Skates are massive fishes, far larger than any of the British rays and almost as heavy as any fish that swims in our seas. The angler is concerned with three species—the common skate, the white skate, and the longnosed skate.
The white skate is the biggest of the three with a maximum weight in excess of 500 lb. It grows to 8ft in length, and has a wingspan of 5ft. The common skate is altogether smaller, weighing up to 400 lb with excellent rodcaught specimens less than 200 lb. The longnosed skate has similar dimensions.
The problem with all skates and rays is positive identification. There is much confusion and controversy as to the characteristics of the three British skates. The common skate, which is not at all common in some places, is often confused with the white skate. It is suggested by some fish biologists that most of the larger common skate hooked in Ireland were in fact whites. This raises the whole question of record fish: how many were really the common, white or longnosed skate that their captors claimed? Any fish thought to better current records should be identified by experts, not left to fishermen whose judgement might be clouded by the prospect of a record fish. Many specimens need close scientific examination before a correct decision can be made and the fish authenticated.
The favourite habitat of big skate is broken ground interspersed with sandy patches and deepwater channels, par ticularly those with a sandy, muddy bottom. If there is a good population of lesser spotted dogfish, the chance of specimens is better.
Fishing for specimen skate—fish in excess of 100 lb—requires good tackle from reel to hook. The rod should be very powerful, preferably of the type where the top joint locks into a solid screwwinch fitting on the butt section. When completely assembled, the rod should be some 6^7ft long.
Stretch and strength
Most skate fishing is done in water of over 15 fathoms, although in one or two exceptional places big fish have been encountered in less than five fathoms. Dacron line gives greater sensitivity when fishing deep water, but 55 lb b.s. Nylon has an elasticity which tolerates the sudden plunges of a hooked skate. (Wire line, though sometimes used, needs only one small kink to develop an immediate weak spot.s. Skates’ jaws are so powerful that they will grind their way through anything other than wire.
The Mustad Seamaster range of hooks have brazed eyes which do not open up even if the pull comes on the side of the eye instead of the top. These hooks may not be needlesharp when purchased, and so must be sharpened with a small carborundum stone, for parts of the skate’s mouth are very hard. The hook is secured to the wire with brass crimps, then to the nylon trace with a stainless steel locking attachment rather than a swivel, since a swivel can fail you.
The lead should be on a Clement’s boom, which allows the fish to move off without feeling resistance from the weight. Which size of lead to use Depends on the speed of the local tide and the size of your bait. The larger the bait, the larger the lead needed to keep it on the bottom—where skate expect to find food.
The reel must be of top quality to withstand the lengthy playing of huge fish, for fights have been known to last an hour.
Anglers are recommended to wear full harness when using heavy multipliers for this saves bracing the back plate of the reel against the left forearm to prevent the rod twisting. When using a centrepin reel (which should be positioned under the rod) use only a butt socket as this cuts out any possibility of twisting. The butt pad is essential, to stop the rodbutt digging into the stomach or groin. Greater leverage can then be applied to the rod.
Don’t put your foot in it
Once aboard, the skate may appear lifeless, but do not become complacent. Keep away from its mouth at all times. If your foot were to get caught in those powerful jaws they could cripple you for life. Never try to extract the hook from a live skate—they can purse their lips and throw their jaws round fingers that seemed safe several inches away from the head.
The majority of skate are caught on fresh mackerel but small pollack, coalfish or almost any fish will do. Skate from Clew Bay, Ireland, have been caught on whole, small dogfish; others have been taken on large strips of cuttlefish. If using dogfish, split the gut open with a knife to give scent to the bait. Cut mackerel longways, from head to tail, and bait a full half, hooking the tail end. Skate have got such big mouths that they will not bite short but will consume the lot in one go. Unfortunately, if there are many dogfish in the area, the bait is often mutilated by these scavengers before the skates find it.