How to fish rocky Atlantic coastlines

The jutting granite looks gentle and almost soft as it soaks up the heat of the August sunshine. A rough path leads down the cliff, and after some sweaty negotiations it is a relief to dump your tackle on a rocky ledge and sit in solitude.

The water at your feet laps and sighs at the base of the cliff. The twinkling inky-blue sea frets gently at the jumble of granite boulders, each one as big as a truck. Beneath the surface, tall fronds of kelp sway gracefully. Your eyes stare harder — trying to penetrate the deeps.

Strangers on the shore

Today the water is tranquil all the way out to the horizon. Beyond that lie a thousand or more miles of waves and weather extending all the way to the Americas. It is easy to imagine that a huge ocean-going fish has decided to come inshore for a change of view.

Sharks, halibut, skate, tuna and marlin are landed by commercial longlining boats.

Every now and then bluefin and Atlantic big-eye tuna crop up at the fish market in Dingle in the Republic of Ireland. Salmon netsmen working the offshore grounds occasionally catch a big old turtle which has wandered over with the Gulf Stream, and from time to time whales are seen humping out of the water. But apart from these exotic rarities there are a great many other species worthy of the angler’s attention and easier to catch.

Rich coastlines

Atlantic coastlines are constantly pounded by heavy seas. As the waves crash against the cliffs and suck back down again they form deep chasms, fissures and ledges hanging over deep water. These features are home to a variety of fish. Baitfish The drop-off – where the depth plunges suddenly from, say, 9m (30ft) to 18m (60ft) or more – is where shoals of baitfish such as brit, sprats and sandeels shelter. They hide among the rocks or stay inconspicuous by hugging the face of the drop-off. Small predators such as pollack and coalfish feed on them. These fish, along with mackerel and wrasse, are what tope, rays, skate, porbeagle sharks, congers and the other heavyweights are looking for. Large shoals of mackerel can sometimes be seen swimming slowly along with their snouts out of the water. They are sifting plankton and dive as soon as your weight hits the water. They probably think it’s a gannet striking. When they are intent on feeding like this you can really only catch them on spinners (feathers are less useful) – nothing else seems to work.

One of the best ways to catch mackerel -particularly from August onwards – is to fish a sliver of white mackerel skin on the hook. This may bring you a hard fighting two-pounder (0.9kg). Every now and then a small pollack or coalfish takes hold of the bait and provides a real tussle.

Two dozen mackerel should provide sufficient bait for the day. Store them out of the sun in a cool fissure behind a rock.

Some Atlantic rock marks give way to sand. These are excellent spots because you just never know what might turn up next. Often though, the cliff ends several fathoms down in a jungle of rocks and kelp – perfect shelter for fish. Congers are here but hard to get out and big edible crabs jolt the line just as if there was a ray shuffling around the bait.

Big pollack love these snaggy places and late evening – as the sun dips over the horizon – is a particularly good time. Then, as the pearly sky gleams on the calm sea, pollack of 10 lb (4.5kg) or more patrol close to the surface. Fish a large red and silver feather on a paternoster, or a small redgill, retrieving it along the edge of the rock. It’s impossible to mistake the crashing dive a big pollack makes when it hits a lure.

Tope prefer to hunt during the heat of the day. Sometimes the grey streamlined shapes can be seen flickering over the sand as they investigate various places where prey are likely to be holed up.

Their sensitive snouts pick up scents from afar, and if the tide isn’t flowing strongly it pays to dice up a few spare mackerel and other bits of fish and throw them in. You can also attract tope by throwing in handfuls of mashed fish laced with dry sand to make it sink quickly, and pilchard oil to make it smell. This should bring a host of fish shuffling and snuffling around. Lesser spotted dogfish have an excellent sense of smell for sniffing out food. Often their bigger cousins – bull huss – come along, exploring the sides of the rock face for prey. Rays of many varieties come flapping and scuffling across the sand, and with them perhaps a giant skate. Brill and small turbot join in the feast, and possibly a species that is a complete stranger – requiring consultation with an authoritative book before it can be safely named!

Ballan wrasse are great fun to catch. They live by nibbling mussels and barnacles off the rock but are most partial to a floatfished prawn, peeler crab or lugworm. Look for a likely hole – usually a deep fissure with a bit of white water in it – and fish for them with a float paternoster. A chunk of foam plastic with a small swivel tied to it makes a cheap float and it doesn’t matter if you lose it.

Wrasse dart out, grab the bait and dive for cover. Your strike must be smart and certain – pulling them away from the tangle of rock and weeds. The simplest way is to wind slowly when the float first dips, then strike when a positive pull is felt. Otherwise the fish may swallow the bait and bite through the line with its powerful throat teeth.

Tough, balanced tackle

Two rods should be sufficient: one for leg-ering a large bait, the other for spinning or float fishing in between takes on the big bait.

Reliable tackle – good knots, stout traces and sharp hooks — is more important than heavy line. Even where fast-running tope are encountered the line needn’t be more than 20 lb (9kg) b.s. But for porbeagles and skate 50 lb (23kg) class gear is required.

Some fish are virtually uncatchable. Basking sharks are plankton feeders but occasionally one may swim into the line and hook itself. When this happens you might as well wish them well and wave goodbye -on normal tackle they don’t even notice they’ve been hooked.