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A float for all seasons

Written by Adrian Farley

Float fishing - in the sea?Ada's floats for all seasons
How many sea anglers have dabbled in coarse fishing or perhaps consider that this branch of angling is their main pastime? I bet it’s a high proportion who, like me, are addicted to the sight of some kind of ‘bobber’ attached to their line and wait, in anticipation, for it to indicate that a fish has taken the bait. Wagglers, chubbers, sticks, antennas, sliders, controllers and a huge range of floats exist on the shop shelves for a baffling variety of purposes. This method is tailor-fitted to the coarse angler who wants to have a go in the sea. It’s also a novel and adaptable way for the  sea angler who wants a break from belting 6 ounces of lead to the horizon.

Essentially, a float has two main functions. One is to present the bait at a depth and in such a way as to fool the fish into thinking it’s a natural offering. Secondly, and this is the addictive part, it is to indicate that a fish has taken the bait.
Now why is it, then, that the vast majority of sea anglers ignore the fascination and near art form which float-fishing can become? Indeed, some anglers pour scorn on the method in the same way that so many beach-men ignore headlands, harbour walls and piers; and perhaps that’s the reason? But, it just so happens that fishing with float-gear is frequently most effective from these ‘places of ill-repute’, where casting and sophisticated traces and £30 worth of bait are rarely needed to the same extent as a 100-pegger along a mile of sandy beach.

So when should a sea angler think about using this tried and trusted freshwater method? Well, the answer to that one is for precisely the same reason that float fishing is such a popular coarse method. It allows you to target the sporting species like mackerel, garfish, mullet, pollack and bream, which frequently feed near the surface or some way up from the seabed. It also allows you to get at rock-dwellers like wrasse, which spend most of their time in crevices and kelp beds and which eat up your flowing traces, paternosters and other gear anchored on the rough bottom. Float fishing can also be the ideal method for holding station over a piece of ground instead of being carted down tide and conversely you can cover a lot of ground, if necessary, to find your fish.

Piers – gars, pollack and mackerel
So when and where do we need to consider float fishing as a best option?Float fishing can target inshore pollack

Well, my float fishing begins in late April and May when my local pier, near Portsmouth, starts to receive an influx of summer species …. most notably garfish and pollack. These are not the half-pound pollack, which the kiddies pull up with wrasse and mini-species at the height of summer. These are good inshore pollack weighing anything up to 2 ½ pounds.

The trick here, on South Parade Pier, is to fish as the tide begins to creep up the pier stanchions about three hours after dead low water. At this time the ebb flow reverses and starts to pull towards the west. My pet theory about this is that many of the small invertebrates – shrimps and prawns as well as shoals of bait-fish, re-align themselves under the pier in order to cope with the reverse flow and powerful flood tide. Whatever it is, a barren part of the pier can suddenly become alive with predators (including early bass) and a live prawn or sliver of mackerel presented at mid-water becomes deadly.

Those ‘in the know’, arm themselves with eleven or twelve feet carp rods and a fixed spool reel loaded with around 10 pound breaking strain line. A trace usually consists of a small sliding float (not a lighthouse beacon) taking around half an ounce of lead. With light gear, it is asking for trouble to thread a bullet lead onto the relatively thin line and I use a series of ‘lead carriers’ varying from ¼ to 1 ounce of lead or the equivelent in SSSG shot substitute.

Sliver of mackerel on a size 6 hook to mimic whitebait

You can use stronger line or thin stainless wire with a swivel at each end to attach the weight to the trace.

A size 6 hook attached to four feet of mainline, made into a flowing trace beneath the ‘bulk shot’ or weight, completes the rig. You can use a fixed chubber-type float in most conditions, but I tend to go for my specialised home-made sliders which allow me to vary the depth to longer than rod length towards high tide. It’s noticeable that garfish will frequently take a bait set at two to three feet depth, while early mackerel and pollack can be up to twelve feet down. You can set the depth with a slider using a simple half hitch and 2cm of thin rubber band or power gum. 

We’re talking mimicking tiny fry about 1 inch long here; so a thin sliver of mackerel attached at one end only is just right. Don’t be afraid to fish as close to the pier ironwork as possible as this is where the whitebait will be sheltering from the full force of the tide.

On the beach
OK,  you don’t like a crowded pier; so you’ve got several more options where float fishing can make all the difference between success and failure. Ever seen those mackerel and scad shoals on a calm summer evening running along the edge of a the beach or apparently ‘stuck’ between wooden groynes, when in fact they have herded whitebait so they have nowhere to go? The problem here is that the fish can be too close for feathers or even small lures to work. Enter the carp fisherman’s ‘controller float’. Again an 11 feet carp rod is the ideal tool with light line to match. Attach a controller float with all the weight in its base, so actually your float is fishing upside- down. Any ‘take’ will register as a rapid sideways movement rather than the float dipping down – and takes some getting used to. All you need is a four feet length of 10 lbs mono, a couple of small shot and a size 6 carp hook baited with the sliver of mackerel, hooked at one end only. Mackerel, scad, garfish, and the occasional bass and gurnard fall to this method along the Solent resorts and at Selsey. Believe me it will work anywhere that predators run right up to the beach. Similarly, I have fished a loaded waggler at distance from a flat sandy beach. Fish it just off the bottom baited with small fish or squid strip although a bunch of harbour rag or maddies can be deadly for many species especially Golden Grey Mullet. Groundbait works very well in these circumstances.

Then there’s Mullet …
There are plenty of marinas, rivers and piers where monster thick and thin-lipped mullet roam through the summer months. You’ll usually see them, so try a bit of patient ground-baiting with mashed bread and set up your 3 or 4 SSG shot waggler baited with a piece of fresh, doughy bread pinched around a size 8 hook. Alternatively, when you see mullet very near the surface or taking bread crusts, a transparent bubble float or ‘controller’, which uses no shot to sink the bait, will often tempt a thick lip.  Remember that the thin lips are much bolder, more often found in running water and are suckers for small ragworms. They’ll drive you mad, but once bitten, you’ll not look back, especially when you find large bass taking the bread too!

Floats afloat
Now, in the boat I have targeted several species with success and in so doing have picked up a 10 pound thornback, near 10 lb smoothhound and even Floats afloat - Black Bream are an ideal float fisherman's targeta lobster. The party-piece, however, is in bream fishing. ‘When I were a lad’, we actually used the large rough corks which Sussex fishermen used on their tangle nets as floats. These took all of four ounces of lead and enabled the angler to hold a bait enticingly above a reef in say twenty five feet of water – I’m particularly thinking of the Kingmere rocks off Littlehampton and the Bognor Rocks. Since I was an avid coarse angler in the 60s, I started making purpose-built sliding floats, which I’ve gradually refined over the years. Now I go bream fishing in up to fifty feet off Selsey and can use a 5oz slider in all but the fiercest of spring tides. These floats I make out of 1” diameter balsa dowel and they take me about 15 – 20 minutes plus time for paint and varnish. Now, where these tactics really pay off is when the tide slackens right off and other anglers in the boat are all fishing straight down with a boat settling into the wind – oh, the tangles; and not many fish come aboard until the tide runs again. That is, unless you are fishing the sliding float anywhere between bottom and ten feet up from the seabed, since bream will rise up in the water at slack tide. Put some artfully-aimed lumps of mashed rice, tuna and pilchards ten yards away from the boat in stiff balls and watch the others drink their coffee and have their lunches waiting for the tide to pick up. That is, while you pick out prime black bream using your fancy method – great fun!
Squid strip will sort out the better fish, but rag and lug work too! Expect to catch pollack, wrasse, pout, mackerel and garfish when using these tactics. Don’t go away with the idea that float fishing is only worthwhile when the sea is calm. There’s nothing better than a good chop to keep that float-fished bait constantly flapping up and down and enticing your quarry.

‘Redspots’ in front of your eyes!
If you’re lucky enough to live where good sized plaice frequent estuaries, harbours, shellfish beds  or shallow sand banks, using the right float method can get you some big fish. My best on the carp rod was three pounds nine ounces, caught in a local club boat match. Having brought it to the net from twenty five feet of water, it arched its back and went straight down to the bottom again – a feat never to be forgotten. The trick here, and it works for flounders too, is to incorporate a five feet trace below your float’s weight and tie in a metal spoon (white plastic versions are difficult to get down without a tangle) attached via small swivels at each end and with a hook no more than 24cm (9”) from the spoon. Add any attractors like coloured beads and sequins, which you feel confident with. In a moderate or slow tide, fish slightly over depth and hold the float back every few yards. At slack water you will find casting away from the boat (if space allows you to do it safely) and a very slow retrieve, allowing the float to rest at intervals will attract the plaice much better than a static bait.

So, is that it? Well, not quite, catching fish using light tackle is great fun; get a decent  mackerel or a three pound mullet on the carp rod and float and you won’t forget it in a hurry. I could go on at length about adapting the heavy slider float method into a deadly method for whiting too!

But I’ll leave you with the idea to experiment with...

Copyright Adrian Farley 2010

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