A hair-raising day’s angling in Clew Bay

Outdoor Living

HAPPY DEEP DOWN Cuckoo Wrasse occur in weedy, rocky areas, mostly between 20 and 80 metres below the surface.  Pic: geograph.org.uk/©Des Colhoun (cc-by-sa/2.0)

Mysterious, banqueting beasts from the deep, and more

Country Sights and Sounds
Michael Kingdon

We were promised good weather. That was what Padraic said. Slack winds and a quiet tide, that was what the day would bring. And there’d be cod, he had confidently added, knowing well that even the hint of a proper Atlantic cod would get me on the move. And so it was.
‘The Bay’, as he called it, was sheltered from the prevailing westerlies by a long, broken, grass-topped finger of granite pointing in the general direction of America. The water within it was glassy, cold-looking, and filled with gulls. I should have known as soon as I saw them; there was a reason they were there, rather than on the open ocean or spread along the several miles of shore that separated us from civilisation.
At the seaward end of that granite finger waves leapt upon the rocks one after another, roaring and crashing and exploding into house-high clouds of froth and foam. ‘Doesn’t look too bad,’ said Padraic.
There was no wind. We had that bit right. The reason there was none, I later surmised, was because it was all out in the middle of the ocean, concentrated to form something like a tornado where giant waves were being generated and sent shoreward to ruin our day.
Anybody who has put a show-jumper over fences will have an idea as to the conditions we faced on rounding the headland. But this was no easy gallop between one prodigious leap and the next. Oh no, this rapidly became as an elasticated horse bounding over twelve-foot gates one after another, with not a stride between one and the next. I forced myself to look straight ahead – had I looked up or down my eyes would have been out.
With a great deal of effort we managed to get baits into the water, where we found the fish in the most obliging frame of mind. Some nice pollock near as long as my arm joined us aboard. Many lesser ones went back to grow a bit, while a succession of beautifully coloured cuckoo wrasse made our time more interesting. The male cuckoo wrasse is a splendid creature, with hot orange fins around a body of bright blue.
Wrasse do not react well to the changes in barometric pressure brought about by being winched up from the depths and are unlikely to survive such misadventure. We tried to return those with only moderate symptoms, yet found them unable to dive beneath the surface. We’d rather not have caught them at all. The cod we sought did turn up, although it was apparently alone. Still, it was dinner. And could there be anything finer than a really fresh fillet of cod? That evening we found the flesh sweet and meaty, comprised of thick flakes of brightest white that made our temporary discomfort more than worthwhile.
There was something else in the deep as well. Many times I felt a steady weight on my line which would let go before I wound it halfway in. What could these creatures be?
Fishermen and anglers are endowed with formidable tenacity (yes, we’re obstinate). If there was some unknown creature helping itself to my bait then I just had to know what it was. We concentrated on bringing one of these mysterious, banqueting beasts to the boat.
Large fish baits delivered to the seabed were given immediate attention. There would be a few gentle pulls and a dragging weight, then long before we got to see what was there it would let go again. Then by chance one became impaled on my hook. It was an octopus. The sea must have been full of them that day.
Knowing octopus to be a delicacy (of a sort), I was sorely tempted to bring this fellow home, where I’d chop off his arms and marinade them in vinegar. He was charming though, and there was no way I could bring myself to harm the poor fellow. He sat alongside and held my hand with five or six of his own, flashing red and grey as if trying to tell me something until I swore I’d let him go.
Besides, this was Eledone cirrhosa, the curled octopus, with a single row of suckers along each tentacle. Far more desirable is the larger common octopus, Octopus vulgaris, which has two rows of suckers and is large, meaty and flavoursome.
I never had a dull day at sea. I can’t wait to go again, when the day is right.

Michael Kingdon formerly wrote these columns under the pseudonym John Shelley. A naturalist and keen fisherman, he lives close to the shores of Lough Carra.