The local news is after the national, and there, at 1.26 precisely, a sausage midway to my mouth, is an item of how a local fishermen has caught a barracuda some six miles off the south Cornish coast in a net. Film and all. It IS a barracuda, about 10 lbs or so, I guess. The film is not too good, but is does appear to be a European barracuda, sphyraena sphyraena, as against a Greater barracuda.
Flashback to Downings in Donegal this year. September 26th, and Sylvester phones me in the cottage at about 6.30 one evening. He has a fish that he and his dad caught that day out by the Frenchman’s Rock. Can I come and identify it ? I do so. It is a jack. I have no problem identifying it, and neither does Richard Howell. We both stare at it in amazement. It is an almaco jack, about a pound and half in weight, VERY off course, and VERY familiar from Madeiran encounters.
True rarities aside, whenever conversation turns to ‘visitors’ to our shores excitement reigns. Whether someone has heard a rumour of a billfish in the channel or whether a new UK record gilthead bream has been caught in Cornwall, it is the very possibility if an exotic species that intrigues us all. In truth though, what fish are really out there, gradually coming this way ? What can we expect to be caught in the future ? Will a marlin ever be caught in the channel ?
First and foremost, let me say that there are some species out there which SHOULD be caught. I expect them to appear sometime, somewhere. First and foremost of these fish will be the albacore, a recent individual catch highlighting what I feel is a much commoner species off the south-west than people think. And to put it bluntly, unless you go looking for albacore, you aren’t going to find them. To do this, you need 58 degree water or better, access to a 200 - 400’ deep water, and bait. All of this is within striking distance of the Cornish coast. You need to troll small lures on the surface at a relatively quick speed of 6 knots or better (yes you can catch them slower, especially with plugs), and to carry on catching them after a hook-up you need a tank full of bait. In this country your best bet is going to be sandeels, pencil-sized or bigger. Sardines or sprats would be even better.
If, amongst your off-shore wanderings on this quest you come across 64 degree water, with a little more depth, you could well be in with a chance of a big-eye. These tunas are little understood in the north Atlantic, simply because they spend much of their time in the northern climes at a depth where they are undetectable. One fact should be recognised - in the western Atlantic sword-fishery off Newfoundland, big-eyes are the most northern species of tuna found. Not bluefin, and not albacore. So, are there big-eyes out there at the western end of the Channel ? Most probably, even though the most northern record so far is from the Gulf of Gascogne (I have my doubts about the authenticity of the bigeye caught from Newlyn).
The 50 fathom line in the Channel stretches north-westwards from the Ile d’Ouessant (Ushant) towards the Scillies. At 300’ feet, you aren’t going to expect much in the way of tuna conditions although I have no doubt that some years albacore almost certainly will occur in this area. To reach 600’ or more you have to really get out there. From the Scillies it would be a long multi-day trip, so your best bet is to go and find a boat in southern Ireland. Derek Noble runs a nice little Lochin out of that area, and has caught albacore the last two years. Unfortunately, he has caught bluefin-fever now (!!) and is probably going to spend more and more time further north looking for them off Donegal, where, incidentally, albacore have been seen consistently over the last few years, often in very shallow water.
So if you aren’t going to catch albacore or bigeyes right up in the channel, what will you catch ? Bluefins. Big bluefins. Sightings and commercial catches of these fish from both the north and south Cornish coasts, and the Devon coast, particularly in the last three years indicate that they might once more be becoming more than a sporadic visitor, although we could be still some way off from a consistent bluefin fishery. But, there is no doubt that they are there, mainly in late summer and autumn, and their arrival does seem to coincide with the arrival of the huge winter bait shoals. So, what do we have to do to catch one of these ?
Well, first and foremost, information is going to be the prime factor here, and unless you are in an area where bluefins have been seen or caught, you could be in for a long boat ride. Having suffered first hand this experience the past summer in Donegal, I would say that you’re going to have to fork out cash amongst the professional guys and give them your phone number and a promise of more money if you catch one. You will almost certainly fail to do so otherwise. The importance and convenience of having several dozen sets of eyes at sea on stable platforms on a regular basis cannot be over-emphasised. You can hire a boat, buy gear and bait and pretty much line up all the other factors in your favour, but you won’t catch anything unless you’re amongst the fish. The other important factor is the weather, but that’s part and parcel of the UK angling scene. It would not surprise me if an angler with time and a big wallet does not land a bluefin off Devon or Cornwall in the next two years. Someone just has to have the guts to go out there and be patient.
As for ways to catch your bluefin, you’re basically looking at trolling or chumming/chunking. Results off Donegal this year meant most fish came to trolled baits, both spreader bars with shell squids, and single baits such as Yozuri Bonitas. As well as the fish we had to boatside on a kite-rigged live-bait, Michael McVeigh and Derek Noble had bites on live-baits too, both under floats and free-lined. To be simplistic, trolling allows you to cover more ground in a general area, while live-baits will be effective when you know you have fish under the keel. I would really like to have a crack at this, so any readers out there who fancy a go should get in touch with me and we’ll make some plans.
So, what else could be out there ? Any billfish ? Maybe, especially swordfish. These prehistoric fish are capable of spending time in cold water quite happily, and commercial fisheries have existed in the past in waters colder than those off the south coast of the UK. Norway’s porbeagle fishery some 30 years ago regularly threw-up swords, and experimental long-lining off the west of Ireland has already showed returns of some significance. That they exist is without doubt, but whether they are there in sufficient numbers to maintain a fishery is debatable. But, there have been several rumours of sightings of billfish in recent years in the Channel and I suspect that these have been swordfish. It makes more sense for a fish that is CAPABLE and nearly resident of cold waters to be seen there when compared against the somewhat irregular appearance of a marlin, of which ever species you wish. And without a regular long-line fishery, or a harpoon fishery, or a specific search, the only swordfish which you will see from the Channel will be the odd specimen caught in trawls or gill-nets, which is exactly what we get. Standard swordfish tactics will produce the UK’s first broadbill - a squid or live-bait suspended at depth in conjunction with a flotation device would be the easiest bet, but personally I would troll for them on a dark night a la Kenya Banks. This would almost certainly shorten your waiting time, but by how much is open to speculation. It could be days, but it could be years. I have no doubt that there are swordfish in the Channel, particularly at its westward end to the south of the Scillies, but much work and research remains to be done to locate them in numbers I think.
Anything else ? Well, there is the possibility of someone contacting a proper sized thresher, especially one of the ‘swordfishermen’, or someone chasing bluefins with a livebait. With no disrespect to Steve Mills, and I’m sure he would be the first one to agree, but the British Record of 323 lbs is small compared to what threshers are capable of attaining, even in British waters. Larger specimens have been hooked and lost, but threshers still seem to have the allure of an exotic species for many people whereas in fact they are relatively common. I do not know how many people fish solely and regularly for threshers nowadays, but I find it strange that the lure of the power and fighting qualities of this species does not attract more British anglers such as it does in the specific fisheries of California and New Zealand, for example. If you are into big-game fishing, and are quite happy to troll for days on end for the chance of catching one marlin, why on earth doesn’t anyone do the same in the Channel for a thresher - it can grow to more than 1000lbs in weight, is capable of jumping as high and as far as a blue marlin, and most important of all, it loves to empty reels as fast as it can - in fact, those who have caught a big thresher say it is one of the gamest fish of all. Oh, if you wish, you can also put yourself into as much danger as you wish with the fish at boat-side too !
More ? Well, there is Phil Britts’ sighting of that great white two years ago off Padstow. Notwithstanding the fact that Phil may be a Devonian and has had very little contact with great whites before, but his crewman and partner, Mike, is not only South African, but he is also an ex-commercial fisherman and more qualified than almost anyone else in Britain to say what was seen that day. Throw in the view of a well-known angling journalist, Henry Gilbey, the half-dozen stories from the rest of the crew aboard and it would become rapidly apparent that a very large shark was seen that day, close to a boat, by sober and independent witnesses. Three interesting side-stories run out from this one and they are as follows.
First, there is the dead seal that was washed up nearby in that area at the same time, badly savaged and partly eaten. Secondly, Phil and Mike admit to seeing a huge shark in the same area the previous year, at which time they thought it was a tiger shark and kept quiet for fear of being ridiculed - until a local crabber entangled a monster of a shark in his gear sometime later that year and had to cut it away in a roaring gale. Thirdly, Phil has in his possession a wonderful photograph of a surfer at Crackington Haven, man and board running down a six foot green wave some years previously - it is not until one looks closely at the photograph that you become chillingly apparent of a huge shark riding in the same wave, behind the surfer. It is not a basking shark, and is far too big for a porbeagle. Now, I am not saying that there is an undiscovered population of great whites in British waters, but the possibility of some individual fish making a yearly migration to our waters is very distinct. The water temperature is right, the seals are back to a population level unseen for decades, and our inshore waters have never been in a better state. If, in the past, great whites were a regular visitor to the UK at a time when mankind took notice of them or did not meet them, then I see no reason why they should not return again. Oh, and as for tiger sharks, well - the water would be too cold for them, wouldn’t it ? Er, in that case why do they turn up off the coast of Iceland ?
Anyway, back to marlin. When will they turn up ? Well, there are two boundaries we have to contend with here. The first is one of temperature, and from personal experience the coldest water I have ever seen a blue marlin in is 64 degrees, while whites can contend with water of 66 degrees. Then you have to have a current to bring these fish north, and an edge to go with it. Both of these aspects are only going to be found some 80 miles south-west of Valentia Island, the closest point to a possible billfish fishery in the British Isles that I can see. I have no doubt that at least one blue marlin visits the Channel every year, and I would suspect that at least a couple of whites do the same too, but the chances of them encountering a boat and crew suitably equipped for recognising the occasion and then catching them is extremely slight. Likewise the sailfish, even though the records do show a stranding of a fish on the Devon coast back in 1928.
So, are our seas hotting up ? Is the arrival of blue water going to be within our lifetime ? I fear not. In fact, I am deeply sceptical of sudden changes at all. The existence of tunas is beyond doubt and I think they have always been there, maybe unrecognised or maybe unknown outside of a parochial area. But I think that the rest of the warm water fish we see at present are nothing more than a continuation of a long line of sporadic visitors and vagrants which has always occurred. It is just that nowadays the chances of them being recognised as such is far higher than it might have been 40 years ago.
So many anglers go abroad and fish for exotic species nowadays that the chances of an almaco jack being thought of as a ‘funny-looking pout’ are long gone. Hence our first recorded spanish mackerel, our first derbio from Wales two years ago, people recognising schools of bluefin for what they are rather than dolphins, anglers identifying wreck-fish when they see them, and people becoming aware of strange fins in mid-channel. As an example, my 5-year old regularly marches past fish-counters, identifies the exotic species off pat, much to the bewilderment of the fishmonger, and commands we have tuna for tea as ‘we haven’t had it for ages’ !
So what’s going to be the next strange capture ? Hmm………..if I was a betting man I would say a mako on a lure. I said it this time last year and had no takers, and I’ll say it again - if the south coast boats regularly trolled a lure to and from the grounds in the Channel I really do think we’d see a mako taken this way. Every year they are seen out there, and I suspect many more are mis-identified as porbeagles. But then again, I may be wrong.
Next year’s target for the Eddystone bass-anglers might be the fearsome barracuda. Wire needed for them methinks………