If life were a book then it is no surprise that the early chapters set the scene. A sea angler’s life is written upon a rich tapestry of water into which an enquiring line is cast. My early chapter began over fifty years ago as a young boy on holiday with my parents in Looe on the South Cornish coast. 

The Banjo pier at the mouth of the Looe river gave access to deep water over high tide and proved an ideal venue for my introduction to sea angling. Those early sessions were generally spent casting floats made from cork or polystyrene, their tips painted bright pink or orange.

I will never forget the fascination as the float drifted across the water, a vivid focus point that thrilled occasionally by its sudden disappearance as a mackerel or pollack seized the bait suspended below. On some occasions the float would bob and slide along the surface sometimes falling flat as a garfish played with the bait. The garfish would often leap from the water when hooked resembling miniature swordfish or marlin. I have always retained a fondness for the distinctive smell of garfish and the green scales that would cling to the cork spinning rod handle.

The 'Banjo Pier' in Looe, Cornwall

During dark autumn evenings the harbour and banjo provided great sport with abundant small pollack that would gather beneath the harbour lights. The dark water always seemed to add an extra dimension of mystery with thoughts of big fish lurking in the shadows. One night I hooked something large that bent the rod alarmingly as it powered away into the flooding tide. I knew nothing of playing a fish and was distraught when the line inevitably broke leaving an empty feeling of despair that still lingers in my memory to this day.

I have lost a good few fish in the forty odd years since and it is strange how these failures linger often longer than the triumphs.

A common theme throughout my angling journey has been the conversations with other anglers reminiscing about how it used to be in the good old days. Many years before I fished at Looe, there was a pilchard factory that often discharged its bloody waste of fish into the river. The old anglers told stories of the huge conger that would be caught from the banjo along with many other species drawn close to the shore by the fishy aromas of the pilchard factory.

Another shot of the pier where it all began

Those early angling trips in Cornwall inevitably lead me to embark upon fishing my home waters of the North Devon coast and joining the Combe Martin Sea Angling Club at the age of twelve, way back in 1973. During those early years the elders would transport us to the rocky shoreline to compete in the club’s regular competitions. Back then, conservation was unheard of with every sizeable fish kept and lugged back to the weigh in. Typical bags would consist of conger, dogfish rockling and pouting. It is hard to comprehend children fishing the rugged and dangerous shoreline throughout the year in today’s ever risk-averse society. Those old timers (In their thirties, but oldies to us kids!) who took us fishing had never heard of CRB checks. I look back with great fondness at the freedoms we enjoyed as young anglers frequently flirting with danger at the water’s edge.

The most dangerous time was undoubtedly when a large conger eel was hooked to be brought to the water’s edge writhing in the swell. A quick dash down slippery rocks between waves would conclude with the sharp gaff securing the serpent like creature hauling it onto the rocks where it would be given the last rites.

Fortunately, times have changed and the Combe Martin Sea Angling Club along with most other clubs has moved away from catch and kill fishing. The vast majority of fish caught today are returned alive to the water to aid conservation – a topic that now dominates the angling media.

Conger eel are nearly always released these days

The fluctuating stocks of fish around the coast have been a constant topic of conversation amongst anglers throughout my angling life. During those family holidays in Looe, I would gaze in wonder at the carcasses of blue shark brought back to the quay. In hindsight the slaughtering of those beautiful creatures was indefensible, yet we should not judge a previous generation who had little comprehension of the fragility of the marine ecosystem. I have fished for the blue shark off the Cornish coast on numerous occasions, bringing many fish to the side of the boat where they are now released, some estimated at over 100lb. Research shows that the vast majority survive to roam the worlds vast oceans. Numbers of shark seem to be increasing in UK waters in general, a testament perhaps to enlightened practices.

The marine eco system is a complex one that is ever changing. In the past fifty years I have witnessed a great deal of change. Whilst the general consensus regarding fish stocks is one of decline, this is far from true in all cases.

In the 1980’s and 1990’s North Devon’s shore anglers enjoyed good sport during the winter months targeting cod. Each winter numerous fish were landed to over twenty pounds with double figure specimens relatively common. Winter nights would see the deep water rock marks around Ilfracombe illuminated by storm lanterns and head torches. Hooks full of juicy lugworm tipped with squid, large squid baits or live fish were launched into the murky waters and anchored in wait.

Big cod were once abundant on the north Devon coast

A big cod, when hooked, would hug the sea bed as it was coaxed to the shoreline and the waiting gaff. I guess we assumed this would always be the case, yet at some point in the late 1990’s to early 2000’s they all but disappeared. The cod still bring frequent sport further up channel beyond Minehead where  they perhaps thrive in the murkier water. 

Leading up to the turn of the century, whiting and pouting were abundant all along the North Devon coast. These fish have also declined dramatically and for this there seems to be no clear reason. The past ten years have seen a dramatic increase in the numbers of spurdog, bull huss, smoothound and dogfish. It is strange how these fish seem to have filled an ecological niche.

Climate change is often cited as a reason for changing fish migrations yet this is far from clear. In nature’s continuous cycle conclusions can be drawn all too often without proof. I recall a strange fish brought to the scales over thirty years ago, nobody at the weigh in had seen a trigger fish. Within a decade these fish would become a common feature in catches along the North Devon coast. For perhaps a decade these tropical visitors would be targeted and provided great sport. Recent seasons have seen trigger fish numbers once again dwindle with very few now registered.

Since appearing, trigger fish numbers have risen and fallen over the years

I could write of many instances of fluctuating fish populations. Gilthead bream are a species that appear to be increasing around the south west with specimens tempted from the Taw estuary every summer. These fish were unheard of from North Devon twenty years ago. Catches were, I believe, first reported along the South Devon coast in the Salcombe area. The species has now established a population all around the South West with Cornwall undoubtedly a stronghold. It is easy to link this to climate change and global warming yet this is far from conclusive.

The big news story of recent seasons has been the huge numbers of tuna migrating into the waters of the south west. This is perhaps as a result of migration in search of food rather than warmer waters. But the influx of tuna into U.K. waters is nothing new.

During the 1930’s mighty ‘tunny’ were caught off the coast of Scarborough and Whitby. These fish were undoubtedly feasting upon prolific herring shoals. At the same time tuna were also sighted off the Cornish coast. The book Shark Fishing In Great Britain by Brigadier J.A.L Caunter published in 1961 contains a chapter on tunny that opens with the paragraph. 

“It is a fact that tunny visit the Cornish Coast in considerable numbers during August and stay until late Autumn. Before the beginning of Hitler’s war several well-known tunny anglers were trying to land the first rod-caught Cornish tunny. In 1936 seven of these fish were actually hooked near Mousehole, but in every case the tunny escaped.”

It is perhaps a glimmer of hope that in 2021 over 700 tuna were hooked and returned not far off of the Cornish coast.

Spurdog have filled the void left by other species

During Victorian times, boat anglers fished the deep waters off Lynmouth to land common skate up to 200lb. These fish are long gone but perhaps there is hope that such fish could once again populate these waters. Several small skate have been caught in recent seasons proving that young fish do migrate into these waters and would perhaps repopulate the area if adequate protection was provided?

My father commented that one of the fascinations of sea angling is its mystery. Whilst I enjoy occasional excursions to manmade lakes stocked with carp and trout I always return to the sea. 

I fished the rocky North Devon coast recently. We made our way over treacherous slippery rocks to a rocky ledge. It was a couple of hours before low water and a menacing swell surged against the shoreline. The familiar aroma of salt and seaweed hung in the air. The lights from the nearby village twinkled brightly and stars glowed far above in the night sky. We launched our baits into the dark waters, the weights hit bottom and the rods were placed in the rest, the line tightened. Expectation in the night ahead grew as we watched our rod tips intently, waiting for that telltale nod or screaming reel. We could see the lights of other anglers further along the shoreline and wondered how they were faring. 

Common skate were once landed to over 200lb in the Bristol Channel

The rod tips rattled frequently as dogfish snatched the baits intended for better specimens. At the water’s edge, a fifty odd year quest endures that is shared with fellow anglers. We spend much of that time lost in our own contemplations sharing the moments in friendships cemented over decades. Tales of past glories and speculations over future ventures prevail. On many occasions we return home slightly deflated yet we know the next session could produce and we continue to look keenly forward to that next cast.

The essence remains largely unchanged, though the tackle is slightly more refined. The sloppy fibre glass rods of old have been replaced with modern carbon that casts more easily and has a stiffness that helps to coax the fish from the depths. Hooks are perhaps stronger and sharper and the bait is whipped to the hooks using strong thin elasticated thread that is a far cry from the old thread we once bought from the local haberdashery. Headlamps are lightweight and powerful, far superior to the bulky headlights of past decades and cleaner than the hissing paraffin Tilley lights. A few old relics remain in my fishing shed- tackles from a bygone age. A Mitchel 624 Boat reel, an ABU 484 beach-caster and a vintage Intrepid- Surf cast fixed spool. Some of these have been donated to me by relatives of deceased anglers and I hang on to them reluctant to cast away the tools of a dreamer from a previous generation. 

Casting into dark waters
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