Ken Robinson’s a bit of a travelling act. He’ll go just about anywhere there are fish. He’s a native of Whitley Bay, but most winters find him fishing the Galloway coastline for monster cod, or plundering parts of Wales for peeler. Summer finds him prowling the kelp beds of the northeast coast, while in spring he’s often near Workington in Cumbria, fishing for plaice. Well isn’t everyone?
A series of tracks criss-cross the sparse, grassy scrub which has grown on the slag heaps fringing the beach. In a couple of places these tracks merge to form uneasy car parks of mud and cinder. On a bleak, grey morning it looks quite forbidding, but it’s a different place in the sun.
It’s a typical English early summer morning – the drizzle is lovely and warm. The forecast is for thick cloud all day. From the look of things the weathermen are right.
But it’s late May and the plaice are here -Ken is straining at the leash. However, it’s dead low water, so even a monster cast wouldn’t put his bait in deep enough water.
Instead we go to have a look at the mussel bed which attracts the fish. The mussels grow on small rocks and stones sitting on a bed of mud and sand. It’s not very appealing to look at, but then the plaice aren’t attracted by its looks. They come for the mussels and the tiny creatures harbouring in the gaps between them.
These mussels aren’t the huge ones so beloved of Ken and his east coast cronies as a bait for codling and coalies. But they still send their siren song to the plaice, which flock here in numbers every spring. They’re also big enough to sever your line as it lies over them, so fishing here does involve a certain amount of tackle loss.
Or does it? The other thing Ken has come down to do while the tide’s low, is to retrieve some of yesterday’s gear. He fished here the day before, taking three plaice but losing a few traces on the way. Most should still be hung up on the mussels which severed them. Not only does it make economic sense to retrieve what you can — it’s environmentally friendly too. ‘Aye. This is one of mine. I can tell because it’s so well tied,’ says Ken, smiling as he unravels a two hook paternoster which has become wound round and between the mussels.
It’s time to get going, but Ken’s found one last rig. ‘Will you look at that. I bet you haven’t done a feature where someone’s caught a fish before they’d even tackled up,’ he grins, holding up a plaice which couldn’t resist the lugworm on the snagged rig. ‘I thought I had one on yesterday before I lost it,’ he lies, still grinning. So, as the tide begins to flood, Ken opens his account with a fish taken on yesterday’s rig.
The beach looks more like a moonscape than a place for families to run carefree along the golden strand. This particular bit of north-west coastline was formed when molten slag from smelting iron ore was allowed simply to run into the sea, where it cooled. It is bizarre.
However, it doesn’t stop the plaice. Indeed, the extra rocks and features probably help to attract and hold them. The gradient of the beach is quite shallow, so the tide floods in quickly. Ken makes sure his gear is far enough back when he tackles up, so he doesn’t have to keep moving it.
Tackle is fairly simple. His powerful 13ft (3.95m) Century 216 beachcasters are ideal for rough ground, and these he teams with ABU 7000C multipliers, filled with 20lb (9.1kg) line. At the end of the shock leader is a one-up/one-down two hook paternoster with two Vikings at the business end.
It’s quite a big tide, so he starts off with a 5VAOZ (150g) breakaway lead. In smaller tides he uses a plain lead, but with this much flow he doesn’t want the lead to wander around, searching out the sharpest, most tenacious snags.
Ken lobs out his first cast around 100m (110yd), putting his bait on top of the mussel bed we inspected earlier. It’s calm, but the weathermen say it’ll start to blow a bit later on. The plan is therefore to catch a sack of plaice before it gets too rough.
Plaice don’t come close inshore when it’s rough and the water is coloured. The day before, of course, was flat calm, and it will probably be so again the day after. In the meantime, however, Ken has to catch some plaice before the wind gets up.
Ken retrieves at quite a lick. ‘Well, you don’t want to hang about when the bottom’s so snaggy.’ He rebaits the hooks with three fresh yellowtail lugworm on each. He dug them himself from one of his secret locations farther up the west coast.
He’s also brought some peeler and some ragworm, just in case. The locals use rag to great effect but Ken’s always caught best on yellowtail. ‘Look at that,’ he says of the succulent string of lug. ‘How could any self-respecting plaice refuse something like that?’ Let’s hope they can’t.
You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs and you can’t catch plaice from this beach without losing gear. Ken winds in a loose flapping tail of line just to prove it. The sharp edges of mussel and rock prove fatal to his 20lb (9.1kg) main line.
A new rig tied on and the baits recast, it isn’t long before the rod tip pulls over, saying flounder to Ken’s observant eye. A wait of a few minutes makes sure the fish is hooked, and then he brings it in. No monster this – it just about covers his palm when he holds it before slipping it back.
But it’s not alone. It brought some big friends with red spots along. A mere five minutes later, Ken’s rod tip is doing the jitterbug, and this time he looks pleased when he starts his retrieve. ‘Aye. This is a better fish,’ he laughs. ‘My second of the day. Can we go home now?’ No chance. Not if the gods of flatty fishing are smiling on the north-west coast of England.
The 2lb (0.9kg) red spot is followed by unrelenting snag action, though Ken manages to get out of all bar one. But there are no complaints as another fat flatty comes in on one of the waves that are starting to build up.
There’s a healthy bend in Ken’s rod as he brings it in. ‘Aye, they’re a good fighting fish, plaice. They’ll drag your line over the snags if you’re not careful,’ he says, as the fish darts off left.
The tide’s pushing up the beach quite quickly now, forcing us back with it. There are some primitive groynes – wire mesh frames filled with loose rock – which protect the slag heaps from erosion. They don’t half come in handy as the tide rises, too. Standing on the end gives Ken an extra few yards to help get his bait over the swells to where the fish can find it.
The tide is rising and the wind is getting up, but that hasn’t stopped the plaice. In another short burst of action Ken lands another of around the 2VAh(l. 1kg) mark to take his total to four.
The wind is getting serious, now, much as the forecaster foretold — a bit of a surprise really, but there it is. No-one can get it wrong all of the time.
The water is definitely now carrying some mud – it’s turned a lovely shade of effluent brown. ‘I think we’ve had our lot from here. Plaice aren’t going to come in with this swell. Still, we’ve done okay.’
Spoke too soon. A plaice that doesn’t know the rules falls for the yellowtails. After a few final, fruitless casts, it’s time for lunch. Then we’ll try a mark that might still fish near the top of the tide.
The move has taken us to a much rockier-looking area closer to Workington’s small harbour. With only a couple of hours to high water, it’ll soon be time to pack up – there’s little joy to be had over slack water. ‘There’s another mussel bed not far out in front of us – you usually get the better fish here. It’s too rough really but there’s always a chance.’ Not that we actually need more fish. This is just for fun. ‘See that? That’s a coalie bite,’ says Ken, as the rod tip rattles quickly. The tip keeps going and it’s not long before an undersize fish is having a hook taken from its greedy mouth. ‘If you start to catch undersize fisb, that’s usually all you’ll catch for a while.
Coalies tend to move and feed in shoals of same-size fish.’
He’s right you know. Three more undersize coalies follow the first in short order, along with a tiny bullhead which is dwarfed by the bait. Honest!
It’s nearly high water, and Ken’s not fishing as hard as he might, but well, he’s already got five plaice. So why bother carrying on at all? Well, the truth is that some people just enjoy fishing, even when they’re being photographed.
Also this second place is much more photogenic than the first. There’s even an unnatural archway, formed as the slag cooled and cracked in the sea. But enough of the slag. If you’re looking for fish in late spring, you’ll find plenty of plaice off the beaches of Cumbria.