The second species I’ve chosen to write about are readily targeted by the small boat angler, the Skate. These fish regularly go over 100lbs with 200lb fish being frequently caught. For the purposes of this article I’ll refer to them all as Skate, despite the recent split in the species with Scottish fish now called Common Skate and Irish fish generally accepted to be Blue Skate, since the techniques for both species don’t differ. The reason I’ve chosen these second is that there is a very high chance of success on your first attempt if you are prepared to put the miles and research in. I should say from the start that I’m no skate expert as I only wanted to tick them off my list but I had 4 on my first and only attempt earlier this year in February so the following will hopefully help others to target them with success.
Skate, like Blues are not a particularly hard fighting fish in the scheme of big fish and although heavy tackle is preferable as opposed to Blue Sharks where you can get away with more standard boat gear, they are a good place to start to learn how to handle heavier rods and associated tackle such as harnesses before you progress to fish that can cause you a few more problems at the boat.
The following are some aspects of Skate biology that will help you target them effectively.
Skate are benthic, meaning they live on the bottom, so first things first, unless your rig is pinned to the bottom you’re not going to catch one. They feed on anything they can find down there including fish, crustaceans and cephalopods. They live in relatively deep water on mud patches and reefs, gliding around picking up whatever they can find in terms of food. They are even targetable from the shore in some places where the ground drops away steeply and there are some great HookPoint articles detailing how to attempt this in previous issues. They are also resident and I feel that’s important as so long as the weather for your chosen area is good enough you can go at any time of year and give them a crack.
Skate are a member of the shark family (Elasmobranch) that are dorso-ventrally flattened, this means they are sensitive to electrical fields of the type emitted by fish, their flattened shape enables them to live and feed in areas with strong tide by hugging the bottom and allowing the water to pass over their backs. They will settle over a food item and extend their huge mouth out to take it in. I remember at university reading about a study done on Hammerhead Sharks where electrodes were buried in the bottom with no associated food, the Hammers would actively dig out the electrodes believing they were food so this is something that has always stuck with me and I have experimented with as part of my fishing.
Skate are not designed to fight hard as the tail is not used for propulsion, although the males will put up a good fight at times and seem much more spirited than the females in my limited experience, but Skate are a heavy fish that will use their bulk and the tide against you so your approach needs to reflect that.
First off, you are pulling them from almost directly above so will need a strong rod, no place for 12-20lb rods here for consistent success. I’d suggest something in the 40lb class at least to give you enough backbone to get them off the bottom, I stuck with my standard setup of 30-80 Pen Allys for my attempt. Reels are not too critical for Skate as long as they have the line capacity to reach the bottom and output a reasonable level of drag to pull against such a large fish, personally I prefer lever drags for reasons we’ll cover in a different piece but they are certainly not critical for Skate. Secondly, due to the depth of water you’re fishing in I’d suggest using braid on your reel. This brings three benefits, first is that braid doesn’t stretch like mono and so bite detection is much better in the depths you’ll be fishing, second, when you strike you are not stretching the line but actively setting the hook and third, braid is thin for the breaking strain, this means the overall length of line is less subject to the effect of the tide so you end up with less of a bow in your line and keep in more direct contact with your bait. The disadvantage of braid for targeting Skate (it has other disadvantages that I’ll come to in the next article as they don’t apply for this situation) is that it is not very abrasion resistant so when you’re fishing on the bottom as we are for Skate there is the potential for it to rub and weaken. My reels for my shot at Skate were loaded with 80lb braid to which I tied a short length of around 50ft of 50lb mono to act as a rubbing leader. To form this connection I like to use an FG knot that I have adapted and modified myself to increase strength and abrasion resistance as it runs through the rod rings and rollers. At the end of my mono I tie a strong ball bearing crosslock swivel using a 4 turn Grinner. Skate are not fast running and not into big head shakes so I find this approach adequate for dealing with them.
Despite not having the kind of teeth you’d associate with a shark, Skate do have rough pads that they use to crush food, they also have incredibly strong jaws that extend further from the body than you might at first expect so your rig will need to take this into account when you design it. The mouth is big, so you will want a big bait and therefore a big hook, for my attempt I chose to use the 12/0 Mustad Sea Demon 7731, as per usual I ground the barbs down to aid hook penetration, we’re fishing in deep water here so when you go to strike, you want all that energy to be put into getting the hook in quickly and easily. Many people don’t approve of using wire for skate and opt for heavy mono. I agree that it can damage them but in my opinion this is caused by using over long bite traces which can contact the wings, personally I think that as long as the wire is kept short enough where it can’t cut into the wing during the fight, say 8 inches then it’s ok to use, it also gives the chance of landing the bonus mystery fish that you hear of every year, making unstoppable runs when people are Skate fishing that you hear of – most likely Six gills or Porbeagles.
That said, the vast majority of people use heavy mono of 300lbs and above, the hook should be crimped on incorporating a Flemish loop to reduce abrasion. My research told me that Skate are attracted by sounds so I added a couple of rattles; I also added a muppet above my hook to prevent the bait spinning in the tide and washing out too quickly. My bite trace leads to a swivel via a Flemish loop and then to a rubbing trace of around 10ft of 400lbs mono again connected with a Flemish loop, this swivel stops the rig spinning on the way down and back up, I also added a 220lb split ring to the swivel to prevent my weight sliding down and onto the bait. On the rubbing leader is where I added a slider that would hold my weight, these are best made up at home. The slider was made up of a 2 inch length of hosepipe that had a weak locking swivel cable tied tightly round it, this could then hold the weight and slide along the rig but not as far as the bait, the weak copper locking swivel would let the weight go if it caught up and should the rig snap for any reason, the slider would drop off the broken end of the rig and prevent a fish swimming around towing a weight about. At the end of the rubbing leader the rig is terminated by another crimped Flemish loop that attaches to the crosslock on the end of the mainline when you’re ready to start fishing.
Since I’ve only targeted Skate the once I’ll describe how I went about it by describing my trip, hopefully some of the things I mention will help others to success.
Skate are another lover of deep water and although there are historical accounts of them being caught in areas like Cardigan Bay in Wales, all the evidence points to a realistic shot meaning a trip to Scotland’s west coast, for me this unfortunately meant a 1200 mile round trip from Somerset. Weather is obviously critical here so I’d been keeping an eye on it for over a year before a window came up that didn’t clash with work or another fish opportunity – due to skate being resident fish I’d always had them in my mind as a backup fish to try for when there was nothing else to have a crack at which pretty much meant I was going to be trying for them over the winter.
Due to it being such a long trip to an unknown area with only a one day shot due to work commitments I chose to take all my bait for the trip with me so that I could maximise my fishing time. I have a vacuum packer at home and vac-pack my own mackerel when they are plentiful, we also get a good run of squid in the winter here so I had some of those in the freezer, I also took some shop bought blast frozen mackerel and cuttlefish with me, I understand octopus is a great bait but I didn’t get the opportunity to try them.
We’re targeting Skate from an anchored boat so quite different to the drifting for Blues I described in the previous article. Standard practice on small boats is to carry 2 anchors plus chain and enough rope to reach the bottom, this is quite a different prospect in the west coast of Scotland from Lyme Bay where I’m used to so, since it was a one off shot I bought a bulk spool of cheap blue polyprop. I tied this to my anchor chain and then added my normal anchor rope on top, that way if the anchor snagged I would hopefully snap the cheaper rope and not lose an expensive anchor rope. My chosen mark after researching charts was in over 100m of water-I don’t know about you but I’d rather not pull an anchor from that depth by hand, an Alderney ring is a godsend for anchoring and well worth learning to use if you don’t already know how. For finding new marks and because I travel about so much I use the Navionics app on my phone, it’s ideal for exploring areas not covered by the charts on your plotter card so I put in a lot of research before heading up.
On a long trip like this it’s essential to make sure you have enough spares to get you out of trouble, particularly for the trailer, so before the trip I changed the trailer bearings and brake shoes as well as giving the whole outfit a thorough check over and replacing any damaged rollers. I also took a full toolkit and spare grease, bearings, hub caps trolley jack etc. to make sure I could get myself out of most potential problems before calling for help.
Thankfully the drive up was uneventful and after an 11 hour trip I was at my destination with the boat safely parked up. I’d booked a cottage to stay in for 2 nights with a pub next door so after a good dinner I was away to bed ready for the morning.
I like to get my baits down whilst there is still quite a bit of tide running, often even just a fraction too much to fish in as it gives a good initial scent trail for fish to follow to your eventual bait position; if you arrive near slack tide there is no opportunity for your baits to create a scent lane and bites will often be slow coming so I was up at 4 the next morning and got launched before running out to the mark, and dropping anchor. I wasn’t happy with the first shot so hauled and shot again meaning I was where I wanted to be but not quite as early as I would have liked to establish a proper scent trail.
Baiting up I used a kebab technique of steaking up a mackerel and threading it up the line then tipping off with 2 small cuttles or a big Weymouth squid. Due to the depth I chose to only fish 2 rods from my 17ft boat as this would reduce the risk of tangles. Skate don’t like a bait that moves so I added plenty of weight and nailed them hard to the seabed with the ratchets set on my reels. If you can’t hold bottom it’s worth trotting the bait back until you do, this involves raising the rod tip and then lowering it whilst letting out line to reduce the angle to the boat and lessen the effect of the tide. I’d often heard that Skate are a slow and poor fighting fish so was surprised to have a reel absolutely scream off after only being on the mark for just over an hour.
I tightened up my drag and struck into a solid weight that just didn’t move at all. After a while of this impasse and sustained pressure I broke the fish off the bottom, the trick with Skate is to keep them moving once you get them coming but this fish had other ideas and made quite a few good runs, there was still a fair bit of tide running so in the end it popped up quite a distance off the back of the boat as it had kited up in the water. I was using an Aftco harness so put a lot of pressure on the fish before I got it to the boat, I must say I was impressed as I wasn’t expecting much in the way of a fight; once at the boat it was a male which explained it. Most people bring Skate in by gaffing them in the wings and although it doesn’t do them any lasting damage and I had gaffs I had also brought along some scaffolding safety net to pull the fish over and use to boat them, this was hard work but worked well and I felt better about not putting extra holes in the fish.
Once in the boat I measured the overall length and the wingspan and compared it to the widely available online charts for the species to give me an estimated weight, it came out at 101lbs so not a bad start at all but since it’s an estimate I really wanted to be sure of breaking the ton barrier so over the side he went again using the net as a sling and I pressed on with the fishing.
I’d barely made a cup of tea and had breakfast before I was back in again, I’d text some friends saying that I’d been successful but was receiving some stick for using a harness on Skate, so I timed this one and fought it without a harness using a technique for fishing really heavy drag that I’ll maybe go into another time. Using this technique the fish never got the opportunity to stick to the bottom which is the hardest part of the fight, I hit it hard and just kept going so had her at the boat in under 12 minutes just to prove to this pair of brothers that I could do it without the harness! She measured out at 144lbs but was quickly released as during the fight I’d seen a bite on the other rod. Back into the harness I started on the third fish and whilst it was coming up I was able to re-bait and drop the other rod to the bottom, in my mind at the time more than anything to keep the scent trail to the boat going. This fish measured smaller at 86lbs but again I’d seen the other rod go during the fight so quickly released her and settled into fish number 4, there must have been loads down there! This fish fought hard again and my limited experience made me think it was probably a male which after a good fight it turned out to be; he came out of the chart at 133lbs. After that it all went quiet and the tide turned with nothing after that so it just goes to show you have to make the most of your chances when they are there.
Skate are quite straightforward to unhook but you do need to be careful of the mouth which can shoot out and grab an unsuspecting finger, a standard T bar is adequate to pull the hook and send them back on their way. Once the bites had died off I fished the tide until late afternoon.
One thing I would certainly do differently another time would be to check the baits more frequently as despite being big they were soon eaten out by what I would guess were crabs and sea lice. I pulled the anchor using the Alderney ring and ran back in, recovering the boat ready for the long return trip and went back to the pub again for dinner and a pint. The next day I set off home, stopping off in the Cairngorms to do some work for a day on the way back. The trip home was completely uneventful which was nice!
So there you go, that was my approach to Skate, they were good fun to target and although I wouldn’t maybe go for them every year due to the effort involved I will certainly be back up there for another shot and try to break the 200lb barrier to make it 4 species over 200lbs. If you put this together with the Blue Shark approach outlined last month then step by step you’ll see we’re building up experience with bigger fish and steadily getting used to bigger tackle in situations where we can learn without a costly mistake to a point where we can look at trying for something a bit bigger and faster.