Leviathans From The Deep

(Common Skate) (Dipturus Batis) Vleet

By Alan Taylor

My introduction into Skate fishing and the tagging of these monsters was all thanks to a topic on a UK angling web site. I followed the topic over a few days and found myself getting more and more interested; lets face it, when someone says “it was a small female of 50kg” it must make you pay a little more attention to the subject. Well, it did me.

I started asking a few questions on the site, and as a result was invited to go to Scotland for a weekend’s fishing by Davy Holt. I checked out the price and availability of flights and found that I could get a return from my home in Holland for 135€ with KLM, and after checking my savings pot I was surprised to find that I had exactly enough. I got back to Davy to arrange some dates so I could book my ticket and arrange a lift to Schipol. Work was going to be a problem especially as the Monday was a public holiday in Scotland so we would get 3 days fishing instead of the 2 that I had planned on. Davy told me not to bother bringing any tackle as he had everything that we would need for the weekend including foul weather gear. All I took was the usual spare change of clothes, (I fell into a lake once and was freezing for hours), a toothbrush and razor.

The girls at work covered the work front for me and my regular fishing partner Pleun volunteered to drive me up to Schipol at 0500 on the Friday, I arrived in Glasgow on time and was pleasantly surprise to find a smoking area in the baggage reclaim area and even more surprised to find the pay phone took cash. I called Davy and arranged to meet him in the City.

On meeting him it was as if I had known him for years instead of just chatting on the net. Our first port of call was the Chinese supermarket for 5 boxes of Squid, this was to be a standby bait in case we could not catch any bait ourselves. Next stop was the Glasgow Kelvingrove museum, home of the Skate tagging programme.

The 3 hour journey to LochAline was just one sight after another with Lochs, forests, snow capped mountains, Deer, Falcons, waterfalls, rivers and streams. Breathtaking is the only word that can sum up this part of Scotland. All the islands are connected by car ferries that run to a regular timetable. If you miss the last one you are stuck until the morning. After crossing by ferry we took the single track “road” to the village of LochAline. The “village” consists of a small hotel/dive centre, a social club and a shop/post office. There is a slipway and 2 charter boats, the “Brendan” and the “Peregrine”. Both of these boats do charter trips though the Peregrine concentrates mainly on taking divers to the abundant wrecks in the area while the Brendan also does fishing charters for Skate. Both Skipper/owners were really friendly as were all the “locals” that I met It was as if I had been a regular visitor there for years even though it was my first visit and an Englishman to boot!J I was getting some nice surprises on this trip and there were more to come as well as a few shocks. It had been a long day for us all so it was an early night ready for an early start on Saturday.

Saturday 1st June, Fishing Day 1
I was up at 0600hrs and decided to leave the caravan to get a shave (cold water) at the public toilets so not to wake anyone. When I went outside there were 5 Deer not 25 metres from me quietly feeding. We looked at each other for a few seconds then went on about our business.

We took the dingy out to the Catchalot, Davy’s boat then back to the jetty area to have a go for some Pollock and Coal fish for bait, they did not want to play so after a breakfast that would keep soldier going for the day we headed out to the mark that had produced 2 Skate the week before, one of 167 and 127lbs.

We anchored up at about 1200 and Davy started to get the gear ready. First there were 4 rod holders to fit into the clamps on the stern of the boat. A 2lb cone shaped lead was clipped onto a sliding boom. Here comes my next shock, the hooks, 12/0 Bronzed Mustad O’Shaughnessey’s with the barb FILLED DOWN, a wire trace 730mm long of 200lbs breaking strain connected to 250-300lb b/s Berkley swivel, next comes the wind on leader, 20foot of 180 lbs mono then the mainline 130lb Racine Tortue braid, one rod had 80lb mono. A Penn International 50TSW clamped onto a self made rod using a Sportex Fibreglass blank.

The bait consisted of 1 Coalfish about 1kilo and a 500gr Mackerel, these were frozen baits and you will see later why I mention this. The hook is passed through the bottom jaw, and then through the head, it is then passed through the back just behind the head coming out to end up laying roughly near the dorsal fin. Next on the hook goes the Mackerel; the hook is then passed through the Mackerels head. This little packet of bait is then tied up with cotton; the tails are chopped off to stop the bait spinning as to avoid tangles, it is lowered the 100mtrs to the Loch bottom. When all four rods were settled into their holders and clipped on to the safety lines it was then just a case of waiting and waiting and waiting.

The weather was not very nice, a force 5 that was supposed to decrease but never did. It was wind against tide for the afternoon; mostly the boat was kept in position by the tide, so the lines streamed astern but lengthy gusts of stronger wind would beat the tide and have the boat swinging away. The baits were coming off the bottom at this stage so Davy clipped another 500grams of lead on and slid this down the mainline to the bottom, it helped to keep the bait where the fish live.

We talked the afternoon away while listening to Ronnie, on a boat out of Oban, telling us how he was getting on, He was having a good day. The Brendan was fishing about 100metres away from us and had 1 fish boated of 109lbs but lost 2 others. The Brendan’s anglers were trying for Lesser spotted Dogfish (Scyliorhinus canicula), Spurdog (Squalus acanthias), Thornback rays (Raja Clavata) and Conger eel (Conger conger) for a bit of sport to while away the waiting time. The one fish on the Brenda regurgitated a 4lb Dogfish while it was being measured on the deck!!! As Vleet hunt by scent fresh baits were needed desperately for the next day.

We agreed to call it a day at about 1900 and headed in for dinner. It was a blank as far as Vleet went but I was a lot more confident about baiting up and using the tackle. Tomorrow is another day. And it sure was.

When we arrived back in LochAline we decided to have another go for the Pollock as it was high tide and evening. I was using a jelly worm that we had been sent to “field test” for a UK firm and could only catch the bigger Pollock (4 to 4 ½ lbs) and some big Coalies, these were too big for bait so were returned to grow to 20lb in a few years time. Davy saved the day as he was catching the size of fish we
needed (2lbs-) for bait the next dayJ. We now had fresh bait for the next day and Davy had decided that we would move to where the Brendan had been fishing. After another fine meal it was time for another (dry) and early night.

Sunday 2nd June Fishing Day 2
By the time I had shaved Davy was fuelling the boat up and checking the stores for the day. After another fine breakfast we set off for the mark, on the way we stopped for some Mackerel to add to the Coalies caught the previous evening. I suppose it was about 1100 by the time the baits were in the water, I really did not care what time of the day it was while I was in Scotland. The wind had dropped during the night and there was some blue in the sky so it looked like being a nice day and was it!!!

We both saw the first bite at the same time. You don’t strike these fish, you wind down as fast as possible and this combined with the fish’s reaction sets the hook. Davy wound down but there was nothing. This happened again 15 minutes later, Davy thought it could have been a smaller fish that could not handle the size of bait so he rigged one of the 30lbs class rods up with a couple of Squid on a smaller hook. Just after this rod was put into the rod holder we saw another bite on one of the big rods. Davy wound down into the fish while I put the nice wide butt pad and kidney/shoulder harness on. Davy passed me the rod and clipped me on. He made sure I was far enough away from the stern of the boat and that I was standing square on to the direction of the line and fish. OK, I am now into a fish and nothing is happening, well the rod is bent double and the clutch is letting line off very slowly. When the clutch lets line out like that I know it has been set 100% correctly so I am feeling a lot more confident that the line will not break or the hook rip out. I have seen so many fish lost because people don’t know how and when to use the clutch, that it makes me a bit angry at times. I kept the pressure up for about 10 minutes and then the fish started to move, slowly pump up until the rod is at about 10oclock, wind on the way down to between 8 and 9oclock position, keep pumping and winding. While I am into this fish the 30lbs rod is bent double, Davy had wound down into another fish. I had problems of my own so ignored the 30lbs rod. I had expected pain in my back or arms but the pain was in my thigh muscles. I learned a long time ago that if you concentrate on some thing else it keeps your mind off the pain. I started counting the turns that I was gaining on the fish 12, 13, 14, 15 then the fish decided to dive, I took half a faltering step forward with one foot and Davy was by my side instantly, ‘you ok?’ he asks, ’yeah fine, I have it now’. Think about this for a second, you are clipped onto the rod and reel and a very big fish is trying to pull you over the side into 100meters of water. Drinking and driving is stupid, drinking and fighting these monsters is suicidal. I am still counting the turns, this time in reverse 14, 13, 12,…..Minus 1, -2, -……..Minus 18, after all that effort the fish was now back to the bottom but was also further away from where he was first hooked, the tide was running a bit and this was helping the fish plane down to the depths. I start all over again, 2 more dives and 35 minutes later the fish was alongside the boat and ready for the gaff. Davy gaffed the fish about 35mm from the front of the wing, I had put the gloves on (Beside the pure weight of these fish, there are 3 dangerous things to watch out for, the tail has a lot of razor sharp barbs, similar to those found on Roses, on each wing there is circle of what I can only describe as a bed of nails and finally the mouth that the fish can throw open and forward showing rows of very nasty sharp teeth.) and over she came and into the boat. Davy put a tag into her and measured her 169lbs, my first ever Vleet so a personnel best. I was surprised at how docile these beasts are, they “normally” just lay there. We put her on the net ready to be lifted over the side, took some pictures and released her sporting a nice new tag. Number 02470. This was all in a bit of a hurry but I did take a few seconds to watch her glide elegantly down to the depths, what a site that was. Now you have to remember there is still a fish on Davy’s 30lbs rod.

Davy had told me before I left Holland that the first thing I would do after returning a fish would be to bait up and drop down again. I told him the first thing I would do would be to have a cigarette and a cup of tea, wrong, I was still shaking a bit but forgot the cigarette and found myself lowering the bait down again as predicted by Davy weeks earlierJ

Davy was having problems with his fish on the 30. It took him from the back of the boat, round the anchor rope and then he was up on the bow on the opposite side of the boat. Davy had this one on for over an hour before the line parted about 15mtrs below the boat. “I” think that the line rubbing on the anchor rope had caused some damage so weakening the line, we will never know…a bummer though. The light rod went back into the cabin and I wound in the other light rod in, why push it and chance leaving a hook in a fish to rust away or get shaken out, besides there was more than enough action on the big rods.

Time for a cup of tea. Wrong. I was just about to light the gas when Davy shouts ALAN!, this was my cue to get rigged up again for another fight. This turned out to be a nice small female of 96lbs and it had been tagged before. After we released her Davy checked the sheets from the museum and tag number 01205 was caught on 23/7/96 at 24lbs by an angler from a Dingy Club 3 miles from where I caught her.

Davy was into another fish when I saw a bite, I wound down into the fish then on with the harness and butt pad. I had made a good hook up on my own and for the first time, that gave me a good feeling, I was starting to get the hang of this fishing. Davy lost his after about five minutes; he thinks the bait was masking the hook. After a thumping good fight I had my third fish in as many hours, 168lbs. She had a tag in but it was not laying very well so Davy put a new one in. It was getting a bit hectic with just the 2 of us on the boat so we don’t have the details of this one.

Davy was into a fish so I thought “time for a cup of tea”, wrong again. I saw a bite on another rod so wound down on it, and had a firm hook-up again. Davy was not too worried that we had another double hook-up as he knew from experience his was only a small one. He turned out to be right again. Davy never even lifted the fish into the boat. He unhooked it in the water and estimated it at around 80-odd pounds. I was still doing battle with my fish. It did not feel as heavy as the last one I had, but was giving a hell of a scrap. I did not say anything at the time but I thought for a second or two that I had a big Conger on. It turned out to be a small male of 95lbs, tag number 02471. It is easy to identify the males by the claspers protruding from under and either side of the tail. There is a story of an Irish angler hooking a big female and bringing it to the surface with the male still attached to its back. I don’t know if it is true or not, we have been trying to get information about skate fishing and the tagging programme in Ire
land but for reasons best known to themselves, the Irish will not cooperate. Sad really.

Davy took the next bite even though he called me to take it. After taking 3 fish in about 3 hours with a total weight of 433lbs lead bait and hauling them up from 100mtrs (several times) I thought Davy had done a deal with my partner and was trying to kill me off or he was being an extremely generous host!J Davy did not make any mistakes with this one, when it was measured the charts put it at 178lbs though Davy allows for leeway and put it at 170lbs, still Davy deservedly had what turned out to be the best fish of the trip.

I was into another fish and after a really good up and down fight I had a fine male of 121lbs and it had a tag in No. 01569 that told us that it had been caught on the 26/7/96 by the same club at 119lbs, again 3 miles from where we were fishing.

At the end of the day we both agreed that we had a fish missing. I remember it because I said “what does that one go, 80lbs?” Davy’s reply was “you are getting quite good at this, 89lbs”.

At the end of what was a very exciting and strenuous day the tally was 169, 96, 168, 170 , 121, 89, and 80lbs.

I had seen a couple of small islands about a mile away and asked Davy if we had time on Monday could we go and have a look, they looked like perfect Pollack grounds to me. They were the Grey Isles and was there a surprise waiting for me?!J

We decided to call it a day at around 1800 and head back for a celebration drink (2) and a well-earned dinner. I took care of the drinks and Linda scored 10 out of 10 for the dinner. After dinner we went outside and took in the sights for an hour. A couple with 2 children came up to the caravan, they had missed the last ferry to the Isle of Mull, would Davy take them over in the boat. It turned out that they have a B & B and if they did not get back there guests could not get in until the morning. We dropped them off and Davy let me take the boat back to LochAline. I was watching the sounder, it went from about 2mtrs to 400 in what seemed like seconds. Imagine having to haul a fish up from that depthL. Linda and Mark were in the social club so we had a quick game of pool with some of the locals and then off to bed ready for another day.

Monday 3rd June, 3rd and last Fishing Day
It was going to be a lovely day; the sun was shining and there was very little wind, but a few clouds were hanging around. We headed out after another of Linda’s breakfasts. I was now feeling very relaxed about everything and was enjoying the cruise to the fishing grounds. We stopped on the way to get some more Mackerel as we only had 1 coalie left and that was a little bit ripe to say the least. I dropped my set of feathers down and had a full house instantly. I left them in the water to keep the rest of the shoal interested while Davy dropped down. As soon as he hit the fish we both wound in and had enough bait for the day.

We went to the Grey Isles to have a go for some Pollock, on the way we passed through the largest pod of harbour Porpoises (nl bruinvis) that Davy had ever seen. They were feeding like crazy as were the Terns and Gannets. We saw a lot of signs on the fish finder, either Herring or Mackerel. When we arrived at the Islands we tried a few drifts but to be honest I was not paying much attention to the fishing. There were a couple of Otters fishing and feeding in the kelp weed and some seals sunning themselves on the rocks the Porpoise and birds were still working close to us. It really was like watching a nature programme on Discovery TV. We also saw a Golden Eagle and a Stag with 4 or 5 hinds.

It was getting on a bit by now so we went and anchored up for the rest of the day in the same spot as Sunday. I had one of my feelings when the baits were down. The left hand rod had the last Coalie and a fresh Mackerel flapper on. The others had double Mackerel flappers on. I get these feelings some times and don’t ignore them - that Coalie is going to catch the first fish. Davy was dozing in the wheelhouse. Now this gave me a good feeling that he was relaxed enough with me by the rods that he could doze off knowing I was capable of taking care of things until I called him, so I put the harness and butt pad on (just in case). Sure enough, half an hour later, Bang! I was into a fish with Davy standing right besides me as usual. It fought well: it was a male of 112lbs. I asked if we could actually weigh this one as I wanted to take a photograph. The gantry was ready, so the process only took a couple of minutes. He weighed in at 107lbs, 5lbs different from the chart weight and on a moving boat as well. I was quite happy with 112 or 107 as it proved that the chart/table is accurate and that there is no need to put the fish under stress or as happens in some fishing circles where the fish are killed and hung up on meat hooks, just for a photograph or to satisfy someone’s ego. Sorry about that, but these fish need protection.

Davy was up next with the smallest skate to be caught on the boat this year, an nice little female of 73lbs. It was a slow afternoon compared to yesterday but I managed a hard fighting male of 88lb, and Davy had the last fish of the trip, another male of 87lbs.

Very reluctantly, we decided to call it a day as we had to put the boat back on its mooring, load up the car and a 3½ hour drive back to Glasgow. I was trying to figure out how I could lock Davy in the cabin, I did not want to leave. I sat up on the bow of the boat on the way back to LochAline. I was very sad to be leaving what must be one of the most beautiful settings to fish in. I was very pleased with myself and proud of my fish (including the little ones). I learned so much from Davy on my first (but hopefully not my last), Skate fishing trip. Sitting up there on the bow I thought just how much this trip meant to me .On the way home I must have had a fly in my eye for a second or two or was it the Fishermans friend I was eatingL

Thanks Davy & Co

Alan Taylor

The Tagging Programme - Davy Holt

This tagging programme traces its roots back to 1974, when anglers in the Shetlands voiced concerns about the declining stocks of common skate (Dipturus batis) in their local waters. During the early 1970’s, several hundred large skate had been killed, to supply a local fishmeal factory, and there was a real danger that the local population would be decimated if the fish were found to be permanently resident in the area.

Results from a tagging programme run locally indicated that the skate were, in the main, resident which in turn made them extremely vulnerable to over-fishing. Recent experiences in Orkney and on the west coast at Ulla
pool had already suggested that this might be the case but now it appeared to be confirmed. During the 1960’s, both Orkney and Ullapool had gained an international reputation for the quality of the skate angling to be had there.

Unfortunately, for various reasons • including the age-old belief that the seas would keep on providing, little or no conservation effort took place. There was also the commercial aspect in that a charter skipper’s reputation was only as good as his last big fish and there was considerable ‘promotional mileage’ to be gained by parading a large skate carcass in front of crowds of gawping tourists! As we now sadly know, this situation couldn’t continue for long and the Orkney and Ullapool grounds were soon ‘fished out’ but for once it wasn’t commercial fishing which proved their undoing, it was so-called ‘sports anglers’.

In order to finally confirm (or refute) the findings of the Shetland tagging scheme, Dr. Deitrich Burkel initiated a tagging programme on behalf of Glasgow Museums. He chose to concentrate on the grounds off the Isle of Mull, which at that time were in the process of being opened up and explored by two very conservation minded angling brothers, Brian & Duncan Swinbanks working out of Tobermory, Isle of Mull.

Tagging Programme Statistics
Up to the 30th November 2000, a total of 946 common skate had been tagged. Of these, 216 were tagged using the Jumbo Rototags (Phase 1) and 730 using the Floy Dart Tag (Phase 2). Recaptures were 56 and 174 respectively giving a total number of recaptures of 230 or 24.31% of those tagged. The recapture rate for both phases was relatively similar at 25.93% and 23.84%.

The quickest recapture was of a female of 154lb that was caught in the Sound of Mull. She was caught in 400’ of water, weighed measured, tagged and released only to be caught again by the same angler 50 minutes later.

Growth Rates
Individual females have been known to put on as much as 33lbs (15 kg) per year and to stretch by between 4 and 6 inches (10•15 cm) per year. The average though is closer to 9lbs (4.1kg) and 2½ inches (6.3 cm) respectively. With males however, the biggest growth has been around 9½ pounds (4.3kg) in weight and 4 inches (10 cm) in length. The average though is around 6lbs (2.25 kg) and 2 inches respectively.

With the males though it is very noticeable that when they reach approximately 110-120lbs (50-55kg) and 72-73 inches (183-186 cm), their growth rate slows and stops. Females though grow until they are around 170-180lbs (77-81.6kg) and around 85-86 inches (216-218 cm) long.

Contribution on tagging by Davy Holt, Glasgow and LochAline

Editor's note: Alan Taylor passed away in 2005. He is sorely missed by his angling friends, both on the internet and in 'real life'.