Rod held easily in one hand, Ed Schliffke hops nimbly from rock to rock, surefooted as a mountain goat. Oblivious to the furious cauldron andjagged rocks below, he stands splay-legged on the edge of the abyss before making a full-blooded cast into the June sky, far out over the heaving ocean.
Ed once belonged to a group called The Rock Hoppers, a small band of anglers dedicated to fishing marks no sensible angler ever steps foot on. They disbanded long ago, but Ed is still rock-hopping- only this time as a professional shore angling guide.
Holidaymakers fancying a dabble all too often fish the wrong place at the wrong time, using the wrong tackle and bait – and fail. This is where Ed, with his local knowledge and expertise, comes in. For a very fair fee he takes them to the right place at the right time, provides the right tackle and bait, and helps them catch.
Above all, Ed knows how dangerous rock marks can be – how quickly the weather and sea can turn against you, and how easy it is to slip and fall, be cut off by the tide, or be washed away by a rogue wave. In his hands at least you know you are safe.
In between taking people fishing he somehow finds time to run a bait business. ‘In July and August I’m lucky if I get three hours sleep a day,’ he says. ‘But I’m not complaining. It’s a good way of life, being out in the open all the time — though it does get on top of you at times.’
This breezy, sunny morning Ed is atop Trevose Head, looking down at the terrific ocean swell, dark and foaming as it crashes against the headland. Talk about an irresistible force meeting an immovable object. ‘There’s a fair old rip out there,’ he says. ‘I’m quite surprised, as it’s a small tide. But we’re lucky with the sea and weather. It fishes best either side of high tide, which is at about one o’clock this afternoon. And the swell’s not too bad – at it s worst, it sends spray right up to and over the lighthouse!’
He talks enthusiastically as he leads the way at an impossible pace down an impossibly steep grassy bank. ‘There have been lots of basking shark sighted off here recently, and I’ve many times seen dolphins and porpoises.’ The fishing? ‘You get a real variety: wrasse, pollack, mackerel, plaice -even a few bass and mullet. There used to be tope, but not now. There are ray and conger, though – Tony Martinez, the last lighthouse keeper, had the old record small eyed ray here, at 14lb 2oz. Mind you, you really need to fish at night for ray and conger, and I don’t recommend that.’
Reaching the rocks you can see why. It’s tricky enough to get down in broad daylight – in the dark it would be downright dangerous, even for Ed. He seems to know every rock by name, and to be blessed with a perfect sense of balance. Less agile mortals are well advised to take it slowly, one careful step at a time. The right footwear is important, he says. ‘Rubber-soled hiking boots are best. Trainers are too slippery on the grass slopes.’
Through cracks in the rock you can hear the sea booming in huge caves cut deep into the headland below. For a second the thought occurs to you that the whole lot might collapse under your feet at any moment, sending you to a horrible death. Then you start to imagine giant wrasse and conger lurking in the dark depths of the caves, great fish no-one has ever seen!
Back to reality. Ed says the wrassing has deteriorated in recent years. Crabbers baiting their pots with wrasse are largely responsible, he believes, but too many anglers killing too many fish must also take some of the blame. There’s no need for it, as wrasse aren’t very good to eat. Ed’s biggest wrasse weighed an impressive 6lb IP/2OZ (3.05kg). Divers have told him they have seen twenty pounders (9kg), and though he thinks they are overestimating, he believes that bigger ones exist in inaccessible marks than have ever been caught (the British shore record is 8lb 6oz/3.8kg).
Ed and Nick tackle up on a narrow ledge some 10m (30ft) above the water. It’s a straight drop into about 15m (50ft) of rocky water at high tide. Within casting range the rocks give way to a sandy bed.
Just in case any plaice or ray are about, two beachcasters with simple one-hook rigs are set up: a paternoster baited with fresh lug, for plaice; and a running leger baited with a dead sandeel, for ray. Ed casts both as far as he can, then lays the rods on the rocks and sets the drags lightly, to prevent the rods being pulled in by fish or by seagulls hitting the fine.
That done, he and Nick assemble wrasse outfits – bass rods and light fixed-spool reels, with soft crab for bait. Old spark plugs do for weights. A spark plug weighs about 2V2OZ (70g), according to Ed, but is twice as big as a 2V2OZ (70g) lead, so is only half as likely to get caught in a crevice. Losses are still high, of course, but spark plugs cost nothing to replace (Ed gets his from a friendly car mechanic). To attach one, tie a loop in the line, slip it through the gap, then bang the gap shut against a rock.
The wrasse rigs lobbed some 20m (22yd) out to the edge of the rocks on the sea bed, Ed and Nick lay the rods down with only the tips sticking out over the sea, so they won’t get pulled in by powerhouse wrasse.
Nick then tries float fishing for mackerel with a dead sandeel set to fish about 3m (10ft) deep, using a straightforward slider rig. Ed, meanwhile, tries spinning a dead sandeel for pollack (rig diagram 1), using a bass rod and a light fixed-spool reel loaded with 10lb (4.5kg) line. ‘You need to spin deep here for pollack,’ he says, letting the rig sink to the bottom before starting the retrieve. ‘That means spinning slowly. An artificial eel’s no good, therefore, as the pollack have time to inspect and reject it. You don’t need a live bait, though — it’s like a giant washing machine out there so a dead eel works just like a live one.’
After just a few casts, Ed’s rod tip taps twice then wrenches round — a pollack! It pulls hard at first, then comes straight in — a baby of 1lb (0.45kg), but a bold fish all the same. Alas, it proves a one-off, and Ed turns his attention to wrassing.
Neither angler has had a bite, and nothing has shown any interest on the beachcaster rods. ‘Well, I’m surprised at this,’ says Ed. ‘Where are those wrasses? There can’t be many mackerel about either,’ he adds, staring out to sea at Nick’s wildly bobbing float, ‘or he would’ve had one by now.’ Just as he speaks, the float vanishes, but Nick is looking the other way and before Ed has time to tell him it reappears! Winding in, Nick finds the eel bitten in half.
Both anglers are concentrating on the wrasse rods now. Suddenly Nick’s rod tip bounces violently – a bite! He strikes hard, but the wrasse has already found the sanctuary of the rocks and he is forced to pull for a break. More time passes. ‘They’re down there, they’re just not feeding,’ says Ed. ‘Let’stry anew crab.’
Five minutes later. ‘That was a proper wrasse rattle,’ says Ed. He picks up the rod and waits expectantly – nothing! Winding in, he finds the crab all chewed to a pulp. ‘Only a small one,’ he says, trying to console himself. The lug rod nods. He winds and strikes – and brings in a tiny codling. ‘What a thing to catch at this time of the year!’ he laughs.
Ed tries again for pollack, and catches a half-pounder (0.45kg), but now the wrasse are biting with a vengeance. Nick is the first to score, hitting a fish that hurtles headlong for the bottom on feeling the hook. But he gives as good as he gets, hauling hard to keep it out of the rocks, and moments later has a splendidly marked two-pounder (0.9kg) thrashing in the foam. Soon he’s in again with a smaller one, and before long has taken a three fish lead!
Then it’s his Dad’s turn, Ed’s rod almost being pulled in as a wrasse makes off with the bait. Inevitably, it turns out to be the smallest one yet! ‘I’ll catch him up, you’ll see,’ he says. Indeed he does, catching a brace of two-pounders (0.9kg) in successive casts, but in the next half hour Nick matches him wrasse for wrasse.
It’s high tide now, and the swell is tremendous, battering the rocks with an awesome ferocity. A quiet period follows. ‘They’ve gone right off now,’ says Ed, ‘but they’ll come again when the tide turns.’
Sure enough, within the hour the wrasse are back. ‘We may pop a bigger one now,’ says Ed. ‘Here we go!’ Nick’s reel screams as a fish takes line against the clutch. His rod bends almost double, such is the power of the wrasse, but it holds out. Timing his move exactly, Ed nips down, grabs the line just above the fish, turns and climbs straight back up, a pot-bellied wrasse dangling from one hand. At over 3lb (1.4kg) it’s the best fish of the day.