After the monster-fish experience described in the first article, I couldn't wait to get back over to Lochaline - and a couple of months later, I headed west again - this time in the company of Graeme Lamb, my long-time fishing buddy from Carnoustie. Graeme also had a sorry record on Oban charter trips when skate-hunting - though his flop-list wasn't half as long as mine. Still, having discovered the wonders of fishing with Davy in the Sound of Mull, it would've been
churlish if I hadn't wangled an invite for my old pal, wouldn't it?
Talk about an intensive fishing weekend - we pulled up on the quayside at Lochaline after the long Friday-night drive west, where Davy had the boat engines running and greeted us with the words, "Right, you're here - let's get fishing!" It was only for the bait, but we had as much fun in the hour-and-a-half that followed as on many a 'real' fishing trip. The target was to catch mackerel for the next few days' bait, and after a couple of abortive stop-offs, we had a boatful of local youngsters to thank for locating the fish at Ardtornish, and soon we'd landed 30 or 40. Just as well, because we never saw another mackerel all weekend!
A brief stop in the mouth of Loch Aline itself then saw us top up the bait supply with some 1lb. coalies, and it was 'Mission Accomplished'. I'll tell you what, Davy is a hard taskmaster - and no sooner had we finished this than we headed for a quick beer, and were issued with our orders for next morning: up at 6.30, and on the quay for 7 am! We didn't know it then, but, as we'd finish the trip at 11.30 pm, it would be a pretty exhausting schedule all round.
Day One 'proper', and Davy took us, not surprisingly, to the area where I'd landed my 205lb. skate last time out. Yet it soon became clear after a few 2lb. lesser-spotted dogfish came aboard that chances of a repeat here would be pretty slim - the complex tides meant our lines were soon forming clumps of knitting here, there and everywhere - so it was time for 'Plan B'. A quick shore stop-off for supplies saw our trip nearly over before it had started when Davy's dad, Albert, disappeared on unauthorised extended shore leave, and the falling tide nearly stranded the boat on the slip. But four sets of pushing and pulling hands finally freed the keel, and we were off to one of Davy's secret marks - in search of spurdogs.
These spiny dogfishes were something I'd caught before, but never in any great numbers, and not awfully big, with a personal best of 7lb. 8oz. to aim for. They grow far bigger than spotted dogs, of course, and are rather more
highly prized for their fight (and their flesh, which is why the precise catch location must remain secret!).
We headed out into the sound on what turned out to be a marathon two-hour plus trip - with the wind gathering strength and Davy's catamaran starting to crash over the building waves. Finally we anchored up in a more sheltered spot, and down went the baits. I soon managed a doggie, then Graeme hooked into what looked like a good spurdog - but I became the villain of the piece when, winding up to check my bait, I caught his line and the fish jumped the hook!
The stick flew even more when I first landed a spur of seven-and-a-half pounds myself, then added a brace of conger eels weighing 12lb. 10oz. and 10lb. 12oz! I was over the moon with my three big fish, but Davy wasn't happy - and soon we were on the move again, to an even more sheltered spot. Here, it soon became apparent that our personal best lists were about to be re-written - for the fishing was out of this world. I was already on Cloud Nine after my congers, but soon we were ALL there, on a now flat-calm sea that had us stripping down from full waterproofs to t-shirts after a while. First in action was Graeme, who was soon making up for lost time with a 9lb.-plus spur. Albert took a break from supplying teas, coffees and food to bring in a double-header of spurs weighing maybe 18lb. between them, and I got in on the act with another nice 9lb.-plus spur. Graeme and Davy both had thornback rays at about this point, best about 6lb., then after a few lesser (5-6lb.) spurs I finally got into the biggies with a fish of 11lb. 5oz.
From there on in, huge fish were hitting the deck every time my attention strayed from my rodtip - though I was soon doing OK as well with two more double-figure spurs. Then Davy brought in the fish of the day - a belting spurdog of just under 13lb. - while Graeme added a double hit and a few double-figure fish himself. He was actually catching more than anyone by now incidentally, and I wasn't feeling nearly so guilty about my earlier crimes!
Finally I opted to do things 'the hard way', setting up my spinning rod and 12lb. line on a fixed spool - and soon I was battling with a personal-best spur of 11lb. 10oz! I got a 3-4lb. thornie, then Davy added a 4lb. ling for variety - the only thing other than baitfish we didn't return alive, incidentally - and soon dusk began to draw in and declare that our fabulous 'alternative' day's fishing must end. But what a catch - somewhere between 30 and 40 big spurdogs came aboard, including three over 11lb. and one over 10lb. for me. Graeme also had four double-figure fish, and Davy, though he didn't keep count, caught as well as anyone.
Heading home with a spectacular red sky as the backdrop in the fading light, I took time out to reflect on what an amazing day it had been - I'd gone from being a guy who'd caught precious few double-figure fish in 30 years of
angling, and certainly never more than one in a day, to catching SIX 10lb.-plus fish in a session!
Now that's what you call fishing, though there's always room for improvement at Lochaline - as Day Two there would prove. Still, there was a distinct air of second-day blues in evidence after Graeme and I had dragged ourselves down to the slip at 8 am, off the back of six hours' sleep and a near-20-hour day on the Saturday. To make matters worse, the bright sun that had smiled on us since our arrival had been blotted out by grey, overcast conditions that sent the
Even Davy was finding the pace hard to handle, and, after skulking in the wheelhouse while Graeme and I tried in vain to find a pollack on some inshore rough ground and even a shipwreck or two, he opted to crash out beneath decks rather than join us on our common skate quest! The pollacking stint was probably the low point of the weekend, and Davy was not a happy chap when a diving boat nipped in right under his nose and started dropping its customers on our proposed marks. Graeme and I exchanged worried glances as we fished a wreck we knew had a diver on it - we didn't reckon it would help our chances of catching much, and were also more than a little worried at the thought of hooking a member of our own species!
There was relief, then, when Davy gunned up the engines and headed for the deeper water that would see Graeme attempt to break his common skate duck. At this stage, conditions were bitter - it was full trench warfare gear of
thermal gloves and hoods done up so only noses were visible, and even the verdant Highland backdrop seemed to adopt an altogether darker personality in the dank, overcast conditions. Still, Graeme worked up the enthusiasm to set up most of the bank of heavy skate-fishing rods in the icy drizzle - only fair as far as I was concerned, as he was 'on the strike' (he'd get to take on any skate hooked), and the skipper had gone for a nap! Justice was done when Graeme quickly hooked the day's first skate - though it didn't exactly play ball. Each time I've spoken to Davy about skate, he's mentioned that these fish have an awful habit of ignoring the ranks of big baits laid out for their pleasure, and instead sucking in some tiny, half-chewed dogear of mackerel fished on a little hook and a light rod. Possible, we thought, but how likely was it to happen to US? Very likely, as it turned out!
In short, this was precisely the script for Graeme - tackling his first-ever skate - though there was a two-edged sword aspect to the fight after a skate grabbed his dogfish-and-rays bait fished on a 30lb. class boat rod. On the downside, no fitting on the rod or reel for gimble or harness meant he had to fight the fish the hard way - but there was a very big bonus in that this skate didn't 'go to ground'. Getting the fish unstuck is the most physically taxing part of the battle,
but for some reason, Graeme's debut skate - a 90lb. male fish that showed signs of a previous brush with death in the shape of cuts inflicted by a commercial fishing net - was on the move right away. As a result the fight lasted just 30 minutes - a bit of a non-event compared to what was to follow - but Graeme wasn't complaining! Back went the fish, then Davy's dad, Albert, geed the still-dozy crew up with some lunch, even managing to raise his son from his slumber, and a few more fish came aboard - I landed my smallest-ever lesser spotted dogfish (made the whole trip worthwhile, it did), then Graeme had a conger of 9lb-plus.
Obviously knowing about Graeme's dislike of eels, it put on a superb impersonation of a killer cobra by inflating itself and hissing at its captor. Never seen that before, but it WAS effective... Davy then hooked into what he called "a bigger conger" - and earned some leg-pulling as it turned out to be the smallest of the weekend. It had already been a bit of a one-man show, but Graeme, who'd also landed a thornback ray by now, was again in action as a beefier rod he'd set up got a take from ANOTHER big beastie. A skate again, this one really took him to the cleaners, using the strong tide to dive further and further downtide of the boat. He really had us all worked up, with Davy predicting this could easily be something very like the 205lb. fish I'd taken a few months earlier - or even the same one. Then, after Graeme's battle had been running for an hour, it was MY turn to join the action.
Now it's not often you see your rod wallop over into a 90 degree curve with a sense of dread, but that's just how I felt. For starters, this was the 20lb. class rod I use to catch 2lb. cod at home, not a beefy skate stick. It did at least have a gimble for a butt pad, but there were no reel lugs to use a harness. Worst of all, though, I was fishing 24lb. Spiderwire Fusion line, and had noted a rather large worn patch right in the middle of the spool a few minutes earlier...and now a monster fish was on the other end. Great - I almost quit before I began!
As if to further stress how slim my chances were, Graeme's fish was using the tide rip to give him one heck of a battle - it even came up to the surface 150 feet behind the boat at one stage, cruised along the surface like a manta ray then sounded back down to the seabed. I'd been told before that catching a skate on braided line - with no stretch, unlike nylon - was scary. And it was. Yet that said, the fight was all the more exhilarating for it - though I could have done without feeling Graeme's skate, now nearing the top, grating up my already half-shot line. Finally, his fish hit the surface - after an hour and 55 minutes - and to be honest, there was a little disappointment that it wasn't bigger than the
119lb. it made.
Graeme later admitted that still being a 'green' skate fisher (aren't we all?!) he had probably failed to put as much drag pressure on his 50lb. line as he could've, thus extending the fight. We'll forgive him this once...
Back to my 'little problem', and after feeling the fish rush downtide several times with all the power and pace of a tuna (they sure know how to harness that tide), I was having a great time - though there was that feeling that the dodgy line, small hook and weak rod and reel would never last the pace. It was so different from my last big skate - the 205 was a big, fat, lazy old female, while this was a muscly young fish in the prime of life - and the difference in fight was like night and day. Amazingly, I got the fish to the top after less than an hour - but it didn't like the look of us, and was soon diving back down at speed. I held it as hard as I dared, and still the line held. By this time, the fish's strength was almost spent - and I was able to gently ease it back up. This time it surfaced 30 feet behind the boat, and we all saw a mega-problem - there was a very obvious frayed patch on the mainline, just by the leader knot. And I was meant to drag a three-figure fish to the boat on THAT? Dream on! Yet Davy knew what to do - and his quick thinking made a fishing miracle become possible.
Quite simply, he sent Albert up to let some rope off the anchor warp - and the boat slid back to the fish. In he came - pretty much a twin of Graeme's fish at 115lb. And as for the line - I nearly fainted when I saw it! Honestly, I was lucky if there was 12lb. of strength left in that wisp of Spiderwire - and I'd given a 115lb. fish some incredible stick with it. That was it - and again Davy had delivered, right at the death. Graeme, the overall star of the show, was over the moon - while I was feeling as if I'd achieved something pretty special, too. My fishing gear certainly thought so - the line was wrecked, the rod butt came unglued next day and the reel's gear train developed a distinct wobble that means it won't ever be considered for heavy-duty work in future.