The rugged, awkward habitats favoured by tope may add to the difficulty of catching them, but at least inshore waters still exist that are unplundered of their specimen fish.
Although the newcomer to tope fishing may be content to catch average-sized fish of 20-30 lb, most anglers feel an urge to pit their wits and skill against larger tope as they become more experienced. They then set themselves to catch specimens. These are defined, by the National Federation of Sea Anglers, as tope of at least 45lb if caught from a boat, and of at least 35lb if taken from the shore.
Average-sized tope can be taken from most of the seas around Bri-tain, but specimens are rare. Every year dedicated tope anglers are to be found fishing from untried shore positions and boat marks in search of new tope grounds. Quite often, the conditions at these new marks are so challenging that the pioneer angler has to devise new rigs or techniques before he can hope to get to grips with the tope. Why do so many experienced anglers go out of their way to make life difficult for themselves in this way?
The answer is simply that big tope favour difficult places. They like areas where the tides run fast, where the seabed is etched with deep gullies, and encumbered with rocks surrounded by extensive areas of sand or shell-grit. Such marks are found in the Mull of Galloway and adjacent Luce Bay, in South-West Scotland; in Clew Bay and various other large tracts of comparatively sheltered inshore water on the West and South-West Coasts of Ireland; and in the Solent off the South Coast of England. In recent years, the nor-thern coasts of Cornwall and Devon have also yielded some very fine specimen tope, both to shore and to boat anglers. There also remain many promising-looking tope grounds which, because of their ex-posed and rugged coastlines, or their distance from a harbour, have yet to be explored with rod and line.
One area beats all others for really big tope. This is the South Coast of Wales, extending for 100 miles bet-ween Skokholm Island, off the south-west tip of Dyfed and White Oyster Trench, just outside Swansea Bay. It is a complex coastline, with bays and estuaries, and includes the famous Caldy Island tope grounds. In 1964 the mark near the DZ3 buoy yielded Albert (’Ack’) Harries’ world-beater of 74lb lloz. Here too, his son took a 72-pounder.
Of course, this sort of success is not achieved overnight, and Ack’s record was the culmination of years of specialist tope fishing and an in-timate knowledge of the coastline around Saundersfoot. Ack caught his tope by ledgering on the bottom of a deep gulley just off Caldy Island. He was using a terminal rig that he had developed specifically to suit the stretch of coastline.
Sizes vary from 45lb boat (SW England, Wales, Ireland) to 20lb (Yorks). Shore specimens are 35lb (Cornwall), 30lb (Devon, Dorset, Wales) to 15lb (Lines, Humberside, Essex).
6f 7ft (boat rods) 12ft (shore)
18-20lb (with 50lb nylon trace) 27-35lb (with wire trace at least 8ft long)
Mackerel, whole or fillet
Rubby-dubby attractor Minced offal trail (boat and shore)
Paternoster ledger (boat and shore), driftlining (boat), float-fishing (boat and shore) Extra-long trace
Where less dedicated anglers use a size 60 or 70 hook, Ack used a 100 and baited with a whole mackerel. He also used an 18ft wire trace while most boat tope anglers are content with 7 or 8ft of wire. Admittedly, for ordinary tope this usually proves adequate, but a really big tope is as large as a medium-sized blue shark—and very few blue-shark fishermen would restrict themselves to a 7ft trace! Like most members of the shark family, hooked tope have the disconcerting habit of rolling themselves up in the trace. If it is too short, they are likely to slash through the reel line with their teeth or abrasive tail.
There are plenty of tope grounds where snaggy rocks make it difficult, or even impossible, to use a long trace. But if you are setting your sights on really big tope it is wise to fish with as long a trace as you can handle.
Although you need a long trace and large hooks for specimen tope, the rest of your tackle should not be heavy. Ack’s record fish was cap-tured on a 35lb b.s. Reel line, with rod, reel and trace to match. There is no need to go heavier. Indeed, where the fish do not run so large, or where wind and tide are moderate, it is often possible to fish much lighter than this, say with line of 27lb b.s. But do not become a lighttackle fanatic, for, if you hook a potential record-breaker, you may regret it.
The most usual method of tope fishing from a boat is paternoster ledgering. A typical rig consists of a lead attached by a sliding Clement’s boom stopped by a rubberband stopper, a swivelled trace, and a hook attached by a crimped ferrule.
The amount of lead varies with the depth of water and strength of the tide. When fishing over a shallow in-shore mark around slackwater, a 2oz bomb may be adequate, but as the tide strengthens, you will have to change to a heavier lead. During periods of peak flow at some marks it is often necessary to use llb of lead, say a spiked anchor or the self-tripping breakaway type.
Always fish the bait well astern of the anchored boat—40-70 yards between vessel and bait is not too much. This long distance serves two important purposes. First, when a tope makes off with the bait, the line runs through the eyes of the Clement’s boom at a gently sloping angle, causing minimum resistance to the fish. Second, with the trace well out, the tope are less likely to become suspicious of the boat. Tope feed most freely in calm, sunny weather when the water is clear and quiet, and the shadows and sounds of an anchored boat are most noticeable to a feeding fish, par-ticularly in shallow water.
To present a bait some 50 yards behind the boat, first lower the baited hook and wire trace over the stern. Then, holding the sliding Cle-ment’s boom and lead in one hand, pull line off the reel and let it stream away on the tide. When about 20 yards (or more if the water is shallow and clear) have been paid out, clove-hitch the rubber band stopper to the line. Now lower the Clement’s boom and lead gently over the side letting them sink to the bottom. The lead should be as light as possible, so that it is carried out and the line meets the tide at a gentle angle.
While waiting for a run, the rod can be propped against the boat’s transom, provided the reel is out of gear. Failure to do this has resulted in many a valuable rod suddenly disappearing overboard when a powerful tope made off with the bait. Use the optional check to pre-vent line being stripped by the tide.
Ideally, inshore tope fishing should be done by yourself or with just one friend in a medium-sized boat. You will then be able to fish from the optimum position at the stern. However, many anglers are obliged to fish in larger craft with possibly four or five other rods. When this happens many traces are all streamed directly from the stern or sides, the result being congestion and tangling on the seabed.
To overcome this problem, it is usual for those anglers fishing from the stern positions to stream their baits at a greater distance than those fishing from the side, but although this helps to prevent tangles, it is only a partial remedy and leaves the amidships anglers at a disadvantage. A better proposition is for the amidships anglers to cast their tackle out a few yards to either side of the boat.
It is necessary to shorten the wire trace to cast, but the chance of losing a big tope because of this is more than offset by the increased chance of hooking tope from an otherwise unfavourable position. A 6£-7ft boat rod is not ideal for casting, but distance is not important—a gentle lob of 15 yards serves the purpose.
Caution when casting
One word of warning before you try casting from a boat. Some charter skippers object on safety grounds to boat casting. Others realize that it can increase catches, and have no objections provided common-sense precautions are taken.
More often than not, however, the dedicated specimen hunter owns his own boat—even if it is only an outboard-powered dinghy that he can trail behind his car. With your own dinghy, you can follow up hun-ches without being at the mercy of charter boat bookings and the con-flicting interests of other anglers.
When seeking a new and untried tope ground, look for areas that are rich in the species’ natural food. Mackerel, dabs, whiting, gurnard and codling all point to tope. Sandy areas with these fish are always worth prospecting. So too are rocky areas which harbour bream, wrasse, pouting and smallish pollack, which all feature on the tope’s menu.
Snaggy rocks make ledgering on the bottom impossible, and driftlining from an anchored boat is an alternative method that has produced numerous specimen tope, par-ticularly on the North Coasts of Devon and Cornwall. It is especially productive when the bait is streamed close to the flank of a pinnacle-shaped rock.
Drifting a tempting bait
For driftlining, use a terminal rig similar to that for ledgering, although the amount of lead should be reduced since the bait is fished off the bottom. Stop the Clement’s boom 5-10 yards up the reel line, so that the bait wavers seductively in the flow of tide.
Because tope take a driftlined bait on the run, it is unwise to present them with too big a mouthful. One offering which they find very attrac-tive is the head of a freshly caught mackerel—the head being partly severed with a knife, and then twisted off so as to leave the guts trailing. Insert the hook through the mouth, bringing the point out through the top of the head.
Float fishing on the drift
Float fishing from a drifting boat is another off-the-bottom method that is sometimes used for tope when widely scattered rocks or bait-robbing crabs rule out ledgering. It has the advantage that it enables the angler to cover a wide area of ground and, because the bait is not anchored and the angler is free to follow a running fish, it allows the use of much lighter tackle. Some bold enthusiasts use reel lines of 12lb b.s., but this is hardly to be recommended if specimen tope are expected. A more suitable choice is an 18-20lb main line, protected at its lower end by a 50lb nylon monofila-ment trace and a wide hook link.
The float should be just buoyant enough to support the hook link and a small spiral lead. An overlarge float will offer too much resistance, and may cause a taking tope to suspect the bait and drop it.
Although the NFSA qualifying weight for shore-caught specimen tope is only 35lb, this does not mean that only modest tope can be expected from a beach or rock position—plenty of very impressive tope, up to 50 lb, are captured by shore anglers every year. But only a small proportion are weighed on officially approved scales and registered as specimens.
The reason for this is simple. Many of the best shore positions are situated in remote places where access is extremely difficult. So, faced with the prospect of humping a 50lb fish up a slippery and precipitous cliff path, the average angler decides to forgo the glory, and after weighing his catch on a spring balance, quietly slips it back into the sea to fight another day.
Where the seabed is reasonably free of snags, the best shore method is ledgering. As a general rule, baits are smaller than those for boat work. For example, a favourite bait is a large sandeel, but an excellent alternative is a large strip or fillet cut from a freshly caught mackerel.
Use the tide
Float fishing, too, can be practised by shore anglers, and is particularly useful where the seabed is too snaggy to ledger. However, because of the difficulty of casting float tackle far enough to reach feeding tope, it is a good idea to select a shore position where the float will be carried out on an out-going tide. Very often, suitable currents are orcivicN nuJNjNVj -…-. found on the uptide side of headlands, where the moving mass of water is deflected by the jutting shoreline. Such places are also favourite hunting grounds for tope. Alternatively, an offshore wind is just as useful for taking out a bait. But if you are relying on the wind to move your float, it obviously helps if the float has plenty of surface area above the water to act as a sail. One sure way of achieving this is to use a balloon, attached to a swivel threaded on the reel line, as a sliding float. The only drawback with this is that the excessively buoyant balloon acts as an encumbrance to both fish and angler once a fish has been hooked.
However, if attached by a strand of weak wool, this breaks and releases the balloon when battle commences. It’s the old ‘rotten bottom’ trick.
Although most other forms of shark fishing depend very largely on the use of a good rubby-dubby trail, comparatively few tope anglers attract their quarry in this way. Nevertheless, results are vastly improved by laying down a good trail of minced-up mackerel flesh and guts or any other suitable fishy in-gredient. Groundbaiting is easier when fishing from a boat, but it is still possible to lay an attractive trail when shore fishing—especially if you are fishing from a headland with a strong out-going current.
Clew Bay, on the Atlantic coast of Ireland, is a beautiful, mountain-fringed inlet, 12 miles long by seven miles wide. Towards its inner end, there are hundreds of islands and peninsulas, divided by a maze of meandering channels. The whole bay is a superb breeding and hunting ground for many species of fish, but the most interesting spot for tope is undoubtedly the Bertraw Peninsula, on the bay’s southern shore.
This mile-long strip of marram-grassy sand stretches out directly beneath Croagh Patrick, an im of mackerel—and numerous tope in pursuit of them.
The most productive area for tope lies just out of the fiercest run of the tide, off the east side of the island and the peninsula tip. The fish can be reached by casting out from the stretch of eastward-facing beach (A). The bottom here is smooth, and a ledger rig can be fished without trouble from irritating snags.
The choice whether to ledger or driftline the bait a foot or two off the seabed depends mainly on the speed of the tide. During and near peak flow, it is often best to take the path of least resistance and allow the bait to rise off the bottom.
I usually fish a fillet or large strip rather than a whole mackerel. In the fast tides, the tope tend to grab the bait hurriedly in passing and so you need to be able to strike the hook home quickly, using a bait that the fish can mouth at one gulp.
The most rewarding period at this mark is from about two hours before high water until the ebb begins to gather strength. Slack water around low tide is also worth trying, but during peak flow, fishing is difficult and unproductive.
As well as shore fishing, boat fishing can be carried on in this area. But, because of the strong tide-rip, it is impossible to anchor directly in the sound, and the local practice is to anchor just around the corner of the island (at B), and to ledger or driftline the bait into the underwater trail followed by the hunting tope. Positioning is all important; 2 or 3 yards one way or the other when anchoring can make all the difference between success and failure.