The seaside town of Ilfracombe is a busy tourist resort located on the spectacular North Devon coast. The town has been a popular destination for holiday makers since the Victorian era when steam trains and steamer ships brought thousands from the cities during the summer months to enjoy the sea air and wander the seafront with its gardens, pavilions and pier.
The port also has a long history as a fishing port with fisherman harvesting the deep waters at the mouth of the Bristol Channel. Alongside the commercial enterprise there has long been a tradition of supplying recreational angling ranging from mackerel trips for holiday makers along with deep sea angling excursions.
In recent decades Ilfracombe’s reputation as a destination for the serious sea angler has grown as a small fleet of charter boats continue to explore and develop the rich potential on offer.
The harbour boasts deep-water sheltered moorings that ensure boats can operate out from the harbour throughout the day unlike other venues on the Bristol Channel coastline where launch times are very much dictated to by the vast tidal range experienced along this coast with the tidal range the second highest in the world. In Ilfracombe the spring tides can occasionally reach a height in excess of 10 metres.
The strong tides, dramatic topography and influence of the vast Atlantic Ocean make Ilfracombe an exciting destination for sea anglers throughout the year. The towns charter boats and flotilla of private boats have access to a rich and diverse area.
To the East of the port Exmoor’s dramatic coastline plunges into the sea with a section of the world’s highest sea cliffs dominating the vista. The coastline between Combe Martin and Lynmouth carries the fading scars from a mining industry with excavation tunnels still visible on the sheer cliff faces.
The inshore waters off this section of coastline offers fishing over reefs, a few wrecks and sandbanks. I will highlight the species later in the feature as I delve into the year’s calendar out of Ilfracombe.
To the west of Ilfracombe is the mouth of the Bristol Channel with more inshore fishing opportunities on reefs and headlands with raging tidal flows. There are also vast bays like Woolacombe and Bideford with a wide range of habitat.
Lundy Island a granite outcrop situated at the mouth of the Bristol Channel hosts one of the UKs first Marine Conservation Zones providing a valuable area that is a haven for many marine species. The benefits of this undoubtedly extend beyond the zone potentially boosting fish stocks for both anglers and commercial enterprises.
Beyond Lundy the vast waters of the Atlantic Ocean extend with the Celtic Deeps offering exciting potential. To the West of Hartland Point there are rich fishing grounds that extend to the North Cornish coast areas that are explored by some enterprising charter boat skippers who have invested in high performance craft that can reach these grounds in just a couple of hours.
The Bristol Channel can be a challenging environment for anglers used to fishing more benign areas. The strong tides and deep water often necessitate the use of heavy leads combined with braided main line.
The deep mid channel marks are best fished over neap tides and even then 2lb of lead is often required to anchor the bait to the seabed. Closer inshore lighter tackle can of coarse be employed with a wide variety of species available. Species fishing which is popular at many charter boat ports has yet to catch on in a big way off North Devon with most skippers focussing on the more traditional deep sea fishing approach.
Winter fishing off Ilfracombe is of course very weather dependant with the coast impacted upon by Atlantic swells and exposed to winds from the North, West and East. Close inshore bull huss and conger dominate sport with the inevitable dogfish sometimes present in plague proportions. The main destination during the winter are the deep channel trenches that lie four or five miles out. On neap tides anglers can enjoy hectic sport with vast packs of voracious spurdog that hunt for herring, sprats and whiting.
Twenty to thirty pound class boat gear with wire traces or heavy mono is required with weights between 1lb and 2lb required to reach the seabed. The spurdog average 10lb with the occasional specimen topping twenty pounds. Spurdog numbers have flourished in recent years following a partial ban on the commercial targeting of the species since 2010.
Cod were a target for anglers off Ilfracombe during decades leading up to the 2000’s but their numbers have plummeted off North Devon with the twenty pound cod of the eighties and nineties just a memory. The collapse of this fishery is a mystery as a healthy winter cod fishery still exists further up channel with Minehead boats reporting excellent catches each winter.
The spring season is perhaps the quietest time for the boat anglers off Ilfracombe with a few spurdog lingering in April along with large bull huss, conger, dogfish and the occasional brightly coloured rockling caught closer to the shoreline. The sand banks off Woolacombe and up channel at Woody Bay can provide good sport with blonde and small eyed ray.
The first smoothound of the season will also start to show from inshore waters with Bideford Bay and Woolacombe Bay well worth visiting for these hard fighting members of the shark family.
Pioneering charter boat Skipper Daniel Hawkins has taken his boat Reel Deal to the rugged waters of the North Cornish Coast where porbeagle shark to over 400lb have been brought to the boat. Circle hooks and release of the sharks at the side of the boat ensure the future of this exciting fishing.
Summer is boom time for the anglers with the hopeful arrival of the mackerel heralding the cream of the years sport. The rich waters close to Lundy can provide exciting sport drifting the reefs for pollock and bass. Baited feathers or small worm baits on small hooks can give a wide variety of species with ballan wrasse, cuckoo wrasse, whiting, dabs and plaice all tempted on a regular basis.
The sandbanks that surround Lundy offer exciting sport with tope the number one target. A fresh mackerel bait impaled upon an 8/0 hook and suitable wire trace will give an exciting battle on 20lb class tackle.
Trips to the waters off Lundy often award the angler with sightings of the Islands famous puffins with their brightly coloured clown like beaks. Seals can also be spotted basking on the rocks.
Closer inshore reefs offer bass and pollock fishing with lures or live sandeel effective on light tackle. Heavyweight tope and bull huss can be caught throughout the summer months with no need to venture far off shore. Light tackle fishing can bring a wide variety of species with triggerfish, black bream and wrasse regular catches.
Late summer will see the occasional excursion to the deep waters beyond Lundy where blue shark can be caught drifting the crystal clear waters that always offer the prospect of something special.
In 2016 a thresher shark was caught from Reel Deal estimated at 368lb further highlighting Ilfracombe’s potential as a shark fishing port.
The seas off Ilfracombe during summer abound with dolphins, porpoises and even the occasional whale. Recent seasons have seen a growth in Ilfracombe’s wildlife viewing safaris a feature that is so often an integral part of an angler’s day at sea.
The autumn season is very much an extension of summer with many species lingering until the dark nights and shorter days descend. As shoals of herring move inshore to blend with the mackerel tope fishing can extend until late November when the first spurdog show amongst the huss and conger.
I often wonder about the potential for porbeagle sharks during late autumn as the traditional herring fishery that one thrived was often blighted by large sharks entangled in the nets.
Looking back to past times it is sad to ponder upon the fishing that was once available in the Bristol Channel. There are records of huge common skate caught off nearby Lynmouth during Victorian times that weighed in excess of 200lb. These fish were undoubtedly fished to extinction. An environment that supported such fish could surely do so again if our marine habitat was protected. These mighty fish have thrived off Scotland and the coast of Ireland so surely the potential is there?
Early autumn can also see the continuation of fishing for blue shark at the mouth of the Bristol Channel with sightings of tunny an increasingly exciting phenomena.
I was delighted to join a group of anglers out of Ilfracombe earlier this Spring on Reel Deal that was on this occasion skippered by young Archie Porter who at the age of seventeen has to be one of the UKs youngest Charter boat skippers.
Archie has been working with Dan Hawkins of Reel Deal Charters as a deck hand for close to five years. I met Archie as a keen junior angler several years ago during a fun fishing event organised by Combe Martin SAC. Archie now skippers Reel Deals sister boat “Predator 2”. It is great to see a young face on the Charter boat world and bodes well for the future.
Bluefin – Skipper – John Barbeary – www.bluefincharters.co.uk
Contact -07968419897 Email – email@example.com
Reel Deal and Predator 2– Skippers -Daniel Hawkins & Archie Porter www.bristolchannelboatfishing.com/
Contact – Mobile -07850984933 Landline – 01823976789
Wild Frontier 2 – Skipper -Mark Hutchings – www.bristolchannelcharters.co.uk
Tackle Shop – High Street Tackle – Danny Watson – www.highstreettackle.co.uk
Contact 07810 186482 Email – firstname.lastname@example.org