I spend hours and hours looking at depth charts and Google Earth trying to find places to fish for skate. The first thing I look for is if there are any roads close by, then I look to see if the access is over a mountain. You can get this information from the depth charts, but look at the land to tell you how high it is at the highest point. I’ve been caught out a few times, thinking we can park up and walk straight to the water only to discover that you’d need to be a mountain goat to get anywhere near the mark. Even after all of your research you still won’t know for sure what the area is like until you get there as Google Earth can be very misleading.
Deep water is not essential, especially if you fish at night. We have had them in as little as 30 feet of water and as close as 30 yards out fishing after dark. If you are planning on fishing daylight hours then you will definitely increase your chances of success in the deeper water. My thinking is that they spend the day in the deep holes, then venture into the shallows under the cover of darkness searching for food.
Baiting up with a whole mackerel, four squid and an octopus is all well and good on the boat, but casting that cocktail off the shore to any distance is near impossible and totally unnecessary. Don’t get me wrong, a big bait will give off an excellent scent for a long period of time but smaller baits with regular changes can be just as effective. I like to use half a mackerel and try to rebait every hour, although a lot depends on crab activity and whether there is interference from smaller nuisance fish.
To maintain their sheer size, skate have to eat a lot and quite regularly. From my experience, fresh bait has no advantage over frozen unless there are a lot of pest species out there. The massive mouth of a skate is like a Hoover and will engulf anything edible in its path.
The ideal rod and reel combo is all down to individual preference; what might work well for one person could be the complete opposite for somebody else. What I can say is that you need a rod with a lot of power all the way through – you must try to tire the fish out as quick as you can by applying as much pressure as possible. The reel needs to be robust as these fish will test your equipment more than any other species we target off the shore in the UK. Something with a decent drag rating is essential and a higher retrieve ratio is handy for getting these fish moving off the bottom.
It’s braid all the way for me but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t got it’s disadvantages. Mono casts much better than braid on a multiplier and holds a lot better in the tide when it’s pulling hard. The abrasion resistance is also a lot better with mono than braid and with obstacles in the water, you always have that chance of the braid rubbing on something and cutting you off. All that aside, when you do finally hook a skate you need to apply as much pressure as possible and with little to no stretch in braid, it’s much easier to keep that kind of pressure up. You can also feel everything on braid and when the fish try to hold bottom or dig into ledges or structures, you can feel all the little movements. As soon as you feel the fish shift it’s time to apply as much strain as you can to get it off the bottom or away from the structure. If you were using mono, you could miss these subtle movements, drawing out the fight time and putting unnecessary stress on the fish. I’m not saying that you can’t land skate on mono – you can, but from my experience braid gives you that extra edge.
My choice of hook is the 12/0 Mustad O’Shaughnessy attached to a pulley rig with a total length of 8-9ft. The O’Shaughnessy is bronzed so if you do lose the fish and the rig is still attached, it will rust a lot quicker than stainless. This improves the chance of the skate getting rid of the hook. I do crush the barbs on my hooks, it’s safer and easier for me to get a debarbed hook out and also safer on the fish as I’m not digging around and yanking on the hook to extract it. I always use rotten bottoms on my rigs, I up the weak link to 30lb so my weight losses are minimal when I’m not getting snagged. It’s also easy enough for a skate to break and dislodge the lead if my line breaks during the fight.
The safest way to land a skate is to not take it out of the water but on some marks, it’s not possible to get into the water with the fish as it’s too deep in close. The only option then is to gaff the fish in the edge of the wing about a quarter of the way down from the nose and away from any organs. Once the fish is secured, you can carefully drag it up onto the rocks safely. When the fish is on the rocks we try to move it as little as possible, but if it’s absolutely necessary then one pulling with the gaff and another lifting and pushing slightly from underneath the fish is probably the best way. Less movement on the rocks is definitely for the best though, as well as safer and less stressful for the fish.
We have a copper pipe about two feet long with a ‘V’ notched in one end to push the hook down, or we can use it like a T bar if that’s easier. The last thing any of us want is those massive crushing pads clamping down on our fingers, hands or arms.
We release the fish in the same way we land them; if we can step in the water we will and then push them off gently when we feel they are ready. It’s not uncommon for them to just swim straight down in front of us and sit there for an hour to recover. So if this happens to you, don’t panic – they will swim off when they are ready.
One of the best tips I can give is to try and get the fish in as quick as you can to not stress it any more than necessary. When landed, take measurements and pictures as quick as you can and get the skate back in the water as soon as possible. Most of all, please respect them.
We don’t get much in the way of bycatch but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any other species out there. The biggest obstacle to us catching other smaller fish is the size of the hooks we’re using: most other species would struggle to take a 12/0. If we were to scale down the hook size I’m sure there would be a lot more in the way of other fish caught, but it’s skate we’re after so the less bycatch the better as far as we are concerned.