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The Mark Of Spurro

  IN this day and age, it's becoming the norm more and more to paint wild animals as being rather loveable (writes Ian Lindsay). One of the latest creatures to get the positive public relations makeover is the shark, with the gist of many, many nature programmes being 'they're not as black as they're painted'. While I'd broadly agree with such sentiments, I had some first-hand experience of the slightly nastier side of a certain Scottish shark on my latest trip to the Sound of Mull. 
  Skipper Davy Holt was the man taking Gareth Griffiths of the IAC (Internet Angling Club) and myself north from Lochaline to seek these critters up the sound, and we were hopeful of a good catch - even though we were only days
into the New Year. The simple fact is that spurs live in certain habitats all year round - usually deep water, muddy seabed, and preferably in some sort of deep hole. Find the three together, and you'll find these spiky dogs. 
And so it was - having travelled through the pitch black for hours before day broke, guided only by the backlit display on Davy's GPS navigator and its rolling road display. 

  It was raining from the start of the trip, and that's how it would be on and off all day. But the fishing was so good we hardly noticed.  The St Andrews-caught mackerel bait we had to offer the fish was third-rate, backed up by some frozen squid - but it didn't take long before Gareth boated the first spur at about 9lb. I soon followed suit with one just a little larger, then Linda, Davy's girlfriend, got the first 10-pounder of the day. But somewhere in among the landing and returning of my spur, a lot of blood appeared on the gunwale. I assumed the fish had been responsible, but when I wiped my hand, it became obvious the joke was on me and that I'd 'been done' by the fish's lethal dental cutting plates - without feeling a thing!  

  Though blood gushed from my left index finger, in reality I was lucky - as from what Davy tells me it takes only a touch to sever part of your finger on the teeth, which are sharper than razor blades. Linda did a great job patching me up with plasters and antiseptic, though she spoiled it all by saying (after I was forced to wear a single glove all day to protect the wound) that it made me look a bit like Alvin Stardust! The early pace slowed, though a couple more spurs and spotted dogs, plus a 3lb. thornback for me, meant we were never allowed to get bored.  Yet Davy knew we could do better, so he moved us to a new mark - and here we witnessed the truly piranha-like qualities of the spurs. There was a brief lull till the scent of our baits wafted to the wandering spurs, then they descended on our hooks in ever-increasing numbers - and in an ever more worked-up state! 

  Three times tangled fishing lines were bitten through by gnashing fish on the boat - I lost 120 metres of line both times it happened to me - while Gareth had his waterproof trousers cut in several places, and our skipper decreed we'd have to net each fish to keep them under control till they were returned. Now you might argue we got what we deserved for catching the fish - but as the spurs got more rabid at seabed level 360 feet below, those we boated began to appear with distinct bloody cut marks on their flanks. Davy explained the reason - when spurs get in a frenzy and see another
member of the pack with food, they give it a bite to make it drop its prey, then nip in to steal its meal! Now that's kind of scary, I'd say - yet the thing is spurdogs can live up to 75 years, so obviously the bickering never gets too carried away. But can you imagine a cod doing that? We live such sheltered lives in the east! We caught steadily, though there was hard evidence of the importance of tactics and knowledge of how to fish a given mark when a group of small-boat
fishermen moved eyeball to eyeball with us and proceeded to catch just two fish all day... 

 In the final analysis, Gareth - who has caught more spurdogs than I've had hot dinners - had top-caught with 28 spurs, while I managed 20 (double my previous best tally), Linda had 16, Davy 15 and Albert five. Davy and his dad tend to take a back seat, of course, so though we visitors invariably outcatch them, we're always left with the feeling of having been toyed with! 

My score included the fish of the day at least, and since I'm more motivated by big fish than big catches, that pleased me. A spur of 12lb. 8oz. added around a pound to my best, and I also had another at 10lb. 14oz. Few fish were weighed, though we agreed that 9lb. was the average.  There was another day to go, and another skate bash was the plan - but we had one big concern: the weather. We'd learned a Force 8 wind was meant to rise, and the fears were that we'd end up fishing inside Loch Aline, or heading home early. As it happened, though, the weathermen had got it wrong, and we were delighted to encounter little more than odd gusts all day that came to nothing.

 Our mark this time was just around the corner from port - I hadn't even got my reel attached to the rod as Davy dropped anchor - but there were no concerns as the water was 408 feet deep. I had a minor problem in that one of Gareth's unruly spurs had chomped off my only braided line the day before - so I had to fish stretchy 20lb. nylon on my light rod and 'spare' reel. The result was that I barely saw a bite all day on that one, even though ultimately it landed four spotted dogfish and a spurdog. In other words, braid is a must, and I'd have caught far more 'littlies' if I'd had some. Things were slow for a while, the five fish mentioned above mirrored, catch-wise, by Gareth. Then, just as he had retrieved a bait to find it eaten down to nought but a skinful of water and crawling with 'crispies' (nasty little beasts like woodlice that munch into the baits), my skate rod's tip folded over. 

 Just as well from my point of view, as it was Davy's girlfriend, Linda, who would have been thrown into battle if any of the 'communal' rods had attracted the fish.  However, the presence of a former St Andrews coalie as bait proved crucial, and I was soon being fitted out with knee pad and kidney harness - variations on the themes of butt pad and shoulder harness respectively, but less work! I wound down onto the fish, the 25-40lb. class Penn Tuna Stick and International 12 taking the strain with ease. It was soon moving, and from this fact I surmised it wasn't the biggest of skate. Yet Davy had only ever boated titchy ones this early, so it was still a worthy adversary.  The fish came up with little fuss, and soon we were boating a lovely little 83-pound female skate that measured 66 inches long by four feet wide.  Gareth and I had doubts about the weight (we thought it looked less) but both Albert and Davy checked the weight chart and it was spot-on. Female skate, of course, are far weightier than males, and when I tried to grip the fish for a photo I was reminded it was indeed a bulky beast! 

 We waited for another skate to show, but there was no quick action - though the skate rods, each bearing a 12/0 hook and whole fish and squid baits, were being tugged at mercilessly by something or other which we assumed to be small spurs like we'd caught earlier (we'd landed three of 3-4lb).  However, when Gareth finally made contact with a fish, what popped up but a conger of 6-7lb. - no monster, but enough to get us paying more attention. The thing is, congers are usually sticklers for quality bait - and since ours was somewhere between dodgy and rancid, we'd expected them to take a rain check. Yet sure enough, another eel soon came along - and Davy struck into what looked a quality fish. It dived powerfully, putting a skate-like curve in the heavy rod and taking line. However, there was no happy ending as a tangle of lines on the way up saw the fish escape.  Probably an eel in the 30-40lb. class, we were all dying to see it, so it
was a pity. 

  Not long after, I returned from collecting a cup of coffee from part-time galley slave Linda, and noted a bit of a bend in my skate rod. I wound down in hope, not expectation, but soon ascertained there WAS excess weight there. 
A few kicks told me it was a fish and not another tangle, and I was expecting something pretty good.  I wasn't disappointed, either - for what ultimately hit the top but five feet of writhing conger! Not the fattest of eels, it weighed 17lb. - Gareth bravely volunteered to unhook it, and had quite a struggle, while Linda ran squealing for the cabin
and bolted herself in. Everyone and everything was well slimed up, but it was a fitting finale to another interesting day. 
It was nice to have all the luck for a change, and it's only rarely I can say I've followed a 200lb. catch one day with two fish weighing 100lb. between them, as well as registering two personal-best fish in a weekend (a 12lb. 8oz. spur and the conger).  But what can you say about Lochaline, and Davy in particular? Quite simply, it's the place and he's the man!


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