Skate are widely distributed around our coasts, and to catch them you need patience and muscle. They offer the angler a wonderful opportunity to tackle monster fish.
Sea fishermen perhaps hunt skate because they offer the chance of a monster fish from waters in which a catch of more than 100 lb is rare. Skate is not a great sporting species, and it may be that they are fished, as mountains are climbed, because they are there.
Skate fishing varies little from Scottish and English waters to the marks of Eire. Almost all of it is from an anchored boat under the command of a professional skipper whose job it is to put you over suitable ground. Years ago, a boatman worth hiring could almost guarantee a fish or two, but today the skate marks have been so ravaged by both commercial and sporting fishermen that success is a reflection of excellent luck, rather than skill or know-how. Established fishing grounds are around Scotland-Ullapool, Scapa Flow and the Western Isles – and over the Irish Sea in Kinsale, Westport and Valencia but it is a rare stretch of coast that has never produced at least one specimen. Skate travel with the tide and are much more active in warmer months than in autumn and winter.
Without good bait, the odds against hooking a skate are long indeed. The species preys upon all kinds of fish, crustaceans and worms, and successful fishing baits are those which exude a powerful scent and are big enough to withstand the predations of smaller fish and marine creatures which attack before a skate locates the tackle.
A waiting game
Among skate fishermen it is generally agreed that fresh mackerel and herrings are best. Both are extremely juicy baits which result in showers of blood, fatty droplets and fragments of meat, spreading a scent lane. This is very important 332 where the skate are scattered over a large area. Skate fishing is a waiting game: half a mackerel or even a whole fish is certainly not too big to ensure that when the fish eventually comes along, enough bait is left on the hook to spark its interest. The effectiveness of the bait depends on its freshness. Stale bait might well be a complete failure except where the skate are accustomed to fish offal, as they are in the vicinity of commercial fishing ports.
Skate feed relatively slowly. It is debatable whether this behaviour reflects natural caution or is due to clumsiness in shuffling the enormous flat body over the prey. Whatever the reason, a bait that is correctly mounted helps the angler. While it is seldom necessary to hide hook shank and trace wire inside the bait, neat packaging at least ensures that the hook point ends up in the skate’s jaw, and is not buried in a mass of squashy bait.
The skate has formidable jaws that literally grind hooks to powder and great care is needed in the selection and construction of the terminal tackle. The hook must be strong, forged, and with a brazed eye. The preferred size is between No 6/0-12/0, but there is much in favour of the smaller hooks because they are far sharper. A needle-sharp point and neat barb are essential to drive the hook into the muscles.
The trace, incorporating a simple running ledger, needs to be short -2ft of cable-laid wire of 150-250 lb b.s. Are knotted and sleeved to the hook and to a big-game swivel. Attached to the other side of the swivel is 2-6ft of 80-100 lb b.s. Nylon monofilament to provide a buffer against abrasion and some insurance against sudden jerks, which nylon, being more elastic than Dacron, is better able to absorb. A Clements boom and sinker are threaded onto the nylon and held at the correct distance with a stop-knot, then a second swivel is tied on.
The main line, 50-80 lb b.s. Dacron, is secured by the usual combination of doubled leader and Policansky knot. Good skate rods are inevitably powerful with the emphasis on lifting ability rather than fishing sen-sitivity. Hauling a big skate off the sea bed is tough work even without burdening yourself with a rod that makes life more difficult due to adverse leverage ratio. Choose the shortest rod you can find. A 6ft rod is more efficient than a 7ft, and longer rods are out of the question for most anglers. As long as the rod reaches far enough over the gunwales for reasonable fishing control, the shorter it is the better.
High grade 50 and 80 lb boat blanks cope well with skate. Use glassfibre because there is absolutely no detectable advantage in car-bonfibre. Insist on the best fittings and rings: metal winch fitting with locking ferrule for the butt; roller or aluminium oxide lined side rings; always specify a double roller tip; and choose the comfort and control of a soft, fairly wide diameter foregrip. Double-whipped rings are tougher than a single plain wrap.
The reel has to be very strong rather than large. Skate may run, but seldom as far as sharks. Line pressure is immense, however, and the spool must be able to withstand it without collapsing. Big game multipliers and heavy duty cen- trepins are essential, as is a reel saddle to reinforce the winch fitting. The shoulder straps of the full harness clip to the reel so that most of the weight is transferred from the arms to the shoulders and back.
Once anchored over promising ground, the angler simply lowers his bait to the seabed and waits with the reel out of gear. Skate feed slowly, and to strike too soon invites a complete miss or hooking the fish in the wing. Give it time to get the hook well down, then strike hard. Keep up 335 the pressure because the skate will hunch down on the bottom using its body as a sucker. You have to pull harder than the fish can, and that is backbreaking work. Playing a skate is a tug-of-war.
Many anglers say that one good skate is enough to last a lifetime. For the most part skate fishing is brutal fishing that requires only patience and a strong back. But as long as big skate haunt our coastal waters anglers will fish for them because to land a big one is still an achievement few can boast of.
Skate are rare in many of their former strongholds. Rod and line fishing endangers stocks – in fact it may be more of a hazard than commercial fishing. So, bearing in mind that skate are poor eating anyway, put them back alive. It is best not to boat them in the first place: none of the cartilaginous species withstand manhandling and are best cut free while alongside the boat. The wingspan can be approximately measured and is closely related to the weight of the fish.