It’s a clear, exceptionally cold mid-April afternoon. We leave the wide dirt path and walk through tall prickly shrubs towards the sea near Penrhyn Mawr, south-west of Holyhead. Scaling rocks and climbing steep hills seems hard work for a fishing expedition, but Arthur assures us that the fishing and the scenery are well worth the effort.
Welsh International Arthur Beechey stands on the Anglesey coast with South Stack in the background. He’s been coarse and game fishing since he was a lad. One day not so long ago, he just decided he wanted to be in the Welsh Sea Angling Team. He made it in two years after much hard work.
Some marks are obviously inaccessible; others need a bit of patience and planning to get to. Walking down the rocks isn’t as difficult as you might think if you are as well-packed as Arthur.
The tail section of a mackerel is one of the premier baits off Anglesey. For increased hooking potential, Arthur ensures the hook points face opposite directions. When exploring the coast, always take a friend along just to be on the safe side. And while fishing, make sure you know the times of low and high tides. You don’t want to move on to a venue only to be cut off by a rapidly rising tide.
It’s also a good idea to take a 25m (27yd) length of rope with you – for safety’s sake.
By car Penrhyn Mawr is located about three miles south-west of Holyhead. From the A5 take the B4545 to Trearddur Bay. From Trearddur Bay follow the signs to South Stack. The sea is about a 100-200m (110-220yd) walk from the small car park just south of South Stack. There are numerous cliffs and obviously inaccessible marks, so choose your venue carefully.
By train The nearest BR station is in Holyhead.
Many anglers say that sandeels are second only to peeler crab as the top summer bait. Unlike king ragworm (above), sandeels are delicate and need to be wrapped in shirring elastic so they aren’t ripped off when you cast. A good point to remember is to keep ragworm (especially king rag) dry when fishing at your mark – you can get a good grip on it, and it is easier to thread up the hook.
This is a rotten-bottom rig for a snag-strewn sea bed. The weight is connected to a loop in the shock leader with 10-12lb (4.5-5.4kg) line. This light line would snap in an ordinary cast. But placing a panel pin through the lead ring and into the loop connects the weight to the shock leader. The pin falls out when the rig hits the bottom. So if you’re stuck, you can break the light line easily. Distance casting isn’t too important off North Wales: a cast of30-40m (33-44yd) in most places generally puts you in deep water (9-18m/30-60ft).
This is good news because casting from rocks high above the sea is not only difficult but also dangerous.
On a solid rock ledge well away from the sea, Arthur sets up shop. Two well-used Zziplex beachcasters and Shimano multipliers are the tools of the technician. Since the bottom is just as jagged as the shoreline, he opts for 55lb (25kg) shock leader and 18lb (8kg) main line. A high tide at night offers the best possibilities for common dogfish, conger, bull huss and thornback ray. March and April are the months when the thornbacks come really close to shore -within casting distance.
Now, at low tide, Arthur expects a few doggies to be out there. On his rigs he uses a two-hook Pennell rig, mackerel tipped with rag on the first hook and a sandeel on the second one. ‘Have one hookpoint facing one way and the other pointing in the opposite direction,’ he says; ‘this increases your chances of hooking a fish.’
From a level, rocky ledge, he uses a variation of the pendulum cast to hurl the bait against a strong wind into the green sea. A 90m (99yd) cast at this venue means the bait is in about 15-18m (50-60ft) of water.
The rod begins to twitch. Arthur picks it up and strikes hard. Soon he brings in a struggling, backward-swimming 2lb (0.9kg) doggie. ‘Always hold a dogfish with its tail over its head, so the fish doesn’t scrape you with its sandpaper skin.’ A conservationist first and foremost, Arthur releases every fish as quickly as he can.
A few minutes later a tiny 20cm (8in) codling greedily devours the sandeel. It’s brought in, unhooked and again replaced quickly.
Nestled in a fortress of grey stones, we’re out of the wind and above the sea. Reclining on a stone, Arthur assures us that gazing at the open water and at the waves as they pound rhythmically against the rocks are as much a part of sea fishing as catching fish. We wait to discover what else the sea will yield.
Thirty minutes later, more dogfish start to show. Arthur gets a strike on the mackerel tipped with ragworm and safely lands a 3lb (1.4kg) dogfish. It’s subdued, unhooked and put back all in the space of about a minute.
After another ten or so minutes Arthur catches a few more dogfish and then a small pollack before deciding to move out of the wind’s fierce rip. Casting is a problem in the strong winds, not to mention the fact that it’s downright cold.
After a twenty minute walk, we reach Porth Ruffydd, just south of Penrhyn Mawr. ‘Sea fishing in Wales is far from just sitting on the beach, sipping lager and waiting for your rod tip to move,’ says Arthur. It involves packing to maximize every inch of space (and minimize every ounce of strain); planning tides; climbing rocks, hills and cliffs; and casting and landing fish from awkward positions. But perhaps the most distinctive aspect of Welsh sea fishing is the nomadic wandering that’s often done -exploring the abundance of small bays and rocky, finger-like peninsulas in search of untouched fish.
We set up a small camp on a level bed of rock. Arthur brings out the black lug, an incredibly long and succulent-looking bait. He dashes it on the rock, and the worm goes as rigid as a small tree branch. Even after the cast, this stiff bait stays threaded up the hook and line just where it should. Wrasse, Pollack and dogfish are the quarry.
On the second rod he chooses to keep a fish bait – this time whitebait, wrapped in shirring elastic. This mark is much shallower – about 9m (30ft) at 80m (88yd). Small islands of rock gradually grow smaller as the tide rises.
Ten minutes later and the tip of his rod gives that familiar tap-tap-tap. Arthur sets the hook positively. ‘They’re a tough-skinned, tough-mouthed fish,’ he says. The twisting, wriggling shark – always trying to tangle your trace — surfaces nearby, and Arthur hoists it to dry land.
A tremendous pull on his first rod (with black lug) indicates that the bait has proved too tempting. Thinking that it’s a wrasse, Arthur grabs the rod, sets the hook and winds furiously. It’s a win-lose situation: if the fish gets to its sharp-edged shelter, it might break the line. With the help of his high-retrieve multiplier, he bullies the fish away from the danger zone. After its initial run, the wrasse is more or less beaten and glides safely into shore.
As the sun sets, the wind dies and the sea grows calm. Ardent anglers often tell you that March and April are tough times to fish. Arthur sticks it out, bringing in two more dogfish and another small pollack and then decides to try another area for thorn-back and conger eel.
We move near Porth Trecastle or Cable Bay, and a few of Arthur’s friends show up. This venue is situated on the A4080 between the villages of Aberffaw and Rhosneigr. Dogs, conger, pollack, dabs, whiting and thornback and small-eyed rays come in at night. This mark is about 8m (25ft) deep at about 60m (66yd) out. Because it’s relatively shallow, it’s better to fish this place at night – especially for thornback rays.
A large tail section from a mackerel or a whole herring are the best baits. You have to be patient when fishing for thornbacks. Their gentle tapping and subtle rapping indicate that they take a while to eat their food. Striking too quickly often tears the hook from the fish’s mouth.
It’s dark, utterly black in fact. Fishing along the coastline at night is not for the inexperienced. Proper lighting equipment (such as miners’ lights and one or two gas lanterns) is essential.
Now that it’s dark, the dogfish keep coming thick and fast, one after another, each angler taking his turn to bring fish to shore. Ragworm tipped with mackerel is the bait which is scoring. But the graceful thornback ray has not yet made an appearance as expected.
A few tiny dabs turn up, some the size of a 50p coin. In a last minute effort Arthur sets up a single sandeel on a Pennell rig. He wants to cast as far out as possible. Usually if you have more bait on the hook your chances of catching fish are increased. But to reach maximum casting distance, you really need to scale down so the wind doesn’t shave precious metres off your cast. Whiting, dogfish and more dabs keep in many wrasse, pollack, codling, dabs, whiting, a bull huss and 27 common dogfish (from 0.23-1.6kg) – a respectable catch by any standards. The lamps aglow, we leave the serenity of the shore and make our way up the hills of sheer rock towards home. coming for Arthur’s friends, and a 10lb (4.5kg) bull huss is caught. The fish makes two powerful runs before it is landed.
Eight hours of fishing (and walking) on a cold, windy mid-April day leaves us utterly exhausted. But the scenery and fishing are more than enough compensation.