But this time the quarry was about as far removed as it is possible to be from the princely salmon - this time I would be fishing in the sea, for skate. I had been invited up by my friend Davy to fish from his boat Catchalot, in the Sound of Mull. Reports were of huge skate, fish of over a hundred pounds not being uncommon. I tried not to think about how my back would react to pumping a beast of that size to the surface. I'd worry about it when and if I hooked one.
Early May was the chosen time, a lovely time to be in Scotland. Paul Garner and I met Davy near Glasgow, and Davy hurtled us over the remaining couple of hundred miles in his own car. We were just too late to catch the ferry at Oban so had to take the longer route via Fort William, which lengthened the journey somewhat. But still we arrived at Davy's tiny caravan before midnight, and after turning out the mice, were able to squeeze in and bed down for the night.
I was awake early the following morning - we had two days fishing ahead of us and I was really looking forward to it. By mid-morning we were afloat, and cruising out to catch some fresh mackerel for skate bait. We did catch a few, but not as many as we would have liked. We would be forced to rely on Davy's slowly thawing bait store for much of the time. Abandoning the mackerel fishing we pulled up some of Davy's sunken traps, hoping to get enough prawns for breakfast. Luckily I'd had some Weetabix before we left, as the net result of Davy's pots was a single prawn, which we later shared between us (you'll gather it was quite a big one). What a world of difference between the fresh and the shop bought article. And what strange spidery creatures these large crustaceans that most of us know and love as scampi are
Next stop was the skate grounds. Neither Paul nor I have our own skate tackle, so Davy kindly lent us some of his, short stubby billiard-cue like rods equipped with enormous multipliers loaded with eighty pound monofilament. Davy doesn't use braid for the skate as he reckons that without the stretch of mono, they might pull you over the side! We put up two skate rods, then two lighter 30lb-class rods to pick up any small fish that might be about. A coin was tossed to see who would take the first skate run, and lucky for me, it came down tails. Davy baited up the skate rigs with whole mackerel, and we dropped them over the side. We were fishing at a depth of around five hundred feet, and it was an amazingly long time before I felt the two-pound lead hit bottom. At last everything was prepared, the rods in their holsters, their tips gently rising and falling as the boat rocked back and forth. We got to talking about prospects, and about the fish in the area. Davy mentioned that someone had recently caught a black-mouthed dogfish, a very rare fish apparently. They don't go much bigger than a couple of pounds and this one had come close to that.
As we talked, the lighter rod nearest Paul starting tapping persistently. Paul struck into a small fish, his first ever sea-fish. I haven't mentioned that we had in fact stopped to fish Lomond for a while on the way up. We had fished it from Davy's other boat, and had cast our baits out around the boat as we sat moored in a small bay. I hadn't had a single run, while Paul caught five pike from the same spot in about three hours! It was obvious that the fish Paul was now reeling up wasn't a large one. Having already shown us what a jammy bugger he can be (oh yes - he puts it down to skill!) Davy was convinced that Paul had indeed hooked a specimen of the extremely rare black-mouthed dogfish. I'd never seen one, so didn't know what to expect, but Davy spotted it long before Paul swung it aboard. Paul's first ever sea-fish, and one of the rarest around - a black-mouthed dogfish of almost two pounds!
The rest of the day saw an almost endless procession of the dreaded LSD's the lesser-spotted dogfish. I suppose they can provide sport on the right tackle, but when you are having to use two pounds of lead to hold bottom, reeling these small fish up from five hundred feet can become a real nuisance. We had several congers to about twelve pounds (some of which, people who know me will be surprised to know, I actually held see the photo if you don't believe me!) and some spur-dogs. But no skate, though we did try several marks. Another boat had been luckier, finding the fish in a narrow channel and landing three skate to over one hundred and fifty pounds. But the tide ran through that channel very fast indeed, and they were having to use five pounds of lead to hold bottom. If you've ever reeled up even a one-pound lead from any great depth you will know what torture bringing up five pounds must have been. During the late afternoon I hooked a fish on my lighter rod, a fish which actually put up a bit of resistance. For a while we thought it might be a smallish skate, but it turned out to be a nice thornback of around twelve pounds.
We finished the day drift fishing, fishing into the darkness while slowly dragging the bottom with our baits. One or two small conger succumbed, though we did hook a couple of better fish, which came off. Quite exciting fishing it was, the bites really slamming the rods down.
We spent the evening in the local pub come social club, and in spite of this were back out again early the next morning. The day went on much as the previous had with the usual procession of dogfish, a few small congers and the occasional spurdog. In an effort to stop the spurdog mauling the skate baits Davy cut one up and set it up on the hook with a couple of mackerel. This made up an enormous bait (see picture) but then I guess the skate are pretty big themselves. Then in mid-afternoon Paul's 30lb-class outfit started tapping, and line peeled steadily from the reel. We eyed it suspiciously, asking Davy what he thought it might be. His opinion was that it could well be a skate moving slowly off with the small squid bait. Paul tightened into whatever had picked up the bait five hundred feet below us. At first he couldn't move it at all, but then steadily he began to gain line. I grabbed my video camera and climbed on top of the cabin to film the battle.
Twenty minutes later, and with the fish still close to the bottom I was getting worried about my batteries! And Paul was tiring. Twenty minutes turned to thirty, then an hour. Still we hadn't had a sight of the fish as Paul at first gained line, then lost it again. Just over an hour into the battle a strange alien-like object surfaced about thirty yards from the boat and bobbed on the waves. It was too far off for us to make it out clearly, but it somehow seemed as if it had something to do with what Paul had hooked. Ten minutes later another similar looking object surfaced, this one a little nearer the boat. This was our first indication that perhaps all was not as it seemed. After an hour and twenty minutes the trace wire appeared. Davy leaned over the side and pulled on it. Up it came, and there attached to the hook was a length of rope, and in turn, attached to this was an ancient lobster pot. The strange objects that had surfaced were medicine ball sized lumps of bottom debris encrusted in various marine creatures, which gave the debris quite a bizarre appearance. Paul collapsed in a heap, exhausted, and absolutely and totally miffed. An hour and twenty minutes playing a lobster pot! He was to take some stick about that in the future! The rope had made a perfect job of simulating the fight of a big fish. Being initially attached to the bottom it had first let Paul retrieve line, then, as it became tight, pulled line from the reel.
By the time we had sorted that out it was almost dark and time to make our way to shore, and then back to England. No skate this time, but it had been a very enjoyable trip none-the-less. There's something quite special about the camaraderie when sea-fishing from boats.
But that wasn't the end of it. In early October we returned for another two-and-a-half days. We fished in glorious autumn weather and during the first day were able to watch golden eagles soaring above the cliff tops of the island of Mull. Bait catching had been extremely successful - in fact such good fun was it that we had trouble tearing ourselves away from the joyful shoals of mackerel. But tear ourselves away we had to - we had far more serious business on hand.
Dogfish fed relentlessly on the first day, and as before we had the occasional conger and spur-dog. Day two started slowly, with hardly a touch on the first mark. A move to a deeper area produced a succession of spur-dog and we worked hard reeling them up and re-baiting the rods. Then, following a quiet spell of almost half-an-hour (which I'm sure was significant), one of the giant multipliers let out a long screech. This, apparently, is the typical bite of a big skate. I had won the right to the first skate on the toss of the coin on our earlier trip. Of course, as we hadn't caught one, I had insisted this be carried over, especially as Paul had had so much fun playing the lobster pot I picked up the rod while Davy fitted me up with the fighting harness. At this time all was quiet below, so once strapped up so I wound down and felt well actually, something that felt like the bottom of the ocean. I heaved hard against it, leaning backwards into the boat. Immediately the rod top was savagely pulled downwards, jabbing into the water until the reel's clutch gave up a few yards of line. I heaved again and felt the fish move up a fraction, then lost the little line I'd gained as it powered back down again. I had a fight on my hands now! For twenty minutes I heaved with all my might to get the fish off the bottom. That, I'm told, is the hardest part. I was putting my whole bodyweight into the battle. If at any time the line had broken, or the hook hold given way, I should have gone sprawling backwards across the boat.
After twenty-five minutes of gaining a couple of yards, only to lose it again, she was coming up, slowly but surely. When she did decide to go back down again, there wasn't much I could do about it except pray - and I did plenty of that. No finesse involved here - I was holding the fish as hard as I could, but if she wanted line, then I had little choice in the matter. The big multiplier's clutch was so tight that I couldn't pull line from the spool. But when that fish went down hard, line ticked from the reel as if the clutch was hardly set at all. Gradually her efforts to return to the seabed became less determined, though even holding a fish of this size in mid-water takes a supreme effort. But like me, the great fish was tiring. Once I got her a good distance from the bottom it was relatively easy to keep her moving (and I do stress "relatively"!). Up she came, bit by bit.
When she was an estimated one hundred feet below the boat she began to come up quite quickly. Not straight up, but kiting towards the surface at an angle. We had our first view of the fish when it surfaced about forty yards from the boat, down-wind and down-tide. It looked enormous! And try as I might I couldn't bring her in. Tide and wind combined to make the job of reeling in this massive living kite extremely difficult. I slackened off the pressure slightly, encouraging the skate to dive, which it did. I then tightened up, aiming to get her to go down at an angle and then stop her when she got beneath us. This worked a treat, and as soon as she got below the boat, I again started pumping her up to the surface. After a total of forty minutes of heaving, the skate broke surface by the side of the boat. It was an absolute monster. I put the rod down and Davy and I, with some difficulty I might add, hauled the fish onto the back of the boat while Paul sat atop the cabin filming. The back of the boat was as far as it was going to get - there was no question of it actually fitting inside the boat!
This was my first real skate. I'd had smaller versions off England's south coast, but nothing like this. A massive common skate, though weighing in as it did at two hundred and three pounds, it didn't seem that common to me! It measured over six feet in length, with a wingspan just under that. Many photographs were taken, though shooting straight into the low sun as it set behind the distant mountains and bounced it's scattered reflections from the wave tops made even flash photography difficult. It's not exactly easy to reposition a two-hundred pound skate for a photograph you don't so much move the fish as position yourself around it. I'm just glad the fish sat quietly. Photos taken, we slid her back over the side and watched her power down to her deep-water home. A few flaps of her huge wings and she was gone. Many handshakes were shared before we up-anchored and headed back to port. Tomorrow it was Paul's turn.
The first few hours were spent back at the same mark. But by mid-morning, and in some ways in deference to the fact that I had a plane to catch in Glasgow around 7pm, we had moved to a mark closer to shore, and nearer to where Davy keeps his boat. Dogfish kept coming, together with occasional small conger. Then around midday one of the big reels sounded. I don't know if skate always take in this way, but if they do then it really leaves you in no doubt as to what it is after the constant tip-tapping of other fish. Paul picked up the rod and wound down as Davy busied himself fitting Paul's harness. The rod top pulled back towards the waves before Paul braced himself against the side of the boat and pulled. There really is no grace in playing these fish - it's all brute strength - a real contest between you and a huge fish, a contest which you hope your tackle, and not least your back, will stand up to. This is long-distance running, not sprinting. Just then, the other skate rod went. Davy picked it up and for a while both were playing big fish. Whether Davy's fish came off, or whether the lines had crossed some way beneath the surface I'm not sure, but eventually Davy's line came free, leaving Paul to continue his battle. A half-hour of grunting and heaving from Paul (accompanied of course by much ribaldry and suggestions of lobster pots from Davy and I) brought the fish to the surface, another big one. Davy and Paul hauled the fish on board - this time I was up on the cabin top filming - a somewhat precarious perch as a stiff wind had sprung up and the boat was rocking quite wildly. The fish weighed one hundred and sixteen pounds, and even if it didn't fight as well as the lobster pot, it certainly made Paul happy. Davy was of course delighted for both of us. A veteran of many battles with these huge fish, you can see the pleasure he gets from helping others land them. Thanks Davy - you are brilliant!
Fishing on after that seemed an anti-climax, so we settled for upping anchor there and then, giving us more time to get the boat out of the water, and less need to race back through the lovely highland scenery.
Another brilliant trip - I do love Scotland so much. It always leaves a big imprint on my mind. Previously it would have been the rush and boil of a big salmon river around my waist as I waded down a pool, stopping at each step to put a fly across the riffling water. The occasional salmon jumping, the red squirrels in the trees and the sharp tang of the clean fresh pine-scented air. This time it was the sounds and smells of the sea, and of the bacon sizzling and spluttering from the little cabin of the boat in the early morning; of the strange pre-historic looking skate, and Mull's red deer which had come to the water's edge to drink while the majestic golden eagles soared overhead. Then the backbreaking battles, and not only with the huge fish. Bringing up two pounds of lead from five hundred feet is a serious business in itself. And of course, Davy's wonderful hospitality. Anyone who knows him will know exactly what I mean.
Leaving Scotland always makes me sad, driving from those magnificent mountains - there are parts of the A9 above Perth that leave you breathless - down through England's relatively flat midlands it takes me some time to once again become enamoured of the more gentle and subtle English countryside. I usually pine for a while.
I will be going back. Whether it be after skate, pike or salmon, I will be going back. Whatever I'll be fishing for, the editor of this magazine allowing, I'll be writing to tell you about it. Maybe next time we'll catch a shark - they are a long way out, but they are there