Tackling common skate solo

Having been fortunate enough to have already completed the set of the most common rays from our shores this year (undulate, blonde, small eyed, spotty, stinger and thornie), I was determined to make it an enhanced grand slam before the year was out with a common skate. Having never caught one before, only blanking on them a few years ago, my experience was limited to say the least! The last trip involved sitting on the side of a loch for 3 days to only come home with a tiny whiting under my belt. The most action our group had was one run that was short lived when the line went on a ledge, which none of us saw apart from the would-be captor.

With speak of a trip within a couple of messenger groups, the preparation begun. It transpired that not that many people I know have a huge amount of experience in this field, or at least that I know of and, I am not one to ask for the information that people have dedicated a lot of time and hard work finding over the years.

So with little to go on I started looking online to see what free information was available. The days of free, searchable information certainly help in such quests. There were stories of hard fought battles to rigs and bait, when they are targeted and general areas, including this prior Hookpoint feature by Ryan Wingfield, conveniently titled ‘How to catch a Skate’.

Once you have your mind on a goal, it can easily become an obsession where you want to do everything possible to give yourself the best chance of success. Many nights, into the early hours, were spent studying charts, tides, OS maps for accessibility and general information on the subject. I wanted to fish a new mark everyday with the wind off my back and to not sit put like we did on the last trip. I prefer to find the fish than play the waiting game hoping the fish find me.

a moody scottish highlands sky
The views are second to none in the UK

As the date closed in, things didn’t looked good. My work was getting in the way. Others also had similar commitments from birthdays, appointments and general life. My window of opportunity couldn’t be synced up with anyone else. I was devastated! The perfect window of opportunity to get the grand slam and I couldn’t even get one trip up to Scotland in! My mind started wandering back to a video I’d seen on Youtube about a guy landing skate by himself. Could I do that? Of course I could, but I wasn’t fond of the idea of doing what should also be a social trip with banter and meeting new people, by myself. However, I had a plan. One that I’m sure many others wouldn’t want to try. An ‘outside of the box’ thinking, so maybe there was some sort of fate in it for me going solo. My mind was decided and I committed to the trip.

The day before departure I meticulously packed the car, then unpacked it and went through it again streamlining as much as I could, with only the essential kit put back in. The forecast was getting worse by the day but, a plan was a plan, and the weather wasn’t going to change that. With a storm due to hit, there was going to be a different direction of wind each day. This alone made all the late nights of research worthwhile, having a bank of 13 potential marks and 3 known marks in the bag of various facing directions, confidence was high.

The journey up there was quite non-eventful until the last couple of hours. What should have been a 9 and half hour drive to the first mark turned in to 11 hours. The initial plan was to get there at about midnight and sleep then fish first thing in the morning. On arrival I wasn’t feeling tired, quite the opposite. Excitement got the better and I wanted to recce the first mark! Just carrying an umbrella and safety kit consisting of phone and battery to charge, GPS, flares, beacon, and maritime VHF off I set.

the juicy bait all ready to catch a common skate
Big fish baits would be the order of the day

After a 30 minute fumble in the pitch black with no moon illumination, I decided the route to the first mark was unworkable. It should have been a 90 metre descent for 300 metres to the ledge but, going through thick undergrowth down a mountain wasn’t happening! With the second potential mark only a short drive away a second recce had to be done. This one took me 45 minutes to get to and I wasn’t too confident about bringing full kit to it with the descent. Getting back to the car soaked in rain and sweat I was a little unsure what to do next. Nearing 04:00am I knew it was time to sleep but not where I was parked as it was partially blocking the single track. Having seen a car park back down the road I headed there to have an uncomfortable but easy few hours sleep in the car.

Day 1. At just 07:00am I was awoken by the heavy rain on the car. What to do? I had a quick porridge in a pot and coffee whilst I pondered my next move. Both marks seemed to tick all the boxes of what I was looking for and both having over 50 metres of depth I went for a route B on the first mark. This was a coastal walk following the coastline for just over a mile to the mark. With another parking place found I set off without the fishing gear, just safety kit, an umbrella and high hopes.

Through thick undergrowth, streams and on and off deer tracks I eventually got there. It looked how I would have imagined it – spot on. Admiring the view and looking where I should set up the shelter and rod rest got me excited about getting the gear. But would it be fishable or too snaggy? Too much tide? Well there is only one way to find out! Back to the car, then back on the mark. My determination was on full throttle. As the gear was setting up I prayed it was fishable.

A prime bait sized coalfish from scotland
Ideal bait size pollack were very obliging on the metals

Having driven for 11 hours, slept for 4 and had a total of 4 hours hiking, I still didn’t even know if the mark would be fishable! There’s an excitement and thrill with putting in ones own leg work, but an acceptance that all efforts may be to no avail. This is surely what makes the reward all the greater when it does come. 

Baits were mackerel, bluey and squid, all presented on a 10ft up and over rig of 220lb fluorocarbon line to a 10/0 bronzed O’Shaughnessy hook. The reel had 80lb shock leader atop of 60 lb main line braid. One rod was sent as far as I could get it and the other cast at half that distance. To get the rods set up and finally settled in was a great comfort, knowing I was finally there doing it after the many months running up to this moment. With the rain on and off it wasn’t pleasant but that didn’t bother me. As soon as the 2 bait rods were out I got the light lure rod going for hopefully some fresh complementary bait.

Keeping a keen eye on the bait rods, there were small rattles, looking like shellfish, most likely lobsters. The drag on each reel was set light and these rattles weren’t strong enough to take any line. Each hook had plenty of bait on to keep the shellfish busy and bide me time for the target species. Hopefully they wouldn’t drag me in to a snag and I would still be fishing as they tucked in to their meals.

The lure rod was straight into small pollack and coalfish, which would be used to add to the bait I already had. The distance rod had stopped rattling, having been out for 45 minutes it was time to re-bait. Reeling down and pulling up, my worst fears were confirmed. It was stuck! Had it possibly been dragged into a snag from the small rattles? I pulled for a break and lost the lot. I immediately questioned whether the mark was actually fishable. I re-baited this rod again but opted against casting it out just yet. I didn’t want to lose too much gear on day one.

freshly caught mackerel for bait
Mackerel were amongst the plentiful fresh bait to be caught

It was time to change the close in rod to see if it was to be met with the same misfortune, however it was snag free with half the amount of initial bait remaining. Great!

The short cast rod was re-baited and cast back to where it last sat. I was now a couple of hours in and at water level with the lure rod and the bait rods were slightly above me with the top section of the rod visible. The small rattles were back but it was constant. Wanting to check the reel wasn’t going, I finished the last cast, playing the lure and stood on the smaller ledge behind me. Once the reel came into view it was obvious that what was on the other end wasn’t a lobster! The reel was spewing line and had been for the last 30 seconds… As carefully as I could I navigated the slippery rocks back to the rod rest. Going through my mind was, “it’s fine, there is over 500 meters of line on there”.

Finally, rod in hand, rod butt in the butt pad, the drag was tightened down. More and more I tightened, but it wasn’t stopping! With the rod pointed at the sea I kept tightening, forcing the line to come under immense pressure. It started to dig in to the spool and eventually it slowed down, then stopped. This alone had me convinced there was a skate on the other end.

Now the real battle began, reeling and pumping, reeling and pumping. Line being made all the time until it decided it didn’t want to come this way and set off again taking my gains of line with it. Turning it around under heavy pressure, I made a few gains and it felt like it started to swim my way. The line looking straight down now as it started moving along the shore and taking line again. By now I was 25 minutes in to the fight of ‘give and take’. It appeared to be below me but moving down the ledge and it was then that I felt a chaffing on the line and bang, as braid doesn’t have any resistance on rock, my line went!

a female cuckoo wrasse from Scotland
A female cuckoo wrasse, only Rob's second of the species

Funnily enough, I wasn’t disappointed. This mark is fishable and I am 99.9% sure it holds skate. I may not have landed this one, but validated months of research – a small victory in itself.

That made me put both rods out short, but things went quiet for some time. The lures, however, kept pulling in pollack and coalfish on pretty much every cast, so there was to be no shortage of bait. Then I managed a bonus female cuckoo wrasse, only the second one I’ve ever caught. She was then followed by her partner, a male cuckoo wrasse. Now that was a first! Things certainly started feeling better for this mark, though as darkness drew in I spent a lot of time sheltering out of the wind and rain with my lure rod put away for the following day.

Then it happened again! 6 hours had now passed since I lost the last run, but at last the left hand rod’s reel started to sing. Again, line was getting stripped at an incredible rate.

Tightening down on the drag seemed almost futile as it kept going and, much with any adjustments of the drag, trying to strike in to a run was entirely pointless! It just kept going, so I kept tightening as much as I could and then it all stopped and I started winding.

Was it swimming in or had it spat the hook? Unfortunately it had spat the hook. Could I have done things differently? I just don’t know and I guess this is the sort of thing that comes with experience, though one will never land all the fish they connect with. Leaving it a few minutes to see if it came back, if there was any bait left on the hook for it to come back to, was fruitless, so I wound in and started re-baiting.

Whilst re-baiting I heard the other reel start to awaken. Another run! Wow! Could it perhaps be the same one that just spat the hook on the other rod or had I just found a gold mine of skate?

a male cuckoo wrasse from scotland
A first male cuckoo wrasse for Rob, in all it's splendid colour

With the drag tightened down I felt satisfied that this one was hooked and it kept going and going and going. There was literally nothing I could do apart from wait. I set my watch so I could monitor the time. It eventually stopped, but not wanting it to settle I started pumping and got it moving straight away.

After a few more runs it was coming in quite nicely. By quite nicely I mean I was soaked in sweat and completely out of breath but it was moving towards me. The bright orange shock leader came out of the water and the excitement kept me going. It must have been over the ledge that cut me off earlier and within 12 metres of me. With the leader knot through the first rod eye, it awoke and took back a couple of metres of line and went solid. With the leader knot now barely on the surface, I Leaned back putting all the pressure the Century T1000 could take. It wouldn’t budge. Not at all.

Was I stuck? Was it the wrong side of a ledge or rock? There was just no movement at all. I sat on my ledge whilst maintaining pressure to catch my breath and started the waiting game. One way or another it was their move next. Not being able to do anything, I had to wait for it to move off for me to make any gains. By this time the rain was coming down hard and I was unable to shelter. 45 minutes went by before anything happened and I felt the flap of a wing. That was enough for me and I started pumping, as hard as I could. The amount of stress put on every part of your terminal tackle is immense. If you don’t have confidence in your gear then you’re not going to be able to get enough pressure on to move it.

After an hour and twenty minutes I got my first glance of this giant monster. The initial planned landing spot was dry after the tide had dropped out more so a new plan was needed.

a big flapper skate on the rocks ready for release
A first skate for Rob Johansen, a nice male converting to 108lb

Looking about 20 metres to my right there was a shallow ledge I could bring it up on. Even in the shallows this thing was hard to move, I grabbed it in the usual place of a ray where the cartilage is thinner and ripped my hands to shreds on all the tiny spikes, but managed to get him clear of the water. Completely shattered and soaked with sweat and rain, I had to be quick taking the minimal amount of time as possible to get a picture, unhook, measure and return.

My GoPro was set up on a stand and I quickly got the pliers to unhook. It was only lip hooked so quick and easy to remove. Tape out, measure wing to wing and nose to tail to compare on the chart for estimated weight. It was covered in leeches, which I removed before returning. What a magnificent site this was! My first ever common skate, at a completely random mark on the west coast of Scotland that looks like its never seen a fisherman before. The grand slam, mission complete.

I took a moment to enjoy the adrenalin that was pumping through my veins before getting him back in the shallows. It wasn’t just me that was exhausted. He just sat there getting his breath back. It looked like he was just as exhausted as me. Had he ever been caught having so many leeches attached? I have no idea. There’s a lot of confirmed catches of the same skate multiple times, but such are the recovery in numbers there must be many that have never come face to face with an angler before. 

8 hours in to the first session and I had achieved what the trip was all about. According to the chart he came to 108 lb. Certainly not the biggest fish around but it was my biggest ever landed. A triple figure fish from the shore! My mind was thinking once I come down off this high I would need one crazy long rest! Both rods baited and cast back out, I wondered if I’d have enough energy to deal with another run.

a common skate recovering in the shallows before swimming back to the deeps
A skate is left to recover in the shallows before making a return to the deeps

One more cast later and the sensible thoughts came in, it was time to call it a session. With no give in the weather and the wind due to swing 90 degrees I would be fishing a new mark the following day. An ‘on the spot plan’ was to drive to the new mark and set up camp, sleep in the tent and slowly get into the next session.

The walk back seemed like an endless one. Fumbling around through bushes, dropping down on to slippery rocks before having to move back up to thick undergrowth and through streams that had appeared from the amount of rain from the last few hours. My lack of energy made me have to dig deep just to get back to the car. In reality it took an hour but at the time I had to question myself a few times on what the hell am I doing in this weather?! Back at the car I got into dry clothes and had a quick celebratory coffee. Then the hour and half journey began.

Arriving at the new mark I was tempted to sleep in the car again but having taken most of the day to get over the dry cough from sleeping in an uncomfortably damp, cramped car I knew I needed to set up camp and get some quality rest. With the wet kit back on and only a walk of 300 meters, it still took 2 hours and 4 trips to the car to get everything I needed for the next day. So another late turn in but at least this night would be proper rest. 

Day 2. After a well-earned sleep I set to preparing a sausage, bacon and egg bap. Having forgot the ketchup was annoying but it wouldn’t ruin my day. A large coffee and then a bowl of porridge and I was good to go for the next session. This was actually the mark that I’d been to before and from what I understand is fairly well known so I could potentially see others braving the weather throughout the day.

You soon see why a 10/0 hook is as small as you'd want to go

This was a fruitless session with all baits coming back untouched. Again the lures worked well bringing in mackerel, coalfish and pollack. Having blanked here before my confidence wasn’t high, so much so that I had an early night to catch up on the as so far, very undervalued sleep.

Day 3. It was an early wake up at 07:00am, with the excitement to try a new mark with the changing winds. A bacon, sausage and egg bap was once again an absolute necessity for the calories (plus I’m a food junkie). The packing up took a while but I was back on the road for 09:00am. This one was a long drive of nearly 4 hours, which I broke up with a recce of a spot that I’ll fish on another trip when the wind is offshore. Having an offshore wind is on my personal tick list. It is not essential, but when you are fishing into really deep water your line pretty much enters the water at you feet. Any onshore wind would put that line onto the rocks. Plus, casting big baits is always difficult when casting into the wind.

The recce of the mark was a success. Polystyrene bait boxes above the high water line, whilst a dismaying sight for an environmentally conscious perspective, would however suggest it has been fished before, unless they came in on the tide and were blown into the bushes. Parking with an easy walk would make me believe this could be a popular mark.

The drive through the highlands gave views that were stunning, absolutely unreal, like I’ve seen many times before but only in other countries. I didn’t realise we have them here in the UK. On arrival at this new but probably popular mark, the rain was in and didn’t look like it’ll give way any time soon. With waterproofs on, the beach shelter was deployed to give somewhere to get out of the rain. As soon as the first rod was out, the bites were coming in. I had to stop rigging up the second rod because this was developing.

rob johansen preparing to release a large shore caught common skate
Rob Johansen quickly improved on his personal best with this skate converting to 117lb

I struck, though missed whatever it was. The bait had been savaged. I re-baited and cast out as far I could then set the GoPro up to the side in the shelter to see if I could catch any bites on film. Again, before I had a chance to finish setting up the second rod a bite was developing. The line slowly started to peel off the reel and it was all happening again. I picked up the rod and it kept going. As the drag was tightened the skate pulled harder, taking line quicker as it appeared to become aware that something was amiss. Finally, a high amount of drag was set and I bent the T1000 double to try and get the upper hand, but the skate just pulled harder and started to win this game of ‘tug of war’.

With the drag tightened even more this thing took off and line was spewing off the reel. When it slowed, I was straight into pumping it back towards to me.

I wanted to catch it off guard and not give it time to hunker down. As with many fish, getting on top of it early can make or break a fight, but with a fish of this size, their sheer weight and suction effect once they reach the bottom means you aren’t moving the fish until it wants to move. The next game of tug of war commenced. Back and forth, back and forth it went, all captured on the Gopro. Unfortunately I moved down tide with it to find a landing spot, so there is no video of the landing on film. Dragging it clear of the water I quickly ran back to grab the camera, tape measure and pliers to unhook.

Coming in at 117lb, it was a new PB for me with another male. The power of these creatures is outrageous but, not having a chance to lock itself down, I managed to land this one in under 25 minutes. Two in one trip, and second cast at this mark.

rob johansen with a large shore caught common skate in scotland
It ended on a massive high, with the last cast of the trip producing an astounding 226lb female skate for Rob

I was elated and completely shattered already, well a nice bit of exercise after sitting in the car all morning isn’t a bad thing! He was released back into the water, where he sat in the shallows for the following 2 hours before moving back into the deeps. I guess it takes it out of them as much as it does to us. Like with other large species, in particular sharks, using appropriate tackle to play these fish as quickly as possible will always aid their recovery (and yours).

With both rods out, it was time to enjoy the views of the mountains, pods of porpoise moving past and the occasional seal coming over to say hello. The lure rod was on fire with a fish a chuck. This area certainly boasts an abundance of marine life. The rain got heavier and heavier throughout the day and into the night, the wind had gone and there was nothing to move the rain on. No other activity came from the baits, with me calling it a night just before midnight.

With one day left I wanted to maximise my fishing time, which meant sleeping in the back of the car again, not ideal but having just had 2 nights in the tent I wasn’t too bothered. A quick drive to mark 4 and I pull over and climb into the back for a few uncomfortable hours sleep.

Day 4. It was another early wake up, with the excitement of chasing monsters. It was a dry morning with broken cloud that looked amazing for a breakfast with a glimpse of a sunrise. I had a short walk and soon set the gear up for the short session before heading home. Rattly bites were present on the bait rods, the metals lures were busy and an hour before I was due to leave there was interest on the right hand bait rod. The T1000 again. The other rod I was using was the T1200 which I had 2 runs on the first day but blanked on this trip.

With rod in hand, the usual routine started. It took line and I went for a heavy amount of drag straight away. I turned it around and fought at maximum pace to where I actually got a glimpse of it in less than 5 minutes! However, that’s where it decided to take 40 yards of line and go back into the deeps. A couple of harder fought runs and I had it closer in where it hunkered down. After that first session I got a few messages on the phone saying if they cling to the bottom then you may as well put the rod back in the rest with a light drag. So that’s what I did. Every 15 to 20 minutes I would pick up the rod and give it a good tug to see if there was any movement. This is actually good because I wasn’t tiring myself out and it gave me a chance to get other bits sorted.

I got the GoPro on the head strap to hopefully film a landing. On about the fifth attempt to drag this one off the bottom, it awakened and I felt the flap of a wing. The skate tried to move off but I turned it around and dragged it to shore where I managed to half beach her, but again she turned and took a bit of line. At the second attempt I had her coming in and I went hell for leather, building up momentum. My plan was to beach her as high as possible to give me the best chance of getting to her when I let off pressure from the rod, due to the potential of high sticking. It worked and I ran down to grab her, she was massive! With one glove on I grabbed her and put the second one on. Then tried to move her a little out of the water, but I couldn’t! She was so big and heavy that I couldn’t get her out of the water.

Fortunately, 3 students had been fishing nearby and they had come over to watch. They handed me the measure and pliers, then held the GoPro for me. There was no way I could get her out of the water and if I moved she would have easily been able to swim off, so everything was done whilst she sat half in the water with my legs stopping her from moving off. This is the ideal way to be handling and returning such a fish, though impractical when fishing alone. She measured 90 x 71 inch putting her in the region of 226 lb. Wow! I was stuck for words. Creatures like this are in UK waters. It was another PB and most likely a fish of a lifetime. 3 – 0 to the T1000.

It’s truly amazing for me, beyond anything I could have wished for and the perfect end to this trip. Having taken 2 hours to get her in. I was an hour over the time I wanted to leave.

I quickly packed up and hit the road running on the adrenaline fuelled by this last catch. 11 hours later I arrive home and I swear I was still smiling. A 1,300-mile solo round trip to Scotland actually turned out to way exceed any expectations I could have dreamed of. If it wasn’t for these small handheld cameras then I would expect most people to think I was telling porkies. Maybe it’s the norm for certain specimen hunters to have these results and it not be publicised, but for me it was the trip of a lifetime. Maybe the missed fish from lockdown were all condensed into that trip, I don’t know. Either way I feel I had a lot of luck on my side. Having been back home a couple of weeks now I cant help myself from studying the charts for more potential marks. With an even bigger bank of potential marks I can’t wait to try for them again!

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