When I heard on the grapevine at work that they were organising a trip to Scotland for a few days, I just had to find out more. The location was a sea loch, it had my interest immediately!. The location turned out to be Lochalsh, so I started doing a little research regarding its fishing potential. Disappointingly there’s very little information regarding fishing in Lochalsh itself. I found the odd mention here and there, mentions of plenty of mackerel throughout the loch and pollack close in. The loch itself is over 100m deep in places, surely this venue could hold some Common Skate?. I eventually swapped a few emails with some local fisherman, though the feedback wasn’t exactly great.
As I’d already read, the general opinions were that I could expect mackerel and pollack with the chance of Thornback ray. This wasn’t what I was wanting to hear at all!. Lochalsh is not too far north of the favoured Common Skate grounds, the Sound of Jura. Sunart is closer still and has a decent record of producing these fish. The depth was good, the sea floor muddy in places, I saw no reason why Lochalsh should not hold a resident population of Common Skate.
With this in mind I’d decided to exclusively target Common Skate for the duration of my trip, another rod would be taken to enable me to catch mackerel for bait should they be present.
The drive from Somerset to Lochalsh is a particularly long one, a problem compounded by the fact our transport was speed limited to 62mph!. The journey time worked out at over thirteen hours, fortunately we had four suitably qualified drivers within the minibus. The scenery during the latter part of the journey is simply stunning, the Munros in particular.
The scenery around Lochash itself is also quite breath taking, there are certainly far worse places to spend a break!. From a fishing standpoint the base location was perfect, it was only 40-50m to trolley the kayak to the waters edge, followed by a mile or two paddle to the chosen fishing grounds. As mentioned earlier, I chose one of the deepest parts of the loch that featured a muddy sea floor to target the Common Skate.
I’d intended to fish for Common Skate a couple of years ago and I’d purchased some suitable tackle at the time. These fish can surpass 200lb in weight so heavy tackle is essential. My chosen rod was a Penn Powerstix Pro 30/50 loaded with 50lb Spiderwire braid line and a 200lb monofilament rubbing leader. I was expecting to have to use weights up to 2lb due to the depth and potential tidal flow. However, the tide flow turned out to be minimal and I was able to get away using a maximum of a pound of lead.
I’d researched Skate traces some time ago and decided to stick to a simple setup. Basically it’s a very short running ledger setup with the traces being 24” long and constructed from 250lb monofilament line. Swivels were 80lb items and a short boom was used to help prevent tangles. The hook was a 12/0 bronzed Mustad hook, the barb was crushed to aid quick unhooking and release, crimps were heavy duty double barrel items from Leadertec.
I’d not taken any bait with me, the plan was to catch fresh mackerel by feathering from the kayak, worst case scenario would mean purchasing some frozen bait locally. It was a risk as it meant my first trip afloat could be a total failure had I been unable to catch some mackerel, fortunately this was not the case.
My first session saw me launch at around 6pm into a light wind, conditions were near perfect. I’d taken the precaution to liberally coat myself in Midge repellent as it was evident that these highly unpleasant small flies were present in large numbers!
The paddle to my chosen mark was a highly pleasant one, I could quite happily paddle for several hours enjoying the surrounding scenery, something I did in fact do during the day prior to heading out to fish in the evening.
I monitored the depth closely and positioned myself in just under 100m of water. The locals fish this area quite heavily for prawns and as a result there are many large pot buoys in the area I’d chosen to fish. I had taken along my deep water anchor reel, though as it turned out I was able to tie off to a pot buoy. I wasn’t complaining as I really didn’t fancy retrieving 200-300m of anchor warp by hand at the end of a long session!.
I’d picked up some mackerel during my scenic paddle earlier in the day, at first they seemed a little difficult to locate, though once found they were coming up four at a time. The mackerel were rather small, though they were ok for bait. Depending on the size, I was putting 2-3 mackerel on the hook. I did find lowering the bait to the sea floor rather amusing. I’d put the reel into free spool before tidying up the kayak, storing loose items, having a drink, etc. By this time the bait was perhaps two thirds of the way to the sea floor!
One thing that surprised my whilst carrying out extensive reading regarding fishing for Common Skate, was the fact that its bite can at times be extremely light, barely a tap. After a couple of hours bobbing around quietly the rod tip twitched twice in quick succession. The reason for the short trace it not only to prevent tangles, it avoids deep hooking the fish if you strike quickly at the first indication of a bite. At this point, all this is purely theoretical, however, now was the time to put all this research to the ultimate test!
I tightened up and pulled into the fish, a heavy weight was immediately apparently and several metres of line was instantly stripped from the reel. All then went quiet as the fish settled hard onto the bottom. It was a case of tightening the drag hard and leaning heavily into the fish. It was 3-4 minutes before I managed to break the fish off the sea bed, I was then able to begin the arduous task of pumping the fish to the surface. It’s hellish work, have no doubt about that, after ten minutes the fish was perhaps two thirds of the way up and my back was beginning to complain!. After about fifteen minutes the leader knot came into view and I was eagerly anticipating my first ever view of a Common Skate.
These fish are truly enormous, monsters of the deep. My first thought was that I’d bitten off more than I could chew, the bigger concern was what I was actually going to do with this fish once alongside!. As I retrieved that last couple of metres the leader knot worked its way down the rod rings onto the spool. The fish surfaced, took one look at me, and in the blink of an eye managed to carry out a full 180 degree turned before plunging to the depths. I wasn’t fully aware of this at the time due to the fish moving under the nose of the kayak, the video cam made this all too apparent later that night. As the fish dived hard line began to strip from the reel causing the large leader knot to work its way noisily back through the rings. The pressure of the line pulling through the ring liners proved too much for the outer whipping on my Albright knot and after 4-5 rings the leader knot parted. Needless to say I was rather speechless at this moment in time, this is all too evident in the short video clip below.
With the sun setting behind the mountains and my arms and back complaining, I decided to call it a night, after all there was always tomorrow.
It’d been clear that I lost that fish due to the leader knot fouling the rod rings, the knot itself was more than up to the job, though I needed to keep it clear of the rod rings. I rigged up a new leader using the same Albright knot as used before. However, I shortened the leader considerably putting the trace was within handling distance whilst the leader knot was 2-3” short of the tip ring. The idea was sound, though I’d only know if this would prove to be effective should I hook into another skate… roll on tomorrow.
As per the previous day I spent several hours paddling the local area, making the most of the stunning scenery. One particularly scenic spot is Eilean Donan Castle, famous for its appearance in the movie Highlander, as well as many other notable movies over the years.
At around 7pm I launched into Lochalsh once more in the hope of hooking into another large common Skate.
It was another fantastic evening to be afloat and I was fortunate the have the company of a couple of dolphins for a few minutes. The evening before a seal swam over to check me out, tonight another seal appeared at the same stage of the tide. Oddly enough it’d been around the same state of the tide that I’d hooked into the skate the night before. Amazingly, moments later there was a light tap at the rod tip. With the cameras switched on I quickly tightened the line and was pleasantly surprised to find myself hooked into yet another skate!
It seemed a little easier to break this fish off the sea floor and I was soon hauling the fish towards the surface. As per the previous day is was the best part of fifteen minutes before I caught sight of the fish. It seemed to be a replay of the earlier encounter, the fish making a sharp 180 degree turn and plummeting back to the depths. However, this time I was better prepared, the leader knot had been well clear of the rod rings. I hung on tight as the fish dived hard back to the sea floor. I wont lie, after hauling a large fish 100m to the surface, it’s most demoralising to watch the fish strip line as it swims back the full 100m back to the sea floor.
This wasn’t a good state of affairs, though when it happened a second time I was far from impressed!. When it happened for a third time I felt that I was staring defeat in the face. My body was aching all over and I truly did have the urge to quit. However, on it’s fourth dive it ran out of steam at around 40-50m, I’d broken its strength. That said it’d sapped most of mine, so I guess things were still quite evening matched.
I used a quick release system on the buoy rope, a quick tug of the rope and I could slip away from the anchor buoy if required. As it happened I needed to release from the buoy whilst playing the skate. I’d been quickly pulled side onto the choppy sea and I wasn’t feeling too comfortable whilst trying to play a large fish!. The photos below show the quick release setup.
The fish made 7-8 dives in total before I finally managed to bring it alongside, though it’d been an enormous struggle from start to finish. If that wasn’t bad enough, the video cam on my extendable cam mount had filled its memory card to capacity and gone offline. I made the choice to swap it for the cam from upfront on the Panfish mount as the side view was what I really wanted. I made a mental note to empty the memory card after each session in the future!. Swapping cams whilst playing a large skate is not something I’d recommend!
There were a couple of interesting moments as the fish came alongside. The fish appeared to be beaten, though made it quite clear that it wasn’t!!. Unbeknown to me, with the fish secured alongside the last video camera suffered battery failure, fortunately I’d captured what I needed to. The fish was carefully unhooked and released to fight another day. With a flick of its wings the skate did a 180 degree flip and plunged hard into the darkness.. superb!.
It’d only taken an hour!
With the sun below the horizon I’d achieved my mission. The bar was due to shut in thirty minutes so I slipped away from the pot buoy and made best speed back for land,… having made the return in record time I duly celebrated with a couple of large Drambuie’s.
As mentioned, the capture of the skate was recorded on video. Below is some heavily edited footage, though it’s still fourteen minutes in length. Make a cuppa, switch it to full screen and select 720HD. There’s the odd profanity… a combination of excitement and frustration!
I’ve since taken a frame from some film footage and have been able to ascertain the size of the fish. The GoPro footage compresses the image rather a lot, it doesn’t exactly appear as a 13’ kayak in the above video footage!. However, measuring from the video footage up against the kayak, the wingspan was 70-72”. Using a Common Skate weight chart the female fish weighed in at 190lb, which for me at least, is a cracking weight!