Wreck fishing is the most spectacular branch of sea fishing and it provides anglers with the opportunity to consistently catch specimen fish. Reasonable catches are occasionally made from wrecks lying close to shore, but their accessibility can lead to over-fishing and the numbers of fish living in them is drastically reduced. The best action is now found on sunken hulks lying more than 30 miles out, a distance which can only be reached in good weather conditions by skippers operating large, fully equipped, licensed charter-boats.
Some wrecks lying within ten miles of the shore are pin-pointed by using shore markers, but this is a chancy business. One skipper who made a success of this type of operation was Colin ‘Fishy’ Williams of Mevagissey, the ‘man with the magic eyes’, who had the incredible ability to take shore marks and anchor right over hulks when the land was nothing but a mere haze.
The alternative is an electronic Decca Navigator, which receives a continuous stream of signals from shore stations. These are displayed as numbers on green, red and purple dials, which give an accurate cross-bearing of the boat’s position in relation to ‘lanes’ on a special Decca chart listing hundreds of wrecks plotted by hydrographic surveys. Each hulk has a set of coordinates and when these are known it is possible to position the boat right over it.
Secret wreck marks
All charter skippers keep a record of the numbers and jealously guard them. Every year new wrecks are discovered by accident and as each is likely to be sheltering hundreds of fish, it is understandable that skippers prefer to keep such information to themselves. Some skippers go to great lengths to preserve the secrets of such a mark, only visiting the place when no other vessel is in sight. They then keep a vigilant look-out during the time the boat is anchored over it, and should another charter boat be spotted they leave the area quickly.
Finding the wreck is one thing, an-choring accurately is something else. Many West Country skippers have brought this to a fine science and before letting the anchor go are able to take into account direction of tide, wind strength, and how the hulk is lying on the bottom.
Sometimes the anchor is dropped 600 yards uptide of the mark but, by the time the warp has taken up, the craft is close enough for baits to drop right back into the wreck where the fish are likely to congregate.
Dominant wreck species
While many different species are found on wrecks, the sport is dominated by conger, ling, pollack, coalfish and bream, all of which fall into three distinct categories. Conger and ling are taken on heavy-duty tackle and big baits ledgered on the bottom. The pollack and coalfish fall to medium-weight gear, artificial and natural baits, between the wreckage and the surface, although the bottom 10 fathoms is usually the productive zone. Black and red bream are caught by using more sen-sitive tackle on baits dropped right into the wreckage.
The techniques for catching each group will be discussed in turn.
Conger and ling reach enormous weights and over the past ten years records have gradually crept upwards. The record conger is now a giant 109 lb 6oz, to the credit of Bristol angler Robin Potter, who was fishing 22 miles south of Plymouth. Britain’s biggest rod-caught ling fell to Henry Solomons of Brixham, at a mark four miles south of Dodman Point, Cornwall, and weighed 57 lb 2oz. Stout tackle must be used to deal with such fish successfully. The right combination for this heavyweight section of wrecking is a 50 lb-test rod with a 60 multiplier and monofilament line. Braided lines are unsuitable for deep-water fishing as their drag demands the use of heavy leads.
There are many good British-made hollow glass rods available, but when it comes to reels only the American Penn Senator and British Tatler models stand up well to the terrific punishment that wrecking imposes on fishing tackle.
Terminal tackle for these rough and tough fish is a ledger rig of good quality wire 12 to 18in long, ending in a 100 hook, preferably of the offset forged-eye type. A stout 50 swivel connects this to the reel line, and also stops the sliding lead from running down to the hook. It is good practice to use a rotten-bottom to hold the lead. This also obviates the need for a costly running boom.
Old or fresh bait?
Both conger and ling are catholic feeders, and will accept almost any fish bait, although the majority are caught on mackerel or squid. It is a half-truth that conger only take fresh baits, as many 50-pounders are taken on mackerel three days old. But fresh bait increases one’s chance of success.
The take from an outsize conger can be quite gentle in spite of its bulk and strength. It often mouths the bait for some time before actually taking it, and only experience will tell you when to strike. But never be in a hurry, for many conger hooked in the lips break free. When the rod tip tells you of the eel’s presence the slack line should be wound in slowly until contact with the fish is made.
Get the conger into clear water
Once the hook has been struck home you must pump the conger into clear water above the wreckage. At this point, never give line – the risk of being broken up must be taken. Later, line can be given under pressure through the slipping clutch. Conger weighing more than 50 lb make continuous power-dives in an attempt to regain the wreck, while fish to 80 lb have been known to dive back from the surface through 40 fathoms, despite a tight clutch and thumbs on the spool.
Ideally, conger should be brought to the gaff in an exhausted condition. Failure to observe this important rule puts the catch at risk, and can be very dangerous for the chap wielding the gaff.
The big fish charter boat skippers have a fixed procedure for gaffing a specimen conger. Once the fish has been pumped to the surface the angler steps well back from the gunwale to give the gaffer plenty of room to swing. The multiplier is put out of gear and the spool is held in check by a thumb. This ensures that, should the fish make a last second dive for the bottom (which it commonly does), there is no danger of the line snapping. The freeline technique also ensures the man using the gaff will not be hampered as he brings 8ft of writhing eel aboard.
The angler must resist at all costs the temptation to see what is going on in the water. Many big fish have been lost at the gaff simply because of crowding at the gunwale and the excitement shared by all aboard. A conger in the 80-100 lb class needs two gaffers, and team work is vital. John Trust and Ernie Passmore of Brixham, in a 15 year career as co-skippers of Our Unity, brought thousands of specimens safely aboard from the many wrecks that litter Devon’s Start Bay, and the vast expanse of Lyme Bay off the coast of Dorset. These include three British Record conger. Both areas are havens for the wreck angler, and among the hulks that are regularly fished are a 30,000 ton liner and a battleship sunk in wartime.
Ling feed quite differently and wolf big baits without any regard to caution. As soon as a bite is felt, the hook can be driven home, and the fish dragged away from the bottom. Fish weighing 30 lb and more give a good account of themselves, but providing the hook has a firm hold, the issue should never be in doubt. After a few wreck trips the difference between conger and ling bites can be easily detected.
Pollack and coalfish
Wrecking for pollack and coalfish is tremendous fun. Both species are grand fighters and the line-stripping plunge of even a 15lb pollack is one of the most thrilling experiences in sea fishing. During the summer, most are caught on medium-weight tackle from anchored boats. The usual rig is a single 40 hook to a 20ft trace, worked from an 8in wire boom, or the recently introduced plastic variety. The boom effectively keeps the trace from tangling with the reel line during its long journey to the bottom. It is then steadily retrieved until the bait or artificial eel is taken. At this point the fish will make its characteristic plunge, and line must be given out again or it will certainly break.
The coalfish is a better fighter than pollack because it is less affected by changes in water pressure. On average it will make at least half a dozen tremendous runs before reaching the surface, and the fight is never won until the fish is safely in a net. Pollack, on the other hand, are “Red Gill’ ee much affected by pressure changes and when pumped up too quickly arrive lifeless at the surface.
Between November and March, females are heavy with roe, and so many fish congregate on deep-water wrecks that echo sounders and fish-finders (sophisticated enough to normally pick out a single specimen) record what appears to be a solid mass. Most of the winter wreck fishing is done on the drift, after dan buoys have been dropped to ac-curately mark the wreck’s position in relation to the tidal run.
Spring tide frenzied feeding
For several reasons, the best catches are made during spring tide periods, when the fast run of water stirs the fish into frenzied feeding activity. In this mood they strike fiercely at natural baits and various kinds of lures without hesitation. Big tides also ensure fast drifts across the wreckage, which makes it possible to get in as many as 30 productive drifts during a single tide.
Drift fishing is most successful when not more than six anglers work at a time. A charter boat moves sideways down the length or across the hulk, and the lines stream out naturally from one side only. Working from the wrong side, the lines go under the keel. Apart from the obvious danger of cutting off, it is extremely difficult to have direct contact and bring up the fish. Lines also tangle with those streaming away correctly, and much valuable fishing time is lost. It is a fact that too many leads plummeting down at the same time frighten fish, and the catch is often smaller when a wreck party of 10 fishermen are all active at once.
Most winter fishing is done with heavyweight nylon paternosters rigged with artificial eels on short snoods. For a two-hook rig the nylon must not be less than 60 lb b.s., and if three artificials are being used, which is typical rod-and-line ‘commercial’ practice, the strength is stepped up to 80 lb. Even this can be snapped like cotton if two fish run in opposite directions after taking the lures simultaneously as they commonly seem to do.
Crude but effective
While the method of fishing is perhaps a trifle crude, it takes considerable skill to get the best out of it. The lures, weighted with at least a pound of lead, are allowed to plummet at high speed to the bottom. Quite often they are grabbed by fish swimming as much as eight fathoms above the wreckage. When this happens, the multiplier is thrown into gear, and the full weight of possibly three specimen-sized fish comes on to the rod. The sudden, violent jerk is usually enough to drive the hooks home, but it is as well to strike a few times yourself to make absolutely sure. At this stage, the slipping clutch is set to give line under pressure as the fish will immediately start to plunge downwards.
Successful winter wrecking on the drift depends greatly on the skill of the skipper. He must set each drift up to take advantage of the wreck’s position and know exactly where the h’gh parts are. As he watches the sounder, a constant stream of instructions is shouted back from the wheelhouse, and the anglers must be ready to respond instantly to such orders as ‘Up 50ft!’ ‘OK We’re over, drop back 50!’
Strong arm tactics
Failure to heed the warnings will almost certainly result in the loss of tackle worth some £30.00. Repeated a few times during the day, winter wrecking becomes a very expensive business. Large pirks, or jiggers as they are also termed, fitted with large forged-eye treble hooks are used effectively for wreck fishing throughout the year, but a great deal of stamina is required to work a 26oz lure correctly for long periods. Charter boat skippers, seldom short on physique, have developed this type of fishing to a fine art. Their method is to stand high on the bows, well out of the anglers’ way, and cast the lure as far as possible, letting it run unchecked to the bottom. If it fails to attract a fish on its way down it is retrieved at an ultra-fast pace with a high-geared multiplier until it finds a taker. The largest pollack are taken on pirks, the author’s best specimen weighing 23 lb 12oz, which is not far short of the national record. Unfortunately, such a fish hooked on a weighty pirk is quite incapable of achieving its fighting potential.
Tough on man and tackle
To cope with winter wreck fishing, tackle must be heavy, and it is customary for 50lb class hollow glass rods and 60 multipliers to be used. It’s tough on equipment, too, as many would-be record breakers have found to their cost, when a rod has cracked under the strain, or a multiplier has jammed. Anglers also suffer: after the first dozen drifts and perhaps 20 big fish, stomach, arm and back muscles start protesting. More than a few men have been exhausted to the point of giving up fishing, although down below fish were almost queueing up to get on to a hook.
Normally, summer’s black bream tend to stay around wrecks until well into December. The fed bream record stands at an incredible 9 lb 8oz, a fish hooked by Brian Reynolds of Plymouth, off the Dod-man Point, Cornwall, in 1974. By comparison the heaviest black bream is some way behind at 6 lb 14oz, and was caught by John Garlick of Torquay in Lyme Bay off the Dorset coast, in September 1977. Both species are voracious feeders and many outsize fish have been hooked on large conger baits.
To get the best of bream fishing a most useful rig even for deep-water sport is a two-handed spinning rod matched with a light multiplier, for example the ABU 6000C or the slightly heavier Penn Long Beach 65, or Garcia Mitchell 624 models. End tackle can be a two-hook paternoster with 6in snoods made up from 15 to 20 lb b.s. Monofilament and 10 Aberdeen hooks.
For bait, squid is the best; it cuts well into thin strips and is very durable on the hook. Quite often several bream can be caught on the same bait, but as soon as the edges show signs of wear it should be changed. Other good baits for bream are mackerel strip and worms. All bites must be struck very quickly as sea bream have an uncanny knack of stripping hooks clean without giving an indication, and can quickly eject those they consider suspicious.