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Sea Fishing in the UK – How to get started

If you’re one of those people who have always wanted to cast a line into the mysterious pull of the tide but never knew where to begin, this beginners guide to sea fishing in the UK, will give you the basic information you need to cast your first line and catch your first fish.

When are the best times to go sea fishing?

Before we look at what tackle you will need to go sea fishing lets look at one or two other things you will want to know – like which are the best times to go sea fishing.

Some marks fish well over low water, others over high water, whilst some provide sport throughout the tide, so the best way to find the optimum time is to fish your chosen marks in various weathers, sea states and tide times.

Begin by fishing the last two hours of the outgoing ebb tide and the first two of the incoming flood tide. During the next session, fish the last two hours of the flood and the first two of the ebb, and next time fish the flood tide up to high water, and so on.

Keep a detailed diary of these sessions, noting tidal information, weather details and barometric pressure. Over a period of years these diaries, in simple notebook form will build a complete picture of each venue, allowing you to spot trends and inform future session planning.

Where should I fish?

Our coastline offers a wide range of fishing from rocks, breakwaters and beaches. Rock fishing should be approached only with more experience, so we will focus on breakwaters/piers and beaches for now.

Fishing from piers and breakwaters

Fish love structures. Pier pilings or a breakwater’s boulders provide shelter for a multitude of marine life, which in turn attracts fish. Simply dropping a bait between pier pilings will quickly get you amongst the fish, even if they are small.

Casting out from such structures will also give you a chance of catching well as your rig is fishing into deeper water, tide runs and eddies created by the structure itself. This is where predatory fish often lurk to snaffle up passing food items.

Although they are fantastic places to fish, it’s advisable to have an advance chat with other anglers before you set out or go with someone who knows the venue, especially if you haven’t been before. Also, consider the sea state – a huge tide with a big swell and crashing waves is no time to tackle a breakwater!

Pier pilings or a breakwater’s boulders provide shelter for a multitude of marine life, which in turn attracts fish.

Pier pilings or a breakwater’s boulders provide shelter for a multitude of marine life, which in turn attracts fish.

Fishing from beaches

Fishing from a shelving shingle beach also offers access to deeper water. Casting further out will often get your bait into a tide run, but dropping a cast short where the shingle meets the sand can result in some very big fish because predators such as bass and conger eels patrol these areas when hunting.

Set up well back from the water’s edge on such beaches, and keep an eye on the sea. Even calm conditions can throw up occasional rogue waves that pose a serious risk to safety.

Flat sandy beaches are also great places to fish, and ideal for the newcomer. Fish these on small to mid-sized tides at first so that the tidal pull isn’t too much to deal with and you’re not pushed up the beach too quickly.

When arriving at the beach don’t plonk your gear down and set up at the first available spot; instead, hone your beachcraft and watercraft. Look for gullies, banks of pebble and small sandbars; these are places that fish will search for food, so you need to be there too! So, now that we’ve established when and where to fish, let’s think about tackling up.

Fishing from a shelving shingle beach can offer access to deeper water.

Fishing from a shelving shingle beach also offers access to deeper water.

Which rod should I choose?

Buying your first set of tackle is a potential minefield to the inexperienced angler or newcomer to sea fishing. The temptation is to think that walking into the nearest tackle shop and spending £400 on a rod will buy instant competence.

What regularly happens is that the angler buys a rod far beyond their capabilities, something they can’t cast properly and which actually hinders their fishing when they would have been better advised to buy something more suited to their immediate needs. So what would be the best choice?

Short-range rods

Many anglers use bass or flattie rods between 10.5 and 12 feet in length, designed for casting up to four ounces of lead and smaller baits to shorter ranges in the surf tables. Light enough to hold throughout long sessions, they are ideal for touch ledgering, connecting an angler directly to the electric charge of a sudden bite transmitted up the rod’s length.

However, any decent carp rod, barbel rod or heavy spinning rod will work just as well. As you progress, these rods will allow you to diversify as they can also be used for float fishing and heavy spinning for species such as pollack.

General beach fishing rods

For general fishing, choose a ‘beachcaster’ of 12 to 13 feet in length, capable of casting four to six ounces of lead and baits. You could buy brand new, but the second-hand market for these rods is extensive, so you needn’t break the bank.

Even in the current financial climate, £50 to £80 will still often buy you a very capable used rod made by established companies such as Daiwa, Leeda and others that will put a bait out far enough to find the fish, sit well in tide and adverse weather, and show bites.

Which reel should I choose for sea fishing?

Fishing with a short-range rod you’ll be able to use a smaller 4000/5000 sized reel. Bait runners and rear drags are fine here because there’s no power involved in casting. Otherwise, reels of 7000 sizes and upward are best. Make sure these reels have a front drag system that will allow you to fully lock down the spool before casting and fill your reel’s spool with line to within 2 or 3mm of the spool lip to reduce friction and offer a smoother, longer cast.

The rigours of casting, hauling fish and weed through the tide places serious demands on your reels, so they need to be up to the job. New is fine, but again, the second-hand route is an option. Look for reels from recognised manufacturers with proven track records for durability, such as Daiwa, Penn and Shimano. If you’re a carp angler, your big pit reels will do the job well enough.

No reel will last long if neglected. After every session rinse the reel under the cold tap to remove saltwater or bits of sand, shake out any excess and leave somewhere warm like an airing cupboard to dry. A drop of oil in key places such as the bail roller and handle every couple of sessions will keep things running smoothly, along with an annual service.

Sea fishing reels

Make sure your reels have a front drag system that will allow you to fully lock down the spool before casting.

What sort of line will I need for sea fishing?

A 15-pound line of around 0.35mm diameter is a good option in most standard fishing situations. However, if fishing where the sand is broken up by weed beds, patches of rocks or shellfish, you should step up to thicker, more abrasion resistant breaking strains of 18-pounds, around 0.38mm, or even 20-pounds (0.40mm).

Whether fishing clean ground for flounders at 60 yards or broken ground for cod at 160 yards, there is one absolute non-negotiable: always use a shock leader. A length of stronger line attached to the end of your reel line via a shock leader knot, it is a buffer that soaks up the stresses of heavy casting and provides a safety net if a cast goes wrong, which can often happen in such a challenging environment.

The accepted formula is 10lbs of breaking strain for every ounce of lead you are casting: if fishing with a six ounce lead weight, you should use 60lb shock leader. Its length should be the length of the rod plus six turns around your reel.

Which rig will get me started?

Opt for a simple, functional rig like a two-hook paternoster tied with hooks of Size 1/0 in an Aberdeen pattern. These are small enough to hook most fish but strong enough should something heftier grab your bait. Two hooks allow trial and error through fishing different baits simultaneously. Although the linked diagram suggests crimps to trap the beads, stop knots work just as well, allowing you to move the position of your hooks on the rig.

The rig body should be the same breaking strain as your shock leader, to ensure safety. Snood lines in mono or fluorocarbon should be around 20 to 30lbs. Sunset Amnesia is a popular choice for this due to its durability and lack of memory. At the end of your rig, a five ounce lead will cover most situations, but on smaller tides and in lighter surf conditions you could step down to as little as three ounces.

Which baits should I use?

Although there are many options available to the sea angler, the list below is a good place to start when buying baits for your first sea fishing sessions.

Fish Baits

Small, two inch x half inch mackerel strips will catch fish. Squid is also an excellent option fished the same way or used to ‘tip off’ other baits by hanging a strip from the hook point to wave enticingly in the tide. Both are available from fishing shops and supermarket fish counters.

Shellfish Baits

Razor clams are the most commonly used and widely available. Remove from the shell and thread on the hook before binding with a light bait elastic to keep them in place during casting. Razor clams are an excellent bait for bass and flatfish in surf conditions.

Worm Baits

Ragworms and lugworms are the two main worm baits. For scent and juices the lugworm is better, being more effective when the water is coloured following rough weather. In clearer, calmer conditions, the wriggly ragworm is a great fish attractor. Simply thread onto the hook.

What else do I need for sea fishing?

The following bits and pieces, often overlooked, can be the difference between a successful session and an embarrassing retreat:

  1. A seat box or 25 litre plastic bucket with a lid. As well as keeping everything dry and sand-free, both offer somewhere to sit. Three to eight hours is a long time to stand on a beach, and you certainly don’t want to be sitting in wet sand.
  2. Scissors and a knife. Scissors can be used to slice up baits and cut line whilst a good stainless steel filleting knife is essential for bait preparation and for cleaning and filleting any fish you wish to take home for the pot.
  3. Hand towel. A towel will keep everything clean after baiting up, but will also help to avoid accidents caused by wet, slippery hands, especially when using that knife!
  4. Spool of bait elastic. A few turns of light elastic around soft baits will prevent them from flying off the hook when casting, leaving you with bare hooks and no fish!
  5. Spare rigs and leads. A couple of each will suffice. There is always the potential for a snag or a cracked-off cast, so carry a couple of spare sets of end tackle for such eventualities.
  6. A set of waterproofs. If you’re wet from a sudden rain shower, those sea breezes will send you running for the comforts of home in no time. A set of light waterproofs will be adequate in all but the most persistent rain as well as being easy to carry at the bottom of your box or bucket.
  7. A rod rest. Sand spikes work well on sandy beaches, but the most popular and versatile rod rest is a tripod. These make fishing longer sessions far more comfortable by offering somewhere to place your rod when baiting up.

By following the information above, you will be able to get yourself started in sea fishing, establishing a solid platform from which to gain further experience and grow into the sport. Tight lines and good luck!

With a few bits kit, sea fishing is very easy to start and be enjoyed by all - and can be very rewarding.

With a few bits of solid kit, sea fishing is very easy to start and can be enjoyed by all.

Frequently Asked Questions about sea fishing

Are there other costs to consider when starting?

Unlike freshwater anglers, you do not need a licence to sea fish in the UK. However, many coastal car parks charge for parking, so you need to factor this into your plans. Also, the majority of established piers will charge an entry fee, and some may even require club membership, so it is best to research this before your fishing trip.

How can I quickly grow my knowledge of sea fishing?

The best way to learn is from others, and an effective way of doing this is to join a fishing club. There are dozens of sea angling clubs around the country that offer support and advice to juniors, newcomers and experienced anglers alike. In every club there will be a wealth of many years’ experience, and fellow members will be only too happy to help out.

What am I likely to catch?

Some fish are more seasonal and caught in greater numbers at different times of the year. This has changed in recent years due to shifts in climate and sea temperatures, but broadly speaking you can expect to catch whiting, pouting, dabs and codling more frequently in autumn and winter whereas plaice are associated with spring and bass and smooth hounds with summer. Flounders and dogfish are year-round species. As mentioned though, things are changing: rays are now caught throughout the year in many places and big bass often pop up in winter.

Is there a limit to what I can keep and take home when sea fishing?

UK sea fish are subject to minimum size limits. Keeping any fish below these limits may land you with a hefty fine, and rightly so. The limits are designed to protect and sustain fish stocks for future generations, so sea anglers must respect and follow them. At the time of writing there is also a strict, conservation-based close-season on bass, limiting the amount of fish that recreational anglers can keep, and when they are able to do so.

Which fish are the best to eat?

This is a matter of personal taste. The most popular are cod, bass, bream, plaice and sole, all of which can be cooked in numerous ways. Whiting and pouting, members of the cod family, are also very good, as are dabs, but you will need a few of each of these for a decent meal. Finally, the oily flesh of mackerel is excellent when seasoned and grilled or barbecued. There is nothing quite like eating fish which you have caught yourself so… Bon appétit!

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Written by Simon Smith
Simon Smith lives in Port Talbot in South Wales and has written for numerous publications including 'Waterlog', 'Fallon’s Angler' and 'Sea Angler' magazine. He is also author of two angling books, both collections of angling-themed essays and poems: 'Running with the Tide', published by the Medlar Press in 2013 and 'Waiting for a Hunter’s Moon', published by Cambria Books in 2021.

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