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A Guide to catching Common Skate

The purpose of this "Guide" is to give the relevant factual information required for the capture and safe return of Common Skate caught by anglers. I also hope it counters some of the fictional information that has been published in the Angling press regarding the world of Skate Angling. This is not a finished page and will be updated quite a bit more.

The Common Skate is one of the few species of fish where local populations can suffer as badly from poor angling practices as from commercial fishing pressure. The once prolific grounds off the Northern & Western Coast's of Scotland were wiped out in the 1970's mainly due to the now frowned upon practice of anglers bringing skate ashore to be weighed and photographed, before their carcases were ignominiously dumped off the end of the local pier! Thankfully times have changed and now anglers practice catch and release, with some even partaking in the tagging programme.

So... you decide you want to catch a Common Skate, where do you go, what tackle do you use?? Well read on and I'll do my best to give you the information you need.

Location

Firstly you have to find an area with a population of Commons before you can catch them, the easiest way and the most commonly followed route is to do what everyone else does, fish off Oban. This gives you access to Skate angling 12 months of the year as the Skate are resident in the areas they are found. There are a few other places to catch them, such as the west Coast of Ireland and a few areas further North from Oban, however these areas tend to be very weather dependant thus restricting the chances of getting out after the Skate.

In the late summer months they can be found right in shallow water, even as little as 30'. Then as the water cools, they move out of the shallower water back in to the deeper areas. By deeper I mean 200' is plenty depth to be able to catch commons all year round. If your fishing in deeper water, say 400' then the skate are there *all* year round, despite what has been said they don't move out to deeper water. Anyway to almost everyone 400' passes off as deep water. Also despite what has been said, tide strengths do not have a lot of effect on catches, the only real effect tide is in the amount of weight you have to use. That being said the state of the tide does have an effect, but you will find out most marks fish at different states of the tide.

Tackle

When angling for Skate use appropriate tackle IGFA 30lb Class gear should be regarded as the absolute minimum to use. Ideally 50-80lb Class should be used. This is as much to combat the 'inhospitable' conditions in the areas where skate are targeted. i.e. deep water, strong tides. The use of heavier gear allows the skate to be landed more quickly, i.e. not exhausted, allowing it to be released in better condition.

You can land Skate on lighter gear but you are not doing yourself or more importantly the fish any favours. Personally when Skate fishing I don't use anything less than 50lb class, with 80lb being the norm. This way when I hook a fish I know the odds are on my side and the fish will be boated with the minimal chance of a hook being left in the fish

Terminal tackle needs to be strong and is best kept simple. A single 12/0 bronzed hook (e.g. Mustad 3406), preferably with the barb crushed down is best. Never use stainless or plated hooks, as these will not biodegrade if they have to be left in a skate. Keep hook links short (maximum of 24"/60cm). Short hook links are necessary to minimise the chances of deep hooking your skate. These should be made up of 150lb (minimum) breaking strain monofilament, (there is absolutely no need for wire) crimped to a quality 200lb rated swivel. This hook link should then be attached to an 8' (2.4m) rubbing leader or 'wind on leader' ( How to make Wind on leader ) made of 150lb b.s. monofilament. This is to protect the mainline from the sharp thorns on the skate's tail. This leader also helps when bringing the skate to the side of the boat. How to make a skate friendly trace.

The weight boom runs on the heavy mono of the rubbing leader / wind on leader, the main reason for this is to avoid it damaging the mainline and also to assist in keeping the mainline well away from the Skate's sharp tail thorns.

The business end, showing the full trace.
A close up of the boom with the leader runnng through it.

Bait

Common Skate are not fussy eaters and have a very varied menu; this covers most shellfish and fish species. As an apex predator, Common Skate are deceivably agile when it comes to hunting and can easily catch fast swimming species like Herring & Mackerel. More common fodder fish species are Spurdog, Rays, Dogfish and Whiting with Edible Crabs, Prawns, Squat Lobsters and Scallops making up the bulk of the shellfish fodder species.

The most commonly used baits are Mackerel and Coalfish around the 1lb to 1.5lb mark

A bait ready for use (note small bit of Car inner tube holding the bait on the crushed barb hook)

Striking a take

Always 'hit' a take as quickly as possible - never wait for a run to develop as this will almost always result in a deep-hooked fish. Don't worry about missing a bite; Skate can and do, swallow very big baits in seconds and if you do miss one, they almost always come back for a second, third or even fourth attempt at a bait.

A lot has been said about the “lack of” fight from Common Skate, this usually comes from people that have either never caught one or have been using mono rather than braid as a the main line. With mono the stretch takes most of the fight out of the encounter, giving the angler very little “feel” as to what is happening at the other end of his line. However with braid you are in full contact with the fish at all times, making the fight rather more interesting.

Handling

When a Skate is brought to the side of the boat, it can be held quite easily by holding the trace and then getting a firm handhold at the cheek area of the skate. Large specimens may require to be gaffed to aid holding the fish. This needs to be done with great care. The gaff should be used only in the area outside the halfway point of the leading edge of the wing and no more than 3" from the leading edge. This gives a secure hold and poses no danger to internal organs. I have marked the area on this photo with a red mark and the second picture show's a perfectly gaffed fish being held in the water till everything is ready on the boat for the tagging.

If and when you bring a Skate into the boat, due to their size and shape they can be very difficult to move about : mother nature forgot to fit a set of handles to them. The easiest solution I have found is lump of old trawler netting, simply manoeuvre the fish over the net then you can use it to easily lift the fish back over the side. (see below)

keep the amount of time you have the fish out the water to a bare minimum, Skate show stress by taking on a pink tinge around the wing edges and tail. You can see it just starting to happen with the fish in the picture above, providing the fish is returned before it gets any worse then it should recover OK (The one in the picture was recaptured 2 months later). However the worse it the pink tinge gets the less chance of survival the fish has so it is worth making sure you have everything ready before you take the fish out the water. When taking photographs keep the fish as low as you can, holding the fish almost verical with all it's weight on the tail does it no good at all and probably does internal damage to the root of the tail. Probably the best pose for for the skates benifit and to show off the size of the fish is the one used in the picture above.

While on the subject of handling the Skate, be very wary of the tail. The large thorns on the tail are razor sharp and the Skate have a habit of putting the tail where you don't want it to be. Another danger area is only found on male Skate, it's a rough patch or razor sharp thorns on the leading outer edge of the wings. Lastly is the mouth, a Common can easily crush a wayward hand to a pulp, so it pays to be very careful when unhooking the fish.

If the fish is deep hooked, DO NOT attempt to remove the bronzed hook. Simply cut the hook link as near to the hook as possible and release the fish. You can do more damage by trying to retrieve the hook and a living Skate returned is worth more than the cost of a hook! Deep hooking can and does cause fatal injuries to skate. TRY TO AVOID IT AT ALL COSTS!

If you can, try to avoid bringing the skate into the boat, they can be measured and the tag (if any) checked at the side of the boat. If the skate has to be brought onboard, for whatever reason, have everything to hand before doing so in order to release the fish back into the water as quickly as possible.

Measure the wingspan and the length, check the sex and then obtain the weight from charts available from Glasgow Museums or from here.

If the fish is tagged, note the tag number before releasing the Skate DO NOT REMOVE THE TAG.

FINALLY, if you catch a tagged Common Skate, please take a note of the tag number, sex, wingspan, length date, time, location, also any other relevant information and send to RICHARD SUTCLIFFE, ART GALLERY & MUSEUM, KELVINGROVE, GLASGOW , G3 8AG . Or you can report a recapture online on the Form on this site.

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