Bristol Channel reef fishing – a beginners guide

If the thought of getting out on the Somerset reefs to tackle the rough stuff fills you with dread, this could be just the read you’re looking for. Jason Atkins breaks it down with some sound advise for those looking to venture out on to these often fish-filled venues for the first time…

Safety first

The very first thing I would recommend is going out with someone who has experience of the reefs here in the Bristol Channel. First hand experience of the terrain will not only help you find the fish, but also keep you safe and there are some great guides working here if you’d like to fish with someone. If this isn’t possible, let someone know where you are fishing and what time you are likely to return home. Aim to arrive at any of the Somerset reef venues such as Hinkley, Shurton, Lilstock, Saint Audries two hours before low water. Consider your first trip as surveillance and any fish a bonus.

A double digits cod for a younger Jason

Fishing out on the low water reefs can seem daunting at first, it can also leave people disheartened after all of the planning and getting excited to get out on the reef fishing for the first time only to end up having a nightmare once you’re out there, constantly loosing sets of end tackle, or even worse, loosing a good fish because of this. I have spoken to many anglers after fishing these rougher reef venues for the first time when we have all met back up in the carpark for a chat, some have told me how dreadful the day was and how much gear they lost and a lot of the time there are a few things they could have done to make the day a lot more enjoyable and productive. 

What should I look for when fishing out on the reefs for the first time?

The best advantage you could give yourself for fishing a rough ground reef for the first time is learning the mark, unfortunately this cannot be done over night and will take some time, but with technology today you can speed up this process by searching the internet which will have a lot of different guidance and tips for tackling different reef marks for the first time. You can also download applications for your smart phone such as Google Earth which will give you an idea of the landscape you are fishing over.

A sleek hound of 16lb, know your mark and find the fish

Personally when I learn a new reef venue for the first time I like to go out over a large spring tide for a walk with no fishing equipment just have a look at the type of ground I will be fishing over, this gives me the opportunity to find features that may attract fish or cause them to come into that area, it also shows me how rough the ground is so that I know what type of ground I will be fishing over and where the snags are likely to happen, no one wants to be constantly getting caught up in other anglers lost tackle or getting caught up on a snag every other cast. Once you get out fishing for the first time on the mark, if you do become snagged up frequently in one area, move along slightly as you may then find clearer ground to fish over just a few yards away. 

End tackle 

It doesn’t need to be complicated. In terms of rigs, a pulley rig will cover everything you need to do when fishing out on the reefs. My pulley rigs are constructed from 100lb monofilament rig bodies with a minimum hook length breaking strain of 80lb. I have fished lighter hook lengths in the past but this has resulted in line break offs as fish attempt to run around the rocks and it can chafe off near to the hook. This is attached to a 80lb-100lb swivel for connecting the rig body and hook length and the same swivel for connecting to the clip on the shock leader.

A VMO Premium Pulley rig, perfect for the job

A 6oz wired lead is ideal for holding on the bottom and this should be fished on a rotten bottom with four inches of 12lb monofilament attached as a break off point. If the lead does become snagged up, this will allow you to get your rig back and also the fish with only the loss of the lead weight. No one wants to constantly keep losing end tackle and have fish roaming around with hooks and tackle attached to them. This will also prevent littering the bottom with end tackle which will eventually ruin the mark you are fishing as it takes a long period of time for this to break up and corrode.

A simple rotten bottom clip primed and ready to cast

Bass are very much on the cards here

Equipment for the job 

You don’t need expensive fishing tackle to target these venues but you need to have faith in the rods and reels that you are using. Being comfortable with the equipment you have is one of the biggest factors of being productive in the short period of time you have on the reef. These sort of venues can hold larger fishing and also unexpected fish so it’s best to be prepared for the job. The majority of these areas have a strong tidal run so I opt for a rod with a bit of poke in the lower and mid section but is slightly softer in the tip. This will prevent leads from pulling out of the bottom once they have settled. If the lead pulls out and starts to drag around with the tide over the rough ground then you are increasing the chances of loosing your gear in the rocks. A good fixed spool or Multiplier reel with a high retrieve is favoured, I use a Daiwa 18 Saltist 20H – Mono Mag loaded with 18lb to 20lb main line so that I can get my end tackle up clear of the bottom to prevent getting snagged up.

A winching machine if ever there was one


Different stages of the tide can produce difference species of fish on the reef along with the size of the tide on the venue your fishing. Neap tides will keep more depth of water in front of you at low tide and can help coax the fish in closer, especially when the sea is rough. The downside of neap tides is there will be less tide movement and a lot of species such as codling and smoothhounds will run along reefs using the running tide. The spring tides will expose more ground on the reef but you will be fishing over shallower depths, this can be favoured for certain species as you can fish out on to ground over low water which you may not be able to cast to on neap tides. Ideally you don’t want to fish on the highest spring tides as you may run out of water and this will push the fish out further, also after a storm this will push in large volumes of weed and debris, so this is another factor you will need to consider. I have found over time that trial and error is best and see what tide stage works better on the venue you are fishing. Great care should be taken on the flooding tide and it is highly advisable not to stay for any longer than one hour in to the flood on your first visit. Once you have a better understanding of how the flooding tide effects your venue, you may wish to fish for longer next time around, knowing that you can do so safely.

A nice brace of thornback rays


The type of bait you use on the reef will depend what time of the year it is and the species of fish that you are targeting. Personally during the summer months I focus on using squid and crab baits on the reef as these will be favoured by smoothhounds, bass and huss. I have had some of my larger smooth hounds and bass on squid but this can be dependant on the type of food source that is around at the time of the year. While you are fishing on the reefs it is useful to look around the rock pools and gulley’s to see if the crab have moved in shore as this is a good indication of what bait to use. Going in to autumn I like to mix up my baits, when fishing two rods I may opt to use a fish bait such as bluey or mackerel as some of the larger conger eels can be moving around the reefs at this time, I have had conger eels over 20lb in the past less than 30 yards out on mackerel baits but this will also give you the opportunity of finding a bass at the same time. During the winter months I focus on both lugworm and ragworm for the cod but it is not unknown for other species to also pick up these baits.

Take a look at the Bristol Channel Venues guide on the Veals Mail Order website for further details of each particular reef. Stay safe and have fun!


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