A certain lack of enthusiasm is starting to creep into things on day three of Hughie Smith’s attempts to find some fish -an early start sees plenty of groaning and thick heads. But a huge breakfast soon sorts that out. Stepping out of the hotel to the car – a miraculous vision – it’s bright and calm. Maybe our luck’s changing.
The 60 mile drive to Aberdeen is soon over and well before six o’clock we’re hunting for the turn-off to Souter Head. Low water is at half past seven and Hughie fancies the few hours around then to produce. He’s been itching to get at those codling ever since the kippers at breakfast.
Half an hour later, after finding our way back to the same roundabout four times, it’s starting to look as though our luck’s just as lousy as it was on the first two days. With low tide rapidly approaching, by the time we find the place Hughie can’t wait to get a bait into the water.
Baits are the same as he used at Black Craig (hookfuls of worm, crab, shellfish and squid). He’s had some good fish here using razor, so that’s going to be today’s special.
The sea bed is very rough and, what’s worse, the fish gather in a deep hole about 20m (65ft) out. It’s about 50m (165ft) left to right and 30m (100ft) front to back. Goodness knows how deep it is – there’s more of a drop-off than at Loch Etive.
The rough ground and sharp drop-off mean changes in tackle. Gone is the 15lb (6.8kg) line and 6500CT, replaced by a 7000C filled with 22lb (10kg) line. No fancy distance rigs this time, a blood loop paternoster with a rotten bottom does the job.
This is more like it. A gentle breeze ruffles the water and sends fluffy white clouds drifting across the bluest of blue skies. Hughie casts one bait to the far side of the hole and the other he lobs close to the drop-off. But there’s more than one way to skin a coalfish — time for something different. He takes some mackerel, herring and shellfish scraps and chops them up. ‘There’s a gulley just to the left here that the pollack and coalies visit. If I throw in some chopped up bait, it’ll hold them when they move in with the tide. I had plenty of fish last time I did it, and lost two big ones.’ To take advantage, he sets up a 9ft (2.7m) spinning rod, arming it with a small spoon.
He spins and freelines a ragworm in the gulley, sprinkling in the odd handful of juicy chopped morsels. But there isn’t any action there, nor in the hole. There aren’t even any rattles from small fish. The sun shines, the cliffs shelter us from the wind, but our run of ‘luck’ continues.
A disappointed Hughie looks around the mussel-covered rocks, assessing the state of the ebb. ‘I think we’ve had the best of it already, though we might still catch one or two fish right through the tide.’
After a lovely start to the day, it seems the weather from the west coast is slowly catching up with us. Clouds are building up and inland it looks quite dour. On top of that cheery news, Hughie finally gets a bite and after a hard struggle manages to heave a mighty 2oz (56g) coalie from the gully.
As the flood approaches half tide, Hughie is forced back off the mussel-covered parts of the rock, and on to the smooth, water-worn rock higher up. Covered with spray, they’re as slippery as glass and it’s all Hughie can do to avoid falling over.
A commercial boat moves in close, and Hughie studies it. ‘See that? Those are gill nets it’s bringing in.’ This continues for an hour or so, as net after net is pulled in. No wonder there aren’t any fish around.
The clouds are really thickening up and threaten rain at any time. Having brought in all its nets, the boat moves off. Hughie blows on his hands and puts on a few more layers to cope with the chill. ‘This is more like it. No fish and bad weather. Now I know where I am.’
High water has come and gone without a whisper of action. Our constant companion – the drizzle – has started up once more. As numb fingers turn into thumbs, thoughts slowly turn to admitting defeat (yet again!) and finding a nice warm Aberdeen pub. Then, with no warning, an hour or so after the gill netter moved off, Hughie starts scrambling over the rocks to his rods.
He picks up the rod cast to the back of the hole and strikes at the second knock. ‘It’s a codlin’ and I’ve got to get it clear of the snags.’ He winds like fury to get the fish up over the drop-off before it finds sanctuary.
Our luck must be changing. Yesterday the cod would have escaped, but today it’s soon splashing on the surface. It’s only a couple of pounds (0.9kg) but it’s a codling-and that’s what counts.
It’s getting dark, but Hughie’s fishing with renewed vigour now. He rebaits one of his hooks with a whole razorfish. ‘If there are codlin’ about, this’ll sort them out,’ he grins. He threads the big mollusc up the shank of a 5/0 Aberdeen, and holds it there with a few turns of elastic.
He casts it to the back of the hole again and brings in the other set-up for rebaiting. On this one he puts a monstrous squid, lug and mussel cocktail, and drops it just at the foot of the drop-off. There isn’t long to wait…
Barely five minutes later a tremendous heave on the rod tip nearly sends the rod into the North Sea, but Hughie’s there. ‘This is the fish we’ve come for,’ he says, as the rod bends dramatically. ‘I’ve got to stop it gettin’ in the rocks.’ Easier said than done when he deliberately put the bait as close to them as he could to tempt a bite. ‘This is a nice fish,’ he says as he tries to hurry it up the drop-off. It resists and finds a sheltering cranny. Hughie almost loses his rag. ‘I don’t believe it. This fish has got to be five or six pounds.’ But it’s true, and though he tries for ten minutes to free it -with slack line and pressure, in the end it is the line that gives. The curse strikes again.
In the dank and dripping gloom, he’s just collecting his gear together when his rod tip pulls right round – a typical cod enquiry. Hughie’s quickly there and shortly after, a second codling is heading in. Obviously something has happened — either the removal of the gill nets or the change in weather has let a few cod inshore.
It’s pretty dark by now and a third night session in the wind and rain doesn’t really appeal. Hughie’s keen to fish on and try to get a decent bag, but the tide is against him. In the end, the only way to get him off the rocks is to promise one more try – back at Loch Etive for a last chance at the spurdog.
Low water at Loch Etive is just after noon today, so an early start isn’t essential. Even so, it’s a weary group which makes its way from the hotel round to the far side of the loch to restart the search for spurs.
The weather has finally taken pity on us. The clouds are heavy but the heavens haven’t opened yet. Without the horizontal drizzle you can see what a strange and lovely place this is. It must be irresistible on the three days a year when it’s sunny.
Once over the bridge and past the quarry, Hughie starts to look for really deep water to fish. Just past Port Luinge, at a place called Rubha na Creige, he finds about 60m (200ft) of water very close in. That’ll do.
The tide has begun to flood and Hughie waits patiently — one fish bait cast well out, and the other nestling against the drop-off as close in as he dares. ‘There should be pollack and all sorts in the weed on the drop-off,’ he says, setting up a sliding float rig. A true match angler, Hughie’s ready to try almost anything to put fish on the bank. ‘I always carry a light rod with me, just in case.’
He starts with ragworm hooked through the head, fishing about 8m (26ft) down the underwater cliff. When this doesn’t bring results, he deepens off by 3m (10ft). Next cast the float charges under as soon as it settles. Hughie strikes but fails to connect.
He puts another rag on the hook and recasts – with the same result. ‘I’d better strike faster,’ observes Hughie. Next time he does, and in comes the culprit. ‘Look at that—it’s a wee codlin’. Float fishin’ for cod— whatever next?’ A spurdog would be nice.
The 20cm (8in) codling is followed by an even smaller one and pollack of almost 25cm (10in). All ofthem go back. Then there are no more bites at any depth. Hughie is almost too tired even to be puzzled. He shakes his head. ‘There should be some sizeable fish somewhere. I don’t know… The rainwater must still be putting them off.’
There’s still no action on the big baits and to stave off the cold, we’ve collected some wood and are trying to light a fire. The trouble is that after days of rain, it’s hard to find anything dry enough to support flame.
Hughie fishes on heroically, even though it’s becoming obvious that it’s a hopeless task. Just as the light begins to fade and Hughie is talking about packing up, he gets a rattling great bite on the huge, bloody bait close in. He winds down and strikes. ‘This is a much better fish. It might even be a spur,’ grins Hughie. ‘I’ve got to hurry it or it’ll end up in the snags.’ Finally it breaks surface and Hughie gets his first glimpse. Any hopes are cruelly dashed as the fish turns out to be a strapping doggie.
A sign perhaps? With amazing optimism, Hughie remarks, ‘Now that the light’s going, the fish might be coming on the feed. I’ll just give it a couple more hours. I’ve got a feeling we’re going to get a spur or two.’
After two hours huddling round the struggling fire, watching the rod tips, even Hughie’s beginning to have doubts. ‘It’s hard fishing… again,’ says a tired Hughie.
He’s not wrong there. For four days he battled everything Scotland threw at him -except bags offish, of course. Through it all he fished hard and caught fish in the worst conditions. It might not show the marks he visited at their best, but it does show that you can catch, even in the most difficult circumstances, if you keep at it.