Last year holds some fantastic angling memories for me, but one of the best days I had out afloat did not involve me fishing at all! I had organised what turned out to be an extraordinarily successful trip for my work colleagues aboard The Blue Mink sailing out of Fleetwood. The boss, Neil Tranter, paid for the trip as a treat for the team and there was a ten pound a head biggest fish sweep for the bragging rights on site. The story of that fine day made it into a previous Hookpoint digital publication under the title of “The Fleetwood Foray”. For those who may have missed it, the lads were blessed with great weather and fantastic sport. Every angler on the boat managed at least one tope each alongside a plethora of other species. Fleetwood local boy Frankie Webster eventually beat the boss and the rest of the lads with a big tope in the last hour of the trip! This has been the source of much banter and theories since, one being that former commercial angler Frankie brought his winning fish with him, another one was that he was looked after by fellow local “Uncle Andy”, the skipper! But, could Frankie, either by luck, skill or just downright nepotism walk away with the glory again? 

Fleetwood is an area synonymous with winter cod fishing from both boat and shore.

The “bumper cod” fishing years of the past have seen to that and although the cod fishing has declined somewhat from those glory days it still produces quality winter fishing for those willing to brave the elements. However, the improvement of the summer fishing and the appearance of species such as smooth-hounds in ever increasing numbers and size has been a real boom. Unfortunately this does mean that my chosen skipper for this area, Andy Bradbury and his boat get very busy and bookings are taken up fast. So not wanting to give our operations director apoplexy by having lots of staff off during the working week in the holiday season, we settled for a midweek sail in May.  I was a little concerned that the tope might not be there, but hopefully other species such as huss, ray and smooth-hound would make up for it.

With the trip booked and the excitement and banter building on site I began the arduous task of getting prepared for the trip. The boat boxes and gear were dug out with some trepidation as it felt like a long time since I had been out afloat. Usually, my boat tackle will stay clean and organised over the winter months as I fish the river Mersey up-tiding. However, this last winter, due to issues with the docks the majority of charter boats simply stayed away. It’s a travesty that such a reliable and productive boat fishing venue appears to be lost to charter boat anglers and I hope something can be done, but that is a fight for another time.

The returning champion... things were serious.

As the date for the trip approached the lads once again proved it is better to be lucky than good! The weather conditions looked great, with calm seas and sunshine. This was a big relief to a couple of lads who had not been on a boat before and were worried about the prospect of doing some extra ground-baiting (sea sickness is a horrible thing to behold). Regular check ins with the skipper also sounded promising on the fishing front with hounds and huss showing in good numbers. The mackerel were yet to show so I set about sorting some frozen fish baits and crab to give us the best chance of a successful day.

The day of the trip finally arrived and after an early meet-up followed by taking some essential fuel onboard (a McDonald’s breakfast) we headed to Fleetwood to get picked up by the skipper. A quick clamber down the ladder and I set about getting the lads organised whilst Andy made the swift steam to a bank not far from shore. The tactics would be simple. I set all the team up with running ledgers but as I clipped on the various traces I purposely mixed things up to try to gauge what the fishing would be like.

The anchor was soon dropped and the Mink swung into the tide. Baited traces were lowered to the seabed and we were fishing! 

As is inevitable these days, the first fish to show were dogfish. They were on any bait instantly but I did not mind too much as it gave us a chance to settle into our session and the lads who had never been before a chance to get used to the gear they were using. 

Among the “newbies” on the trip was our newest electrician Martyn. He had never fished before so I was delighted when his rod arched over with a bite that was definitely not a dogfish. With a bit of coaching Martyn was soon proudly showing off a scrappy little hound for the cameras. This signalled an improvement in the fishing and huss and hounds began to come in regularly around the boat. I do love to see quality huss coming aboard, they are beautiful fish with real attitude and fight as hard out of the water as they do in it. Watching a bit of huss wrestling is always good for a laugh!

Tangles on any boat trip are inevitable, even more so with an inexperienced crew, so I was kept busy helping the guys keep fishing with minimal time lost. I was sorting a “knitting circle” when Andrew, one of the lads, shouted up that someone was reeling him in.

Huss from the off!

When I did wander over I instantly realised this was definitely NOT the case! Line was being ripped from the reel and my akios nano tech 6-10lb class rod was bent double. Tope on! The fish made a number of long screaming runs and even broke surface 40 yards behind the boat at one point before something changed. The rod was still bent but all life went out of the fight. The skipper and I exchanged a glance, and both agreed the fish must have gotten itself wrapped up. We both cautioned Andrew to be careful as he eased the seemingly dead weight towards the net, many a wrapped up tope has come to the boat, untangled itself then roared away causing broken gear. Andrew did superbly though and remained calm, his reward, a fine male tope of 26lb was soon on the deck. A quick photograph later, his prize was returned to fight another day. We had an early leader in the biggest fish sweep. The high of the appearance of the tope was followed by a drop in the fishing so the skipper suggested a move offshore so we brought the gear up and settled in for another steam.

Our second mark of the day began to produce huss from the off. The lads were all doing brilliantly but I was having trouble with electricians! Those familiar with tradesmen stereotypes will be aware that “sparkies” are famed for their reluctance to pick up a brush, clean up on site or generally get themselves dirty like other trades. Happily, Martyn is not like this on site and is a pleasure to work with, however, I soon discovered he is high maintenance on a boat! I was doing all his baiting up and unhooking etc whilst he stood back and made puking sounds. The man was spotless and looked like he was on a dinner date! Whilst Dom, our other electrician, had discovered a strange gift. He could get a fish to the surface but not into the boat! Time after time a dogfish or huss would be at the top, spit his bait out and swim away. If scaring fish without actually boating them becomes a sport then someone sign this man up for international duties!

As the day progressed the tide run fell away and with it the fishing quality. It became dog after dog for quite a while and the skipper suggested we head back in shore to finish the day. There had been no sign of anything to better Andrew’s early tope.

Some better tope finally showed

The fishing started slowly on our final mark of the day but soon began to pick up as the tide began to flood. I made it a mission to get Dom into the fish and following a few more premature “surface releases” his rod arched over with an aggressive bite. I had set him up on a very light rod and he had a great tussle before landing his first ever smooth-hound. It was a delight to see how happy he was. There is something about angling that takes you back to the wonders of childhood and you could clearly see it as he admired his prize.  Other members of the team were also enjoying some great fun, but on the back of the boat things were getting serious. 

Boss Neil and Frankie were sticking with the big baits and had their eyes firmly on the biggest fish prize. With less than an hour left Frankie sprang into action! His rod arched over, line ripped from the reel and he called for my help. Tope on!

The fish charged away on a long screaming run that looked like it was not going to stop. It then kited far behind the boat on the surface before charging away again. Frankie began to worry he was going to run out of line but I could tell the fish was tiring. It began to hang deep as he pumped it toward the boat and after a couple more short runs we had his prize on board. Had he stolen the glory again? Well not this time, the weight came in just under Andrew’s fish. What a way to end the day though, or was it? 

With thirty minutes left it was the bosses turn. The ratchet screamed as a tope charged away and Neil lifted into a good fish. Like Frankie’s, this fish went on a couple of long screaming runs. It then kited up-tide alongside the boat before roaring off again. The other rods were quickly brought out the way. Nobody wanted to lose the gaffer his fish!

The winning fish!

The fish was not for giving up easily and continued to give big head shakes and powerful runs. Stood at Neil’s shoulder, I caught a glimpse of it as it turned under the boat. I glanced back at the lads and mouthed “biggest fish”. There were a couple of heads put in hands but, for a small price I`ll not name names. 

Eventually, the fish began to tire and the skipper got ready to get it on board. It gave one last swimmers role and I noticed how light the hook hold was! Before I could worry, the skipper leapt into action and we had a superb tope on board! I reached down and popped the hook out with no effort at all, Neil had done very well, one bit of slack line and he would have lost it.

Although no longer than the previous two fish, what made this tope impressive was its girth. It was a real lump and the weight came in at 46 ¾ pounds. There were cheers and handshakes and maybe the odd light hearted grumble of the boss winning but what a way to end a great day. I presented the winner with his prize and everyone went away happy. Even our high maintenance sparkie said he would come again so we must have done something right!

A final thank you to my son Luke who helped out with the lads on the day and of course the brilliant Andy Bradbury, skipper of the Blue Mink, for yet another superb day afloat! The lads have said that they’d like me to fish next year instead of just helping. Watch this space for The Return of the Jedi!

The boss collects the winnings.