Thursday, 18 May 2017 13:16

Drift Fishing For Flatfish

Paul Dennis shares his thoughts on a technique that appears to be quite simple but offers a steep learning curve.


Drift fishing for flatfish is understandably popular. The species that are targeted (plaice, turbot and brill) have fine eating qualities and can also give you quite a scrap on the right tackle.

It’s an active method too, and there are plenty of adjustments that you can make to rigs and baits to keep things interesting. One of the important things that I’ve found is that it’s very important to keep thinking about what you are doing. Just dropping into autopilot after a few fruitless drifts can see you struggling to catch. It’s usually the hardest working anglers who do best, and one thing that can help in this respect is a good skipper who isn’t shy of driving you to stay on top of your game.

Two skippers that I’ve been out with who provide very active encouragement in this way are Colin Penny and Lyle Stantiford. Both run out of Weymouth, Dorset, Colin on Flamer IV and Lyle on Supanova, and they really know their stuff. Both offer help and advice throughout a day’s fishing, and they are worth listening to.

pic1 TSF May
Big turbot like this 28lb fish are rare captures.


They are both well versed in what you could call ‘the Weymouth style’ and this is a point worth noting. Different areas of the country have subtle differences in how drift fishing for flatties is best performed and it’s well worth making enquiries of the skipper on the best baits to use, and how much you will need for a full day out.

While the fishing techniques are pretty similar, bait preferences can be very important, and this will affect the balance of how much you take of what bait.

Dealing with plaice first, the bait requirements for a trip out of Weymouth will be different from those out of Brighton, for example. Not so much in the variety of bait, but more in the quantity. Put simply, the amount of bait that you would expect to use on a plaice trip out of Brighton wouldn’t last the day out of Weymouth. In fact, it wouldn’t come anywhere near. 

One reason for this is the relative size of fish being targeted. Weymouth plaice are bigger on average than those out of Brighton and baits have to be bigger to grab their attention. Fish of 5lb and over are regularly boated off Weymouth (and returned – the smaller fish make better eating) and it really is a case of big bait equals big fish.

Where you could bait up with a couple of rag, maybe a bit of lug and a sliver of squid and expect to catch well aboard a Brighton boat, the Weymouth way will see you threading five or six big rag onto the hook (often more) plus any extras like lug or prawn, finally tipped with the inevitable squid.

pic 2 TSF May 16
Hefty brill are targeted on the same rigs as turbot. On a good day both species will be caught.


Not only that, but you will be encouraged to rebait very frequently to keep a strong scent trail in the water – rebaiting being exactly that, stripping all the old bait off and refilling it all afresh. Simply threading another rag on as a ‘freshener’ isn’t the way to do it. During a long drift you will rebait several times, so it’s very easy to get through a lot of bait.

Having that mind-set of always keeping your bait fresh and attractive is well worth having. It catches you more and bigger fish and is a habit worth getting into, whatever port you are fishing out of.

It’s no surprise that the first couple of minutes of a bait hitting the bottom tend to be the most productive. If bites haven’t subsequently developed from that initial interest, or the bait has been savaged by pin whiting and the like, the best option is to wind up, rebait and start again.

Always bear in mind that you will be fishing among quite a few baits presented by your fellow crewmen, so it pays to have a bait that stands out for all the right reasons.

Alongside bait needs, your skipper will be able to give information on terminal tackle, such as what size and type of leads to bring with you.

The right leads will not only help prevent tangles with other crew members, they will also help you present your bait in the most attractive way. 

It’s a good idea to have a selection of styles in the right weight banding because this gives you more flexibility in presentation.

For example, flat watch-style leads will produce more drag, slowing your bait down more than, say, a bopedo or plain torpedo lead. Which type works best can vary both on the day and at particular states of the tide. It’s another thing to play around with if takes are hard to come by.

pic 5tsf may 16
The addition of an Abu Rauto spoon (bottom) on the trace is a proven turbot attractor.

Now we come to what is usually the biggest talking point on the way out to the plaice grounds. As wreck anglers love to speculate over which colour lure is going to be best on the day, so plaice anglers will discus what coloured beads to have on their traces (if any) how many to have, and also whether the addition of spinning blades is worth considering.

Regulars on this sort of trip will have plenty of combinations ready rigged, to be clipped on and off in response to what the fish appear to favour.

Popular combinations are quite regimented, usually green and black or red and yellow, in both cases alternating the colours. Yellow and blue can also work.

The red and yellow combination is favoured over sandy bottoms, while black and green is an oft chosen combination over pea mussel beds. However, both combinations will work over both types of bottom, as you will notice on many boat trips!

There are also anglers who swear that a ‘naked’ trace with no beads or blades whatsoever is best. Often it’s a case of finding out what works best on the day by trial and error.

In a similar vein, whether to use multi-hook rigs or just a single-hook trace is another question to be answered. Obviously multi-hook rigs can be more prone to tangles, but they do have the advantage of providing a bigger scent trail. Also, the arrival of one plaice attacking the rig will tend to draw in more of these inquisitive and quite competitive predators. Spreader rigs, which have beads threaded onto a rigid wire boom with hook traces attached at each end, can reduce tangles, especially if the hook traces are kept relatively short.

pic 6
Plaice are a popular species and offer a good introduction to drift fishing for flatfish.

Drift fishing for plaice can also produce other species. Gurnards – red, grey and tub, are quite common captures, as, less sympathetically, are greater weavers. These have venomous spines and should be approached with care. Most skippers have their own ways of dealing with these.

Rays are another possibility, and while these are usually targeted at anchor they will occasionally fall to a slow-moving bait fished on the drift.

While ragworms form the basis of most plaice drift fishing baits, sandeel, launce fillets or mackerel strip (the white belly portion) will also pick up fish. As well as the aforementioned ‘bycatch’ species, turbot and brill are possibilities, as well as bass.

When fishing on the drift for flatfish you need to keep your reel in free-spool mode, controlling the spool with your thumb. This allows you to let line off slowly to keep in contact with the undulating bottom.

It also allows you to release line when you feel a fish hitting the bait, waiting until it has fully taken it, then applying your thumb again to stop the spool and drag the hook home as the boat drifts, before engaging the spool fully and winding your catch to the surface.

That is the theory, but, as in all things angling, nothing is quite that simple.

Watch any underwater footage (and there is plenty on the internet) where flatfish are involved and they seem to love chasing a moving bait, losing a bit of interest when it stops moving.

I must admit that I’ve had more success simply keeping things tight and waiting for the fish to hook themselves and pull the rod over. Many times I’ve slackened off on the bite and no fish has been the result.

However, I do usually start off ‘doing things by the book’ and letting off line when I feel a bite, just in case it’s one of those days when the fish want it that way.

Having looked extensively at drift fishing for plaice, it’s time to look at brill and turbot.

These are much bigger species than plaice, with turbot potentially topping 20lb and brill reaching double figures.

Like plaice they are predatory, but perhaps more inclined to be ambush predators, rather than being willing to give chase to moving baits.

These are definitely species where the ‘educated thumb’ method of allowing free line when a take is felt is worth a try, although I have seen plenty of fish taken by anglers who failed to do this – sometimes by reason of the fact that they had fallen asleep!

pic 4 tsf may 16
Mackerel strip produced this decent brill on a plaice trip.

Single-hook rigs on long traces are usually used for turbot and brill and there doesn’t tend to be so much angst in respect of attractor beads and the like. Occasionally anglers hoping for brill will have a few black and white beads on the hooklength, but more often, the attractor, if one is used, will be a large spoon about a foot or so from the hook.

The Abu Rauto spoon is very much favoured for this style of fishing and it can produce very good results.

Fish baits are the rule for turbot and brill, with strips of mackerel flesh very good and easy to obtain. The white belly flesh is best, and a good tip is to have as little meat on it as possible. This results in a more active and attractive bait because it is intended to mimic a sandeel. Leaving too much meat on the skin will see the bait ‘blow up’ as it swells in the seawater, losing much of its attraction.

Launce, launce fillets or sandeel are very good baits when available, as are garfish fillets.

An educated thumb can really work wonders when drifting over the back edge of a bank. Turbot and brill can wait in the tidal lee of these drop-offs awaiting victims. Letting line off the reel (the technique is called spooling) as the lead and bait reach these drop-offs keeps the bait in the taking zone for longer, and also makes it behave more naturally because the backwash produces a food trap that is exploited by many species.

The spooling technique can also be used to randomly stop the bait for a few seconds during the drift, before tightening again and moving the bait, this sudden movement sometimes spurring the fish into taking the bait.

While drift fishing for flatties is very enjoyable, it’s as well to travel with optimism rather than expectation. Plaice trips will usually produce fish in decent numbers, although it does depend how much they have been targeted and at what time of year you are fishing for them.

As suggested earlier, skippers give sound advice and to get the best out of a trip it’s as well to follow it.

In my experience, turbot and brill trips can be less predictable. There’s a definite knack to maximising your chances with these species and it is gained by putting the time in. It’s very easy to fail to catch turbot and brill, and even on a productive trip there is no guarantee that everyone on the boat will catch. If you go out with that in mind you won’t be disappointed.




Rods in the 12lb class are fine for plaice, turbot and brill, although lighter rods in the 6lb to12lb range will allow plaice to put up more of a scrap.

Small multipliers like the Penn Fathom 12 are ideal, loaded with 30lb braid line to allow smaller leads to be used and bites to be more easily felt.

For plaice, fluorocarbon hook snoods in the 15lb range will work well. Keep them short, only 12 to 18 inches from the lead is plenty on most days. Hooks should be long-shank Aberdeen patterns, size 1 or 2.

For turbot and brill use 30lb fluorocarbon and hook traces up to eight feet. It’s a good idea to have a strong crane swivel in the middle of the trace; alternatively use an Abu Rauto spoon on the trace. These have a swivel at both ends. Set it about a foot from the hook, which should be size 3/0 or 4/0.


Like what you see?



Or buy a single issue


TSF 770 x 210 subs ban

Other titlesmf magfeedermatch livepf plusthink fishing