The tope is arguably one of the most highly prized species targeted by anglers. With its classic shark looks, razor sharp teeth, brutally hard fighting characteristics and with some specimens exceeding 70lb’s in weight it’s easy to see why. Couple all this with the fact that this seriously cool predator is often found within a few miles of the shoreline, the tope is one of the most accessible species of shark.
Throughout this article we’re going to take a look at how you can get yourself hooked into these super sleek sharks and make memories that’ll last a lifetime, be it your first time looking to get in on the action or indeed you’re an experienced Tope angler looking for a tip or two to boat a hefty specimen.
Tope generally prefer mixed ground where rich pickings of small fish can be found for them to feast on. Tope will feed on the likes of flounder, dabs, mackerel, whiting, small pollock and more… all of which will make a good bait which I will come to. Generally, tope will not be found on really rough ground, but I know of times, when the mackerel have been scarce that I’ve had success in locating a few tope over some very rocky ground where there’s been some small pollock for them to feed on. Tope are also very willing to feed in some quite fast tides and as such give myself a good opportunity to target them in the Bristol Channel whilst aboard “Lorna Doone”.
With a plethora of rods available on the market and an equal abundance of reels it can be very confusing for an angler, especially a first time tope angler to know what is suitable. After all, for many, the tope will be the hardest fighting fish they will have encountered to date. I have seen tope landed on boat rods as light as a 12-20lb class but its well worth considering the size of the tope you are likely to encounter and in what pace of tide. I can tell you now that a tope of 40lb or more combined with some ripping tide will test light rods quite literally to destruction. But some of the smaller pack fish of between 15lb-25lb in less tide will present no problem on a quality light rod. Generally though, a boat rod of 20lb-30lb class is spot on or alternatively an up-tide rod.
When it comes to choosing a reel, be it your preference to use a fixed spool or a multiplier my only tip to give you is to choose a reel with a beautifully smooth drag. Tope can pick a bait up and charge off, give sudden changes of direction and speed during the fight as well as make big dives when you think you have them beat at the side of the boat. A reel with a clunky drag is just going to see sudden huge tension put on the line with the result being lost fish… And no angler likes to see their fish of a lifetime give you the proverbial two fins up as it leaves you with a pit in your stomach at what could have been.
Ask any seasoned angler what rigs they use and they will always have a few individual preferences or tweaks. There are of course some non-negotiables when fishing for tope. You’re about to take on a serious powerhouse with rough skin and a mouth full of razor-sharp teeth… End gear MUST be up to the job. Never mind some damaged pride at losing a fish, lets also consider fish welfare and not unnecessarily risk fish smashing up your gear and being left with hooks in mouths and towing tackle.
Recently I spoke specifically about rigs for tope with another local charter skipper, Michael Webber-Griffiths (Mikey) who operates “Teddie Boy” out of Minehead. I found this really interesting and I hope you will too. For I know that there are stories of charter skippers keeping their secrets extremely close to their chest and most definitely not sharing with other perceived rival skippers. And in truth, I’m not sure what Mikey thought when I dropped him a message and a phone call to essentially say ‘hey Mikey, what rigs do you use to catch your tope?’ But what I do know is that we both share a desire to put people on the fish, give them a great day out and we both manage to successfully catch tope. And yet we’ve done this without ever knowing what rigs each other were using. So would there be any differences…?
It turns out there are subtle differences between my rigs and Mikey’s, but the similarities and tips are common between us meaning they would be well worth giving consideration to, should you be setting up for yourself.
Both rigs are very simple:
Mikey – 200lb-300lb mono mostly tied but occasionally crimped to 8/0 circle or J hooks depending on how the fish are taking.
Myself – 300lb mono crimped to 10/0 J hooks.
Ok… let’s take the very limited information there and start reading a little deeper into the rigs, add tips and further understanding because I assure you there’s a lot more skill, subtleness, and knowledge to what you’ve just read. Neither of us will be readying those rigs, chucking them over the side and assuming they will work in the same way every time.
Firstly, Mikey mentions the use of circle hooks. The view with a circle hook over a J hook is that a fish that takes, turns and runs with the bait isn’t going to take the hook down deep and it should always set in the corner of the mouth… but what did he mean when he says, ‘or J hooks depending on how they are taking’?
In this instance Mikey is giving understanding and recognition that Tope can be finicky and slow with their takes. They’re not always the rip snorting, ratchet screaming underwater missiles that spark epic stories of reels getting spooled! Indeed, these toothy beasts can have a more gentle, timid side too and if the fish isn’t going to turn and run a circle hook becomes extremely difficult if not neigh on impossible to set. So, the classic J pattern of hook is needed to hook up with the more delicate takes. But why wouldn’t I use circles at all? Well, this comes from a philosophy of giving yourself the best chance and leaning on past success. For me I don’t want to start with circles, miss some subtle takes and then end up having to change things.
A line out of the water isn’t going to catch a fish so I like to hedge my bets from the start. J’s do hook up and are easy to hook up fast runs and as mentioned they are better suited compared to a circle if bites are finicky. I want something in the water from the very first cast that will catch, no matter what the take will be like. But I will follow this up with a consideration to fish welfare. A circle is a very safe hook in terms of avoiding deep hooked fish. I don’t encounter swallowed hooks but with the J hooks I do see hooks being set deeper in the mouth sometimes. The way I combat this perceived difficulty in hook removal is to partially crush the barbs down on my J hooks. You don’t need to have hugely aggressive barbs on hooks. Where steady pressure is always maintained, hooks will not come out.
8/0 vs 10/0 hooks… well, there’s not much in it really but it is worth noting that tope don’t need a huge hook. In fact, any sort of shark fishing is worth considering smaller hooks. Let’s give these highly tuned predators some credit and recognise that something ever so unnatural can put them off the take and going down a hook size or two can make a real difference in the number of takes. I consider a 10/0 that I use to be a pretty large hook for tope fishing. The reason I use a larger hook is that on occasion we do suffer with dogfish and bull huss being a nuisance. I start by burying the 10/0’s a little deeper into the baits but should nuisance fish become a problem I can combat that by adjusting and using the larger 10/0 to stand the hook point further proud of the bait thus avoiding some of the dogs and huss becoming hooked up whilst allowing the tope an opportunity to get to the bait.
To crimp or not to crimp that is the question? I always crimp but when I check rigs that anglers have brought aboard that they have made up themselves, crimping is the number one thing done incorrectly, particularly when it comes to double barrel crimps. What mistakes do I see? Inferior weak crimps, cracked crimps, crimps that don’t match the size of mono you are using, double barrel crimps that have been crimped in the wrong direction and crimps that have been squashed with pliers instead of a crimping tool. Reading all of that you may well be forgiven for instantly being put off using crimps… but don’t be. They are so quick, easy and incredibly strong if done correctly. You need a quality, strong crimp that’s correctly matched in size to your mono and crimped using a proper crimping tool. And as a side note my individual preference are double barrel crimps (to be crimped sideways squashing the barrels together is the best way I can describe it not just flattening the crimp).
At this point there’s two other common items often mentioned in tope fishing that aren’t here amongst our rigs. Firstly, is a rubbing leader. Tope have a very rough skin and I understand why people would wish to use an additional length of heavy mono as a rubbing leader although I don’t. I use a long trace (6ft) and I’ve never had an instance of a tope rubbing through a mainline. The 6ft length of trace does the job as a rubbing leader and I would count yourself incredibly unlucky if the fish was to wrap itself up to the extent that it wasn’t enough. Secondly is the use of a wire biting trace. By all means do use a wire biting trace but follow the tips for correctly crimping etc. Personally, for me mono is just so easy to use and effective that I don’t use wire.
My biggest tip for anyone going on a charter day is to ask the skipper what the best bait is going to be and the availability of live bait. If venturing out yourself on a private boat do consider what the tope will be feeding on in your area. There will be an element of ‘matching the hatch’ to steal a phrase from fly fishing. I’m aware that in areas where flounder are prolific, the flounder will of course be a good choice for bait. Head out of a port where there is an abundance of mackerel and you may well find that the first hour of the trip will involve feathering up your bait for the day. For me a fresh mackerel is unbeatable as a bait for tope and it’s something I wish we had more of in the Bristol Channel but we do find that frozen mackerel is also very effective. The classic way to rig a mackerel is to cut the backbone out of the mackerel from the tail end creating ‘a flapper’.
However, as mentioned earlier, in the Bristol Channel at times we do have an abundance of dogfish and bull huss that will destroy a mackerel flapper in moments, so I tend to use large whole mackerel.
I think that just about covers the fundamentals if you’re planning a day targeting these awesome sporting fish. One thing I will add is to please make sure you’ve set your drag. I have seen it all too often where we have rods flying over the side or fish being lost because of this!
Tope fishing is right up there with some of the most exciting fishing I’ve done. You can’t fail to get a thrill out of the fight and the first sight of a Tope doing battle with you as it rises through the water column is a spectacular image that will stick in your mind. I absolutely love it and so will you!