Estuaries, where briny and fresh waters meet, are among the richest ecosystems found along the coastline this side of the English Channel. In northern Brittany, many estuaries, rias and tideways cut inland where sea bass roam in numbers from spring well into autumn. From the end of the ebb and into the rising tide, those fish are on the prowl, hunting down bait and offer great sport to the discerning fly angler.
From my flat bottomed skiff with its shallow draft, I have access to a vast territory, inaccessible for shorebound anglers that can either wade in or only cast from the rocks: numerous islands and barely exposed rocks, flats, kelp beds (eelgrass and wireweed), sand banks, tidal channels and mud flats are Dicentrarchus labrax Grand Central and sea bass 101 – a masterclass to get acquainted with the species when wielding the long rod.
The powerful bow-mounted trolling motor allows me to run the length of islands and to delve into the shoreline while positioning the angler in perfect casting angles. The port side of the boat is free from any snag the fly line could get caught in for a perfect line shoot at distance with a minimum of false casts. The very shallow draft (under 3 feet) allows access into places where deeper hulls could never venture and around obstacles even at very low tide, and to fish the lee sides of islands and exposed rocks. The quiet motor can also keep the boat right in a fishy zone while approaching feeding fish without scaring them away.
During the outgoing tide, any obstacle bound to create a swirl becomes a susceptible lie for a fish at a certain moment when water depth and current play along, most notably isolated rocks, sandy banks, smaller tributary channels, small islands and deeper pools. Any structure that will break the monotony of a uniform current will need the angler’s first attention as those places usually gather bigger fish (over 20 inches), often moving as singles or hanging out in teams of no more than two or three fish.
Juvenile fish often shoal and move around in packs; those fish are most often responsible for noisy surface feeding frenzies.
Whether the tide is coming in out or outgoing, all I have to do is choose proper placement and drift along the flats on either side of a channel or riverbed (oyster bars and grass flats) while keeping the boat in water deep enough to keep my trolling motor working. Those places are an ideal habitat for many marine species (fish, shrimp, cephalopods) where lots of forage fish thrive (sand eels, sand smelt, European sprat, sardines, common scad, juvenile pollock, juvenile mackerel). Once the sea bass are on the feed, anglers can often connect on almost every cast! It is an awesome place to try out all sorts fly patterns and having a newcomer to the sport catch his very first sea bass on the fly!
While fishing those spots, most fish tend to school and are generally of modest size (up to 18 inches). During a feeding frenzy, no other fly pattern comes close to a Softy Sand Eel Blue & White #04 (9585). During overcast days, the Chartreuse & White variant often makes a difference, in sizes 2 or 6, depending on the size of the prevailing baitfish.
When the fish are not chasing bait on the surface, the sea bass often lie in ambush away from strong currents (a bit like trout in a riffle) and intercept anything in their range. In this vein and generally speaking, the last two or three hours of an outgoing tide are the most productive when the rivers current adds to the flow of the outgoing tide.
When great conditions prevail (no wind, clear water and good light) sight fishing the shoreline is a thrill: you can try to fool wild fish on light tackle, 7 and 8-weight outfits with floating or clear intermediate sink-tip lines with 8 to 12 lb tippet.
The rocky outcrops and the contour structures of the many islands of my territory (Bay of Morlaix and roadstead of Brest) often carry rockweeds, a brownish green algae that have tiny floats that keep the algae afloat in the tide, forming some sort of an umbrella for the sea bass on the prowl for baitfish and other prey on the lookout for some feeding and rest.
When not imminently visible, sea bass nevertheless betrays his presence by tiny movements along the shoreline: a few baitfish will flip out of the water here and there, a slight swirl and that’s it! At first sight, it could be mullet playing among the schools of baitfish, which can happen quite often, but a very close look (and the help of quality polarized lenses), anglers can make out a dark something down there on the bottom somewhere, a bit like a sleeping trout. Now it’s time to slowly sneak up onto the fish using the quiet trolling motor in order to make a perfect presentation (casting angle and distance, delicate laydown of the leader). While one cannot say the fish are educated, they remain extremely spooky (in estuaries more than other places) and the first cast is your best shot. If the streamer is not hammered on the first presentation, it will probably not happen on the next casts, either, and the bass will magically vanish, unlike mullet that flee in a big rushing wave. It often pays to rest the area, only to try it again at a later moment. Since the fish are territorial, they can often be found again in their lie, like a big trout. The small size of the flies used to imitate the baitfish require fine tippets (Ø 229mm à .279mm) to keep the streamers swimming enticingly, sometimes in very confined spaces, to prove its worth!
You need to catch the fish by surprise without spooking it. There’s no better pattern to do so than the Softy Sand Eel #04, that enters the water with nary a “blip”, while bigger, heavier lures will only send the bass running.
For thinner water, within the oyster tables and other shallow zones where sea bass hang out in ambush, a shrimp pattern like a Sand Shrimp Punter’s Choice in sizes #2 or #4 (CO105) can make a difference, on the condition that the presentation is well executed on a lightweight tippet (8 lbs maximum).
In deeper water beyond 10 to 12 feet when targeting bigger fish under smaller specimen, weighted patterns like Clouser Minnows, of the likes of a 9601 Clouser Deep Chartreuse & White or 9600 Clouser Deep Grey Ghost in sizes #02 and #06 are extremely effective, just as well as a more discreet Oz’s Livebait Sandeel (2237) can be.
When larger specimen are facing a strong current in deep water, it helps to use somewhat heavier tackle (9-and 10-weight) with fast sinking lines (250 to 450 grains) to get the flies in front of the fish. A Softy Sand Eel in size #2 is rarely ignored and has accounted for numerous sizeable fish. A Slinky Clouser (9997) in sizes # 02 and #06 will also get the job nicely done.
Sea bass fishing in estuaries is very varied and rewarding and includes a host of situations, depending on the lies and tides. Estuaries remain privileged areas where the rich ecosystem is only surpassed by its inherent beauty.
I insist on releasing every fish we catch in order to protect a resource threatened by overfishing on a European scale. Protection measures begin to take hold and the statistics of both numbers and size of sea bass caught are on the rebound, at least within my territory (which is not impacted by commercial fishing). During my two past guiding seasons, my anglers were able to connect with numerous fish in the 20- to 24- inch range, with estimated weights of 3 to 5 lbs. Every single fish has been carefully released and should still be around this summer. New implemented regulations should also help this trend. For the 2017 season, Northern Brittany will insist on full catch-and-release measures until June 30. After this date, only one fish can be harvested per day and per angler up until the end of the year – this is great news for the future of our pastime.
• Rods: 9’#7 to #10, of the likes of a Winston Boron III Plus/BIIIX or Echo 3 SW.
•Reels: 3-Tand TF-70, T-90 or TX-80 Hybrid
•Lines: RIO InTouch Striper floater & intermediate WF 7 to WF9
For heavier angling (deep feeding frenzies) at full tide or in strong currents: RIO InTouch Striper 30FT Sink Tip 250 to 400 grains.
Images and text courtesy of Brittany Fly Fishing/Philippe Dolivet.