The roar of city life suits many professionals – the buzz, the pace, the restaurants, the nightlife, the rush. But others such as Colin Mitchell are less inclined, preferring the company and serenity of the blue-green sea.
Colin approaches sea fishing with candour, precision and determination — a type of business-minded professionalism, minus the suit, though. Instead of travelling the busy, paper-strewn London streets with a briefcase in hand, Colin boards David Carey’s Maid of Conwy with two 10ft (3m) uptide rods and two Abu 7000 multipliers, filled with 18lb (8kg) line and a length of 35lb (16kg) shock leader. He’s setting out from Pensarn for the business of the day -finding tope and black bream on the sandbars and rocky reefs in Cardigan Bay. ‘Not far from the sandbar that we’re on now,’ says David (the skipper), ‘there’s some rough ground which attracts small fish. This is a good place to begin.’
Suitable equipment includes a good multiplier filled with 18lb (8kg) line (with a section of 35lb116kg for a shock leader) and a solid uptide rod.
Colin has a solid grip on this well-conditioned 30lb (14kg) tope.
There aren’t many 50-60lb (23-27kg) tope off Wales, but the number in the 20-40lb (9-18kg) class range is outstanding – sometimes as many as 50 good-sized fish have been boated and released in one day.
Tope are free ranging, covering a wide area in search of food – dabs, pouting, mackerel or various other small fish. This fine specimen was taken on the head section of mackerel. Tope, bull huss and even common dogfish can give you a nasty scrape with their sandpaperlike skin. Can you make a comparison between a reel and a car? Colin believes there are grounds. Just as you’d treat a brand new car for the first 600 miles – very gently – so you must treat a multiplier for the first few trips until the gears are broken in. If you’re hard on a new reel, excessive wear can result, shortening the reel’s working life and affecting performance.
When cutting up mackerel as bait, be sure to remove the backbone, if you don’t, it may prevent the hook from penetrating the tope’s mouth.
When things are really tough and you haven’t had a run, attach a wireless lead(110-150g/4-5oz)and blast your bait across the tide – to the side of the boat. Let the tide roll it across the sea bed so that it ends up downtide. This often works well, for you cover a wide area.
If that fails, catch a small pouting with some lugworm or mackerel and use it as a livebait. Attach a small lead, or you can even try freelining it in the tide.
Its purple and metallic silver colouring makes the black bream one of the most beautiful fish around the coasts of Britain and Ireland. Black bream are a thrill to catch on light gear. Colin uses a 12ft (3.7m) pike rod and fixed-spool reel filled with 5lb (2.3kg) line. Colin has to stretch to net this 2lb (0.9kg) bream. For their size, black bream fight extraordinarily hard -their broad bodies provide added resistance in strong tides.
Both Colin and the skipper are firm conservationists, looking after the future of tope, bream and other species of fish. But they don’t mind taking a few fish home for the table at the end of the day – especially if they are deep-hooked.
Colin displays six black bream between 2-3lb (0.7-1.4kg). They lose their stunning colours immediately after death. Flappers are often too big for many mid-sized tope. To use the bait efficiently, cut it into three sections. This is one hook-sized portion – perfect for tope. If you use baits which are too big, you often lose fish because they haven’t been given time to get the whole bait inside their mouth. Even at high water the navigable channel of Mochras Lagoon is winding and shallow. And before leaving the river and entering open water, skippers still have to negotiate a gravel bar across the estuary mouth. Boats are able to leave or enter the estuary up to two hours before and two hours after high tide – which can mean being out at sea for up to 10 hours. (If you are subject to seasickness, it is a good idea to make sure you are up to it before setting out.) A 35lb (16kg) tope is about to be boarded. David pulls the fish parallel with the boat, so he can grasp the fish’s tail and fin.
The tide is beginning to drop. Colin expects tope to be hard along the bottom, so he gears up accordingly for the 11m (35ft) deep venue. His rigs are simple running leg-ers. The bag of rubby is attached to the anchor so that it stays close to the bottom, providing an enticingly oily scent trail over the undulating bed of sand.
Colin cuts up a whole mackerel into three portions to match the 6/0 hooks. He thinks flappers can be too big; most tope can’t get the whole bait into their mouth. The result is that when striking you can often pull the bait from the fish’s mouth.
He casts downtide about 15m (16yd), allows the bait to sink to the bottom and puts the ratchet on (with the spool disengaged).
Fifteen minutes later a tope picks up the bait and runs; the reel emits a half whirr-half shriek, momentarily stunning us with excitement. Every person in the boat freezes as Colin grabs the rod, holds it against his thigh and waits, allowing the fish to run. He strikes but doesn’t hook it.
A major dilemma during a tope-fishing trip is knowing when to strike. On the one hand, you shouldn’t strike too early because you want to hook the fish in the mouth – but if you wait too long, it often swallows the bait. So once you haul it aboard, you’ll have to cut the line and return the tope with a hook in its throat. This may jeopardize its future survival.
There’s really no simple answer. Colin assesses every situation differently – some he wins; others he loses. Overall, though, he tries to safeguard the fish, preferring to lose the tope rather than deep-hook them.
A few opportunistic gulls watch and wait patiently for an easy meal. They sit in a semi-circle, rocking on the small waves.
Colin pulls it parallel with the boat, and David hauls it aboard – a fine tope of around 30lb (14kg). It thrashes about maddeningly, twisting and turning, but David, a master of the fine art of tope wrestling, unhooks it and plops it over the side. It swims off strongly.
When questioned about uptiding and downtiding, Colin responds, ‘Here it doesn’t really matter if you uptide or downtide. When I go down to South Wales, I uptide because there’s a strong tide run. Up here in Cardigan Bay, I honestly cannot really say that uptiding makes much difference and is more effective.’
Colin attaches a small portion of mackerel flank. Ten minutes later another tope takes his bait and screams downtide. He tightens the clutch, but this doesn’t dissuade the fish which heads determinedly towards Ireland. After a brutal struggle, he winches it towards the surface where it thrashes about but
Colin attaches smaller hooks (4/0) and baits. ‘If you’ve had a few runs but no success, it’s best to drop down in size.’
He casts about 5m (6yd) from the boat, adding, ‘When you’ve got a weak tide run such as now, don’t blast your bait far away from the boat, or you won’t get the benefit of the rubby bag. The opposite is also true: in a strong tide you have to cast farther, for the rubby is swept downtide.’
A mere 15 minutes pass, and Colin is in with another tope – this time the fish is solidly hooked. It makes a long, hard down-tide surge before deciding to turn around. A 40m (44yd) sprint uptide means that Colin has to wind furiously to keep tension on the line. A small grey shadow slowly emerges from the depths, every moment getting bigger and bigger as it is pulled up. Once on the surface, the tope makes two more explosive runs before it tires. finally surrenders – at only 20lb (9kg), it fought like a grizzly. Once on board, though, the fish continues to twist about, refusing to be still. It’s a job to unhook this one. Even so, once it is safe in its salty abode, it shoots downwards immediately.
The rubby and mackerel baits are drawing tope from all over. Colin sticks with them but points out, ‘Everyone knows about the effectiveness of mackerel baits, but if you’re not doing well with them, use a live pouting or a dab cut diagonally. These are what I’ve had the bulk of my tope on over the years.’
A familiar scream signals that another tope has gone for his fresh, oily bait. After a brief struggle, Colin manages to bring the fish up to the surface. He continues to draw it closer and closer to the boat. Not yet beaten, it points its head towards the bot- torn and shoots off, disappearing into the sea.
He tightens the clutch, but it does nothing to stop this powerful specimen — which continues to take line. Smiling, Colin shakes his head in disbelief. Soon, however, the fish begins to tire. It thrashes on the surface, displaying its failing vigour, and David swings it around to bring it aboard.
At 35lb (16kg) it’s a good fish – the biggest so far today. You don’t catch many 50-60lb (23-27kg) tope around Wales. What you do get, however, are many medium-sized fish in the 20-40lb (9-18kg) range.
Four more tope – including one for photographer Peter Gathercole – and we decide to move to Badrig Reef for black bream.
As the boat skips over the sea, we notice a few porpoises nearby. Some clear the water altogether; others skim the surface, revealing only their arched backs and small dorsal fins. They seem undisturbed as they swim at a distance, hunting for mackerel, pouting or other small fish.
Badrig Reef, made of rock and kelp, extends 14 miles west towards Ireland. A curious sight, it looks like a giant weir try- ing to retard the rising tide.
We’re about 70m (77yd) from the reef in 8m (25ft) of water. Colin baits up with small strips of mackerel. ‘Black bream take pretty much anything – squid, strips of fish, lugworm. They’re not fussy. Mackerel is the easiest to use.’
The bream rig is simple – a lm (3ft) length of 5lb (2.3kg) mono between the swivel and lead with a sliding boom (using free-sliding stop knots). The 5lb (2.3kg) hooklength is 60cm (2ft) long with a size 4 Viking hook.
Dropping the bait down and waiting, Colin holds on firmly to the rod. Ten minutes go by – nothing. He pulls up and rebaits. Five minutes later – still nothing. Soon, however, comes that familiar tap, tap, tap. And he’s in. The float rod bends in an arc as a bream bores downtide towards the reef.
Colin manoeuvres it to the surface – but not for long: it shoots back down to deep water and disappears in a flash of silver. The way these fish use the tides and their broad bodies makes them one of the most sporting fish for their size.
The rubby has attracted a small shoal of black bream – and the action has been nonstop. Colin’s on to yet another bream. Again the fish makes several spirited bursts before giving in to a waiting net. As the tide picks up momentum, Colin moves the boom near the lead so that the bait fishes closer to the bottom where the bream are in a strong tide.
So far the total is about 32 bream – most of which Colin returns, though he does keep a few for the table.
It’s standard policy for Colin and David to keep a few but return the majority so that future sport and stocks are preserved for other anglers.
Colin fishes for another two hours before deciding to call it a day – a very productive one at that with six tope and countless black bream!