I have had several good seasons fishing for Tope since first finding some productive marks on the North Coast of Cornwall a few years ago. They seem almost absent from the South coast, with just the occasional fish caught yet the North Coast can see good numbers inshore during the summer season. The average stamp of fish is between 10-25lb with a good fish being a 25lb+ fish. Very few get caught above 40lb. These may be average fish compared to other areas but one thing is quite apparent in that all the fish down here seem to be males. The bigger female fish appear to be very few and far between. The fish seem turn up from May onwards and I decided upon a tester session one evening after work at the end of the month.
A Lack of Mackerel
Tope are towards the top of the food chain in our inshore waters, feeding upon schooling baitfish, flatfish, squid and more. I have found one of the most effective baits to be a fresh Mackerel flapper, or a live joey. The perfect bait.... if you can catch them! Whilst I enjoyed some excellent Mackerel fishing over winter, by the start of April they had completely moved out of inshore waters and have yet to return some 3 months later. It amazes me how they just disappear! Frozen mackerel baits do work but I just don’t have the confidence in them like I do with freshly caught bait.
I headed out with Andrew from Cornwall Canoes one evening after work. The light evenings give us about 3-4 hours fishing time so we have to time sessions right with the best of the tide to stand any chance of finding fish. We half-heartedly fished for bait knowing full well they just weren’t there. Persisting with big frozen baits we found the usual obligatory dogfish and a few Bull Huss but the toothy target failed to show. Perhaps they just hadn’t moved in yet with the lack of food fish. At least the sunset made up for it...
A Positive Sign
A couple of weeks later and we moved onto the next set of Spring tides. Reports from North coast charter boats showed that a few Tope were starting to be caught so it was all eyes on the forecast looking for some settled weather. I had a mid-week day off work and with a reasonable forecast I rallied the troops, in the form of friend Ed Jane, for a day on the water.
We planned to fish the bottom half of the Ebb down to low and then the full Flood back up to high, giving us the best of the tidal range in the hope that the Tope would show at some point during the day. We launched mid morning on a blissfully warm day. The plan was to drop baits around reefy ground and move around every so often in the hope of finding the fish. I would be fishing with my trusty Tope Tamer combo in the form of a 12-20lb Ugly Stik Braid rod paired with an Avet MX5.8 loaded with 40lb J-Braid. Down went a sliding ledger rig with a 6ft trace consisting of 5ft of 80lb mono and 1ft of 100lb coated wire. The hook of choice is a 11/0 Mustad circle hook. I switched to circles a few years ago and have found a much better hook-up rate compared to J-hooks and the benefit of an almost 100% jaw hook-up rate. This makes for much easier unhooking on a kayak, and the greatly reduced chance of deep hooking is better for the fish too.
Finding the Fish
The first mark in 60ft of water seemed barren so we moved down the coast to a different patch of ground. First drop and something was savagely attacking my bait. It soon was powering off. I tightened up and allowed the circle hook to set – no strike needed. All hell breaks loose as the fish realises it is hooked. Violent thrashing gives you a few seconds grace before the fish steams off on a run. Seeing braid peel off the reel really gets you going!
There was a healthy bend in the rod as I put the brakes on the fish and turned it into the tide. A few minutes of tussling and a grey shape lurked beneath the kayak. This is where the real fun begins. The Tope is on the surface beside the kayak and all of a sudden those teeth feel very close. There’s no real danger if you are confident in controlling the fish on the trace and when handling the fish. It’s a case of waiting for the opportune to pull the fish onto the kayak. Trace in one hand, grabbing one of the pectoral fins with the other and you can control the fish as you slide it onto your lap. You can then hold the fish down as you unhook the fish, with a quick photo or two before release. At any point the fish can be pushed back into the water if it gets a bit too feisty! It was an average sized fish of around 15-20lb. A good start to the session.
Some more time passed without much action. Another move to a likely looking ledge in 80ft resulted in another bite. Another good scrap and it was a similar sized fish to the first.
The tide was slowing up and everything went a little still. Ed was still hoping for his first tope so we headed a little way offshore to try some new ground. Opting to drift over low we tickled bait along the clean bottom but apart from a few dogfish little else was showing. I wound a bait up and had a strange bite in mid water. As the bait arrived at the surface a small Tope was following close behind but was so small it had no chance of fitting a whole flapper into it’s mouth. A quick switch to a sliver and it homed straight in and took the bait. Tope number 3 was quickly in the kayak... all 3lbs of it! It’s good to see the small ones about though.
A good 2 or 3 hours then went by without any real action. We headed to one of my favourite spots and dropped anchors. The tide was now noticeably flowing past the kayaks and things just felt fishy. The baits were getting attacked within minutes on the bottom and a steady stream of dogfish and bull huss were being brought up. Eventually I hooked into a rod bender that headed up-tide and turned me on the anchor. A few short runs and I persuaded it towards the surface. It was another fish of around 15-20lb.
Ed was getting a little perplexed as to why I was catching and he wasn’t. He was even using my rigs and my bait so he couldn’t use that as an excuse. There are anglers and there are danglers! To rub salt in the wound I hooked another fish soon after of around 20lbs. I never get bored of catching these awesome fish!
The tide was now in full flow and the dogs were annihilating the baits. Sometimes a nuisance but I reckon that the commotion they cause attracts the larger fish, especially as little bits of bait are ripped off and drift down tide. You just have to persist and wait for a better fish to turn up to the party. This is usually signalled by the sharp savage bites as a tope rips into the bait. This is in stark contrast to the plucks and pulls of the smaller fish and certainly gets the heart pumping! Rod in hand, the bites turn into a run as the fish powers off with the bait. Hook set and the fun begins again. This one felt a little better, staying deep and generally giving more savage head shakes. A good few minutes of the fish racing around and I could see it emerge from the depths. It looked to be the best of the day. After a proper soaking from the fish as it thrashed beside the kayak I soon had it calmed down and on my lap.
Calculating Tope Weights
It would be near impossible to weigh one of these fish on a kayak but there is one way to get a calculated estimate using a formula based on fork length and girth measurements. This is the same formula used widely for blue sharks: Length multiplied by Girth multiplied by Girth all divided by 800, with all measurements taken in inches. There is some debate on the accuracy of this method and it is generally thought to slightly underestimate the true weight of the fish but if you are only comparing ‘calculated fish’ to ‘calculated fish’ then it doesn’t matter. Comparing ‘weighed fish’ to ‘calculated fish’ would not be a fair comparison due to the uncertainty of the formula accuracy. I am a member of the Mounts Bay Angling Club and the club accepts calculated Shark weights for catch and release recording purposes. This particular Tope had a fork length of 54in and a girth of 19.5in, giving a calculated weight of 25.67lb, just over the specimen weight of 25lb in the club. That was me happy! Not a monster Tope compared to some regions but a reasonable fish for the area.
The bites started to dry up as the tide edged off. We called it a day and headed back to shore. I had found great success with 6 hard fighting Tope to the kayak. Ed had experienced one of those days when you can’t do a thing right even if the fish are there and feeding, we all have them and he was gutted! He made up for this a few days later with a shore-caught Tope, which is a great achievement from Cornish shores. He did have to witness my jammy brother catch a 40lb shore caught Tope (weighed and released) right in front of him though – a proper monster for the area!
My sights were now firmly set on catching a bigger fish and with settled weather a couple of days later I put in an evening session after work, fishing up to darkness on the summer solstice. Present at the mark just a few days prior, the Tope were now nowhere to been seen. Even the dogfish and huss were scarce. I returned again another evening two days later to fish a better part of the tide and again the fish were not there. How frustrating! Where do they go?
A Bull Huss of around 10lb and an incredible sunset made for some consolation. I have a theory that with the lack of Mackerel the predators have to cover more ground to find any food and won’t hold up in any one area for very long. These fish are more than capable of covering several miles of coast on a single tide. Until the baitfish return, I think it will be a case of getting lucky and hitting it right when they fish happen to be sniffing around the area you are fishing. One thing is for sure.... I’ll be waiting for them!
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