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Ah, that’s bass

Outdoor Living

CATCH LIMITS Anglers must adhere to strict regulations and catch limits for wild sea bass, the population of which plummeted but is slowly recovering.

Country Sights and Sounds

John Shelley

An angler stood at one end of the lonely strand, the evening light emphasising his solitude. His baited hook was cast into flat water behind the third breaker. He was, I knew, hoping to intercept one of the local bass.
After a brief embargo on the killing of wild bass, these fish are soon to find themselves back on the menu once more, although the daily catch limit has been reduced from two to just one fish with a minimum length of 42cm in any 24-hour period. (Regulations for 2019 are a little complicated, with seasons switching on and off through the year, so be sure to check with tackle shops or Inland Fisheries Ireland.)
Anglers are a magnet to the majority of other beach goers, myself included. The enquiries rarely vary.
‘Caught anything?’
‘Not yet,’ is the familiar reply, ‘apart from this.’
He gestures to the growing pile of storm-torn kelp at his feet.
Helpful advice often follows. ‘I’m not surprised. I never saw anybody catch anything from here. You should try the pier. I’ve seen mackerel there.’
The angler remains polite and displays mild interest. He knows where to get mackerel from June until October, but this is winter and the best chance of catching anything worthwhile is here in the surf. Nobody stays long, for the chill wind blows them nicely along.
There is something powerfully hypnotic about the crashing waves and the wash and suck of surf, and it is a rare day indeed when nothing comes to the hook, and a rarer one still that brings nothing of further interest.
Today there is a great length of rope tangled by the sea into huge knot, it’s time adrift given testimony by a thick encrustation of goose barnacles. There’s also a thick plank of neatly sawn hardwood timber that will need a tractor to carry it to safety. Along the tideline, an empty bottle bears the remnant of a paper label marked with Cyrillic script. I imagine it held vodka and was drained and thrown overboard by some homesick Russian sailor mid-Atlantic. Several net floats lost from a fishing boat, an odd shoe and the dessicated body of a dead gull provide further diversions.
But bass. More than a decade ago we enjoyed good bass fishing from one small beach we might call an outlier of Clew Bay. We learned that bass populations along the Mayo coast are very local, in that one location might provide reliable angling at certain states of the tide, while adjacent inlets and coves seemed devoid of life. Then, for some reason, the fish disappeared. Our catches went from three or four good fish per session to practically nothing. The population crash was sudden and complete.
We were disappointed, for it had taken much investment of time and energy to locate the feeding grounds. We initially blamed a combination of illegal netting and commercial fishing. On reflection it could be that we simply fished the location out.
Irish bass are relatively slow growing. A decent table fish of five pounds or so might be ten to fifteen years old. The rate of reproduction is slow as well, due to low water temperatures in May and June, their spawning season.
A trusting friend told me of a new bass mark recently discovered. Fishing into darkness from a rocky outcrop into only three feet of water, he took two bass of six pounds each, together with plenty of flounder and dogfish to keep things interesting. Fishing from the rocks in the dark is not for the faint of heart, nor would I recommend it. A life jacket is essential, as is a good companion.
How might we describe a wild Irish bass? He is certainly not the silver skinned, pale pink, sandwich sized, scale-free fillet grown in a Mediterranean sea cage that we find in the fishmonger’s. No, he is a magnificent creature, a splendid slab of a fish, deep at the shoulder, blue-black above with steely sides and a belly of pale gold.
But beware! The first of two dorsal fins is equipped with a row of needle-pointed spines capable of inflicting painful wounds to incautious fingers, and each of the fins on the underside are similarly armed. In addition, the gill covers are adorned with razor sharp bony plates that can slice like a knife. The bass is a hard fish to handle, especially in the dark.
The flesh is cream in colour, firm, and exceptionally tasty, and certainly the equal of the much acclaimed turbot or John Dory.
Yes, there is something magical about fishing a beach at night. Surf trips over itself to claw at the sand, eyes grow accustomed to moonlight, ears to the rhythmic crash and hush of waves and more, the notion that somewhere out there in the dark water a barrel of a fish is homing in on our baited hook strains the senses and makes the moment complete. Keep safe.