With Spain squarely on the ‘Amber list’ a few weeks ago, and a shiny new Orvis Helios 3d rod waiting to be christened, the somewhat pandemic-limited options for a week in the sun quickly distilled out to a shortlist of…well… one; green-listed Portugal.
I’d never been, but had heard excellent things about their seafood and custard tarts (two separate dishes, not both in a pastry case together), so my attention quickly turned to fishing opportunities. As it happens, I’d already scoped out the coast on Google Earth, scouring the satellite images for likely hotspots, so I had a pretty good idea of where I wanted to focus my attention: the coastline of the Eastern Algarve.
The region is dominated by the Ria Formosa Natural Park, a vast, 60km stretch of complex barrier islands, lagoons, channels, marshes and dunes. It’s spectacular, unspoiled, uncrowded, and very, very fishy-looking!
The spectacular Ria Formosa coastline
Similar to Spain, you do need a recreational fishing license to fish in saltwater in Portugal. It’s a bit of a pain to get, but it’s only a few euros. Don’t chance it – the Portuguese authorities won’t cut you any slack if you get caught without one (and people do) – you’ll get all your gear confiscated and receive a hefty fine!
To get a license, you need to apply online. Firstly you have to visit this site www.bmar.pt, and create an account (make sure you change your nationality and save it or you’ll get a bunch of questions you can only answer if you’re a Portuguese citizen!). You’ll then receive an email with a link for you to complete your registration process. Once your account is open, log in and click on ‘new request’ on the left and follow the prompts, choosing Recreational Fishing as the category of request. You pay via bank transfer – it’s a nominal sum for either a week, month or year.
It’s not very obvious when the license is granted – you’ll need to log back in to your BMar account and look for new messages – the license will be in there (it takes a few days, but make sure you do this at least a week before travelling). Further info can be found here: https://www.dgrm.mm.gov.pt/web/guest/pesca-pl-licenciamento
You can also send queries here: email@example.com or call them on +351 213 035 805 (between 10am – Midday, and 2pm – 4pm, Weekdays).
Needless to say, a week after I’d booked and paid for everything, Boris decided to run-up the amber flag over Portugal too, so I had to navigate the quagmire of conflicting “information” about testing, jab certificates, passenger locator forms and so-on. Both my wife and I were fortunate in being able to work from home, so the looming 10-day self-isolation on return wasn’t untenable, but it was a stressful week trying to make sure we’d ticked all the boxes. At one point I almost threw in the towel and cancelled.
I’m extremely glad I didn’t!
Pandemic travel... weird
The journey via an apocalyptically empty Bristol Airport was quick, simple and quiet. We picked up a car at an equally eerily deserted Faro Airport and made the 45 minute trundle to our rented house, which turned out to be ‘nice’…for a given value of nice. It had apparently aged 30 years since the photos on Airbnb had been posted. Once we’d established that water jetted out of the shower head in every conceivable direction except downwards, and that wearing of wellies was required to operate the toaster, which we affectionately named ’old sparky’ due to the hefty electric shock it delivered to the un-insulated, we set out to reconnoiter the area. For me, that meant scoping out the fishing opportunities – what, where and when.
There’s no denying it - The region’s coastline is spectacular.
Unlike the imposing cliffs and pounding surf of Portugal’s more western shores, the south-east of the country benefits from a more sheltered, flatter topography. Clean, sandy beaches are pierced by channels and guarded by barrier islands of sand and dune-grass.
What better way to test some new gear!
Behind these islands and sand-spits lies a huge, labyrinthine system of estuaries and lagoons. Tidal currents push sand in from the outer shores, and carve out channels and steep-sided sandbanks. When the tide is rising and spills over, those banks are akin to tropical ‘flats’; knee deep gin-clear water, which moves swiftly over rippled, pale sand, sweeping debris and (crucially) food off into the adjacent deeper creeks. The leeward side of the barrier islands, and the further reaches of the lagoons, where the current has dissipated, transition to a more muddy, marsh-like environment.
Flats to rival Cuba!
The area supports a huge amount of birds, with waders working the shallow fringes and Terns constantly plunging from the azure skies into the clear lagoons below. Armies of Fiddler Crabs parade the exposed sand and mud at the water’s edge, saluting to one another endlessly with their one outsized white claw. This is a bustling ecosystem.
Under the glare of the mid-June sunshine, the glint and flash of silver flanks in the water in front of me told me all I needed to know; I’d got the ‘Where’ right, and ‘What’ was right in front of me… Mullet! Crucially, I now needed to narrow that down by applying the ‘When’.
There’s a multiplier effect that’s critical for saltwater flyfishing, as the ‘chuck it and chance it’ approach will rarely bring you the best reward for your efforts. Picking your target species and correctly choosing your flies accordingly is 1st base. 2nd base is knowing where those fish will be…that doubles-down your chances. If you can then nail the ‘when’, so you can intercept those fish at the optimum time, when they’re at their best concentration and hungry, then you’re at 3rd base… and you’ve doubled down again. Finally, get the technique right, and you’re home! (That analogy sounds cool constructed around Baseball, but for some reason loses all credibility if you substitute Baseball for Rounders. For anyone outside the UK, Rounders is to Baseball what a limp Spam sandwich is to a Triple Angus Beef McWhopper with Monterey Jack cheese and a Roman Candle on top. But I digress ...and apologise to any rounders enthusiasts)
There’s no substitute for parking up on the sand and simply letting the tide cycle unfold before you.
I took a wander on the last of the ebb, and found hordes of Golden Grey mullet, skittish and alert in inches of glassy water where two narrow channels met over a golden, sandy sea-bed. They were edgy, and scattered at the merest hint of movement or the shadow of a passing bird. But they were there.
Look closely - Golden Greys cast their shadows under the glaring sun
Low tide came and went, with a trickle of local people working the margins for shellfish (of which there was an abundance). As the flood began to build, I was able to quickly see where stronger currents and eddies formed. One particular flow caught my eye; the incoming tide began to spill out of the confines of a channel, and surge over a sandbank into a lagoon beyond. It was a powerful flow, which swept sand with it, and the leeward ‘churn’ of the water gave the bank a steep drop-off into inky dark-blue depths. Another bank on the opposite side then deflected the flow along a further channel, creating a river-like environment, and perfect territory for Thick-lipped mullet. Sure enough, I began to see disturbances ‘downstream’ and over a period of 10 minutes, more and more fish began to show until the shoal condensed in typical mullet-fashion and the surface became peppered with prickling dorsal fins and sail-like tails.
Time spent watching is time well spent! I knew this would be a good spot...
The time was noted and I watched the shoal move further upstream, actively feeding, until the water eased over the opposite bank and started to spread out across the more muddy flats behind the island. For a while it went quiet, but as the rising tide reached the fringes of the mud, fish again began to show just metres from the edge, once more busily chasing shrimp. Eventually, the peaking tides swallowed all activity and, gritty and thirsty after a long afternoon in the relentless sun, I wandered back to my ever-patient wife and we made the long stroll back to our house, where I set about prepping my gear.
The ideal set up is a 6wt saltwater rod and compatible reel with a good, saltwater-proof sealed clutch. A short-headed saltwater floating line is ideal. I like to overline by one weight as it helps load the rod for shorter range casting. You could fish an 8wt setup here too.
On the business end, a 9ft, 10lb tapered bonefish leader terminated in a further 5 ft of 10lb fluorocarbon tippet, and a pair of size 12 Tagged Romy’s Sand-shrimp to grace the point and dropper to start. That’s a ‘go-to’ pattern for mullet, but don’t be afraid to experiment; I swapped out the point fly regularly. The DNA clouser works a treat (as it always does) for bass.
A line-tray or Flexi-stripper (I use the latter) is a great help in managing line in strong currents or around snaggy marshland vegetation, both of which you’ll encounter.
Wet-wading is the order of the day obviously (assuming you visit in the summer-sun), but a pair of wet-wading or flats boots is a must to protect your feet from sharp shells, coarse sand and anything pointy that may be buried in the oozy silt. It’s worth wearing a pair of 1mm neoprene socks inside, and a thin pair of cotton trainer socks too – that will filter out all but the finest sand and keep your feet from getting sore.
A hat, good polarized sunglasses and a UV factor 30 fishing shirt are essential, as is a good supply of water and high-factor waterproof suncream – don’t underestimate the importance of all that. The strength of UV rays is bad enough, but when wading it can be magnified even further. Sunstroke could be a real danger and it could ruin your fishing (indeed your whole holiday) so don’t take a chance for the sake of your tan!
A folding telescopic net will help you land stubborn and uncooperative fish, and if you’re going to use your phone to photograph fish whilst standing in a strong knee-deep current…try and find a way to attach it to you! (I speak from bitter past experience!).
The following day dawned bright and hot, but with a robust breeze blowing. After a leisurely breakfast of random pastries (negotiated mostly through sign language at the bakery due to my appalling lack of Portuguese), we made our way back to the beach. As my wife settled down with her holiday read, I launched my drone into the sky to get a birds-eye view of the area. Flying several hundred quid’s-worth of tech over a large expanse of saltwater is not for the faint of heart, but it did give a fascinating perspective on the layout, especially with a polarizing lens fitted to the tiny but incredible camera, cutting through the glare on the water and revealing in part what lay beneath.
It almost looks like a satellite photo, but a birds eye view of the channels and banks shows where the likely hot-spots are.
Once the drone was safely tucked away, I picked up my rod and set forth to conquer what lay before me.
First up were the shoals of Golden Greys I’d seen in the shallows over low water. They were exactly where I left them, and indeed in even greater numbers, but they were generally small; real babies, through to perhaps 1.5lb at the top end. Every landing of the flyline sent them skittering across the pristine pool in a mesmerising display. I let the shoal settle before starting to strip the line in a short, fast pattern. With little signs of activity amongst the shoal, response was pretty minimal, with regular half-hearted follows not culminating in a take. I persevered whilst keeping an eye on the advancing tide in readiness for the main event, and did eventually manage to tempt one fish from slightly deeper water after swapping the point fly to my grey-tan Corophium shrimp, adapted from a pattern by Chris Martin. It is a more imitative mud-shrimp pattern, tied with just a pinch of UV dub blended into the grey and tan used on the body, a UV varnish shell back and latex front ‘feelers’.
A quick Corophium pattern that's proving its worth
Safely unhooked, I went through my standard fish juggling routine (rod under the arm, net between the knees, mobile phone precariously gripped in the right hand whilst the left grappled hopelessly with a non-compliant mullet that had a friction quotient of zero). I dropped the fish before I could get a photo. On the plus side I didn’t this time test the I-phone’s saltwater submersion rating (again).
Golden Grey Mullet may be the little cousin compared to the other species, but what they lack in size, they make up for in speed, stamina and their aggressive takes! Easily identified from the bright gold ‘cheek spot’, a good size for a Golden Grey is anything over 2lb. That may not sound much but you’ll be amazed at how hard they pull – they will put up a heck of a scrap!
They are generally found over clean sand or a broken sandy shore, usually where the water is less silty. Most often associated as a open beach fish, they will enter harbours and estuaries if the conditions are right, but generally they are found in greatest numbers over shallow sandbanks and along open, gently shelving surf beaches, where they amass in huge numbers hard up against the very water’s edge.
The bight gold spot on the gill-plate is the most obvious identifier of a Golden Grey
Because of their proximity to the waters edge, if safety and water-depth allow it can often be a good option to approach the shoals from behind and cast back towards the shore, often placing the flies literally inches from dry land! Failing that you may end up having to fish low, even on your knees, and well back from the water so as not to spook them.
There are different methods of fishing for them. On a surf beach, letting the flies tumble gently about in the backwash and watching the line for pulls will often yield results. But in water without any appreciable movement, Golden Greys respond to a pretty fast strip… when they’re feeding, they seem to relish a chase!
Eventually I resolved to leave the Golden Greys and get into position for the Thick-Lips, in plenty of time to intercept.
As the lagoon inhaled, water at first nibbled at the edge of the sandbank, before creeping stealthily up against it and eventually, with increasing force, started to breach the top and flow with intent across the expanse towards me. The current was strong enough to sweep the sand from beneath my feet, meaning I had to constantly lift and re-set them to stay upright. Standing right on the back edge of the bank, in the drop-off next to me the water started to cloud with glittering particles of sand as it churned in the eddy.
Almost as if it was a video cross-fade, fish seem to just materialise from nowhere; one moment the water was empty, the next it was increasingly filled with swirls, slashes and flashes of silver.
A troop of Golden Greys lined up hard against the bank. I tried casting onto the sandbank and allowing the fierce current to sweep the tumbling flies straight to them, but they were ignored. A splash to my right drew my attention and my eyes were greeted by the pulse-quickening sight of an approaching armada of fins and tails… game on!
Thick Lipped Mullet are the bruisers of the UK mullet family. Elsewhere in Southern Europe, there are bigger species, but generally they represent your best bet for a real heavyweight (although the average size has declined over the last 10 years).
As a general rule, Thick Lipped Mullet are found most often over slightly muddier terrain, but are also common along rocky shores and can even be caught on surf beaches from time to time.
As the name suggests, they sport a thick top lip. This can be smooth, or covered in knobbly protrusions or bumps (crenellations). Sometimes the smooth-lipped variant can be confused for thin lips, and there are even some smooth lipped Thicks that have a gold spot on the cheek, and lead anglers to think they’ve smashed the Golden Grey record, but one easy-to-remember rule that stands true is that for a Thick-lip, the thickness of the top lip will be equal to or greater than half the diameter of the eye.
A top-lip like a fireman's welly!
Thick-lips definitely like a current, and a little more depth of water than Golden Greys. Dead-drifting flies through shoals sitting in a current is a productive method, but if you have to strip the flies due to a lack of water movement, a slower, steady strip seems to work best.
Fly patterns that work well include the Romy’s Sand Shrimp, Romy’s Mud Shrimp, Spectra Shrimp, Flexiworm and the Ray’s Mullet Fly (aka the Mullet Bach). They can also respond well to a classic Reg Tag, and indeed, tagged versions of all the shrimp patterns above work best.
Top row, left to right: Tagged Romy's mud-shrimp, tagged Romy's sand-shrimp, Spectrashrimp. Bottom row, left to right: Ray's Mullet Fly, tagged Ghostbuster, Shrimply Red
The fight from a Thick-lip is very different to a Golden Grey. They rely more on muscle and brute force than speed, often trying to get their head down on the bottom to shake or rub the hook free, many times slapping the line with their tail in the process. The stamina and stubbornness of a Thick-lip is amazing – don’t expect it to role over and give up after two minutes!
I could already see handsome mullet twisting and darting in the current as the body of the shoal crept towards me. If I hadn’t been perspiring enough under the Portuguese sun, I certainly was now. I gathered my wits, blinked heavily to clear my eyes, and swept the rod tip around in a slow oval, letting the robust breeze from behind deliver the flyline for me into the busy throng. The angle and speed of the current allowed for a short period of dead-drifting before a gentle strip was required. After several heart-stopping and inevitable line-hits, there was a sharp tug on the line, an explosive thrash on the surface with a split-second view of a head-shaking fish, and then the tension was gone.
Dry mouthed, I re-set my position on the shifting sand and sent the line out again. Several more line hits followed, interspersed with the quick pulls of inquisitive mouths that failed to make full contact. In short, it was the all too familiar mulleteer’s state of being – leant forward, tense, brow furrowed in concentration, heart thumping, trying to remember to breathe.
I’m not sure how many casts went in, but eventually I got the pay-off I felt absolutely certain would come. The line stopped dead in mid strip and was immediately torn back through my fingertips. Charged by the blazing sun, the solar-powered Thick-lip tore off into deeper water, as I frantically steered the loose flyline out of the way and watched the slack vanish. The reel purred into life as the clutch engaged and I began the familiar deep-water tussle so typical of Thick-lips everywhere – the heavy nodding of the rod, the awful twanging sensation of a spade-like tail slapping the line, the sudden short runs and the dogged wrestle and innumerable attempts to get this most stubborn of fish into the net.
I admired the matt-black arc of my new rod under the pressure of the fish, relishing the sparkle of water droplets falling from the line guides – It was a handsome piece of kit, perfectly absorbing every shock the mullet tried to transmit up the line.
Eventually the mullet rolled on its side and I knew the game was up. Gratefully as always, I slid the net beneath it and gazed in at my prize, pristine chrome sides, pewter striped with the merest hint of gold fringing each line running along its body. Immediately above the eyes, a striking and surprising flash of electric blue was starkly visible, and every fin was utterly perfect.
I carefully removed the successful tan-grey corophium fly (which had now accounted for both species), and towed the fish gently through the water in my net to where my wife had raised her head to bear witness, and where she now stood with phone in hand ready to take a few photos and a little video. With that swiftly accomplished, the handsome mullet was released back into the mouth of the channel.
First one in the bag - the pressure's off!
During the 20 minutes that encounter had taken, the water had risen fast and was almost spilling over into the more muddy flats to my right. The shoal had moved forward and was beginning to fan out. Sensing that the window may be closing, I positioned myself further back up the channel and set about finding them again.
The reward for getting back out there came quickly. On the second cast another sharp pull was met by a quick strip-strike and the line once more whipped upwards, spraying water as it pulled tight instantly. A second, joyous tug-of-war ensued and with more water to go through, this fish veered off into the spreading shallows, putting a blur of speed on my reel as it span under the tension of the clutch. The fish found its way into a channel in the fringes of the marsh, so I was forced to leave the clean, relative stability of the sand and stagger in an ungainly fashion across the sucking black ooze that bordered the back of the spit. Wafts of an unpleasantly eggy aroma were released by my progress, but I found myself coming out the other side and back onto sand soon enough, and from the commanding position of the bank, I was able to subdue, net and record my next fish with glee.
Thick-lip no.2 - short but stout.
By now the shoal had all but melted away. I spent an hour trooping around the sand-flats and creeks trying to relocate the action. Eventually a shiver of the water in a patch of calm suggested movement. Taking the long way round so as not to disturb anything, I arrived to be greeted by the glimpse flanks catching the sun in waist-deep water, 15 metres out. Staying on the shore I put the flies in and started stripping.
Over the course of the next 30 minutes, I missed numerous takes, cursing aloud, the building wind carrying my words away to beat upon the walls of the hill-fort in the distance. I started cycling through a few different fly patterns too, drawing little response. Eventually I resolved to go back to the corophium pattern that had yielded fish earlier. No sooner did that pattern sink to the bottom than it was enthusiastically snatched up by Thick-lip no.3. After a short fight a smaller but plump fish was safely netted and released.
3 in the first session from an entirely new mark - not bad!
Parched, sand-blasted and wilting, I decided to call it a day. And a very satisfactory one it was too!
Using the core principals I apply in the UK, I had been able to quickly overlay that onto the terrain in front of me and find the fish. Over the next few days I was able to repeat the process, catch plenty and further fine-tune the timing, as well as explore the other end of the tide cycle.
This eventually yielded a ‘last day’ revelation that I was too late to take advantage of, but which set my heart racing at the prospect; BIG Bass! I was treated to the sight of groups of 5 or 6 hulking bass, certainly in the 8-10lb range, sliding out of the deep blue holes in the lagoon and moving menacingly across the thigh-deep crystal clear flats, shadowing the understandably nervous Golden Greys. They were also joined at a distance by mysterious, even larger jet-black shapes. I have no idea what they were – they looked grouper-like from where I stood, and they skulked close to the drop-off, not venturing far from the deeper water. I took a few last minute shots at these brutes, but alas, hordes of their minions followed in the form of schoolies (both Atlantic and a Spotted Bass variant – the latter being a new 'species' for me), and they wolfed down the DNA clouser as soon as it hit the water. Great fun, but certainly nothing of the ilk of the monsters that lurked tantalisingly to one side.
Not had schoolies like these before!
And on that note, my trip came to an end.
Will I go back? You bet! The potential for the visiting swffer is huge. In fact I’m genuinely surprised I haven’t heard or read more about the region. Being only a couple of hours away from the UK, affordable and accessible, it’s certainly the perfect place for a family holiday with the prospect of good DIY saltwater fly fishing thrown in. You need to get a license, which is a little confusing, but available online for a modest few Euros. Other than that, apply the basic ‘rules’ of swffing (see my article ‘Go with the flow’), take time to study the shore both before you go and when you arrive, and keep your eyes peeled – there’s every chance you’ll enjoy some truly rewarding saltwater fly-fishing in glorious sunshine without having to go all the way to the tropics to do so!
Portugal… Muito Obrigado!
I added a little video as moving images can convey so much more than still sometimes, especially when trying to describe the movement of water. It gives a really good sense of the environment. I'm looking forward to a return visit!