It was a wild, desolate and beautiful place. Acres of rocks, kelp and bladder-wrack interspersed with spits of shingle and sand. Rushing green slides of clear tidal water ran like rivers in flood between boulders of granite, all of it stretching away towards the horizon. A place of currents, washed out shells, where a myriad of sea-creatures splashed and clicked under boulders and burrowed in sand. Around us a pulse-quickening smell of salt, decay, freshness and exposed weed. Above us, the wind howled, spray hissed off the surface of racing water and gulls watched our progress with wing-quickening interest. The sound of oyster-catchers shrilled across the shingle. This was an area of richness, uncovered twice monthly by spring tides, a place where an incoming tide could drown an unwary man quickly. A place to go with a friend and cast plugs into the teeth of the wind while chanting invocations to the bass-god………this was Alderney.
As anyone who has ever visited the island of Alderney knows, this small northern speck of granite in the Channel Islands has a reputation for producing quality fish and British Records - and with good reason. Surrounded by fierce tides and hostile ground, commercial fishermen have a lean time unless they are very good, and local wetfish stocks still remain at a relatively high level compared to the rest of the UK. Blessed by luck, I was brought up there, and so a return to the island last month during the annual angling festival meant little baggage apart from a plugging rod, a box of plugs, a camera and wet weather gear. I could stay with my mum, you see……….handy, hey ?
Accompanying me on this flitting 3-day visit was Simon Evans, a scientist with the West Country Rivers Trust - that's a 26 year-old rugby-playing, skirt-chasing, pint-downing scientist by the way, with a nose for fish gleaned from a lifetime of chasing salmon and trout in small rivers and wading most of the Cornish coastline after bass. Not a man to be trifled with, especially in a pair of size 12 waders….hmm. We'd made a bargain, you see. I would show him some Alderney bass and he would show me some salmon (I am still awaiting his side of the bargain - a successful side that is).
Arriving on a Wednesday morning, we were finally re-united with our tackle that evening, the small yellow buzzing Trislander airplanes of Aurigny Air Services not conducive to long articles of baggage. However, we did fish, albeit with a somewhat dysfunctional and somewhat weary melange of rods gleaned from the dusty corner of a cupboard in Alderney's tackle shop. A cupboard labeled 'Hire Tackle', if you get my drift. Simon ended up with a natty number comprising an Abu butt and a Normark tip section, while I went for the nostalgic look and ventured forth with an Olympic bottom half, and a rather unidentifiable tip sporting various lengths of hanging twine and the odd chrome ring. Anyway, we caught nothing. The appalling weather did little to make me open the camera bag either.
Thursday we caught nothing too. This was the day Simon fell in the first time and I think we lost, er, some plugs. I, um, also broke a rod. We also tried about ten spots, all of which I knew well and rated as a prime contender for Simon's first Alderney bass. It didn't stop raining and howling, and there was still no way for me to take pictures of the huddles of anglers dotting the coastline. So as it got dark we retired to the Moorings, wet and weary, and bought a large scotch each (for medicinal purposes, of course).
After thinking about our lack of success for a long time (which included a few more medicaments), we finally came up with a plan which reflected the wisdom of our years. We decided we would try a spot where I had always done moderately well, but we would fish it at a different stage of tide (for a particular reason) - something which I had never thought of before, but, wise with travel around the world, thought might ring the changes.
A rainy Friday started with a surf-casting session (just to save the blank, of course) and a small bass (maybe 12ozs) dragged ashore at daybreak on Braye beach right on high water - a large rag-worm successfully clasping the poor fish around the head. Hurrah ! Then it was home for a prolonged breakfast before heading off to the planned miracle with the plugs. Unfortunately I had several people to meet that morning and it was 12.30pm when I finally parked the car and started the long walk out to where I could see Simon in the distance, a good hour after he had started fishing at the appointed time. Slithering and sliding across the rocks in the rain, chesties up around my ears, I finally reached Simon as he came towards me round some boulders, casually carrying two bass in one hand. Curses !!
The story went as follows. Simon had reached the mark at about the time we had thought it would start to work. Within ten minutes we had been proved right, as he had caught a 4lb ballan and then a 3lb bass. Moving along to the next rock he had then had the most fantastic sport imaginable for 40 minutes or so. Four more bass up to 9lbs landed, numerous fish on & off, several more takes and a score of follows. All of them on a Toby-style lure cast across a shrinking tidal run. Simon had retained one 3lb bass for our supper, and then kept another bad 'bleeder' which was probably about 5lbs or so. GRRRRRR…
So, here we were at the bottom of the tide, dead low water. No tidal run, but I was, er, extremely keen to fish ! So, as Simon had a smoke, I started flicking a Yozuri Arms Pencil around in the flat tables of water between the boulders, twitching the bait between weed and stone. Amazingly there were still fish about and I caught two small bass before the incoming tide pushed us off and back across the rocks. In a squall I then caught another small bass BEHIND Simon as he waded 50 yards away alongside me. This was the second time he fell in. When we left the scene eventually at about half-tide, we raced away to another likely spot which we had spotted the day before but I had never fished in 23 years of living on the island. To cut a long story short, I caught another two bass, lost a nice fish at my feet when the hooks pulled and also had a huge bite from a lunker. Simon had a couple of takes as well, including one from what was probably the same large fish as I had risen.
So, you may ask, what is the point of all this ? Well, I learnt three valuable lessons, all of which could relate to anywhere you might fish around the world.
Firstly, I returned to a place I knew intimately, but was able to look at it with fresh eyes after some time away. Being able to stand back and see something from a different viewpoint like that enabled me to see past the obvious and realise what else could be tried.
Secondly, in the last four years I have learnt so much in different places that I was able to do something completely alien with confidence - I fished a plug on a FALLING tide, using it in exactly the same way as I would have done perched on the edge of a Floridian flat or a Pacific lagoon outlet, assuming that fish would be waiting for bait flushed out as the water drained away. Sure, I caught some bass on the incoming tide, but what worked for Simon and I before that was a first for me in British waters.
Thirdly, I used a lure I would never have dreamt of using in the UK unless I had connected with fish elsewhere using it. The Arms Pencil is a surface bait, designed to be walked and twitched, popped and rested. It worked, wonderfully. Simon stole it and for his sins he also fell in a third time, and he learnt a fourth lesson - chesties in the sea need studs, not felt soles……hmm.
In the same way that an angler can re-visit an area and see it with different eyes and produce success, so an angler completely new to an area can also make a difference. I have lost count of the times that a client has stepped aboard a boat and asked to do something different and completely wiped the board with a new tactic. It's the same with marlin-fishing when someone asks you to try a different lure. The problem here though is not that the lure may catch a fish (after all, any of the lures out there have an even chance of doing so), but that you will then be forced to use the damn thing for the duration of that client's stay on the boat ! In marlin-fishing terms, there is nothing more galling than to have your quietly effective routine pierced by a 'special' from Capt. Harry's.
Of course, there are other lessons to be learnt and other ways of learning them. A typical example is when you're astute enough to closely follow and emulate successful captains, and then you discover that all along they have actually been doing something different from what you thought they were. And, of course, they'll come up with little tricks and tactics which they will attempt to keep secret for as long as possible (well, maybe not 'secret', but certainly private……). A little example which springs to mind involved a surreptitious look in Peter Wright's cockpit this summer in the Canaries while he wasn't around. Instead of the assumed wind-on of 650lb Moimoi hard leader and hook-set with wire, I saw something resembling clear rope and a hookset with no wire although there was some wire in the wind-on somewhere … confused ? I was.
It turned out that Peter was trying something new, as he does, and it seemed to make sense. Here's how it went - first there was the mono leader, which was 900lb Jinkai. Large enough not to be soft as Jinkai normally is, but easily grippable and unlikely to break at the wrong moment (you DO need a good, careful wireman when using this stuff). This was attached to a four foot length of 1200 lb aircraft cable, on which the lure rode, negating the 'bite-off' from the corner of the mouth of a big fish. This in turn was attached to the hookset where the hooks were connected by 900lb Jinkai again, negating the 'swim-off' - Peter reminding me that a hook-up from the back hook normally means a fish hooked in either mandible, not in the throat. All the options therefore covered, and everything totally askew to most people's thinking. Yet, it made glorious sense to me.
I then discovered Barky using the same system. If all goes well, Santa is bringing me a coil of 900lb Jinkai and some aircraft cable. I will inform you as to what happens !
Finally, for anyone reading this who hasn't yet written to Santa, here are my three sensible suggestions for that trip down the chimney (unsensible suggestions would have to include a 400 mile exclusion zone around the UK, a £3 billion package to import fish for national consumption, and the development of bio-degradable monofilament. Also for consideration would be a VERY MAJOR AND LONG-LASTING international health-scare involving raw fish, mercury and chopsticks. Hmm……).
First and foremost of the sensible suggestions though has to be a set of kites for anyone who has never used or does not own them, and I do not just mean for use in blue-water with live-baits. I have used them hundreds of times for getting bottom-baits away from a boat in slack water areas (just slacken the release clip and give a sharp pull when the bait is far enough away), and for years I have used them dead-baiting sharks on the down-wind side of a boat (I would never, ever, go shark fishing without kites - they invariably catch the biggest fish of the day). I have used them from a beach in Midway to suspend a live-bait in the pass between the reefs for GT's , and yes, I have used them in the UK. The first time I used one in Alderney was back in '96 when I put a live launce out on a sandbank some 150 yards off a rock ledge. I caught a 5lb bass within five minutes, with an open-mouthed witness to boot ! One of my projects next year will be to introduce them to Phil Britts at Padstow and see if we cannot catch a porbeagle on one.
Secondly, I'd like a Speedy 12 from Duel. This is a tiny (TLD 5) sized lever-drag reel designed for casting with a capacity of about 350 yards of 15lb line. Extremely fast in the retrieve with a 6:1 ratio, light in the hand and with a unique quick-spool change facility, this has to be a reel to own and use in both the UK and abroad. Yum yum………….pretty please !
Thirdly, of course, I'd like a Yozuri Arms Pencil as I, er, lost mine a little while ago.