The thought of catching massive fish from a relatively small craft really does drive the kayak fishing fire inside of me. There are not many fish that grow over the 100 lb mark that we can target here in the UK from a kayak. There is the porbeagle shark growing to over 500 lb, but this smaller cousin of the great white involves more than a little insanity to tackle from a kayak … as I can attest having caught one in the 80-100 lb size range last season. Blue sharks are also found over 200 lb in our waters, but they are far offshore, which requires a very narrow set of conditions to be done safely. Fishing offshore alongside a mothership doesn’t count in my books. You may be surprised to hear that bluefin tuna are now frequenting our waters, but the chances of landing one of these monsters, which are mainly in the 200-500 lb bracket, from a kayak is slim. There is one large species that is a little easier to fish for, the common skate.
Common skate, despite the name, are not so common. Years of intense commercial fishing in years gone by depleted the population of this slow growing deep-water species. Targeting common skate commercially is now banned but catch and release recreational fishery is allowed. Their range has been restricted to the deep waters on the west coast of Scotland and Ireland. They also have another name … giant skate! These fish grow to well over 200 lb so a 100 lb plus fish is a realistic target from a kayak. The trouble is that they are at the other end of the country to me!
A long journey north
I joined forces with seven kayak anglers and travelled the 650 miles to the edges of the Sound of Jura on the west coast of Scotland. We had a waterside cottage booked as our base for a week of fishing. The British weather had other ideas though. A couple of former hurricane weather systems were racing across the Atlantic and were due to batter Scotland mid-week – typical!
Looking at the forecast we would be lucky to get a full day on the water, and that full day would be the day after we arrived. It was action stations from the moment we arrived, getting all the gear ready for an early launch. My kayaks was soon loaded up with my fish finder, rod rest, crate full of gear, several fishing rods and a rather heavy anchor. Morning arrived and the winds were light. I launched with my good friend Ben, also fishing from a Hobie Revo 16.
We headed out into the Sound of Jura, a large inlet of water flanked on one side by the mainland, and on the other side by the isles of Islay, Jura and Scarba. The narrow waterway between the latter two isles is the notorious Gulf of Corryvreckan, home to the third largest tidal whirlpool in the world. The whole area was quite a sight to behold.
The fishing here is quite different to what I’m used too. We would be fishing in depths of up to 450 ft. We picked our spot and slowly lowered a heavy anchor and chain set up down to the seabed below. We tethered off to the buoy with Ian (Dizzyfish) joining onto the end. A system of quick release ropes allows us to easily disconnect from each other or the buoy if needed … something we have taken time to practice.
Big fish need some big tackle. A 50 lb-class Ugly Stik boat rod paired up with a Shimano TLD25 reel, loaded with 60 lb braid. End gear consists of a heavy mono wind-on leader, a custom heavy-duty zip slider leading to a short 250 lb mono trace and a 14/0 bronzed barbless hook. This is a rig built to haul beasts! Deep water needs heavy weights and 2-4 lb is required in these depths. Big mouths … big bait! Several mackerel, cocktails of mackerel and octopus, even whole dogfish are common baits for Skate. We meant business!
It is a case of sitting and waiting for these fish. So sit and wait we did, all day in fact. By mid-afternoon enthusiasm was dwindling, but then soon re-kindled as a message came over VHF to say that Stu was into a skate. He was further up the Sound and I didn’t want to miss the chance of seeing one of these fish, so raced over to him. By the time I got there the fish had just reached the surface. Wow! It was huge! They look every bit as big as they do in the photos. That was it. I just had to catch one.
In all the commotion, John decided to vacate his Scupper Pro and take an early bath, but unfortunately he had forgotten his body wash. A quick assisted rescue was executed to save him any further embarrassment! I did the honours with the camera before the fish glided back off to the depths…
My skate goggles were now well and truly welded to my head. We sat it out for another few hours but as the light started to fade we called it a day and headed for shore.
The next day was too windy for the skate marks. It was pretty cold as well. Luckily I had the Tsangpo thermal suit to wear beneath the Bora drysuit, a fantastic combo for colder days. I’m yet to find any thermal to rival the Tsangpo material for warmth and weight. It was a woolly hat job too. Ben opted for his Bora cag. We battled the wind and headed to a small sheltered inlet to throw some lures around. I managed to catch my first Sea Trout on a small vibe lure. Ben managed a slightly bigger one, with beautiful markings down its flanks.
It was a stunning area, with thick woodland running down to the waters edge.
We then headed out a little further and found some mackerel for fresh bait the next day, which is always great fun on light gear. It was pretty blowy though and not too comfortable for fishing. We did have a visit from some acrobatic bottlenose dolphins, who circled us a few times surging the swells and leaping clean from the water. As always the camera was pointing in the wrong direction!
We had a break in the weather the following morning until midday. It was a first light launch as we wasn’t too sure if we would get a chance on the skate marks again. I love launching when the light is just seeping through the darkness. Everyone else is asleep yet I couldn’t feel more alive!
It was to be a fruitless exercise though. Three of us sat tethered to one of the anchor buoys all morning without a nibble on the big baits. Time was running out. We held out as long as we could but soon after lunch the wind whipped up out of nowhere and was soon gusting at 40 mph! We made a dash for shelter and called it a day, feeling a little deflated that the target may now not be achievable.
In a glimmer of hope, the forecast for the next day was now looking perfect for the morning before an onslaught of strong winds and torrential rain would pile into the coast from the Atlantic. This was it. The last chance.
Day four – my last chance
It was an early affair again. I launched with Ian and Stu onto glassy calm waters. We headed out to the mark and tethered off in a chain to the anchor buoy. Particular care was taken to bait presentation. I wanted to give myself the best possible chance. With the big bait down, I also sent down a baited Hokkai rig on a second rod. It takes a while to reach the bottom in 450 ft of water.
It didn’t take too long for this rod to get some attention. Something had found the small slivers of mackerel tipped on the hooks of the rig. A few good nods of the rod tip and I lifted into something that was shaking around. The long winch up began and several minutes later a fish arrived at the surface that I had been quietly hoping to catch – a black mouthed dogfish. These deep-water sharks have large reflective eyes, velvety like skin with almost psychedelic markings and believe it or not – a black inside to their mouth.
I was then subject to a massive injection of adrenaline into the bloodstream. Whilst taking photos of the dogfish, the skate rod leapt into life and as the rod tip nodded strongly, line began to click from the reel. Every angler will know how that sound will surge life through your veins! The dogfish was quickly released and I grabbed the rod in great anticipation. Something was really pulling at the bait. With a strong bite I lifted the rod into solid resistance. I had hooked a skate!
The 50 lb class rod took the strain and I held the bend as the fish hugged the bottom. I was soon untethered from the others and the fish was towing me along. It was a true tug of war and this fish was not giving up. I was pulling about as hard as I could whilst keeping the kayak upright and the fish was not having any of it. This went on for twenty minutes by which time my arms were burning, my lower back was shot and explicits were rolling off the tongue. A slight lift from the fish and I piled on the pressure to bring it away from the bottom. I was finally gaining line, just a matter of 450 ft of water to go!
Ben had now joined the audience of Ian and Stu, and they took great pleasure watching me in great agony struggling to get the better of the beast below. It was a long haul up from the depths and after 30 minutes we finally got a glimpse of colour beneath the kayak. The giant appeared and after a few short dives I could finally get hold of the beast. What a moment!
It was a feisty male fish over the 100 lb mark, perhaps around 130 lb at a guess. I was over the moon and it was mission accomplished. The journey, the wait, the abysmal forecast no longer mattered. What a magnificent fish. Unhooking was made easy due to the barbless hook. After a quick few photos I let go and watched the gentle giant glide back off to the depths. It was cheers all round as skate number two was caught for the week. Ben had managed to capture some of the battle on film…
I was now completely exhausted and had drifted some distance from where I first hooked the fish. I just lay back and admired the scenery and calm waters for a little while.
I’m a sucker for punishment though and was soon tethered off back to the buoy for another try! A little while later and Steve called over VHF to say he was into a fish. He was fishing on his own so I headed over to him to assist and photograph. He was still battling the fish down deep when I arrived. The atmosphere was eery. The water was mirror flat, and low hanging mist hung not even 40 ft above our heads.
Thirty minutes of arm wrenching later and his fish appeared from the clear waters. Another lovely fish, and a real achievement for Steve who had not been able to get out on the water for the best part of a year.
It wasn’t too much longer before the wind picked up and drove us off the skate marks. We played around in close and caught plenty of Mackerel, before heading in for some lunch. Then the conditions got better again, and I launched with Stu for a final fish. An hour of inactivity on an inshore mark and then things calmed even more. The sun was out and all of a sudden we were in the best conditions we had all week, with only a breath of wind. It was soon decided to head out far to fish the skate grounds again. No sooner had we untethered and made our way, the wind picked up to a force 4 and the water started to become uncomfortable. Black clouds rose up from behind Jura and all of a sudden things felt quite threatening. Within minutes the sky was dark and lightning strikes were visible just a few miles away, followed by deep rumbling thunder. We had a mile or so back to shore and we did not hold back the horses reaching it.
No sooner had we pulled the kayaks ashore, the rain turned torrential and the water conditions became nothing short of horrific. We had cut it fine to say the least. We knew that was it and that there would be no more kayak fishing for the remaining three days. It was a good chance to now kick back and relax. We enjoyed the evening in style and my skate capture was celebrated by a dram or two of Jura whiskey. The sound system was soon blasting out the rock classics and eight kayak anglers were soon worthy of a recording contract, or something like that. You had to be there.
Batten down the hatches!
The following day saw the full battering from the ex-hurricane and as frustrating as it was not being on the water, it was quite a sight to admire. It was an easy day. We started with a hike and forage in the woodland. Thick moss covered every surface and the whole place was soaking wet. Luckily I was wearing my Atom bib and Gradient boots, which were perfect for scrambling around the overgrown network over trees, ferns and boulders. We found a fantastic array of mushrooms and fungi growing, hundreds of species, a mycologists dreamland! Later on it was time for some otter spotting from the cottage and then much talk about fishing and kayaking over cups of coffee. The forecast was just as rubbish for the next day so we packed our things away to start an early drive home in the morning. Despite the early start, we had terrible conditions for driving and with plenty of traffic, a detour via Glasgow Angling centre, a few stops and many cans of energy drink, I arrived home in Cornwall some eighteen hours later!
The whole trip had been a great success, despite the limited time we had fishing for the target species. I had caught my first sea trout, black mouthed dogfish and common skate, which was over my target of 100 lb. I’m sure to be back again to see if I can find a bigger one! The kayak fishing for giants saga continues …