Compared with the shallow, aquamarine waters that wash about an inshore wreck, the world of an offshore wreck is dark and silent.
Generally speaking, an offshore wreck is one that lies under at least 200ft (60m) of water. The English Channel hides hundreds of wrecks such as these – and thanks to the wizardry of electronic navigators and sounders, commercial and angling skippers know where many of them are.
Some deep-water wrecks can be found within 10 miles of the shore while others lie 50 miles or more from land. In general, closer (more accessible) wrecks tend to get heavily netted. If you want to catch a specimen fish you need to venture much farther out.
In search of leviathans
A wreck is very much a world of eat-and-be-eaten with big predators like conger, ling, cod, coalfish and pollack coming out on top. Often though, large cod, pollack and coalfish bear the scars of an encounter with big porbeagle sharks (which find an easy meal around wrecks).
Small wrecks – really little more than piles of broken metal plates and twisted pipes, covered by a thick mantle of marine growth – are capable of producing enormous conger. The current British record stands at 109 lb 6oz (49.61kg) but far bigger fish are known to inhabit many hulks -200 lb (90kg) is not an exaggeration. It is certain that congers of this size have been hooked and broken free by jamming their powerful tails inside the wrecks and overpowering anglers. In 1989 a conger weighing 239 lb (108.4kg) was caught in the nets of a trawler and landed at Falmouth, and many commercially caught fish – like the 62 lb (28.12kg) turbot netted a few years ago – could easily have broken British rod-caught records had they been lande4 by anglers.
In the English Channel, most of the sea bed is a featureless, abyssal plain of mud about 270ft (80m) down. Wrecks, sandbanks and drop-offs provide a welcome relief for the fish in such a wasteland. It is not surprising that charter boats operating over such fea- tures are able to take enormous catches -sometimes several thousands of pounds of fish.
A principal feature of the English Channel is the Hurd Deep – a gigantic gash in the sea floor 87 miles long and 2 ½ miles wide. Nowhere in the English Channel is the depth greater. Depths of 300-360ft (90-110m) are common, while at the north-east end – about five miles from a group of islands called the Casquets (off Alderney) -the bottom plunges to 600ft (185m).
In 1951 the submarine H.M.S. Affray dived off Devon’s Star Point. She was not seen again until a four-month underwater search revealed her apparently undamaged hull lying on the slope of the Hurd. All the hatches were closed and the ill-fated submarine is the grave of 75 men. She lies 16 miles to the north of Alderney and while diving is prohibited there is no ban on fishing. Many other vessels lie rusting in the fierce, tide-swept Deep and provide some really spectacular angling.
Trawler skippers – who usually remain unmoved by the size of large fish – have raised their eyebrows at some of the fish taken in their nets from the Hurd, and have weighed them out of interest. One of the most spectacular was a pollack of 55 lb (25kg) which was nearly half as big again as the angling record. Coalfish of 60 lb (27kg) and cod to nearly 80 lb (36kg) have been taken by nets and longlines.
The cruel sea
Reading the water is the responsibility of charter skippers, who rely on their experience and the latest electronic equipment to keep both boat and anglers safe. The state of the weather is crucial for safe offshore wrecking and it is essential for skippers to get an accurate forecast before setting out. Top skippers with the biggest boats are fairly happy to sail with an imminent force five wind, and a few are prepared to go above this. But while a boat may be able to withstand rough seas far from land, many anglers cannot, and quickly succumb to seasickness. Having to suffer for up to 12 hours can be extremely dangerous.
Reading nature’s signs Good skippers often instinctively realize when an unfore-casted change for the worse is not far away. This can be a life-saver.
It is not just wind and tide speed that make the sea hazardous, but direction too. A rising wind blowing force five in the direction opposite to the tide can be far more threatening than a force seven (say) blowing with the tide. In the latter case, the sea sweeps past the boat in an endless series of deep but smooth swells, but in the former case – with the wind and sea opposed – the swells violently crash together causing the boat to lurch, dip and roll, shaking everything and everybody on board.
The tide’s influence can be tremendous. Sometimes, the presence of a wreck is revealed by surface disturbance. This is caused by fast-running water striking the hulk and deflecting to the surface. The surface boil can be as much as a mile from the wreck.
When the run is really fast it is impossible to hold the tackle on, or even close to, the wreckage if you are fishing from a boat that is anchored. Four pounds (1.8kg) of lead can be literally floated up – especially if your reel line is heavy. When the tide is this fast, fishing on the drift is the only way to get results.
In neap and middle range tides the anchor is usually dug in a considerable distance from the wreck site. The boat ends up downtide of the anchor but uptide of the wreck. Anglers then drop their tackle down the tide towards the wreck.
To ensure the chance of some sport the skipper has to consider wind strength and direction and the state and force of the tide. An anchor set just 20ft (6m) from the right spot can make a great difference to catches. In the end, though, nature has the final word.