Six in the morning and it’s hot already. The boat’s loaded and Mitchell Kelvin, specimen coarse, game and sea angler, not to mention big game fisherman, steps aboard. We’re off hunting porbeagles south of the Isle of Wight.
It’s glassy calm as Ron Cowling, skipper of Our Mary, takes us away from the jetty. Now, the exact location of the sharking grounds has to remain a mystery. Not to protect Ron’s bread and butter from other, less scrupulous charter skippers, but to protect the sharks from destruction by longliners.
To fish a bait at depth, replace the rubber band stop knot, leger bead and balloon with a pierced bullet weight. A smallish 8/0 hook gives the fish a better chance of survival in case you have to cut the trace.
Mitchell twists the line and forms a loose knot before placing the crimp over it, so that under extreme pressure the knot tightens and takes the strain rather than the crimp.
The best bait is a good-sized fresh mackerel but if you can only catch small ones, use two or three. Hook the first one through the root of the tail, take the hook in the gill cover and out of the mouth. Hook the others through the tail root only.
Ron’s gloved hand creeps into view to liberate another porbeagle. The hook is out of sight, so the trace has to be cut as close to the teeth as Ron dares. Typically a porbeagle takes the bait and runs, stops to swallow the bait and then moves off again.
Hit the fish early in the second run – too late and you’ll deep hook it and may kill it. Once a fish starts to bleed through the gills it’s usually a gonner.
The pungent art of rubby dubby. Ron lays a top-to-bottom trail (below) by putting a dubby sack on each side of the boat. One goes under the keel and stays deep. On the other side the dubby drifts nearer the surface.
Stick a mesh onion sack in your belt to clean your hands after handling bait. It scours your hands where a cloth just gets filthy and spreads the grease around The first porbeagle of the day, and the most awkward. With the trace around its tail Mitchell had to drag it backwards – too much of that and a shark drowns.
Fishing on the drift means you don’t fight the tide, just the fish – and they’re still incredible. A porbeagle lies beaten on the surface, waiting for Ron to liberate it. They are beautiful fish as well as one of Britain’s most exciting angling targets, so treat them with respect.
The first job when we arrrive, and start to drift, is to catch some mackerel for bait but it’s not as easy as it could be. The bait fish don’t want to play so it takes a great deal of work to get even a few in the boat.
Meanwhile Ron makes up the rubby dubby – a delicious mix of minced frozen mackerel, bran, oil and a lump of hideous smelling brown stuff Ron calls ‘num num’. It reeks so repulsively it’s impossible to get close enough to see what it actually is — but Ron says the sharks love it. By the time we’ve got enough hookbait, the rubby dubby slick is beginning to stretch towards the horizon.
There are four rods out from the boat. The baits on two of them are set about 6m (20ft) deep using the traditional sharking balloon. The other two are fishing about 20m (66ft) down with a weight but no balloon.
Mitchell takes charge of two rods – well, it is his feature. One is Ken Robinson’s – a Geordie better known for holding the Scottish shore-caught cod record – and the other is set up for Mitchell’s son, Russ.
As soon as the baits go in, Mitchell flicks a 50p coin into the water. No, it’s not an offshore investment scheme – tradition says you’ve got to pay for your fish. If you don’t, you won’t catch – these sharks are sharp.
The balloons are no more than 50m (165ft) from the boat – porbeagles aren’t shy of boats, and a longer line to the balloon is unmanageable. Hang on, that’s not one of those balloons hobbling about already is it?
Oh yes it is, and it’s Mitchell’s. He straps on a butt pad, slips the shoulder harness on and picks up the rod. Then the balloon streaks off and disappears beneath the calm blue surface of the Channel.
Mitchell waits while the ratchet on his reel screams, impassive apart from a slight smile. Anyone would think he enjoys this. Meanwhile it’s panic for the rest of the sharkers – all hands to bringing in the other rods.
The reel stops screaming, but the smile doesn’t leave Mitchell’s lips. A few seconds later, the musical sound of the ratchet is with us again. Mitchell pushes the lever drag over to the strike position and hits the fish with several sharp jerks of the rod.
But he doesn’t leave it at that. He takes up the slack and hits the fish again. If that doesn’t wake it up, nothing will. The clutch whirrs smoothly, yielding line to a big fish. Looks like Mitchell’s got a fight on his hands.
If you haven’t been sharking, then you can’t know, but it’s like a disease. As soon as you’ve seen the line go streaking off towards the horizon, then abruptly change angle as the fish sounds, going right under the boat, you can’t help yourself. You’d sell your own grandmother.
The fish takes off round the back of the boat and Mitchell follows it — woe betide anyone who gets in his way. Then disaster! Who didn’t bring in the line on that rod? Everyone looks skywards. The lines tangle and Mitchell is not happy.
The wire trace of the extra rod is caught round Mitchell’s 50lb (22.7kg) nylon. If we don’t get it free, it’ll saw through that mono before you can say ‘bye bye sharkie’. Ron leaps into the cabin and backs up the boat. Then he’s out of the cabin, grabbing the offending trace and hacking it free.
With the disaster averted, Mitchell really lays into the fish and a few minutes of hard work later, it’s on the surface by the boat. The trace has wrapped round its tail so every time Mitchell gains line, he has to drag the fish backwards. It must have rolled on the trace. This makes Mitchell keen to end it quickly for the fish’s sake.
Sharks find it hard to breathe when they’re being dragged backwards and the last thing you want is a drowned shark when you’re trying to promote putting them back. Just when it looks as though Ron can grab the trace, the fish is gone, diving like crazy. That’s why you don’t take hold of the trace until you’re sure the fish is beaten. Really sure.
It stops abruptly and swims back towards the boat. Mitchell winds furiously to stop it getting any slack line. Just short of the boat it turns and runs off close to the surface. ‘This is a decent fish,’ grunts Mitchell – the first words he’s spoken for five minutes. Since he’s had bluefin over 1000lb (454kg), this shark must be pretty strong.
It tries the doubling back trick a couple more times, but Mitchell uses this to work it closer and finally it’s within unhooking range. This is the tricky bit, for Ronnie at least. He’s got to reach over, untangle the trace around the tail, and then work out whether he can see enough of the hook to be able to get it out.
As it is, he has to cut the hook off, but it’ll rust away in no time. If, however, you are stupid enough to use a stainless steel one -the shark will wear it as long as it lives. ‘A good fish,’ says Ron. ‘What do you reckon Mitchell, 150?’ ‘Yeah, about that,’ he agrees. ‘He had big shoulders.’ Well you need them to take on a Kelvin.
The dubby bags hang over the side, sending their siren call to the sharks. The slick of oil drifts off, soothing the ripples on the sea’s surface for about five miles. But for the moment, the sharks are refusing the call.
An hour later the ratchet on a rod set at 20m (65ft) starts to click. The lethargy which had overtaken us disappears. Every face on the boat turns to the rod, hoping it’s their’s. Every face except Mitchell’s that is. He’s decided that no-one is going to catch a bigger fish today and has retired to let the others try their luck.
The ratchet goes wild and on the second run, Ken (who’s rod it is) hits the fish and sets the hook. It feels and fights like a big fish. When it comes up, though, it’s only about 60lb (27.2kg), but it’s foul-hooked in the pectoral.
It dives again quickly but not before we catch a glimpse of a much bigger fish shadowing the hooked one. It keeps trying to get at a mackerel halfway up the trace.
That does it, Ken’s got to get that shark up and unhooked right now, so the other baits can go back in the water. Ron grabs the trace, frees the struggling fish and the hunt is back on. Talk about sharks in a frenzy -you should see what they do to anglers.
Sadly though, it is not to be. The big one’s obviously not as hungry as its smaller brother. A couple of hours pass and the sun and sea combine to produce that familiar trance-like state again…
Somewhere a ratchet clicks and everyone’s mind snaps back into focus. The shark plays around for ten minutes before it finally takes off with the bait. A few minutes later Ron’s unhooked it – another small one at less than 40lb (18.1kg).
In minutes there’s a double hook-up but we don’t even get a glimpse of them – both are lost. We’re running seriously short of bait now, and every mackerel landed is a bonus. What with changing the baits every twenty minutes or so, there are no more decent-sized mackerel left. We have to use two or three on the hook at once.
Mitchell has a theory. ‘It seems like whenever you’ve got lots of bait, you don’t catch that well. Maybe when there aren’t many mackerel around, the beagles are hungrier and more ready to take your bait.’
Russ gets a fat fish of around 50lb (22.7kg) to the boat and there’s another which doesn’t make it that far before it frees itself. Then, sadly, it’s time to go. But just as Ron is bringing up one of the baits, he sees a familiar shape shadowing it. He stops retrieving. The shape stops. He starts again, and the shape follows. After minutes of this cat and mouse, or rather, shark and bait – and with the fish only 3m (10ft) from the boat – it lunges. We stare, slack-jawed with anticipation…
The lunge takes forever. It takes the mackerel. And the hook falls loose! Seconds later a mass of baits drop on the fish’s nose, but with a contemptuous flick of its tail, off swim our hopes of a last battle.
So, it turns out Mitchell was right. Four fish landed, three lost and two sighted – and none bigger than Mitchell’s. A great day and a tiring one – almost enough to put you to sleep before you can relive the day over that well-deserved pint. But not quite.