Combe Martin Sea Angling Club hold regular roving specimen competitions throughout the year that can be fished from boat or shore with specimen sizes adjusted accordingly. I was contemplating a plan for the coming weekends competition in early April when my mate Rob Scoines suggested a trip out on Steve Webber’s boat Osprey which is based in Minehead on the west Somerset coast.. There were two places available and the weather forecast was spot on.  It took a few moments to come to a decision and within five minutes the trip was secure and plans in place.

I have fished on Steve Webbers boat Osprey on numerous occasions and know that he is a skipper who has been consistently  putting anglers on the fish for over forty years. Recent seasons have seen Minehead’s charter boat fleet expand with Steve’s son Mike skippering his own boat Teddie Boy Charters. Mike has been well versed in the art of charter boat fishing after crewing with his father for many years. In addition to this Mike’s brother Will is soon to set sail in his own charter boat also operating out of Minehead. Mike also runs Speedbait a tackle and bait shop situated on Minehead’s Industrial estate conveniently close to McDonald’s.

A calm Minehead Harbour

The boat was due to sail at 10:00am so there was no crack of dawn rise. I picked Rob up at 07:30am and enjoyed a scenic drive across Exmoor arriving at Minehead McDonald’s for a Breakfast roll and coffee before grabbing some bait from www.speedbait.online

As mentioned above, Speedbait is part of the ongoing Webber family business with Mike’s mum manning the shop whilst young Mike takes customers to the fishing grounds in the Bristol Channel. Tackle shops are an essential element in the angling world and are the fertile breeding grounds for fishing forays as anglers mingle and wax lyrical about angling’s many related topics. Mike has followed the increasing trend for tackle shops to move to industrial estates out of town that have the advantage of free customer parking and lower business rates.

Mike supplies a wide range of both fresh and frozen baits with deliveries direct to boats if required. We discussed the best baits for the day ahead. Bait is an essential ingredient for a successful day’s fishing and what to take with you and how much a difficult decision. This is largely a balance between needs and cost. Bait will be determined primarily by the target species and with ray on the agenda sandeel are considered to be the number one bait. There is however a serious shortage of sandeel availability that requires anglers to adapt by utilising other baits. Bluey and squid wraps can prove excellent for blonde and small-eyed ray. An alternative offered to us by Mike were pilchards that are slightly cheaper than blueys yet are proving equally attractive to the Bristol Channel ray. These fish can be cut lengthways to provide two baits which can be whipped to a strip of squid to provide an attractive bait.

Heading down channel on exceptionally calm waters

The demise of sandeels across the South West is a worrying trend as these once prolific fish are often referred to as the cornerstone of the marine eco system. A vital food fish for many predatory fish including ray, bass, pollack, mackerel and cod. They are also a significant part of the diet for many sea birds including puffins. The main risk to sandeel populations is undoubtedly the exploitation of the fish by commercial fishing fleets that sell the fish for processing into fishmeal used in fish farming and agriculture. Another factor in their demise is climate change.

We climbed aboard Osprey shortly before 10:00am and met with our fellow anglers, Colin Shepard, Rich Leonard, Lee Buck and Joe Woodward who had travelled down from the Bristol area. 

It was one of those rare days with a mirror calm sea and a bright sky. There was a distinct chill in the air following a few days of cold north east winds with overnight frosts and a dusting of snow on the high moors. Anticipation was high as we headed off down channel gliding across the smooth water. 

Mike's boat, Teddie Boy

First stop was in Porlock Bay hoping for an early smoothound. Within minutes dogfish were swung aboard in profusion. Whilst most of us cursed the ever present  and hungry dogfish Joe Woodward expressed his pleasure at tempting his first ever sea fish. Joe had stepped in at the last moment after one of the party had to drop out. After our first brew of the day from Steve’s son Will it was a unanimous decision to up anchor and head down to a well-known huss mark beneath the spectacular wooded cliffs of the Exmoor coast.

After a few moments, rod tips were nodding as scavenging predators below located our baits. I hooked into what felt a reasonable fish that plodded about at the end of the line as I persuaded it towards the boat. The head of a very large bull huss appeared ten yards behind the boat as Will stood ready with the net.

Skipper Steve commented that it was a very good huss or words to that effect. At that moment the huss opened its mouth and spat out the bait, the terminal tackle flying back towards the boat. I cursed loudly at my misfortune knowing that I had probably lost the best fish of the day! Steve commented that huss are renowned for frustratingly spitting out the bait within sight of the boat. Losses can be reduced by ensuring that the hook matches the size of the bait with plenty of hook point exposed. Hooks should be sharp and strong. I normally use a single hook when boat fishing to make unhooking fish easier and increase survival rates. Giving the fish time to take the bait is also a consideration as huss often hold onto the bait without taking it into the mouth only releasing their snack when they arrive at the surface and glimpse our scary faces! These nearly moments often seem to stick in the mind far longer than success stories.

A double figure huss for the author, Wayne Thomas

A flurry of huss to around 10lb followed along with strap eels and the occasional dogfish. As the tide began to ease the catch rate slowed. The sound of spring birdsong drifted across the calm water from the  towering wood shrouded cliffs, an unusual phenomena that highlighted the uncanny stillness of the day.The lull in sport enabled a healthy debate on the issues of the day. And let’s face it, with war raging in Europe and the cost of living spiralling there is much to debate; though it is fair to say that some of the opinions expressed would raise a few eyebrows on “Question Time”.

After another brew, the decision was made to head back up channel in search of ray. In hindsight we should perhaps have stayed on for the early flood tide when more, good sized huss may have been caught. This is all part of the guessing game played by the team headed by the boats experienced skipper. I often liken angling to a game of chess played with nature; in this instance the sea is the chess board with the skipper plotting moves whilst taking into account many factors. The weather, tide, species, type of ground and time of year all factors that can influence those all important moves. A good skipper will balance all of these, his reward being a satisfying grin on an angler’s face and the knowledge that his customers will return.

Bull huss for Wayne Thomas and Rich Leonard

We dropped anchor a short distance off shore at Selworthy sand banks. A selection of baits were cast or lowered into the shallow murky water. It was here in the shallow water that I expected the up-tiding techniques to work best with baits placed well away from the potential disturbance caused by the boat at anchor. Within a few minutes, Lee Buck noticed a bite on his up-tider and wound into the first ray of the day. A good start that was to prove a false promise as all remained very quiet with just the occasional dogfish showing and a solitary conger of perhaps five pounds to my rod.

A move of a few hundred yards to a new position brought a few more dogfish and a small thornback ray.

As the day ticked past all too quickly it was very apparent that the fish were not feeding, perhaps as a result of the easterly air flow and high pressure? The slow fishing gave an opportunity to chat at length with Steve about the current state of charter boat fishing.

The increasing cost of fuel is undoubtedly a major issue for us all and charter boat skippers like all businesses need to try to balance the books. A day’s boat fishing is costly for the anglers and as costs increase some will be forced to reduce the amount of trips that they make. An ageing clientele is also a cause for concern with too few young anglers entering the sport. Add to this fluctuating fish stocks as a result of climate change and overfishing by the commercial sector. There are also some concerns regarding the implementation of Marine Protected Zones that could impact upon recreational angling.

A small eyed ray for Lee Buck

Despite all of these concerns Steve remains optimistic for the future as he has been around long enough to have seen many peaks and troughs. At present they will endeavour to absorb the cost of increasing fuel costs, one possible option for anglers is to fill the boat with eight instead of six anglers. Fortunately, the fishing seems to be holding up well off Minehead with plenty of species to target in the rich and murky waters. The winter cod run always seems to boom and bust. This past winter saw some superb specimens boated with smaller cod often scarce. Spurdog and bull huss numbers seem to be very healthy and to some extent fill the void left as cod numbers diminish. Ray fishing has become an all year round option and bass numbers are encouraging.

The COVID pandemic has had a significant and perhaps complex impact upon society and angling. Sea angling has to some extent benefitted with many discovering or rediscovering the joys of angling and its undoubted benefits for mental health. The pandemic also seems to have impacted upon many angling clubs with social interaction reduced leading to a swing towards a more individual approach.

Steve as ever kept trying and moved to another mark a mile closer to Minehead. The rod tips remained frustratingly still with even the dogfish scarce. As Steve called time my rod tip nodded and I lifted into a small eyed ray of 7lb. A reminder that success can come at the very last moment.

Last cast ray

It had been an enjoyable day afloat with good company and the spectacular scenery of the Exmoor coast. Results had not lived up to expectations but this was no reflection on the skill of the skipper for we all knew that on another day these same marks would have brought a steady stream of quality fish.

As  we drove home across Exmoor we glimpsed red deer grazing on the moor. The sun was sinking slowly in the West over the Bristol Channel. And I couldn’t quite shake that image of the big huss spitting out the bait and what might have been if…

Contact:

 Steve Webber on – 07967362132

ospreycharters@gmail.com

http://www.ospreycharter.co.uk

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