I start this article not sat behind my usual desk. I am pitching and rolling aboard the ‘Celtic Explorer’ as we make our way south from Galway towards the Blasket Islands and then on to undertake a Celtic Sea herring survey. I’ll be out at sea for three weeks and the main aim of the survey is to assess the health of herring stocks and the density of sea bird populations. Only a short while into the voyage and already we have been treated to bird sightings that have been too countless to mention individually, we have had the pleasure of scores of common dolphin bow riding alongside the ship, there have been a couple of bottlenose dolphins spotted and even a glimpse of a minkie and baleen whales. All of these have been spotted within sight of land – Ireland’s inshore waters are indeed rich to support such a plethora of life.
The survey is an important one for me to take part in. It will give me a better understanding of how what I am learning in college will be applicable in the field. It will provide me with valuable ‘ship time’ which will augment a CV when the time comes for me to leave college to search for employment. It will, however, mean that I will be off land for three weeks and I do not think I would have gotten away with sneaking a fishing rod on board! I am set to miss out on some quality fishing at a premium time of the year for a myriad of species but that is the way things go, the bigger picture must always be taken into account.
Back to the Fishing!
One thing I did manage to do was to get a couple of sessions in before I departed. This summer there had been one particular monkey that I really could not shake off my back no matter how hard or frequently I tried. Last month saw me detailing how I like to go about chasing ballan wrasse. Ballan wrasse are a fantastic sport fish and one that really tests the skill of the angler and the quality of their knots. I really enjoy fishing for them but I must admit that the decision to fish for them this summer was a result of frustration at not being able to catch tope from the kayak. I had been out on a few occasions trying to catch tope from the boats and we had done quite well but no matter what I tried, I could not tempt one from the kayak.
Some of you may remember that I had been out trying for tope with a film crew accompanying me. No matter what I tried, I could not catch a fish for them. Having seen some photos of last year’s capture, they were eager to try and repeat the feat, capturing the action on film. Not employed by any television channel or commissioned by anybody, they just decided that a feat like that should be documented and the plan was to shoot some footage and see what we were left with following the editing process. They had been out with me a couple of times but I just could not find the tope. Patience can sometimes be rewarded but on this occasion it was not. The time came for me to return to Galway to resume my studies and we pretty much resigned ourselves to the fact that it was not going to happen this summer.
Two weeks into my course in Galway and one of our lecturers came in on the Wednesday to inform us that there would be no lectures that Friday. In an instant I had the smartphone out and I was looking up wind and weather forecasts. After seeing what I wanted to see, I texted the lads – ‘Something has happened. I’m free this Friday, how about it?’ The response was short and to the point; ‘Yes’. So it was all set up, all I had to do was get from Galway to Wicklow. I figured that would be the easy part. Getting the tope to play ball would be the hard part. I was of the opinion that if there were mackerel about then the tope would not be far behind.
Fast forward a couple of days and the excited anticipation turned to disappointment. Thick fog had blanketed the east coast. It was not safe to go out. Much as I like catching big fish on a kayak, I prefer not getting lost and potentially not returning! I phoned the lads and advised them that the plan would not go ahead unless the weather changed and visibility improved sufficiently for me to launch. Once again, they understood and told me they were on standby. By eleven our fortunes had changed and the sun was beginning to burn the fog away. We arranged to meet at twelve on a local beach.
They had to launch their boat from a harbour so they were on the water before I was and as they waited for me to gear up they did a short drift jigging for mackerel. Within no space of time they had hit eight and when I heard this I nearly ran my kayak down to the water’s edge and hopped aboard. I knew where I was headed; a shelf about two kilometres out. This feature has attracted tope before and I thought that it would be our best shot for a fish on the day. As I made my way to the mark, I jigged hokkais sporadically, securing enough fresh bait for a couple of hours of fishing.
After what felt like quite a paddle, the echo sounder told me that the shelf had been located. I dropped anchor proceeded to set up my trusty 30lb class tope rod. I baited up and lowered my offering to the sea bed. While I was doing so the lads anchored up their boat in a position where they would be able to get a few good shots if anything did happen. We sat and chatted for a while, the earlier ease of securing bait had me in optimistic form. One of the lads on the boat thought too many mackerel about could be a bad thing; the tope would have too many to choose from. ‘Today is the day’, I assured him. Some days the confidence sweeps through you and you know you are going to connect with fish. It is just a matter of time. I do not know where such a feeling comes from, or why it manifests itself, but when you are confident that you will catch things usually follow through true to form. Today was the day!
As I chatted to the lads on board something picked up the bait and the ratchet began to scream. I signalled to the lads that the fun was about to begin and I picked up my rod, tightened up the gears and leaned back into the fish. Standard stuff so far, what happened next was far from standard. The fish just ran and ran. It peeled line off the reel at an alarming rate. Within half a minute a 7000 size reel had almost been emptied of braid! Running low on line, I figured I would have to intervene so applying as much pressure as I dared I stopped the fish’s run and tried to turn it around. Job done. Next task was to retrieve line and I managed in gaining about ten yards. Then I felt a couple of headshakes and the line went slack. Gutted is the first word that springs to mind and gutted I was. Not only had something in the set up broken, I think my heart had as well….
Some Kind of Monster
Gutted turned to bewildered when I retrieved the line. The 80lb steel trace had been bitten through so cleanly that it looked like a wire snips was responsible. Some have said to me since that they suspect a Godzilla of a tope was to blame. Logic would dictate that they are probably right. I can be a bit of a dreamer at times and in the recesses of my mind it was a different monster altogether that was responsible. I have my suspicions and hopefully I can prove them to be right at a future time. I sat there cursing and the lads filming started to wonder if we were ever going to get one on camera at all. They saw their project finished as abruptly as that wire trace had given way. I told them we would fish on and the very next drop resulted in a dropped run.
With renewed vigour, the shredded bait was replaced with fresh and once again this was lowered into the depths. We were all transfixed on the rod now. The tip bounced a couple of times and the ratchet started to sing. Was it going to be third time lucky? I leaned into the fish and she fought hard but within a short space of time my prize was beside the kayak, ready to be hauled aboard. Once the fine female fish was sitting in my lap I was able to get to work on the hooks, an easy job when you strike early. I like to strike early because it ensures that the hooks can usually be found in the scissors or very close to the front of the mouth. Sure, you do lose the odd fish but it makes for an easy unhooking and you never have to cut a trace and leave a hook in a deep-hooked fish. That is just irresponsible. Hook removed, all that remained was to pose for a picture before letting the fish swim away again.
I have a tagging kit for tope but I preferred to let this one go without the tags. The lads on the boat wanted to get a good look at her and I wanted to get her back into the water as quickly as possible. After a shaky start it had all turned full circle. We exchanged congratulations on a job well done. The lads were very impressed with the approach and work that goes into catching a big fish on a kayak. They saw the photos and assumed that it was relatively easy. It was only when they witnessed the process unfold before them that they developed an appreciation for how complex a target big tope from a kayak can be; definitely not for the uninitiated, the ill equipped or the inexperienced. And with that they had to leave, they had other pressing matters that they had to attend to so I bid them farewell but decided that I would stick it out a while longer. That confidence that I mentioned earlier was still flowing through me. Besides, I still had some bait left!
I sat it out for another couple of hours and hit another four tope, dropping two of them but managing to get the other two onto the kayak. Unlike the first fish, the second two were tagged and recorded for future studies, something that is so important with fish in this age of heightened awareness of stocks and sustainability. Perhaps in a future article I can go into the importance of recording and retaining accurate and reliable data and what its applications can be. But that is for another day.
For the moment, I am a happy man. I left for Galway a few weeks ago resigned to the fact that a tope from the kayak probably was not going to happen this year. Fortune gave me another opportunity though and when life throws opportunities at you they have to be grabbed with both hands or else you will sit and wonder about ‘what ifs’ for the rest of your life. That is why I am currently living on the ‘Celtic Explorer’ – I have grabbed another opportunity and who knows where it will take me to?