From Cornwall to Scotland, and especially around the Irish coast, the numbers of gurnards inshore within easy boat range has escalated with good fishing continuing right through to Christmas in some areas. What is also obvious is that the fish staying later tend to be bigger. If you lack a specimen gurnard in your species collection, then now is the time to try for one. If you miss them this time, fret not, the gurnards are back inshore again from late March in many places.
Gurnards are continually classified as clean ground fish. This is definitely so for small juvenile fish, but the bigger adults prefer a mix of clean and broken ground, often seeking out gravel banks and sandbanks adjacent to much rougher ground. This is partly because gurnards are predatory and will take small bait fish, which tend to be found around the edges of reef and rock structure that offers them some protection.
This latter statement that gurnards are predatory is important. It dictates the way we need to fish to seek out the bigger ones. Most gurnards in the UK are caught when general bottom fishing at anchor with baits, but this is too static to really target the gurnard family, which much prefer to chase down moving bait. No surprises then that we need to only consider drift fishing to catch gurnards consistently.
Gurnards are well equipped to chase moving bait. Even when boats are drifting quickly in a fast tide run, gurnards confidently hit the bait even at speeds of 4 knots. That said, it is all down to presentation of the tackle and the bait, and how you make it perform as it travels over the seabed.
You need a 12lb class rod and reel loaded with 15lb line. I use a light uptider for its sporting action. In very light tidal areas and where the depth does not exceed say 50-feet then a spinning rod is adequate. A standard uptider in the 6oz casting bracket is also fine for water up to 200-feet. I was fishing this type of rod with 18lb line off Downings, County Donegal recently and it obviously performed much better than standard boat rods that lack the sensitive tip when drift fishing. The light tip helps feed you information as to what type of ground you're drifting over, and more importantly, informs when a fish shows interest and nips at the bait as it passes over the sand.
Absolutely critical is the design of the terminal tackle. Start with a hollow tube type 12-inch plastic boom with a bead stopped against a size 4 rolling swivel. Take 6-feet of 20lb red Amnesia and tie in a Loop about 3-feet long using two overhand knots. Cut the loop on one side about 12-inches below the knot. This creates two hook snoods. A longer lower snood and a short one some distance above it.
On the short snood, slide on some brightly coloured beads. I've found black alternated with yellow good, though red and yellow is equally okay. Tie a single overhand knot in the snood about 4-inches up from the end. Now add the hook, a size 2 Mustad 3261BLN Aberdeen is the best choice. Having the beads separated from the hook by a few inches adds movement to the bait and allows the gurnards freedom to take it. At the same time, the beads act as an attractor to draw the gurnard to the bait.
The lower hook length is the most important. The gurnards may see the top hook pass by, but may not be triggered by it. Here's how to make them hit the lower hook.
Slide on two black and two yellow beads followed by a small Mepps type revolving silver spoon. The spoons with the reflective strip along one side are the best and it needs to be at least 1-inch long. Below this slide on some luminous yellow or green beads and fix silver sequins between each bead to add more flash. Tie in an overhand knot leaving about 6-inches of hook snood. Finish with same size 3261 Aberdeen.
The above rig will move along the bottom with minimal if any tangles and will draw fish in to the baits via the flashing spoon and luminous and multi coloured beads. This, I think, simulates small fish attacking a bait and causes the gurnard to muscle in and take what's on offer. You can, if you prefer, use short sections of clear mono off the bottom of the Amnesia hook snoods in shallow clear water, which is an option I prefer myself. In deeper water it makes no difference and the red amnesia seems to pick up bonus flatfish.
The next all-important piece of tackle is the lead weight. For drifting over clean sand and mixed seabeds I like the old-fashioned pocket watch shaped lead. This creates puffs of sand as it travels over the seabed and is a further attractant to nearby gurnards encouraging them to move in and investigate. Over heavier mixed ground and faster drift speeds I go for a torpedo type lead as it snags less and will bounce off stones and rocks easier.
Now to baits. Gurnards feed frequently on small sandeels and it's these I prefer to simulate. I've found fresh and frozen small sandeels surprisingly poor bait for gurnards. Much more effective are long thin strips cut from the white belly of a fresh mackerel. The strips need to be 5-inches long and about one quarter of an inch wide. Cut these using a scalpel or Stanley knife to get the baits really fine. I also remove some of the meat from the strip to streamline it some more to increase wriggle as it is pulled over the sand. An alternative bait is a long strip of squid, but it does not compare to the mackerel for overall catches.
The technique of fishing this rig style is easy. Choose a lead weight that will only just hold the trace to the seabed for a few seconds before lifting off as water pressure on the line lifts the lead up off the seabed. Feel for this, now release more line, usually 20 to 30-yards but double that does no harm, until you reach a balance point where the lead will just bounce on the seabed as you drift. This creates those puffs of sand and adds life to the baits as they travel forward and lift slightly off the seabed.
You cannot mistake a bite. It will be a series of short rattles felt on the rod tip. Immediately you feel this, put the reel in free spool and let line slowly spill off to give the fish a few yards of slack and enough time to swallow the bait. After a few seconds lift the rod and flick the reel in gear all at the same time and let the rod tip pull over to the weight of the fish. Done like this most fish will be lip hooked and this will allow you to release them easily.
Frequently, even though you have only felt the one bite, you'll get gurnards on both hooks at the same time. This is because two separate gurnards were galloping after the baits at the same time and the second fish took the bait as you gave line to allow the first fish to eat.
Even though this rig is especially good for gurnards, it also proves superbly successful for dabs, plaice, megrim, even small turbot and brill, also haddock, cod and whiting. Now that's versatility.
If you want to check the quality of gurnards you're hooking, here's a simple guide. A good grey gurnard needs to weigh over a pound and will be a specimen at about 1lb 8ozs. Red gurnards from the boat will need to weigh over 1lb 8ozs to be noteworthy and top 2lbs to be a specimen. Tubs grow the biggest of all and a cracker is around the 4lb mark and anything over 5lb a specimen. These are my personal estimates based on fishing the more popular gurnard areas on the UK west coast and in Ireland. Check your own club and national organisation listings for more definite parameters to work to.