The sea bass is probably the most sought-after marine predator in Europe. It can be fished from shore, from boats, from the surface as well as the bottom. It can be found in the North Sea in Norway and in the Atlantic in Morocco and basically everything in between, especially the Mediterranean Sea. This rather opportunistic predator is found in different types of habitats. It likes the brackish waters of mouths and lagoons. But also, surprisingly, it wanders upstream in rivers, sometimes quite far, in fresh water!
Fresh water bar
«Le loup» (French for ‘the wolf’) or «ragnola», as the Corsicans call it, is quite present at the mouths. Many angler go after it here, some surfcast, others use lures. It is also regularly found in lagoons and coastal ponds where it rubs shoulders with mullets. On Corsica, where I have the opportunity to track sea bass in the river, it was by chance that I first crossed the path of Dicentrachus Labrax. On low stretches of rivers where I regularly stalk trout, it happened to me on several occasions that fish, sometimes very big ones, followed my small trout lure. Without being able to see more than a silhouette, I thought of curious mullets, shads (‘Alose’ in French) or even big trout… But then the fish came into view and I was surprised to see an actual «wolf»! Three «wolves» to be exact. These last ones were around 60cm, which meant attempting a catch with my UL trout rod in a strong current wouldn’t have made for a triumphant scene. But the idea of trying to catch this marine fish in fresh water has been present in my mind ever since.
Why in freshwater?
The sea bass is a marine fish that usually enjoys brackish water, though numerous encyclopaedias of freshwater species of Europe list Dicentrarchus Labrax as a species capable of surviving in fresh water. So two questions: how and why? Clearly not to spawn, as migratory fish such as salmon or shad are known to. Well, to this day we don’t have a definite answer but most experts believe that wolves go up rivers to find food sources and quiet areas, sheltered from the pressure of fishermen and marine predators such as bluefish or leerfish. There are indeed many small fish in these waters that are part of a sea bass’ diet: small mullets, atherines and eels, trout and shad are on the menu, as well as frogs, rodents, leeches, crayfish or even drifting earthworms – a lot of candy for a sea bass. Coming back to the first question: physiologically, sea bass have what is called a strong osmotic plasticity. They can, with a very short adaptation time (shorter than that of migratory fish such as salmon), thrive in environments of different salinity.
In some regions of France such as Brittany or Normandy, catching sea bass on sight is very popular. The environments are particularly suitable for this kind of fishing: in the estuaries the sea bass go after their prey during low tide, which makes them easily spottable. During their search for food the fish seem less wary and can be caught on sight on a regular basis. The large tidal range of the Atlantic Ocean favours the evolution and the path of coastal fishermen. In the Mediterranean, it’s another story. The amplitude of the tides is not large enough to allow us to practice sight fishing regularly. On the whole, fishing the Mediterranean is a rather mercurial affair. The fish’s search for food is clearly less dependent on tides. Also, fish are usually more wary here. I have seen anglers spot some fish, approach them very carefully, cast as precisely as possible and the fish leave without even glancing at the lure. Another problem, and not the smallest one, is that we see relatively few fish that we can approach comfortably. They often hide in the logjams and in order to approach them and cast precisely, we have to expose ourselves, risking being noticed before we’re able to cast. It took a lot of research and prospecting to find suitable spots.
Most of the mouths of the small rivers of Corsica are very crowded and not very accessible. The first idea that came to us (us being my friend Kevin and me) was to go down a “big” river in a kayak particularly adapted to fishing in a very crowded environment. We were ready to start our ambitious project of trying to catch a ‘wolf’ in fresh water.
… was an obvious choice for us. Wolves are extremely sought after in Corsica. The minimum dimension is only 35 cm and is often not observed at all. The older, more experienced and therefore biggest subjects are rare, obviously very distrustful, and it is only in the middle of the night or very early in the morning that we sometimes manage to catch them. As far as lures were concerned, we intuitively opted for soft lures, more efficient on difficult fish. Moreover we absolutely needed mounts that would avoid untimely catches. The downstream of rivers receive a lot of waste and are very unpredictable environments. Our approach was a sort of adaptation of the technique we had applied when black-bass fishing in plant cover and congested environments. The speed of the current allowed for a quick inspection of the spots we considered promising. It was necessary to cover a lot of ground and make the fish react quickly. We therefore used leaded heads with Texan hooks for rhythmic and lively animations. The fine soft lures allow for hollow fishing. They sink faster than a shad and have a more nervous and inciting dart swim. This swim allows one to trigger attacks from wary fish, even if they are deep down in the nooks and crannies. Lures imitating small fish (4 to 5 inches for 10 to 13cm) are ideal to target sea bass in this environment because they «match the hatch».
Paradoxically, we prefer spinning rods to casting rods for this fishing. With closed angles and little room to make the gesture many casts require a wrist shot. Our basic models are M to MH power rods, with extra fast action and marked tip action between 2.20m and 2.25m. Our reels are high ratios size 2500 to 4000, with 8-strand braid, but ideally opted for a 4-strand, more resistant to abrasion. A fluorocarbon of 8 to 12lbs and a length of 1.50m ends the line.
After a couple of weeks of fruitless attempts, we finally found an ideal river with accessible banks and wolves nearby.
Our first tests were quickly conclusive, with the regular capture of specimen between 40cm and 60cm. We were able to try out a variety of spots to refine our approach. Spring is the favourable season, when the sea warms up and the rivers are still cool and oxygenated. The fish are fond of heavy water and can be very active on rainy days. The high tides also seem to drive the fish up the rivers. They are really fond of hideouts such as dead trees, plant cover, etc. There are hardly any fish navigating the middle of the riverbed during high tide.
We are always happy every time we catch this wonderful fish. The precise and methodical fishing necessary to reach the fish in their hideouts, the magnificent natural environments… and the brutal bites are responsible for the fact that we mostly fish sea bass in fresh water today!
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