(February 2001, when I tried to put into words what Davy Holt is all
SCOTLAND may not be the world's greatest sport fishing 'Mecca' - but we still have the odd jewel in the crown (writes Ian Lindsay). The biggest porbeagle shark in the world was caught at Scrabster, giant halibut almost as big as anywhere else have come from Scots waters - but the one species with which we're blessed above all others is the common skate. Yet common isn't the word in this day and age - and that's causing concern among those 'in the know'.
Skate angling expert Davy Holt attended a meeting at Glasgow's Kelvingrove Museum recently, when a Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) - in other words, a 'save the skate' plan - was discussed. Among those present were fisheries scientists struggling to gather data on the species - and who declared certain areas in Davy's happy skate-hunting
ground, in and around the Sound of Mull, were now devoid of big commons. These included some of his best skate-catching marks, so it became clear that it was the sample-gathering methods that were lacking, not the fish! It's no surprise, then, that expert, specialist anglers like Davy have a lot to offer conservation projects like the skate BAP. Because if you don't know where and when the fish will be present, it's hard to protect them.
The aim of the bap is to protect what skate populations are left and gather information on the species, with the ultimate aim of re-colonising areas where they are classed as extinct. Davy has personally caught over 150 skate and had a fair bit of experience in gathering samples for Deep Sea World in North Queensferry, of course, so he's just the man to help! Though the effects of poor angling practice in the past - notably in the Pentland Firth and Loch Broom - are well documented, there seems little doubt that the relatively tiny numbers of fish caught by anglers have had far less effect than trawling in reducing numbers to crisis point on a UK-wide scale.
Commercial fishing practice in times gone by was to sell skate - with no value as human foodstuff - for derisory sums to be converted into fertiliser. The continuing presence of these fish has significant economic benefits for remote western areas (take it from a man who's paid £30 for accommodation, £25 for boat hire and a staggering six quid to park in Oban!) - yet while others must protect the skate from commercial fishing, we anglers have our part to play.
The fact is that select areas of the Western Isles - like the Sound of Mull, where Davy fishes - are among the last strongholds of these monsters. Yet bitter past experience shows that without sensitive handling, the survival
prospects of skate hooked on rod and line are severely reduced. Concern grows season on season that these fish aren't as prolific as they once were in some areas - though as the saying goes, news of the species' death has been greatly exaggerated. Still, Davy has been moved to construct a new Code of Practice aimed at protecting this dinosaur of the deep, and plans are afoot to have copies distributed to tackle shops throughout the country. To keep things in perspective, skate are rough, tough old customers with mouths like kitchen bins who think nothing of chewing up spurdogs, lesser spotted dogfish and thornback rays - yet the fact remains they're susceptible to careless angling practices. Davy, of course, is a master of giving skate the kid-gloves treatment, and that's why he's put together the
His suggestions for good skate angling practice encompass a number of key points:
Don't try to catch skate with gear lighter than is suitable - 30lb. minimum for experienced anglers, and ideally 50-80lb. class gear. An eight-foot heavy (150lb. mono) rubbing trace is a good idea. The heavy gear is common sense if you want to land the fish successfully, and better for the skate, since the fight will last less time. Skate commonly survive recapture - the 205-pounder I landed last March has been out for the cameras three times since!
Perhaps most importantly - KEEP HOOK LENGTHS SHORT. This is Davy's biggest bugbear - deeply-hooked fish have a greatly reduced chance of survival, and long traces allow fish to swallow the bait right down before the bite
registers. Two feet between lead and hook is all that's required. Skate should be hit early, too - this way the bait will be in the mouth, not deeper. It's quite common for skate to have the hook jammed around their cartilaginous lips rather than penetrating their mouths. And if a fish is deep-hooked, don't hang about - just trim the trace as short as possible and get it back quickly. Avoid plated hooks, and use a bronzed single with crushed barb - this is biodegradable.
Handling fish should be done with as much care as possible - gaffing may seem unpleasant to some, but the fact is that a fish gaffed at the halfway point of the outer edge of the wing will suffer no lasting ill effect. Many skate have been recaptured within days or even hours of being returned.
Keep fish out of the water for as little time as possible - and if in a small boat, consider simply unhooking the fish at the side. If you want a photo, try to have the camera primed and ready, as this is the main reason I've seen for skate being retained over-long on deck.
One of the most important reasons for skate catching is to assist in the ongoing tagging programme being co-ordinated by Richard Sutcliffe at Kelvingrove Museum. This supplies information on growth rates and migration patterns, and anglers' catches have supplied the bulk of the data gathered to date. So if you catch a tagged fish, take a note of the tag number and measure the fish's vital statistics - length and breadth. Then convey the information, along with details of its gender (males have claspers) and area of capture, to Richard Sutcliffe, Art Gallery and Museum, Kelvingrove,
Glasgow G3 8AG.
In summary, common skate are among the most awe-inspiring creatures Scotland has to offer. Most of us would never see one as long as we lived if we didn't catch them on rod and line, but always keep in mind that they're a species close to the edge - and anglers have a duty to do their best to help prevent them slipping into oblivion.