Saturday, 9 July 2011

Mr Skate!

Oban is the place to catch a common skate and Ronnie Campbell is the best skipper in town. Ronnie has built up his knowledge of these waters and the giant skate over thirty years.

On the way to the skate grounds we stopped off to feather up some mackerel by a small island, where some seabirds had obviously been working earlier. Despite several moves the only mackerel we caught were on the small side. Ronnie had bought some frozen mackerel along as insurance as mackerel had been thin on the ground.
 Ronnie explained that skate could be found on large flat areas of mud in depths of up to 750 feet. We anchored up in 450 feet of water in the Firth of Lorne.

The skate rods were prepared and a frozen mackerel minus the tail was hooked through the head and lowered down slowly to the bottom. Although appearing crude the end rig had been developed over a number of years, a three foot trace of 250lb mono was followed by an eight foot rubbing leader. A tube boom made from electrical piping held the 2lb lead and allowed line to run freely on a take.
 I rigged up a second rod which would target a black mouthed dogfish or spurdog, any LSDs (Lesser Spotted Dogfish) would be kept for bait. Unusually according to Ronnie, I proceeded to catch a string of LSDs. Normally spurdogs and black mouthed dogfish would outnumber the LSDs. Two skate rods were rebaited with half a dogfish and would now be safely left until the end of the session. Even retrieving a dogfish from that depth is hard work.

After enjoying a white tea without milk (in England we call it black tea!) the ritual of periodically checking baits continued.

Eventually as the tide started to strengthen I had a more positive bite and Ronnie stated that I had hooked a spurdog. It proved to be a male of around 4lb and was quickly followed by another.

Three thirty and the rachet clicked on one of the skate rods, I would like to say screamed but I would be lying. Four hundred and fifty feet below me a skate was clamped to the bottom, no doubt throwing mud over its wings to resist the pressure being applied from above.

Initially I was unable to make any line and we had to resort to hand lining a foot of line at a time to get the skates nose up. Eventually I was able to start pumping the fish up to the surface. Sometimes I would lift the rod and not even put an inch of line back onto the reel, and on one occasion the skate dived back down to the bottom.

 It was clear that this was not going to be a spectacular fight, but a brutal battle which quickly took it's toll on my back despite the butt pad and shoulder harness. After a glorious day the heavens opened and I was going to get soaked.

Ronnie warned that once up in the tide the skate was likely to go downtide of the boat and we would be hard pushed to get the fish back up to the boat. True to form the angle of the line shallowed as the Skate spread its wings and used the tide to its advantage. Fifty yards from the boat the skate surfaced, line was slowly being taken and things were looking grim. Time for that old salmon anglers trick of walking the fish, I clamped down on the spool and walked slowly back up the boat towards the cabin before running back whilst retrieving line. If you keep a constant pressure on and don't drop the rod tip the fish should start to swim against the current/ or in this case tide. It worked, I was now reeling in fast to keep pace with the skate. Eventually a huge fish surfaced by the boat. Ronnie opened the door of the boat, to land the skate a gaff was placed in the edge of the wing and together we slid the fish sideways through the door. The gaff hole would soon heal as evidenced by recaptures. This fish was unusual in that she didn't already have a tag and was covered in huge leeches.

Years ago skate would be killed and taken back to port for weighing on a gantry, followed by the inevitable big white hunter photos. In these enlightened times fish are measured and the weight calculated on this basis. Ronnie's initial estimate of 180lb proved to be well short, as the vital statistics 86 inches from nose to tail and 67 inches from wing tip to wing tip gave me weight of 202lb.

Mr Skate had made another anglers dream come true............. thank you Ronnie!