Black Tide Fishing Magazine – May 2018 – Records are made to be broken
Black Tide Magazine May 2018
The final week leading up to the launch of the first issue of Black Tide Magazine was a hectic one, it was a lot of hard graft, long hours doing graphic design, editing video, written editorials and still images but, I am reluctant to use the word ‘work’ to describe it, as you can’t describe doing something you love as ‘work’, it’s a passion, a pleasure and the pursuit of a dream, certainly not ‘work’. In this first issue we exceeded our modest target of readers by thousands and could very well have been the most read UK and Ireland sea angling publication in May. We couldn’t ask for a better endorsement than the overwhelmingly kind words of our readers across social media, for which we are very grateful. To have achieved the readership we have in just one month, is incredible. However, it is just a starting point. We’ll continue to build on the fantastic team of contributors we already have, for whom we remain in appreciation of and very humbled that they have chosen to work with us. We’ve said it a number of times already, but these are all excellent people who would go out of their way to help others, as well as excellent anglers. If, together, we could achieve what we did in the first month, just imagine what we could do going forwards.
However, the first issue had left Grant and I in need of a fishing trip, not just a few hours out of the house, but, a bit of fresh air and adventure in the Channel Island’s. So despite the tides being far from ideal, we booked without hesitation. As per usual, we packed an obscene amount of gear, departing Poole on the Condor ferry bound for St Peter Port, Guernsey. By this time the two of us had been awake over 24 hours for one reason or another, the excitement of fishing being a big part of that, I always have trouble sleeping the night before a trip, you lay awake dreaming of what you might catch, it’s something I have been doing since I was a little boy and an affliction shared by many anglers I know.
We spent the ferry journey catching flies, soon arriving at our destination, which to our surprise was overcast, pretty chilly and not in keeping with the wonderful forecasts we’d looked at before departing, but, as soon as we crossed the centre of the island, those dark clouds disappeared and we were soon looking at the most glorious blue sky and bright sunshine. After learning when we could check in, we headed out and were soon luring on the west coast’s surf fringed shores to kill some time, without much luck I should add, tired as we were, it proved hard work in the hot sun. We popped the drone up for a little reconnaissance of the area, looking for potential spots and headed back to the hotel to unload the necessary things from the van and check in. We arranged to meet Remi late that afternoon to go on a lure session at various spots that would run until after midnight.
Just to give you an overview of Remi, he is a smashing guy, humble, modest, determined and has honed his night luring skills to perfection. We could see mullet swimming about instantly and tried a couple of spots before Remi took us to somewhere that I’d never even consider fishing. At low tide we looked at a spot, a giant rock that must have been 15ft or more high, it towered above us and was dry as a bone, it was surrounded by rocks, weed and crevices that looked like lure losses could be high. Hours later we returned and were stood on this megalith, but with water up to the knees of our waders with our MH10 torches on the low setting. I have to say it was a pretty eerie situation, and unlike anything I have done before. Remi had a bass on his third cast and kindly let Grant and I occupy the hot spot. I struggled where I was, I picked up a lot of floating weed and had to remove it every cast, Grant had a small bass and a pollock in quick succession on the Skerries Eels and we soon packed up in need of a good sleep when the weed became untenable.
The next day was another scorcher, cloudless with a bit of a breeze with some east in it and we opted to head to the south side of the island to do some Wrasse fishing. I have to say, the spot Remi showed us was spectacular, a beautiful place, the sea appeared a deep green, the sun shimmering on it, we could have been anywhere tropical, as opposed to a part of Britain just off the coast of France. We had bites from the off, Grant landing a small Ballan Wrasse on just his second cast but, we were losing more on lures than were landed. Remi was first to make the switch to baits and soon had a fish on, and then we began to have quite a few ballan’s on crab baits. Then Grant spotted something that left our eyes wide as saucers, a shoal of five or six bass that at a modest estimate had to be 8lb plus in weight, the water was so clear and they were so high in the water that they could never be mistaken for mullet or anything else. We furiously cast our lures at them and switched for surface options also, but, they just weren’t all that interested. They even made a second pass when we got an even better look, marvellously conditioned creatures with their shimmering scales and black backs.
The excitement passed and the three of us basked in the sun, exchanging banter and enjoying each others company. As the light began to fade a little we felt as if the wrasse had retired for the evening and off up the cliff we went, back to the coastal path and on to the van. We felt absolutely knackered and we’d put in some serious effort but, the elusive 4lb plus ballan we’d wanted hadn’t shown. Remi went back out that evening with Grant, only to find the sea full of weed at the marks they tried. The next day we needed a new plan, something different and we scoured Navionics & satellite imagery of Guernsey trying to choose a new mark for the next day, in the end, we decided on a trip across the water to Herm Island.
Herm used to host the NFSA finals each year back when I was still at junior school, a long time ago. The island is approximately 1.5 miles long and 1/2 a mile wide, you take a 20 minute boat trip to either its harbour (high tide) or Rosaire Steps (low tide). We all hopped on the Travel Trident ferry which was about £13 return and as soon as we were crossing the water, I felt instantly good, memories flooding back of my thirty odd trips to the island, starting in 1987 or 88. My mother, father and younger brother (Mike) would go each summer for 10 days usually, and Dad would patiently rig us up time and time again, as we’d lose tackle as children, a true testament to how patient being a parent makes you. Dad would catch some whopping plaice which we’d BBQ on the campsite each evening, as well as some very nice bream from the island’s white silicon sandy beaches. With the help of Remi we coerced some of Herm’s staff into taking most of our gear up to the campsite, which saved us a gruelling uphill journey carrying it, we were most thankful for that kindness. I hid my shoes amongst some chairs by the old shower block as I wouldn’t be needing them as well as my boots. We trudged down the familiar dusty path that I’d played on as a kid with my brother, every turn triggering a memory for me.
We’d had to hurry as the boat had docked well after low tide and on this neap we weren’t entirely sure if we could get on Putrainez, however, we turned the corner and saw the causeway exposed with a little time to spare. I warned the guys that there was a drop either side on the way down and explained how a lure angler had lost his balance, falling some 20ft and breaking his pelvis, collapsing a lung and he was very lucky that a passing tourist spotted him in agony below and called for help. I met the lure angler some years later and he told me what had happened and I guess its easily done. I then thought to myself, I’d been down there most days with my father and brother. Mike and I were probably 6 and 11 respectively, we were careful, took our time and were fine, but, I do wonder how that would be perceived in this day and age? Was it dangerous? Or was it just part of living and growing up? We came to no harm and I have to ask a question; man has walked the earth for 200,000 years roughly, he survived and that’s the reason we are here today, so, are younger generations than my own better off today with society intervening and telling them what we can and can’t do? Or are we leaving them less equipped to deal with life’s challenges and taking away responsibility and common sense? Naturally at Black Tide Fishing, we’d recommend you take every safety precaution when fishing, carrying a VHF radio where applicable and carrying out any necessary risk assessments.
We got setup with a couple of hours of light left, I manned the bait rods with fresh launce on, whilst Remi and Grant tinkered about with lures on a rocky arm to my right that would soon be immersed by the incoming tide. As the light dropped the fish began to bite. We all picked up pollock and bass on lures which was great fun on light rods. In many parts of the UK with limited tidal ranges and sizes, we tend to focus on highs and lows as peak times for the fish feeding, however, in Guernsey waters they have anything up to around 10.5m tides. Given those sizes, it means the water fills and drops out rapidly, making one spot perfect one hour and completely useless the next. Evidence of this is the Guernsey anglers, the way they move hour by hour, walking in and out with the tide, often maintaining a very similar depth for bass fishing. The spots that have water occupying them at all stages of the tide, can often be really duff for most of that tide and a waste of time, whether bait fishing or luring, its so much more of dynamic thing out in the Channel Islands.
Night began, a bitter cross wind draught was cutting at us and the dogfish onslaught quickly began. We popped three rods out all on the same tripod, a T1000, a Tip Tornado SM and a Surf Machine Max. There were no tell tale bream rattlings, only the tell tale tapping of the Lesser Spotted Dogfish. As fatigue set in, spirit was waning slightly, pulling an all nighter was hard work but, the lads tinkered about night luring and were still seeing some action under the star studded night sky. I had my first good bite of the night and the fish rapidly took me straight into a kelp bed, briefly was stuck but, eventually started to rise and I landed it by myself as Remi and Grant could only be seen in the distance. The fish went 5lb 8oz’s on the scales, and was quickly returned. The Bull Huss was a welcome sight but, not nearly the size I had hoped for or the weight it had felt coming up through the kelp, it was a hard earned one and it encouraged me to get three more fresh baits out.
With the tide now well past high, I began taking some astro shots of Grant as its not that often on the island that you get a clear night, there is usually a great deal of heat coming off the land and misty hazes are common too. Another thing I noticed was that, the spot we fished in October with great success was completely unfishable for long periods and the unfishable spot from October was completely fishable this time around, we decided that with the two tides meeting, one must be dominant on springs and the other on neaps, you live and learn, just sometimes a few sets of gear lighter.
The sunrise was glorious, beautiful, just off to the side of Sark, in line with the French coast. I had the drone up for a while, which didn’t please the seagulls at all, but, the view certainly gave us a very polarised view of the reefs and obstructions we’d been casting near for most of the night, just for fun I took it hundreds of yards away and did a fly by of the uninhabited Turtle Rock island in the distance with all of the tidal rips around it. Now, thats a place I want to get dropped off on one year, it looks fantastic. We gradually packed down and walked the spine road of the island, cutting down the big hill past the Manor Village and setup again at Rosaire Steps, where the first ferry of the day would depart.
Grant was into the best wrasse of the trip so far, a splendid looking creature which I recorded on GoPro in a short video. He was pretty happy with the fish and the best thing was that a shoal of mullet had passed right behind on the GoPro video. The mullet were up and down all morning, frustratingly, we didn’t have the gear with us to fish for them. The first Travel Trident of the day came to pick us up and we were off back to Guernsey. I always feel sad leaving Herm and watching it disappear in the distance, on one hand, perhaps the fishing was unremarkable, on the other hand, it was a night we’d remember, which brought us great enjoyment.
Back in Guernsey we hopped in the van, we couldn’t wait to get some kip at the hotel, even if it meant spending the day like vampires avoiding the glorious sunshine. That evening, after our second serving of delicious fish and chips, we thought we’d have a nice easy evening fishing the Castle Cornet lighthouse, a spot that has thrown up some amazing fish over the years, including some Bailiwick records. The breakwater has a great depth off the end. We did a short session and again found the dogs, I ended up live baiting Remi’s pouting, which was a bit over sized but, eventually, after a couple of hours, it gave up the goose and the crustaceans got to it. I reel in a horrid looking starfish, it was unlike the ones I have had in Scotland or Norway, it was grey looking with what resembled spines, I was quite careful unhooking and returning it, not knowing exactly what it was, I suspect a type of spiny starfish. Remi departed, having an early shift the following day, whilst Grant was snoozing sat under the light beacon and I was done taking pics, it was home time and our final fishing session had come to a close.
I don’t do hotel reviews, even if my stay was unpleasant, but, the one we stayed in was special for many reasons and I feel I should elaborate and please understand there is zero embellishment in what I am about to say. The hotel had a magnificent sea view on the West Coast, that’s the positive part out of the way, now the downsides; As a couple of guys fishing, wallpaper peeling off the walls didn’t bother us, or how dirty it all looked, we’re anglers, we smell of fish, our hands are black with cuttlefish ink, shoes and socks smell damp and wet, but, certain things, are just so far below the acceptable norm in 2018. Breakfast, day one, I ask for sausages, bacon and toast, it all comes in a sandwich, half way though I discover my sausages are pink in the middle, medium-rare, not cool. So, for the first time in my life, I leave bacon and sausage on the plate and feel a bit sick. Day two breakfast, I decide I’ll play it safe and go for croissants, I order two and after 25 minutes I politely ask again, to be told the chef has forgotten but, he’ll do them now. Ok, we have time, no big deal. Day three we pick a different waitress to order the croissants, and 30 minutes later, waitress suddenly has a disturbed look like, she has forgotten the croissants, eventually they arrive. Grant and I are laughing about the whole thing, what are the chances, two days running? There is food matter all over the dining room floor, nobody cares really. One day first thing in the morning we have 3 labourers or carpenters assaulting the door next to our room, it was like waking up with a bunch of panel beaters next to your bed. Despite having relatively healthy backs, Grant and I both woke up each day like we’d had a Roman Legion walk across our spines in the night, the beds were insanely hard and uncomfortable, I’ve had more comfortable nights sleeping on solid rock. The bathroom had no mirror, the shower hose was leaking and there was enough corrosion and grime on the fittings that swallowing any bath water may have resulted in some kind of rust poisoning. Also on the first day we said we didn’t want housekeeping, so they never came again all trip. Grant ordered the same brekkie every day and each day he got less food than the day before, and lastly, the bedroom door had an automatic closer that was positively lethal, it slammed the door so hard that you’d jump out of your skin and heaven forbid your barefoot be in the way, you’d be minus toe nails at the very least and possibly the whole foot. We could only laugh at all this stuff and joke about how bad it was, you expect it paying $5-$10 per night while back packing through Guatemala or Honduras, but, I can honestly say those people had more pride in what they were doing than this hotel.
So accommodation aside, the trip had been good, we all enjoyed it, it was great to finally meet Remi and welcome him to the team, I’ll return on spring tides when the fishing is better but, the break was just what we needed. Guernsey is a damn fine place to visit in Spring, Summer or Autumn, it was Grant’s first time and he’ll be going back soon.
As the clock struck 3pm I raced out of the office to grab my fishing kit, which I’d packed the night before. All that needed adding was a cool bag of fresh bait, rods and, a bucket containing a foul smelling mix of worm guts and fish rubby dubby mix! I was soon on the road, with the artificial world of concrete, masses of people and noise in my wake. After a week without fishing it felt great to be finally on the journey with the motion blur of rich green trees either side and birds soaring overhead. It was a beautiful sunny afternoon in Dorset, which is a damn fine part of the world when the weather is like this.
My mind was alive with thoughts and a deeply optimistic feeling about what the evening fishing may hold in store for me. I parked up, rucksack on, rods in hand and was off down the hill to catch my first glimpse of the sea on the Isle of Purbeck Coast. As I stood by the cliff edge, I had a good look out to sea and despite the Channel Lightship (62103) Wave Buoy showing just 0.4ft over 10 seconds and, viewing webcams further down the coast, as I always do when fishing spots at water level, something didn’t look right out at sea. There were rollers and white horses coming towards the shore. The Purbecks have strong tidal races on most rocky outcrops that jut out to sea, they appear more on the ebb, especially on springs, but this looked more than that. When you are rock fishing it is crucial that you get things right in regards to swells, not just because a spot may be un-fishable, but, mainly for safety reasons.
I decided I would take a closer look, low tide was approaching and the spot wasn’t visible from where I was stood, so I climbed down the grassy slope and made my way around to the mark, a series of rocky ledges about 3m above water level. I have to say it looked very bassy down there and the sea state becomes a little turbulent at low tide, as the change of direction often causes a stir. I took out my lure rod and began to fire casts out, all the time I was thinking, these waves look solid coming in and hitting the ledge at low tide, the tidal races do not do this. The only thing it could be is an easterly swell, which I didn’t expect with a northeasterly wind but, would make sense as nothing was coming up the English Channel. At this particular spot you are cut off over high tide for a considerable period and it isn’t the kind of place you would wish to be stuck when a sizeable sea is whipping up before your eyes. So, my mind was made up, this was not the venue for tonight, I should side with caution and leave, it just isn’t worth it no matter how good the fishing may be. I have to say, going up the steep slope with a rope was pretty hard work, even being fresh at the start of the session, calfs in particular were experiencing a deep burn as the lactic acid sets in. The way back was all uphill after the rocks and it was pretty refreshing to gulp a couple of pints of water when reaching the car.
The whole way back I had been mulling over where I’d go next, I just wasn’t really prepared for most of the other spots that may fish well, I mean, I had no drop-net or proper landing gear for the higher up marks so it would have to be somewhere a bit lower, with water access, where fish could be beached, I decided on Dancing Ledge. The venue is popular with tourists in summer, as well as anglers using light spinning gear for bass, mackerel and pollock or bait fishing for wrasse, the place is also a very accessible LRF venue. During the walk down, I felt my confidence was slightly dashed, you prepare mentally for a certain mark, you know how you’ll fish it, which rigs you’ll take, baits to use and where to cast precisely.
Dancing Ledge has mainly been a lure mark for me in the past with only bait fishing there a handful of times where I had seen a couple of chaps pull in a big Bull Huss and a few congers one summer, so I wasn’t completely deflated. The unplanned change of venue does knock your confidence a bit, having not done detailed research and looked at past logs for the optimum time. Whatever the case, I would fish hard and give it my best, probably calling it a night around midnight or so. The venue itself is an old quarry, made for ships to moor up and carry the quarried limestone away. For the fishermen it is a great wide platform, comprised of relatively flat rock that gently slopes down at high tide and at low it drops straight off several meters. There is a big rock pool to the left, which was a purpose build swimming pool, made from blasting into the rock for the use of local preparatory schools in the early twentieth century. This is covered at high tide and in rougher seas, something you could easily stand in at night in waders if you weren’t aware of it, dropping down around 10ft.
After the 30 minute or so hike from the National Trust car park near Langton House. I setup well away from the man made swimming pool. It was pleasing to see a much calmer sea in contrast to spot one. There was no risk of my kit getting wet and it’s a very comfortable rock venue where you can easily spend many hours after monster species.
After throwing my trial chum mix in and watching it disperse encouragingly, I grabbed my lure rod and began spinning immediately. I can’t deny it was great to be out, the land and sea had this golden hue to it, caused by the now low sun in the sky, which was just dropping over the ridge by St Albans Head. I had a couple of pollock early on whilst spinning a toby spoon, then decided to pop some feathers on to try for mackerel, the news of some showing at Chesil Beach left me feeling optimistic and at last light, I felt that familiar crazy thumping on my lure rod, I slowed the retrieve for others to take the remaining feathers and pretty soon I had them at my feet. There were two prime conditioned mackerel. After a quick photo, I cast back out and a few more attempts I hooked another one, which was great really, to have 3 fresh ones for the night session was a very useful addition to my bait supply.
Feeling pretty pleased with the way things had kicked off at Dancing Ledge, I set up my Century T900 and a T1000, did a couple of nice looking bait ups and cast out to where I had seen the guy get the huss the previous summer. Chris also put his rods out, my designated camera guy for the night. The last hint of light in the sky could now be seen to the West, in front of me it was all stars poking through, I was just sorting a new bait up when the tip started to go on the T1000, the rod I had put a fresh pollock on 20 mins earlier. The tip tapped away again, it seemed purposeful, the movement had more about it than a tapping dog or pouting, so I snatched the rod, leant into it and felt a serious weight. The fish struggling through various kelp beds on the way in were only adding to the weight, as was the bit of tide pulling hard from right to left. It was nearly in when Chris darted off to the water’s edge in his wellies, he clapped eyes on a magnificent looking mottled undulate, the dark type that sit on flat rock around the Dorset Coast. In the water he grabbed it by the shoulder and carried it clear of the lapping white water. I looked at the fish and thought, that’s not a bad one at all, a decent wingspan and striking markings. I held it up for a few photos, which made me more curious about the weight, and on the scales it fluctuated between 14lb 4oz and 13lb 12oz, eventually setting on 14lb. A good undulate and a PB, slowly creeping up to a not bad, respectable one for me.
Undulates had been the target at mark one, so really all had gone pretty well with the move. I was also really pleased that fresh pollock had done the job bait-wise, it’s not something I usually use but, very effective on this occasion. Now, being just after new moon, the sky was very dark, stars everywhere and it was a wonderful night stood down there watching tips on this comfortable platform, not much different to fishing a beach really. We both had dogs next and to be honest, things became quite quiet as we approached high tide and the ebb began. We decided to throw the towel in just after midnight, the sea had been kind to us and with it being a weeknight, it was best to head for home with a 30min walk ahead and an hour of driving back.
So, what I had learned tonight is, Dancing Ledge is a nice mark when you fancy an easy session from the rocks. The walk isn’t too bad either, a small bit of climbing down to sea level but nothing too demanding to the able bodied. You don’t require any unusual, awkward landing gear, fish can also be caught and released easily too. I would recommend it to anyone looking to start rock fishing and me naming this venue won’t upset anybody, it being somewhere commonly known already. It had been a good night, short and sweet by our usual standards and the right decision was made in regard to the first spot, it’s better not to take unnecessary risks, for your sake and others.
Now that spring has finally sprung , lighter evenings and settled weather turns our attention to the stunning Gilthead Bream. something we very much enjoy targeting in the Cornish and south Devon rivers and estuaries.
The gilt is regarded as highly prized by many anglers that target them, in part because their fight is probably one of the best of all UK shore species pound for pound , and their explosive takes, often ripping the rods out of the stands, followed by hard fights with good runs is extremely exciting to say the least.
Warmer settled weather got us checking the tides and deciding on a venue for our first session of the year. Though the combination of tides and conditions were less than perfect we still couldn’t resist getting out and having a go, so we ordered some bait and decided to take the plunge. We turned up after work to the venue and excitedly made our way to the mark. The water was crystal clear on this warm muggy evening, mullet surfacing and swirling everywhere felt like the perfect recipe for our intended quarry, and better than forecasts had indicated. Signs were certainly encouraging.
Gilthead fishing tactics are fairly simple. A basic running ledger or bolt rig, with 2ft of 15lb fluorocarbon trace and a Varivas size one Chinu at the business end being all that is required. As with all fishing different people have different choices in setups, but it is very important to have a reel that is smooth and has a good drag for a powerful running fish. Of further importance is the line capacity of the reel, as you’ll be wanting to hold plenty of line on the off chance you hook that monster we are all searching for! I use Penn battle 4000s loaded with 8lb line on 2 1/2 lb test curve carp rods whereas Carl uses 2-4oz estuary rods with shimano 4000 baitrunners loaded with 12lb line. Like I say, it’s personal preference and I’m sure fishing too light will end up costing me a good fish at some point. Be aware to always set your rod up at least 10ft from the waters edge, as a decent gilt will easily drag a rod in! Bait is dependant on area and confidence but they are generally caught on rag and lugworm, razor and peeler crab.
With things looking perfect we raced to get set up and in no time the baits were out and the rods in the stands eagerly awaiting to see if the gilts were in. After just a couple of minutes a small knock showed on one of the rods. I looked up disappointed as a typical school bass type bite was detected, but then whack! In a split second the other rod doubled clean over. I fought to get the rod out of the stand under the pressure and struck , GONE!
I was disappointed but not discouraged, as normally if there’s one there’s more. Whilst frantically re-baiting, I looked up to see my other rod keeled over. I grabbed it from the stand and instantly knew there was a gilt on the other end, the powerful head thumps are an instant give away. I could tell it was only a small one but was ecstatic to have my first one of the year hooked. I looked over and Carl was in as well! I soon had mine beached on the foreshore, the fish was around a pound and a half, the sun shining off its flank highlighting the silver with hints of pinks and purples and it’s distinctive gold bar on the head. Every time I catch this species I’m in awe of their appearance. They are beautiful. Carl’s was also a similar size and encouraged by this great start we eagerly baited back up and got back to fishing.
We didn’t have to wait long and Carl was in again. It was somewhat majestic watching his rod bent over thudding away. I glanced back and mine slammed over again, but again i missed it! Gilts have very hard mouths with lots of round crushing type teeth and sometimes the way they pick up the bait, you just don’t get a hookhold. It’s frustrating but something you have to accept when targeting them.
Whilst Carl was beaching his second, my rod doubled over and line was peeling from the spool. I wrestled it out of the stand and experiencing some big head shakes followed by a 30 yard run I knew I had managed to connect to a better fish. I played it into the shallows where I caught a glimpse of this beautiful fish that didn’t like the shallow water and motored back out into the channel. The sound of line coming off the reel somewhat appealing, again my other rod was registering another gilt bite but focus had to be maintained on this better fish, so again I coaxed it into the shallows and this time beached it. I quickly picked up the other slack rod but it was gone! A quick wash and weigh and this chunky well conditioned gilt pulled the scales to a respectable 4lb 2oz. After a quick photo attempts were made to get it released. Unfortunately after much effort the fish wouldn’t go back. Quite often the better fish give so much in the fight that they can’t regain their strength again and although I prefer to catch and release (personal preference), good table fish can make an exception. Myself and my family enjoy eating fish and with gilt being one of our tastiest UK fish I take and eat the ones that don’t survive.
The session stayed hectic until darkness with around 10 gilts landed between us. A couple of 2lb fish and plenty of smaller ones as well as the missed bites had left us more than satisfied. A few more trips since have produced more gilts to around the 2lb mark but with the gilt season running into autumn there’s plenty of time to get out and enjoy them later on when there will hopefully be less quantity and more quality size wise.
The last few weeks of settled weather has really started to help the fishing in Wales, with numbers of rays, smoothound and the inevitable dogfish slowly on the rise bringing the summer species into the Bristol channel. My chosen quarry this week was my favourite species to target and one of the most prized fish in UK shore angling, the Tope.
With reports of tope being caught in west wales I decided to get my first session of the season underway and with most of the marks being very busy I had to make a choice on where to go to avoid turning up and finding people already on there. I chose a mark where I had a 64lb fish from last year, but my confidence wasn’t very high as I’d never fished there this early on in the year. We set off in the early hours hoping to get there for first light and with expectations not very high we were just glad we could experience fishing in conditions which don’t often occur in the UK.
We timed it perfectly and walked to the mark, being able to set up without the need for headlamps. My choice of rigs for targeting tope is always the pulley pennel with 100lb rig body and a wire biting trace. I like to keep my fishing simple and out of all the rigs I’ve used the pulley is my favourite and the go to rig when targeting these big powerful fish with sharp teeth. The rigs were baited up with frozen mackerel and sent out in hope of hearing one of our reels scream off. Tope are not fussy when it comes to bait, they are mainly bottom feeders and scavengers so what ever you put out will have a chance of picking one out, but in my opinion the best bait out there is mackerel, though I’ve caught them on a different variety of baits.
The spider crabs were out in force stripping the baits but at least the dogfish were very quiet, which is always a good sign when targeting the tope because it gives them a chance to find the bait. I’ve found with this venue there’s a two hour window when you have the best chance of hooking a tope. Unfortunately that magic time had passed and all we had to show were a few spider crabs for our efforts. However, what I have found with the bigger stamp of fish is they seem to be solitary and can turn up any state of the tide, so even though the best time had passed I still considered myself to have a slight chance.
With the sun glaring down on us and the early start I was starting to feel tired, I had not long changed my baits so I decided to have a snooze. I had just nodded off when I could hear a ratchet going and accompanied before I could react with shouts , “Ry, Ry, Ry, your rod, your rod!”. It’s not a nice feeling being woken up and not knowing what’s going on but instinct kicks in and in a flash I was up and tightening the drag into what was the first run of the year. The fish was hooked and not happy but I didn’t think it was an exceptional fish and if I was to be honest I would have called it around the 30lb mark due to the way it was fighting.
Expectations changed when the fish surfaced and I realised it was significantly bigger than I thought. I was convinced now this was another 50 due to the girth and length of it, but when it was netted and all I could here was “hurry up hurry up its massive its got to be 60 or 70 and I can’t lift it!” I knew it was something special. Seeing her in the net was something that will stick with me forever as the size of her was massive and she only just fitted in the net. We rushed as quick as we could to get the weight and pictures so we could release her as quickly as possible whilst putting as little stress as we could on her.
When I first lifted her in the net the scales went up over 80lb and I thought wow, but they soon slowly dropped to 76lb which, after taking the weight of the net off, registers as 73lb 2oz. I had done it, smashed my personal best and not just broken the 70lb barrier but the current British shore record too, which I never thought I would do. After a load of quick pictures and videos she was sent on her way and swimming off strong which is a sight to behold and will stay with me forever. A load of cheering, shouting and congratulations were said and it was time to take it all in and realise what we had just witnessed. We fished hard for the rest of the session but there was nothing else out there apart from a few spider crabs. Though with the excitement level still high we really didn’t mind.
When it comes to targeting tope there’s only a couple of pieces of advice I can give. First of all, it is an hours game, they are no different to any other fish and can turn up anywhere whether it’s a shallow beach or a deep rock mark. If it’s a fish you would like to target, do the research, find a spot with a likely food source and put the hours in, the rewards are worth it. Secondly, get a very big and very strong net! The last thing you want to be doing is gaffing a tope and we’d all like to see them go back with as little damage as possible, so a net is an absolute must.
This year has started slowly for shore anglers in Cornwall. After a lacklustre winter season, the hope was for a bumper dose of early spring action to make up for the disappointment of the previous few months. Unfortunately, these hopes have been dashed by the crazily bipolar weather and a distinct lack of the usual suspect species inshore. Normally, by May, I would have expected to have had some thrilling sport with hounds and Gilthead Bream on my home turf, along with middleweight ray action slightly further afield. Although I have caught a few hounds and bream, the fishing has been far from its best, and I have had to go back to the drawing board to think of somewhere likely to produce a few more bites and a good chance of a quality fish.
The estuary of the River Fal is one place I typically turn to when fish are sparse on the county’s open coast. The lower reaches contain a multitude of fish-attracting features such as rocky shores, muddy inlets and shallow bays, as well as the deep main channel that runs through the belly of the estuary. The area is rich in marine life, sporting worm beds and a wide variety of crustaceans, as well as being home to unusual fish species such as the red band fish. The Fal also boasts other less-common marine organisms such as a harvestable population of our native oyster and areas of sea grass and maerl beds. The importance of sea grass as food, nursery areas, and hunting grounds, is widely known, but maerl (a slow-growing algae that forms coral-like structures) is also an absolute magnet for marine life. The cover provided by the matrixes of maerl offers refuge to a multitude of organisms that would otherwise be vulnerable to becoming a meal for a predator.
One of the Fal’s maerl deposits is located in the area where the Penryn River empties into the main estuary, not far from where the north bank curves into the foreshore of the Trefusis estate. The Trefusis stretch of the Fal estuary’s west bank is well-known among Cornish shore anglers as it offers easy fishing on to clean ground. The only obstacles to worry about are the seemingly-ever-present crab pots (and their associated ropes) and the occasional wayward water-user. Perhaps as a result, there is a tendency to look down on the spot as being more of a beginner’s mark, but the fact is that Trefusis regularly throws up impressive fish and has proven itself capable of producing a monster at any time and any tide. Out of habit, I typically used to fish at the point where I know the depths of the main channel come closest to the shore (about halfway along the stretch), but since last year I’ve put a few more hours in at a more southerly mark, hoping to catch the attention of any predators that may be on their way to or from the maerl beds.
The Fal estuary, as you might expect, sports worthwhile quantities of Thornback Ray running to the mid-teens of pounds, but it also proves attractive to Spotted Ray; to perhaps British record proportions. Spotteds over 5lbs are regularly caught and 6 pounders are a realistic goal. Fish over the 7lb mark are for the fortunate few, but they are present and they do get caught. In addition to the rays, Bull Huss are common throughout the Fal, mostly running to low double figures. These roam freely over the predominantly clean ground inside the estuary and can sometimes be picked up in the day as well as at night. Top bait for both ray species is undoubtedly live sandeel, with these shimmering morsels seeming to pick off the choicest fish year after year. Frozen sandeel is very much second best, but it is the bait that I fish with most frequently and I have still caught plenty of fish with it. Crab (in my experience) fishes poorly for Fal thornbacks, although having caught fish in the neighbouring Helford estuary on live prawn, I suspect that would do very well in the Fal also. The huss in the Fal favour sandeel, either of the frozen variety or fresh deads.
Trefusis, for me, has always been a particularly intriguing place to fish. Having said that, I don’t have much appetite for daytime sessions there; it is those sessions crossing from the evening into darkness that I savour the most. Under the blanket of night, the place takes on an absorbing atmosphere, a quiet brooding that is filled with tension and the anticipation of the next bite. Lights twinkle across the river from the bulk of St Mawes Castle, the low hum of machinery is audible from Falmouth docks and at any moment, a ray may swoop gracefully on to one of my baits. Admittedly, many of these ray are quite modest specimens; Trefusis seems to be especially fond of throwing out male thornbacks weighing not much more than 5lbs. Catch the attention of a female spotted, however, and you are likely to be a happy angler as these generally average around the 4lb mark. To date, my best spotted ray from Trefusis had been a fish of 5lbs 7oz, but I’ve felt ever since that this was a figure I could definitely improve on. With this thought in the back of my mind, I made an evening voyage out to Trefusis planning to catch the four hour run-up to high water; probably my favourite time slot to fish at this venue.
I arrived to find my mark-of-choice vacant and the water looking reasonably clear, with a south-westerly breeze ruffling the surface. All the signs looked promising and I began to set up, baiting two pulley dropper rigs with frozen sandeels. These would be carried into the distance and pinned to the bottom by 6oz plain leads. These I like to allow to roll a little and find natural troughs by letting out a little loose line and allowing the current to pull against the bow. Any depressions in the seabed are natural ray feeding spots and definitely worthwhile seeking out. My first two casts went out to their intended areas and I quickly set about getting my kit sorted for the rest of the session before baiting a spare rig. The rods curved gracefully into the tide and after watching for a while, I was pretty sure that there wasn’t a huge amount of crab activity out there.
Time ticked away, and I focused on keeping my cast times to around half an hour to keep in tune with the wear and tear on the baits. As the fishing was slow, I put together a third rod and sent out a speculative cast off at an angle upriver to the left. As darkness fell, everything started to look good for a fish and I was sure that it was just a matter of time. I had begun preparing a bait for the next cast when I happened to glance up and see that the line on what was now my middle rod was hanging limp. A quick tighten-up revealed signs of life on the other end; a few little bumps were followed by a purposeful draw and I reeled into the fish. At first contact, the fish felt substantial although it soon began to come in quite easily. This pattern of behaviour made me strongly suspect it was a huss that was likely lightly-hooked and would shake the hook when the pressure came on in close. As the fish drew nearer, it became obvious to me that it was kiting in at an angle and was about to pass under the line on my right hand rod. It was also staying deep and heading right for a barely submerged ledge. I changed the angle of the rod and leant in hard to check the fish’s progress. By this point, I was certain that I had a ray on, and the way it was putting up such staunch resistance towards the end of the tussle made me think it was a spotted, and a good one at that. The leader knot appeared, although it was clear that the fish was still hugging the bottom and trying to find refuge in the rock ledges. Fortunately for me, despite its best efforts, firm pressure won out and a dark submerged shape soon appeared in the torch beam. The ray surfaced and I could see that it was, indeed, one of the gloriously-marked spotteds that the Fal is noted for, with a dorsal surface the colour of melted butter and big inky spots. This was clearly a good fish and, plucking it from the water, the first thing that struck me was the muscular thickness of its body through the middle. I couldn’t be certain, but this looked and felt like the biggest spotted ray I had ever caught. I quickly unhooked my prize and slipped her into a good-sized rockpool to recuperate.
As I rummaged through my bag for the scales (which had not been troubled much in the last few months), I wondered whether the fish might go over 6lbs. It had certainly had some heft to it when I held it, and the prodigious girth of its middle was promising. Carefully weighing my prize revealed a weight of 6lbs 2oz; a figure I was delighted with! A few quick self-take pictures later, she was swimming off back into the depths. Luckily, she had not been deep-hooked, and I felt sure that her chances of surviving to contribute to the next generation were very good.
Quickly after catching the first, I landed a second spotted ray; a male that I did not weigh but I would have guessed at around 3lbs. In any case, it was a handsome fish and I quickly returned it, thinking that there was a strong possibility it was a prospective mate for the bigger ray. I fished on for a while longer, but with two quality fish caught, I felt that my chances of any more decent ones were pretty slim. Trefusis is a spot that rarely gives up a bumper session, more often one or two good fish are the best you can hope for. I added a couple of dogfish before finishing up just after the top of the tide. You can fish the ebb here, and there is often another decent window of fish activity about two hours down, but it is generally not as dependable as the second half of the flood.
The lower Fal estuary is a fascinating body of water to fish, and undoubtedly contains many hidden gems just waiting to be found by anglers who fall under its spell. When things are going well, the fishing can be really fulfilling, but when things are bad, the Fal can be pretty torturous. There are few places that I fish that feel as stone dead as the Fal does when it switches off. What is worse is that it seems to pick on certain anglers, inflicting blank after blank on them, even while others are catching fish. Trefusis is particularly notorious for doing this. One very successful ray angler I used to regularly see fishing there told me it took him three years to catch his first thornback from the mark. For me, this adds to the attraction of the place. I enjoy the fact that it is moody and inconsistent as, to me, it makes the little victories all the sweeter. It is easy to forget that even though some spots may have reputations as ‘soft’ marks, that does not necessarily mean that there aren’t good fish to be caught and great memories to be made at them for the more experienced angler. Sometimes, a little thought and a fresh approach to a familiar place could be the difference between the frustration of enduring a lean spell, and the exhilaration of catching a new personal best.
When life gives you Lobsters
It was Saturday, precisely two days after our last rock fishing session and our legs were still aching from that successful trip. Once a year I fish ‘Snake Mountain’, a nickname given to the biggest rock in the chain of stacks at Mupe. The stack itself is rather imposing, standing at ninety feet high and it requires a very careful walk over the top and route down to the front shelf, including lowering gear via a rope. It appears this huge rock has spiralling layers, very much like the ones in Skelator’s lair in the 80’s cartoon “He-Man”. The name Snake Mountain also seems apt because of the large number of sizeable Conger Eels that frequent and inhabit the area surrounding it. The sea bed is a mosaic of kelp beds and boulders with streaks of sandy patches zig-zagging in-between. The habitat itself is perfect for bass, wrasse, pollock, five types of ray and is even frequented by some big Dover Sole. The location benefits enormously from being inside Dorset’s Ministry of Defence firing ranges, protecting it from netters and overfishing for much of the year. The mark also benefits from it’s isolation in terms of the distance from the car as you’ll understand by the following commentary.
Rob and I set off at 3:30pm, after an hour drive we parked at the rear of Lulworth Village and began the trek over Bindon Hill, calfs burning, ascending 168m to be greeted with one of the most picturesque views in the county, you see a chalky path cutting down the inside of the hill to Mupe Bay, its aquamarine sea and the white cliffs reaching east in the distance. We took a few images as we walked, chatted full of enthusiasm up until the steps down to the beach, where we began concentrating whilst boulder hopping past the smaller stacks that led the way to the back of the biggest one. The strong tide line could be seen clearly just beyond the rocks, as well as various squalls cutting at the surface of the shimmering sea and we wondered whether any of the other stacks were accessible at low, perhaps wading out, as they were all proud of even the highest tide line.
We had quite a sweat on our brows now as we began climbing over the top, it’s breathtaking the vantage point on the top but, also harrowing, it’s certainly not a place for people with vertigo, but, I only really remember the beauty of it and the polarised view of the reels and sandy patches below. We carefully descended, lowering gear for the last part via a length or rope and started setting up our lure rods. Neither of us could get over just how clear the water was, it must have been 10-15ft deep at our feet, but, it looked as if you could touch the bottom with ease and we spotted some big shoals of bait fish darting around in their hundreds.
We were in to fish right from the off, Rob with Ballan Wrasse and me with pollock, these Remen Atomsilda pirks were being slow jigged and smashed on the way in by the pollock, almost every cast for a while, it was very enjoyable and the time flew by. Rob also had a go with feathers, catching a big plump mackerel. As the sun dropped below the cliffs the ballan’s went to sleep, but, the pollock continued taking the metal pirks, for me on a 5g rated Daiwa LRF rod, it made for some fantastic sport playing fish, one of which ripped line off the fixed spool reel and cut more fluorocarbon clean through on a reef, there was little I could do to stop it, but, it certainly got my heart racing just before dark as it zipped off in the distance. If you’re looking to get children or non-anglers into this sport, this is certainly the way to do it, its just so enjoyable, we stopped counting the fish before long.
The light had pinkish tones and closed off a deep blue to the west, we were both setting up bait gear and Rob had kept a couple of live baits for after dark, as he was convinced in these still calm conditions that this may be a more effective method of fishing than a dead bait. He put his T1000 out with a big garfish bait and with the T900 he deployed a slider after casting a lead out as far as he could. I put two extra large sandeel on one rod and opted for mackerel baits on the other, alternating with some very black looking Devon Bait’s cuttlefish. I quickly had a decent sized pout tapping away and felt it was only a matter of time until something decent would take a bait of mine.
The tide began to slow, baited hooks began to come back clean as a whistle, completely stripped, like they had been buffed and polished, it wasn’t until I got a mackerel spine back that I truly knew the culprit, sand fleas. They can ruin a session on this stretch of coast, they are ravenous and in the thousands. We also saw the tell tale clawing of a bait by lobsters, then the waving of their tails to simulate a bite. We were doomed but, pride and determination wouldn’t let us quit. We had a crab trap with us and it was deployed, we left it a few hours and before long it was inhabited by two lobsters and hundreds of sand fleas, confirming just what we thought was the bait stripping culprits. But, still, with low tide approaching, a stage of the tide when I’ve had some great Conger Eels and good bass there, we continued on, whether through blind belief or abject denial, pretty soon nature signalled the end, with the hue of dawn on the eastern horizon, it was all over. The hauling the gear up, the clambering around now wet boulders thanks to dew and a high tide splashing from the sea, followed by the strides up the tall steps and the arduous negotiation and summit of Bindon Hill, we were completely spent forces, it was 5 degrees celsius and we were that hot from the walk, it could have been 25C. The relief was immense with the car in sight and we chatted long and hard about where tonight had gone wrong, how we could learn from it and hit the spot right next time but, the self critique was really pretty useless on this occasion, as the second sand fleas are in the equation, it’s a waste of time. We’d done things right, put in an enormous amount of effort and been rewarded with a kick in the teeth.
Sometimes, we fail, some anglers more than others. In this day and age fisherman make their social media feeds look like one big success, the reality is, most don’t share the barren sessions, the absolute low points and crushing defeats, yet they are part and parcel of this sport/hobby/pastime that we love, its something which happens to all of us and that we all have in common and can relate to. Perhaps, we should be more grateful, I mean, the lure fishing was fantastic, as was the camaraderie between Rob and I, if only we could have known the night would be dreadful. The hike certainly made us resent carrying tripods, beach casters, bait and all of those leads required, but, as Jansen Teakle, one of our other writers says “that’s the gamble you take when you go fishing” and tonight, the dice weren’t landing right for us. What I can say is, 99% of anglers taking in the views we did, whether that fabulous night sky, with a proud Milky Way above or the sun kissed daylight hours, would describe the trip as a privilege rather than a chore, however, Rob and I being spoilt by places like this, just recall the whole trip as good exercise with those giant 80L packs on our backs.
Sure, it has its pros and cons, but I’m certain that any keen sea angler will agree with me when I say that social media has created an increased awareness of the fishing available beyond our own doorsteps. Catches from across the country fill news feeds and the temptation is constantly there to plan a trip in pursuit of something new and exciting.
Indeed, it’s a temptation I have succumbed to on numerous occasions and at certain times of the year I’ll cheerfully drive hundreds of miles a week in an effort to catch something that not only has meaning to me, but satisfaction in its capture. Of course, word of mouth has and always will be a means of gleaning information to help you make these choices, but you really have to admit that platforms such as Facebook have done wonders when it comes to drawing anglers out of their comfort zone. I’d say that on the whole, this is a good thing, but when you’re distracted by the goings on taking place a hundred miles away, do you neglect the great sport that may be available closer to home?
In some respects, I have been guilty of this and after travelling outside of Somerset on more occasions than I care to remember already this year, I recently opted for a session right here on the shores of the Bristol Channel, not far from my home town of Weston-super-Mare. It was most refreshing to be leaving work knowing that in a short time I would have a bait in the water without the need to negotiate frustrating motorway traffic and endure endless mind numbing A-roads. I arrived at the mark in plenty of time for my planned low water assault, hauled my Bergen on and began the lengthy hike that, despite laying on my doorstep, had been neglected for so long.
The weather was quite sublime with just a few stray wispy white clouds hanging in the otherwise clear blue sky. Wild cowslips, buttercups and orchids sunned themselves in the long grass alongside the footpath and swifts darted and played on the wing. The sun was incredibly hot and I removed my cap to wipe away the perspiration forming on my brow as I continued my march. As I negotiated the final part of the footpath it was noticeable that the ground underfoot was suffering at the hands of the current dry spell as parched grass and cracked earth begged for rain that it would have to wait for a little while longer for, should the weather forecasters be believed.
Steadily making my way down a steep limestone face to where my chosen spot lay in wait, my spiked boots did their job at keeping me upright and it was a relief to finally haul my Bergen off of my shoulders. I arched my back, stretched and looked at the quiet beauty surrounding me. It really was a glorious day, one that would have many itching to get a bait in the water, but for whatever reason I was more than content to assemble my tackle at a far more leisurely pace as I stood and appreciated my surroundings.
I had opted to keep my session as simple as possible by fishing two rods at different ranges with a view to targeting the ever present thornback ray at distance and fishing a crab bait under my feet in the hope of a bass. The heat was actually quite stifling and it did occur to me that not only had I left the sunscreen at home and that I would likely have a pink face the following morning, but also that the sea was perhaps a little too settled for the bass to feed. What little wind there was came from the south and although I was facing straight into it, the wind from this direction has a tendency to flatten the sea off within the bay I would be casting my baits in to.
But in reality, none of that really mattered. Anglers are renowned for their eternal optimism and I knew that whatever the final outcome, it felt good to be beside the quiet water and at peace with the world. That eternal optimist in me must have been quite prevalent that evening, as at the last minute both rods were baited with fresh crab in the hope of a bass. I laid back on the awkwardly shaped reef and enjoyed the heat it had stored up in the stifling May sunshine. Wavelets lapped the fringe of the reef and a trail of tide was evident just a few feet out from the edge of the rocks. This is where I chose to place my primary bass bait; a turbulent little patch of water that been kind to me in the past.
For a considerable period of time now, I’ve enjoyed fishing with light tackle in the Bristol Channel and when conditions have allowed, even free-lined baits. This is an exciting way to fish and undoubtedly presents the bait in a very natural manner. But more importantly than that, it offers a direct contact with the baited hook that allows you to develop a very intuitive sense of what is happening below the surface. Holding the rod and feeling for every subtle movement on the braid is incredibly satisfying and when a bass, or any species of fish for that matter, happens across your bait, the wake up it brings can be both spectacular and startling. This method had formed part of my plan on the lighter of the two rods I had cast and I lay there patiently waiting for what might happen next.
As time moved on, the gentle swoosh of water against rock escalated and marked the arrival of the flooding tide. As is often the case at this time of year, this in turn roused a sea breeze that brought with it a sudden drop in air temperature. The sun had dipped a little and the breeze steadily increased, taking the edge off its heat. Although conditions could no longer be described as idyllic, it was still more than pleasant. But it did mean that a free-lined bait was no longer practical. I retrieved the light set up, inspected the bait and attached a couple of ounces of lead. Again, I placed the bait probably thirty feet out from the edge and sat at ease holding the rod. The tip gently pulled over in a rhythmic fashion as the slack braid was carried on the rise and fall of the waves that made their way up in to the bay. Although I held this rod, I found myself ever distracted by the rod that sat in the rest. In doing so, my sense of touch was heightened and the rolling waves continuing to lick at the braid had me staring back and forth between the two rods.
Lost in this little game I had created for myself, it became immediately obvious when the line on the distance rod suddenly dropped slack. It was only ever so slightly, but it signalled some definite interest. Neglecting the light rod, my gaze became transfixed on the tip of the rod in the rest. I looked on, the westerly wind ever increasing and causing the occasional rogue wave to threaten my previously dry position. The choice between getting wet and waiting for the bite to develop was a simple one and I sat intently awaiting further interest as intermittent bouts of spray peppered me. The wind increased further still and as the gulley’s around me began to steadily flood, I opted to shuffle back over the rocks to a dryer vantage point away from the edge of the water. Placing the lighter rod back in the rest and opening the bale arm, I walked the tripod and two rods back out of harms way and settled down once more upon a less vulnerable platform.
The bite I had previously spotted now showed no signs of ‘maturing’ and I found myself looking away in quiet disgust, but not before I had picked up the light rod and settled down on the rocks once more. As I sat there cradling it, I was sure I had felt a slight tap. I waited. Again, another small tap. It then went quiet for a minute or two and I decided to gingerly move the bait a few inches to see what may happen. To my surprise, it appeared the end tackle had become snagged- but then the snag pulled back. I decided to lift the rod and as I did, the tip buckled like a drinking straw. My initial thoughts were that a conger had picked up my bait and was furiously shaking its head. This fish was giving a pretty dogged fight and as I steadily retrieved it, I was actually quite shocked when I glimpsed the creamy wing-tip of a ray emerging from the crest of a chocolate wave.
It was a female fish that was comfortably in to double figures and I muttered some choice words as it decided to show me its lunch by cascading shrimps down my salopettes.
It was only a short battle, but one I savoured on tackle many would consider too light for serious fishing in the Bristol Channel. As with all of the rays I am fortunate to land, this one was soon released to the water having posed for a picture or two.
I soon recast the rod, stepping up to a three ounce lead to combat the rapidly increasing sea state and wind speed before finally returning to my station that was already in danger of succumbing to the threat of the incoming tide. It was only then that I realised that the line on the second rod had fallen totally slack, the bright yellow line bellowing in the stiff wind. Making a grab for it and hastily winding up the slack line, there was certainly some weight there, though nothing that was on par with the previous encounter. I slid the ray up over the rocks; a small male that was especially prickly and just very lightly hooked.
Finishing the short session with around seven-or-eight rays, it had been a pleasing enough evening. A few fish had provided a quick fix, but as I made my way back across the hilly track in the fading light, I couldn’t help but feel cheated out of a bass. The rabbits that played innocently beneath the now night sky only served to taunt me, but a second crack at a bass was already very much at the forefront of my mind.
Time moved on, days passed, as they do and the time to re-visit the mark failed to present itself. In fact, it wasn’t until the following week that I once again had the opportunity to target the fish that had eluded me. Again, a brief after work session was planned and choosing a mark perhaps half a mile away from where the rays had graced me with their presence, I was by the water once more. This time focussing solely on bass with a single rod, the tide was reaching its peak when I arrived. It was an extremely settled evening, eerily still, with just the sound of lambs bleating in the adjacent fields.
The air had a true summer aroma about it and I placed my bait into a shallow gulley that would be the perfect place to seek a bass foraging for crabs. The sun had started to dip and a little breeze developed. I placed my rod down on the rocks, opened the clutch right up and reached for my jacket. Sods law is evident in all parts of life, but seems to be especially prevalent within fishing. No sooner had I pushed my second arm through the sleeve of my jacket than line started firing off of the spool at an alarming rate. by the time I actually put my hand on the rod, I was certain that the culprit would be long gone, but thankfully it was still there and all I had to do now was land it. unusually, it surfaced some way out and although I could see it was a modest bass, in its efforts to elude capture it had picked up a lump of weed that momentarily dulled the fight. As I coaxed it shoreward, the weed was suddenly gone and the bass was left to do as it pleased. In my haste to hit the coast that evening, I had failed to pack a net and there was no other option than to slide down the craggy rock face to a small ledge, just above water level. As the fish came within my grasp, I reached into the chilly water and managed to lift it out by its gill on the first attempt. The circle hook had done its job nicely by nicking the fish in the very corner of the mouth and I realised I would only have a brief photo opportunity before the fish was released.
In all honesty, this may well have been one of perhaps four or five bass I would retain in a year, but as the choice is no longer one for us to make, she was soon released to go about her business.
Subsequent casts were fruitless, but the bee in my bonnet had left the moment I had touched that fish. It was with a true sense of satisfaction that I headed for home that evening, one that was achieved without the need to travel to another county in the middle of the night and one that I knew would be sought again throughout the summer months on my own doorstep.
Exploring the wild shores of Central America Part 1
There’s always much excitement and anticipation in the build up to an exotic fishing trip away but, living a busy life with work schedules and kids, before I knew it the trip was upon me!
I had checked my list to make sure I had all the essential tackle and accessories needed to make the trip and, as any angler knows, packing this all in to meet a required weight limit is not easy! Deciding on what’s really necessary and what’s surplus is very important. I had gone for a powerful spinning reel for retrieving lures fast and capable of handling big fish off rocky shore ledges, along side a smaller Diawa Emcast spin for any lighter fishing situations. The problem is you never really know what you are going to hook when traveling overseas and I guess that’s a big part of the excitement.
So after packing and re-packing the essentials I realised it would be necessary to fill my pockets with the unhooked lures I would be using! It’s surprising how many lures can fit into the pockets of a fleece. I had managed three kilos of lures as I would also be doing some lure testing down there.
The trip over was a fairly straightforward flight and a long overnight bus to my destination, followed by a taxi and boat ride to the island I would make my base during the trip. It wasn’t until unpacking I discovered somehow someone had stolen my GoPro cameras, probably during the bus trip whilst I went to the toilet. Even when you think you’re an experienced traveler, you can be caught out and realise that being a gringo you stand out and can become an easy target! After an initial moment of anger, I decided to buy a camera move on and and enjoy the trip and use it as a learning experience.
Apart from accidentally arriving with only the socks I was wearing, everything else was in order and I decided to get straight out and hit the water. I’m a land based fisherman and love to be moving about over rocks looking for spots that could hold fish. I had arranged for a local boat to drop me at islands between 10 -20 kms out to sea. It was my second trip here so I had an idea what to expect although it was a different time of the year.
I started at a spot I had enjoyed fishing on my last trip. We only had a few hours today as Victor was borrowing this boat for the afternoon, because our boat was being fitted with a back up engine and the boat lengthened to be able to handle stronger seas. Typically in these places everything is done at the last minute!
First cast of the trip I was into a Crocodile Needle fish! Great start! Not really a target fish but I wasn’t complaining, these fish would be great fun on light tackle with their hard takes and acrobatics once hooked. This isn’t always easy as they have bony mouths and a high percentage of hits result in a miss, especially when using bigger hooks and lures. I was here primarily targeting snapper, roosterfish and jacks, with the outside chance of some other species that could be around including tuna and wahoo.
After my first short session out to the islands I returned with Victor to pick up the boat we would be using for the rest of the trip, which gave me the opportunity to get the GoPro I would need for taking footage. Unfortunately the next few days were somewhat disappointing, and apart from a few more needlefish, the fishing was slow to say the least. Victor pointed out the invasion of tiny jellyfish that had arrived and were causing the fish to go down deep to avoid being stung in the eyes. The local fishermen were also complaining about the lack of fish but, it wasn’t due to dwindling numbers but more a temporary thing I believe. I decided to use sub-surface lures and try letting them drop down a bit. I did have some success with some nice snappers but these captures were hard work and as of yet nothing really big!
After a few days out on the rocks catching mainly needlefish, I decided to try the estuary, where I noticed there was no jellyfish, and had a few late afternoon sessions seeing if there was anything around. I had never fished the estuary before and always headed out for the allure of the islands and rocks at sea which is more my type of fishing. However, I found the peaceful relaxing setting of a calm estuary a great way to end the day after all the hard toil out on the rocks with swell and boiling temperatures, it was a welcome change.
I was using a 30g Enticer Sub Surface tweak bait, which looked ideal just tweaking it slowly across the shoreline, making sure I retrieved it right to the end where I soon realised most of the action was taking place, due to the tiny bait fish that were in close. I hooked a nice fish right at the shoreline, only for it to slip the hook.
The next hit was from a small jack again in very shallow water. I’ve caught bass in similar depths before but was still surprised how close in these fish will hunt. But I guess if that’s were the food is…. Although it wasn’t the type of fishing I had come for I was certainly captured in the moment and enjoying the challenge. That’s really one of the attractions of fishing, being caught up in the moment and just forgetting everything else, concentrating on the task at hand and enjoying the environment around you. Over a couple more sessions I ended up hooking a bigger Jack Crevalle and a nice snook after a thunderstorm, which was a first for me and, being a bass fisherman, this was a rewarding catch. This year there seemed to be something about thunderstorms and bass!
I knew there was corvina in the estuary but these were normally fished from boats jigging down into the deep waters. I decided to increase my chances of catching and put out a live bait from shore in hope of a passing fish in the strong outgoing tide, whilst I spun with my lighter tackle set up. A little while later I looked round only to see my rod tip banging over and line flying out on the light drag! I rushed over, tightened the drag and, struck into what I immediately realised was something very big! I was also aware that we were around 10-15 minutes or so away from total darkness, and I had no torch with me. Victor, who drops me off by boat, doesn’t like to be out on the water after dark, and as we always leave at dusk, I hadn’t thought about bringing the torch with me but, I also hadn’t accounted for hooking into something big so late on in the day!
The reel was screaming out and I knew I would need to fight the fish hard.
I realised this wasn’t fighting like most fish I was used to and before long I was sure it was some kind of Ray I had on. So, with a tight drag, I held the spool and pumped hard on the fish, knowing how they can just stick to the bottom I did my best to keep it moving. After a hard fought battle with some great runs and, not allowing it to stay still, I soon had it to the side. Here’s where I needed help but I was alone! There was a short stale mate with me just holding the fish at the edge of the sand bank waiting for Victor to return. Fortunately, he was returning to pick me up and, after shouting out and waving my arms frantically pointing at my rod he noticed it doubled over. He quickly anchored the boat and got out to help me unhook this big catch.
There’s no way I could of done it alone as Victor knows these fish well and estimated it to be between 180-200lb of stingray. He was understandably very wary of the tail after a hospital visit from a prior accident treading on a smaller one of these rays. This certainly made me think twice about casually wading through the shoreline spinning with not a care! These can swim right up to your feet feeding in the shallows and bring an abrupt end to a trip so, from then on, I decided to keep my feet firmly on the sand, which was a good idea as I often noticed them in just inches of water. We managed to pull it out and take a quick photo, pushed it back and off it went!
This Ray certainly wasn’t a target specie for this trip but was definitely a very nice surprise and took the sting out of the first days slow fishing but, I was certainly looking forwards to getting back out on the rock!
All my fishing of late seem to have been blessed by the most fantastic weather. In part, the number of trips I’ve done to the Canaries has no doubt played a role in this, but an early May trip to the Channel Islands coincided with a heat wave and my last few home sessions have seen me setting up for the evening in low winds and clear skies with perfect sunsets over the Bristol Channel.
I’ve been grateful for these conditions at home, as the intended target has been any of a number of species of ray present in the Minehead area of the channel in Somerset. The settled weather always feels preferable, offering a bit more clarity to the water, which, even if it doesn’t improve the ray fishing directly, should usually lower the number of dogfish that can be an incredible frustration when trying to get through to something a bit more substantial. I was joined in my ray hunt by Damian Close, who’s had more specimen ray from the area over the past couple of years than many will have in a lifetime. He’s put the hours in and seen the rewards, mainly with Small Eyes, but having caught his fair share of Spotted and Blonde Ray too.
Bait had been sourced for the intended quarry, some privately obtained launce and sandeel of the highest quality. The fact I’d got hold of some sandeel when stocks have generally been low for so long in part influenced my decision to chase the ray. Its hard to have bait of such good quality and not put it to good use, so whilst there were reports of some good Sole and plentiful Bass showing locally, my mind had been set. Damian took little convincing to go for the ray, a favoured species of his and the target species for a rover competition he had coming up with his club, Weston Outcasts S.A.C. If all else failed, at least we would gain for him some valuable information ahead of the match.
When we arrived at the mark, we were relatively surprised to be the only ones fishing. We had opted for ‘white mark’ in Minehead, a fairly popular mark and with good reports of ray in the channel a mark that would usually see a few rods on such tides. With plentiful choice of where to fish we opted for where there appeared to be a good tide showing in easy casting distance, and where we knew we’d comfortably be casting on to sand whilst still a fair way up the boulders on the ebb. One of the things I enjoy about fishing the evenings at this time of year is actually being able to set up in daylight. The channel changes so frequently, that being able to get a good grasp of your surroundings is very beneficial. Even the best of headlights can’t replicate the extra detail that can be taken in during the daylight hours, and the channel looks at its best in calm twilight level conditions, unveiling its true beauty.
Damian was quick to get his first bait in the water, and as I was a bit more leisurely in readying my rigs, he was already into the first fish of the session. I scurried across with the camera as the tell tale signs of a ray coming in became apparent. It was no specimen, but a lovely marked Spotted Ray of a couple of pound or so. A good sign, a target species on the very first cast. I hurried myself up a bit in my preparations.
It wasn’t long before my own baits were in the water, and it was even less time before they would register their first bites. With excellent water clarity for the area and still in plenty of daylight, the dogfish were out in force. Frankly it was numbers I’d never seen before. If it was like this before darkness had even hit, we knew it would only get worse the further the sun dipped in the sky. The only thing we could hope for was that the shallowing water on the ebb would put them off the feed, at least for a while until the flood commenced, by which time we’d be looking to call it a night anyway. Unfortunately, it really wasn’t to be. Every bait was being descended upon by a dogfish within seconds of being in the water all night. If we left a bait more than a couple of minutes, chances are it would come in with two dogfish on the baited pennel instead of just the one. It was proving hard to keep two rods fishing, I certainly don’t remember many occasions where I sat looking up at two rods waiting for a bite, and having time to pre-bait a third rig simply proved impossible. it had become a case of cast one, reel in the other, unhook a dogfish, re-bait, cast, reel in the other, unhook a dogfish and so on with barely a second to pause.
Needless to say, the night and thus the session flew by and before we knew it, defeated by the dogfish we were deciding it was time to call it quits. On retrieval of my final cast of the night, I felt the pleasant pull back of something distinctly non dogfish like! Sandwiching the session of dogs, I finished the night as Damian had begun it with a small Spotted Ray. A few photos, and it was released back on its way, no doubt bumping into hordes of dogfish as it navigated it’s way back out to the sand banks. On another night, it may have convinced us to stay a bit longer, but we knew the odds were stacked against us getting past the unwanted by-catch and thus called it a night. Strangely, the weekend then saw two competitions in the area where the dogfish refused to show in any real numbers. I remain convinced that they have a better match diary than any of us, and knowing it was a weekend full of competitions, were in for a quick feed up on the Friday evening before scarpering far from sight for the remainder of the weekend. Note for future, if you want to avoid the dogfish, simply make the session into a fishing match.
Damian and I made plans for a swift return whilst driving home, knowing that there were ray to be caught if only we could get through to them. Its an hours game, so noting the time of the tides on our next available date, we committed to fish the whole night into dawn. This would mean fishing over high too, which meant starting off at ‘Gasworks’ beach in Minehead, before moving along to do low over white mark once more. Another angler was set up as we arrived on our first mark, but was reporting relatively little in activity. It was early in the tide and a bright sun and relatively clear water wouldn’t be helping matters, but the sun would soon be dipping beyond the horizon and we would expect the fishing to pick up at this point. It didn’t even take this long, our first casts were yet again seized upon by greedy dogfish and we dreaded a repeat of the previous session. A strap Conger Eel from Damian broke the run of dogs, and whilst really another unwanted species, it was at least something different amongst the fresh barrage we were facing.
Dogfish, dogfish, dogfish, rattle rattle, dogfish.
The tone had been set. I looked up at my rods and noticed the tip start to pull down. This time it didn’t spring back up, but simply held there. At last, something to encourage. I sat on it for five minutes or so, watching the odd small sign of life at the other end, before it popped back up and slack line hit the deck. I’ll confess I’d expected something bigger from the bite, but was none the less pleased to bring in a small Spotted Ray, similar in size to those from the previous session, to at least kick start the ray tally for the night. It was the followed by a stream of dogs whilst we patiently waited for the tide to recede enough to get onto our second mark of the night.
The move came and filled us with fresh optimism, not least because the first baits that went out weren’t struck upon straight away by dogfish. Well, it took a good five minutes anyway, which was a relative lifetime up to this point. Unfortunately it was a false start, we were soon back to thinking they were taking baits on the drop, such was the instantaneous hooks ups. All we could do was stick it out and hope though, we’d planned for the long one and we weren’t going to give up now. After what felt like an eternity one of my rods pulled down and kept going, taking some steady line off the drag. This was much more like it! The hook was quickly set as the fish had started to move off at some gusto in the tide and it soon popped its head up to the surface some way out, giving away the obvious wake of a ray on the surface as it was reeled in to shore. After a spirited last dash in the final 5 yards, a Small Eyed Ray of around 6lb was landed. Not a specimen, but incredibly welcome none the less.
Time had pushed on now. By the time photos had been taken and the ray released back to the water, the first signs of daylight emerging had appeared. The tide had also turned and we knew our time would be limited as we were starting to be pushed further back up the boulders behind. The dogfish were still present, but I again managed to get into another small Spotted Ray to take my tally to three ray for the night. Meanwhile, Damian’s frustration with the dogfish appeared to be reaching its limits. We started to discuss packing up and once more calling it quits, not really being satisfied with what the session had produced. As we talked, Damian had a firm pull down on one of his rods, which slowly eased back up. This repeated itself a number of times over the next 5 minutes. There was a fair tide run, but not enough that it should be shifting the lead on its own. We considered two possibilities. A lazy ray or a clump of weed running down the line and causing sufficient drag to bump the lead out. For the next 10 minutes, the same action on the rod continued, slowly moving round down tide. It wouldn’t be feasible to leave it much longer, else risk being dragged round into rougher ground. Damian wound down and struck into definite weight, but no kick back, and having briefly raised our hopes we resigned ourselves to the likelihood that it was simply a clump of weed that had eventually worked its way to the lead.
As Damian bought the rig to the surface, a significant wake started to show on the surface and for the first time, some kick backs were felt. “Probably some weed round a dog” were Damian’s words, which whilst I’d usually regard as the pessimistic outlook, was more of a realistic one off the back of the nights events so far. Though I couldn’t help but be thinking all this time that we’d not seen a single strand of weed all night, so with a bit more optimism, I walked out slightly to meet whatever was at the other end as it came in, and cast a bit more light towards it as it approached the shallow covered boulders. I immediately identified the wing of a ray shoot out of the water in a final attempt to swim off to freedom, though its efforts came far too late after such a lazy start, and Damian beached the best fish of the night and a third species of ray, a Blonde Ray that unfortunately didn’t quite make double figures, but wasn’t too far off. With a sunrise taking place, we took the opportunity for some nice photos in ideal light, which also signified it was our time to be leaving.
A challenging pair of sessions had come to and end, the spoils of which were a number of rays, though no specimens. We’ll be back for them, perhaps when the levels of dogfish decide to ease off, but three species of Ray between us wasn’t the worst of returns in the end.
As the winter months finally come to an end after what has felt like around eight months, thoughts change to the spring and summer species that frequent our shores annually. All anglers have their favourite species to chase at this time of year. Some love the thrill of the bass on a lure early on a spring morning when the dew is on the fields and the mist is rising over the reefs. Others wait patiently for the smoothound to arrive in numbers or hoard crab in anticipation of a tussle with them rare beauties the Gilthead Bream.
In our area though there is another type of challenge that arrives with the first of the good weather in April and May and they hang around for most of the summer even into September. The stingray is a fish with more in common with the tropics and the Canary Islands than Tralee Bay but nonetheless, every year, they make their annual pilgrimage here to have their young. The stingray differs from some other ray and skate species as the young are nourished by an egg sac inside the body until they are ready to be born rather than entering the world in mermaids purses. Typically between Four and Nine young are born twice a year to the Common Stingray and they range between the northern Atlantic all the way to the Canary Islands and Black seas.
Usually by the time mid May rolls around I have had two if not three goes at the stingray but, this year has been terrible with the weather and the so called ‘beast From the east’ which dumped so much snow and misery on the UK and Ireland that it has without a doubt set mother nature back by a few weeks. With my ear pressed firmly to the ground, and the upsurge of information sharing on social media, I had been monitoring the catch reports and figured that there were only seven concrete catches by the 8th of May, whereas it had been as high as thirty in previous years at the same time.
Reports of the fishing had been patchy at best but, some reliable sources were still around. A tip off from Cork man and international angler Derek Kenrick had me scrapping my plans to fish the South shore of Tralee Bay in favour of the Spa area of the North shore on the road to Fenit from Tralee. Derek and his mate Stephen O Donovan had been having some success on the stingray, both lads are big casters and really know their stuff having landed multiple specimen stingray and tope in a single session last year on a day that deserves an article all to itself.
Word was that the stingers were coming on the feed around two hours into the flooding tide and that crab had taken the three biggest fish of the day with 37lb, 41lb and 46lb being the vital stats. Some smaller stingray had come to mackerel baits but the biggest of those was only 12lb, a lovely fish but a baby when compared to the big girls that are out in the bay. With this information in hand I set my stall out in the Spa for a go at these beautiful rays.
Things started slow for me with the odd flounder taking a liking to my crab baits and even though it seemed like a really good day for a stinger with weather, tide and wind all in my favour none materialised. That was certainly not in the script. I ended the day with six decent sized flounder and some small dogs, the highlight being a disappointing flounder/dog double that briefly convinced me it was a small ray.
I gathered my thoughts that evening and when speaking to another visiting angler, Darren Ryan from Arklow on the East Coast of Ireland, heard that the pier in Fenit was producing some specimen Undulate Ray and some 15 to 20lb stingray. It sounded as good a shot as anywhere else on latest reports, so I knew I had to have a go. A shift change was organised and my father Connie roped in to enhance the odds of success. Again it seemed I had arrived a day late and although we fished for four solid hours with two rods each all we had to show for our efforts were some small dogfish and a few hungry flounder. Indeed, it would of been a very sad days angling had it not of been for the lrf rod, which provided sport all evening and a total of six different species; Corkwing and Goldsinney Wrasse, pollack, Common Blenny and a fine launce that was used for bait but sadly destroyed by Spider Crab rather than a hungry ray.
By now, as you may have gathered, the situation had become desperate and as a last roll of the dice I decided to give Derrymore Island a go. Derrymore isn’t actually an island but a spit of land that points back towards Tralee Town. It is clearly visible on the N86 as you drive from Tralee to Dingle or Camp. This is a back breaking walk and having once done it with full match tackle including spare leads and rods/reels I vowed never to walk it again. It’s an hours walk from the main carpark and if you intend to undertake it, as many do, remember to hide away any valuables in the carpark as there has been some burglaries in the past.
Thankfully I have a 4×4 and a leisurely eight to ten minutes along the beach brings you right to the mark. As with any beach you need to keep your eyes open as soft patches appear randomly where they never were before and more than a few confident 4×4 users have become permanent residents of the island after venturing too far. I decided to fish two hours of the drop and two hours of the rise and this time enlisted Troy Francis and Shane McMahon, who incidentally will be representing Ireland at the Home Nations in Scotland this year in July.
We arrived at midnight only to find what appeared to be a kayak anchored just off the Channel. In the pitch dark it was hard to make out until they turned their lights on us. What we had mistaken for a kayak was in fact a lake boat with three men in it. It was riding dangerously low in the water and it appeared none of the occupants had life jackets and certainly no navigation lights. Extremely dangerous behaviour and all for a few fish.
By 1am our first baits hit the water. I was first off the mark with a small strap conger taking a fancy to my crab bait. Next up was Troy, again with a conger, then Shane… Frustration ensued with perfect ray and tope baits being mangled by a combination of strap Conger and Spider crab then finally a run and some excitement! With the ratchet set loose in case of a tope or big stinger I lost about 20 meters of line. As I reeled down and struck in there was obvious weight and resistance! Oh happy days I thought. After a brief tussle, Troy tailed a fine female Undulate Ray of 8lb for me.
During the pictures Troy’s Century T1000 rattled nicely, resulting in an undulate and dog double shot. Things were picking up. Shane and I had more conger and Troy a greedy flounder of approximately 35cm. Again my rod went and some extra weight had me hoping for a better sized undulate but, I was confused by the strange fight I was getting. The fish went with the current and stayed deep with the odd head shake thrown in. Three or four minutes later the culprit was revealed. An undulate approximately 5lb and a strap conger approximately 3lb on the bottom fighting like crazy!
Shane was next to land an undulate and perfect timing it was too as we managed a picture together without unduly stressing the ray out. These undulates are a beautiful ray and their markings closely resemble the tribal tattoos that are so common these days. A fascinating aspect of these ray is that Tralee Bay is the only place in Ireland they are caught regularly and it is a common theory amongst marine biologists that have studied them that they are a species of undulate genetically different to those caught on the south coast of Britain.
By now, the tide had started to push and although we added three more ray to our tally it was time for home as the sun began to rise over Tralee Bay and the magnificent County of Kerry.
Looking back over the three attempted stingray sessions it would be easy to be discouraged, but this is fishing and if it wasn’t a challenge we wouldn’t be so obsessed. It would be easy to write myself into Derek and Stephens session but unfortunately the story ends with Stingray 3 Chris 0 but, its a long summer ahead and I have determination on my side. Thankfully Derek sent on a few photos to give you a glimpse of what’s available if your willing to put the effort in. Originally I had intended to call the article ‘Shadow Monsters’ because of the large Stingrays tendency to come into the shallows and sunbathe but they forced my hand hence the new title.
There will be a volume two.