More than 30 fully licensed charter boats operate out of Plymouth. Most are based at the Sea Angling Centre marina in Sutton Harbour, which has a convenient all-day car park alongside and is within easy walking distance of Plymouth station and many of the town’s numerous guesthouses. Plymouth is the number one wrecking port in Britain, with the famous Eddystone Reef and a great many wrecks within fishing distance. A strong and reliable multiplier reel with a capacity of at least 300m (330yd) of line is essential for wrecking, says Mike. It should have an anodised metal spool; a plastic spool is likely to burst under pressure.
Most important of all when wrecking for coalfish is to have a reliable drag that you can fine-tune to suit the antics of the fish. Mike favours a lever drag, which allows him to respond the instant a coalfish makes a sudden dive or upward lunge.
Mike and Angus Fitchet share a joke about the unique quality of Angus’ bacon and eggs. There is no truth in the rumour that Angus likes to help any landlubbers on board the ‘Teign Star’ find their sea legs by offering them runny fried-egg sandwiches for breakfast.
A small netter was already there when we first arrived at the ‘Afric’, but her skipper very generously and surprisingly agreed to let us have first bite at the wreck. We weren’t so lucky later in the day with a large beam trawler (below), which appeared out of nowhere and circled the wreck repeatedly, trawling as close as it dared to get at the fish without tangling its nets.
After a few heart-stopping moments, the big coalfish succumbs and is netted for Mike by Dave Brown, as Paul looks on from the stern. Right at the end of the last drift of the day, a big coalfish takes Mike’s king rag and sets off on the first of several power-dives.
Mike has caught many big coalfish, but this 23lb (10.45kg) beauty gave him particular pleasure on light tackle on a difficult day. Even travelling at a fair rate of knots it’s a long haul out to the ‘Afric’, giving Mike ample time to set up. Here he finishes a Flying Collar rig with a red artificial eel. Doug at the controls. It might look more like the cockpit of a jet than the cabin of a boat, but he needs all this equipment for safe navigation and for pin-pointing wrecks. Mike takes the strain as a coalfish grabs his red artificial eel and dives for the sanctuary of the wreck. Unlike pollack, coalfish aren’t affected by change in water pressure and fight all the way to the boat. Mike eventually gets the upper hand and the 15lb (6.8kg) fish lies beaten on the surface In a slack tide, king rag hooked through the head end wriggle attractively and often tempt a coalfish or pollack that has refused to look at an artificial eel.
Early one July morning Sutton Harbour in Plymouth comes to life as anglers gather at the Sea Angling Centre marina. Already you can feel the warmth of the sun rising in a clear sky above a calm sea. Yesterday Mike fished in the estuary and caught doggies, bull huss, pollack and a surprise three-bearded rockling. Today he’s hoping for more of the same and perhaps a conger or tope to boot.
Mike has chartered the Teign Star, owned and skippered by Doug Northmore. With us on board are Doug’s son Paul, also a licensed skipper; Dave Brown, British record holder for a boat-caught coalfish (a 37lb 5oz/16.9kg fish taken off Plymouth in 1986); and sometime crewman and experienced angler Angus Fitchet.
We’re headed for the wreck of the Afric, a British merchant vessel sunk in World War I in about 40 fathoms (70m) of water some 30 miles SSW of Plymouth.
You have to go out so far and so deep these days if you want big pollack arid coalfish, says Mike, because inshore wrecks in water shallower than, about 30 fathoms (55m) are well known to netters and have been overfished in recent years.
Wrecks in deeper water farther offshore are unlikely to be marked on Decca charts.
Their exact locations, when discovered, are closely guarded secrets.
Once clear of the harbour, Doug radios Brixham Coastguard to tell them the name of the boat, how many are on board, where we are going and what time we will be back. He will call again at the end of the day to let them know we have returned. sporting tackle with one hook for one fighting fish at a time, and heavy tackle with several hooks and hauling up as many fish as you can each time.
Most wreck anglers take the heavy approach – ‘bag-fillers’, Mike calls them, because many are only really interested in filling the freezer. That said, he concedes there are some days when the heavy approach works best – but he only uses it himself as a last resort. Sporting tackle Mike teams up a 20lb (9.1kg) class rod and a Flying Collar rig. Last resort Mike rigs a 30lb (13.6kg) class
There are two basic approaches to wrecking for pollack and coalfish, explains Mike: light, rod with Killer Gear.
There’s still plenty of time to kill after tackling up, and bacon, eggs and tea courtesy of chef Angus go down well with all as the coast recedes into the haze.
We arrive at last…to find a local netter has beaten us to it and is about to start fishing! Doug radios her skipper who, to our amazement, agrees to leave until after we’ve gone. ‘He’s a gentleman,’ says Doug who, having once been a netter himself, believes in cooperation, not confrontation.
The wreck lies roughly north to south. Doug uses a Decca navigator – accurate to within a few feet – to locate her and after only a few minutes chugging around we find ourselves directly overhead.
The tide run is approximately north to south. Doug manoeuvres us into position just off the northern end of the wreck so we will drift down her eastern side, then cuts the engines. The only sound is the slapping of the swell against the boat. All around is nothing but empty sea, but 40 fathoms down the Afric lies waiting.
Mike starts with a Flying Collar comprising a 6oz (170g) weight, a 5.5m (18ft) trace and a red artificial sandeel. He lets it drop to the bottom, then winds up slowly – so the eel nutters enticingly in the tide – counting the turns until he gets to about 30 when, nothing having happened, he lets the rig down again and repeats the process.
Paul, Dave and Angus, by contrast, are using Killer Gear comprising artificial eels and pirks. Paul lets his rig plunge to the bottom, then works it with jerks of the rod. He’s in straight away and starts pumping and winding for all he’s worth. Within minutes three luminous blobs appear deep down in the clear water. Moments later a small coalfish and two 13-14lb (5.9-6.3kg) cod are hauled aboard – eyes bulging, mouths agape. To shield them from the sun, Paul puts them in the fish-room — a hatch-covered well in the deck – along with a small coalfish taken by Dave. ‘I’m in!’ yells Mike, his reel screeching as a good coalfish dives for the bottom. It struck half-heartedly three times after 33 turns of the reel, and he had to wind like fury to get it to take. The fish makes several strong dives but eventually is beaten. Mike puts it at 15lb (6.8kg). ‘For fighting ability there’s no comparison between coalfish and pollack,’ beams Mike, leaning back in the breeze as we speed back to the head of the wreck. Unlike pollack, he explains, coalfish aren’t affected by change in water pressure, so fight all the way to the boat.
The tide dies and no-one catches on the next two drifts, though plenty of fish are showing on the screen of the fish-finder. ‘We should’ve got here an hour earlier,’ regrets Doug. Mike shortens his trace to 1.8m (6ft), and tries two king rag on the hook. In a slack tide, he explains, a short trace is less likely to tangle and slowly retrieved king rag often catches best.
After six drifts the only additions to the fish-room are an 11lb (5kg) coalfish from Dave, a small pollack from Paul and a whiting from Mike. ‘Without a tide run we’ll get nowhere,’ says Mike. ‘But at least it’s a fine day!’ he adds, grinning.
Over a brew-up we decide to move to another wreck five miles farther out. On the way, Mike changes back to the 5.5m (18ft) trace and artificial eel, in the hope the tide will have turned by the time we get there.
The second wreck lies in slightly deeper water and is smaller than the Afric, but Doug doesn’t know her name. A fair swell is up when we arrive, but as there’s still little tide run Mike tries to tempt an impulse strike by fast-winding his eel. Paul decides to try mackerel for conger.
Mike gets a strike on the first drift but the fish doesn’t take, while Paul hooks a conger and loses it in the wreck. Mike shortens his trace to 3.6m (12ft) and reverts to king rag, but after five slow drifts the only fish caught is by Angus – a small ling.
Very few fish are showing on the screen, suggesting the wreck was netted earlier in the day – a common problem in slack tides.
We return to the Afric, and on the first drift Paul hooks a big coalfish and a pollack on Killer Gear. The coalfish breaks free, leaving only the pollack, which weighs about 8lb (3.6kg). Although there’s still no real tide run, Mike perseveres with the king rag.
A speck appears on the horizon and rapidly grows into the ominous shape of a beam trawler bearing straight down on us. In no time at all it is circling the Afric, trawling as close as it dares. ‘Let’s hope it tangles its nets,’ comments Paul.
On the second go we drift listlessly with the breeze, so slack is the tide. Doug says the trawler is scaring the fish tight into the wreck, and the only fish caught is a 12lb (5.4kg) coalfish that falls to Dave.
There’s time for one last drift. It passes uneventfully, but just as Doug calls out ‘wind up’, Mike hits into a big, hard-running coalfish, which makes several fierce power-dives before coming aboard.
At 23lb (10.45kg) it was a fine specimen, but no more than Mike deserved for keeping faith with the Flying Collar on a day when a weak tide run meant the less sporting Killer Gear was the banker method.