Common skate grow big. They regularly weigh over 150lbs and 200lbers are caught every year. Commercially caught common skate have exceeded 400lbs. There are rumours of post WW2 skate to 600lbs from Icelandic waters, though these giants are mostly associated with the 1930's -before stocks were reduced through commercial exploitation as technology improved catch rates dramatically from the 1950's on.
They are an active predator feeding mainly on whitefish such as whiting, codling and haddock, also small rays, flatfish, dogfish and even scallops and crabs. They seem to have set patrol routes, which they consistently travel in search of food and can become quite predictable during which part of the tide they will show up. They have a wide wing span, the bigger fish exceeding 6-ft with a total length over 9-ft, and use this bulk and width to suction down on the seabed waiting to pounce as prey fish move within range.
There are two key areas where common skate occur in UK and Irish waters. Scotland's west coast, especially the area around Oban and the Isle of Mull, is excellent with large numbers of common skate caught every year. Lesser-known skate marks occur in many of the sea lochs northward towards Ullapool and Lochinver, but are very little fished. Further north lay the Orkney Islands and again common skate are caught here, but few anglers push this far north at present and opportunities are being missed.
The other area I would recommend would be Ireland's beautiful west coast around Westport and Achill Island. At Westport, Co Mayo you are fishing inside Clew Bay. The fish average between 100 and 150lbs, but there are always fish to over 180lbs taken. Common skate are also encountered off Cork on the south coast, off Galway and in north Donegal.
Both the Scottish and Irish waters can produce skate any month of the year, but it is the autumn period, August through October, that seems to offer a slightly better chance of contacting the really big fish over 150lbs. If there is a slow period, then it's the winter and early spring, but this is more to do with minimal if any fishing activity. At Oban and Mull, they often get very small baby skate of just a few pounds indicating a nearby nursery area. Irish rods rarely catch skate of this size.
Common's like gravel and shingle seabeds, but are also found on sand and mud. The very biggest fish seem to favour areas of mixed ground where they lay up in the sand patches between the rocks.
Tides are not critical in most areas. There is some reason to believe that more commons are caught on the bigger spring tides of the month, but even small neap tides will produce fish. Weather conditions matter little, as the skate are found in waters generally over 60-feet deep in Ireland and much deeper in Scottish waters.
Skate tackle is best kept simple. Go for a 50lb class rod and multiplier reel loaded with 45 to 50lb line. If you're used to big fish, then you can drop to 30lb class, it just takes longer to get them up and moving.
The skate terminal tackle is also simple. Go for a ledger bead with a link attachment on it and slide this onto the main line followed by another bead. Now tie in a large 5/0 sized quality rolling swivel such as a Mustad or Berkley. Common skate have crushing jaws with tiny abrasive teeth, so there is no need for wire, you can safely use 150/ 250lb commercial grade monofilament. This needs crimping to the swivel and hook, though some commercial grades can be knotted if you soften the line in warm water before tying. If you do try knotting, go for the uni-knot. A trace length about 2-feet gives the skate enough room to cover the bait and find its way to the mouth, but eliminates the chance of some fish being deep hooked. The best hook is a Mustad Bronzed O'Shaughnessy size 10/0. Make sure the hook is nice and sharp with a cutting edge on the inside of the point.
Numerous baits work, dogfish cut in half, a 4lb pollack cut in half, several mackerel on the hook, but my favourite is a whole coalfish about 2lbs in weight with one fillet cut free from the bone but left attached to the head. This allows large amounts of blood and juice to wash away from the bait on the seabed and allows the skate to find it easily.
The boat will anchor over suitable ground and the baits will be simply fished downtide off the stern. It pays to have the lightest lead weights used at the stern of the boat and allow the baits to drop back a little way. Anglers fishing from the sides of the boat need to use gradually increasing weights of lead as you get nearer the cabin to keep their baits from tangling each other by tidal pressure on the lines.
Skate bites are mostly a series of nods and bumps on the rod tip. This is the skate shuffling its wings over the bait and locating it with the mouth. There will be a short pause as the bait is taken in, then the skate will slowly move away. Let it run just a few yards against a free spool controlled by the thumb, then click the reel in to gear and let the rod tip pull over against the weight of the fish to set the hook. As this happens, the weight of the fish will try to lift you forward and can overbalance you, so bear this in mind.
With the hook set, now is a good time to slip a butt pad on. Some anglers also use a harness, but this is rarely necessary for average fit anglers and a stand-up fight is typical and most rewarding. At the same time the other anglers on the boat will need to reel their baits in to give the hooked-up angler room to fight the fish and eliminate the chance of tangling lines.
The fish will go straight for the bottom and suction down with its wings. Now it's all down to brute strength, you against the skate. You need to keep the rod fully bent with as much power as you can apply constantly. Do this by bending the legs at the knee a little, keeping the back straight but leaning backwards slightly. This gives you a comfortable balance point and helps you maintain full pressure on the fish without tiring yourself.
It usually takes between 15 and 30 minutes to get one of these big flatties to give in and move off the seabed. As soon as you feel the fish move, pump the rod hard with short pumps to both regain line and keep the fish off balance. If the fish gets back to the seabed, you've another 10 minutes trying to move them again.
Keep pumping the fish upwards. Some skate will try to run but will only take several yards of line at a time, certainly no more than 30-yards. What they will do is to turn their wings against any tide flow and increase their weight by water friction. They will also use the tide flow to kite away from you. At all other times, just keep the fish coming towards you.
When the fish is close to the boat it will try to turn over on itself. Don't panic. Just let it kite there. The crewman will use gaffs, lightly placed in the wing edges where it does no harm, to lift the fish in. They will tag and release the fish, and this gives you an opportunity to get a photo or two.
Both the Oban/Mull and Westport fisheries have undertaken highly successful tagging schemes and many previously tagged and released fish have been recaught several times providing valuable information. Nobody practising rod and line fishing in the UK kills common skate anymore and haven't done for two decades or more. This has helped preserve stocks and maintained a highly successful fishery.