If there is any sport or pastime on the planet quite as varied as fishing? Everything from tangling with blennies to battling sharks can be filed under “angling”, even though they are as different in scale as Subbuteo and full blown eleven-a-side football.
Lately, I’ve been taking to the far edges of the sport with greater relish than ever. Perhaps I am unusual in this respect. I like catching big fish, but I love the tiny and unusual species equally. I love wild lakes and rivers, but have no qualms about fishing for golden tench at Anglers Paradise (below) or having a crack at match fishing on stocked waters. I can handle a few odd comments or being the butt of a joke or two, provided I’m entertained.
Can I even justify my taste in fishing at any given trip? Probably not. I can’t explain it any more rationally than I can justify why I prefer watching Exeter City above Manchester United, enjoy beer more than wine, or prefer pizza to posh cuisine. There is no accounting for taste, as the saying goes. There’s almost no fishing I don’t enjoy, and even less I would judge someone else for enjoying. Which might also explain why my writing and this blog itself can seem a little sprawling at times.
Fun Fishing in Ilfracombe
Talking of variety in fishing, the whole species hunting and light tackle thing in lure fishing is incredibly healthy for the sport, in my opinion. It’s so accessible for beginners, too. So when Wayne Thomas (who runs the excellent Fishing in North Devon site) suggested I lend a helping hand with a family fishing day by the sea, I was only too happy to help.
The last time I was in Ilfracombe, about a decade ago, was a wet weekday that didn’t exactly inspire. What a change I found on a visit in 2018. Whether it’s the new crop of shops and bars, or Verity (the pregnant, sword weilding liberty-loving zombie thing that folks seem to love or hate), there’s a revitalised feel to the place these days.
Meeting at Ilfracombe Pier (which is more like a bit of sea wall with a nice giant rockpool behind it), I was impressed with the number of locals there to support the event. From Combe Martin Sea Angling Club and High Street Tackle, to the Coast Guard and Ilfracombe Aquarium, it felt like a real community affair.
Looking at all the rock pools, hidey holes and mixed ground around the pier, I suspected we’d get local kids catching in no time and so it proved. Most anglers were sensibly offered lightish tackle, with smaller barbless hooks and modest size baits. Meanwhile, I bravely lent a couple of light lure rods out, rigged dropshot style and baited with scraps of Isome worm on barbless 16 hooks.
Why such diddy hooks and dropshot style rigging? Well, the tiny hooks mean more species. As I always explain- you can catch big fish on small hooks, but the reverse is seldom true. Dropshot rigging is perfect for beginners, too, who are not always great at striking! Often the fish hook themselves against the weight- and because it’s parallel to a tight line, it’s rare to encounter any deep hooking. Having the bait some six inches off the deck also helps avoid crabs. Win-win!
With 2 points for the first fish of any species, followed by a point for the brace, there was all to play for and all sorts to catch. Quick as a flash there were blennies, gobies and also garfish to those float fishing. I think we’d all have some way to go to get close to Steve Dawe (above, in yellow), with a tally of sixty-something species in a season, that said! Raising money for the Stroke Association, he’s put in a sterling effort lately with his “Fishty-Two” challenge (read more here).
Also present and gathering specimens was the most brazen cormorant of all time, actually diving under the sea wall to help itself! Surprisingly, it didn’t tangle anyone up or take a hooked fish, which makes you suspect this is one streetwise bird.
So what sea fishing lessons did our families learn? Well, one lesson is that you don’t need heavy tackle or long casts. Right under a sea wall is as good as anywhere. Switching the sea hooks and massive baits for barbless coarse hooks and tit-bits is also sensible if you want variety. It’s certainly trigger-happy fishing, ideal for those who don’t want to spend hours waiting around. Even my non-fishing obsessed wife, Paulina, likes this style of fishing and had a great afternoon.
Another thing younger anglers and newcomers are often a bit unsure of is unhooking and handling fish. Some can be quite fragile, after all. Besides using barbless hooks and having a bucket of sea water to keep hands wet when touching fish, it was great to have Lawrence (below) and the local aquarium staff present to help.
Handled carefully, we retained a few pout, pollack and poor cod into a bucket for a closer look. Testament to a bit of TLC and barbless hooks, all of the fish pictured survived. One or two others are now happily acclimatised to life in the aquarium itself!
By the close of play, pretty much every participant had caught a fish- what a great result! Young Effie Welch was top of the juniors with 13 points to win a rod, while Ross Stanway won the adult comp with 16 points to win a copy of Crooked Lines, my book of fishing stories. There were lots of other good catches and generously donated prizes too; you can see more pics and points tallies here, at Wayne Thomas’s North Devon Angling News site.
As for my own reward, well that had to be a quick tour of Ilfracombe Aquarium to round off the day! Predictably, I am always a sucker for an aqaurium, and this one is a real gem. It’s beautifully maintained, with tanks that actually look like seawalls, rockpools and other real environments, which always makes a difference.
Personally, I prefer to see local fish in these collections, as opposed to tropical creatures and “Nemo” lookalikes. Hence my eyes were everywhere on a quick tour of the place!
I wouldn’t want to give away all the surprises, but highlights included a large bass, lots of flatties and, for the species nuts among you, some really rare blennies I’d never seen before.
Our visit was right at the end of the summer holidays, so the town was very busy. As you read this though, things will be quietening down as school returns (sorry kids). Meanwhile the hot summer we’ve had is sure to mean an excellent autumn for LRF fishing. Why not go and have a fish and visit the aquarium in one swoop? If it rains, or your other half isn’t so fish crazy, there’s an onsite cafe too, where they make a mean latte. Take a look at: http://ilfracombeaquarium.co.uk
Into deeper waters…
Aside from species snatching, the other real treat to finish the summer has been a couple of hugely enjoyable sea fishing trips afloat, after bass and sharks. As with so many sea angling adventures, though, it was the unexpected highlights that have been almost as much fun as the main event.
One fish I really love is the oddball garfish, in fact. On a sharking mission from Looe with Keith and Lee Armishaw and Mark Everard, I couldn’t resist borrowing a float and some light line, in fact, and trying my luck just under the surface as the skipper got the “rubby dubby” going.
Ok, so it’s with sharks in mind that this lethal smelling cocktail is unleashed. But while you’re waiting for the monsters, the scent trail inevitably attracts other fish- and garfish love the tang of pure evil just as much as titanic sized predators.
My set up for these fish is simple: a nice visible but not ridiculous-sized float, a small bullet or olivette and a hooklength of 18″ of 10-12lbs fluorocarbon. A size 4-6 carp hook holds a fine sliver of mackerel as bait.
It was so exciting I almost forgot about the sharks! Even the smaller gars seemed bigger than the my typical shore fishing stamp. I lost a cracker that looked 2lbs plus, before the next was attacked by a seagull and we narrowly avoided a horrible mess. The next two were both crackers that tailwalked and pulled like stink. The one below was the smaller of them, and I’m eagerly awaiting Mark’s pictures of its bigger (and much longer!) brother:
So, diversions aside, did the sharks decide to play ball? Well, I’m afraid I’ll have to keep you in suspense just for the time being. Suffice to say it was one of the most visceral, heart-stopping fishing experiences of my life! Pretty nuts. Rather than rush it into the end of this blog though, it deserves a longer story with a little more time and care, once I’ve changed my underpants, had a lie down and composed myself. So, I’m afraid you’ll just have to watch this space for now.
Of course, should you want more to read in the meantime you can keep up with all my other fishy scribblings every week in the Angling Times, while you can also catch other free content in the Angling Trust Lines on the Water Blog.