Conger fishing out of Dartmouth

The sea is not always reasonable. Despite a reputation for sudden unpredictability, when it comes to boat charters, the sea is strangely predictable: whatever weather you need, the sea provides the opposite. So it was hardly a surprise when the week we had booked on Lloyd Saunders’ boat Saltwind of Dart for a few days congering out of Dartmouth coincided with the only week of high winds in September.

Nial Ball and Hans Clausen grin at the prospect of a day’s battering on the open sea. Between them they have a pair of world record eels.

In autumn 1991 Hans took a fish of 110lb  (50.2kg) on Bill Warner’s boat ‘The Mistress’. In 1992 Nial beat it with a 112lb 8oz (51kg) eel taken on Lloyd’s boat ‘Saltwind of Dart’.

The merry crew of the ‘Saltwind of Dart’ sets out in search of pollack. It was supposed to be a conger trip but the bad weather made it impossible – as it often does.

Pack a variety of gear for a boat trip, in case the weather plays tricks. For wrecking, take 50-80lb (22.3-36.3kg) tackle for conger and 20-30lb (9.1-13.6kg) gear for pollack when the tide is running. Hans also had 12lb (5.4kg) gear for inshore flatties and whiting, in case of foul weather. Lucky him!

Conger fishing out of Dartmouth Hans and Nial work their lures in the tide in an attempt to elicit a response from the few, rather shy pollack which are sitting over the inshore wreck. Fishing a single bait or rubber eel on a flowing trace Fishing a single bait or rubber eel on a flowing trace Fishing a single bait or rubber eel on a flowing trace is an effective and sporting way of catching pollack and coalfish over a wreck. The stronger the tide run, the longer the trace (up to 6m/20ft – any longer is unmanageable and prone to tangles).

Lloyd picked this tide for conger fishing, so the tide run wasn’t strong, and it wasn’t possible to use the very longest of traces.

Most of the huge conger taken in British waters have come from a handful of West Country boats. One of the best is Lloyd’s boat Saltwind of Dart on which Nial took his world record conger and which has seen dozens of 90lb (41 kg) eels.pollack of around 10lb (4.5kg) Lloyd swings in a pollack of around 10lb (4.5kg). The average stamp of fish from the inshore wreck was slightly smaller than this but they provided great sport. Fat, greedy pouting Fat, greedy pouting like this one attacked the baits while they were close to the bottom. But even this usually prolific species wasn’t present in huge numbers on the wreck.

How to get there

  • By car From the M5, pick up the A38 at the southern end (junction 31). Take the A380 towards Torbay where this splits from the A38. Just outside Torquay, take the A3022 towards Brixham and then the A379 to Kingswear.
  • By train The nearest BR station is in Paignton.

20lb (9kg) rod Nial’s 20lb (9kg) rod bends under the strain of a lively pollack. Fishing light allows you to get the most from these fish 15lb (6.8kg) ling An artificial sandeel was just too tempting for this fat 15lb (6.8kg) ling. It was lightly hooked and as Lloyd sank the gaff, the hook fell out. Another rig has tangled with this one – a hazard of boat fishing. pollack This pollack, like many others, couldn’t resist the rag. Over the course of the day king rag proved the most successful bait, taking as many pollack as all the other baits combined. Hans stuck with king rag for most of the day. clip_image018 Gripping tightly on his rain-drenched cigar, Hans tries to feel a tentative pollack on to the hook. Hans proved a master at spotting little plucks, even though the boat was rolling in the ever-increasing seas.clip_image020

Hookout for deep-hooked sea fishHans demonstrates the effectiveness of a Hookout for deep-hooked sea fish. Squeeze the handle to close the gripping jaws around the hook, allowing you to remove it. 16lb (7.3kg) pollackThe best fish of the day fell to Hans – a tribute to his ability to spot bites and to convert them into well-hooked fish. This 16lb (7.3kg) pollack took his ragworm just five turns up from the wreck. clip_image026The penguin meets the whiting. Wet weather gear was essential as ‘Saltwind’ stopped off in Lannacombe Bay to fish for whiting, turbot and perhaps bass. fighting whiting on mackerel stripThe same flowing traces that had proved effective for pollack on the wreck were also ideal for whiting fishing over sand, as Nial proved, taking a number of fighting whiting on mackerel strip. fighting whiting on mackerel strip

Fishing for eels calls for a calm sea – the flatter the better — and small tides. We had the tides… but force 6 to 7, gusting 8? Hardly calm, especially over a mid-Channel wreck. But there’s always next time. Surely the sea can’t scupper two weeks of fishing?

Oh yes it can. After a week of nail-biting suspense with the will-they-won’t-they winds, they decide they will. The forecast for the Monday of our re-airanged trip is force 5-6, rising later. There’s only one thing for it – pray the forecast is wrong.

Lloyd doesn’t look happy as he draws the Saltwind alongside the jetty. As anyone who’s ever been on a charter boat knows, an unhappy skipper is not a pretty sight. An even-tempered soul by nature, even Lloyd is a little put out by this unhelpful weather. strip, sandeel and colourful rubber eels on long flowing traces. But the first drift produces nothing but a pair of fat pouting.

On Lloyd’s word everyone drops in again and Hans explains the method in his slight Danish drawl. ‘Wait until the lead hits bottom and when it does, start winding the bait back up towards the boat. Slowly does it, 10 ‘Well,’ he says, over a cup of his tea, ‘you’ve got two options. You can either call it off, or we can have a look at an inshore wreck to see if we can find some pollack. Congerings impossible in this.’ Well what do you say? It’s our last chance, so there’s nothing to lose.

On board Lloyd’s 12.2m (40ft) Aquastar are Nial Ball (joint conger record holder with Derek Mash), Hans Clausen (past record holder and Chairman of EFSA), Bo Aolm (Hans’ nephew and keen conger man), Tom Matchett (secretary of the British Conger Club) and Kathy Levis – past winner of the Conger Club Affiliated Clubs’ Open Pairs Championships. Quite a crew of conger anglers – shame we’re not going congering. The bay is calm despite the wind, but as we hit less sheltered waters, the boat starts to pitch and roll. The wreck may be only 14 miles out of Dartmouth and 5 miles off the Devon coast but it’s going to be quite lumpy. ‘Okay. Drop in,’ shouts Lloyd from the wheel of the Saltwind. In go several sets of Flying Collar gear, baited with a variety of the most pollack-enticing objects that human ingenuity can devise.

Hans is fishing king rag on a thick wire 3/0 Aberdeen, Nial starts with a size 4/0 orange Redgill and the others try mackerel turns of the reel handle, 15,20…’ His rod tip dips sharply and springs back.

Hans accelerates briefly to encourage the fish to take. That does it. The fish whacks into the bait, pulling the rod right over. He holds the fish hard, but still it gains line against the drag. But the next dive is less energetic and soon Lloyd is able to net the struggling 8lb (3.6kg) pollack.

With the fish landed, Lloyd goes back to his fishfinder and, seeing that we’ve passed the wreck and the fish, shouts back to wind in. Next drift three fish hit at once — right over the wreck, about 20-25 turns of the reel off the bottom. On the way up Peter loses touch with his, but Nial and Tom both land pollack of around 5lb (2.3kg).

Kathy smiles and winds down into a fish, but it gives up rather quickly. The reason becomes plain a minute later – a mackerel took a fancy to her sandeel. A shoal is obviously installed just over the wreck, as a couple more take baits intended for meatier victims. Still, fresh bait is always welcome.

With each drift the swell builds, making controlling the bait and feeling for knocks ever harder. To make it worse, the skies are darkening nastily – it doesn’t look as though there’s much chance of the rain holding off. Ah well, let it not be said that sea anglers are fairweather fishermen.

Over the next couple of hours the pollack come and go in little flurries of action. Sometimes they’re close to the wreck, at others they are sitting more than 40 turns off the bottom. ‘Probably because the bait-fish shift position with the changing tide and the pollack follow,’ explains Nial.

Kathy’s voice rings out. ‘I’ve snagged something. I don’t know how, I was at least 40 turns up from the wreck.’ ‘Probably a wreck net, shouts Lloyd over the wind and rain. ‘Most wrecks are covered in ‘em nowadays. Hold tight. It’ll break off.’ Kathy hangs on and sure enough, the line tightens as the Saltwind drifts away from the snag, and eventually snaps.

Nial’s the next one in — it’s quite a good fish too. His rod creaks for a while until the fish succumbs to the superior power of his 20lb (9kg) Northwestern blank. Up it comes, a bit of a surprise – a rogue ling. At around 15lb (6.8kg) it makes a nice change.

As our merry crew work harder and harder through the increasing wind, rain and swell for each fish, neither Hans nor Nial has given up. They change trace length, try different leads to work different angles through the apparently indifferent pollack shoals, and vary hookbaits.

Hans flirts briefly with artificial eels before returning to king rag, the bait which has taken most fish. With a lighter lead on he drops in and waits for the touch of the sea bed. He winds up 30 turns. Nothing. Knowing that at this stage of the drift he must be smack over the wreck, he drops the bait back down to the bottom.

Slowly he begins to retrieve. After just five turns the rod tip moves gently twice (at least that’s what Hans says later — it was hard for anyone else to see anything with the boat rolling all over the place) and then nosedives as a good fish attacks.

With little room to manoeuvre between the fish and the wreck, Hans can’t afford to give any line. He just has to hold on and pray. His prayers are answered as the fish gradually moves upwards under the relentless pressure. But the fish dives again, and this time it does take line — it’s clearly a decent pollack.

He really doesn’t want to lose this one, and neither do we. After all, if you’re going to get soaking wet and thrown around on an angry sea all day, you might at least have a good fish to show for it. The pollack takes off again, but it’s tired and Hans knows it’s close to surrender. Shortly it’s kicking beside the boat and Lloyd has it safely gaffed. One glance shows it to be good double-over 15lb (6.8kg).

Not to be outdone, Nial puts on his failsafe lure — a black jelly with a firetail — and first drop hits his biggest pollack of the day at just over 10lb (4.5kg). But after that, even ‘old faithful’ lets him down and he replaces it after 20 Ashless minutes.

As the tide slackens and the weather worsens, Lloyd decides to move. Drifting a wreck is hard going without much tide, so he heads into Lannacombe Bay. As we drift over the sandy sea floor in about 6-10m (20-33ft) of water, there’s the chance of a big late season bass or turbot or, failing that, a nice whiting or two.

But the main advantage of the bay is shelter from the swell. On the other hand, with an easier ride, there’s more time to notice the driving rain creeping into every crevice of your wet-weather gear.

Not to be deterred, and with a chance of bass or turbot Nial liphooks a live sandeel on basically the same rig he used over the wreck, but with slightly less lead. Hunched over in the rain, he holds his rod, feeling for knocks and rattles.

Suddenly he sits upright, and pays out a little line. His tip whips round to a savage take. He strikes, but there’s nothing there. On retrieving, the sandeel has, not surprisingly, disappeared, probably down the throat of a double-figure bass.

After a couple more fruitless attempts with sandeel, he switches to mackerel strip and fairly soon is into a hefty 2lb (0.9kg) whiting. Those of the others still fishing through the weather are also into whiting-mostly on fish baits. So, was Nial’s first bite from a good bass or turbot, or was it just an extra-hungry whiting? We’ll never know, because apart from a couple of big whiting of around 3lb (1.4kg), that is our lot.

Hans’ pollack was the biggest fish (just over 16lb/7.3kg) on a day that was never likely to be superb. But even so, it shows the value of giving it a go. With a good skipper, and Lloyd is certainly that, even when the weather’s all wrong, and it often is, he’ll always be able to find you a few fish. And that’s what it’s all about.