‘The big ones pull so hard that they can tear a big hole in their mouth around the hook. It’s best to play them patiently, let them tire themselves out and make sure not to give them any slack.’

Further viewing
Look to giltheaders from the continent for guidance on how best to present hard baits

Inspired by the insight Martin was able to gather from the diving footage, I’ve recently spent some time online looking for more videos that might improve my understanding of giltheads and help my fishing. Granted, just about everything that I’ve been watching is in French or Spanish but typically the productions are high quality and the key points demonstrated well visually so it doesn’t matter that I can’t understand much of what is being said. What is clear from watching these continental anglers is that they are really savvy to the selective power of a whole range of hard baits, often using offerings like hardback crabs, whole mussels and razor fish in the shell. Watching demonstrations of how to present these ungainly baits has been valuable for me as I had never mounted whole mussels and razors to hooks before and being able to base my methods on already-proven ones has saved me trial-and-error time.

A quick search on YouTube will reveal plenty of good videos to start with. Giltheads are called ‘dorade royale’ in French, ‘dorada’ in Spanish and ‘orata’ in Italian so it’s worth searching for those terms if you want to dive straight into the continental stuff. Alternatively, here’s a couple of good channels to get you started: