Monday, December 24, 2012

Time to get the skates on.

With two species left to catch to reach my goal of 45 salt water species in 2012 after bagging a couple of dabs the other week and with my mate Ross after his 70th species of 2012, with time running out we discussed a skate trip. Catching one requires a trip to a few specific areas and the Sound of Jura on the west coast of Scotland is one of them so we booked a days fishing aboard the MV North Star out of Crinan harbour with Ross's mates Ad and Ed joining us. Common skate is the largest skate species in the world growing to over 200lb and landing a big one involves quite a physically demanding battle which we were all up for hopefully experiencing. I knew I could also possibly catch black mouthed dogfish, conger eels and thornback rays in the area too so the chances of getting two species to add to my tally were good. The original plan was to stay in Oban for two nights, meeting up there on Wednesday the night before the skate trip followed by a day out of Loch Etive the day after that. As per usual however the weather forecast refused to cooperate and slowly deteriorated as the trip got closer. A couple of days before we arrived a boat trip on the Thursday was out of question due to the gale force winds being forecast so we had to settle for a days shore fishing and hoped that the weather would be ok on Friday so we would be able to get out for the skate fishing.

I wanted to arrive early and squeeze some shore fishing in so I set off on the first train to Oban and arrived just before noon. Ad was driving down from Aberdeen and was due to arrive at about 4pm which gave me time to get some lunch, visit the local tackle shop and grab some bait and make my way to the youth hostel where we were staying. Ad arrived ahead of schedule and we headed to a rock mark north of Oban near Ganavan Sands. With two rods out each and using a variety of baits on both pulley and flapper rigs the fishing was painfully slow with no bites apart from the rhythmic gently rod tip movement of the resident crabs stripping our baits in rapid fashion. Despite being well sheltered and quite comfortable it was a bit of a relief when Ad had a call from Ross to say that he and Ed had arrived from Bangor and were at the hostel which was the cue for Ad and I to pack up and head back to the hostel to meet them.

On Thursday morning we decided to head up to Airds Bay on Loch Etive as we thought it may be sheltered but when we arrived the wind and rain were battering us. Despite this we set up a few rods but after an hour we decided to cut our losses, went back to the coast heading south of Oban along Gallanach Road and found a nice spot near the diving centre. We set up two rods each. Fishing pulley rigs and running ledgers and using a variety of baits I went with a double sandeel/squid wrap on one and a mackerel head on the other. Ross was in first and as if he was doing it on purpose in came a thornback ray. My rod started going just as I went to get my camera to take a photo of it for him and I quickly grabbed it and struck into a decent fish. Was it the thornback ray I wanted though? Obviously a decent fish judging by the nice bend in my rod, I pumped it in and I was pleased to see that it was!

Ross and I with a thornback ray each.
My first thornback ray and saltwater species #44 of 2012!
Me so thornie.
I love their eyes!

After this it was a steady stream of dogfish. Breaking this run up I caught a small codling and Ross had another thornback ray. After a few hours Ed was next to get a thornback ray and now Ad was desperate to join the club after a string of dogfish, some of them quite big. A few pollock were caught on light gear using a small metal whilst we were waiting for bites. I then had a cracking bite and hooked into a decent fish but it was only on briefly before I lost it. We fished into darkness but with an early start the following day we started packing up at about 6pm. Ross and I headed back first but we weren't far away when Ed rang to tell us Ad's persistence had paid off and he had landed a cracking 6lb cuckoo ray.

A nicely marked thornback ray for Ed.
After a succession of dogfish Ad finally caught a ray.
Very unusual markings. But was it a cuckoo ray?

When we all met up back at the hostel Ad thought he had bragging rights over Ross as he has never caught a cuckoo ray before and wound him up a bit. Examining the photos once they had been uploaded from Ed's camera to Ad's laptop however shed some doubt over the identification of the fish as a cuckoo ray due to it not looking quite right. Subsequent examination of the photos again when I got back and checking them against the excellent species fact sheets produced by The Shark Trust settles the matter in my opinion.

Cuckoo ray top and thornback ray bottom.

The strange cuckoo ray like markings on Ad's fish obviously caused the confusion but as you can see above the patterns on a cuckoo ray's spots are very distinctive and those on Ad's ray don't quite match them. In addition the pointed shape of Ad's ray's wings and the fact it has one prominant row of thorns continuing from its tail onto the body instead of two leads me to believe it was in fact an unusually marked thornback ray. Sorry Ad! Still a lovely fish though. Here's a cuckoo ray.

Here's one I caught earlier! Note the short round wings and the two rows of thorns running from tail up onto back.

Friday morning and we were all excited when multiple alarms went off at 6am. It took about an hour to drive down to Crinan where we were met by Archie who was our skipper for the day. After loading our gear and waiting for a bit more daylight we headed out. Soon at the mark and tied up, seven rods were baited up with whole mackerel or coalfish, 4lb of lead was soon making its way down through 540ft of water and the waiting game began.

The view north up the Sound of Jura.

As it turns out we didn't have to wait too long though. Ed's rod went first and he was quickly attached to his rod and a large fish. Applying pressure for what must have seemed like an eternity, the fish came off the bottom only for it to head back there several times. Every time Ed thought he had gained the upper hand the fish showed him who was really playing who.

Throughout the long battle Ed actually made it look quite easy despite all of us teasing him every time the fish took line!

Finally he got it off the bottom and managed to start gaining line and after an energy sapping fight the beast came into sight and was brought up the remaining few feet to the surface before being manoeuvred to the back of the boat and hauled aboard. An absolute monster that the skipper measured before entering his cabin only to return to tell us it was off his chart estimating a weight of a whopping 208lb!

Not bad for Ed's first ever common skate! 2nd best fish boated all year on the MV North Star.

Everyone was obviously excited by this spectacular start to the day and with slack water due when the skate normally become most active we were all anticipating more action. Ross and I also fancied trying our luck for a black mouthed dogfish so we each began fishing smaller baits on lighter gear. Just after we both got our baits down Ad's rod started nodding and he was soon experiencing the pull of his first skate! Applying steady pressure on the fish to get it up from the bottom soon took its toll on his back though and he elected to sit down to ease the pain.

Ad pushes through the pain barrier and steadily gains line.

Taking his time and using the rod to do the work it took Ad a little longer than Ed to finally bring the fish up and as it came into view it was clear that it was another superb specimen. Archie again expertly brought the huge fish on board and measured her before a few photos were taken.

All the pain was worth it. Good things come to those who wait (and sit).

The skate was soon back in the water and slowly slipped back down into the depths. Watching it disappear was a majestic sight. They are such graceful creatures. After Archie consulted his charts Ad was informed that his fish weighed an impressive 150lb. As the tide began to run again the action died down for a bit and when we reeled up to change the baits we found some of them were being eaten from the inside out by lots if small slater like crustaceans.

Some of the baits came up full of these little burrowing critters.
When the seagulls follow the skate boat, it is because they think mackerel, half eaten by crustaceans, will be thrown into the sea.

Fresh baits dropped down and shortly after they hit the bottom two rods began nodding at the same time. Ross and I got harnessed up and he was ready to take the right hand rod whilst I got ready to take the one on the left. As it turned out I got the one with the big fish attached. Applying steady pressure it took a while before I managed to get it up off the bottom.

The power of the fish was incredible.

Each time I thought it was coming up though it just swam back down to the bottom. When it finally did start to move the progress was slow and I knew it was a good fish and in all likelihood I was connected to my first triple figure fish. After about ten minutes of slowly gaining line however everything went slack. The skate had obviously not been hooked very well and had come off or I had tried to bully it too much and had pulled the hook. Either way I was gutted to say the least but with over three hours left I felt Ross and I would still get another chance. Soon afterwards one of the rods went and it obviously wasn't a skate so the rod was passed to me and I began reeling it in. As it came up the line occasionally went slack which the skipper told me was a good indication of a conger eel doing death rolls. As it came up from the depths and into view he was proved to be correct and my first ever conger eel was soon in the boat.

This conger eel saw me achieve my target of 45 saltwater species in 2012 and was some consolation for not landing my skate.

The action dropped off for a while once more so I started fishing my light rod again and soon began getting a few bites. When I hooked the culprit though disaster struck when the lesser spotted dogfish on the end of my line somehow managed to tangle itself up in almost every other line in the water. This took a while to sort out and ate into valuable fishing time. Needless to say that once it was all sorted, the skate rods had been re-baited and dropped back down I put the light rod away! Shortly afterwards Ross hooked a small fish that he was praying was a small skate but it turned out to be a thornback ray. With the end of the trip approaching I knew that with Ross next up should a skate be hooked it wasn't likely that I was going to get another chance and to be honest having got my 45th saltwater species of the year I just wanted to see Ross get the chance of his first common skate and his 70th saltwater species of the year. With about thirty minutes to go four of the rods around the boat all nodded ever so slightly one after the other in an anticlockwise direction before the fifth rod started bouncing properly. Ross was going to get his chance and potentially the final battle of the day commenced. Compared to the previous three skate it didn't take him that long to get the fish off the bottom and shortly afterwards he felt a couple of jolts with the line going slack but to his relief the fish was still on. He thought that perhaps the line had been wrapped around it's body and had come free suddenly.

Cranking the fish up Ross describes the jolts he just felt to skipper Archie.

After that the fight was relatively short which had us thinking that the fish was a lot smaller than the others but we were all pleasantly surprised to see another huge skate appearing from beneath the boat! As it came closer it became apparent that it was barely hooked with just the point of the hook in the hard plate in the roof of its mouth! After a very nervous moment or two the skipper did a great job quickly securing the fish and as soon as he did the hook fell out! It also became apparent that all the lead had somehow come off of the boom which may have explained the jolts Ross had felt. Ross was obviously very relieved and over the moon not only as he had caught his first common skate, another cracker at 181lb, but most of all because it was his 70th saltwater species of 2012!

Just reward for a dedicated species hunter.

After it went back and slipped slowly back into the depths we watched the remaining rods in the hope that I would get a second bite at the cherry but it wasn't to be and when we reeled them up most of the baits were gone. Probably taken by Ross's fish as it worked it's way round the rods stealing them before being hooked we surmised!

So the trip was over and we headed back to port. I had caught the two new species I needed to achieve my saltwater species hunt goal for the year. Ross had achieved his too in spectacular style and Ed and Ad had both caught their first common skate and huge specimens at that. I won't lie though, losing my skate was a sore one to take but on reflection if I had been given the option of getting the two species I needed but no skate or just catching a skate and that being the only new species I would have taken the two species at the outset so I can't complain too much! It was great fishing with the lads, we had a great laugh so all in all it was a successful trip by any standards and I'll just have to go back for another crack at common skate which isn't a bad thing really!

Tight lines, Scott.

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