Fishing off the Needles

You can catch some huge fish from a boat. The problem is that you are completely at the mercy of the elements. It doesn’t matter that you’ve travelled 550 miles and spent money on a hotel to be fit for an early start. If it’s too lumpy – it’s off.

It’s 8:00am on a borderline day in late July. The wind is force three and rising. Still, you’ve got to try. Ron Cowling’s boat, Our Mary out of Keyhaven, is a Mitchell Sea Angler. It’s quick and stable – if anyone can put us on the fish, Ron can.

The plan is for Russ McEvoy, Bert Waller and Darren Smith – three highly experienced Hampshire boat anglers – to bag up on tope in the Deeps off St. Catherine’s Point, Isle of Wight, and then shoot west to the sand banks for a few rays. But we’ll see what the weather has to say about that.

Tackling up with wire line gear. You need a 50-80lb (22.7-36.3kg) rod with a tip roller (or roller rings throughout) and a lever drag multiplier to match.

You can increase the scent trail around your hooks by cutting mackerel into chunks and throwing them overboard. But don’t do it with a very fast current or with none.

With a fast current the chunks can’t sink fast enough to get near the baits. With no flow to create a scent trail, ‘chunking’ doesn’t add to the pulling power of your bait – it just feeds any fish which stumble across the mackerel.

fishing for tope off the needles Darren plays a tope (above) while the wind and tide do.battle. Once in the boat it isn’t easy to tell who has the most fearsome grin, the angler or the small shark. Fishing off the Needles Fishery facts

Although wire line is the norm for fishing in the big tides around the Isle of Wight, you can use mono or uptiding gear in some sandy areas.

There are big fish of most species in the rocks, wrecks and sandbanks round the IOW. You can book Our Mary by phoning Ron on 0590 644846 after 6:00pm.

map and directions to the Needles How to get there

By car From Bournemouth take the A35 through Christchurch to New Milton. From there take the B3058 to Milford on Sea and then follow signs to Keyhaven Marina where Our Mary is moored. There is cheap parking.

By train Lymington and New Milton are the nearest BR stations to Keyhaven.

clip_image008 The second day was flat calm, allowing Bert and Russ to catch some fresh mackerel in the tide rips around the Bridge at the Needles. Make sure you replace your mackerel fillet or flapper with a fresh one every 20 minutes or so. That way the scent trail -which is what attracts the fish to your hook-remains potent and delicious. mackerel flapper mackerel flapper A juicy mackerel flapper (above) takes two 6/0 O’Shaughnessy hooks in a Pennell rig to hold it secure, while a fillet just needs a single 4/0 or 6/0 hook.

fishing for rays off the Needles Russ lays a level line with his thumb as he brings a small-eyed ray to heel. It played with this mackerel fillet with attractor beads (below) for quite a while. fishing for rays off the Needles Where the tide wells over a sandbank or reef and then swirls down like an eddy, it drops food on the downtide side, attracting fish. Ron anchors uptide so the baits work the downtide slope.

With a flat bank the food is dropped on top – so that’s where to put your bait.

Bert hangs on grimly, knowing there is little he can do to stop this 24lb (10.9kg) blonde ray from kiting in the tide. For a while it’s touch and go but once Ron sets the boat adrift, Bert has the beating of the fish.

clip_image018 fishing for rays off the Needles

blonde ray caught off the Needles Ron tries to hide behind a passing blonde ray as the police prepare to board. But his papers are in order so the police can’t lock him up, though we beg them to. Approaching the Needles On the way back there’s time to troll Rapala lures in the hope of picking up a big bass. But despite seeing a monster roll on the surface there were no takes.

Approaching the Needles, the weather looks bleak — it’s going to get pretty nasty out there. The Bridge – an area of shallow water you’ve got to cross to get past the Needles – is especially unwelcoming. For about 50m (55yd) the waves double in size and Our Mary has to work that bit harder. It’s enough to make you sick. ‘Looks like we’ll have to come back the long way if it gets any worse,’ Ron says. The long way means going right round the Isle of Wight to avoid taking the Bridge against the tide. It is a long way – about 75 miles. But he’s only joking.

Less than an hour later, Ron is battling the waves to position Russ, Bert and Darren in the right place over a rock pinnacle. The sea floor goes up and down wildly here and it’s littered with wrecks. It makes for some exciting rough ground fishing.

The baits are in the water, the tide is on the flood and with any luck the fish are moving up the scent trail. There’s only about an hour to slack water, but you need at least lKalb (0.7kg) of lead to hold bottom even with wire line.

The rod tips rattle and the baits come up mauled. ‘Probably huss,’ says Bert. ‘Though it’s hard to tell with the boat moving so much.’ He concentrates on his line, waiting for a definite pull he can hit.

Third drop and Russ gets a rattling take. He waits a minute and slowly winds in a few feet. He can’t feel the weight of the fish, so it can’t have the bait in its mouth.

He gives some line and the rattling starts again. He gives a little more line, and this time when he retrieves, the rod bends quite remarkably for a 50lb (22.7kg) broom pole. Now the hard bit – getting a decent fish up against the tide.

Russ manages to get about 20m (22yd) of line back when the fish wakes up. It swims powerfully down tide, dragging line from the squealing reel. Russ is sweating, despite the wind. ‘It’s hard work this,’ he grunts, regaining a few feet of line.

A good ten minutes later that few feet of line has been lost and won about five times – but Russ is definitely on top. It’s just plain hard work now, as the fish struggles on its way up, but can no longer take line.

Up comes a tope. Ron grabs the trace, folds the fish into his landing net, and there it is. At 38lb (17.2kg) it’s about average for the Isle of Wight – they run up to 50lb (22.7kg). Russ takes a rest, and Darren winds up to rebait.

Talking of wind-ups, the only time that Darren isn’t taking the mickey out of someone is when he’s got his gob full of Ron’s scalding hot tea. Let’s hope he catches a strength-sapping monster soon.

The tide is almost at a standstill — it’ll be slack water in a few minutes. Darren is the only one with a bait in the water. Takes are quite rare over the slack water period so it’s time for a sandwich.

As the tide begins to ebb, Ron throws a few chunks of mackerel over the side to add to the scent trail. It seems to work – a minute later Darren goes silent in mid-put-down. We look up – has he fallen overboard? In fact he’s hit a bite and his rod tip is going wild. ‘Another tope, I reckon,’ he says, as the fish takes line. Since there’s not much tidal flow, Darren gets the 30lb (13.6kg) fish to the boat quite quickly.

Now that the tide has started to ebb, it’s working against the wind. This makes for a fairly nasty sea and Ron’s keeping a wary eye on it. It also makes the fishing more difficult. The more the boat pitches and rolls, the more the baits bounce around off the bottom, and the less likely we are to get any more fish.

The tide’s quickening all the while and every time the lads bring up their baits they have to put on more lead. They’ve also got to keep feeding out line to keep the baits trotting along the bottom, instead of rising in the water.

The more line and the heavier the lead, the less you want to rebait. Bringing up 3lb (1.4kg) of lead from 100m (330ft) downtide is more like pumping iron than a fishing technique.

Ron’s wary eye decides it’s time to get back. In any case, Bert and Russ wound up ten minutes ago to rebait, and by the time they’d got their tackle back, their enthusiasm for another drop had waned.

So when Darren hits a bite he’s distinctly unhappy. If it takes over five minutes and a lot of sweat to get the lead back against the flow, imagine how much more fun it is with an angry fish on.

Not being one to give up, Darren gives it some welly. With 80lb (36.3kg) line and a telegraph pole, you can really give fish some stick, and he appears to be making headway against something big.

Unfortunately, Darren can give more stick than the line can take – fish and angler part company. It’s hard to tell (in the absence of the fish) which one is more relieved. So, back to base now.

Riding a boat against the waves is something else. First there’s the lift-off from each wave, followed by a shudder and a jerk as the hull slams into the next one.

Suddenly it goes quiet. Ron’s words from the start of the day come back to haunt us. Riding over the Bridge in this sea would be hell – so we’re going back the long way.

The Isle of Wight may well be a beautiful place, but after watching it creep past the port bow for three and a half hours you can learn to hate it. ‘You should have tried this in my old boat,’ says Ron. ‘It took three times as long.’

Well, it wasn’t really fair to judge the fishing off the Isle of Wight on that showing, so we’re out again. This time we’re going to concentrate on the rays.

The day couldn’t be more different from the last. A week later and the weather is perfect. Darren can’t make this trip, so there’s less wit as well as less weather.

We start pretty much like last time, with two tope on mackerel fillet — one each to Bert and Russ. Then, as the tide starts to slacken, Russ gets a typical tope rattle. He waits and then winds into it.

The struggle mostly takes place near the sea bed, then a small-eyed ray comes spin- any more tea for the rest of the day! We almost decide to go back in, but not before Bert’s finished dealing with whatever is interested in his bait.

The rod tip starts to pull over gently. Still Bert (who’s ignored the tea scandal completely) waits. Finally he’s ready and he leans into the fish. It’s quickly up off the sea bed and using the tide.

For Bert, this makes it a ray. If it’s a blonde it’ll kite in the tide, making it very hard to land. However, it hasn’t got that much fight in it, so when it appears at the back of the boat, Bert isn’t surprised to be ning in the tide to the back of the boat. Some tope! At 854lb (3.9kg) it’s a decent fish, but like the tope it goes back in an attempt to preserve stocks.

As the tide picks up Ron calls for lines to come in – we’re on the move. With the change of tidal direction, we have to move to take advantage of the new currents and Ron reckons we might pick up a big ray from a new area – Pitt’s Patch. ‘You always seem to get blonde rays just when you can hardly hold bottom, so we’re coming up to the best time,’ Ron says. Bert quietly ties on a wishbone rig – a favourite of his for rays. Bang on cue he gets a great snatching grab of a bite. Hoping it’s a big ray, he gives it line.

Then… disaster! Ron comes out of the cabin and announces that he’s run out of gas. We’re not going to be able to brew up face to snout with another small-eyed ray around the 8lb (3.6kg) mark.

Barely 20 minutes later the tide is going great guns and heavy leads are the order of the day. Bert is complaining about the lack of refreshment when he gets another big hit. Straightaway the fish takes off down-tide, and this time Bert can do nothing with it. It keeps taking line at a steady, though not spectacular rate.

This tactic, and the timing of the strike, lead us to hope it’s a big blonde ray. Five minutes later and Bert doesn’t have that much line left on his reel. All a big ray has to do is get broadside on to the tide and it’s almost unstoppable.

Ron decides to put an end to this unequal contest (though not before he’s absolutely sure that Bert is exhausted and won’t give him any more gyp about the tea), and takes up the anchor. This means that we are now moving with the tide as fast as the ray, and Bert is only fighting the fish.

Gradually Bert’s reel begins to fill up. He’s all but had it, but the end is in sight. The trace appears and Ron grabs it. Then Bert can relax—he slumps back on the gunwale while the ray is boated.

Just as we’re weighing the fish, a police boat comes alongside. They want to check that Ron has a certificate to fish outside the three-mile limit. Like all decent charter skippers, he has one, but it’s a hassle looking it out.

Still, it could have been worse. If Darren had been with us we’d probably have been arrested on the strength of his haircut. As it was they even boiled us a kettle for a celebratory cuppa.

By the time they’d gone the tide was very fast and the blondes had moved on. But the one we had weighed 24lb (10.9kg) – a good fish in anyone’s book. And quite nice in Bert’s frying pan too, by all accounts.