THE HISTORY BOYS
The ultimate species hunt.
Phil Riley leant over to one side, pointing at a particularly nasty scar he has running almost the full length of his shin. “Big stingray, Tropic Star Lodge, Panama, caught it fishing from the dock at night and its tail whipped around and stabbed me, the pain was indescribable,” he remarked.
The rest of us winced in sympathy. My turn next, I held up my right hand displaying the white scar that dissects the palm: “Size 10/0 hook, went in one side, the point came out the other. I was trying to quickly unhook a big blue shark on camera while filming a TV programme off the west coast of Ireland; resulted in general anaesthetic and extensive surgery.”
Unintentionally, we had started reenacting the famous wheelhouse scene from ‘Jaws’, the one where Quint, Matt Hooper and Chief Brody start comparing old scars as Orca drifts through the night. As far as I am aware, none of us have had our appendix removed, but before this trip was over there really was a better than slim probability that we might need a bigger boat.
There were five of us seated in the wheelhouse aboard the charter boat Size Matters, her owner and skipper Kevin McKie at the helm, his face illuminated by the dim glow of electronics on the dash. Outside, the moonless night was as black as pitch, the darkness only broken by a thin line of scattered lights along the Cornish Peninsula several miles to the north. Ahead lay only more blackness, and the wide-open Atlantic Ocean.
Just after seven in the evening, several hours earlier, we had headed out of Plymouth Sound stopping briefly just outside the breakwater to feather up some fresh baits.
Our ultimate destination lay somewhere in the region of 60 miles in a generally westerly direction from the Isles of Scilly, considerably more than 100 miles from Plymouth. We did not anticipate dropping anchor until sometime after nine the following morning.
The trip had been conceived months ago, inspired by a conversation Kevin had with a commercial fisherman who often fished gill nets in the area we were heading for. From the start it had the potential to be a truly groundbreaking adventure, as almost certainly the area we were planning to visit had never before been fished by any charter boat.
Kevin’s contact had told tales of huge sixgilled sharks frequently being entangled in nets, and lots of big skate present too, especially blue skate. These were inspiring, indeed inflammatory words to arguably the UK’s most adventurous charter skipper.
“Blue skate,” I remarked when Kevin retold the fisherman’s story. “What on earth are blue skate, I’ve never heard of them?” Kevin explained that he hadn’t heard of this species either, but had since discovered that up until the 1926, the blue skate was recognised as being an entirely separate species, before scientific opinion of the day decided that it was really a common skate.
Not convinced, a few years ago CEFAS (the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science) instigated a tagging programme and commissioned research to find out more about blue skate. Its results confirmed that the blue skate is indeed a separate species from common (flapper) skate (Dipturis intermedius) and in 2010 blue skate were reclassified as a separate genus (Dipturus batis).
For our trip, thankfully the sea conditions were good and we enjoyed a comfortable night, each of us grabbing a few hours’ sleep when we could.
At the break of dawn over porridge and hot coffee, we decided that the capture of either a single six-gilled shark or a blue skate would qualify the trip as being a resounding success. Anything else would be regarded as a bonus.
A couple of hours later Kevin eased back the throttle, and when Size Matters came to a stop, the anchor chain clattered out over the bow, and fell away to the seabed 450 feet beneath us.
One of our crew, Phil Riley, who along with John Owen had chartered Size Matters for this trip, had caught numerous six-gilled sharks before, all of them over 1,000lb, at Ascension Island, where he owns a charter boat.
Phil explained that from Ascension they only ever caught six-gills at night, but we also knew that for many years Irish charter skipper Luke
Aston had caught many grander-class six-gilled sharks during the daytime off Loop Head on the County Clare coast. As a result, we really didn’t know what to expect.
The fact was, a six-gilled shark had never been caught aboard a British angling boat that had actually been targeting them. The few reported captures of the species had all been immature fish caught by accident. The current British record is a fish caught off Penlee Point, Plymouth, in 1976, that weighed only 9lb 8oz.
With Size Matters settled at anchor, one by one we very slowly lowered three super-sized multi-mackerel baits down to the bottom. Dropping them too quickly would result in tangles. Kevin’s strategy was that by using as much mackerel as we could throughout the day, given the undoubted attention of smaller species pecking away at the baits, by dusk a strong oily slick will have drawn any sizeable sharks or skate to the area we were fishing.
A fourth bait was set drifting beneath a float, with which we expected to catch a blue shark or two. We did not want to attract too many sharks to the area by using rubby-dubby, as they would undoubtedly attack our bottom baits as they were being dropped. Finally, with the four primary baits fishing I grabbed a light rod rigged with a set of mackerel lures, baited the small hooks with small pieces of mackerel, and dropped down to see if I could catch any of the unusual deepwater species we knew were found over the ground we were fishing.
As soon as I felt the lead weight touch bottom, the rod tip registered a tip-rattling bite, and a gentle bend when I lifted the blank indicated I had hooked a fish, albeit a small one. What was it, we all wondered as I wound it up through the water column, a Ray’s bream, perhaps a boar fish, possibly even a grenadier? When, finally, we got our first glimpse of the little fish in the clear water, our questions were answered. I had caught a poor cod! The same happened on the next couple of drops.
Eventually, I managed to catch one of the iconic deepwater species associated with the near Continental shelf, a blue whiting, which I closely followed with a second. Very similar to a common whiting, blue whiting (Micromesistius poutassou) have a noticeably larger eye and, when handled, shed scales freely like a poor cod, revealing a body which is, as the name suggests, tinged with blue.
IN THE HARNESS
Less than an hour after starting to fish, the ratchet on the reel fishing the suspended nearsurface bait screamed, as a decent fish grabbed it and made off on a short, fast run. John Owen grabbed the rod, eased the lever-drag forward, allowed the tension to gradually increase, giving the circle hook time to locate in the sweet spot in the corner of the fish’s jaw. He then bent into the first of numerous small to medium-sized blue sharks that we boated at regular intervals throughout the day.
As we released John’s shark, the tip on one of the three bottom rods indicated a bite. Watching the rod tip intently as he buckled on a stand-up harness ‘Quint-like,’ Phil carefully
clipped the straps to the reel lugs, and gave the fish plenty of time to take the big bait by freespooling a few yards of line. When he was satisfied the fish had eaten the bait, he pushed the lever back to strike, reeled the line tight, and set the hook.
While Phil had clearly hooked a sizeable fish, it was all too obvious that it was nothing especially large, and most of us suspected it was going to be one of the many spurdogs we had been told were often prolific throughout the area. As Phil worked his fish up through the water column, the rest of us leaned over the side, straining for that first glimpse of the fish. You can imagine our surprise when rather than a spurdog a mid-double conger came into view, the first of several 10-20lb plus eels we caught.
A little before midday, Phil once again attached his stand-up harness, only this time when he lifted the rod and set the hook, it was immediately obvious he had hooked something much bigger than a strap eel.
Five minutes, 10 minutes then 15 minutes ticked by before finally Phil’s fish came into view; a six-gilled shark. We had only been fishing a couple of hours and already we had achieved our goal and boated a decent six-gill.
As soon as the necessary history-making photographs of the UK’s first targeted six-gill were taken and it had been accurately measured, it was released. When applied to the standard formula, (length x girth squared divided by 800), it produced a weight of 204lb.
The six-gill, or bluntnose shark (Hexanchus griseus) is the largest hexanchoid shark, growing to 26 feet in length. It is found in tropical and temperate waters worldwide and its diet is widely varied, though essentially it is a bottom feeder that relies on scavenging. Its head is blunt, similar to that of a bull shark, but in its behaviour the fish is more bull huss than bull shark. A strong fish, the fight is more dogged than exhilarating as it writhes and squirms, occasionally making strong, spirited dives back to the seabed.
We were still congratulating ourselves on the capture of our first six-gill when John set the hook in another decent fish, and once again five pairs of eyes strained over the side to see just what it was that he had caught.
It is often said that a huge part of the attraction of sea angling is that you never really know exactly what you might catch, but in reality most days when fishing around the UK you do have a pretty good idea. That day, though, we really did not know if the next bite was going to result in another strap conger or a 1,000lb-plus six-gilled shark. It really was an incredible experience.
Finally, when John’s fish came into view we could see it was a skate. When it was boated, our crewman, who has spent time working aboard commercial boats in the area, confirmed it was indeed a blue skate. Give-away characteristics include a well-defined pointed head and a distinct body colouration. It weighed 35lb, our second British record of the day.
To absolutely confirm our capture, the fish had, quite unbelievably, been tagged with
a CEFAS tag. A few days later when Kevin phoned the information through, a CEFAS spokesman confirmed that it was indeed a blue skate originally tagged in 2015, just five miles away from where we had been fishing.
It was early afternoon and already we had achieved both of our primary goals, but there was more, much more to come.
John’s next fish was our second six-gill, which we calculated to weigh 242lb, setting the bar for the species even higher. As both Phil and John had each boated a six-gill, they generously asked whether I would like to take the next fish and, of course, I accepted their offer. It wasn’t long before I was slugging it out with my own fish, which turned out to be a six-gilled shark that we calculated to weigh 237lb. It was my largest British-caught fish.
Not long afterwards we spotted a huge flock of shearwaters milling over the surface several hundred yards astern, with large splashes of white water beneath them. Tuna! For several minutes we watched in awe as a vast shoal of bluefin tuna, including many fish weighing well into the several hundreds of pounds, gradually worked their way past us. If only we could legally target these incredible sport fish.
Soon enough the sun started to set, and once again Size Matters became shrouded in the inky blackness of night on the open ocean. With her deck lights illuminated, it wasn’t long before large shoals of fish appeared in the pool of light around us. At first these were minuscule mackerel, but these were soon joined by Atlantic saury (Scomberesox saurus) and these attracted a pod of feeding dolphin.
Kevin hooked the first fish of the night, and with three six-gills already boated, we were confident he had hooked our fourth. As Kevin fought the fish, a second rod bent over, and Phil set the hook into another one. Both anglers played their fish while the rest of us cleared the decks and prepared for what we hoped would be a unique double shot of six-gilled sharks.
While Kevin had caught six-gill number four, Phil had taken our second blue skate. It was clearly bigger than the fish caught earlier in the day, but in the excitement we forgot to either measure or weigh it.
When Phil Riley lifted into the next fish it was instantly obvious he had hooked something much, much larger than anything we had already caught. The savage bend in his rod as he leant back in his harness was evidence of great bulk, and when that fish came into view beneath the boat, it was monstrous, an enormous great fish that took the combined efforts of four of us to haul her aboard.
She only just managed to squeeze her bulk through the transom door, which was no surprise, as when accurately measured we calculated her weight at 512lb, making her quite possibly the largest shark ever actually boated aboard a UK charter boat. Soon, six-gill number six was hooked by John Owen, and clearly it was another very good fish. By now, a gradually increasing breeze was driving in a cold drizzle from the open Atlantic, as the distant weather front on the clouded horizon around sunset headed slowly but surely towards the British Isles as promised. John eventually played his fish to the back of the boat, and she was boated and calculated to weigh 320lb.
It was two o’clock in the morning and, whereas our original plan had been to fish until dawn then haul anchor and head for home in daylight, a quick show of hands confirmed each and every one of us was more than happy to call it a day and head in early. We’d more than achieved our goal.
It was a long run back and 3.30pm before Size Matters was brought alongside at Plymouth. Rather than fatigue, all five of us were buzzing from the incredible experience, with the reality of what we had achieved starting to sink in.
Kevin has named the mark Jurassic Park, a fitting title, and I for one can’t wait until my next trip out to this incredible fishing ground.
Surely this is one of the very last untouched marks off the British Isles? Who knows just what else is lurking out there?
John clips on the harness ready to do battle with a huge fish
Huge baits are key to big fish
Fresh mackerel for the hook
John Owen with his 242lb six-gill and skipper Kevin
A first – the 35lb blue skate
A blue skate enters the landing net
The blue skate carried a CEFAS tag
This bait had no chance
Battling with a six-gilled shark
A blue whiting for Dave Lewis
The big one – Phil’s enormous 512lb six-gill