A biting rush of salty breeze is fastened against by tightening down my hood, serving to keep myself warm and to protect my beloved though now well-worn cap that had been with me since Svalbard many years ago. Charlotte wraps up tight, little is spoken between us as we each emotionally process our departure. The last week has been marked by a feeling of such peace, as though the very air and coastal water were nourishing the soul. As the cliffs of the Llyn Peninsula loom closer, the realisation comes that we must soon re-enter back into our normal lives, the busyness of a world hell-bent of consuming more, interacting more, taking more, breathing less. We can wait until we get back to shore for the phone to come on, let’s hold this moment a while longer.
I’ve wanted to visit Ynys Enlli, Bardsey Island, since meeting its very finest home-grown produce, Ben, a man of remarkable zeal and energy for all things, mostly ecology, and his apparent unshakable calm. In his student accommodation, a caravan which I later inherited, he would recount tales of potting lobsters in his little rowing boat as a child living year-round on the island and then selling these to visiting tourists during the summer to make his pocket money. As we travelled further, taking icy swims in the Barents Sea and thrashing our own brand of foot-stomping drum and banjo, the conversation would always come back the same way. ‘Man, the wrasse that I saw last summer snorkelling on the island, it was immense. You should really get over there, you’d love it’. I’d agree, it really did sound like quite the paradise. Over the summers, we’d try to make it work to visit, with a final attempt thwarted by sea conditions preventing passage and the family moving off the island for good shortly after. Even so, gazing across the surf beach of Porth Neigwl, there was a sense of magnetism drawing from that unseen nearby island.
Time passes, I’ve since married and Ben is keeping his usual way of sauntering between seabird projects, cycling to raise climate awareness and accidentally running marathons around the coast paths around his family home on the Llyn when he is there. At the end of a 25 hour day that started with a dawn bass trip in Anglesey, we mixed a carbohydrate cocktail of pulses, rice and noodles in the back of his electric van whilst he charges it, and we recharge our batteries after an evening lap around some classic scrambles. ‘Man, you should really get over to the Island, you’d love it’, said Ben with his characteristic enthusiasm. Brushing away some midges, I keenly responded, ‘We’re going, visiting Mari and Emyr at the end of summer’. ‘Awesome man, make sure that you take the fishing gear!’ he beamed back.
As it transpires, visiting a remote Welsh island placed square in the rush of powerful tides and exposed to the brunt of the Celtic Sea’s weather isn’t as easy as jumping in the car when you want and getting there a few hours later. We had been invited to stay with Mari and Emyr, friends who had taken up the role of wardens of the island. Apprehension loomed as the day of departure came closer and a text arrived from Mari, warning us that weather was changing and would need to check with Colin as to whether he would be running the ferry. ‘I’m sorry to announce that the Bardsey Island ferry service will not be running tomorrow’, echoed the voicemail. A void opened up in my gut, after a year where very little had gone to plan, this was the punchline.
After much worry we nonetheless found ourselves a couple of days later travelling up to North Wales. A lull had formed in the wind and it was our best punt to get over. It wasn’t until we found ourselves passing a large duffel pack and pair of rucksacks over the rails of the catamaran that had been towed ashore by tractor, clambered aboard and saw the shingle rapidly diminish as the pair of engines hummed into life, that the realisation dawned and anxiety gave way to excitement. Mari and Emyr met us at Cafn Enlli, taking the ‘longer but scenic’ way round to their cottage at the other side of the island, just 15 minutes along a vague path of trodden grass. With some courgette cake and tea to strengthen our stomachs and put us at ease, we soon plunged down into the crystal Celtic waters, marvelling through our snorkels at the diversity of inshore life. Large wrasse, less flighty than the juvenile pollock, stood their ground around rocky ledges.
Bronzed olive flanks weaving between the ribbons of oarweed, punk blue lips, looking back with ownership of this lagoon. Sweeping back towards the cliff, we approach an entry to the cave. The rock glimmers and draws us in, ducking below into the gloom, a comb jelly holds position in the calm seclusion of this zawn. Before long we get cold, and then stay a little longer, until we’re almost too numb to rebutton clothes. Time for another cuppa.
‘When were you thinking of going fishing?’ asked Mari later that evening. I expect I probably sat up from a wine induced slump like a puppy having heard the word ‘walkies’. I’d held off mention, for my own lack of self-control and the ability to turn any amicable holiday into a single-minded pursuit of the finned fiends has frayed relationships before. ‘Well, first light is probably the best time to give it a go’ I tried in my awful bluff, trying to conceal the bubbling of excitement to dash out at once with a rod into the night.
The alarm tears the peace of the darkness in the cottage and, though the stone walls are thick, it is leapt upon before it might stir the others. In such a peaceful place the digital alarm sounds like a desecration. Many things are said after a few glasses of wine and I really hadn’t expected the others to join but, sure enough, Charlotte, Mari and Emyr were all downstairs within ten minutes – laden with backpacks, flasks of coffee and warm waterproof layers. A bolt pulls out from a hole drilled into the granite block of the gatepost, allowing us into a rough grazed field complete with sleepy sheep. The grass is coated with dew and by it feet squelch sodden by the time we reach the rock mark five minutes down indistinct tracks. The volcanic rock is both smooth and sharp in the most inconvenient ways, big steps over gaping drops and scuttling down ledges. We reach the obvious point, tide rips from left to right along this tip and leaves standing waves where fingers of reef reach out of the deeper water. Rods are assembled, I clip an assist rigged metal jig onto the heavier rod for Charlotte to start with and set about finding a moderately weighted weedless shad to clip onto my own light spinning gear.
‘I’ve got one!’ exclaimed Charlotte, making that emotional transition from ‘why am I being dragged out here’ to ‘why don’t I do this every morning’ in the moments that it takes to feel a tug, strike into it and be connected to an unseen quarry. I check the drag and do my best to instruct, not that anyone playing a fish is really ever in the mood to be told what to do, instinct rules best here. Jumping down to the tidal ledge, Charlotte is soon able to behold her own lure-caught bass on the very first cast on Enlli. Mari and Emyr also crowd in to delight at this, Mari telling us that the Welsh for bass is ‘draenog y môr’, the hedgehog of the sea. A delightful name for these prickly fish, the irony, having spent three days of straight fishing earlier in the summer to find any of these up in Wales only for Charlotte to manage the same feat in a single cast. I dug for those shads even more rapidly. Hedgehog of the sea released, I’m soon sinking into my own rhythm, counting the lure down to bottom, sink and draw, feeling the pull of the current. Even in these moderate tides, the lures end up trotting quite a considerable distance along from their starting location and 25g heads are minimum with thin braided lines to hold anywhere near bottom. As the tide races it becomes more apparent that presentation considerations more akin to kayak fishing than usual shore fishing are required, having to switch to mini slow jigs on my 25g rated rod as the tide picks up to cut through the current.
Mari and Emyr take turns with the 50g rated rod. Despite having spent two years already working as the wardens, this is the first time they’ve taken to casting from the shore and are keen to get amongst the regular stamp of pollock that skulk in abundance from the shelter of the deep kelp forest. They don’t wait long, soon Mari is winding into a buckled rod and a fair pollock of a few pounds makes rapid dives under the rod tip towards rock ledges that threaten to slice the braided mainline. Grabbing the leader, the pollock is lifted ashore and admired. Drizzle and building light curtails the session after a couple of hours and we trudge back up the verdant pasture.
We caught a few dozen pollock that morning, very few below a couple of pounds and several of three to four pounds. It’s a welcome change to the haunting absence of these fish in any size or reliability from the Devon coastline where a couple of decades ago they were commonplace. Even Enlli isn’t immune from the pressures of industrial fisheries on our oceans, yet just a scratch under the surface here reminds us what we have lost.
The history of fisheries is a tale of once great abundance, pushed further and deeper to the corners of inaccessibility as ‘progress’ delved deeper, more destructively, greater efforts for lower returns until inshore trawling is only financially viable because the taxpayer funds it in gross subsidies. Minimum spawning stock and ‘underexploited’ fisheries – greedy corporate bollocks – misses the long view oceans once so rich that the North Sea ran clear from mollusc filtration, leviathan cod were caught from basic craft close to shore and restrictions were placed on the amount of salmon fed to shipyard apprentices, such was the glut of their runs that they grew tired of them. With a complete lack of political will to protect the beautiful wealth of the seas here and perhaps restore what we have lost, it is beholden upon the angler to keep the knowledge of what once was alive in memory. We take a brace of four pollock of a few pounds, enough for a fair fish supper to share amongst friends and return the rest kicking indignant to the deep, perhaps to feed the rich ecosystem that gifted them to us. With a dinner of baked pollock over firewood, there is much still natural wealth to be joyful of against this backdrop of persistent declines.
We spend the days roaming the island in unhurried fun. Choughs pierce the skies above us with their calls and litter the salt-washed fields with a commonness akin to town pigeons. In the absence of traffic, we can hear the wailing cries of grey seals from the hilltop and wherever we go one or two will poke their heads above to examine us. Mari talks about snorkelling with these inquisitive animals, it is approaching time for them to pup on their haul-outs and their behaviour will become more moody and cautious. As the winter draws in and visitors slow and much of the wildlife migrates away from the exposure of storms, the seals and choughs remain with Mari and Emyr to weather out the dark months, bringing a closeness of spirit. The burrows of puffins cover the steep grassy slopes of the eastern side of the island and each footing feels like it will collapse in on itself. The majority of the seabirds have fledged and the mind can only imagine the deafening noise here, not to mention smell of guano, as the puffins are joined by guillemots, razorbills, shags, kittiwakes and storm petrels, all crowding round. We delve into the underland of the island, crawling into damp caves to find large cave spiders guarding egg sacks and having to watch our footing as we stumble across the subterranean balls of fluff that constitute manx shearwater chicks. Lunch is convened at a relaxed pace and with the trust of the island community the farmer walks through the forever unlocked door.
My Duolingo attempts haven’t prepared me for the pace of the conversational Welsh but we try to engage with the universal language of smiles and gestures as we are presented with crab claws and lobsters. The winds have prevented lifting of the pots for a few days and these damaged individuals won’t sell so we lunch on a staple of these decapod delights.
I venture another dawn session, this time solo. The tide is a little slacker and allows for casting smaller paddletails on the 25g rod. Lifting over the mount of reef, there’s a small pluck. Drop some slack and feel the lure flutter down, a more confident grab meets the lure and is struck into. The rod hoops and the drag sings. Tightening down on the drag and clambering upwards to get a better angle to redeem my connection from the danger of the fingers of rock and kelp, some bullying eventually brings a turn of the head and a little relenting in the force. A shape of cobalt hue and olive back shimmers as progress is made and brought to the rocks. Laying her down upon a pool of soft wrack, a beast of the deep kelp stares back with a ping pong ball sized eye. Embodying the spirit of the deep Celtic waters, she is my best shore caught pollock at 68cm and a fine specimen on light balanced lure tackle. Returning in time for some warm oats and Enlli honey, the simplicity of the island belies a depth that we seem to only be on the veneer of.
We’re not the first people to have ventured to this patch of land in search of its properties of healing peace. Known as the island of twenty thousand Saints, pilgrims have been risking the perilous journey across the powerful currents to step upon its shores for thousands of years. The first monasteries were founded in the sixth century by Welsh kings and, by the thirteenth century the island was the Rome of Britain, with the promise that anyone buried on the island would have safe passage to the eternal. Consequently, the island’s identity as the burial place of twenty thousand Saints was secured as people longed to visit and have their final resting place secured within Enlli’s soils. A small previous excavation gave weight to these rumours, unearthing twenty-five medieval graves of those who had landed on the steep cliffs before us. The island continues to be a home for those seeking spiritual peace and we join Emyr’s father one evening in the candlelit church as he led a service as one of the resident chaplains. Though an old building, the magnitude of history is telling as it stands shiny in comparison of the rubbled remains of the 13th century building and the complete absence of the original 6th century monastery. The few resident families are joined by visitors from many shores and all crowd into the pews, prayers and reflection are given in thanks for the place, people and present. Peace fills the building.
The final morning comes and we decide for a change in tact, aiming for the steeper cliffs that stand proud from the sea on first approach to the island. A sign warns us of the danger as we approach and, bypassing this, we find the scrambling is indeed awkward and insecure, not aided by low light and unfamiliarity. The rock is slick with weathered guano and routes to tidal ledges unobvious. We lower ourselves and our gear down to one point of dark rock, though the wind here pulls contact from the lures. Finding this futile, we skirt around the ledges and traverse in to other points until we finally escape the wind. By this time, it was growing full with light and the tide was running hard. Indeed, casts had to be made to a forty-five degree uptide and the lure trotted back along the current. Even then, it was a struggle to fish effectively close to the bottom with the lighter rod. Importantly, Mari and Emyr were soon into pollock on the 40g jigs and excitedly admiring each one. With the tide flooding, I was pushed off my ledge and soon joined Mari and Emyr. I managed a few fair pollock and a bass of a small metal jig, largely on the first few twitches after the drop but this rich habitat and flow felt like it had more to offer. With Mari and Emyr almost ready to retire for the morning, I was able to take ownership again of the 50g rated spinning rod and clip on a 40g natural weedless shad. Working this along the current in close contact, keeping it just off the kelp brought fantastic action, with a fish a cast. A handful of nice wrasse predictably were about to see off this intrusion into their territories, nipping at the lure and then running hard when hooked. Always unique, the ballans of Bardsey didn’t disappoint either from the greenish-bronze fish with golden bellies to the strawberry-red peppered with white spots.
A better wrasse in the high 40’s came as we spoke about plans to pack up on this final morning and make our departure. Then, close to the ledge we stood upon, a fish screeched hard against the tight drag. ‘Bastard, he’s kelped me’. Slack was fed to try to allow this wrasse to free itself but after a number of minutes the fish hadn’t moved, it must have transferred the lure to the snag and was laughing away at a safe distance. Pulling hard for the break, the line sheared at the braid, apparently having rubbed thin on the rock. ‘I think I’ll tie a new leader and just try one more cast, it feels really fishy’ I pleaded, knowing that it really was time to go now but possessed by that curse of a fish lost. FG knot secure, Palomar to the lure clip and another heavy weedless shad clipped, a final cast was made. Making small lifts as the lure tapped the reach of the kelp and reeling slowly with the flutter to stay in touch, it was going as per textbook albeit without contact yet.
Tap tap. Let it flutter, let the fish eat it… bang! Striking into resistance, a force piled hard for the kelp again. ‘Not this time, wrassy, no mercy’, I muttered as I palmed the spool and cranked as hard as I dare. The rod creaked, I had too long to consider the relative virtues of different knots and I could feel the force at the end juddering against structure. After some torturous moments, the juddering stopped and the fish had apparently pulled clear of the kelp and was rising up through the water column. To my horror, considering this bullying, a huge silver form shimmered and surfaced. ‘BASS! MASSIVE BASS!’ I howled, along with some expletives, as I slackened the drag and willed the hook to hold. The Bass, apparently seeing the commotion, made another dive and used the current to its advantage, much like a hooked salmon running hard down a fast pool. The hook had held against all the bullying and yet when it had surfaced, I could see the lure perched just on the edge of the lip, I was something of a nervous wreck. Working the fish into a back eddy, some careful manoeuvring was required to bring the fish towards a wave washed ledge. There was no way that this fish could be lifted vertically by the leader and, in absence of a net, we had quite a pickle.
Throwing valuables from my pockets, I lowered myself onto the ledge to the concern of Mari and Emyr. ‘Don’t go in, we’ll be picking you up off Ireland if you do!’. Stark warning but probably fairly accurate, despite all of us being happy swimmers, the tide had now become a tumultuous river. Waves licked up my legs and met my waist, the bass tired. You’ve probably run the same scenario through in your head: pounce too early and risk a last run that pulls the hook-hold free but try to bring the fish in fresh so that it can swim off strong, meanwhile every moment it is on the rod could ping slack in that stomach dropping agony. Now was the moment, pass the rod up and shuffle closer along the ledge. The bass drifted closer on the sweep of a wave, riding up to meet my waist again, Mari and Emyr looked on concerned ready to grab me in turn. Before the wave turned and pulled against the hook, the leader was snatched, and I leapt upon a thumb grip in the mouth. Dropping the leader, cradling the body, the bass could be lifted. ‘Whoa… Bass!’ we chuckled, measuring the fish and posing for a few snaps. The happiest man in Wales at 08:30 Mari later joked, I couldn’t quite believe the perfection of how it had come together and, as I supported the bass in the water at the ledge once more and saw her kick away powerfully back into the current, I suspect that she may well have been right.
Before the wave turned and pulled against the hook, the leader was snatched, and I leapt upon a thumb grip in the mouth. Dropping the leader, cradling the body, the bass could be lifted. ‘Whoa… Bass!’ we chuckled, measuring the fish and posing for a few snaps. The happiest man in Wales at 08:30 Mari later joked, I couldn’t quite believe the perfection of how it had come together and, as I supported the bass in the water at the ledge once more and saw her kick away powerfully back into the current, I suspect that she may well have been right.
We have one last swim in the cool waters before we lift our bags once more onto Colin’s boat. Reaching the shore, sitting in the back of the truck up the rough track, we say farewell to our very last link to what seems as though a long, pleasant dream woken from. We won’t soon forget the Isle in the currents, it’s natural beauty, richness of life and joyful people.