THE HIS­TORY BOYS

The ul­ti­mate species hunt.

Sea Angler (UK) - - CON­TENTS -

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.

GROUND­BREAK­ING TRIP

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.

ICONIC SPECIES

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.

HIS­TORY MAKER

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.

SPOT­TING BLUEFINS

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.

ENOR­MOUS SHARK

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

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