My father, an angler of over 40 years, is happy to sit by a pool catching small roach and bream by the hundreds. He’s maintained a diary since the early 1990s and his angling habits have rarely altered, yet he is content. I, on the other hand, constantly feel the need to achieve something greater than my last session, be it my personal best or raising the bar set by a fellow angler. I think the majority of anglers are this way inclined, always striving for that fix, the ultimate hit of adrenaline. If you’re an angler looking for an adrenaline hit, you’ll definitely want to have a go at catching a tope from a kayak – it’s addictive!
With kayak sessions being so dependent on weather conditions (tope trips even more so), they are often planned last minute, adding urgency and excitement to the experience. A typical trip will be hatched the day before when one of us notices a break in the weather. It’s a five hour mission from when we leave our homes until we finally anchor up on our favourite tope ground: a two and a half hour drive, then about the same time again to unload the kayaks and paddle the three miles to the patch of broken ground. Leaving the house in the early hours, there’s a blend of excitement and nerves – was it worth promising the girlfriend we would have a meal out at the fancy Italian just to guarantee a fishing pass? Will the fish be there and, most importantly, on the feed?
Sliding the kayaks off the beach and paddling out through the glassy sea, all appears calm but this is no time to relax. As Joe heads off to find fresh mackerel, I position myself above a small patch of reef, setting the anchor and preparing the chum tube. The first bait is lowered into the depths and its barely on the deck a minute before the rod buckles over and the drag screams off: tope on!
Tope, depending upon seasons and conditions, are present throughout much of the waters surrounding the UK. This means they are accessible to many anglers without having to travel to specific areas of the country. This member of the shark family grows to a respectable size, with fish over 70lb being caught most years. The species also offers a feisty attitude to match and the sight of a mouthful of teeth at the side of a kayak is enough to get anyone’s heart racing. Typically, they are a pack fish and it’s not uncommon to get double hook ups ensuing in carnage. For this reason, I wouldn’t recommend fishing more than one rod when targeting tope from a kayak.
The majority of a tope’s diet is fish based, although I do know of fish being taken on crab and squid baits. The mackerel and whiting shoals that are present along my local Yorkshire coast in the summer months are what the tope that migrate here are looking for. As for tope elsewhere in the country, they will be attracted to accumulations of bait fish and finding these accumulations will offer you the best chance of finding tope. Tope are generally regarded as a summer species. Although a good number of fish can be caught in autumn, catch reports throughout winter are much less common.
As with all predators, tope are drawn to areas that offer them favourable feeding opportunities, although they are particularly fond of areas with stronger runs of tide. Patches of broken ground, reefs, pinnacles and troughs are all areas that you’re likely to encounter the species. Despite this, they do not appear to hang around out-and-out rough ground or areas with extensive weed. The majority of my fishing is done in depths of between 30 and 60 feet, although tope are caught in water both deeper and shallower than this.
When trying to locate a new tope mark, a great amount of time is spent examining the seabed profile via Navionics. For those who aren’t aware of Navionics, it’s a free website offering nautical charts and an absolutely essential tool for any angler, shore or afloat. Below you will find some screen shots from Navionics of likely areas to hold tope and how I would approach them.
Gone are the days of reaching for the 50 lb class rod and thick monofilament lines: scale down and enjoy the fight. My go-to rod for tope fishing is a 12-20 lb class rod: the Shakespeare Ugly Stik GX2. Is it the best rod in the world? No, but it is excellent value for money and is the right length for kayak fishing. I mention length as it’s something I feel is important when kayaking. When you sit on a kayak and a fish runs from port to starboard (or vice versa) having that extra length means you can guide the line past the front of the kayak. A shorter rod won’t give you that reach, meaning you will be left dipping your rod tip under the water and attempting to pull the fish back to the side it was hooked from.
Reel wise, I use a Daiwa Slosh or Penn Fathom in the smaller variants but anything around the 5500-6500 size will be perfect. For anglers wishing to use a fixed spool, I would recommend something around the 5000 size. My reels are loaded with 50lb braid. In truth, it’s a little on the heavy side but there’s method to the madness. Double hookups frequently occur when the tope are really on the feed and I’m nearly always fishing in close proximity to my friend, meaning the risk of tangling is increased. Having that extra strength in the braid also means that, towards the end of the fight, the angler can apply added pressure to the fish, better controlling it and reducing the risk of lines crossing.
A rubbing leader is essential when targeting tope as it prevents the rough skin fraying the thinner mainline. I recommend a length of 10 ft. When connecting the leader to the mainline, use a slim knot style that will easily pass through the eyes – a bulky knot will catch on the eyes and may result in the loss of a fish. Attaching the wire snood to the leader via a coastlock allows for quick and simple changes. When the tope are feeding, I like to have snoods pre-baited waiting to go. That way I can capitalize when there’s fish in the area as the pack can vanish as quickly as they arrive.
At the business end, I use a simple running ledger rig terminating in a barbless 9/0 chinu hook. I particularly like the Cox & Rawle variant as it has an incredibly sharp point and a nice wide gape. I should probably trial circle hooks more, although I strike early with the chinus and thankfully I’ve not ended up with a deep hooked fish yet. On the point of striking at tope, I don’t worry about hitting the fish a little early to prevent deep hooking – something that would be very troublesome on a kayak. I find that on the odd occasion when you miss them, gently teasing the bait on a slow retrieve often entices the fish to retake the bait. When crimping the hooks onto the wire I also use a flemish eye. It’s no added expense and it may just make the difference between landing and not landing that quality fish. A small section of shrink tube is placed over the crimps and tag ends to neaten the rig and reduce tangles.
Fresh mackerel is king when it comes to tope fishing. I will always take a few frozen baits with me as a backup but I don’t feel as confident as when I have fresh bait. Mackerel can be presented in numerous ways but I prefer to make a flapper and remove the gill plates. When you’re creating a tope bait, you’re aiming for maximum scent output – I believe removing the gill plates and slicing the fillets open aids this process. The bait is mounted on the hook by piercing it through the bottom jaw and out through the tougher part of the upper jaw.
If the angler isn’t limited by the availability of fresh mackerel, I would suggest regular bait changes: as often as 10-15 minutes. If fresh mackerel can be feathered up throughout the session, it will aid this process. Do not discard old baits over the side of the kayak, these free offerings will drift away presenting the tope with a free meal. You also never know if you will run short of bait and these old washed-out baits could catch you a bonus fish or two at the end of the session.
If fresh mackerel are in short supply, I slightly alter my presentation to get two baits from one mackerel. Starting behind the head, I cut at a low angle through the entire fish – if viewing the mackerel from the side the cut is probably at an angle of 45° to the spine. This results in two baits each with a portion of guts and flank.
Whiting can also be a productive bait, although I tend to use these as live baits. They aren’t as lively as mackerel and seem to result in fewer tangles. Around slack water when the tope seem to turn off the feed, a whiting livebait can winkle out a curious fish. There are also other tricks to entice a tope throughout these less productive tidal stages. Bites tend to drop off as the tide begins to lose strength but I find that lightening your lead and bouncing the bait can entice a take. I use a 3-4oz lead, just enough to make contact with the bottom, then allow the tide to bounce the lead along the seabed while keeping in touch. Once the lead has gone a sufficient distance, the bait can then be steadily retrieved along the bottom. This movement certainly grabs the attention of fish that are otherwise resting, waiting for the tidal flow to pick up again before coming back on the feed.
Using chum isn’t essential to catching tope. However, ask yourself why the local curry house or kebab shop places their extractor fan exit right near the front window. Five minutes ago you weren’t even hungry, now you’ve walked past that extractor fan and you’ve only got one thing on your mind: a lamb jalfrezi and a garlic naan. My opinion is that acts in a very similar way. The tope pick up on the scent and head up the tide, homing in on the chance of an easy meal. Chum also attracts a large amount of small fish which, in turn, also attract predators to the area.
My chum is very simple, consisting of pilchard oil, bran and chopped up fish (mostly mackerel). This concoction is then placed into my chum tube, a piece of drainage pipe capped off at either end. Holes and slots have been cut into the pipe to allow water to pass through, diffusing the scent into the surrounding water. The larger the holes, the more scent and particles will be released but this will also result in the chum losing its scent faster and becoming less effective. The solid plastic prevents tope tearing into the chum and releasing it prematurely. The chum tube is attached to the anchor cord.
I fish with my close friend and we have a set method of fishing with the kayaks in close proximity at anchor, especially for larger species such as tope. As with everything in life, there’s pros and cons but being able to steal your mate’s sandwich if it looks better than yours is a good enough excuse for me. Jokes aside, there’s a few good practical reasons to fish close to each other: firstly, it reduces the pendulum-like motion when the tidal flow slows down; secondly, the chum is concentrated closer to the baits and thirdly, you’re able to help each other deal with fish (and in the event of an accident, you’re quickly able to assist the other angler).
When sat at anchor in a kayak (or any vessel for that matter), the kayak will sway in the tide with a pendulum-like motion from the anchor point. A reduction in the tide’s strength will exaggerate this effect. The longer the distance from the anchoring point to the kayak, the greater the width of the arc in which the kayak will swing. This also has a detrimental effect on the chum slick. The chum tube, which is positioned on the anchor chain, will be further away from the baits, positioned downtide of the kayak. The chum is no longer drawing fish towards the baits and is actually having the opposite effect, with the tope being drawn away from the baited traces. It may seem obvious to counteract this by shortening the distance between the kayak and the anchor (the amount of cord released) but this widens the angle from the anchor to the kayak, resulting in a poor anchor hold. The narrower the angle between the anchor rope and the seabed, the greater the anchor hold will be.
We anchor each kayak separately using different methods to combat these issues (see illustrations). The first stage is to anchor one of the kayaks above the patch of ground you aim to fish, using a large grapple anchor that will hold both vessels securely. A large amount of anchor cord is also released, approximately three times the water depth, to result in a solid anchor hold. The second kayak then drops anchor uptide of the first but at a much steeper angle. This anchor has the chum tube attached. Once kayak number two feels they have anchor hold they gently release more cord until they are opposite kayak number one. This second anchor takes a fraction of the strain compared to the original anchor and it positions the chum tube much closer to the kayaks. This shorter length of cord helping to anchor both kayaks also aids in shortening the arc of the pendulum-like motion.
The process may appear confusing or seem like a lot of hassle to put into practice but I can assure you it’s very simple once you’ve done it once or twice. The two kayaks, once strapped together, produce a very stable fishing platform. Being so close means that you can help each other unhook fish, prepare traces and just have a good old chat without constant shouting.
When heading out in search of larger species, I prefer to strip the kayak back to the bare essentials. I do this for a couple of reasons but for the most part it’s because I find it more comfortable if there’s less clutter on the kayak and it’s easier to manoeuvre fish if I choose to bring them aboard. As with all anglers, we have a habit of taking far too much tackle and teaching yourself to only take what you need is very difficult. Items that must be taken (that are often not located on a kayak) include a quality T-bar and long-grip wire cutters. Fortunately, I have never left a hook in the mouth of a tope. However, if a deep hooked fish is encountered, then I fear that, from a kayak, the most practical solution would be to cut the wire as close to the hook as possible. Much of my angling developed through pike fishing as a young child and throughout my teenage years.
Leaving hooks in deep-hooked fish was always a hotly contested issue then. Do you go to great lengths to retrieve the hook, stressing the fish and causing damage in the attempt or do you simply cut the wire and release the fish? I don’t believe anyone has the definitive answer. All I know is that when you’re sat three feet above the water holding onto the trace whilst a tope is doing a death roll by the side of the kayak, you’re not going to get a good view inside that mouth. Strike early using a barbless hook and hope to avoid the situation in the first instance.
I also recommend taking a small first aid kit on your trips. This can be stored out of the way as it’s (hopefully) likely never to be used. A tope isn’t a 10ft man eater, but it is equipped with a decent set of teeth. If you’re unfortunate enough to have an accident, having a first aid kit may just save the day. They weigh a fraction of a 6oz lead and I can guarantee you will have taken too many of those.
A classic tope fight consists of long screaming runs punctuated by the fish digging deep in the tide. Nearing the end of the fight, the fish will often plane up in the tide and can be steadily coaxed towards the kayak. Preparation is key here, all tools necessary to release the fish should be easily to hand or, if you’re fishing as a pair, the other angler can simply pass them over.
Once the fish is tired, using a thick glove, grab the base of the leader. I do so at the coastlock as this is the bulkiest part of the trace and is easy to get a good grip on. I then place the rod in the rest, putting the reel in free spool just in case I have to quickly release the trace. Wrapping the wire around my left hand, I’m able to use the T-bar with my right. For those that don’t know how to use a T-bar, there’s plenty of online videos and information – they really are excellent tools. Using the T-bar, the fish is released at the side of the kayak without the need to bring it aboard. The barbless hook makes life so much easier when releasing a lively tope, the hook often just slides out once inverted. We do this for the majority of our fish, I feel it’s better for the welfare of the tope and it’s safer for the angler.
Clearly, from my images, we do bring the odd fish onto the kayak. When doing so, the safety of both the fish and yourself must be taken into account. As with people or dogs, tope can have very different temperaments. Sometimes you will get a fish to the kayak and it will remain relatively well-behaved and manageable, others are just utter demons that don’t appear to tire. I don’t suggest attempting to bring these fish aboard.
The process for bringing a fish aboard is much the same as for the release at the side: grab the trace and wrap the wire around your hand but this time drop one leg into the water and guide the fish between your leg and the kayak. The trick here is to be confident and take control of the situation. With one motion, pull the trace and the tope up over your lap and push the tail end of the fish into the kayak with your foot, trapping its tail under your legs and its head between your forearm and your upper thigh. Holding the fish like this means that the head and mouth of the fish is always on the outer side of your forearm. The mouth of the fish can’t come into contact with your body and if, for whatever reason, the fish must be quickly pushed from the kayak, it is done so with a single motion. Once aboard the kayak, the fish can be repositioned for photographs. I find that it’s easier to place the fish back in the water and remove the hook with the T-bar rather than attempting to remove the hook with a set of pliers whilst the fish is aboard the kayak. Having one hand on a set of pliers means you have less of a hold on the fish – a sure recipe for trouble.
I hope the article is of use to some anglers out there. I’ve tried to cover all aspects of kayak fishing for tope, including some of the very basics – apologies to those that just wanted an easy read! Seeing as I’m trying to sell people the idea of paddling offshore on a small piece of plastic to catch one of the bigger fish in the UK waters, however, I want them to be as prepared as possible.
Kayak fishing for tope is truly epic sport. The species can be targeted on relatively light tackle and are available throughout our waters. If you’re into kayak fishing and are yet to catch a tope, give it a go – you’re missing out!