Tope, big tope, really big tope are far easier to catch than is generally supposed, and finding them is the hard bit. Twenty years ago, quite by chance, I discovered that big tope had a weakness for the humble eel. An angler on my charter boat reeled in to re-bait and found a hermit crab hanging on to his chunk of herring. I told him what a great bait hermits were for smoothounds and suggested he try it. He did and within minutes got a bite, nothing he could hit, just a few plucks and the odd nod then nothing. He left it for a minute or two then all hell let loose, the rod keeled over the clutch screamed as the fish ran like hell. The water was only ten feet deep, we were fishing on top of the Gunfleet Sands, four miles off Clacton, it was late flood and we were there for the thornbacks (run Thornback through Microsoft Word spelling check and it suggests throwbacks, fancy Bill Gates knowing that!!).
Like a good skipper, I stood by with the net expecting a good hound to surface. The first thing I saw was the head of an eel, blown up the trace, then a tope of about 45 to 50lbs broke surface. The guy with the rod, for reasons known only to him and his god, wound down and struck. The tope took off at high speed , the clutch seized and the line parted.
It happens, excitement, panic? I don’t know, but the way different people react to the capture of the biggest fish of their life can often result in strange reactions!
We had a few eels alive in the bucket - one of the lads ate them, or so he said. Anyway, I took one, killed it, cut six inches off of the tail section and mounted it on a 6/0 and a wire trace, cast it up tide and away from the party's gear and sat back. Tap, over went the tip and the next tope was on, this one I landed. Like the lost fish this was about 45 to 50 lbs. We photographed it and back it went.
That fish led to a whole new way of fishing for tope. Gone was the heavy 30 and 50 pound line class rods. Out came the 4 to 6 ounce uptide rods. Out went the heavy line to match the rods, in came 15 to 18 lbs B/S line to match the uptides. Out went the theory that one let the tope make their first run, stop, then let it move off again before striking. With uptide tope fishing, if it runs ten feet hit it. Out went gut hooked fish, in came lip hooked fish.
The first fish was as I said taken from shallow water, when other boats got involved and more marks were tried, tope were found in water from 5 to 100 feet of water, the only important ingredient was the eel bait. Use mackerel and we caught small 10 to 30 pound fish. In the hundreds I caught on eel, only one was under 30 pounds.
Eel was king, so we thought, then came the autumn and the whiting. Although they would take eel late in the year, they preferred small whiting, though these late fish were mainly males up to about 50 pounds, whereas the summer fish were big males and very big females.
We don’t catch many tope in the Thames Estuary any more. The gill nets set for the bass got them. They were sometimes sold for 50 pence per pound by the netters, or more often thrown back dead.