Nearly a year ago now, I was put in touch with Plymouth based Skipper of Crusader Charters, Kevin Lavis, with regards to the state of support, or more pressingly the lack of it, for the charter boat industry on the back of ‘Lockdown 1’. How long ago that seems now! Back then we were optimistic it wouldn’t need a numeric identifier… This first discussion resulted in a very insightful feature Kevin penned for Hookpoint, bringing to light the issues facing the industry. You can check it out here…
Fast forward to a time last year when we could get more than a solitary person on a boat again and I had my interest piqued by the boats new offering of evening charters, with a likely focus within the Tamar for some of the fabled monster conger. Dates were picked, plans were made and inevitably curtailed by a reinstatement of travel restrictions and the implementation of tiers. I had no intention of seeking my deposit back, knowing the challenges facing this industry and being certain I would soon re-book when circumstances allowed.
Which all brings us to the evening of 09 April 2021. Finally, I would be able to step foot on this boat I had heard so many good things about, meet Kevin in person and hopefully have a great fish filled evening.
Given the announcement on whether we would see the next round of relaxations, removing the ‘stay at home’ mantra and allowing a little more freedom to travel was to be made relatively close to the date of the charter, I had not pre-arranged for anyone else to travel for the trip. I would have been more than happy to take it alone. Even in light of the relaxations and feeling justified in a small amount of travel myself, it still didn’t feel right for it to be a charter of people meeting from all corners of the UK, so once both our overlords in government and those controlling the weather all agreed that the charter could take place, I gave Plymouth local Paul ‘Bassman’ Gordon a call to invite him along, suggesting he also pass the invite on to his good friend Brett Annetts – who many of those familiar with Paul’s videos will know from his ‘wingman’ moniker! They certainly come as a pair!
Like Kevin, Paul was another I have conversed with for some time without actually meeting. Covid really has put paid to a lot of plans, so we’d be ticking a few things off the list this evening. One of the best things about involvement with the Hookpoint magazine over the past couple of years has been meeting many other anglers, but I still haven’t fished with half as many as I’d have liked. Now the additional benefit of Paul coming along was his experience on this boat and his offer to have more than enough rigs for us all, which for a very infrequent boat angler such as myself, saved quite a bit of prep time.
It turns out that Paul stocks Crusader Charters with a good number of rigs that are available to be purchased on board, either individually, or on a flat payment to cover anything you may lose on a trip, which really is a great offer for those who may not be everyday boat anglers and are perhaps hiring rods and reels too. They are all top quality rigs, made with excellent components and tied to exacting standards – you can check out Paul’s full ‘Bassman’s Bounty’ range here…
We’d be departing at 17:30 from Mount Batten, with a view to catching the last of the flood on a reef around a 30 minute steam from port. With lots to chat about and catch up on we were on the spot with the anchor down before we knew it. There was a good depth of just shy of 200ft of water here, with a steady tide run and anticipated species of conger, ling and some good sized huss. Around 10oz of lead was required on first arrival though the tide run would drop the longer we were on the mark and the lead could gradually be reduced.
Knowing that some seriously large conger are a possibility here, I’d opted to pair a Black Rock Akita 20-30lb class rod with a TLD 20 loaded with 60lb braid to a 100lb rubbing leader. I knew I could have gone lighter for the majority of fish we could be catching, but I always prefer to be prepared for the biggest fish I could hook and didn’t want to be in a situation where I could be under gunned. That being said, I still had the 60g Tenryu ready to connect to a big conger or ling if conditions would allow.
Paul had other ideas. Amongst the arsenal of rods he had brought along was a £10 retail budget special that I forget the real name of as, well – you’ll see what he calls it in the video a little further on in the article… Needless to say, it was a tad lighter set up than I had gone for, but despite the very flexible nature of the rod, it still had enough in it to bring some decent sized fish to the boat. We also had more than enough space on the boat to have some fun with such set ups.
As Kevin had predicted, we would very quickly be into a steady run of plump pouting, though we had been assured that once the scent had been laid by the first few baits going down, the bigger fish would soon follow, usually once one of the pouting had been attacked. Well, this all held true as Brett brought to the boat the first sizeable conger of the evening whilst we still enjoyed some daylight, with a pouting hanging from its mouth.
Brett seemed to be the one latching into the larger of the conger on this spot, with some fish into the 20’s, with Paul and I adding others in the mid to high teens. There was a lack of any of the other target species, being huss or ling, but as the stiff breeze that had threatened to build up in the early part of the evening completely faded to nothing, we were all content regularly doing battle with respectfully sized conger in near perfect conditions as just about the best way to welcome in the weekend.
The rigs we were using here were a very basic but effective downtide rig. A length of rubbing leader with a zip slider on it to attach a lead to, down to a swivel, following which a roughly 6ft 100lb snood to an appropriately sized hook for the baits. As we realised conger were becoming the primary quarry, we upped the snoods to 200lb options. All of which were pre-tied Bassman Bounty rigs available on the boat.
There didn’t seem to be a great deal of difference in the success of baits here. Some fresh pout, English squid, cuttle, cart stuffed squid, cart wings and mackerel were all delivering the goods. Bites were steady regardless, until the tide started to drop out and activity lessened. At this point we had to make a call. Wait for the tide to turn and pick up again, re-set and stay on these eels, or head inshore for perhaps a greater chance of a huss, but also the possibility of some small eyed ray, though it would be early for these.
We’d more than had our fill on conger, and whilst the possibility of a true monster had us contemplating our options, we agreed it would be nice to mix the evening up a bit so up the anchor came and off we steamed to the second mark, switching rigs over in the process and pulling out the launce baits ready for the prospect of a ray.
There was much less tide run on this second mark and in shallower water too, just short of 100ft, we could comfortably get away with 6oz of lead and I dare say much less if we’d have tried. A steady stream of pout, this time with a few dogfish mixed in made themselves known on arrival, but we also had some other interesting feeling bites and solid weights that seemed to quickly let go, which soon had a culprit identified, as a returned pouting that didn’t seem to be making it was attacked on the surface by a very large cuttle fish!
With launce swimming by on the surface, a sea cucumber caught off the bottom and a very large pipefish also taking an interest in sheltering under the hull of the boat, it was clear we were in an area rich with a variety of sealife. It was, however, proving relatively quiet to start out with for anything bigger than a strap conger, pout or dogfish. That was at least, until Paul went on a steady run of better sized conger and a couple of very special huss indeed – all caught on cart wings.
Back to the bait in a bit. The conger, into high doubles were a nice step up from the straps we’d had so far on this spot, and gave some good action on the lighter rods again. However, it was the first of the two male huss Paul had that really stood out. It looked a good fish in the water, it looked even better in the net, with a very broad head and full belly. It was still a bit of a shock when the scales pulled round to 15lb 8oz, a round 15lb for the fish when the sling used to weigh it in was weighed at 8oz and deducted. That’s a cracking huss by any measure, though we usually associate larger specimens with purse laden females. A 15lb male, setting a new PB for Paul, was an absolute brute of a fish and really made the trip for all of us. His second huss, clearly a double, was another male, but being smaller than the first we did not bother to weigh it.
Whilst Paul had been on this little run of bigger fish, Brett and I had little more than conger to around the 10lb mark. We analysed the differences and soon established Brett and I were on a mix of fish, squid and cuttle baits, whilst Paul had moved to ensuring a cart wing was attached to any bait he put down. It was thus a no brainer to do the same – fortunately Paul had brought plenty of it along with him!
I’ve never witnessed such a quick and effective game changer. My experience with this fabled north east bait, which Tom Rowe talked extensively about how to prepare and use in this prior feature, has been limited so far to the Bristol Channel. My views to date have been it doesn’t harm, but it doesn’t really add anything either, and this is not surprising given the much lower number of edible crab in the Bristol Channel to the North East.
It is certainly not of any doubt to me what it can do in the waters out of Plymouth now, to the extent where it will be the first bait I pack for any subsequent trip. It was like catnip to the larger conger and huss. No sooner had a bait with a wing touched bottom, we were striking in to these better fish! As well as the wings, cart bombs – that’s squid stuffed with cart, were also highly effective. I do concede that I have concerns as to the quantity of this bait now being used by anglers and I will be doing some research into its sustainability. The problem is, the bit you really want, the red ‘coral’ part of an edible crab, is the females roe. In lots of Crustacean fisheries, lobster for instance, egg laden females will be returned. Harvesting roe for bait is something I could only be comfortable doing if I can satisfy that it is sustainable at present levels. There’s certainly a danger that a bait once used locally by North East cod anglers becomes over commercialised.
In very short order, with the benefit of the cart wings, I was bringing better eels to the boat, and my own decent sized huss. Paul had fished himself out and I knew I had a bit of a drive back and some young kids that would wake me at the crack of dawn, so we settled on using up the last prepared baits and calling it a night to get back to port around 00:30 – later than Kevin will have intended, but a rapidly approaching weather front had forced the cancelation of his Saturday booking so he had been in no rush.
With the last of the cart sent out on my final drop of the night, I set the rod in the rest whilst tidying up the rest of my tackle and the boat. A few knocks had me thinking a small eel was playing about with the bait and I thought nothing more of it until it was time to get the rods in and pull anchor. I struck in to a solid weight and for the first few turns, felt I’d connected to my best fish of the night. Then, it simply came in with me for a while, as a I resigned myself to considering it as just another strap eel. That’s until it got into shallow enough water to clock the headlamps shining down at it… nothing like a nice beam from a headlamp to make a fish a bit more lively!
We could see by now, in the amazingly clear waters, that this was probably the best eel of the night, which it turned out to be as it pulled the scales round to 28lb and proved an excellent way to draw a close to the night.
In what had been a brilliant fun night of fishing and socialising, it’s worth mentioning a bit more about the boat that had made it all possible, the Crusader. I don’t think I’ve ever seen as clean a boat, including many a non-fishing boat Ive sailed on. It was immaculate. It was also incredibly spacious – admittedly there were only 3 of us and the skipper on this large charter, but 8 would still be comfortable and perhaps 6 most optimum for those that enjoy a bit more space.
The boat is also very steady. On arriving at the first mark, a stiff breeze had picked up the sea a little, but you wouldn’t have known. The most telling fact of this for me was my lack of ‘sea legs’ the following day, where muscle memory has often left me with a good 24 hours of feeling like I am still swaying back and forth once on dry land. I had none of this.
The offer of evening charters is one not to miss. In the calm conditions we ended the night in, it really is a serene tranquility to be out on the sea, a light shining down into the abyss as you do battle with your quarry. I highly recommend it to everyone and am already picking out dates for my next booking.
Thank you to Kevin, Paul and Brett for a brilliant evening’s fishing. You can check out more about the boat and available charters here… Or via their Facebook page below.