Most tope fishing is done either by casting baits uptide away from the boat, or deep dropping baits in areas of fast tides and deep water. But thereís a new technique, originally pioneered in mid Wales, that proves far more effective and gives the tope the full freedom to fight, and itís fast catching on with dinghy anglers and charter skippers in other parts of the UK.
Freelining baits to tope working in shallow water is the most natural form of presentation and has accounted for some huge fish in areas where we once thought they never ventured. If you thought tope fought hard dragging 6ozs to a pound of lead around, then youíre in for a real treat if you learn to freeline. This method also picks up bonus huss, bass and conger.
HOW TO CHOOSE A MARK
The ideal marks are shallow reefs and sandbanks close to shore with a steady but not vicious tide run over the top of them. These are ideal hunting grounds for tope as these structures hold lots of small fish giving the tope a reliable food supply.
Depth is not a real issue. Reef ground with just 8 to 10-feet of water over them at low tide is enough to carry tope. They run along the edge of the reef on the side that the tide hits first working their way slowly inshore. Being a big fish, usually 15lbs to 50lb plus, tope are comfortable in the increasing tide run and can capitalise on smaller fish that struggle against the tide and are involuntarily swept towards the reef structure. I also think there is a secondary element of dead waterborne food getting washed up against the base of the reef edge that smaller fish feed on, and they in turn attract the tope.
The same applies to sandbanks that come close to the surface. The tope work around the rising edges and base of these banks scaring up dabs, whiting and gurnards that hug the sand waiting for food to be brought to them by the tide.
Such areas exist inside The Wash, Thames Estuary, along the Hampshire coast, both the English and Welsh side of the Bristol Channel, mid Wales and the mouth of the Dee Estuary, but there are many more in between yet to be identified as freeline tope marks.
Tope like fairly settled weather when working in shallow water. Cloudy skies are best if the water is gin clear, but fish will run the shallows even in bright sunshine if there is plenty of food about.
Sandbanks tend to be less critical, but stirred up seas and rough weather creating coloured water tends to scatter the tope packs and the fishing is much less consistent.
You can use really light gear for this type of fishing in most circumstances. A carp or bass rod is ideal matched to 7000-sized multiplier, or even a fixed spool reel holing 300-metres of 15lb line. If you need to turn fish away from bad snags near reef ground, switch to a 2 to 8oz uptide rod, a 7000 sized multiplier and 18lb line. The uptider is also useful over areas where the tide run is strong and fish may need to be bullied back against the tide.
The actual end rig is basically a normal tope trace. Use about 12-inches of 50lb wire connected by a size 4 rolling swivel to 5-feet of 60lb mono, which acts as a rubbing leader. I also use 14-feet of 50lb mono as extra security tied to the main reel line. This protects the end of the main line from touching snags when fishing shallow water.
If you prefer, instead of wire, you can use just 6-feet of 200lb commercial grade mono, but in shallow clear water this tends to coil around the bait and looks totally unnatural. Itís okay though, in more coloured deeper water, though still not a favourite of mine.
The hook takes massive pressure and needs to be strong. The best pattern is a Mustad Barbless Tope & Ray hook 6/0 or 8/0. Being barbless it is easy to set with light gear and tough enough to land the biggest tope.
The best bait is whole mackerel, slashed deeply along the flanks to release the blood, and about 6ozs in weight. Chop the tail fin off and pass the hook through the nose bringing the point out just above the eyes. The nose is strong here and the hook remains in place under pressure but is fully exposed for easy hooking. I like this system of hooking for slack water fishing and over clean sandbanks.
Alternatively thread the hook down from the tail stitching fashion and position the hook point just above the gills on the tail side. This form of presentation is useful when you want to "bounce" the bait along the bottom using the tide run and when fishing in to the edge of a reef.
Other baits that work are small black bream around reefs, or whiting and gurnards over sand.
Tope love the first flush of a new tide as it begins to gain a little speed and washes over the structure youíre fishing. Thatís when the make their first pass to see whatís on offer.
I like to be in position anchored up some distance uptide of the reef or banks Iím going to fish prior to low water. Anchor about 30-metres away as a minimum in shallow water, but 50-metres or more if the water is deeper than 20-feet and the tide likely to gain speed quickly as youíll need the extra distance to help get the bait down in the water to the area you want to fish.
Weíre aiming to get the bait in a position where we think the tope will be working. On reefs this is invariably at the very edge of the reef where clean sand meets the rough stuff, or where the reef starts to rise upwards. On sandbanks, again gauge where the banks begin to rise upwards and place your baits here or slightly up the incline. A brief pass over the structure to be fished and checking the sounder gives this necessary contour information prior to actually fishing.
To get a bait out to the fish as soon as the tide turns I use a party balloon to trot the bait to the fish. This is on a quick release system and simple to rig. Blow the balloon up to a normal size and knot the end tight with a granny knot. From the top swivel of the tope trace tie on a 2-foot length of 30lb mono. Form a long loop in the end of 30lb line and tie a simple granny knot in the balloons end that closes over the loop. Now pull the loop shorter through the granny knot to leave just an inch or so of loop and a short tag end.
This is easily strong enough to support an 8oz mackerel, which can be trotted away downtide until in the required position, then let the line pull tight to the balloon and strike the rod tip upwards several times until the loop pulls through the granny knot, the balloon is released, and the bait falls freely to the seabed. Tope often hit this bait in freefall, so pay attention.
Once the tide has got some speed to it there will be enough flow to trot a bait away from the boat on its own without a balloon. This method is deadly as it presents a bait exactly as a tope would expect to find it in normal circumstances. Simply drop the bait overboard, now release line slowly aiming to maintain contact with the bait as it freefalls downwards. Tighten the line occasionally to lift the bait in the water and drop it further away until in position. Donít lose contact with the bait by releasing too much line, as this is a recipe for the main line snagging and breakouts when a tope hits the bait and runs.
Whichever method you choose, also cut up some inch square chunks of mackerel and drop a few over the side occasionally. These roll around until they hit the reef where the baits are and add smell to the water to help the tope home in on your baits.
Some marks also produce fish to freelined baits over high water, though I find high water fishing much less consistent.
HOW TO HOOK TOPE ON FREELINE BAITS
Always have your reel in free spool, but with the free spool ratchet on to give audible warning.
Bites vary in relation to the run of tide. With little tide run after first flood, bites signal on the rod tip as several nods, often confusing you in to thinking it might be a huss. Let the knocks develop. Only when the rod tip pulls hard over and the fish starts to run with the bait should you strike to set the hook. Early striking is recommended for two reasons. It avoids deep hooking fish, but also the fish feel no resistance as they would with standard ledger tackle and tend to take the bait in quicker at the outset.
In fast tides you tend to get minimal warning. The fish are feeding in a pack on a first come, first served basis and need to hit a bait quick and hard before the next tope gets it. Also, because the tide is running harder, they are conscious the bait can be washed away and they risk missing a meal. The first indication of a bite is usually the scream of the reel as a tope bolts with the bait. These fish need to run a little way and be hit as they start to slow down as they turn the bait. Again, leaving the strike longer will result in some fish being hooked deep.
Play the fish hard, but let them have line when they want. They will make two or three good runs and tire less quickly than they do when dragging weights around after them.
Unless you want pictures, release the fish at the side of the boat. Deeper hooked fish can safely be handled onboard with long nosed pliers used to ease the barbless hook out.