To get to Scrabster Harbour in Caithness, go north and stop just before you fall in. It’s the most northerly port on mainland Britain with a regular charter fleet. But why go there at all? Well, the sea is heaving with fish for one thing — cod, coalfish, pollack, porbeagles, bass (yes, bass), skate (and maybe even the mighty halibut) all abound.
Standing on the hill above the harbour, the wind is force 4-5, and freshening. It’s been blowing for a week, and this counts as a lull. If we don’t get out now, we never will. But Davy Proudfoot is quite confident. ‘If we get out, we’ll catch. Especially if we can fish under the cliffs before it gets too rough.’
He’s found a skipper, Graham Forbes, who’s prepared to brave the swell, so we’re all ready to go. It’s really quite a fine morning inside the harbour. The low hills around the small town shelter us from the worst of the wind, and the sun is shining.
It’s a different story out in the bay, as Graham steers Patricia to the first mark -The Hump. It’s a pinnacle which rises from a depth of 35m (115ft) to about 14m (45ft). In February we can expect to find coalies, pollack and codling if we’re lucky.
But that’s not all. ‘Keep an eye out for grey shapes when you’re bringing in fish. I’ve brought the shark gear along, so if you see one, give me a shout,’ says Davy, mat-ter-of-factly. February is porbeagle time.
Caithness boats invariably fish on the drift, with bags of codling coming mostly on artificials. A few years back Davy heard about a Scandinavian technique called pirk casting, tried it and has never looked back. It’s a bit like a cross between pirking and uptiding.
Davy explains. ‘Cast the pirk up-drift, let it sink and then work it back to the boat. You cover more ground and can get away with a lighter pirk with a better action than fishing it downtide. It works really well when the water’s no’ too deep.’
The boat pitches on the long swells as Graham sets up the drift over the rock. Even here inside the bay it’s pretty lumpy. Davy has tackled up on the way out. He’s using a spinning rod, a small multiplier and 15lb (6.8kg) line to cast a (100g) pirk and jelly worm.
He casts about 40m (44yd) up-drift of the boat and leaves the spool disengaged while the pirk sinks. Just as he feels it hit the bottom, he begins to work it back towards him in short pumps.
He manages about three turns of the handle before the rod bends double and starts doing a north Scots jig. The light rod is bent right down to the handle as he cranks back the struggling fish. What kind of a monster can put such a bend in a rod? The answer, as he swings in his tackle, is two coalies of about half a pound (0.23kg) each. A big pollack is going to be very interesting.
Graham drops in too, and soon he’s swinging coalies over the side. ‘The screen’s black with them,’ he observes. ‘Aye,’ says Davy. ‘We’ll never get through to the codling.’ He swings in two more coalies, unhooks them and puts them back. It’s like mackerel fishing.
He puts on a heavier pirk to try to get through the coalies and is rewarded next cast with a thumping grab on the rod tip. The rod groans and kicks as the fish makes for freedom. He braces himself and swings ‘it’ in – another writhing, wriggling brace of bottle green linesiders to be returned. ‘Time to have a wee look elsewhere I think,’ says Davy.
A brief stop at a new mark confirms the abundance of small coalies. ‘There hasn’t been this many for four years,’ says Davy, returning two more. He checks with Graham and they decide to have a look at Dunnet Head.
The Head rolls into view. The sea is pretty big now and even Davy’s finding it hard to stay on his feet as he casts. ‘Most of the fish come from right under the cliffs,’ he roars over the wind and waves. ‘But we can’t try that in this sea.’
The drift is taking us round the Head -with every minute we’re farther out into open sea and the swell. The first drift produces nothing, so we motor back for a second try. Davy casts again, letting his pirk hit the sea bed before retrieving. ‘If you start to wind in too soon, the set-up works too far off the sea bed and you won’t catch.’ You do risk hanging your gear up but there’s no point fishing if you’re not giving yourself a chance to catch. Davy demonstrates this by getting snagged right on cue. On the drift he just clamps down on the spool and waits for something to give as the boat drifts away from the snag.
Davy takes a moment to tie on a new pirk/jelly worm rig, then smiles and puts on his one piece suit as the rain starts. He looks the picture of the lone angler fighting the elements as he braces himself against the side of the boat and casts out the newly tied rig.
Suddenly he yells something which is carried away in the wind. He tries again.’… is a better fish.’ How can he possibly know? ‘It’s trying to swim off along the bottom,’ he shouts. ‘It’s a codling, right enough.’
Davy breaks into a broad grin as Graham nets the 2-3lb (0.9-1.4kg) fish. ‘Thank goodness for that. I was beginning to think we’d no’ get anything at all.’ He recasts quickly, hoping there’s a small shoal, but in fact it’s Graham’s rod which bends into a second codling. ‘Get some pictures of it on the surface,’ he shouts. ‘We might not get another.’ He brings the fish close to the boat several times for the camera, and the last time, it flips its tail and vanishes. ‘Aye,’ says Davy. ‘But what about the pictures of it in the boat, eh?’
Despite working the same area twice more, no more codling are forthcoming. ‘The wind’s picking up from the north- west,’ Graham says. ‘We’ll have to head back inside the bay.’
Back at The Hump there are still buckets of small coalies but Davy’s got a taste for codling – which means leaving the bay. With the direction of the tide Graham says we should get away with an hour or so at Holborn Head. On that side of the bay we’ll be drifting back towards calmer water, so it might be feasible.
When we get there, it’s a rare old scene that greets us. The swell is 3-4m (10-13ft) and increasing. ‘She’s never shipped a wave yet,’ says Graham proudly. ‘And she won’t start now. She’ll just slide up one side and down the other.’
On the downward slide it’s almost possible to make out the cliffs through the driving rain and spray which lashes down from all directions. They must be quite spectacular when you can make them out.
Davy casts out and laughs. ‘We don’t usually go out in this, you know. If this was a pleasure trip, we’d be back having bacon and eggs at the fishermen’s Mission.’ The mention of bacon and eggs is too much for Alastair, the photographer, who rushes to the side of the boat and leans over.
It wasn’t really the bacon and eggs that did it. As the boat lurches crazily from one side to another, and Davy lets another cast go, Alastair has somehow got to frame him and tilt himself and his camera to get the horizon as straight as possible in the photo. There’s a constant stream of salt water falling on the lens. He wipes it off, peers though the viewfmder, sways and tilts to get everything horizontal, focuses, stops to wipe off the rain, and starts again. It’s hardly surprising that he reels to the side of the boat every few pictures. This from a man who spent three months in a trawler off the Icelandic coast – but photos are something else.
The rollercoaster ride continues but fails to produce anything beyond the odd patch of coalies. ‘Right,’ says Graham. ‘Now you’re used to it, we’re going to find some fish.’ So he takes us farther round the Head.
Suddenly another boat appears – like the Marie Celeste it’s deserted. ‘They’re shark- to haul the creature away from the rocky sea floor, but it isn’t having any of that.
Davy tries again to gain a few turns of line and this time, he manages to persuade the brute to swim up a bit. No sooner has he done that than it starts off down and along the sea bed again. To the untrained eye, it almost looks as though Davy’s just playing ing,’ explains Davy. ‘They’ve put the reels on the ratchet, so they can sit inside and drink tea.’ This seems like such a good idea that we abandon the fishing for a while and retreat into the cabin for a brew up.
But Davy’s made of tough stuff, and soon he’s back, working his lures over the rough ground. Alastair bravely takes pictures and smiles between bouts doubled over the side of the boat. The rain lashes down, the ocean waves roll, and suddenly both Davy and Graham are into fish. For a moment it’s pandemonium as we slide about over the deck, playing fish, or looking for the net or trying to take photos.
Davy curses into the wind. His rod is still bent and kicking, so what’s up? He points. In the confusion, the short butt section of his spinning rod has fallen into the briny. Now he has to get the fish up with no leverage at all.
Not surprisingly, Graham is the first to get his fish to the side of the boat – a pollack of around lVAb (0.7kg). Davy’s takes a little longer. He smiles despite everything when a second Caithness codling is netted. ‘We’ll make the next drift the last one,’ says Graham – and we’re only too glad to agree. Alastair smiles wanly but cheerfully – and disappears to the side of the boat.
Davy gets his lures back in the water for a last few casts before we move for the last drift. This time he pauses when his gear is directly beneath the boat, jigging it slowly. Suddenly the rod lunges seawards and the tip dives beneath the waves.
Davy strains to hold the rod up and the reel squeals. He clamps his thumb on the spool and holds on, hoping the 15lb (6.8kg) line can take it. He tries to get some back – with a snag to look good, his rod bent into something totally unyielding.
Suddenly he’s gained 10m (11yd) of line and the beast seems to be beaten. It tries again for the bottom, but this time its dive is much weaker and easily resisted. Only a couple of minutes later a fine 5lb (2.3kg) pollack lies on the deck. It is not a particularly big fish for these parts, but they go well on light tackle.
Davy looks delighted. ‘Never mind that last drift now, eh? Let’s just get back in.’ A brilliant decision, soon rewarded by a steaming cup of coffee in the Mission. And after half an hour, even Alastair’s beginning to look human again. What a day.