There are a huge number of different species of fish found in UK waters – this website has profiles on over two hundred species. With such a huge range of fish species for anglers to target it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly what can be caught and from where. However, many species of fish which come to the UK are migratory and broad conclusions can be drawn about the season of the year at which they will be found in British waters.
Spring (March, April, May)
Spring, especially early spring, can be a quiet time around some parts of the UK for sea fishing, as many of the winter species will have moved away and the summer species have yet to arrive. Later spring can be seen as a transitional time as many of the species which have migrated away from the UK for the winter will begin to come back – plaice arrive in many parts of the UK in later spring, and mackerel, sprats, sandeels and garfish may start arriving. Other species such as pollock and wrasse are present throughout the year but spend the colder months in deeper, offshore waters where they are mostly out of range of the shore angler. Once the seas start warming up they will begin to come back into shallower waters and can be targeted by anglers. However, it must be noted that sea temperature lags behind the air temperature and it can take a sustained period of warm weather to get the sea to heat up. Silver eels can also be caught around estuaries and rivers during this time due to their migration patterns. Some parts of the UK see an upturn in cod fishing during the ‘spring run’ – the process of cod feeding to fatten themselves up before setting off for their migration to colder Scandinavian and Nordic waters.
Summer (June, July, August)
By summer the seas should have warmed up which will see the summer species move into shallower waters and within range of sea anglers. Summer is one of the busiest times for UK anglers as shoals of sprats move in, closely followed by mackerel and garfish – providing sport for anglers using spinners, feathers, daylights and float fished baits. For many anglers using these techniques to catch these species is the only time they will go fishing all year. Other predatory species such as bass and larger pollock spend the colder months in deeper water and summer will see them coming close to the shore as they feed on sprats, sandeels and smaller mackerel. Wrasse is another species which spends winter offshore and is caught in its highest numbers in the summer months, with the same being true for gurnard, mullet and anglers should be careful the venomous weever fish can also be caught on feathers and daylights. Other smaller fish such as pouting and rockling will also be around. Summer can also be the best time to catch a large species from the shore as this is the time that conger eels feed closest in, and species such as smooth-hound, tope and ray species are most commonly caught by shore anglers around this time of year. Semi-migratory species such as cod may be present over the summer – especially in the northern parts of England and Scotland. However, smaller specimens will dominate numbers and it is often only boat anglers who can access the larger cod in the warmer months. Whiting are similar to cod in their seasonal variations. Plaice remain in British waters throughout early to mid summer, and those caught at this time of year will have had several months to feed in inshore waters and fatten up, meaning those caught in summer are much heavier fish (and in a much better condition) than those caught in the spring. Summer also represents the best time to fish for large and relatively rare flatfish species such as turbot, and can also be the time when anglers are in with the best chance of catching something very rare indeed such as a rare bream species (white, Pandora or gilt-head), a triggerfish, or a John Dory – although there is much more chance of catching a sub-tropical exotic species around the south of the UK, particularly the south west of England.
Autumn (September, October and November)
Early autumn can provide the best of both worlds for anglers, as there is often overlap between the summer and winter species. In fact in some parts of the UK it is possible for anglers spinning for summer mackerel to catch an autumn/winter cod on their lures! Larger species such as conger eels, smooth-hound and thornback ray will still be present and a fine early autumn evening can be an excellent time to target these species. The same is true for larger bass, pollock and wrasse. As autumn goes on these species will being to thin out to be replaced by the larger mature cod, who will migrate down from the colder Scandinavian waters to join the smaller immature cod which have remained around the UK all year long. Whiting will also be beginning to arrive and while the plaice will have migrated away by autumn the colder water flatfish such as dab and flounder will certainly be around to provide anglers with sport. There is a great deal of regional variation with the arrival of the winter species. For example cod, migrating from the colder north will be out in greater numbers around Scotland and northern England than around the southern parts of England.
Winter (December, January and February)
The winter is synonymous with cod fishing in many parts of the UK (as described above this is particularly true in north of Britain). Whiting are often caught alongside the cod and small, hungry whiting can become a bait stealing pest for many anglers trying to catch a big cod, although larger whiting can provide good, solid sport when the cod are not biting. Catches of flatfish such as flounder and dab are likely to remain steady as well and coalfish will also take bottom fished baits, especially around the north. Again it is anglers fishing the north of the UK that will be in with the best chance of catching a very rare coldwater species when winter is at its coldest, such as an Atlantic wolffish. Other smaller fish which are non-migratory such as three-bearded rockling and pouting will also turn up in catches around the UK in winter. As winter turns into spring many species head away to spawn and we reach the quiet time described at the start of this article before the whole process begins again.
Clearly the above guide is general in nature. With the huge range of regional variations – and the fact that there are always a few fish which do not stick to their supposed migratory patterns – the ability to say which species of fish will be in UK waters at any particular time of the year is always an inexact science. However, having a general understanding of the time of the year which certain fish species come to the UK allows anglers to plan which species they will target. Many anglers ensure that their light bass and spinning rods are ready along with their spinners, plugs and float fishing gear for the summer species. As the weather gets colder and the conditions worsen anglers may put away the lighter spinning/bass rod and use their heavier beachcasters to fish for winter species such as cod, with a larger specimen hopefully coming along for the angler preparing to brave the harsh and cold conditions encountered when fishing during a British winter.
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