“Fishing for Skate and Smoothound…” It was Richard’s idea and before I knew it I was making plans to go beach fishing for the first time since the early eighties. Giles was up for it and hopefully Trev too. The major problem was I didn’t have any gear, or did I? I remembered I had an old beachcaster at the back of the shed though I can’t remember how or why I had acquired it? Then I remembered I had my Dad’s old reel, an Intrepid fixed spool, bought in the mid seventies which he’d used on very occasional trips to the local beaches and with more enthusiasm to catch Mackerel on family holidays. It probably hadn’t been used since my very first attempts to catch Pike in the late seventies. In fact I’m pretty sure my first ever Pike was caught using that very reel in 1979.
The motivation was simply to do some fishing that was totally different but there was the chance to catch mini sharks in the form of Smoothhound and what is known locally as Skate, though I’m fairly sure they’re actually Thornbacks. Rich had some inside information and a location where we had a good chance of catching these species. However I didn’t really care what I caught and as I’d never caught a Bass I really fancied putting that right. Best of all would be spending some responsible, sociable time with a couple of my oldest friends. If we caught bugger all it wouldn’t matter much. The emails pinged back and forth, baits and bits were acquired but the weather wasn’t looking great, very hot with a fresh south easterly. Apparently this is the wrong wind for where we were heading but in the end we just thought ‘fuck it’ we’ll have a go anyway.
Thursday at work, I nabbed the friendly bait digger and picked his brains. He advised fishing ‘ragworm on a long trace in the gutter’ if I wanted to catch Bass, and to use ‘dirty squid on a pennell’ if I wanted Rays or Hounds. I understood some of this language but Google filled in the blanks. So on the day before our trip I brought home frozen squid and some blueys along with a wrap of live ragworm. Friday morning was spent hacking the garden before the heat got unbearable then I spent some time tackling up as I’d been instructed and getting together some bits and pieces to allow me to survive on a hot beach for a few hours. Spooling up the old Intrepid with fresh line, the ancient reel was making a horrible clunking sound every few turns of the handle, would it survive the trip? I cooked sausage and chunky chips for dinner, quick but substantial. The designated time and meeting place could not come round soon enough.
In the car, just a couple of miles out from the rendezvous the phone woke up. Rich was ahead of me and from what he was saying it seemed the hot weather had everyone in Suffolk heading for that particular beach, apparently the place was rammo and there was no chance of even getting a car parked let alone find space to fish. After a bit of consultation we came up with a plan B just a couple of miles down the road, hopefully things would be calmer here though we didn’t have a clue what the fishing would be like. The three of us; Rich, Giles and I, eventually met up an hour later than planned, it was busy here too but we could at least park and have a look around. This car park was tree lined and shady, there were a lot of happy, slow moving, white haired people sitting on folding chairs, having picnics. They were close to the beach but not within sight of it. I realised I am now at an age where elderly people are no longer frightened of me.
It was a good job I was prepared for a hike because that’s exactly what we did, a good mile on tarmac, sand and shingle. The beach was busy with families so we kept going past them all until we reached a bit of beach that was quiet and we’d have space for all the cock ups and disasters that would inevitably occur. I use the word beach but in this part of Suffolk what this generally means is stones, there is very little sand and certainly no palm trees. We found ourselves close to Bawdsey Manor which is where Radar was developed in the 1930’s. Thankfully there were no other anglers around to mock our amateurish attempts to extract something fishy from the large expanse of murky water before us. By now it had gone five o clock and we were fishing a tide than had been coming in for a couple of hours but whether there was any significance to this we had little clue.
I hadn’t fished off an English beach since the eighties, Rich hadn’t been for nearly two decades and Giles couldn’t remember ever fishing like this before. But we got busy putting together rods and attempting to assemble it in a sensible order. It took a while to get a rod in the water, I don’t think any of us wanted to be the first to crack off. Rich and Giles tackled up with paternoster rigs baited with squid or bluey and were soon fishing. Eventually I was ready; a six ounce breakaway fished as a running leger, a hooklength of about three feet made from 15lbs Amnesia then a size 2 Aberdeen hook baited with a Ragworm which I’d hooked as if it was a lobworm and I was after a chub. I hurled this about twenty yards out then walked the rod back up the beach and rested it on the tripod which Giles had come up with. After staring at the tip for a couple of minutes I slumped back into my chair.
By this point Rich was insisting we sample the home brew he’d made which was certainly drinkable and didn’t result in any disasters, as my own home brews had done in the distant past. But I couldn’t take my eyes off the rod tips which were nodding and bumping, would I be able to even tell when I got a bite? Then there was a proper rattle and I was on my feet again, that was definitely a bite, wasn’t it? A few minutes later I wound in to find my bait had disappeared. The next cast didn’t produce any obvious bites but once again my bait had gone. What kind of creature was responsible for this? I wouldn’t be the first person to catch crabs at the east coast. My next cast produced another proper rattle and I was quick enough to pick up the rod and strike. I thought I’d missed it but noticed my line was behaving strangely and when the lead started skipping over the shingle I laughed out loud as a tiny silver fish followed it up the beach. To cheers from the lads I held my first ever Bass aloft! It may have been the smallest fish in the North Sea but it was a first and I was delighted.
This galvanised us, if there was one fish out there then we must have a chance of a few more. We watched our rod tips, mostly unsure whether the dips and rattles translated to a bite but every now and then came a proper indication. I struck at one and winched in another Bass, this was much bigger than the first though still what would have to be classed as ‘small’. Every time I wound in the old intrepid was clunking and grinding as if giving me a round of applause. By this time Giles had switched over to Ragworm while Rich having caught a few bass in the past persevered with the bigger baits. This sea fishing lark is quite busy, lots to do for anglers more used to chucking rods out and letting them fish. I detected another bite like movement, managed to strike then completed a hat trick of Bass, this one bigger than the first but not quite as big as the second. It wasn’t long after this when Giles’ rod which had a much more sensitive tip was rattling obviously, he picked it up and quickly winched in his first ever Bass which he held up for the camera, another happy angler. No sooner had he got another ragworm into the big grey swim than his rod was rattling again with a proper unmissable bite and he made no mistake. Unfortunately the culprit was a small Eel, something much more familiar to us and a source of more laughter as Giles wrestled with it.
The bites slowed up but I stayed on the ragworm for a while longer. Around seven thirty Giles wandered off to his car for supplies leaving us in charge of his rod baited with ragworm. This seemed a good time to switch mine to a squid, fished with a long trace and a 2/0 pennell rig. On my first cast with this bait I was trying to wash the muck off my hands when Rich started yelling and I looked up to see my rod bouncing. I struck and for the first time found myself attached to something that felt like a fish, it could be weed but I felt confident it would be something with fins. I saw something flat and brownish in the surf so in the end I was half right, it was a fish but it was a Thornback and it didn’t have any fins. This was another first for me and I once again I was well chuffed.
With that rod rebaited and recast I sat down again grinning but I’d hardly got comfortable when Giles’ rod baited with rag was bouncing. Rich was busy baiting up and declined the offer so I picked it up and wound in another, slightly smaller Ray. It now seemed like we could catch anything at any time and when Giles returned a few minutes later we were all confident of more bites. However things didn’t so much as slow down as grind to a halt, there were the occasional rattles but no more obvious bites. Things were more measured now, we were all fishing big lumps of squid or bluey hoping for something bigger and leaving it longer between casts.
We moved our camp back up the beach for a second time, now sitting at the very top. The beach was almost deserted now, the day trippers mostly heading home. Way off shore was a never ending procession of ships heading to and from the ports of Felixstowe and Harwich, a few would be headed further up the Orwell to Ipswich. One I recognised as the ferry coming back from the Hook of Holland, I’ve been on this boat several times, returning home after misadventures and other holidays.
As the light began to fade the ships were lit up and so was the sea as a storm travelled northwards. We saw the lightning and heard the thunder at times but thankfully it didn’t come ashore. By this time the tide was on the turn and it was dark enough for us to switch on head torches to illuminate the rod tips but these weren’t showing much movement. Some other anglers had arrived at dusk and set up some way from us. Thinking back to when we’d walked along earlier this was an area of sand banks and gullies, it looked good but was busy with people at the time, and it would surely appeal to the fish now the sea was covering all these features. Maybe the fish had moved, the bites had certainly dried up for us but going into darkness we told ourselves that we were fishing for something bigger now. Surely if a fish came now it would be a proper one?
We stayed until after ten then packed up and trudged back along the top of the beach towards the car. The other anglers were still in situ but we didn’t disturb them, I hope they had a good night. Back at the cars we agreed it had been a bloody brilliant night getting out of our fishy comfort zones and doing something alien to us. This evening it had ticked all the boxes; the very best company, a secluded beautiful spot, any unnatural sounds drowned by the crash of the waves and interesting fishing with a few catches that were significant to us at least. Giles had set a new PB and I’d set two. I will do this again! I said this after I’d caught Barbel and I said it again after I’d caught a Catfish and so far I haven’t but one requires time I don’t have and a long drive while the other means being surrounded by idiots. This type of fishing is an easy drive, I can do it in an evening and I should be able to find myself a bit of space.