Gold Rush

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

Sweat was pouring down my face and I was trying my hardest to see clearly through steamed up sunglasses. All my concentration was fixed on a patch of water about thirty yards away – was that fleeting glimpse of something dark a tail or a piece of suspended weed? In the trough between two swells I had a clear view into the twinkling shallows and suddenly I saw them clear as day – a group of about eight to ten big fish all high in the water and moving fast. This was definitely the first time I’d seen these fish today, they were a different class again from the stamp that I’d been catching for the last few hours. I knew instinctively that I would probably only get one cast at them and I had to make it count. I aimed off a little to allow for the influence of the breeze and let fly. The cast arched out true and touched down in virtually the perfect spot: far enough away not to spook the shoal and close enough that only a few turns of the reel would put the lure right in front of their snouts. I lifted the rod tip and gave a couple of swift turns to get the lure moving before commencing a steady retrieve. Within a few feet the rod ripped round and the water exploded as an angry fish felt the sting of Japanese steel. Line sizzled off the reel to the tune of a long diagonal run into the waves before the fish stopped, changed direction and went steaming off again. I got my first proper look at it as it powered through the face of a peaking swell: this was a serious fish! 

At this point you could be forgiven that I am recounting the capture of some exotic powerhouses in a far-flung part of the world – maybe something like bonefish in the Florida Keys, for example. What I’m actually talking about, however, is fishing for a species that shows around a good deal of our coastline and that can provide not dissimilar thrills for only the cost of a few litres of fuel and half an hour digging harbour rag. Granted, it doesn’t grow to any great proportions but what it lacks in size it makes up for in spirit and the three dimensional quality of its scrap; running hard in all directions, making the occasional dramatic leap and using an array of spectacular underwater gyrations to attempt to escape. Anyway, back to the fight…

The pace of the battle slowed down as my opponent sulked along the bottom, moving parallel to the beach before sprinting back out to sea again, the clutch buzzing like a mosquito. I steadily steered the fish back into the shallows and it began an alarming series of subsurface acrobatics, turning cartwheels as it tried desperately to escape the hook. I took my time and held my breath that the size 6 Aberdeen would hold true, the final throes of the tussle seemingly taking an age as the fish stayed close on a tight line but refused to be drawn closer. I readied the cement bucket that I had been using as a net/temporary fish tank and waited for the right moment. At last my prize popped up beaten and skidded across the sea’s surface towards me on its flank. Attempting to scoop it up with the bucket was challenging to say the least – this was a long and thick fish – but I got the angle just right and finally the silver torpedo flopped into my clutches and I allowed a good amount of water to follow. I stared down at the beast in the bucket. This was by far and away the fish of the day but by how much I couldn’t figure. It was definitely the better side of two and a half pounds and every inch the specimen that I had been hoping for but was it a new personal best to boot? Slopping back up the beach through soft, sucky sand, I carried my prize up to firmer ground and began hurriedly setting up to take a few snaps. After the brief photocall, it was time for the moment of truth – what would the monster weigh? My previous best was a fish of 2lbs 10oz, a good size for this species by anyone’s standard, but I wondered if this specimen might even exceed it as it had such prodigious girth. I weighed the fish three times before settling on a weight of 2lbs 13oz: what a belter! 

This seemed like the perfect time to conclude my afternoon’s fishing. I’d had amazing sport with fish of a range of sizes but now I realised just how hot and thirsty I was. Tramping back up the sand dunes was torturous in the 27°C heat, but eventually I made it back to my car and collapsed against the side of the vehicle. The water bottle I’d left on the passenger seat was languishing in direct sunlight but at that moment in time, I didn’t care at all. I grabbed it, ripped the cap off and took a swig, involuntarily spitting out the first gulp: I’d drank cooler cups of tea! I downed the next couple of mouthfuls though, reasoning that boiling or not, water is water and that was what I needed to feel anything like human again. To me, experiences like this are synonymous with fishing for one of my favourite summertime species: the golden grey mullet. Sunburn, steamed up sunglasses, leaky waders and other annoyances are part and parcel of the nature of the fishing. 

Fishing for golden greys here in Cornwall is often done a little differently to how, for example, anglers might fish for them on Welsh surf beaches. Cornish anglers typically target them with baited spinners in the same way that you might fish for thin lips. Although it is not uncommon to see people legering for them, the technique of spinning using a modified Mepps-type spinner and a bombarda float for extra casting weight is much more active and allows the angler to cover more water and effectively stalk the groups of fish, much like a flats angler fishing for bonefish or permit. Blazing sunshine and calm clear water favours this kind of fishing, as the golden greys love to come into the warm shallows and here the angler stands a decent chance of spotting them. This is part of the thrill of the style as success is often dependent on how quickly you can distinguish the tell tale signs. Oftentimes the fish will actively ‘top’ and disturb the water surface or sometimes the tips of their tails will be visible. The majority of the time, however, subsurface clues will be the ones that lead me to successfully intercepting a browsing mullet, whether this be the flash of a flank, a glimpse of a tail or the shadows of fish moving. Seeing any of these signals is a cue for a quick accurate cast. I do sometimes fish blind if the light or the water clarity is poor and I can’t actively spot fish, but I don’t expect to do too well when I’m obliged to fish like this. The mullet reject the spinner often enough when it is drawn right in front of their nose so the chances of a lure fished aimlessly have to be substantially worse again.  

Of course, there are plenty of times when there appears to be no fish in the immediate vicinity. I take this as a prompt to do some wandering, sometimes wading well over a hundred yards before spotting some fish to cast to. Over the course of a session I might wander up and down a beach several times searching for mullet. I have even spent time pursuing individual fish: I remember one day last year finding what I thought was an absolute donkey of a golden grey and spending the best part of an hour stalking it. The thrill of finally catching the leviathan was marred somewhat by the discovery that it was actually a 3lb 4oz thick lip! Still, I feel that willingness to put yourself out physically to get in front of fish is a big advantage when pursuing golden greys.

The day that I fished for this article offered textbook conditions for targeting goldens. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and throughout the morning the wind was little more than a light breath. By lunchtime the breeze had freshened slightly and I arrived an hour or so before high water to a slight chop on the sea. As soon as I waded out into the shallows and saw the first few fish I knew it was going to be a decent kind of a day. The fish were lively and seemed game and it was not long before I did business with my first customer, a scrappy golden grey of probably around a pound. This was followed by a school bass (a common bycatch) before I tempted a better mullet of 1.13. This one was a talented battler and launched itself well clear of the water in its attempts to escape. I always enjoy seeing a fish jump as comparatively few of our native marine species tend to do it.

The fishing continued to be good over high tide. After another small fish I hooked into a better one that went scorching off, bending the 1 1/4lb test curve rod into a graceful curve. Once in the safety of the bucket I suspected that I’d caught my first two pounder of the day and so it proved to be, making the grade with two ounces to spare. Another couple of decent fish followed and I went through the rigmarole of bringing them back on to the firm sand at the high water mark to photograph them. The cement bucket seemed to be doing its job well and all the fish (save one that I kept for the table) went back in good fettle. There was a lengthy lull on the ebb where the fish seemed to disperse and I had to do a fair bit of legwork to catch up with them again, finally finding a mass of mullet all bottled up against a sandbar where a rip current was forming. After pulling a couple of nice fish out from the main group I lost sight of them again before the shoal that contained the monster loomed into view. 

Fishing for golden greys in this way offers the shore angler a chance to exercise a few different muscles than they might typically do in their everyday fishing. It’s a world away from blasting out 6oz grippers and pulley rigs and it’s different again from conventional fishing for thick lip mullet that is commonly practiced around the country (although the equipment is broadly similar). One of the things I love best about this kind of angling is the unlikeliness of catching lots of fish on neap tides in blazing sunshine and flat calm, gin clear water: the kind of conditions that you are told as a youngster that you stand virtually no chance of catching a fish off a shallow beach in. Golden greys crush this popular misconception and offer incendiary sport on even the most sweltering of summer days.