Bluefin was due to sail from the seaside town of Ilfracombe in North Devon at 8:00am. Rob Scoines and I made sure we had arrived promptly after negotiating the potentially slippery roads on this cold and frosty dawn in early February. Weather is the all-important factor for boat fishing forays and we had certainly struck lucky this time. The previous day I had been fishing on Chew Valley Lake where a cold North-West Breeze had buffeted us. The next day, strong to gale force South Westerly winds were forecast. On this Friday we were greeted by a flat calm sea and a clear sky with barely a breeze to ruffle the cool waters of Ilfracombe harbour.

The trip had been organised by my good friend Steve Dawe with Rob Scoines and myself joining the party. We met fellow angler Les Smith on the quayside and was surprised when he said he had left Birmingham at 3:30am… I had thought the 5:45 alarm early enough!

Taking advantage of arriving early Rob, Les and I jumped aboard the waiting boat to be given a cheery greeting by Skipper John Barbeary. The stern of the boat is generally considered to be the prime spot so it was there that we placed our rods. Steve and the rest of the party arrived promptly at 8:00am blaming the heavy traffic in Okehampton for their just in time arrival. We helped them onboard and I took the opportunity to secure Steve a position between Rob and I at the stern of the boat.

Ilfracombe Harbour and the statue of Verity

Bluefin is a large catamaran that has plenty of deck space easily accommodating eight anglers or seven as on this occasion. Today’s party consisted of Les Smith, Brian Hopcroft, Chris Hodgson, Rob Moulder, Steve Dawe, Rob Scoines and myself.

I always relish the departure from harbour as a new adventure unfolds. The morning sun illuminating the vapour trails of planes high up in the clear morning sky. The imposing statue of Verity standing proudly upon the harbourside on what was once the old Victorian pier.

I chatted at length with Steve as the boat steamed out. Steve and I share a wide range of fishing interests and reflected upon pike, grayling, eels, trout and shark. The spectacular North Devon coast with its towering cliffs was illuminated by the golden glow of dawn. While we savoured our luck at having fine weather I noticed a rather pale looking figure clutching the boat rail before spewing into the cold waters of the Bristol Channel. 

It would probably have been kinder to drop Rob Moulder back into harbour then with the benefit of hindsight. He was to retire to the cabin shortly after arriving at the fishing grounds emerging with great relief when we arrived back in port eight hours later!

The hour long steam to the fishing grounds seven miles or so out in the Bristol Channel passed surprisingly quickly. The anchor was sent to the sea bed and the boat positioned over broken ground described as coral by Skipper John.

The tides of the Bristol Channel are amongst the world’s strongest with a rise and fall exceeding 10 metres on the largest spring tides. Today’s tide was fortunately a neap tide of just 6.6 metres. Such a small tide was significant as it would allow us to remain at anchor on this deep water ground where we hoped the spurdog packs were on the prowl. On a big spring tide, it is impossible to fish throughout the days tide with even 2lb of lead insufficient to keep a bait anchored to the sea bed.

Les Smith is pleased with this spurdog - The day's main target

Spurdog were our main target today… a species that has flourished in recent years. This was only John’s third trip so far this year after having the boat overhauled. The last trip had seen a party of anglers boat in excess of 100 spurs!

As the boat settled I looked around at the terminal tackle on display. Fluorescent muppets adjourned most set ups with wire traces or heavy mono tied or crimped to hook sizes ranging from 4/0 to 8/0. I think all on board had braided line upon their reels allowing the use of lighter weights and a greater transmission of bites from the sea bed far below.

My own choice of end tackle was a simple running set up ending with a trace of heavy mono with a breaking strain of 150lb combined with a 30cm length of 175lb 49 strand Mason Wire and a set of bright yellow beads for attraction. An 8/0 ‘J’ hook at the business end. Whilst this set up was to prove effective there is room for debate with John the Skipper frowning upon wire as it is not good for easy unhooking. Circle hooks should reduce deep hooking but there was little evidence of this throughout the day. Heavy mono proved ineffective on several occasions with the spurdog’s razor sharp teeth slicing through it several times. My gambit was that the large 8/0 hook and relatively short trace would result in the majority of spurdogs being lip hooked so long as I set the hook before the bait was engulfed.

Chris Hodgson bends into a good fish

We had all brought along a large quantity of bait, frozen mackerel, blueys, squid, whiting, herrings, pouting, cuttlefish and even octopus. These spurdog trips are a good time to use up recycled bait that has been put back into the freezer when partially thawed.

Anticipation hung in the air as we lowered our baits into the surprisingly clear water of the Bristol Channel. There was only a moderate tide with 1lb of lead required to anchor our baits to the sea bed. The spool revolved, the thumb controlling the descent until the satisfying touch-down was transmitted to the rod tip.

I glanced across the vast seascape to the headland of the Gower and Worms Head and to the coast of North Devon to the south. I only had a short time to relish the expectation, for within minutes there came that sharp rattle on the rod tip. I waited a few moments, slowly winding the reel handle until the rod started to bend over, jagging as the fish below pulled back. I increased pressure and started to entice the fish from the sea bed. The rod tip bucked as I pumped the fish steadily from the deep water. I looked around to see several other rods bent in unison.

Steve Dawe and Rob Scoines with two more of the many spurdog boated

Spurdog, mostly around 10lb were swung aboard to be unhooked by John who darted between us with his T-Bar unhooking the fish. The sea bed must have been paved with these seasonal toothy shark species attacking any bait within a minute or so of it hitting the sea bed. A few spurs were good fish of close to 15lb  with the best of the day a 17lb 13oz specimen to Steve Dawe.

It was surprisingly mild for February and layers of clothing were soon removed as the hard work of cranking these elegant sporting species from the depths below took its toll. It’s always a good idea to dress up warm as layers can be added or removed as required. Later in the day as the breeze picked up we were all glad to put the layers back on.

After an hour of frantic action the tide started to ease and the feeding spell seemed to pass. Had the pack of spurs moved off or gone off the feed?

Whilst photographing a spurdog I heard the cry of my reels ratchet and glanced around to see the rod being kept safe from being pulled overboard by Chris Hodgson.

I grabbed the rod and leant into whatever had grabbed the bait far below. This was certainly no spurdog! I guessed a conger but secretly hoped for a big cod. The rod took on an impressive curve as I leant back relishing the power of whatever was at the end of the line. I gained line slowly, being forced to relinquish a few yards of line from time to time. The line pointed down into the water as we peered into the mysterious depths. 

As the fish got nearer the surface the line lifted in the water away from the boat with the tidal flow. We guessed conger and were proved correct as a big eel surfaced… it’s serpent like tail flailing into the air. John suggested we bring the fish to the back gate of the boat. I coaxed the eel to the open gate whilst John waited to grab the heavy trace. As John stretched out his hand the conger  broke into a frantic spin and the hook hold gave way. The eel estimated at 30lb plus slowly turned and with a flick of its tail was gone back from whence it had come. I was a little disappointed not to have boated the fish for a quick photo but happy to have done battle.

Rob Scoines with a near specimen spurdog

A few more conger and vividly marked bull huss were brought to the boat during a lull in the spurdog action. Then as the tidal flow increased the spurdog pack returned in a feeding frenzy. It seemed that any bait sent down was attacked within seconds as the ferocious spurdog ripped into the baits.

In between the spurdog came the occasional bull huss and a couple of good conger topping twenty pounds. We wondered how many conger would be caught if the spurdog were less plentiful.

The massive increase in spurdog populations is undoubtedly due in part to a ban on commercial fishing for these members of the shark family. Huge hauls of spurdog were once taken by commercial boats with the fish often sold as rock salmon in fish and chip shops. The revival of the species demonstrates how management of fisheries can result in the recovery of a species. The best plan of course is to have a long term sustainable fishery instead of this boom or bust policy. My own belief is that controls should by and large govern the method used to catch the fish instead of relying upon a largely flawed quota system.

Rob Scoines with a good sized huss

As we entered the final quarter of the day the catch rate seemed to increase with a spurdog smashing into baits within seconds of touch down on the sea bed. It became a case of unhook, bait up, lower down, tap-tap, wind in, unhook and repeat. The majority of the spurs were between 8lb and 10lb. Even John the skipper began to express fatigue as he dealt with the relentless hordes of spurdog coming over the gunnels.

Steve commented how this really brought out the angler in you with that desire for yet another bite and another fish. In truth it was becoming hard work and I wondered whether this was fishing heaven or a type of fishing hell. Condemned  to catch a fish of the same size on every cast with no time to ponder or appreciate the wait! On several occasions throughout the day John put on the kettle for a brew. The whistle blew but each time the frantic fishing curtailed the taking of beverage.

I don’t think anyone was disappointed when John said it was time to head back to Ilfracombe. He had certainly given us a day to remember, working extremely hard throughout the day unhooking fish and assisting with tangles whilst maintaining a broad smile and the occasional well directed piece of advice.

We had lost count of the huge number of spurdog boated but 200 plus would be a conservative estimate. Such days are few and far between and should be savoured. It’s not always that weather, tide and fish unite to provide such a day. To share such a day with fellow anglers is made all the more enjoyable if each fishes sensibly choosing the right weight to ensure even distribution of tackle and attacking tangles with due patience and good humour.

A good conger for Wayne Thomas

The boat bounced back to Ilfracombe and we chatted about future fishing plans as anglers do. Opportunist seagulls swooped behind the boat seizing scraps of discarded bait. A couple of us grabbed the hose and brush to clean down the decks.

Several anglers were fishing from the old pier landings and I wondered what they had caught? Rob emerged after a day blighted by the curse of Mel de Mer and was surprisingly cheerful within minutes of returning to land. 


Bluefin Charter Fishing Trips
Kiosk 1 – The Pier – Ilfracombe – EX34 9EQ


Fishing All Year Round
Please Contact For Details.

John Barbeary on – 07968419897

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