Most anglers have a favourite species that they like to target whenever possible, but it’s a fact that other species can be predicted to turn up as well. Some may be welcome, but others, like dogfish, pout or tiny whiting, are often viewed as a nuisance. However, when the main species aren’t showing, the bycatch species can keep interest levels up, and a potentially less productive session can be revitalised by setting a self-imposed mark of different species landed and trying to achieve or better it.
Even on sessions where targets have been achieved, it can be tempting to try to expand them. A good example of this would be ray anglers attempting to catch several species of rays in one session.
It can become quite addictive too, and some anglers will set themselves a yearlong target of landing as many species as possible within the 12 months, sometimes trying to raise that figure on a year-by-year basis.
Alongside that, many anglers keep lifetime records of different species that they have caught through the years, having a separate running total that naturally becomes more difficult to add to because less common species need to be targeted.
Species hunts are also a great way to introduce youngsters to the sport because many mini species can be fished for at very close range, taking advantage of man-made structures that attract small fish, or even prospecting rock pools for some of the tiny tideline species. Catching and identifying these fish keeps youngsters interested and it also increases their knowledge.
A nice by-product is that it gives adult anglers a legitimate excuse to increase their own species counts at the same time – and also to use that leftover bait!
Species identification can be tricky, especially with some of the smaller, seldom caught species, so having a good fish-identification book is important. There are many titles available that include some, but not all, species found around our coast, and while these can be a help they can also be frustrating if they don’t have any species in them that look like the ones you have landed. While a handy pocket book guide is nice to have with you while you are fishing, a good plan is to take photographs of catches with your mobile phone. You can then identify the species at your leisure on your return.
Books with photographs, rather than idealised line drawings, tend to be most useful, but the best ones are quite big and weighty, which is another reason for leaving them at home to be used for reference later!
One of the best fish-identification books available is ‘Identification Guide To The Inshore Fish Of The British Isles’ by Dr Peter Henderson. (ISBN 978-1-904690-63-4).
This is a very comprehensive book that uses photographs of the different species, with full descriptions of key identification features. A great guide for mini species, it is especially useful when trying to differentiate between similar looking species like sandeels because the specific individual identifiers are included.
The book is also a good guide to distribution of the species around the British Isles, which is a great help in tracking down elusive species, and it also contains information of favoured habitats of the various species.
Depending on how seriously you wish to take species hunts, or species accumulation over longer periods, one of the first steps is to familiarise yourself with the best times of year to catch the different species. This allows you to formulate a plan, either to target a particularly elusive single species, or attempt a multiple hit of different ones in a single session, or over a more extended period.
Some species hunters also like to categorise their captures as boat or shore, running separate lists for each, as well as a running total, while others only count fish that they catch around the British Isles.
Put simply, species hunting can be anything you want it to be, but it can add to the enjoyment of a day’s fishing, especially on those days when anything and everything except the target species seems to be biting!
The tackle that you already have will catch you lots of species, although on some occasions it may need a bit of fine tuning in respect of terminal tackle. This holds true for both shore and boat anglers. You may be targeting fish that you previously hadn’t considered catching due to their small size, so you need to tackle and bait up accordingly.
As a shore angler, if you want to increase your list by including mini species, it will be a good idea to invest in some LRF gear. The good news in this respect is that perfectly adequate LRF tackle is very reasonably priced, and while it’s true that the specialised end of this market can be pricey (as you would expect), unless you intend to make it a huge focus of your fishing you can set yourself up quite nicely without breaking the bank.
At a push, spinning rods can be used, and these can also offer options for light close-quarters work in the open sea, and also light float fishing.
Similarly, for boat anglers hoping to pick up smaller species, a lighter boat rod that offers good bite detection is a huge advantage. Again, at the top end of Continental-style boat match rods you can be looking at a serious outlay, while modern ‘tipster’-style rods offer a more wallet-friendly option.
A plus point for both these types of boat rods is that as well as being more efficient in detecting bites from smaller species, they are also fun to target larger species with, giving them a good opportunity to show their sporting prowess.
Terminal tackle needs to be given some thought, but again it doesn’t tend to cost much and it shouldn’t take up too much room.
Hook sizes down to size 14, plus light monofilament or fluorocarbon in the 5lb to 8lb breaking strains for snoods won’t take up much room and will win you more bites with smaller species.
For rock pool prospecting you can fish even finer, with hooks down to size 16. These can be bought pre-tied on fine line and are well worth investigating if you aren’t confident in tying your own. Be aware, though, that larger hooks are easier to remove and are less easy for small fish to swallow.
A long-spined sea scorpion – a good target to add to your species count.
Some species only visit our waters at certain times of the year, so obviously this is the best time to target them. Some fish-identification guides do include advice on the ‘seasonality’ of the different species, which will help you plan your sessions through the year for specific species.
Fishing at the right time of day/tide is also important, and this can be a benefit for shore/estuary anglers in particular because, with a bit of planning, it enables them to make full use of the time available.
Boat anglers can also work their species fishing around the state of the tide to maximise their chances, an example of this being the ability to pick up some of the smaller species more easily at slack water when bites are more easily detected and some smaller species become more active.
Species like this tompot blenny can be winkled out of rock pools.
A good plan is to arrive at low water. This allows the angler to check out any ground features for later in the day, and also to prospect rock pools or other areas holding intertidal water. Surprising numbers and varieties of small fish can be caught from these environments. There are many species of blennies and gobies resident around the UK coast, as well as rock pools. These species tend to be found close to structure, especially if there is good weed growth. Estuaries and harbours are also worth prospecting for small species, and in this environment there is still a good chance of the rock pool species, with the addition of flatfish, smelt, mullet, school bass and immature pollack and coalfish.
As the tide begins to come in, a normal beachcaster can be used to target open sea species, while the light rod can be fished right in the tide table to pick up fish that may be overcast by normal tactics.
The mackerel is easy to identify, but what species of launce is with it? The black patch on the snout suggests that this is a greater sandeel.
Booking onto a species hunt with a skipper that knows his stuff is a great introduction to this branch of sea angling.
Some skippers make a speciality of running species trips, and they are a great source of information and tactics to make the day as productive as possible. Most will tell you exactly what you are likely to catch at any given mark and at certain times of the day – and what the best rigs and baits are too. They will also be quite mobile, trying to cover different types of ground to find the different species that inhabit it.
As well as general species hunts, many skippers are willing to target specific species if requested, although it’s best to discuss this while booking a trip because they will be able to tell when they are scheduling these into their calendar, this being based on the best tides and time of year.
LRF rigs can be scaled down versions of standard scratching rigs – mini ghost rigs constructed with light, unobtrusive components. Hooks in sizes 12 to 14 tied on short hook snoods of 6lb line or similar will maximise hook-ups while reducing the chances of fish swallowing the hook. The rig length should be short, about 18inches, and this can take two hooks. Clear fluorocarbon will help keep the rigs unobtrusive, with leads no bigger that 1/2oz needed. This basic setup will catch lots of mini species.
Standard beachcaster rigs for species accumulation will also tend towards the light side. Close-range tactics can be covered by two or three-hook ghost rigs using clear oval two-way beads and size 6 or 8 hooks. Powergum stop knots can be used to lock the beads in position, making the rig easily adjustable, depending on what depth the fish are feeding at. Again, short hook snoods work best.
For longer range, look at two-hook loop rigs, but with slightly larger hooks – up to size 2. This rig will pick up a wide range of species and will also land surprisingly big fish.
Boat rigs can be very similar to the shore rigs, with the emphasis on unobtrusive components. The same range of hook sizes can be used but the rig line can be beefed up a bit, while hook-snood breaking strains will depend on the size of the species being targeted. Line of 6lb is fine for mini species, with 15lb to 20lb suitable for pollack and larger wrasse and suchlike.
Getting the bait right for target species is pretty important, so some homework might need to be done, especially if you are travelling to fish because there can be very definite local bait preferences shown by some species.
For mini species it can be a bit trickier but, like the majority of sea species, if something is edible they might have a go at it.
However, some baits are better than others for the smaller species, with scraps of king ragworm having almost universal appeal. Flakes of mackerel flesh and tiny pieces of lugworm will also catch.
01 Try to keep hooklengths as short as possible when targeting the smaller species. This improves bite detection and reduces deep hooking. As short as four or five inches is ideal.
02 Ball weights are worth trying when prospecting rocky areas because these are less inclined to get stuck in the terrain.
03 Bites often come very quickly once the bait has settled. If bites don’t come, quite a few anglers move the bait to try to draw fish to it. A better tactic is to keep it still and allow the fish to come and find it.
04 Isome worms and gulp baits are good fish catchers, but a lot of their attraction comes from the ‘jollop’ they are packed in. Refresh your baits every cast, either by putting on a new bait or dipping the existing bait in the ‘jollop’.
05 Plan your sessions. If certain species are on your ‘to catch’ list but rarely turn up in your locality, you may have to travel. If you are going some distance try to pick somewhere that offers a very good range of less well spread species to maximise your chances of increasing your species count. Venues like Dorset’s Chesil Beach have a huge range of species, some of which are very difficult to target anywhere else. Some areas of the Cornish coast have a similar reputation for variety.
06 Get to know your own patch. Some seldom-caught species are surprisingly widespread. These are rarely caught because they can be difficult to target and they are not specifically fished for. Work out the best way of targeting them and give it a real go.
07 Check out fish-identification books. Some have brilliant information on the type of habitat favoured by the different species, which can be a huge help.
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