There is something to be said for the madness of anglers. That madness is often amplified once you put an LRF rod in their hands. Mad is certainly how I felt when I started planning a three hundred and eighty seven mile road trip to Hartlepool with my brother, Olly.
Why Hartlepool? The long journey was planned thanks to Olly taking part in the inaugural Big Lerf Winter League, put together by myself, Richard Salter and Joe Mole.
Although I couldn’t take part as an organiser, I have enjoyed how seriously my brother has taken it and we have spent more time together this winter than we have in years. Because of this time spent Lerfing so regularly, Olly was fighting at the top with a fantastic twenty eight species. With so many caught though, he had begun to exhaust the options locally, so I put forward the North East as an option. I had wanted to fish Hartlepool for a couple of years and this was my chance.
A two night stay in the local Travelodge was booked, the car soon loaded with ultralight tackle and warm clothes and we were off. Two Lerfers doing their best to ignore a grim forecast of thirty mile per hour winds and single figure temperatures. It took us seven hours to cross the country, leaving from Plymouth on a dreary Friday afternoon. The plan was to get a good sleep and fish hard the whole Saturday if we could.
I had arranged a secret weapon in the form of local Lerfer, Kevin Benton. Kev is a knowledgeable and skilled angler, who I have got to know well through various social media. Kev had agreed to guide us and had been hyping me up about the possibilities in the weeks leading up to the trip, so I was like a kid at Christmas as we arrived at the marina.
The air of excitement was more than a little deflated once we were by the water. A fierce south-westerly wind was howling through any areas not sheltered by large buildings. It was disheartening to see the clear water of the marina being whipped around by the gales, and hearing the tortured whine of the air tearing past the boat masts. Despite the bleak outlook, two southern softies and a hardened northerner began their day’s fishing, still full of hope.
The weather may have been tricky but I could still appreciate the famous Hartlepool Marina for it’s worth. This was a mark I had dreamed of fishing, knowing that it held cod, plaice, coalfish and exciting oddities like short spined scorpion fish and eelpout. With it’s clear water, submerged urban debris and quirky corners, the place reminded me of Plymouth’s own marina, Sutton Harbour. The likeness gave me an uncanny feeling of a home from home, which was oddly reassuring on such a grim day.
Kev had only just begun trying to lift our early morning mood when the first fish of the trip took my lure. Attached to my Ecogear Aqua Shirasu was a brightly coloured scorpion fish. Was it the fabled short spined? Sadly not, although the scorp’ was a particularly beautiful long spined. On the dark grey morning, the luminous orange and yellows on the underbelly of the fish were like a ray of sunshine, and a real lift of my spirits. I also hadn’t blanked!
With breakfast in our bellies and many, many layers of warm clothes wrapped around us, the incessant wind didn’t bite quite as hard as it should. That was coupled with a warming optimism and hope. All anglers know the feeling of fishing the unknown, especially somewhere full of new possibilities like Hartlepool. That feeling certainly kept us inspired, despite the elements that morning. That, and something quite remarkable…
In our sheltered corner, fishing in six to ten feet of crystal clear water, we were in the presence of leviathans. Every ten minutes or so, some of the biggest flatfish I had ever seen, gracefully swam by. They were huge plaice and flounder, seemingly unbothered by the anglers gawping at them from above. I can only liken their behaviour to that of aquarium fish – they seemed on auto-pilot, mind-numbed by the inability to escape their enclosure. There were moments where the fish would rise right to the surface, noses lifted out of the water, then slowly sank away. The fishing almost took a backseat as we watched their every move with awe.
These incredible beasts had no interest in lures, or anything at all it seemed. Whenever they stopped, resting up against the sunken bricks, we offered our finest and smelliest lures to them. All were refused with barely an indication they had seen them. Kev assured me that these fish were caught occasionally, but even my high hopes could not imagine one of those majestic fish being attached to our line that weekend. So we set our sights on smaller flatfish and moved out onto the pier.
To many this may seem like a very humble dream, but I have wished to catch a dab for a few years now. In the warmer waters of the South-West, these flatfish are not common catches. Now I was Lerfing in the North Sea, and what it lacks in many species, it makes up for in dabs. So those were the species I was most excited to catch. Sadly the weather had other ideas.
Unsurprisingly, the wind was brutal on the exposed pier. The whipped up North Sea resembled a frothy brown soup. What was left of my optimism was blown away as my dropshot failed to hold ground in such fierce conditions. All three of us agreed it was madness to continue and we retreated back to the marina, my spirit well and truly dampened, feeling I had missed my chance at a dab.
After a brief tour of the marina, Kev had to leave us. With little choice but to fish through, me and Olly hid behind a hotel and hunkered down. Either side of us the gales increased and the temperature dropped. The sound of the boat masts screaming in the wind droned on, any fabric not tied down flapped angrily in protest. Seconds, minutes, hours dragged on and our mood darkened like the sky. It was tough going. So we took the only logical course of action, we went to the pub.
A couple of pints later, things began to feel miraculously better. Having watched the forty mile an hour gusts begin to die down we braved the elements once more. We were once more joined by Kev as darkness fell across the marina, which we all knew could be the game changer we needed.
Kev gave Olly a silicone glow bead to add to his Snooded Dropshot Rig. These luminous pieces of silicone are commonly used in bait fishing, but our northern guide promised they would make the difference even when using artificial baits. I decided against the attractor to see how more effective they were in comparison. It didn’t take long to find out.
In the same corner as before, giant flatfish still casually parading below us, Olly yelped with joy as his rod yanked over unexpectedly. We watched him with intrigue as he pulled the modest fish from the water. I ran over to see what the culprit was, could it be something new? The fish wriggled in his hands, spinning in the gloom, time seemed to slow as Olly finally held it still.
‘It’s a cod!’ I exclaimed, all three of us beaming with happiness. It hadn’t been a wasted trip, we had caught a new species.
Night had truly arrived and with it the winds had dropped. The combination of darkness and still water changed the game for us, with sight fishing now a real possibility. Me and Olly were in our element, especially with the ghostly figures of huge plaice swimming by every couple of minutes. With our Fenix HM65R Shadowmasters strapped to our heads, we could survey every inch of the harbour walls. These superb torches have a powerful red light option and I used it to great effect as I stalked a small codling hunting along the wall. I lowered the Ecogear Aqua Shirasu to the fish. The scene made all the more dramatic by the intense red light. The codling took it immediately, things were looking up.
We decided to explore the rest of the marina, the place had a completely different atmosphere at night. There was a real feel of potential, like anything could happen. What did happen was that our lures were snaffled regularly in the deeper water, by a mixture of small whiting and codling. A couple of times all three of us had bigger takes but the larger fish shook the hook. Olly in particular lost one much more substantial fish that we assumed must have been one of the flatfish. The regular bites and great conversation was a stark contrast to the bleak daylight session we had endured earlier.
Kev soon had to leave but Olly and I pushed on. The two of us returned to a spot where we had spotted three spined sticklebacks earlier. Sticklebacks are a tiny but incredibly tough fish, surviving in fresh and saltwater, but all of my previous catches of them had been in freshwater. We found a shoal flitting about underneath some floating leaves. Both of us rigged up a Stinger Rig with a tiny pinch of Isome on the Tanago hook. These were slowly pulled through the shoals and quickly tempted a stickleback each for us. Another new species for Olly’s total and my first ever in saltwater. The tiny armour plated fish were returned and we continued our search for new species.
Not long after that catch, my headtorch illuminated the largest shoal of whiting and codling I had ever seen. A huge mass of fish casually swimming beneath us. Excitedly our lures were lowered but they were completely uninterested, perhaps spooked by the light. It was still an incredible sight and kept our interest up, even though we were beginning to tire.
The best was soon to come, once we did our best to avoid the groups of drunks making their way from the marina bars into town.
After the lairy intrusion into the stillness of our evening, the quiet returned, only to be interrupted by the screeching sound of Olly’s reel. He was attached to something much bigger than a stickleback. I skidded across the damp stones, eager to see what it was. I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing when it came into view. Attached to Olly’s line was an angry, head-shaking plaice. I excitedly grabbed the net and ordered him not to give it too much stick. The flatfish twisted and turned underneath Olly’s contorted rod. Finally it looked beat and I ran the net underneath it.
Time stood still for a moment as we took in what had just happened. In front of us lay a beautiful brown flatfish, covered with bright orange spots, a fin-perfect plaice. Olly had found it laying up on the bottom and had twitched his Cheb Rig, baited with a section of pink Isome, past its nose. With a flash of its open jaws the lure was taken and the result lay in front of us, now receiving a photoshoot. Olly’s third new species of the trip for The Big Lerf Winter League and a simply astonishing catch on LRF tackle. After a rest in the net, the plaice swam back into the dark of the marina. Unable to quite process what had happened, we called it a night.
Sunday had arrived and the piercing noise of the morning alarm came too soon. Tired yet pleased with how the night before went, we had one final mission… I wasn’t leaving the North-East without catching my target species, the dab. There was unfinished business with the pier and the open North Sea. Spirits were high on arrival and, despite a strong breeze in our faces, it was relative paradise in comparison to our attempt the day before. On the inside of the pier the water was calm enough to expect fish could be there. The water wasn’t any clearer but I knew that dab have excellent eyesight and wouldn’t struggle to find our Dropshotted Gulp Worms.
Our tactic was pushing the boundaries of what we would usually call LRF. Fishing from quite a height and with the wind in our faces, our Dropshot Rigs had to be upped to ten grams. We cast the Snooded Rigs out into the channel and tried to keep in touch with the lures as the sea and wind combined to move them around.
A moody rain cloud appeared on the horizon, heading in our direction. The wind turbines began to disappear as they were engulfed by the downpour. We zipped up our jackets and braced ourselves. The icy rain on our faces certainly woke us up, and perhaps also the fish. Once the shower had passed, Olly’s rod tip began to bounce excitedly. After a moment to let the bite build, Olly struck into a fish. We both watched the brown water, eagerly waiting to see what it was.
‘It’s a dab!’ I shouted, my voice muffled by the incessant wind. Olly quickly hauled the fish up and we both embraced in relief, species number four for my brother’s tally. The quirky flatfish was lip hooked and I was able to appreciate it’s bulging eyes and half-moon shaped lateral line over it’s pectoral fin – both tell tale signs that you have a dab. They also have an almost translucent underside, very different to the solid white or the pearly bellies of the flounder and plaice.
I will admit to feeling some envy as Olly followed that first fish up with another. Clearly he was doing something different to me. On inspection he was using the silicone attractor Kev had given him the night before. Knowing how much I desired a dab of my own he kindly offered the attractor to me. Almost like magic my next cast was followed by the bouncing bite of an angry flatfish. The attractor clearly making the difference in the muddy waters of the North Sea. My dab was quite a healthy size and gave me a surprisingly spirited fight on the way in.
Nearly four hundred miles, fifteen hours of travel and enduring all of the elements was worth it. I held the dab in my hands, my fifth flatfish species ever. The beautiful little fish made all the more special because of the effort put into catching it.
It was returned to the wild sea and we headed home. Both of us were beaming from our results and Hartlepool truly lived up to the billing. Our success owed massively to Kevin Benton and his suggested use of the silicone attractors. We hope to repay the favour in the Summer when he visits us down south.