There are rich fishing opportunities to explore around the thousands of shipwrecked vessels that lie off the British coastline, says Tobias Coe
Tobias Coe delves into the world of shipwreck fishing, and finds out what you need to know before you give it a go.
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WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT SHIPWRECK FISHING
Earlier this summer it was announced that the Royal warship of King James II (at the time the Duke of York), HMS Gloucester, had been found off the coast of Norfolk. It sank in 1682 after striking a sandbank and went down within an hour of running aground. Initially discovered in 2007, it has taken 15 years to confirm HMS Gloucester’s identity and protect the site. As a confirmed wreck, she joins a list of thousands of others around the shores of the UK and more than three million worldwide.
These wrecks stretch back through centuries of maritime history and since sinking beneath the waves, they have begun their second life thanks to the forces of nature and the sea. Upon reaching the seabed a ship becomes structure and habitat in what can often be large, featureless expanses of rock, gravel and sand. As nature gradually claims the ship, it becomes colonised by a huge range of organisms, slowly adding natural structure on top of the anthropogenic creation of wood or steel. Some of these, like corals and bryozoans (colonies of simple, sessile invertebrates), grow on the surface of the ship itself. Small fish are drawn to the cover and shelter from tidal flows and predators that the structure presents. From here, a whole ecosystem grows up around the former ship, topped off by the presence of apex predators – fish species such as cod, ling, conger eel and pollack.
As any angler will know, the simple reason for this is that fish are drawn to structure. Even a novice angler knows to look to the overhanging branches of a tree when casting a dry-fly for trout, or the large rock breaking the surface in the middle of a run when swinging a fly for salmon. For fish, the presence of structure often means two things: food and safety, and a shipwreck provides both of these in abundance. For decades sea anglers have targeted the populations of large predatory fish that are drawn to wrecks; the structure they create effectively concentrates what might otherwise be dispersed populations of large fish. I am one of those anglers and have spent more than my fair share of days drifting back and forth over a wreck resting on the sea floor some 200ft or more below my feet.
LAND A LEVIATHAN
A friend of mine who sea-fishes a lot, with a focus on lure fishing for bass, asked me a few years ago why I bothered fishing wrecks. His take on this type of fishing is that it just involves drifting around in the middle of nowhere, jerking a lure up and down with no requirement for any true skill. In my experience, this is a woeful misunderstanding of this style of fishing. While it is true that the gear used is necessarily heavy, there are subtle nuances to wreck fishing, just as there are with any other type of fishing.
By way of proof, one of my regular wreck-fishing buddies has been fishing this way far longer than me and also fishes wrecks far more regularly than I do. Without fail, when out for a day on the water he will often land the biggest fish of the day and regularly catches more fish as well. This is true even if we are fishing the same baits or lures. There are subtleties as to how a lure or pirk is fished, even at the kind of depths one is fishing when targeting wrecks, and these translate into more fish landed.
One particular knack that this friend seemingly possesses is the ability to hook more ‘unseen monsters’ than the rest of us on the boat. This for me is one of the most exciting aspects of fishing a wreck – the unpredictability of what you might hook and the potential to tangle with a true leviathan. When fishing a trout stream, the fish that one would expect to hook are relatively predictable. It will be trout and, depending on the river in question, possibly a few grayling. On the odd occasion, one of the silver tourists may decide to join in the fun, but this is a rarity and in reality is only a genetic hop and a jump from the target species in question.
When wreck fishing, the complete opposite is true. I have lost count of the number of times we have been drifting over a wreck, working pirks or lures around the structure, when one of our rods has hooped over and the line started peeling off the drag as a very large fish headed back to the structure of the wreck. Sometimes we have been lucky and managed to stop the fish before it reached safety; however, there are some fish that are just unstoppable, even when fishing with a 30lb boat rod and 40lb to 50lb braid. It’s difficult to say what these unseen monsters are; however, our guess is generally very large cod or ling, borne out by the fact that when we do manage to stop one of them and turn the unseen into a seen monster, the culprit is often a large ling.
Big-fish bragging stories aside, wreck fishing also has the potential for genuine ‘wow’ moments when out on the water. These can be magical moments like a pod of dolphins escorting you on the ride out in the morning, pilot whales spy-hopping around the boat or bluefin tuna busting bait in a flurry of activity on the surface.
Equally, there are catches that occasionally leave one a bit dumbfounded. I have had a handful of these happen over the years and in all cases only when the fish in question has come to the surface has its identity become clear. The first catch was a good few years ago, when one of my fellow anglers on the boat hooked something that felt heavy, with the odd small ‘tick’ up the line suggesting it was something alive rather than debris from the bottom. Eventually, what came to the surface appeared to be a large brown dustbin lid. With orange spots. Somehow, he had managed to hook a plaice just behind its head with a pirk, either by complete fluke or because the fish had swiped at the lure and hooked itself in the process. The most amazing thing was the fish’s size. It weighed 7lb 6oz, which when considering that the British record (caught in 1974) is 10lb 3oz, gives an idea of just how enormous a fish it was.
The second catch, even more bizarre, was when my wife came out with us for the day. As a non-angler, she ended up hooking the wreck a good few times, losing lures in the process, and my tutelage seemed to do little to stop the steady stream of lures disappearing over the side, never to come back up to the boat. Eventually she hooked something while (by her own admission) simply dragging a pirk along the seabed. Like the plaice, whatever she had hooked didn’t do very much and when it reached the surface confused us for a few seconds. Finally the penny dropped that she had somehow managed to hook a monkfish. This is a fairly unusual catch on rod and line, but when it is caught it typically falls to large baits like mackerel. For the fish in question to have fallen for a pirk, the lure must have virtually bumped it on the nose and elicited a predatory strike. A veritable one-in-a-million catch.
DO IT YOURSELF
If this all sounds like it could be fun, the question you might be asking is how to go about fishing a wreck. Fairly obviously, a fundamental first step is access to a boat, and a knowledge of which wrecks to fish and when is also key. While it is relatively easy to find wrecks on something like wrecksite.eu, the quality of fishing can vary hugely from wreck to wreck and so local knowledge cannot be beaten. For this reason, unless you are planning to get into this type of fishing in a big way, hiring a local guide is a good shortcut. There are plenty of charter boats that offer wreck fishing around the UK. A quick search on the internet will point you in the right direction. In terms of where to go, there are wrecks around the entirety of the UK; however, I have a bias towards the south coast of Devon and Cornwall, and there are a vast number of wrecks in the English Channel – a legacy predominantly of the two world wars.
For a long time, the limitations of fishing tackle meant that wreck fishing was somewhat crude and required the use of heavy rods, thick monofilament line and very large leads often weighing up to 1lb or more, in order to get bait or lures down to the wreck beneath. Innovations in fishing tackle, particularly the invention of braid fishing lines and carbon-fibre rods means that a typical set-up for a day of wreck fishing can now be comparatively light.
Most of my wreck fishing is done with 20lb or 30lb boat rods, paired with either a high-quality lever drag or spinning reel, filled with good quality braid of around 40lb to 50lb breaking strain. My favoured lure tends to be either a pirk or jig (generally around 6oz to 12oz in weight), or if fishing for pollack, a soft-plastic lure on a tube-boom rig. It may sound quite obvious, but it is critical that the lure or bait is right down near the wreck, so make sure that whatever you are using is heavy enough to get down quickly to the wreck. The weight required will change throughout the day as the tide and wind change, as will the preferences of the fish, so don’t just tie on one lure at the start of the day and leave it on until the engine is fired up for the journey back to port. With luck you will catch your own leviathan of the deep.