Some of the UK species are more common in the summer and others during the winter, whilst autumn is often considered the best time to shore fish because summer and winter species overlap. Whilst in late winter fish move away from the shore to spawn and results for anglers can be very poor.
The main seasons for the species depend on your location in the UK, but in general they are as follows:
Spring: School bass, ray, smoothhound, codling, plaice, eel, mackerel, garfish, pouting, and flounder.
Summer: Bass, ray, smoothhound, tope, conger, dogfish, mullet, garfish, mackerel, bream, scad, pollack, pouting, wrasse, sole, plus the odd exotic visitors like red mullet, trigger fish, gilt head bream, etc.
Autumn: Big cod, big bass, tope, conger, mullet, whiting, pouting, dab, flounder, pollack, coalfish, sole.
Winter: Cod and codling, whiting, coalfish, dab, flounder, rockling.
If you take an average of all the fish species caught from the shore by UK anglers it is far less than 1lb. Bigger fish are the favourite target of most sea anglers and many novices may not realise that only a few of the UK species actually grow bigger than 5lb. Locating the biggest fish of the different species is the first problem for the angler and depends upon where you live and fish. The seasons also have an influence on each species whereabouts and potential size. Fish size is also relevant to age, bigger fish are older therefore the odds of them being caught by anglers or the commercial fishermen are greater and that’s why fish average size in the sea has reduced in recent years.
You can separate the most common UK sea species into three size categories and although some do grow fairly large if compared with their British record, most are of a much smaller average size than the record would suggest, especially the commercially sought species.
Biggest species and their specimen size include: Cod (10lb), bass (8lb), several rays (8lb), smoothhound (10lb), conger eel (20lb) and huss (10lb). Tope can be caught from the shore in a few places, but are comparatively rare (30lb)
Medium sized species include: Pollack (3lb bigger fish from the boats), coalfish (2lb), wrasse (4lb), bream (3lb), dogfish, mullet (4lb) and plaice (3lb).
Small species include: Whiting (1lb), pouting (1lb), dab (12oz), flounder (2lb), sole (2lb), scad (1lb), garfish (1lb), eel (2lb), mackerel (1lb) and rockling.
Specimen size is a size that is considered an excellent catch and these do vary around the UK regions.
The range of species in UK waters is mostly of bottom feeders and fishing a bait hard on the sea bed is the major tactic for the majority. However, there are a few species which are pelagic (mid water swimming) and these include the mackerel, garfish and to an extent pollack, mullet, scad, coalfish and bass that can be caught on lures fished in midwater or by fishing a bait up off the bottom using a float etc.
BAIT AND SPECIES
Here is a guide to the baits and the species they catch through the year.
Bass: Lugworm from surf beaches, peeler crab or whole squid from rocky ground, mackerel fillet or head from deep piers. Other baits, live prawn or live fish (pout, pin whiting, pollack, smelt, sand eel). Also spinners, plugs and feathered lures.
Ray: Frozen sand eel, squid, peeler crab, Bluey, herring or mackerel fillet.
Smoothhound: Fresh peeler crab, hermit crab – sometimes squid, fish or worm when the crabs are not peeling.
Cod and codling; Lugworm, cocktailed with squid, peeler crab, white ragworm, Shellfish like mussel and razorfish when local to a venue.
Plaice: Ragworm, lugworm, peeler crab, shellfish. Baited spoons (ragworm).
Flounder: Ragworm, peeler crab, harbour and white ragworm, shellfish.
Wrasse: Small hard live crabs, peeler crab, ragworm, fish, lures.
Mullet: Bread flake/crust, harbour ragworm.
Conger: Fresh mackerel head, flapper, fillet, whole squid, small pout, pollack, etc.
Huss: Squid, mackerel.
Whiting: Lugworm, peeler crab, squid, fish tipped worm.
Mackerel and garfish: Fish strip, sandeel. Feathers and lures.
Dab: Lugworm, clam (both slightly decaying), squid tip, white ragworm tip, shellfish.
Pollack: Lures, head hooked ragworm, bunches of small red and white ragworm, live or frozen sandeels, mackerel.
Scad: mackerel strip, head hooked ragworm.
SPRING: The crabs peel inshore during spring and summer and peeler crab can become the most sought after bait on many venues from April onwards. Many species will have tunnel vision towards peeler and soft crabs, whilst the different types of crabs peel at different times depending upon the location around the UK. Through April to July the common shore crabs shed their shells from the south to the north of the UK, from June the red edible and velvet swimmer crabs shed and June and July it’s the turn of the spider crabs. All are excellent bait, soft or peeled.
SUMMER: The mackerel and sandeel shoals are their densest at this time of year and many of the largest predators are taken on a large mackerel fillet or a whole live launce of sandeel. A head hooked free swimming ragworm fished alongside piers, rocks etc is also an excellent bait choice.
AUTUMN: With the bait fish leaving UK waters the fish have a wider preference of baits with worm, squid, crab and almost any bait taken.
WINTER: The winter gales disturb marine worms and shellfish populations and the various species home in on the devastation with shellfish deadly on some storm battered venues. Small fish are also a target of the larger species like cod.
The most dangerous part of most fish caught by UK anglers is their teeth. Much is made of the threat of poisonous weavers, sting ray’s spines and the like although few sea anglers have seen a weaver or a sting ray. However, fish teeth are sharp, especially some of the small species so beware of sticking your finger in any fish mouth and always use a disgorger if in doubt. Common danger mouths to avoid include: dogfish, rays, whiting, species to watch out for sharp spines include bass, thornback ray, scad whilst wrasse and even flatfish have the odd spine to avoid. In the case of bass also beware of the gill covers which have razor sharp edges. Pick school bass up by the mouth to avoid spines and gill covers.
Avoid picking a weaver up at all – its spines on dorsal fish and gill covers can penetrate a cloth. Sting rays have a spine at the base of their tail and should not be picked up or touched in the head area because they will lash out with the spine.
Blennies, dragonet’s, scorpions, and gobies, etc are all mistaken for weavers, but in the main are harmless save for the odd short spine, if in doubt don’t handle at all – the boot and pliers are best.
LEGAL MINIMUM SIZE LIMITS
Not all fish in UK waters are subject to a legal minimum size limit because the limits concentrate on the commercially valuable species, the humble pouting, rockling and some others have no legal protection at all because they are not commercial. However sea angling has its own list of minimum sizes and anglers are urged to use them to avoid the risk of retaining an illegal catch because the angling limits are all larger that the legal limits. The fine for retaining an undersized fish is considerable so be warned.
Fish are measured from the tip of their nose to the tip of their tail and custom made fish measures with a stop board at one end which are mainly used by match anglers are available from most tackle dealers.
I would also urge anglers to observe an upper limit for the larger species especially bass (6lb) – Killing a breeding bass has a far greater impact on stocks than killing an immature schoolie!
Bass – 41cm
Bream – 24
Coalfish – 35
Cod – 35
Conger – 91
Dogfish – 38
Eel – 38
Flounder – 25
Garfish – 38
Huss – 58
Mackerel – 30
Mullet – 33
Plaice – 28
Pollack – 30
Pout – 18
Rays – 41
Smoothhound – 51
Sole – 25
Scad – 25
Whiting – 27
Wrasse – 23
FISH YOU CAN EAT
All of the mentioned species can be eaten, although some are not popular and others labour intensive to skin, scale and prepare for the table. Flounders for instance can be extremely muddy from the estuary. Mullet may also require added flavour to make them edible, smoothhounds have the flavour and smell of ammonia, whilst small bony fish like pout and rockling may be only good for cat food. Favourites are cod, whiting, plaice, dab, bream, pollack and bass and some of these are better fresh or better frozen, opinions differ. Mackerel are great on the barbecue and best eaten straight from the sea, scad are bony, but their limited flesh between the bones is tasty, garfish have green bones, but again the taste is excellent. Rays and dogfish are tedious to skin and prepare, but again they too have their fans. Some people eat the lesser spotted dogfish!