Sometimes at night, when you peek down the side of a harbour wall, the wall peeks back. Under torchlight we can view the nocturnal creatures that come out to play as we get a window into another world. With Light Rock Fishing (LRF) tactics, this opens up opportunities to catch exciting twilight dwellers.

A Devon harbour wall is a fascinating place. You can liken it to a high rise building. During the day shift, the upper floors closest to the surface are quiet and devoid of most life.

Any fish, prawn and crustacean foolhardy enough to rise to the top while the sun shines is risking ending up as prey for predators above the surface. So, the clever harbour inhabitants stay on the ground floor, locked in the basement, awaiting the sun to drop below the horizon. Once under the cover of darkness, the night shift begins and the creatures emerge with confidence to make their ascent to the top. 

A Daiwa Ajing jighead weighing under one and a half grams, fitted with an Ecogear Aqua Shirasu - a small scented lure with a ball tail

On a wet and cold midweek evening in February, I’m sure the nocturnal high rise dwellers were a little confused as their world was illuminated from above. A strange alien light cutting through the gloom. I excitedly assessed the sight as my eyes adjusted to the torchlight. The wall of granite and concrete disappeared into the darkness below, my head-torch not quite penetrating the frigid water all the way until the bottom. Just below the surface film I could see movement, the glowing eyes of a prawn, fixed motionless in the glow. He was certainly on the menu for my target species – the curiously bizarre topknot. 

The prawn twitched on the barnacle encrusted wall, getting used to the sanctuary of the newly lit habitat. Its mandibles and tiny claws gently scraped away algae from the stone, tentatively consuming the green foliage. I watched in fascination as the torch illuminated the transparent body of the prawn. I could see it’s organs getting to work as it started to digest its meal. The brief moment of scientific evaluation was interrupted by a larger set of red eyes appearing below the snacking prawn.

The target species, a topknot

From between a gap between two granite blocks emerged a strange looking creature, with long spindly claws, small stalked eyes and a compact body. It was a squat lobster and quite easily the biggest I had ever seen, with a body the size of a tangerine. This citrus sized crustacean was not alone. In nearly every crevice in the wall below me, a similarly sized squat lobster was in residence. The more I focused the more eyes and claws I could see. As my light scanned the wall, the lobsters would snap their tails to rapidly reverse out of sight. All that was left to see was the tips of their claws jutting from the gaps. 

I hadn’t yet seen a fish, so I trained my eyes away from the wall for a moment. Suspended in the water column like ghosts, skinny and almost transparent, were dozens of sand smelt. Mini predators of their own but often on the menu for larger fish, the sleepy smelt clearly felt relaxed enough to hang in the water column almost completely still. As much as I admire the understated beauty of the species and their obliging nature, even on cold nights, to attack a lure, I decided to stay focused on my target species. 

Topknot use the profile of their underside and fins to suction against rocks

Topknot are a species of flatfish, and when sight fishing for them, common sense dictates we look for clean ground, sand or mud. The topknot though is a rule breaker, instead choosing to make uneven, rocky ground its home. This unusual species uses its oval body as a suction cup, meaning it can very comfortably hang on the underside of boulders or grip the side of a harbour wall. Once in place its mottled brown and cream markings provide exceptional camouflage as it awaits its prey to pass by. As soon as the topknot spots an unlucky prawn, shrimp or fish, its extendable mouth engulfs the prey, in a similar fashion to a john dory. Couple that with the fish’s rough toad-like skin, tiny tail and it’s rarity in angler’s catches and you have an intriguing target species.

Knowing all of the above, my eyes were fixed on the walls below me. In between the occasional bouts of breeze disturbing the surface of the water, I maintained a heron-like focus, examining every nook and cranny beneath. A few icy droplets of rain dashed across my sight, flashing like tiny shooting stars as they caught the light from my forehead. This made my job a little more difficult, as the drops disturbed the surface, hindering my view. Thankfully the clouds were not yet releasing their full fury so I still had time. 

A topknot is superbly camouflaged against its surroundings, with a large mouth to ambush prey

Like most harbours, this one had large timber support beams spaced evenly along it. These were fixed to the granite with thick metal bracings. In behind one of these I spied a pair of eyes. Two tiny pricks of light cutting through the shadow of the weathered wood. These weren’t the eyes of a crustacean and my heartbeat quickened at the thought of what it could potentially be. I lowered my choice of lure to the fish. 

As has been my usual weapon of choice over this winter, I was using my Majorcraft Aji-Do rod rated to cast a miniscule three grams. I paired that with a one thousand sized Shimano Vanford reel, loaded with one and half pound Ester (polyester) line. Tied to a short Fluorocarbon leader was a Daiwa Ajing jighead weighing under one and a half grams. Finally added to the hook was my go-to species hunting lure, the Ecogear Aqua Shirasu – a small scented lure with a ball tail. A fine imitation of a small fry or prawn.

The small lure had made its descent, I pinched the yellow Ester line against the rod to stop its fall, flicking the bail arm over on the reel to anchor the line in place. I then switched to the red light setting on my head-torch. I’m a believer in the ‘red light theory’ for many fish species, this is the thought process that red light disappears the quickest in water and therefore many fish species have evolved with no ability to see light in the red spectrum. Although shallow water species almost definitely see red light, it’s certainly much gentler on their eyes and leads to less spooking. It was this gentle ambience that I was hoping to ensure my target would take my lure.

A tompot, not a topknot! The largest of the blennies

I soon had a take, my rod tip lifting as the fish picked the jighead up and moved up the wall. I gave it a second to get its mouth around it and set the hook. As ever on LRF tackle, the fight was impressive from such a small fish, as it tried to dive into the nearest hole. It never stood a chance of course and after a brief tussle I had the fish in my hands. A topknot? No… a tompot instead. Tompot blennies are the largest UK blenny species and are always warmly received by LRF anglers. With distinctive tubercle ‘eyebrows’ above their large eyes and beautifully deep reds and browns in their colouration, they are hard to misidentify. Avoiding this blenny’s strong jaws and needle teeth as I removed the hook, the fish was soon dropped back where it came. My topknot mission continued. 

After some time searching the walls, catching the occasional small pout and enduring a brief wintery shower, I found another promising set of eyes. I could see at least two pairs of blue beads of light reflecting back at me from underneath the metal fixing. This felt right and my pulse quickened in anticipation. Using the same technique as before, my scented lure was offered to whatever the mini-beasts were. Time stood still as my breath condensed into a dark red cloud when it caught the light from my head-torch. Everything became still as I focused on the tip of my rod, wishing it into motion. As if commanded by my sheer will the tip pulled down sharply and held there. I lowered the rod a little so as not to give too much resistance. After the longest of milliseconds, I dared to strike, feeling the satisfying resistance of a fish. This time there would be no real fight, only the momentary belief that I snagged, followed by the release as the fish let go of its holding. I looked down to see the dark back and white belly of a flatfish, it was a topknot and it was mine. 

At last, the target was mine!

There I was, standing in the February drizzle, smiling from ear to ear. I admired the glorious little flatfish and it’s asymmetric features, especially it’s large sideways mouth that was occasionally extending out in displeasure. Although I have caught plenty of these oddball fish, never have I landed them with any regularity, so I appreciate every one I catch. With plenty of photos taken, I released the fish on a set of steps, watching in fascination as it slowly made its way down the submerged man-made walkway, so elegant in its natural habitat. As far as I was concerned, my night was complete. Whatever I caught next would be a bonus and I wouldn’t care if I blanked from then on.

Thankfully, the LRF gods had other plans. 

Squat lobsters and huge edible crabs seemed to dominate every section of the wall, as I continued my search for fish. One of the reasons I am so obsessed with sight fishing is thanks to these experiences, those moments as I interrupt, for a second, the natural behaviour of those impressive crustaceans. It also helps me focus on where I am likely to find fish, as topknots and blennies are rarely found next to creatures with such fearsome claws. 

Topknot are not a large fish and do not fight too much, but their ability to suction to a rock can make one think they are snagged at first

I had returned to the same spot as to where I had caught my first ‘Topper’, to be greeted by the same set of eyes as before – surely lightning could not strike twice? I had no need to change my technique and again the Shirasu was lowered into the shadows. This time the bite was not instant so I turned my head-torch off. Using the distant light of the street lamps, I could still see my rod tip clearly and I waited. I twitched the lure with a tiny lift of the rod tip, but when I went to twitch it again, I lifted the rod and felt resistance. With a small strike another topknot was on my line! Briefly suctioning itself to the wall with its oval shaped body before it gave way and I lifted it into my excited hands. Another topknot, I couldn’t believe my luck.

This one had more of a battered appearance, clearly having been in the wars. It’s laughably small tail was missing a piece, perhaps trimmed by one of the many clawed crustaceans it dwelled beside. All topknots look angry but this one had an even more disgruntled look, with its pair of deep frowning eyes. Despite the fish’s upset appearance I thanked it, appreciating it one last time as it too was released gently on the steps. This time though the fish hung around for a moment, I’m sure if it could flick the ‘V’s at me it would have, as it sulked away into the gloom of the night. 

Note the blue eyes, that you can often see at night to help sightfish for them

A hat-trick of topknots for myself is unheard of, yet the next drop down, in the same spot, using the same lure, only this time a little deeper, produced the biggest bite of the night. The lure felt like it had been whacked as the rod pulled down sharply, I barely needed to strike. Again it was obvious what the culprit was but this flatfish was a little more spirited, doing its best impression of a fight. Despite its (relative) athleticism and larger size my final fish of the evening was in my hand. The cartoon eye on the jighead looking rather helpless marooned in the jaws of this impressive predator. 

 

The topknot’s rough skin on its top half is almost slime-less yet the underside feels like a sticky suction cup. 

When you hold one of these peculiar fish in your hands you can really appreciate the unusual route evolution often takes, especially with fish. This is the leopard of its habitat, stalking its prey with camouflage and stealth. Only it’s a leopard with eyes, spots and its legs all on one side of its body – a true weirdo and one I really appreciate. 

 

With reverence, I softly lowered my third and final topknot into the saltwater to return to the wall of eyes, taking its place among the other night dwellers. I reflected on what was a cold, damp yet truly special couple of hours. Another evening affirming my love for all things ultralight and more so, the oddest of fish species.

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