In theory it was easy. Scoot off up to Loch Etive where there are lots of spurdog, watch Hughie Smith fill his boots with them and come home. He even had the luxury of a few days to do it, if he needed them.
Barely awake, Hughie packs the gear for a serious assault on the fish. In goes box after box of fresh and frozen baits, rods, reels, thermals – the lot. For an expedition like this you need to be well prepared.
Two hours later we pull up by a pier on the south shore of Loch Etive near Taynuilt. The loch sits in a long, deep, steep-sided glacial valley which twists and turns for almost 25 miles before plunging over the Falls of Lara into the sea. Surrounded by mountains, it’s hard to believe it’s full of sea water, and it’s so beautiful (and clean!), you can almost forget the city you left behind.
Hughie looks at the water. ‘Most of the fish have been coming at night, but I’ll have a wee chuck in here, to see what’s about.’ He sets up two beach rods with Abu 7000 multipliers and 22lb (10kg) fine.
The tide is rising, funnelling through the narrow strait in front of us. Any fish moving up or down the loch has to pass this bottleneck. It looks really fishy.
Hughie paternosters two baits – a chunk of herring and a whole sandeel – on one rod, with a big Calamari squid/mackerel cocktail on a 5/0 hook on the other. The tide calls for a 6oz (170g) Breakaway to hold bottom.
Four hours later Hughie hasn’t had so much as a touch, despite the highly delicious smells he’s unleashed on the sea bed. We’re fishing right next to the mouth of the River Awe, so you would have thought there would be at least a flounder or two on lug or rag. No chance. ‘Aye well, it’s like that sometimes. You can catch nothin’ for hours during the day, but when night falls, you don’t know what’s hit you.’
It’s not long till high water, which means it’s time for some grub. The rain which has been threatening all morning starts to dribble from the heavens. Still, it doesn’t look as though it’s going to last.
The rain, of course has stopped, and it’s e lovely evening. No, sorry, only joking, il hasn’t stopped, in fact it’s a lot heavier (Rather like us after our enormous meal.’ Inside the hotel the log fire crackles, outside the wind howls and rain beats down. It’s nc contest… fifteen minutes later we’re piling into the van with our thermals on, complaining bitterly. ‘The best of the spurs have come from the far side,’ says Hughie. ‘So we’ll head ovei there.’ In the semi-darkness it’s not that easy to follow the road as it twists anc turns. Then it becomes a floodlit quarrj where we play dodgems with a couple o: giant JCBs. Once past that obstacle, the road turns into a track. Finally, after a few hundred metres of tree dodging we reach I long stretch of narrow beach and Hughie points. ‘Aye, that’s it, I think.’
In the gathering gloom it’s hard to see but we seem to be near an inlet called Pon Luinge. ‘There’s been a lot of spurs taker here lately, especially at night on the first o: the flood,’ says Hughie as he tackles up.
There’s soon a sandeel and a squid bail out, waiting to intercept a rampaging pack of spurs. On this side of the Loch, the wine is blowing straight in our faces, driving the rain right under our hats and into the eyes. Perfect fishing conditions.
Hughie isn’t fishing light with drop-offs, kelp and rocks all over the shop. He usually considers 22lb (10kg) line to be the lightest you need. However, he’s using a 6500CT multiplier and 15lb (11.3kg) line on one rod to allow him to cast a clipped down bait over 140m (150yd). He puts a big two hookpater- noster much closer in — at about 50m (55yd).
Even at close range it’s quite deep – at least 10m (33ft). In fact, that’s shallow for Etive – in some places there’s 50m (165ft) just off the drop-off-but it’s deep enough.
The Scottish rain continues dripping and dribbling down to freeze the parts English rain cannot reach. Hughie’s got the Tilley lamps lit, and the reflective tape on his rod tips nods gently with the wind and rain… It’s not too bad under the umbrellas…
Suddenly he propels himself into the wet night air. He picks up his rod, waits, there’s another tap, and he launches into a strike. ‘It doesn’t feel like a spur,’ he says thoughtfully. He winds like a madman to stop the fish from embedding itself in the marine cliff face, and suddenly it breaks surface. ‘It’s a doggie.’ There’s no disguising the disappointment in Hughie’s voice. As a match angler he loves them, but tonight he’s after spurdog. ‘Never mind. At least something’s feeding. Maybe now the spurs will move in.’ Next cast it’s a full house -two doggies on sandeel and squid.
After an hour and a half of non-stop dog-snapping fun, Hughie’s ready for something else. ‘There’s a mark farther on where they’ve been getting most of the big, double-figure spurs. I don’t like moving when the fish are feeding- it might just be a matter of time before the spurs move in here. But I think we should give it a go. We’ve had the best of the tide already.’ The rods are hastily piled in the van and we steam up the track. ‘Steam’ is about right as the water begins to evaporate from our saturated clothes. A couple of miles farther on Hughie grabs his gear and plunges out into the soaking, black night.
It’s much deeper here, about 25m (82ft), but as the rain pours down, the only bite produces an LSD. At least it’ll be high water in a couple of hours, and if nothing has hap- pened by then Hughie might call it a day.
Another couple of LSDs separated by half an hour provide less than compelling reasons to stay out in the rain. At about half past two, even they abandon us, leaving the baits to the attentions of small, nibbling fish. Hughie spends half an hour trying to hook one of them. It’s only partly because the matchman in him refuses to give up. It’s mostly to put off the inevitable packing up in the pouring rain. Who can blame him?
The next day dawns grey and wet – what a surprise. We have two options – stay and try to beat the spurs into submission, or drive 160 miles over to Montrose on the east coast and have a go for some codling. It’s an easy decision- we head off east.
On the way we cross the River Awe, which has burst its banks in no uncertain manner. The area is completely flooded. ‘That might be why we were having such a hard time of it,’ says Hughie. ‘The flood’s put an awful lot of fresh water into the loch, and that can put the sea fish off feeding. We’re weU out of it.’
The new mark is near Usan harbour just south of Montrose – a place forbiddingly called Black Craig (Black Rock). It looks good, with channels of clean sand between rock, but it’s not that deep – less than 3m (10ft) at low tide. The tide is ebbing but it fishes better on the flood here. That, combined with the shallow water, means Hughie’s in for another night session.
After another big supper it’s a struggle to get out into the cold. Fortunately it isn’t raining this far east (though the weather is heading our way), but our thermals are wet enough from the soaking they got the day before. There’s nothing to match the soggy feeling of yesterday’s wet gear.
Strangely, the walk down to the sea is much harder in the dark. As we walk along the edge of a ploughed field, trying unsuccessfully to find an easy route over the clods of turned earth, the mantle from one of the Tilley lamps blows. They don’t like being bumped around. The walk over the rocks seems to take forever, and the nice flat fishing platform – so easy to find in daylight — has vanished.
Eventually we’re there, and though it’s not raining, an onshore wind has blown up out of nowhere. In deep water that’s not so bad, but where it’s shallow, as it is here, the cod retreat to deeper, calmer water in a big sea. But we’re here – so Hughie’ll have a go.
He fishes a big bait on a single 5/0 hook close in, and a smaller bait clipped down on his distance casting set-up farther out. The main baits are lug, peeler, mussel and squid with an impressive array of razors, clams and other molluscs in reserve.
The wind is causing problems. The waves bounce the rod tips in one direction, while the wind blows them in another. Spotting bites (if there are any) is not going to be easy. ‘Don’t you worry, ‘ says Hughie. ‘If I get a bite, I won’t miss it.’
An hour later that’s beginning to look like a bit of foolish optimism. Hughie tries a whole razorfish on the hook to no avail, followed by a lug/clam combination. After half an hour of each he’s beginning to lose heart. With little hope he goes back to the trusty lug/mussel cocktail for the bait closer in.
Ten minutes pass. Then, without warning, Hughie squints into the darkness. ‘Was that…?’ He springs to his feet, and picks up the inside rod. ‘It’s probably just the wind, but better safe than sorry.’ He pauses, his cold hands feeling for a knock. ‘I don’t believe it,’ he says, grinning and winding down at the same time.
The rod bends over and thumps unsteadily, indicating a minor miracle of sorts. A minute later a codling of around 2V2lb (1.1kg) comes swinging over the rocks. ‘Right then, let’s see if there are any more fish out there in those waves.’ Two hours go by with Hughie sitting vigilant in the wind, waiting for the next bite. He replaces the baits several times, he even replaces the mantle on his second Tilley for something to do. It’s not the easiest task in a gale.
Eventually, the tide begins to slacken (and it gets a bit too close to last orders for comfort) so Hughie has to pack up. With one measly codling in the bag and an onshore wind, it looks as though we’re going to have to put Plan C into action. Another move -this time up to Aberdeen to look for codling from a deeper, more sheltered mark.