Cold nights, short days… Yeah, they’re alright if you want to sit behind some static rods throwing worm into the sea in pursuit of the increasingly elusive cod but, I can’t say it’s high on my list of exciting activities to undertake. What does fill me with a lot of optimism at this time of year though is the impending influx of those incredibly hard fighting, toothless critters that we know as the smoothound. 

Having grown up on the shores of the Bristol Channel I have been lucky enough to experience the growing migration of these hard fighting specimens year on year. The first ones tend to show up in late March and April and by May you can expect to have bumper hauls as they move inshore to hoover up and crush any crab, shrimp or crustacean that happens to fall in their path. It has not always been like this though. 

A hound is always reliable for a bit of sport and a bend in the rod

Being predominantly a boat angler, I remember my early days afloat back in the mid-90s as a teenager where you would be pushed to see one in a session. Fast forward to more recent times and I have experienced days where you can expect eighty or more in an 8 hour session. 

Somebody recently mentioned to me that the increase in smoothound numbers almost coincided with the drop in cod catches here in the Bristol channel and wondered if the competition for food was a factor in this? 

I hadn’t actually put the two together but I guess there is a real possibility this has had an effect on things. Packs of hounds clean out an area of crab in next to no time, and simply wont bother with an area if there isn’t a sufficient food source to sustain them. If a healthy head of spring run cod has already hoovered up the emerging crab, it’s safe to say the prospects of hounds arriving shortly after would rapidly diminish. If they did show, they certainly wouldn’t hang around for long with nothing to feed on. 

Hounds will clean up any crustacean in sight, but is their increase in numbers owing to less cod activity in the prior season leaving more food present on the favoured grounds?

There are, however, several theories as to why the smoothound now make such a prominent pilgrimage to our part of the world and having done a little research on this subject I believe that low value in the commercial market and warming sea temperatures both play a huge part. In certain parts of the world they are targeted commercially but fortunately for us, not so much in the northern hemisphere. 

In the UK, whilst the occasional angler will keep one for the table, we by-and-large see them as a purely sporting species and a catch and release approach is adopted by a vast majority of anglers. They tend to reside in the warmer waters of the Mediterranean throughout the winter before making their migration north ready for us to target them through our warmer months. There are several species worldwide and a lot of UK anglers would believe we have two main ones here… the common smoothound and the starry smoothound. 

There have been several scientific research programmes carried out in recent years and it is believed that we are mainly, if not exclusively, visited by the starry smoothound (mustelus asterias). They are usually identified by numbers of white or light coloured spots that run the full length of their bodies but, we have witnessed many specimens without spots at all and being very pale in colour. This leads people to believe we also catch the common smoothound (mustelus mustelus). Scientists have carried out DNA tests and have proved that this is not the case. I’m not suggesting for one minute that we categorically don’t get the common hound here but it seems unlikely from the samples they have taken. Odds are what has been perceived as a common smoothound in UK waters in years gone by is a starry smoothound missing those distinctive markings.   

No stars? Most likely still a starry, as multiple DNA surveys indicate.

Now, as I stated before… I do like to spend a day afloat and latching into one of these dogged, stubborn crab munchers on light gear will be something I will never tire of. We would generally target them using a 12-20lb class outfit, but when the tide dictates you can get away with using even lighter gear as less lead will be required to hold bottom inshore. 

Braid is my line of choice for both methods with a zip slider on a short 6-8 inch rubbing leader on the boat rod and a running up-tide boom on about 10-15ft 60lb mono leader on the uptider…. all fairly simple stuff! The action can be fast and furious when they move through your location in a pack, so expect multiple hookups and plenty of tangles as they zig zag around behind and under the boat. They are one of few fish in our waters that doesn’t really care where it takes you once hooked. Uptide, downtide, cross tide, they just dart about wherever they feel like doing so, even in a pretty strong Bristol Channel tide run.  

As far as rigs are concerned, you can’t really beat a standard running ledger for down-tiding and a similar set up but with a gripper lead when wanting to up-tide. I wouldn’t recommend going too light with your hook length as although they don’t have teeth they can drag you around on the rough coral like seabed and you’re also likely to encounter other species that will make light work of anything under 40lb in strength. 

We tend not to use a pennel rig when after the hounds as again, it’s really not required. The baits we use aren’t generally that big, which in turn mirrors the size of their mouths. A pennel rig can lead to situations where the fish ends up being deep-hooked which is the last thing we want, so a single hook is preferred by most boat anglers. A good strong chinu or circle style hook is fine but a normal 3 or 4/0 specimen hook will be fine for the job in hand. There really is nothing too technical about it. 

A prepared peeler, the bait most assosciate with hound fishing. Booby bead optional!

The important bit is really down to skipper to put you on the fish but they never seem to struggle too much in my experience. Over the years we have tried various attractors such as booby beads and the likes but whether it makes a difference is debatable. I generally find that keeping it simple really is the best way. One thing that we have been experimenting with on different species is a relativity new concept that has come about in recent years where instead of using a trace flowing from the weight the hook is directly attached to the lead via a split ring. This is known as a “Hook-up”. There doesn’t seem to be a great deal of difference between the two styles of rigs as far as catch numbers go while targeting hounds but they have worked very well for us on a number of species including, rays, huss and eels but I’ll go into a bit more depth on this in an upcoming feature.

I would say bait is probably more important than your rig itself and as I mentioned before they do have a strong liking for a crustacean. For years there has always been a huge demand for peeler crab as the hounds appearance does seem to coincide with the peeling of the shore crab. It is almost certain that it is the peeler crab population that bring the packs in. I won’t lie, it is up there with the best bait to use to target them but, in recent years we have had as much success using live hardbacks. With the cost of peelers being… well… extortionate, we now head down the harbour either the evening before or an hour prior to our trip with a few drop nets and some skanky old bait from the bottom of the freezer. It doesn’t take long to acquire enough crabs for a day’s fishing. 

The cheaper option, a hardback crab. They certainly work just as well when numbers of hounds are present.

Preparing peelers can be a messy, brutal process but it does work! With the live hardbacks we simply pop the hooks through one of the back leg sockets and push it out through the rear of the shell (still quite brutal). In short that is all there is to it. No binding with elastic needed and no crab juice dripping all over the boat. Shrimps and prawns will also work along with hermit and peeling spider crabs. One bait that seems to pick up hounds everywhere is squid. Because it’s such a widely used bait you can expect to pick up a smoothy or two even without purposely targeting them. 

A few other points to consider when fishing for our favourite sporting species… Firstly… set your drag! We have witnessed it too many times when you’ve lowered your bait to the bottom, flicked your reel off free spool and just leant it onto the railings… these things hit hard… very hard, and they run. Too many prized rods and reels have been seen heading overboard, so don’t become one of those guys or girls. Set your drag and put your ratchet on if you must. This really is important…

Secondly… they will tangle themselves up in the net. It happens. There isn’t too much you can do about it unless you use a very fine mesh. Equally this brings me to my third point. Smoothounds do not like to behave! They don’t give up even when in the boat. They’re like a 4 year old with ADHD whose iPad has run out of battery. Just be aware of this but more importantly treat them with respect… We do not kill or purposely harm smoothounds but, they do not like being handled. 

From experience we have found that weighing in a bag or a sling is by far the best method. Long gone are the days where fish are hoisted up on gaffs or the hooks on scales are rammed through gill covers. It isn’t always necessary to weigh and photograph every fish. The best way to handle them is to firmly grab them around the wrist of the tail while gently resting the weight of their upper body on the palm of your other hand. They will still make a fuss but generally calm down enough for a few seconds to get that trophy shot… Please, please make sure you get them back in the best condition you can! Appreciate them for what they are and the sport they can give you and then watch them go… It’s the bet bit I promise!

The brief moment a hound behaves for a photo.
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