The most significant impact on myself through the last couple of years of lockdowns and travel restrictions has been a considerable reduction in enjoying quality social time with good friends. My usual socials involve many trips to Norway, where as well as getting to hook into some quality fish and putting a real bend in a rod, we’re spoilt by the surroundings that allow one to immerse in the wonders of the natural world around us and leave all the stresses back home. That walk through a security gate at an airport becomes a moment of stress release… There’s no going back, and thus the stresses can be discarded on the UK side as readily as that bottle of water that can’t go any further.
With restrictions still in place on travel and various tests and quarantines to comprehend, I have been loathe to rush back into booking any of these usual trips. However, I still pined for the feeling of being in the fjords and needed a way to replicate it, to enjoy some social time with others and escape all the stresses of day to day life whilst immersed in natural beauty. My usual domain of shore angling just wasn’t going to tick the boxes.
There’s no doubting that being on a rather isolated outcrop of rock with poor phone signal offers some level of escape, but nothing to match that feeling of passing through a departures security gate. There’s no physical barrier whilst still on British soil (or rock). What I needed was to leave these shores…. Thus, I did just that…
With tuna, pods of dolphins, whales and multiple species of sharks to be seen, in addition to gannets and various other bird life, taking a boat a number of miles off the coast of Cornwall certainly offered to provide the escape I was after with the sights and rod bending action reminiscent of my Norwegian adventures.
Furthermore, I could invite along my Dad (Cliff) and good friend Dave Lovelock, who are my regular Norway companions. It also felt like a good opportunity to catch up with another good friend, John Locker, AKA ‘The Fish Locker’ whilst on his home ground. So with the excellent Anglo Dawn, skippered by Andy Howell, all booked up… it was time to escape!
Charter boat fishing beats shore fishing hands down from a social aspect. The close vicinity naturally aids in this, but I always sense a closer camaraderie on boats and a shared excitement in catches whereas shore fishing, even in a pleasure environment, draws out more of the competitive element. Fishing at its foremost should be fun and I often fear that the pressures people exert on themselves with social media makes us lose sight of this.
Today’s target was to be blue shark, which I had never personally caught, yet the personal catch of one was bottom of my list of priorities for the day, hence I was happy to tell Dave and my Dad to take the first fish whilst I was excitedly running about with the camera, shocked at just how blue these fish really are when they break surface… I’d always assumed photos to have had their saturation tuned up!
Taking a few steps back from those first catches, it had been an early start for us, Dave especially, who joked that he wasn’t sure whether to count his last meal before leaving the house as breakfast or supper. It was to be a few hours drive down for a 07:30am departure from Premier Marina in Falmouth. After stopping in the conveniently located McDonalds atop the hill that runs down to the Marina for a spot of breakfast, we were glad to meet John in the car park to guide us to the boat, as it’s an incredible maze of pontoons to navigate that one could easily get lost on. As we walked out, the plentiful and large mullet splashed around the legs of the pontoons, cloaked in a low and thick layer of fog, giving them the sort of confidence that might have made these frustrating thick lips catchable for a change.
We were after something a little bigger today though, and aboard the boat and following a quick introduction to the skipper and a safety briefing, we were motoring our way out of the mouth of the River Fal, aboard glassy waters exposed by the gradually lifting fog. The only ripples were being created by birds taking off, or the odd lazy seal eventually taking a dive after lounging on the surface. We had achieved escapism! There was no turning back now, not until the skipper chose to anyway.
The discussion soon turned to bait. Armed with feathers, in preparation, the skipper advised we’d be after whiting, not mackerel, given the relative scarcity of the latter this season. I won’t dwell on that here, but we have another feature this month addressing the lack of mackerel later in the magazine. The whiting, however, proved very obliging once we learnt to nail the baited feathers to the bottom by playing out a little bit of extra line. What I’ve learnt on charter trips recently is to dismiss all prior notions of what works for a specific fish elsewhere and just listen to the damn skipper from the outset…
With bait obtained and fully confident of topping up on the go, we motored once more and as the fog lifted a gentle breeze gave a little movement to the water. Some 20 miles out, we eventually settled down to begin the day’s drift and start up the chum trail. Three rods were set at varying depths for the sharks, whilst we continued to play around with the smaller stuff, hoping for perhaps a megrim amongst the plentiful whiting and poor cod, though the only slightly more rewarding fish we were to encounter this way was a series of beautiful red gurnard. We did, however, encounter the occasional mackerel, which remained scarce but very welcome.
Soon after setting the drift, we saw a load of commotion on the surface a few hundred yards off the back of the boat. There were clear signs of both tuna and dolphin, but unfortunately only the dolphins made it our way by the time I had picked up the camera and suitable lens. It was the first tuna breaching I have witnessed and was unfortunately the only one that day. My only wish was to catch one on camera, not rod and line, which we’d have been ill equipped for anyway, but there’s always next time.
We have run a number of features with regards to targeting blue sharks, so I don’t wish to repeat that here. If you want to learn how to go about targeting them, check out Ben Carter’s guide to fishing for them aboard a small boat (the principles remain the same on a charter). You can read that here: Targeting blue shark.
Cliff was first to strike gold, or should that be strike blue? A reasonable sized shark, and a PB by virtue of it being his first of the species, was bought to the back of the boat, where Andy efficiently used the T-Bar to disgorge the fish and we watched it gracefully swim back down to deeper water.
The colours, as I mentioned earlier, absolutely took me by surprise. Despite their name, I always assumed it was more of a tint than a solid colouring, touched up by the over zealous photo editor. How wrong I was… The beautiful flank of blue was a sight to behold when the fog had eventually lifted later in the day and the sun was able to shimmer off of it.
A fairly benign looking shark with its mouth closed, the true signs of it being a ferocious predator became apparent once the moth opened and the teeth were bared. The many electroreceptors, or Ampullae of Lorenzini to be specific, on the snout of the sharks were a further sign of their evolution into a refined predator, able to detect and hunt down prey from miles around in the open oceans.
Dave soon joined in on the sport, hooking into a more sizeable shark and having the fun of doing so on the lightest outfit set up for them that day, a Penn Conflict Offshore 30-100g and a Penn Spinfisher Live Liner 6500. There was no doubt that the rod and reel are both designed to stand up to much more, but it certainly provides good sport in the process.
We weren’t worrying about the measuring of every shark we were catching, as the skippers estimates were more than reliable enough for us and within a couple of pound each time we did take a measurement. We and the skipper were all in the same boat (excuse the pun) when it came to the care of these fish, and wanted as quick a release as possible, without boating, for each fish.
On the one occasion that a shark had to be bought aboard that day, all care was taken in doing so, both in supporting in and out of the water and appropriate restraint on the deck. To keep the fish calm as the wire was unwrapped from it (the reason for bringing it aboard) a hose providing running sea water was placed in its mouth. It proved easier to get the hose in than to get it back out! Whilst this was going on, the skipper also took the chance to tag the shark to capture important data to help with the preservation of this species.
On this occasion, it was not just the shark that had to be boated. We were treated to an incredibly rare sight within UK waters, as the shark came to the boat accompanied by a very sizeable pilot fish! Knowing how these fish form symbiotic relationships with the shark, we opted to net the pilot fish before bringing the shark aboard, so that we could keep it in a live well and release alongside its friend. The colours on the pilot fish were just as striking, if not more so, than the shark, and this one we took the opportunity to weight, coming in at 1lb 2oz – smashing the UK record if it were to have been caught on rod and line.
Pilot fish are not common in our waters by any stretch of the imagination. Our skipper, Andy, had only witnessed the one in his many prior years of sharking. Most pilot fish live in tropical waters and it is very probable that this shark acquired his companion in much warmer climes, just going to show how far they travel. They also tend to stick with the same shark from a small size, so this being a particularly large pilot fish had probably accompanied this shark for some time.
This had made my day. By this point, we’d all had a shark or two, which were steadily showing if not frantic on this day…. However, I can book a shark trip whenever I like and be more likely than not to get my target. When will I next get to witness a pilot fish in our waters? Will I ever get to witness it again?
It is these more unique moments that make fishing what it is for me… Just being out there with the opportunity to witness the rarities of nature. A bend in the rod is nice, but these are the moments that stick in the memory for years to come.
The biggest blue of the day came to John, at around 110lb, so no monster but a nice fish and well clear of the specimen weight in Cornwall, which I was surprised to learn is only 40lb. We got some nice photos of John and the fish without any need to bring it aboard, and I stand by my views that these fish look so much more impressive in the water.
There’s just no need for that trophy shot of years gone by, stood with arms wrapped tightly around it on the boat. It’s better for the fish and better for the photo for it to stay in the water… so no excuses.
Amongst all the shark action, which had accounted for multiple fish for each of us, I had continued to have some fun with a 10-40g set up with a 5000 size reel and 20lb braid. Fun was certainly the word to use when, two thirds of the way back up, the rod locked up, bent double (or more) and whatever was now on the other end had decided to head back to the bottom. The rod and reel held up just fine, and I even made on the fish on occasion, but I knew what the inevitable ending would be…
After a couple of minutes, everything went light and I recovered half of my set of feathers! The weight and fight of the responsible fish suggested a deeper blue, or perhaps even a small porbeagle had taken a liking to a whiting on the retrieve. I can safely say that this rod will be properly rigged for a shark on the next outing though, with more than enough power in the lower sections to have some seriously good sport.
Whilst I would entertain fishing for these medium stamp size of blue shark on the lighter sporting set ups, some consideration needs to be had to landing time. I am confident that despite the low rating of the rod, it has ample power to bully a sizeable fish when needed. I don’t agree with going too light and risking ridiculously long landing times that encourage the build up of lactic acid within the sharks and if we find a shoal of larger sharks next time, I’d soon pack the lighter outfit away.
The typical ‘just one more’ call was made by the skipper, which did not take long to materialise, and Dave reeled another nice blue up to the back of the boat, which was quickly released before we set on our way back to port. We were, however, to be treated to quite the sight on our return…
Once back within a few miles of shore, we encountered a number of large offshore bottlenose dolphin. A few became a lot… and a lot soon became the largest single pod of dolphins I have witnessed anywhere other than what was dubbed a ‘once in a century superpod’ of spinner Dolphins number in the thousands in Bali.
By now, it was clear that there were all manner of species of dolphin mixed up in this pod, or accumulation of multiple pods. Common dolphins, bottlenose dolphins, perhaps even some risso and white beaked dolphin were present, though the latter kept evading the photos for more accurate identification.
It was hard to know where to look, or for me where to point the camera, given there were dolphins swimming, breaching, launching themselves out of the water and frolicking in the water everywhere we looked. Mothers were flanked by their young, whilst some others still appeared heavily in pup. It was an absolute sight to behold and yet again something to really make the day so much more than a shark fishing trip.
Despite having headed out an hour early in the morning and fished a full day, Andy was more than happy to keep the boat with the pod for a good hour, as we all filled our phones and cameras with pictures of the dolphins. I’m sure many a skipper would have motored back in after such a long day, but Andy gave us an experience to remember. He also made a radio call to a sea safari boat he knew to be out, directing them to the pod before we set off, allowing others to experience this themselves too.
The day was an absolute success. We’d had a barrel of laughs in a long overdue social, enjoyed some wonderful fishing, witnessed both the pilot fish and massive pod of dolphins and most of all, escaped, free from all the day to day stresses and floating free on the wonderful waters surrounding our little island. I for one, cannot wait to escape once more.