You see, tope are the UK boat anglers favourite summer fish alongside the bass. In the more noted tope fishing areas visiting anglers generate welcome income via the hiring of charter boats, guest house accommodation, bait, tackle and travel expenses, and inevitably in the pub for a post-mortem of the days sport. Take the tope season out of these venues and the areas annual income drops a fair proportion.
With some species less easy to locate these days, and seemingly tope numbers maintaining high levels, probably helped by recent mild winters, then the tope looks set to enjoy a period of even higher profile and popularity in the UK boat anglers calendar.
WHERE TO FIND TOPE Tope are actually far more widely spread than the angling press suggests. For instance, the Wash area gets next to no publicity but can be alive with tope at times, and tope have been taken up as far as Bridlington on the Yorkshire coast.
The Thames Estuary was once the headline maker, but recent years has seen a slight drop-off of numbers present in these waters, but good consistent fishing still remains here.
The Solent area and the Isle of Wight grounds right down to Weymouth see a fair run of tope. They show off Ilfracombe in North Devon, and are found on both the English and Welsh sides of the Bristol Channel, though the Welsh ports have the best of the sport, especially Swansea.
The new mecca, some would argue it always was, is Cardigan Bay in Mid Wales. Ports at Aberystwyth, Aberdovey, Barmouth and Pwllheli can produce spells when 20 tope per day are common and catches can easily exceed 40 fish in a single day between a party of 8 anglers during the peak run. There are big fish here too. Recent fish estimated at 80lbs plus using a recognised weight assessment formula have been verified and returned.
There is fair tope fishing off the North Wales coast within reach of the Caernarfon boats and those working out of Conway, Rhyl and Rhos-on-Sea. Liverpool boats take tope, and so too do the dinghies and charter boats working the Morecambe Bay banks, though these areas seem to lack the bigger female fish.
Scotland has good tope in its south-west corner off the Mull of Galloway and Burrow Head, and again off Oban. Tope feature right along the north-west coast of Scotland with the many sea lochs providing the ideal habitat for them. I was recently talking to a commercial skipper working up in the Shetlands and he regularly lands tope from June onwards. This hints at a previously undiscovered tope fishery.
Irish waters also offer excellent fishing.Look to the Shannon Estuary, Blacksod Bay and Lough Swilly. There used to be a good run of tope, big tope, in to Strangford and Carlingford Loughs and the fish are still there but little fished for. Maybe the jewel in the Irish crown though, is now the waters off Wicklow. Local skipper, Charlie Robinson, has been taking consistent catches of tope over the past few seasons, amongst them big females to 60lbs and this area looks to be setting standards others will struggle to equal.
In a nutshell, wherever you are based in the UK you have a chance of tope within a few hours travel time.
SEASONS The English Channel and Cardigan Bay see their first fish in early April. Numbers build quickly through late May and peak in June. July and August sees the packs scatter, but you get a second run from September in to late October, even early November in a mild autumn.
The Thames Estuary has a shorter season with fish appearing in April and peaking in June. They'll be further north in to the Wash area by late May and stay through in to July. The season in North Wales and Morecambe Bay is similar starting in early June and they remain through the summer in varying numbers.
Scottish waters see incoming tope from June, with peak numbers later in August, though September can be very good. Those Shetland fish I spoke of show late in the year too, during August through to November.
The bigger females appear inside the English Channel and around Cardigan Bay from mid May to mid July, and in the Thames Estuary between late April and early June. Occasional big fish can be contacted in autumn as they drop back to deeper water in all areas, but this autumn fishing is much more inconsistent than the earlier part of the year.
TIDES & WEATHER Tope can show on all tides, but given the choice, go for the rising tides just before the highest spring tide of the cycle. Also the tides after the full moon fish a little more consistently than those following the new moon period.
Individual marks can differ, but as a general rule, expect tope to come through the fishing area during the mid tide period when the tide is flowing strongly with proportionality fewer fish either side of this. Only the slack water period goes really dead though, and tope can show at anytime.
They feed best in clear seas and tend to go deeper during and after storms when sediment levels are high.
In water over 15-metres, they'll feed immaterial of whether it's sunny or overcast. Depths of less than 10-metres, then the tope packs look for cloudy days, even rainy or drizzly days tend to give the better fishing, but it depends on water clarity.
HABITAT Being fast, maneuverable and with a mouth full of sharp teeth tope haven't got much to fear. This allows them to exploit a wide variety of ground features in search of food.
They particularly like undulating sandbanks and lateral gutters running along a sandy seabed. They sweep over these in packs scattering small dabs, whiting, gurnards and other bottom dwellers picking them off as they try, in vain, to make a run for it.
Tope packs come in shallow and work the edges of stony reefs looking for black bream, school bass, rockling and even small dogfish. They especially like to follow the vertical walls of rock that are a feature of some reefs and also ground composed of huge boulders. They can use these features as surprise points, swimming through them aiming to scare up their prey that bolts but cannot outrun the tope.
Also look for shingle banks, areas of mixed mud and stony ground that holds numbers of dabs, and the ends of headlands that jut out to sea where a tide race forms.
BAITS Most magazine writers recommend mackerel as the main bait for tope. Not so! In the Thames Estuary, eel section is rated far higher and produces the better fish. Use a mackerel only as a standby bait here.
In the English Channel, go for whole squid, mackerel cut as a flapper with the fillets left attached to the head but the backbone removed, or a whole small pouting or bream.
In the Bristol Channel, and especially inside Cardigan Bay, half a dab cut diagonally across the body or a small whole whiting cut as flapper bait is far more effective. The same applies to Scotland and Ireland though most anglers use mackerel.
I've also had great success with lamprey for tope over the past four years, and early in the season combination baits of mackerel and squid also works well.
The reason mackerel is over rated is due to the tope's feeding preferences. A tope, as can be realised from its body shape, is basically a bottom dweller. Their main food supplies are dabs, whiting and gurnards, all fish that are easily outrun and caught by chasing tope. Mackerel are mainly an off-the-bottom swimmer and well above where the tope normally swim. Besides, in a straight dash a tope cannot outrun the fleet finned mackerel. In reality, it is a rare for a tope to take a fully fit live mackerel. Mackerel are a periphery food source found as injured or damaged fish in the last throws of life.
TOPE TACKLE Most areas can be fished with uptide rods and reels which allow the bait to be cast away from the boat rather than just dropped over the stern or side, and these are more sporting and give greater enjoyment in the playing of fish. Go for a 5oz to 8oz action uptider and match it to a multiplier reel like the ABU 7000C. This outfit can cover uptiding, or be used for light downtide fishing. Main line should be 15lbs to 18lbs, there is no need for anything heavier.
Parts of Scotland and the English Channel with deep water and very fast running tides require a standard 30lb class boat rod, medium multiplier reel and 30lb line to allow the use of heavy leads and fish to be fought against the pull off the tide. Using braided lines in this situation allows a lighter 20lb outfit to be used and lighter leads. This is called downtide fishing.
For uptiding, carry release wired leads between 3ozs and 6ozs, plus a few plain leads for slack tide periods and when you want the bait to roll over the seabed. For the heavier 30lb outfit, carry leads from 6ozs up to as much as 2lbs.
For uptiding, I like a casting leader of about 6-metres from 50lb line. This serves two purposes. It stops the tope touching the weak main line with its body and abrading it, plus it allows the running ledger a length of strong line to run on when the tope takes off with the bait.
A running ledger rig works best for both uptide and downtide fishing. Construct it as follows.
Slide either a carp anglers link ledger bead with a Mustad oval split ring added or a link swivel on to the end of the leader, add a 5mm plastic bead, then tie on a size 4 rolling swivel. To the swivel add a 1.5-metre length of 50lb to 60lb mono and tie another size 4 rolling swivel to the end. Now crimp on 15-inches (38cms) of 50lb wire. Plain wire is better than the plastic covered stuff sold in sea tackle shops. The hook is a Mustad Barbless Tope & ray pattern size 6/0 or 8/0.
When crimping wire, use a crimp big enough to allow the wire to go through once, be doubled back, then doubled back a third time, then crimp hard using proper crimping pliers. This stops the wire pulling out when very heavy pressure is applied for any reason.
For uptide casting, hang the bait on the grip wires. This casts much cleaner, is safer aboard the boat, and releases as soon as the cast is made.
TECHNIQUE Tope mostly feed as a pack, so all your baits are likely to be within range of passing fish, but it pays to spread them by having anglers on the sides of the boat casting away to the side, and those along the stern downtide fishing. This is effective and minimises tangles.
Tope pick up a bait and run instantly, so keep your reel in free spool with the ratchet on for audible warning. Let the fish run and only when it starts to slow down should you strike. This results in mostly lip hooked fish which are easy to release.
During the fight, if a tope wants to take line, let it! Trying to hold a tope against its will will result in a line breakage or hook straightening out.
At the side of the boat, tope are easy to handle with care. Simultaneously grab the wrist of the tail and the dorsal fin and simply lift the fish in if you're in a dinghy. From a charter boat it is better to tail them, which does no damage. There is absolutely no need to ever gaff a tope, it's an appalling thing to even consider.
Tope are not good eating and equally there is no sense in killing any tope. They are a sports fish and should be immediately returned alive after a quick photo.
TIPS Feed loose 1cm cubes of mackerel or other fish off the stern every 30 seconds or so. These sink to the bottom attracting smaller fish which the tope will then home in on via their vibrations.
The bigger fish are often working the outside edges of the main pack. Try casting at a right angle as far away from the boat as you can to locate the quality fish.