Last summer was a difficult summer for me in terms of kayak fishing, or lack of it as the case may be. We had very little rainfall since the end of last winter and low rivers and lakes around the country bore testament to this. I recently listened to a radio programme that detailed the fact that we had the coolest summer for forty eight years and while the lack of rain and high temperatures never deter an ardent kayak angler, one other feature of last summer did – the frequency of strong winds. I am well practised now in emergency techniques but having said that, kayak angling should always be a case of “better safe than sorry” and common sense is one of the most useful tools that a kayak angler can use to keep themselves safe. So it should go without saying that if the wind is blowing hard then the best option for me is to stay on dry ground and anybody else should do the same.
A lot of last summer consisted of keeping an eye on weather forecasting websites, looking for breaks in the wind, hoping to get out but invariably becoming disappointed when it became apparent that another week would roll by with the kayak sitting dry in the garden. Despite this, there is some good trout fishing near to the house here so whenever I couldn’t get the kayak out, I was off up to the trout lake. I did manage to get a lot of fly fishing for trout done last year so I suppose, in all honesty, things could have been a lot worse. Still, after spending a lot of the previous summer and most of last spring practising different drills on the kayak, rigging different accessories that would make life easier on the water and finding my limits with what the craft can do, I was a little disappointed with not being able to get out as often as I would have liked to. But I suppose I should have learned at this stage, having grown up in Ireland, that we can never plan anything around the weather in this country. We just have to take whatever it throws at us.
So when we hit the third week in September and a previously forecast calm period of twenty four hours I knew I had to strike. Tope fishing is usually very good along parts of the shoreline close to home, the east coast of Ireland, generally between the start of August and the end of September. With the forecast for the following week giving more strong winds, I knew this would probably be my final chance of the year to get a tope on the kayak. In the limited kayak fishing time I had last summer I had managed to get plenty of them from the bigger fishing boats and a couple of them from the kayak but each time I had left the shore without a camera and I desperately wanted to get a couple of shots of this fairly unique way of tope fishing. Besides, seeing is believing, especially in the modern age of cheap digital cameras and camera phones. I’ve been guilty of it myself, asking people for pictures of their catches and when they say that the camera had been left behind but they maintained that the catch was as big as they claimed I thought, “Sure it was…..” One thing is for sure – there seems to be a few less monsters being caught now that cameras in one form or another are readily available!!
I arrived at the shoreline of a local beach and took a moment to take in the scene. The morning sun was still relatively low in the sky, there was not a breath of wind and the surface of the sea looked like a sheet of glass – it could not really have been any more perfect for the kayak. I set the gear up, loaded the kayak, did my safety checks and waded out, knee-deep, into the sea. A quick jump and twist had me in the seat and I paddled straight out to sea. I stopped here and there, using a light 12lb class rod to jig a set of hokkais, hoping to hit a couple of fresh mackerel – prime tope bait. That was the pattern for roughly a mile – paddle a short distance, stop, jig hokkais, paddle again for another short distance, stop, jig hookais again. When I finally reached a mark that I had been successful on every time I fished it last summer this summer I dropped anchor. My systematic search for mackerel had failed but I had a few from the freezer at home in a box behind me, just in case.
Away went the small rod and out came the tope rod. I was using twelve ounces of lead attached to a boom. Above the boom the mainline I was using was 50lb braid and below the boom I had about seven feet of 100lb line and attached to this was a homemade wire trace completed with an 8/0 hook. All that was needed was bait and I took one of the now thawed mackerel and attached it whole to the rig, pushing the hook through the head of the mackerel and then twisting the point just through the dorsal root and pulling the shank through so that plenty of the hook was showing. The tail was removed for two reasons; firstly to stop the bait spinning in the tide and secondly to allow a scent trail escape from the bait and run down the tide. A lot of people will use mackerel flappers as bait for tope but after a bit of trial and error, I much prefer to use the whole fish because it drastically cuts down the amount of interest you will receive from nuisance species such as the Lesser Spotted Dogfish. Some people may think that a whole mackerel is too large a bait to use and while it is quite big, so is a tope’s mouth. I can assure you they have no problem engulfing them when they come across them.
So with the bait mounted I lowered the whole lot down to Davy Jones, clicked the ratchet on and put the rod into the rod holder while still in free spool. All I had to do now was wait for a run. And that is exactly what happened – I waited and waited and waited!! Just over an hour had passed with not the slightest bit of interest in what I had to offer. I always prefer fresh bait and the fact I had been using frozen was niggling away at the back of my mind, so I decided to get the light jigging rod out again and see if there were any mackerel passing below me. First drop resulted in three mackerel and as soon as I had them landed I reached out for the tope rod and started to retrieve the frozen bait. A fresh bait was offered up to the hook and was lowered down to into the depths, a new wave of confidence washing over me.
Whether or not it was a coincidence I will never know but the fresh mackerel was not sitting on the bottom for any longer than three minutes when the ratchet began to scream. I let the line peel off and the ratchet howl for about five seconds before slamming the reel into gear and experiencing the satisfying feeling of the rod buckling over under the strain of a good fish. Now under a set drag, the tope was still ripping yards of line off the reel every second so I let it have about one hundred yards and the tightened up the drag and leaned into the fish, trying to turn it. But then disaster stuck and the line went slack. I had obviously pulled the hook out of the fish. Cursing and swearing at myself, I started to reel the bait towards me and had recovered about twenty yards of line when the rod arched over again, nearly being wrenched from my hands. Whether a second tope had seen the bait and had a go or the original fish was just particularly hungry and/or aggressive, I do not know. What I did know was that “round two” had just begun!
This was a powerful fish that had decided that it wanted to stay down tide so I let it, just keeping steady pressure on the line. Three times each it skirted off to the left and then to the right but all the while it maintained its position down tide. After perhaps seven or eight minutes of a spirited battle I could feel through the line that the fish was starting to weaken and it was allowing me to gain line on it and pull it uptide towards me. I knew by this stage that the tope, whilst a spirited fighter, was not a huge one, so unclipping the anchor rope and drifting after it would not be necessary, I would be able to bring it towards me, even against the tide. Having said that, it was a stubborn fish, refusing to budge from the bottom until I was practically right above it on the kayak. Once I got some vertical leverage over it though I was able to start pumping it to the surface. I managed to rattle off a few shots with the camera before grabbing the mighty fish by the tail to drag it on board for the hook removal.
However this particular fish did not take kindly to being grabbed by the tail and found a new lease of life. With a few thrusts of that powerful tail the tope propelled itself back down to the sea bed. Another couple of minutes of grunting, bullying and pumping line ensued and once again the tope was by my side, ready to come aboard. This time there was no retaliation from the fish, now exhausted it was lifted from the sea and placed across my lap for the obligatory photos to be taken. With that done I set about removing the hook with my long-nosed pliers. Set well inside the mouth but not too far back, I was glad I had the pliers to keep my fingers clear of the razor sharp teeth. Grabbing the hook with the pliers, all it took was a quick turn and the hook was out, the tope ready to go back to where it had come from. Holding the tail and the dorsal fin, I lowered the tope over the side of the kayak with the head pointing into the tidal flow. After a couple of minutes I could feel its muscles starting to flex and shortly after that powerful tail started to swish from side to side, soaking me, possibly its final act of revenge. With the tope seemingly back to full strength I let it go and the fish slowly moved away from the kayak for about twenty yards before slowly diving back down out of sight into the depths where it belongs.
After letting out a “Whoop” of delight I decided to head for shore. I would have loved to stay out for a little longer and capture a few more pictures but the wind was starting to pick up again and I figured that the best option for me was to quit while I was ahead. Job done! I had a smile on my face all the way back to shore and as I thought more about the encounter it dawned on me that catching the few tope on a kayak this year has possibly been the most fun I have ever had whilst holding a fishing rod. Once again I can safely say that I would wholeheartedly recommend kayak fishing to anybody. The freedom and enjoyment it can give is fantastic and it is a lot cheaper than buying and maintaining a boat. Having said that, nobody should be venturing out to sea in on a kayak, fishing or otherwise, without learning all the safety drills and carrying all the required safety equipment. No fishing experience or trip is worth trading a life for. Now, here’s hoping for a wind free summer this year……….but who knows what the Irish weather will throw at us this summer!
Here’s a short youtube video of the entire fish, seeing as my old canon couldn’t fit the whole fish into frame;
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