- Scientific name: Dicentrarchus labrax
- Also know as: Seabass, European bass
- Size: up to 4ft and 20lb. UK shore caught typically 1 – 5lb
- UK minimum size: 16½ inches (42cm) length. Catch and release only in January, February and December of 2021. Anglers are limited to retaining two bass per day in all other months – see section below.
- UK shore caught record: 19lb 12oz
- ICUN Status: LC (Least Concern)
- Distribution: Found throughout the UK in the warm summer months, but is more common on the south coasts of England and Ireland.
- Feeds on: Primarily hunts small fish but will also take worms and crustaceans.
- Description: Sleek streamlined body with distinct silver scales and straight lateral line. First dorsal fin contains sharp spines (as do the gill covers), second dorsal fin much smaller with no spines. Colour can fade into black/blue on black. There is a distinctive black mark on the gill cover.
Bass are a highly sought after fish, and bass angling attracts some of Britain’s most committed anglers due to the fighting qualities and high reputation of this striking looking fish. A bass of 10lb or more would be a landmark catch for most anglers, although fish much smaller than this still provide plenty of sport. Smaller bass (those under 2lb) are known as school bass and stay in shoals in and around estuaries, while larger bass live in deeper water and become solitary hunters. School bass will feed on worms, crab or fish while older fish are extremely selective about the bait they will take and can prove a challenge for even the most knowledgeable and experienced angler to catch. Many bass anglers are highly dedicated to catching this species and will spend a great deal of time researching likely bass marks and using trial and error to find where and when the bass feed.
Recent years have seen bass numbers decline significantly. There have been a number of different restrictions placed on both anglers and commercial fishermen in an attempt to halt the decline. Since 2016 there have been restrictions on UK anglers recreational bass fishing including bag limits and a catch-and-release only policy (read more below).
Bass are found throughout European waters. They are found around Skagerrak and throughout the North Sea, although they are not very common in the Baltic Sea. Their range extends along the Atlantic coastline of France, Spain and Portugal and along parts of the north coast of Africa. They are also present throughout the whole of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. Despite the questions over the long-term stability of bass numbers this species appears to be extending their range northwards with bass now being caught with some regularity in areas such as the Yorkshire and North East coasts where they were previously fairly rare. Bass are found in the waters of the south and west of the UK all year round, although it may be the smaller immature bass which are present during the colder months. In the northern areas of England and most of Scotland bass are more likely to be present around the shoreline during the summer months although some bass remain close to the shore in the winter.
Commercial Value and Declining Bass Numbers
Bass are in high demand from commercial fisheries and command a high price in restaurants and fishmongers. They are generally caught by trawlers and gill nets. Like many fish species nowadays, bass numbers have been reduced by commercial pressure and there is concern that both the total numbers and average size of bass are rapidly reducing in UK and European waters. In 2013 the UK media reported that bass numbers were at their lowest in twenty years and that the breeding stock of bass had reduced by almost a third since 2009. A number of measures have been put forward to try and restore bass stocks. These have included banning French pair trawlers from targeting bass as they are gathering to spawn in the English Channel and limiting anglers to a bag limit of three bass per day. The minimum landing size of bass was also increased from 36cm to 42cm. By 2015 it was clear that the measures were ineffective and bass numbers were still declining and further measures were needed.
Related article: Europe’s Bass – A Species on the Edge of Collapse?
Bass: Recreational Angler Limits from 2016
From 2016 onwards there have been regulations and limits placed on both recreational and commercial bass fishing in an attempt to restore stocks of this species. In 2016 this consisted of anglers only being permitted to fish for bass on a catch and release basis only for the first six months of the year and limited to retaining one bass per angler per day for the second half of the year. The regulations have continued for every year since then and have always consisted of anglers having to fish for bass on a catch-and-release basis for certain months of the year, and being able to retain a limited number of bass in other months. Commercial restrictions have included bans on specifically targeting bass, an enforced closed season during bass spawning times and reductions in the amount of unavoidable bass bycatch which can be retained.
Current Regulations for Recreational Bass Fishing
The next set of regulations for anglers fishing for bass in British waters were confirmed in January 2020. Anglers were required to fish for bass on a catch and release only basis during January, February and December of 2020. From 1st March to 30th November anglers could retain two bass per angler per day, provided they were above the minimum size of 42cm. These were the least stringent regulations that had been placed on anglers since the new limits regulating recreational catches began in 2016 and marked the first time anglers could legally retain two bass per day since 2015. In 2021 and 2022 the same restrictions on recreational angling for bass remained in place. [Information from the official government website of the Marine Management Organisation – available here].
British Record for Shore Caught Bass
The British record shore caught bass was a 19lb fish caught from Dover Breakwater in 1988. However, recent years have seen a number of large bass caught and it was thought that this record would soon be broken. This turned out to be the case when a bass of 19lb 11oz 12dr was caught on a Sandown Pier on the Isle of Wight by local angler Steve Caves who used a full squid bait on a size 6/0 hook. This record was itself broken by John Stephenson who caught a bass of 19lb 12oz at Portsmouth Docks on a frozen sandeel bait. The bass apparently coughed up a 1lb 8oz pouting, which would have put it well above the current record and over the 20lb mark.
Techniques and Methods to Catch Bass
Dusk and dawn are key feeding times for the bigger bass, and they will often search for food around a specific area, usually just behind the breaking waves on big sandy beaches, but plenty of rock marks and estuaries will also hold bass. Bass live and feed at a range of water depths and can be found in very shallow water if food sources such as peeler crabs, shellfish or worm beds are present there.
Many anglers see bass as a predator which hunts down smaller fish. While this is true, all bass – even the very largest – are also scavengers which will constantly search around for food which may be present on or around the seabed. This means that bass can be caught with both lures and bait, although it is worth noting that the largest bass approaching record sizes which anglers catch are almost always caught on bait rather than lures. Smaller school bass are common around harbours and estuaries. As they are less fussy when it comes to taking baits and more common than larger bass they generally make up the majority of catches. Many anglers take a subtle approach when fishing for bass, using specialist bass rods which allow the initially shy bites of this species to be felt while also retaining the power to cast into the surf. These rods are also lighter than a standard beach caster allowing them to be held comfortably for long periods of time.
Bass are renowned as powerful fighting fish and battling one on a properly balanced bass rod can provide great sport. Be careful when unhooking a bass as the spiky first dorsal fin and sharp gill covers are capable of piercing or cutting skin.
Bait Fishing for Bass: Larger bass are thought to be relatively fussy about the baits they take (certainly when compared to voracious feeders such as cod) and will reject unnatural baits. Cocktail baits are therefore generally avoided and something natural looking such as a head-hooked ragworm, a sandeel or a full peeler crab are the most popular baits. Full squid or cuttlefish are underrated baits for bass, as is a large mackerel fillet. Whichever bait is chosen long, flowing snoods should be used as they allow the bait to move in the tidal flow in a natural way. Due to their cautious nature anglers fishing for bass also steer clear of hi-visibility line, using clear mainlines and leaders and clear mono or fluorocarbon hook snoods. Live baiting with sandeels, pouting or other small fish is another technique that can get results – especially in places such as piers where these baits can be easily lowered down into the water.
Lure Fishing for Bass: Lure fishing for bass is also very popular and a whole discipline of angling has emerged with lures, plugs and spinners specifically designed to catch bass. This type of fishing is carried out around the UK but is especially common around the southern coasts of England and Ireland and parts of the Welsh coast and Scotland where bass are more numerous. Lure fishing for bass is usually done from rock marks that give access to deep water where bass are likely to be hunting and feeding, although piers, steep beaches, estuaries and harbours can all produce this species to lures.
Many anglers use plugs for bass. These are hard lures, generally made out of plastic, and can be floating or diving in design. Read more about plug fishing for bass by clicking here. Some plugs designed for bass fishing can be extremely expensive, costing upwards of £25 each! Other plugs are much more modestly priced and many anglers have success lure fishing for bass using relatively cheap spinners which are designed for mackerel or very inexpensive jelly eels and worms. Lure fishing for bass is an active method of fishing with few aspects of sea fishing around the UK more exciting than seeing a bass launch itself at a plug being drawn across the surface of the water.