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Roker Reigns Supreme

by Steve Walker

Sunderland’s Roker pier is a real mixed bag venue offering comfortable fishing and a variety of species through the year. Steve Walker knows the place intimately and reveals all here.

Taming the elemental power of the sea has been a preoccupation of Wearsiders for hundreds of years and when construction work started on Roker Pier and the South Pier in the 1880’s, it was Victorian engineering at its very best. Roker Pier took 22 years to build, while the neighbouring South Pier took a little longer. The base of the pier is built on bedrock but further out the foundations lie on less stable ground where hundreds of blocks weighing up to 56 tons each were put in place by a gigantic hydraulic crane called Goliath. The crane moved up and down the pier on rails, and a subway was created under the pier for its full length to carry cables and to allow for maintenance work to be carried out during bad weather conditions. The final blocks were placed in position in 1902, and the 2880 feet long breakwater with its huge round end and distinctive red and white granite lighthouse, which contained the most powerful port light in the country at the time, was officially opened in 1903. According to our photographer Mike Dobson, it is a particularly photogenic pier – if piers can ever be considered as such – with the graceful sweeping curve terminating at the distinctive lighthouse.

Roker pier Sunderland at sunrise

Roker Pier guards the north side of the river Wear and is a popular all year round venue. It is particularly well attended in summer with both club anglers and pleasure anglers, and is capable of producing a variety of common species, as well as local rarities such as conger eel, turbot, pollack, shad, herring and dogfish. Pollack seem to be increasing in number with the majority around 2 – 3lb caught in summer on mackerel gear. Shad are also reasonably common during the warmer months. These are taken on small mackerel lures and float-fished baits, as well as bottom fished worm bait. There are two species of shad known around the British Isles – the Allis Shad (Alosa Alosa), and the Twaite Shad (Alosa Fallax), – both estuarine fish. They are a protected species, and if you catch something that looks like a large herring with big scales and a deep forked tail it is likely to be a shad. Both species are listed on appendix 3 of the Bern Convention and annexes 2 and 5 of the E.C. Habitats Directive. Both are also protected under schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981), and it is therefore an offence to keep them.

two anglers on Roker pier Sunderland at sunrise

Herring are frequent visitors too, and like the shad are usually caught on lures and float baits intended for mackerel. The Northern Federation record is just over five ounces, so if you do catch something bigger than this, make sure it is not a shad before retaining it for bait or the table. Roker used to be a well known coalfish pier where you could catch large numbers of them just fishing close down the pier sides with worm, crab, or mussel baits, and while they are still there, they are certainly not present in previous numbers. On a good day though, during the late summer, you can still have good sport down the pier side for them with light tackle, and also expect to catch the odd pollack, small cod, and mini species such as rockling and poor cod.

Snaggy Ground

The pier has broken ground either side and there are areas where the bottom is very snaggy with kelp beds and rock outcrops. The end of the pier gives way to relatively clean ground however, and tackle-fastening snags are not too common. When they do occur it is usually due to an accumulation of lost tackle and other debris collecting on the bottom. All of the usual species can be caught from the pier end throughout the year, and it is a favourite spot for flounders, whiting, and summer mackerel. The mackerel can often stay around until early October, and when they are present in numbers the mackerel bashing brigade dominate the end; armed with heavy beachcasters, strings of feathers, bottles of cider and not a brain cell between them. This delinquent combination has resulted in some nasty accidents in the past so be wary. You know they have been there by the piles of dead smelly fish, fish guts, other assorted rubbish and the stinking pools of urine. The flotsam of beer cans and bottles is another sure giveaway.

casting on Roker pier Sunderland at sunrise

The remainder of the pier can be excellent for spinning and float fishing tactics, and quite often the mackerel will be present only 50 metres from the shore, sometimes on both sides of the pier. A good mark is opposite the first set of steps on the seaward side; there is a good chance of picking up a bigger coalfish or pollack on float fished sprat or mackerel strip. This same area is a well known winter cod mark particularly when there is a slight to moderate swell running and will often out fish the end, as well as produce heftier fish. On the seaward side there is a big kelp bed to fish into, and on the inside, during a good South Easterly sea, the fishing can be even better. As with lots of other N.E. marks the cod seem to be getting replaced by hordes of hungry whiting over the last few years, but at the right time, when there is a moderate to slight swell running, it can be a very productive cod mark.

Because of the nature of the ground Roker is definitely one of those piers where there is no need to make a headlong rush straight for the end. Why do anglers do this anyway? The best fishing can often be found just behind the breakers where there are several holes to fish into. As the rest of the pier is of much the same terrain it is a good idea when the conditions are right to start off at the bottom of the pier and work your way towards the end until feeding fish are found. During the summer months and into September an all night session on the pier can often be productive for cod when fresh crab baits score well, and worm baits nobble the whiting which move in during darkness. It is not unusual to leave the pier at late evening after a mackerel session and find the night shift starting to arrive in search of cod.

Rough Weather Danger

Roker pier Sunderland at sunriseRoker pier offers a wealth of possibilities. The one stumbling block that all visitors should be made aware of is that Roker is very low in the water and unfishable in anything rougher than a moderate to slight swell. If planning a winter session here you must be prepared to move to another venue if the conditions are rougher than expected. The pier has a barrier across its entrance and access is via a small gate, which can be closed at short notice and does not always open again straight away when any rough seas start to drop away. There are plenty of marks a short distance away in the river, and it is only a short journey northwards to the River Tyne and South Shields pier which are much more protected in a northerly sea.

Should’ve Been Here Yesterday

How many times have you heard this before, “You should have been here yesterday mate… bags of cod up to 7lb all along the pier!” When my mate Bob Surtees phoned me up with exactly this news on a Friday evening we arranged for an early Saturday morning session on the pier. Thinking about it now, I knew I should have been a bit less enthusiast and a lot less expectant. Throwaway challenges like “First to ten fish is the winner” and “Everything under five pounds goes back” are sure tempters of bad fate, and I am long enough in the tooth to know better. The excited boy within always seems to win through at the first sign of a few cod and I am suckered.

We set out at the ungodly hour of 5am in order to photograph the pier at its majestic sunrise best; and also to catch the high tide. I got to the pier around 6am and some anglers were already coming off and getting into a taxi after a night session. “Now't doing mate”, they said. Hard to believe I thought, as the conditions were spot on with a seductive, lazy swell running into the pier. Bob was already fishing into the first hole on the seaward side about 100 metres along. We fished here for a couple of casts with single big worm baits tipped off with razor clam on 4/0 pennel rigs, which is a typical Roker cod tactic. A few small rockling-like bites and lots of loose weed in the water quickly saw us moving further up the pier.

a youngster with a Roker pier whitinga Roker pier whiting

Again, nothing much here either, it now looked as if the deserters were right when they said the fish weren’t about, so we moved to the round end. The few anglers fishing here had a couple of whiting between them, but no cod. Sticking to the same big cod baits would hopefully deter any whiting long enough for any cod to find the bait. Plain leads were swapped for grips, and we watched our rod tips as a spectacular winter sunrise bathed the lighthouse. Bites came almost straight away. Short sharp knocks typical of whiting were followed couple of more cod-like slack line bites. Quickly reeling in the slack line and hitting them straight away resulted in rather inevitable whiting. It does not matter how big your baits and hooks are, if the whiting are hungry – and they always seem to be – they will easily take a 4/0 hook right down. At around 12ozs, the whiting were not a bad average size, with odd bigger ones hitting the pound mark. There were obviously present in massive numbers; competing and hitting the baits hard as soon as they settled. Survival of the fittest and fastest, it must be a tough fishy life on the bottom when natural food is scarce.

Power Tackle

Expecting some decent fish, I was using my trusty Conoflex Nemesis rod and ABU 7000 reel loaded with 18lb Trilene and a long 50lb leader. Even on this relatively stiff rod the eager whiting bites were still impressive. Terminal gear was a standard leger rig with a 4/0 Aberdeen plus a 4/0 Viking as the top hook of the pennel on 25lb Amnesia hook length. A long leader is used in case a bigger fish has to be hand-lifted up the side, or taken to the beach. The long 50lb leader can be retrieved earlier than a short one instead of putting strain on the lighter main line. This isn’t such a problem when fishing the inside of the pier or the round end as here there are several sets of steps that go right down to the waters edge. There aren’t any steps on the outside. Just to be safe however, I should have brought a drop net; an essential bit of gear when expecting big fish on elevated venues. Like most anglers, I rarely think about it, and when I do I am often lazy and decide not to take it because I don’t want to carry it. I will remember next time though.

an angler beside the Roker pier lighthouse

Bob was using his favourite Zziplex Primo rod and a Daiwa SL30 reel set up similarly to my ABU, but he preferred to use a pulley rig rather than a fixed leger. Despite an hour or so of nothing but whiting, all of us fishing on the end were still convinced that a few cod would yet turn up, but the whiting just kept on coming. Nevertheless, Bob and I had a quality session, the whiting were of a reasonable size and most were good fat specimens, not the skinny parasite-infected ones that sometimes turn up. We had around fifteen keeper whiting between us and put the vast majority back.

an angler with half a dozen Roker pier whiting

On lighter gear and multi-hook rigs baited with the classic whiting bait of worm tipped off with mackerel we could have had fish two at a time. I use an ABU Zoom beachcaster for such things which is a bit softer in the tip and a bit more sporty, but can still handle a big fish with a bit of care. But if bigger things are expected it is better to be prepared. I rarely keep whiting unless they are of a very good size. I don’t like messing about filleting and skinning them and then having to pick lots of parasitical worms out of the flesh. Whiting seem to suffer a lot more from these worms than any cod do on this venue. When I fillet a fish I always skin it, and then “candle” the flesh by holding the fillet up to the light which usually shows up any worms in it.

Had we given up on the cod? No chance. We moved back down the pier for a few more casts into the rock and kelp, which eventually resulted in a coalfish for Bob, who then announced with a resigned shrug of the shoulders, and also knowing the pier better than I do: “Well that’s it Steve, we are not going to get any now”. So we called it a day – well, morning really because it was still only 10am. “Cod on Hendon Wall tonight though”, declared Bob, optimistic as ever.

Steve Walker with a Roker pier whiting

There is a café next to the pier car park which does a rather splendid bacon and sausage sandwich to go with a pleasant cup of tea. Despite the cold frosty morning it was doing a good trade with early morning joggers, cyclists, and dog walkers. Mike Dobson and I sat outside in the sun for a very satisfying finish to the morning’s proceedings. No cod today but that is how it goes sometimes, and there is always next time. As if to prove the point about, a few days later local angler Micky Quayle landed a cod of nearly 13lb from the pier, and other anglers had fish to 7lb… typical, isn’t it!

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