Preparing for Big Fish Battle
It is difficult to prepare for a species and venue that you only get to fish once a year. Last years trip had been a steep learning curve but lessons had been learnt and my tactics tweaked ready for my return.
Top of my list was a two-speed multiplier reel. I had used an old Shimano TLD25 last year and found it a nightmare when hauling the heavy weights used up to the surface with each bait change. A reel with a low gear setting would make life easier and not tire the arms so much. It would also be a big help when playing a fish, allowing for small line gains to be achieved when in lockdown with a skate. I settled on a Shimano TLD20A 2-speed and loaded this up with 79lb Daiwa J-Braid. This would be used on a US model Ugly Stik 50lb Class Boat Rod, which had handled the skate well last year.
Nothing had quite prepared me for how resistant the skate are to budging during a fight. My gear needed to be super strong without any point of weakness... and that included me!
A bimini twist was tied in the end of the braid forming a loop with near 100% knot strength. This is a knot used worldwide by big game anglers for a high-strength leader connection. My leader would be in the form of a readymade 25ft 300lb Momoi Wind-On mono leader. The thick mono is required to combat the sharp thorns and spines found on the skate. A wind-on leader allows you to wind the leader onto the reel and this means you can bring a fish right to the kayak with ease. The mono leader starts inside a length of thick hollow-core braid which, when pulled tight, traps the mono like a Chinese finger trap. The join between the mono and hollow-core is served with finer thread in such a way to prevent the mono slipping out yet providing a slim-line connection between the mono and hollow-core that will pass through the rod eyes.
The hollow-core is finished with a spliced loop, to which you attach to the bimini twist loop on your braid. For this loop-to-loop connection I use a Cats Paw knot. This is effectively a loop-to-loop knot that is repeated several times – three times seems to work well without forming a bulky connection knot. This knot needs to be carefully and gently pulled tight ensuring the braid loops form neatly against each other and not overlapping.
The Skate Rig
The rig used is essentially a heavy-duty running leger. A homemade weight slider is passed onto the mono, constructed from a short length of thick rubber hose with a link swivel cabled tied and super-glued onto it. A large plastic bead buffers against a 250lb AFW ball-bearing swivel. I tie this onto the mono using a half-tucked blood knot. Tying knots with thick mono is never the easiest but providing you have a solid anchor point to pull the knots against, and lube the knot with some water, a tight knot can be achieved. Others use crimps but I have more confidence in knotting mono.
A short trace is used to avoid deep hooking and this consists of 24 inches of 250lb mono tied to a bronzed 14/0 Mustad O’Shaughnessy with the barb ground off. Skate have very tough mouths so ensuring a sharp hook point is a must. A small diamond file makes an easy way to sharpen hook points whilst on the water. To test rig strength, place the hook around something solid and ensure the wind-on to braid connection is off the reel. Walk backwards carefully – any obvious weak points will soon give out. If it’s all holding up with plenty of pressure then you can be confident in your gear during a testing battle with a skate!
First Day Success
The long journey North took over 12 hours, meeting Ben half way who was travelling from Lowestoft in the far East of the country. The forecast was looking reasonable all week and spirits were running high amongst our group of 8 - Mark, Martin, Stu, John, Ian, Alistair, Ben and Myself. I launched mid-morning with Ben on our Hobie Outback’s and we went in search of bait. Fishing Sabiki rigs in a shallow bay we soon had a few Mackerel. I hooked something a little different and much to my surprise a big Red Band Fish had taken one of the hooks! I have caught these in Plymouth Sound and had somewhat ruled them out as a possible target up in Scotland. I followed this up with one more on the next drop. A small Haddock amongst the mackerel was also a welcome catch.
With enough fresh bait we headed out further to find deep water. We dropped an anchor in over 450ft of water, a challenge in itself from a kayak. With the anchor down and buoyed off we tied up to it and baited up. A cocktail of mackerel and octopus was bound onto the hook and sent to the bottom with a 2lb lead. Things were quiet for some time. The baits were getting the odd attack from dogfish and needed checking every half an hour as the mass of isopods present in deep water were stripping the baits to bones like mini piranhas. Quite annoying when the process of winding the rig in, re-baiting and dropping back down takes at least 10 minutes each time.
We sat all afternoon without any proper bites. I dropped down a baited hokkai rig and pulled up a Black Mouth Dogfish. A deep-water shark species with large eyes, velvety skin, pretty patterning on its body and a mouth that is completely black! This was one of my targets so I was happy.
It was nearly time to head in when I had good bite on the skate rod. I prepared for battle and then pulled up into a solid lump. The rod bent double and I took the strain... Skate On!
With complete confidence in the rig I put the pressure on the fish and hauled it off the bottom. It had other ideas and soon powered back down. This went on for a little while before I got it moving. Half an hour later and it was at the surface. Result! Unhooking was made easy with the barbless hook and some pliers and it was soon released after some photos. A great feeling to catch one on the first day of the trip!
You can see why you need a razor sharp hook and thick mono trace for these mighty fish! A tough mouth and lips covered in hook-like teeth that will quickly make a mess of inferior gear.
We fished on for a little longer but to no avail. John sounded on the radio that he had hooked up closer inshore so I headed over to give him a hand. He brought a lovely female skate to the kayak.
Pushing the Limits
The next two days were very breezy. Ben braved the offshore grounds with me. The water was choppy and on the limits of comfort. Baits were getting annihilated within minutes and it didn’t take long to catch the culprit... Spurdogs.
After persisting and getting through plenty of bait I finally had a better bite. The rod hooped over and I lifted into the unmistakeable weight of a skate. It is quite incredible the amount of pressure needed to haul these beasts from the bottom. Throw in choppy waves and howling winds and things get quite hairy! I kept in control of the situation and battled skate number two to the surface without too much issue.
Battling a Squall
Strong winds again for day three and again Ben and myself braved the offshore marks that had produced in the days before.
Things were fairly slow. I had a bite and briefly hooked up to a fish but the hook popped out, perhaps foul hooked. The wind steadily picked up and we were just about to call it a day as white caps had started to form. That was when Ben had a bite. It was as if we had angered the weather gods as within a few minutes of him hooking up, a particularly strong squall set in with winds gusting over 30mph bringing swelly conditions. It was dodgy but Ben knew what he was doing and the Hobie Outback provided a stable platform to fight the fish from.
Conditions deteriorated quickly and by the time the fish arrived the surface it was a quick unhook and run job!
Schooled by Stu
The next two days brought perfect weather. I planned to fish dawn to dusk to make the most of it. A quick stop for some fresh bait and i managed to tempt a few Octopus on squid jigs. It was then off to the Skate marks.
Things were slow. After 6 hours of constantly feeding a pack of Spurdogs I was getting fed up. Stu joined me and tethered off my bow. He decided to give me a lesson in catching Skate by catching two in quick succession whilst my rod remained motionless! Frustrating but again the fire was re-ignited to catch another one.
We stayed on the water until last light and watched John fight another one as the sun set behind Jura. 12 hours of fishing without a bite is mentally testing.
Last Minute Monsters
Two days remained and the last day would be blown out. I launched at first light onto mirror calm water. The tides were building and the ebb tide was flowing noticeably more than the previous days. We needed 4lb of lead to hold bottom. Hooking a skate in this would be interesting. The tide seemed to have moved the Spurdogs on and the baits were given half a chance to attract a skate. All 8 of us were offshore and it wasn’t long before Alistair hooked up to his first skate, followed by Mark and then Martin.
Much to Ben’s despair I had a big run and hooked up into a powerful fish that had no trouble pulling braid from the reel as it ran off down-tide. I untethered from the buoy and stayed above the fish. This was a demon and was fighting dirty, taking all my strength to tease it from the bottom and putting my gear to its limits. 30 minutes later and I had 30ft less line of my reel than when I started as it had swam into deeper water! There was no budging this fish and it felt like a monster. I had it off the bottom 3 or 4 times for it to just power back with a few flaps of its wings.
An hour in and it was still 200ft down and I was exhausted. When it eventually appeared below the kayak it became apparent as to why it was fighting so hard... it was hooked at the back of the wing!
It was a good size too, a big male fish that must have been getting on for 150lb. After several failed attempts to get hold of the fish, I managed to grab it’s nose just at the right time and get it on it’s back for unhooking. I was super happy to get a decent sized one.
I gave Ben some time to fish the buoy with just his bait in the water but a bite wasn’t forthcoming.... well not until I dropped my bait down again! A solid bite and another heavyweight was hooked. Again it felt a bigger fish and I gave it my all during the fight. The monster rose from the depths and I had saved the biggest till last. It was a big female skate that must have been 160-180lb. That was the cherry on the cake of a fantastic week and the monster i had been looking for.
I was not quite finished though. One last chuck resulted in a strange bite that i managed to connect with. I thought it may be a Ling but it turned out to be a nice 9lb Thornback Ray to finish off the session nicely.
We began to haul the anchor when a call came over the radio that Ian was into a fish. He needed a hand so we hauled up 10kg of anchor and chain quicktime from 450ft which was not an easy effort at all! He was fishing over 1/2 a mile away and by the time we got there the fish was just about to break the surface... perfect timing. A real achievement for Ian who had lost a couple of fish earlier in the week and had left it to the very last minute to catch his first skate!
Everyone from the group had caught either 1 or 2 Skate during the week and I think we managed over 30 species between us. I finished up with 4 Skate and over 20 species. My gear had stood up to the test and the two-speed reel made life easier when locked into battle with the skate. Catching these monsters from the depths is addictive but I will have to wait another year before I get my next go. I can’t wait!
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