Mick Toomer is off to spend the day at sea after tope, and Janet, his wife, is overjoyed. Not because she prefers having the house to herself (let’s have no misunderstandings). It’s just that when she woke up this morning, the bath was full of eels – and she wants them out of the house.
Last night Mick was fishing the Thames Estuary for eels till late and he filled his bath. An odd thing to do, you might think. ‘Well,’ he explains, ‘they’re the best tope bait there is around Essex. And my bait tank isn’t working at the moment.’
The Donna Mary is bathed in hazy June sunshine as she pulls out from the quay. The breeze is northerly and the barometer is fairly steady – not bad for hunting tope.
The tide is flowing quite strongly but Mick is keen to start with breakaway rather than fixed-grip leads because the fish are finicky this year. There are so many small pout and flatties around the tope don’t have to compete for their food. So they don’t scream off with the bait as tradition says they should.
Instead they’ve been dropping baits, especially when they’re too firmly anchored to the sea bed. Even worse, most of the few fish hooked have only been lightly nicked, with more lost than boated. It looks like even Mick’s going to need some luck today.
Unfortunately, despite being near the last of the ebb, the tide is too strong for breakaways to hold big baits such as eel sections static. Mick reluctantly reverts to long-tailed fixed-grip leads.
Mick casts the juicy lengths of eel all round the boat to get a widespread scent trail. He even casts a couple of baits down-tide, though he fishes them in the same way as the uptide baits. He also puts out a crab bait for smooth hound and thornback.
John Rawle, the skipper, explains that this spot fishes well just before low water. It’s deeper than the surrounding areas and attracts flatfish – which the tope come to feed on. Half an hour later, a dab manages to wedge a crab-baited 4/0 into its greedy mouth. These fish attract the tope, but they don’t seem to be doing their job today.
John has certainly attracted the other skippers, though. When we arrived there wasn’t another boat in sight, but now we’re surrounded. John waits until the last angler on the last boat has cast out, then it’s up with the anchor and we’re off. ‘That spot doesn’t usually fish once the tide slackens. I know another spot farther offshore where we should catch. But I thought I’d wait till the other boats had anchored up so they wouldn’t follow.’
About three quarters of an hour later John drops anchor over a long flat sandbank. Off the edge there’s 28m (92ft) of water but this rapidly shelves up to a 1.8m (6ft) lip with a slight depression giving 3m (10ft) in the middle of the bank.
At the bottom of the flood, fish feed on the food which tends to gather in the dip. Mick throws in some chopped herring as ground-bait to give them even more reason to stay.
The flood is just beginning as Mick casts and it’s not long before another dab guzzles the crab. He returns the flatty and this time when he rebaits, he doesn’t remove the crab’s legs after killing it. It discourages the dabs, but encourages the thornbacks and smooth hounds by making the bait seem more natural.
Five minutes after the dab there’s a much more positive bite, followed by a continual rattling at the tip. However, no run develops so eventually Mick loses patience and winds into the fish.
Shortly the rattler appears at the side of the boat – a 5lb (2.3kg) topelet. Right species – wrong size. Mick puts it back to grow up. All right Toomer – get us a big one. ‘A few years ago,’ he says, ‘it would have been a question of ‘how many tope do you want, how big do you want ‘em and what do you want their names to be?’ Nowadays it’s not that easy. Every year there are fewer and fewer fish.’
Ten minutes pass. Then there’s a typical thornback thump on the crab. Mick gives it plenty of time. Unless it dislodges the lead and drops back downtide, a ray usually needs a good few minutes to take the bait properly. Finally Mick is satisfied that the bait is in the fish’s mouth and he winds down and hits it.
Thornback (or roker) don’t pull that hard so it’s not a nail-biting tussle. Still, a 6lb (2.7kg) ray is a decent enough fish.
A rod tip pulls down sharply and Mick grabs the rod. He waits for another sign but nothing else happens. It’s frustrating, but Mick isn’t worried yet. ‘If you get a dropped take – look at the other rods. Very often a finicky tope will do the rounds, picking up most of the baits cast out from a boat, making it seem like the sea is full of tope, instead of just one fussy fish.’
All very well in theory, but what about practice? Almost straight away Mick’s faith is vindicated with a bite on another rod. But again the fish decides not to take it properly. ‘Maybe they just want a fresh bait. You’ve got to change them every half hour or so anyway, and I want to see what’s happened to these.’ He retrieves to find that both baits have teeth marks in them. Hoping the fish is still in the area, Mick recasts fresh, delicious-looking eel sections.
Within a minute there’s a wrench at one of the rods. The line goes slack as the fish pulls the weight out of the sea bed and it drifts downtide towards the boat. Mick winds down as fast as he can to catch up with the fish, and sets the hook, sending it off on a long run downtide.
After the first run the fish seems confused and comes to the boat in a series of long slow circles. The tope surfaces about 10m (33ft) behind the boat. ‘That’s a good male,’ says Mick. ‘It’s over forty.’ But just as John is getting ready with the tailer, the fish makes up its mind to fight.
This is the danger time – when there’s less line (and so less stretch) to absorb the shocks. Mick has a real battle keeping the tope away from the anchor rope. Then it starts shaking its head. ‘Bad sign, that,’ observes the Toomer. ‘It might throw the hook.’ Seconds later the fish does just that and Mick is not best pleased, despite his being right.
But there’s not long to wait and curse. Another rod pulls over and the line slackens. Again Mick winds furiously into a fish and the clutch purrs as the tope feels the hook. For ten minutes Mick can do nothing as it runs across the tide. Finally the fish tires, allowing Mick to gain some line. With each new run the spool fills up a little more.
On uptide gear you can’t hurry a tope -it’s a war of attrition. But as soon as Mick gets a couple of turns of his 50lb (22.7kg) leader on the reel, he shows no mercy. In no time the tope lies exhausted near the stern and John readies the tailer.
Just as the loop slips over the top lobe of the tail, the line slackens and the hook falls out. Mick drops the rod and grabs the tailer and between the two of them, the fish comes over the gunwale.
On board only long enough to be weighed, the 38-pounder (17.2kg) slips gratefully back into the cool waters of the North Sea.
But there’s no let-up; instead there’s another run on the first rod. ‘It’s a decent fish,’ Mick shouts before the line goes slack and he winds in to find the leader line bitten through 90cm (3ft) above the wire. Mick berates the gods of fishing.
John looks at his watch. ‘As the flood gets going, the fish move down until they’re feeding right on the lip of this bank. It’s time to move and get ahead of those tope again.’
Fifteen minutes later we’re anchored up over the edge of the bank, waiting for the tope to catch up with us. Twenty minutes after that they oblige. Up comes a four-pound (1.8kg) pup – I thought you said they’d be big fish, Mick.
With a fresh bait out, it isn’t long before there’s a nod at the rod tip. Mick grabs the rod and waits. At the second knock he drops the tip to give the fish a little line. This lets the fish turn with the bait so that setting the hook pulls it back into the fish’s mouth.
On cue the tope moves off, and Mick leans into it. ‘If the fish are taking confidently, I wait for a run, but when they aren’t I’ve got to encourage them to take.’
It’s very lively. Up it comes to the surface not far from the boat but that doesn’t stop it. It leaps clear of the water before crashing back to start another long run. It takes over a quarter of an hour to calm down, before Mick can begin to work it towards the boat.
With the tope at the side of the boat, Mick looks surprised. ‘When I saw it jump I could have sworn it was a female, but it’s not.’ It’s a big male – 46lb (20.9kg) to be precise.
And that’s almost it for the day. Whole crab yields another couple of roker of around the 5lb (2.3kg) mark, both returned to preserve stocks, and just before we go there’s another run on eel section. A fairy tale ending perhaps? Only if a ten-pounder (4.5kg) is your idea of a fairy tale.
On the way back, John checks with the other boats fishing the first mark. Between the lot of them there was exactly one tope. True it was a big female at 64lb (29kg), but with five fish and a few thornback, I think we had the best of it.