As autumn comes to an end and merges into winter the tell tale signs that the UK season is over for most divers is typically the start of the storms, strong continuous winds, non stop rain and big swells battering the south coast.
Once the fine sand around Sussex stirs up and the sun is hidden behind clouds for a prolonged period the sea temperature starts to drop, and the sea becomes like mud making inshore diving very hard.
Further along in Dorset deeper water marks can hold visibility and fish, with the big tides helping to flush the dirty water out. However these big tides can also draw in dirty water to sheltered bays. Down in the West Country there are often sheltered bays that will have calm and potentially clear water, but the coast down there is more susceptible to swells making entry and exit potentially dangerous, so care must be taken at all times.
In the Uk the season starts earlier in Sussex than in Cornwall, but the season also ends sooner in Sussex and many people have used this to their advantage travelling long distances to fish in Cornwall later in the season. I often get asked about conditions in Cornwall and whether it will be worth a drive down to dive at the weekend.
The problem is that the conditions in Cornwall can change almost daily because there is swell and wind to contend with. And this is where local knowledge comes in.
There are beaches that face all four directions of the compass in Cornwall but you often have to find a compromise in conditions, you cannot go on the assumption that an offshore wind will provide good visibility, things like rain, swell, tide and bottom type all have an influence on the visibility. As the sand in Cornwall is more dense due to the granite rocks, the kelp is typically thicker and longer which helps to filter the water, and the water comes straight from the Atlantic, it typically clears quicker than areas like Sussex. Like the rest of the coast areas near fresh water outlets can have a thermocline of fresh water sat on top of salt water (because it is less dense than the saltwater below it) showing dirty water, but hiding the potentially clear water underneath it. Some of the bays in Cornwall will have pockets of clear water, often protected by incoming swells by rocky headlands and reefs.
These reefs and rocks can deflect the waves and the tide around them leaving a small area of clearer water, from here you can dive and lure fish from the dirty water.
I see lots of spearos that seem more interested in finding visibility than hunting fish, which is rather contradictory and in my opinion the reason they don’t catch as many fish as they potentially could. So once you get your head around the fact that fish can be caught in 2m of vis then you can start to plan your dives better, and spend more time exploring good fishing spots that may not have as good vis as other spots, but are more likely to produce fish.
What fish are available at the end of the season?
You will find mullet and wrasse in the shallows near patches of weed with sand patches. Bass and small pollack will be patrolling reefs targeting the baitfish, crabs and prawns that inhabit these areas, and larger pollack will be found on reefs with big structure like ledges, big boulders and near tide. They prefer the more isolated areas that are relatively quiet and undisturbed with thick kelp for them to ambush baitfish from. Flounders will be found near large pebbles and rocks close to the shore and areas near fresh water outlets, if there is a swell they will be more likely to be found out further than the waves on the sand.
The end of autumn is a well known time to target big pollack and bass, with both fish feeding up before they migrate to deeper water to breed.
Mullet will form in big shoals working their way along the coast before heading out to warmer waters. If you get decent conditions leading up to winter you can find black bream off spots in Devon and Dorset up until mid December.
Mullet can be found in Cornwall around mid December also before they return in spring.
Flounders scallops and razor clams can be found all through the winter. The bigger pollack will move out to the deep water wrecks, however shoals of smaller but still sizeable pollack can be found even in the coldest months moving between small isolated sections of reef.
Cod and whiting can be found through the winter months in Cornwall, having moved across from Sussex and Dorset where they are typically caught earlier than down here.
Plan Prepare and Stay Safe
When diving in winter when the water temperature is colder, it is essential to try and keep as warm as possible and remain hydrated before and during your dives, the mucous in your body will thicken when you are dehydrated and make equalising difficult, through the winter runny nose colds and flu type symptoms are more common, so keeping hydrated in the days leading up to your dive will help, but if you do have a cold or flu avoid diving as it can cause complications like severe sinus pains and even reverse block.
Most experienced Spearos who dive all year through will buy a new wetsuit gloves and socks at the end of autumn, ready for winter. The most effective and popular setup is a 7mm jacket and 5mm bottoms with a good set of gloves and socks. If using high waist pants a good tip is to fold down the top of the waist of the pants before putting the jacket on, especially if you use liner open cell bottoms.
Tip :The open cell on the inside of the pants will seal against the inside of the jacket, and the rolled part creates a seal that will reduce water ingress up the suit.
You can also use neoprene over shorts or a elastic belt made of inner tube or bungee, this won’t have any weights on it but it is used to keep the suit tight against the body and stop cold water flushing up the suit, especially when diving from a boat.
The hood of the wetsuit should be pulled over the skirt of the mask once it has been fitted on the face, and the chin placed inside the part of the suit cut and shaped to support the chin.
The body is more prone to cramps in winter due to the cold water, as soon as the feeling of cramp is felt the dive should stop and try to stretch it out. Laying on your back and pulling the tips of your fins towards your chest is a good way to stretch calves that have cramped up.
Eating bananas before diving can help with cramp due to the potassium they contain.
When you exit the water keep your hood up until you reach your car, and then put a woolly hat on as soon as possible. This will help protect your ears from infections and inflammation, the cold air can force water deeper into the ear, which then warms and allows the growth of bacteria which can lead to ear infections and potentially surfers ear long term.
You can use a diluted solution of vinegar and water or olive oil drops to prevent and treat ear infections. See the link below for more details on this
Where possible try to position your car or van facing upwind, so you can use the boot as a windbreak to get changed. Prepare for your dive by filling a fuel Gerry can with the hottest water possible, keep it in your car and use it to wash yourself and warm yourself when you get out and get changed. A changing mat is a good idea as it will put a layer between your feet and the cold floor, and makes getting changed on gravel a lot nicer. When travelling back from your dive avoid having the air con blowing against your face or the side windows next to you, and preferably keep your woolly hat on until you get home.
You should always let someone know where you are diving and when you are expected to return, if plans change and locations change you should let the person you trust know, this is even more applicable when diving through winter as no one wants to put the lives of others (coastguard and lifeboat crew for example) at risk because of laziness.
Listen to your instincts and if the venue you choose doesn’t feel right or looks too rough cancel the dive, know your limits and don’t expect to catch, use the winter months as training to get used to your equipment, learn spots and find spots that are usually covered in weed. Keep a diary and don’t expect to hit depths or bottom times you did through the summer. Above all enjoy the underwater environment and respect the sea