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The Beginning

BEFORE I met Davy Holt, my angling career was 'stuck in a rut' (writes Ian Lindsay, sea angling columnist, Dundee Evening Telegraph).

  In Fife and Tayside, where I do most of my fishing, sport - while hardly what you'd call poor - is all about catching lots of small fish, in fairly shallow inshore waters. Cod that threaten 10lb. now and again, pollack in the same league, ballan wrasse to 4lb., mackerel - that sort of thing.

  Then it all changed. And I have to thank web columnist Alan Pemberton for the priceless introduction to a man I'd consider to be the most knowledgeable fisherman (and skipper) I've ever come across. Because let's get this straight from the start - Davy doesn't just catch big fish because he's lucky enough to be based on the Sound of Mull. There's a lot more to it than that. Years of hard work, startling successes interspersed with perplexing failures, a record-shattering skate, even bigger ones that got away. All these have gone into the forging of a man who can undertake startling voyages - by the standards of other amateur boatmen - through treacherous seas in the pitch dark, in the depths of winter when conditions can vary wildly. And successfully fish the plunging depths of the sound itself, where 400 feet of water can be encountered within casting distance of the shore in places. There's a lot of water down there, you know!

 Davy - although what might be termed a great hunter of fish - is also a great lover of fish. His mission isn't simply to put the sound's mammoth skate on the map, but also to prevent their extinction. There are people who can't understand why a man who wants to hook a peace-loving fish and haul it into the sunlight would also love this creature - but that's Davy through and through. He knows that most folk don't know anything of skate and their habits, or the scandalous treatment they've suffered through unthinking, uncaring commercial fishing practices - so someone had to state their case, to be their champion. That's what makes Davy tick, and explains his intimate association with UK-wide tagging and conservation programmes.

 Pretty heavy stuff - just like the fish - but someone has to do it. Still, there's fun to be had in the pursuit of skate, even if the big picture dictates that we're actually working for research purposes as much as anything when we drop a line from Davy's big cat, Catchalot II. And as for me, well what can I say? Eight trips to Oban and not so much as a skate take - then five-and-a-half hours on Davy's boat changed my angling horizons forever. Read on...

 The date: March 25,2000. I headed over to Lochaline to fish with Davy Holt for the first time, in the company of Alan Pemberton. Alan was lucky enough to have had the 'Holt Experience' once already - and his return of two common skate weighing 140lb. and 141lb. from that single sojourn had me hoping for something pretty special. Still, as I wrote at the time, there was a great big albatross hanging round my neck - I'd fished eight times for skate out of Oban, and hadn't even had so much as a run, let alone a fish. So there, in a nutshell, was the conflict; Ian's hoodoo versus the good-luck charm of Mr Holt.

 The skip soon had us out on one of his usual skate marks, out off Lochaline pier - and he seemed confident of success. I wasn't, to be honest - even though it had been made clear before hand that I'd have first option on any big fish that took, and that we'd be putting out any number of big-fish offerings. I suppose my mindset was that this was March, a hopeless time for fishing most places - but at least there was a fine supporting cast on offer, of which the crew of myself, Alan, Davy, his dad Albert and young whippersnapper 'deckie' John MacDonald took full advantage.
Lesser spotted dogs in the main admittedly, but there were also a few corking thornback rays - best more than 9lb., which fell to John's rod and was back in the ocean before I could get my camera out of the case!

 It hadn't escaped my attention that Davy said 1 pm was the 'hot' time on this particular tide, and as the clock ticked on towards 2.30, I was beginning to resign myself to another hard-luck story. Then, all of a sudden, World War 3 broke out 410 feet below the Catchalot II. First, one of Davy's 'heavy-duty' rods keeled over - and naturally the skate-catching 'virgin' was going to be slung in at the deep end! Yet once I'd been geared up in the usual paraphernalia of butt pad and harness and wound down (as instructed) onto the big fish - which was glued fast to the muddy seabed - there was more action as my own rod walloped down hard and yards of line began to peel off my Penn International 12.
Davy had pulled my leg earlier about this being a "wee baby reel", but I wasn't about to miss the chance to christen my own gear - so I handed over skate No. 1 to Davy, and took up the challenge of the fish on my own gear instead.
As on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, this was a 50-50 shot - I could've been giving away a record breaker in exchange for a 35-pounder - but I've always been fairly lucky (skate-catching apart, admittedly!), and it was to prove
the right choice. 

 It soon became clear both fish were substantial - though the gulf between the experience of the anglers tackling them couldn't have been much wider. Still, I kept pace with Davy for a while - both our skate came unstuck and were moving upward pretty well in tandem - but then my fish managed to turn somewhere in midwater, while Davy just kept his one coming. Talk about heaven and hell - I was in both as the beast attached to my 40lb. mainline used its bulk to test every muscle in my body. The thing is, you get a skate on, and at first you let your back do all the work. Your back gets sore, so you use your shoulders; your shoulders tire, so you use your knees. Eventually you run out of parts of your body to take the strain! So, with me in paroxysms of pain and ecstasy (this was one dream fish on the end, after all), Davy showed how it should be done - and soon he had a smart 139lb. female skate on deck. That was bad news for me, as it freed the master of the one-liner to unleash his full mickey-taking powers as I continued to struggle with my own particular challenge.

 Still, my fish was soon moving upward again - having plunged all the way to the seabed again from at least 100 feet up - though I was tiring, and there were strange little pings coming from my Med Tuna 25-40lb. class rod and line. Scary!
Yet everything held - even my knot attaching one of Davy's great white-proof traces - and eventually, around an hour-and-a-half after first contact, my first ever skate hit the surface. And what a beaut she was! It took three of us to heave the leviathan over the gunwale, and I was relieved to confirm this was no run-of-the-mill fish. I'd scaled Everest at
the first time of asking! 

 The fish was seven feet long and five-and-a-half feet wide, and I could see Davy was excited. So much so that the big scales and gantry came out for an accurate weigh-in, as opposed to the usual weight-chart estimate. We waited to get a fix - the sea was fairly lively - and came to an agreement of 205lb. Some way to lose your virginity! After tagging, back she went - and I was pleased to hear she was out for photo sessions on another few occasions that season. Still, it was nice to have caught this grand old lady first. 

  We fished a second day, but I spent most of my time rubbing the base of my aching spine, fretfully watching the rodtips and fearing the long-term effects of being pitched into battle against another beastie. Yet amazingly, I did land the only other skate - though the contrast was as stark as it could be, for after Davy handed me an already-hooked fish in the hope it might be a big thornie, what came up but a baby of a 4lb. Common Skate!

 The story didn't end their, either - for the 205-pounder won me every angling prize under the sun! Angler's Mail, Angling Times, Sea Angler, Daily Record - all judged it to be pick of the month, and I estimated the prizes to be worth a conservative £850 in total. It made 29 years of waiting all worthwhile!


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