Striking out on your own cover

Small boat fishing can be challenging, but that is equally what makes it so very rewarding. Along with a growing number of anglers here in the UK, I take great joy from running my own small boat and fishing for a range of species, whilst learning the watercraft and honing different skills required to find and catch different fish. I often learn by failing but, all the experiences, good and bad, are learning and enjoying the time and freedom of being at sea.

I enjoy a challenge and enjoy nothing more than trying something or somewhere new. I think it must go back to some primitive pioneer gene in us, that urge to want to strike out on your own!

I spend a lot of my time trying to find new marks to fish. Now sometimes you get an absolute gem recommended to you, but often the best and most rewarding marks are ones that you find yourself. I must have spent a hundred hours trawling through charts or navionics looking for likely habitats that I think will hold fish. Other times I look for wrecks in areas that I believe will be worth an experiment. I then spend an equal number of hours  reccing out these spots.

John Fishlocker plays a fish to the boat
It didn't take John long to get into the action

The wreck that I hoped to be fishing on this particular day was one over 20 miles from port and in 300ft of water. I had studied it on the charts and seen it on a sounder, but never fished it due to the conditions required. When drifting or anchoring on wrecks for species like ling and conger you want small tides – neaps. Combining them with weather is where the frustration sets in. When you hope to anchor, you ideally want wind and tide in the same direction, or zero wind so the boat will sit in a steady position on the anchor. Wind against tide, or varying wind directions is the worst scenario as you swing around and you cannot fish accurately on the wreck.

When these windows open up with suitable conditions, you need to capitalise on them as suitable tides may not be back for 2 weeks and if the weather picks up you can be waiting another month or more before you can try again.

Heading to a mark with the direction of tide can really make a difference. Both in time and fuel consumption. So I like to try and plan my day according to the direction of tide. Work smarter – not harder. I had given myself 2.5hours to get to the wreck before slack water and was planning on drifting with a wrecking rig or lures until the tide started to push and then anchor up and begin fishing with bottom baits for the flood of the tide.

a pollock with the slow jig in the scissors
The slow jig hooking up right where you want it to

Leaving the harbour at first light my plan was to head straight to the wreck and hopefully find some mackerel or scad shoals on the way, stopping and collecting fresh bait. I always bring a little in reserve, usually frozen cuttle and octopus just in case I cannot find fresh mackerel. Thankfully I’d done so on this occasion as on the steam out today over the 20+ miles I didn’t see a single shoal of bait fish!

The first tasks on a new wreck are always to map it out, find what the drift is doing and see what the life of the wreck is like. As I have said in many videos before, if you haven’t got small fish on a wreck, you won’t have big fish. As there is nothing for them to eat. The first drift with a set of feathers was a smash up by a suspected ling which was a promisingly good start.  On the second drift I found a small pout, even better.

As the wind and tide were very small, I decided to try fishing a slow jig. Now typically, for lure fishing on wrecks you require a run of tide. This is both for the fish to be on the feed and for the lures to work effectively. Slow jigs allow the opposite. They allow you to fish with deadly effect on small or no tides for your predatory species like Pollack. In this respect, they are quite the revelation and open up fishing opportunities that could otherwise be barren occasions.

Using a Nomura ISEI 100g rod and a Daiwa ballistic 6000 I fished a Sidewinder Thor 160g slow jig in 300ft almost perfectly vertical in these conditions. After the first drift accounted for a chunky pout I missed a tentative bite on the jig only to reconnect with something far far better.

John Fishlocker with a lovely pollock on a slow jig
The slow jigs worked their magic from the off

The well-balanced setup really did make this a lot of fun and with the rod arched over and line being taken several times I was sure I would be seeing a nice ling or Pollack hit the surface. To my absolute surprise and excitement, a huge coalfish came to the boat which was definitely a PB! This trip was already a huge success and I had only been here for half an hour!

The next drift produced a pollack, then another, then a pout, before another pollack. The sport was incredible, too good in fact. One of the issues for any fisherman who likes to practice some catch and release, is fishing in this depth of water, as when a fish like pollack reach the surface they have inevitably blown and cannot be returned. They can be wonderful eating fish, but if the day continued like this I would be keeping more than what I needed.

Although an hour ahead of schedule I decided to try and put the anchor down and start my conger fishing so as not to keep pulling up any more pollack than I would wish to keep.

Anchoring any vessel in this depth holds challenges. I use an Alderney ring set up for hauling my anchor. In 300ft I was running out around 600ft of rope. The first attempt saw me sit nicely on the wreck but approaching slack tide the boat soon drifted off the wreck. So I had to begin the re-anchoring saga! I re-anchored and sat us on the wreck. It was slow fishing and with only a small pouting to the boat I discovered that there was some form of fishing gear on the wreck snagging up, likely a stretch of old gill net as sometimes I would pull free of it and on other occasions I lost the lot. It was frustrating, but one of the hazards of fishing wrecks, especially new ones.

For the bottom fishing I was using 30/50 ugly sticks and a TLD20 loaded with 60lb braid. One rod was fishing a wrecking rig and the other a simple running ledger of 200lb mono and a 10/0-12/0 Cox and Rawle meat hook baited with octopus and pouting. 8-10oz of lead was keeping me nicely on the bottom even in this depth.

John Fishlocker with an excellent coalfish to the slow jig
A coalfish just shy of double figures is not a common UK catch

The conditions were near perfect with only a breath of wind. The first good bite on the big rods resulted in a cracking ling of around 20lb falling to the octopus on a running ledger. As the tide started to push, whatever lost gear was on the wreck moved across and snagged up both lines resulting in losses again. It was time to re anchor and try a different part of the wreck.

On the 4th time of re-anchoring, I managed to get the boat sitting nicely in the tide on the opposite end of the wreckage, hopefully away from the worst of the snags. Fishing again started slow, as I once more had to build up a scent trail on the seabed. As I waited for this to hot up, I had a couple more flicks with the slow jig, which was literally a fish a drop resulting in immense fun with three more pollack around the double figure mark. I alternated with a different colour and that still nailed the fish, they were just on it.

Conger can be a fickle fish, sometimes giving the most sensitive little nibbles, whilst at other times they will near heave the rod over the side first take! This bite was an unusual one, instead of seeing the gentle patterned nod of the boat moving on the sea the rod tip just gently lifted and went still… Something had certainly picked up the bait. Preparing myself, I checked the drag, wound down the slack line and waited.

On the tiniest little nudge I set the hook into a truly solid weight! This was a big fish and it did not want to come up off the bottom. Gradually I managed to persuade it out of the wreckage and into the water column, twice making its best efforts for the seabed, before a very big girthed conger eel surfaced next to the boat. It was much too big for the net and not wanting to gaff the fish I eventually slid it over the gunwale and into the boat. This was a good fish!

John Fishlocker puts a good bend in his rod bullying a fish up from the bottom
Some real rod bending action

After unhooking, I attempted the scales but the fish was too big for my weigh sling. I managed to weigh it to 45lb, but with part of the fish still on the deck! So this was comfortably a 45-50lb eel, result! Following a quick photo back it went.

This is one of the wonderful things about fishing for eels. They do not suffer nearly as bad as other fish with barotrauma and will happily swim back almost every time. I’d had this fish not a moment too soon as the wind soon picked up a little and we swung back over to the side of the wreck with the lost fishing gear upon it and I started losing fishing gear again.

Having re-anchored a total of six times (meaning I had hauled in and shot back over 3500ft of rope) I decided to call it a day. With over half a dozen monster pollack, a PB coalfish, a big ling and a returned conger around the 50lb mark, all from a completely new mark for me, I was very tired but also extremely happy with how the day had gone.

I had also seen dolphins, tuna and blue sharks around the boat, pushed myself to anchor in very deep water from a small boat well offshore and had been rewarded. The gutting fed the seagulls on the return and the fillets fed the family with the carcasses going into the crab pots, literally no waste. This is why I love my small boat fishing, it is the whole experience and the freedom to fish and learn on your own whilst reaping hard won rewards.

John Fishlocker holding aloft a large conger eel
A conger of over 45lb capped off a successful trip to a new wreck
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