The first Plaice I caught this spring came on a day when I had to scrape the frost from the car windscreen just to get to Fleetwood. That fish came in sight of a back drop of snow topped fells fringing the northern Cumbrian edge of Morecambe Bay. That however is not the norm when I board Andy Bradbury's 'Blue Mink' with Plaice on my mind. Not so much in terms of the early start to the season. This last winter for example saw a few Plaice putting in a bonus show during every month of the year. I'm thinking more here of the weather, which along the Lancashire Coast tends to come mainly from the west which in March and April can feel pretty grim. Not only that, you can be in for a bit of a battering too. But in that regard, Fleetwood and Andy have a couple of aces up their sleeve to be dealt on those days when all hope appears to be lost for anyone wanting to fish from a boat, which is why I try wherever possible to board 'Blue Mink' on middle range tides with low water falling somewhere around the mid point of the trip. That way, within reason, the wind can do whatever it likes as all too often these days it does, so long as it doesn't go north of west.
It was just such a day when I jumped in with a party from Bury & District Sea Angling Club for another Plaice orientated trip. The wind was blowing a good westerly 5 and cool with it. Rain was also forecast for later in the day which thankfully didn't really materialize. Granted, it was a bit on the choppy side at first. But as I hinted earlier, the trick here is in the timing, because as the tide ebbs away, it exposes a mix of sand and mussel banks which define the channel all the way out to the Wyre Light forming a large salt-water lagoon with not enough in the way of size to allow any sort of sea to build up. There are two other bonus's here as well. The first is that whatever fish there are in that part of the bay are forced to drop back and become concentrated up until they get the chance to start working their way back up the flooding gullies to get around the mussel beds, the other being that it's possible to steam out of the narrow channel entrance around to Heysham and the Lune Channel which are themselves good Plaice holding areas, again using the drying banks for shelter.
Besides the obvious fall-back potential of the Wyre Channel for occasions such as these, I actually enjoy fishing the area in it's own right. In fact, Charlie Pitchers and I have been known to trail our Warrior 175 around to Knott End for just that purpose and have had some excellent results on the Plaice. The slip at Knott End is council owned for the ferry to pick up and discharge its passengers, but can be used as a launch facility by paying the ferryman who is pretty much bound to catch you putting in as the run cross to Fleetwood is so short and the crossings so frequent. The slip itself is not ideal, having a drop off the very end at low water and metal mooring bollards along it's inner edge for the ferry to tie up to. But in terms of facilities, it beats the Fleetwood side where Andy still has to come in on to the ferry beach and put a ladder over for boarding in the same they were doing back in the 1970's when I first started visiting the port. So much for the Sea Angling 2012 survey report.
Plaice generally have been one of natures success stories over recent times which makes a pleasant change. Certainly along the Lancashire Coast, though it also has to be said that our fish can be very localised tending to form pockets in small specific holding areas. Arguably, the decline in inshore fishing has played it's part. Fleetwood is hardly even a shadow these days of its former incarnation as the most important distant water fishing port in the country with a thriving inshore industry to back up the Icelandic fleet. But anglers aren't shedding any tears over that one as other species such as Rays have also been making a noticeable comeback to add to the excellent Smoothhound and Tope fishing the warmer months also regularly deliver. Unfortunately, these rather localised accumulations of Plaice, and to some extent the geography of the area, mean that we have to use tactics which anglers in other areas would see as not perhaps the best in terms of finding good numbers of fish.
Around much of the country, Plaice, bling and drift fishing seem to go hand in hand. Plaice are inquisitive fish, easily attracted to the baits by certain colours and additions to the rig which sparkle or throw out glints of light. Spoons with a string of beads butted up to the hook are one approach I particularly like when Plaice fishing elsewhere on the drift. But to make a spoon work effectively it needs water flow to make it wobble or rotate, which fishing as we do at anchor would require either a very small light spoon or a lot of tide. We can still use the beads – particularly a mix of black and green which I find work particularly well. Also the buoyant luminous green and red spotted Gemini Genie beads which you can 'charge up' using the flash gun off a camera. Our problem is that fishing an estuary, you don't always get the water as clear as you would like it for visual attraction to stand much of a chance. But we still tend to use bling anyway, because even if it isn't adding anything to your rig some days, at the same time, it isn't detracting from it either.
One thing you really do need to be using here if Plaice feature in your plans is a trace that presents its baits hard on the bottom, particularly if there is any colour in the water. Because even in the estuary it can be quite a mixed fishery with Codling, Whiting and even at times Bass mixed in with the three common flatfish species present. From time to time you get people with either all of their hooks strung out on droppers above the lead, or at best with just one hook length below. The thing is that the round fish species are equally happy to pick up baits hard on the bottom, especially when the water is coloured and they are relying more on scent than on sight. But the flatfish are far less inclined to move up in the water column, with Plaice probably the least happy to do so of the three. So some variation, either with or without bling on the simple flowing trace will typically over a season out-fish dropper rigs, and by a considerable margin.
Another big plus at Fleetwood is that while the Plaice are happy to take fresh blow or black lugworm, they are usually just as happy to take it frozen as well. In fact, there have been occasions when twice frozen worm taken along as a backup has caught as many, and in some cases more Plaice than the newer stuff. So they aren't that particular. But what I do like to do, though I'm not sure it makes that much difference in terms of persuading Plaice to feed, is tip my worm baits off with a tiny fluttering sliver of squid. You could argue that it acts as a visual stimuli as it flutters in the tide, and maybe it does. It could even be that the Plaice like either the squid in its own right or as a cocktail partner. But that's not my reason for using it. I find it helps keep the worm in place, particularly frozen blacklug which can tend to be a bit on the soft side and easily displaced, especially when the Dabs or small Whiting are about in good numbers ragging at baits the moment they touch bottom.
Another observation when it comes to Plaice caught at anchor where they get more time on the baits is their greed. Their propensity to swallow baits coupled to their small mouths and tough throats can make them a nightmare to disgorge. Not so much of a problem with the bigger fish if you intend to keep them. A quick dispatch followed by a bit of post mortem surgery will soon have the hooks back out working. It's when the smaller fish come along that the problems follow. I've seen all types of disgorgers tried without much in the way of success. They free the hooks; but at what cost to fish which really ought to be going back. For this reason I return all lip hooked Plaice regardless of size to compensate for those I have to kill through being badly hooked. And though far from ideal, a technique which Andy uses to quite good effect is to go in carefully under the gill cover with long nosed pliers to free the hook, then turn it and slide it back in through the gills and out of the mouth.
Sticking with the observations theme, we did one early trip last year where unusually it was flat calm with dawn to dusk sunshine. Plaice it seems most definitely like bright conditions. But, they don't seem to like it mirror calm. So we headed off in the usual way, but all we could catch were Dabs. A never ending stream of the things in fact which is one species there never seems to be any shortage of up here. As you might expect, discontent starts to set in with the anglers. Andy countered this by saying that there were Plaice down there but it was unfortunately too calm, though whether they accepted that at the time is debatable. They most certainly accepted the explanation by the end of the session though, because right at the death the lightest of sea breezes popped up putting an almost indiscernible ripple on the water. "You should start catching Plaice now", Andy announced, and within the hour we had left, more than 30 Plaice hit the deck.
Of the three common flatfish species, all of which frequent the Wyre Channel, Plaice are for me the main prize. Not because I take them. As I've said, I'm happy to put them back, and those I do kill out of necessity I give to other people. Maybe it's the hint of better fishing to come after a long hard winter with usually not much to catch for a month of so after the Cod and Whiting tail off. In part it's the beauty of the Plaice. Those conspicuous red spots when they show on the surface as almost invariably Plaice will remain coloured side up all the way to the boat, unlike Dabs which just give up. But more than that it's because nine times out of ten, regardless of size, you know when you have a Plaice on the end due to the line angle in the water as the fish stays deep making powerful surges to get back down to the bottom. They never give up. This is perhaps less noticeable in the smaller fish. But latch onto one of the better fish, particularly on a nice light rod, and there's no mistaking what you have on the end. It's just a pity that the ones we get up here are not a better stamp. There are obviously some decent specimens in there with them, particularly as the summer moves on into autumn and they really start piling the weight on, making then an excellent fall back option for those less favourable days over much of the year.