Improve Your Gilthead Fishing

With Martin Larkin

Most of us live a life full of compromises, juggling our everyday lives with our family and friends with our passion for our fishing and other interests. Martin Larkin does not live like this. He’ll happily tell you that his passion for fishing overrides everything else in life and that’s just how he likes it. He’ll also tell you that once he becomes fixated on a species of fish, all his energy goes into its pursuit, largely forsaking all others. This intense focus is how the Plymouth angler came to catch the 68lb 8oz conger that still holds the UK shore record and how he has not just one, but two double figure thick lipped mullet to his name.

For the last five years, Martin has been applying his angling brain and skills to gilthead bream, a species close to my own heart. He’s been very successful at this, with two eight pounders to his name so far and a double surely just a matter of time. Up until recently, all Martin’s gilthead fishing had taken place in the estuaries of the south west but having read a recent Facebook post where he went into detail about aspects of his approach, I was interested to see how his methods would fare in a different environment: my native Cornish coastline.

Giltheads: A Breed Apart

Luckily, when I ask him, Martin is really keen on the idea of a day out trying for north coast gold. ‘I had been meaning to try out on the open shore this year,’ he says. ‘Having some coastal marks would give me more opportunities to fish when the rivers are a waste of time.’ I ask him under what sort of conditions the estuaries go off the boil and he replies, ‘When the estuaries are carrying a lot of freshwater and colour from rain, the giltheads move out of the systems – they hate it! You need clear water for estuary fishing.’ And that wasn’t the only thing that could upset them, ‘Through the summer the rivers also get very busy with boat traffic. Bream don’t like it at all and they will spook and go off the feed if there is too much boat noise in the area.’ When I ask if this is why early mornings seem to be such a hot time on estuaries, Martin nods in agreement, ‘Yeah, early mornings are good because there is no disturbance. Nighttime can be really good too, especially under a full moon.’ In fact, Martin puts a lot of stock in moon phase in general for gilthead fishing, ‘All my big fish have been caught as the moon is building up to full and on the full moon itself. Sometimes even a little bit after full moon but prime time is definitely as it’s waxing.’

Martin gilthead fishing on the open coast for the first time

I ask Martin if he finds that there are particular hot spots in the tide at his usual marks and he replies, ‘I catch bream at all states of the tide on my estuary trips, it’s just a matter of following them round. A lot of people only fish for a few hours over a certain period and then pack up but they are missing out – the fish are still there. I often fish very long sessions, from, say, five in the morning all the way through until the evening, following the fish as they move with the tide. I catch a lot of fish this way.’

The conversation turns to the difference between the average size gilthead and the big fish that Martin sets his sights on, ‘Physically, there is a big difference,’ he says. ‘The average fish can be surprisingly powerful but the strength of those big bream is something else again. You’ll be in no doubt when you hook a big one.’ And he has a warning for those targeting the bruisers, ‘I’ve been bitten off plenty of times by big giltheads. The teeth on the big ones are like human teeth, they can wear right through light traces no problem. I now use 50lb braid for my trace in the rivers as it’s much more difficult for big gilts to bite through.’ Despite their stature and power, Martin has found that bream get increasingly cautious with age, ‘Once giltheads get to those bigger sizes they become extremely cagey,’ he says. ‘They won’t just eat your bait right away like a small fish, they’ll examine it for some time and if they feel something is wrong they just won’t take it.’ 

Martin’s Methods

One element of his approach that I am particularly interested in is his use of attractors on the trace. This goes against everything that I have based my own gilthead fishing on, always making my rigs as inconspicuous as possible to avoid spooking the bream. Martin’s take on things is different, ‘Giltheads are sight and sound feeders,’ he explains. ‘A few orange or green beads on the trace gets their attention and also helps to keep their focus away from the hook. I have seen big fish spook off my bait when they’ve noticed the hook.’ For anyone still in doubt, Martin adds, ‘Both my eight pounders were caught using beads on the trace and I’ve found it increases my catch rate in general.’

A whole peeler crab and a few orange attractor beads are a deadly combo

When it comes to rigs, Martin keeps things simple, ‘I like a running paternoster,’ he says. ‘Some of the marks I fish have a lot of weed on the bottom and by keeping my hooklength shorter than my rig body, I can stop my bait getting fouled. The running pat also helps to get some movement into the bait too. Giltheads are really tuned into movement. In a strong run of tide, my bait will be wafting in the current and the coloured beads will help it really stand out.’ Like many big bream anglers, Martin favours a fairly small but very strong single hook, ‘I like the Sakuma Mini Manta in size 2 and 4,’ he says. I ask him if he ever feels the need to use a pennel rig and he answers, ‘Sometimes if I’m getting a lot of bites from small fish a pennel rig can help hook more of them. But a big fish will take the bait right into its mouth if it wants it so I’m happy with the single hook most of the time.’

To further appeal to the gilthead’s attraction to movement, Martin goes light on his leads, ‘I use plain bombs of 2-3oz and I let them roll around in the tide. If the tide isn’t moving the lead, I’ll lift the rod every few minutes and move it myself. I’ve had it quite a few times where I’ve bumped the lead along the bottom and the rod has instantly gone over in my hands as a gilthead attacked the bait.’

When it comes to baits, Martin favours a variety of offerings, ‘Crab works well and I’ve found that they love ragworm,’ he begins. ‘But they eat lots of different food sources and you can catch them on a range of other baits such as lugworm, razor and prawn.’ I mean to ask him about mullet anglers catching them on bread but he’s one step ahead of me, ‘People mulleting sometimes get them fishing with bread and think giltheads like it. What actually happens is that when you’re fishing bread, prawns will come and sit on your hookbait. The giltheads are going for the prawns, not the bread.’ Martin has his own crab traps and these crustaceans form an important part of his approach, ‘I like to use whole crabs,’ he says. ‘With a peeler, I will usually take the back shell off and mount it live. I also like crispies that have just peeled and are in the process of hardening.’

Martin concentrates hard on his rods
Out on the Coast

On the day of our trip, a frothy little short-period surf was still marching into the north Cornish coastline after a spell of rough weather. The water was carrying a lot of surface weed and suspended sand but this wouldn’t be a problem as long as the weed hadn’t settled on the bottom. Our first mark was a typical low tide venue. As Martin picked his way across the mussel-encrusted reef, he remarked on the fact that what we were fishing from was an absolute larder for giltheads, ‘No mystery as to why they’re here!’ he grinned.

Fortunately, the weed hadn’t settled on the seabed and I was full of confidence that we would see plenty of fish over the next few hours. Strangely, this was not the case and after a couple of small bass and a missed bite or two, I was wondering whether the gilts were going to feed or not. It was a massive relief then when Martin’s carp rod smacked over and he shouted out, ‘That’s a gilt!’ as he bent the Daiwa Black Widow into strong resistance. The fish put up a spirited contest in the surf and gave Martin an anxious moment or two before we were able to carefully hoist it up and into our clutches. It was an average sized bream of about two and a half pounds but it was Martin’s first open coast gilt and it was fantastic to see how much it clearly meant to him, even after all the many specimen fish he has landed in his life.

With no more bream at the low tide spot, we moved onto our second mark of the day. I really noticed how Martin’s approach to gilthead fishing differed to mine here, he casts long and periodically brings his baits back in towards him, whereas I usually cast close to a feature and leave everything in place. Martin’s tactics were definitely what the fish wanted though, and apart from one absurdly violent missed take which was definitely a gilt, every cast of his was met with a series of taps and a mangled bait. He was sure this was bass, ‘Any time you reel in and your bait is all smashed up like that, it was more likely a bass and not a bream that took it.’ This is the opposite way round to what I had always thought but I had no problem accepting that I’d been wrong about it.

A plump gilthead is the reward for his efforts

Well into the ebb, another rattling bite on one of Martin’s crispies turned into a hard yank and his lift of the rod saw him fast into something more interesting than the small bass we had managed up until then. This bream battled all the way to the end and we were both surprised that it wasn’t a fish in the 4lb category. Still, at just under 3lbs and a lovely fat, healthy fish, it was just reward for Martin who had kept positive throughout the annoyance of missing shy bites and having his baits destroyed.

With the remainder of the session producing nothing of note, we packed up and headed back to the car. It had been a fantastic day for both of us, Martin was delighted with his first open coast gilts and fired up about the possibility of bigger and better things to come. Although I had caught nothing but small bass myself, I was chuffed that Martin had caught and that his methods had come up trumps on the first attempt. I had learnt so much through the day and Martin had proved something to me that I had come to suspect over the last year or two: my approach to gilthead fishing was in need of a spring clean and some fresh ideas. So a big thank you to Martin for giving my fishing a much-needed kick up the arse and for giving me permission to share his tips and insights with you. I hope the information contained here helps you as much as I know it will help me.

Next up...

Going For Gold

Read about the thinking behind Martin Larkin’s approach to gilthead fishing, including:

  • using underwater videos to make observations about gilthead behaviour
  • the many bite indications that giltheads can give and what they might mean
  • tactical tips to help you successfully target the bigger fish
  • what to do when you find yourself playing a monster