I have always been taken by the concept of longlining. It is practised commercially in the east coast fisheries for rays and cod, but I have seldom heard of pot-fishers practising it, which is a shame. I remember very clearly my cousin, at the age of 10 or less, coming back from his annual holiday to stay with his godfather in Jersey; usually there were tales of fishing, and I was mildly intrigued. But this time there was a story that I just couldnâ€™t believe until I saw the photos. Â An 11lbsea bass, on a â€˜nightlineâ€™. As if this wasnâ€™t enough, this was followed up by a 20lb conger the next night!
Mike explained the rudimentary principles to me, 10 year old to 10 year old, and I was desperate to try it. A set of baited hooks left low tide to low tide. Unfortunately my local estuary, the Essex Blackwater, is so full of weed that I couldnâ€™t even work out how to fish it using rod and line. The idea has been at the back of my mind ever since.
So we all know the feeling of living out our childhood ambitions as grownups. Well, a few years ago my mother bought a few holiday chalets to run as a business to see her through retirement – next to a sea loch with a beach, with an 800m hill just behind. Essentially, it is a play ground for the grownup child. The first winter I visited, I looked out of her window and saw against the moon a woodcock drop into a stand of oaks. An exploratory walk out with my cocker spaniel, Bugsy, the next day showed me over 20 birds on no more than 60 acres. Subsequently, I have stalked deer, caught plenty of salmon, had multiple awesome trips to the hill lochs, and generally messed around in boats.
But one of the best things is the sandy beach in front of the chalets. It was on a trip out there to harvest spoots (razor clams to the English), that I had a thought. I noticed the gulleys that were evident on the edge of the sand bank at a very low tide, and imagined the food that might gather along the ridges as the tide ran. Surely there would be fish cruising these. What would they be? No idea really, Bass didnâ€™t come this far; I had caught plenty of Pollock here, but not much else, and they tend to be clinging to the kelpy rocks, chasing fry and sandeels. Surely something would run along here. I dared to think sea trout, and although I have since seen them around the loch (a guest caught one on what I can only call a toy spinning rod), I have never caught one that far into the loch.
So I set up a longline. I had seen these being worked from boats in Suffolk, and I knew the principles of what to do. A longline of say 120 feet with 20 hooks on was what I opted for. I started with quite a chunky braid as the hooklength, and fairly substantial hooks, certain I was to catch one of the rays in the loch. I had read about how to set one. Dead easy. An anchor at each end with a buoy. Coil the line up with sheets of newspaper between the hooks, and chuck it over the side as the boat backs off. But what for bait?
There are lugworm casts like you wouldnâ€™t believe on that beach. If you have never tried digging between the cast and the nearest divet in the sand, do so. They really are there! We can dig some that are 10â€ long, and we get black, yellow and all sorts. They would definitely be the right bait. Twenty minutes later, and we had plenty.
I have never had quite such a big argument in a boat as I had with my brother that day. Turns out it just isnâ€™t that easy to set. We returned to shore with a tangled mess, and angry, red faces.
By the next low tide, the line was untangled, Â I had resolved to don the Ocean chest waders, and set it by hand. Much easier! So clear is the water, I could see to set the line over the undulating sandy ridges, and the hooks fluttering in the tide looked very tempting.
Now I donâ€™t know if youâ€™ve ever pulled a lobster pot, or dragged a behemoth of a fish from a deep wreck, or waited to see if the salmon youâ€™ve hooked is a big brute of a cock fish, or a silver hen, but the excitement of seeing what comes up is second to none if you have hunting in your blood.
This was a moment Iâ€™d waited for since I was 10. We positioned the boat, and managed to hook the attached buoy first pass. As I held the boat steady in the current, brother Nick hauled the line. Nothing, nothing, nothing, but empty hooks. Until about halfway. Up came a brown, fluttering shape, twisting and diving. It was a flounder, about 1.5lbs, and it was one of the most memorable fish I have caught! There was another, smaller flounder around a pound.
I processed the fish, and produced eight of the nicest little white fish fillets Iâ€™d seen for a while. I fried the fish in butter and oil, and cooked a cream and white wine sauce, with spoots and mussels and brown shrimps, all collected from the loch. At that moment, you could have offered me a table at Boisedales in exchange and Iâ€™d have turned it down.
I have experimented since, with smaller hooks and used beads on the light Dacron hooklength. These have proven even more successful, though my latest plan of setting it with rubber eels is yet to be tried. I look forward to every spring in the Highlands to see what the longline can produce. If you havenâ€™t tried it, I urge you to have a go.