Still thinking the seas around Europe are fished out? Do you reckon the only good fish are to be caught on some distant wreck forty miles out? Have you given up on ever getting some good inshore sport again? Read on, as Graeme Pullen was in the same mindset, that is until he got the chance to fish….


A small boater powers out to the Old Head reef

 I get to fish fairly regularly around the world, and have experienced the deterioration in good general inshore fishing for many species. Aside from the smoothhound which seem to be invading further afield than ever, the vast majority of fish are on the wane. The only decent fishing seems to be when you target a specific species and pull out all the stops to get it. But then, I began to realise there was often only one or two other fish around that you caught as a by-product of your intended quarry. So what happened to those good old days when you went out on a charter boat, and not only did every angler get a good fish, but there would be a variety of species coming over the side. I remember thirty or forty years ago down in the West Country you could drop down the trusty fillet of mackerel and any one of a dozen species would be ready to scoff it down. I now hear anglers talk of going on a long distance charter run to some distant wreck, three double figure Pollack were caught and a couple of pout. That’s in a group. Obviously we must all set our sights a lot lower to be realistic, so imagine my enthusiasm when on a trip to a reef barely half a mile from land I saw more fish caught in one session than I have done for thirty years.

                        The reef in question was actually quite a large area, covered pinnacle reef, broken ground near sand, and strong tides. It was actually off the Old Head of Kinsale in southern Ireland, but I now wonder if the obsession with wreck fishing has lured us too far out to sea, and that the inshore fishing is a lot better than we give it credit for. The Old Head is a peninsula of land jutting out into the southern Ireland for several miles from the mainland, and is easily accessed by larger charter boats from either Courtmacsherry or Kinsale. Or indeed for small boaters who want to launch their own vessels, both ports have slips. In spring tides and a good south westerly gale it isn’t a place for the faint hearted, but when you get that window of opportunity in the weather, you really need to take advantage. I was actually over in Ireland doing the bass inshore, when I had an invite from Mark Gannon aboard the “Lady Louise” to come out wrecking with a group of Dutch clients he had. Having had a couple of wrecking sessions with Mark I was aware it was weather orientated, but apparently some of the inshore wrecks were a bit quiet and his customers just wanted to pull on a few fish. Thus the Old Head system of reefs was going to do us for the day. I was over with son Mike, and he wanted to fish Redgills for Pollack on light gear, while I wanted to see if the small white Sidewinders we had slayed the bass with previously would prove as enticing to the reef fish.

How about Ling well into double figures

                 Tackle was light as Mark would set up a few drifts first to see what was on the bottom. First drop we feathered enough mackerel for anchoring, then we all rigged lures. The Dutch anglers mostly have very long rods, with large fixed spools loaded with braid. I have no idea why they don’t use standard shorter boat rods, but in fairness maybe they do a lot of uptide casting in Holland. All I know is I’ve seen the long rods snap, and certainly seen the fixed spools grind to a halt on big conger. Everyone had different lures on, including plastic worms. The first drift produced a couple of standard reef Pollack of about 6lbs, good enough scrappers in 90 feet of water on the drift. Mark thought he had seen some fish near the bottom of part of the reef, and tracking with his gps set us up on another drift hoping to clip whatever they were. First drop down, a dozen turns and the Sidewinder stops swimming as something engulfs it. No powerhouse dive of the reef Pollock but a good heavy fight on the light rod. “Could be Cod” says Mark, “they’ve been making something of a comeback”. Indeed it was a cod, a speckle-flanked sandy beauty of about 8lbs.Immediate ribbing goes to Mike for his lack of action. Same drift again, and now Mark is putting the “Lady Louise” right over the sounder smudge. My Sidewinder gets nailed again, Mike winds on a Pollack illustrating that whatever was down there ate Redgills as well. The rest of the boat were quiet on the plastic worms and feathers. “Don’t come up high on the retrieve” I told Mike, “just twenty turns then down again to put the lure in the “kill” zone more times”. Three more drifts, two more cod to our rods, then the Dutchies got the fish targeted and Pollack to 8lbs came aboard. The sea was flat, the sun was shining, the fish were obviously biting. What more did we need? “I reckon we may as well drop the anchor on this spot boys, it seems there is some good action here”.                        

Small Shimano TLD,15lb line and a 12lb Ugly Stick rod = A nice Cod for Mike.

                  I watched a commercial potter steam past the Old Head lighthouse, and realised we were barely half a mile from shore. Ideal small boat territory. It would take a 17-footer barely thirty minutes to run to the reef from either port. With the anchor down and “Lady Louise” settled in the tide I mashed up some macks, put in some bran and ran out a single shark line. The Porbeagle shark are always close to shore in Cornwall, I figured it would be worth a shot here. Having hooked up 300 pounders and had a 50lb rod broken on a lunker in 40 feet of water and 100 feet from land, I take every opportunity to run out a shark line. It’s the only way you can ever learn if it’s a good spot, and as long as you run the float back a good forty yards it’s an outfit that is in nobody’s way. The anglers now started to change rigs. Some stayed with the worms, others rigged shads, and some baited pirks for ling. With only a few anglers aboard there was space to “double-rod” it, leaving one 30lb outfit hard on the seabed with a head or whole mackerel for conger, leaving a space to use a 2/3 ounce lead on light tackle and flow it back in the tide to fish for Pollack at the same time. Not that we got time to find the Pollack, as Cod to double figures seemed to pile into everything. As the tide flow slackened I found the integral weight in the Sidewinder was enough to reach the bottom and got fish after fish. It was a good solid fight as the fish had no other lead to tow around. Mike did well on the Redgills for both cod and Pollack, and as we both hooked up at the same time I turned round with a grin to see four other rods folded into hoops as the Dutch contingent piled into the Pollack.

Skipper Mark Gannon with a Cod.They are making a good showing now.

                 Fishing like this just doesn’t happen in real life, yet here we were, a scant 800 yards off the lighthouse with anglers taking wreck sized fish from a standard pinnacle reef area. As the tide started to ease, so the bottom feeders tracked down the source of smell from legered mackerel baits. First came the smaller fish, ling of 4/6lbs,then an 8 pounder on a baited pirk(the longer Dutch rods are actually better for pirking as they sweep the lure through a longer area).My own bottom rod started nodding as I fought another 8lb Pollack. Mike’s started going at the same time. This was ridiculous, we were getting swamped! I boated the Pollack, stood the rod down and hauled up the bottom rod. It came up solid as below a conger writhed and twisted as it tried to gain leverage in a rock crevice with its tail. Fortunately unrelenting rod pressure did the job and the characteristic “twanging” on the tip indicated he was coming in my direction. Mike’s fish was more dour, a few head-shaking thumps and then just a heavy haul. I had a 25lb conger break surface and do a high speed spin in an effort to throw the hook, Mike had a low double figure ling belly up at the side of the boat. Behind me, Mark was going from angler to angler either trying to break snagged conger out of the reef, or unhooking them with dexterity of a skipper who has done it a thousand times before.”Be with you in a minute lads” was all he said. I fully expected a Porbeagle of 200lb to swim alongside the boat and take my shark line. Many times conger are supposed to feed at slack tide, and this seemed to be the case on the reef.


Keep your baits hard on the bottom and the Old Head Conger will find them

                   As soon as the flood tide started, the ling, if anything, fed harder, and the Dutch anglers harvested them with a view on the frying pan that night. At slack tide you often find the Pollack go off the feed, and we lost the cod completely, not so much because of no tidal flow, but I believe we had swung 180 degrees at anchor and had moved off the mark. Quite why the cod were balled up on this particular section of reef is unknown, but Mark said they were getting as many of this species over rough ground, as on the offshore wrecks. As the tide straightened the “Lady Louise” out, I used an old tip from Pollack anglers. Take a long belly strip of fresh mackerel, tapering it towards the tail, and put a split in it to give movement. Cut the thicker end to a tapered point and tie it to the eye of the hook so it doesn’t fold down to the bend of the hook and make the bait spin. This bait should have all excess meat trimmed off so it is flat and hanging dead straight on the hookshank.You can use the same flowing trace of 8 feet, flying collar boom, but change the lead to as light as you can without getting other anglers lines. Drop down to the bottom, hit the seabed, and then wind up about ten turns. Enough to keep the mackerel belly fluttering about ten feet off the seabed. Put the ratchet on, leave the reel out of gear and rest the rod down. Now is the time for tea and sarnies, but many times you don’t even get a bite on your sandwich before a Pollack bites on the fillet. The ratchet will shriek out. Simply flip the reel in gear, pop the ratchet off and start winding. Nearly always, a better than average Pollack will find this to his liking, and that’s exactly what happened as I boated a Pollack just into double figures. Mike did the same rig, but used a red Firetail plastic worm on flowing trace. It just fluttered in the gaining strength of the tide, and within ten minutes the rod was away and his sandwich got tossed over the side. So much for having a relaxing tea break!

                   Now came decision time as with the new tide came the feeding bottom species. Did we stop bottom fishing and stick to the Pollack and cod, or stop lure fishing, and try to get all the bait bites converted into fish on the deck? Of course we all got greedy and the fish got dropped on half-wound lures as you tried to grab a conger bite before it crept into a craggy hole. Or you laid the Pollack rod down to strike a Ling and a Pollack decides to head for the horizon almost taking the rod over. Have you ever seen an angler try to fight two different fish on two outfits at the same time? Take my tip, leave the Pollack to free swim, and get the conger up first. Then just give the lot to Mark to unhook while you haul the Pollack back up!  I also made a mental note of exactly what rigs caught the most species, especially with regard to the lures used. There was no doubt that the cod liked those small white Sidewinders over the other lures, as it must represent small baitfish they predate on. For the Pollack it was pretty much a toss up between Sidewinder and Redgills. Pollack feed on Sandeel naturally, but they couldn’t resist the white Sidewinder. I tried other colours, but they were not as effective. Strange how a couple of days previously we had hammered the bass and they liked the simplest, plainest colour. As the saying goes, lures often catch more anglers than fish. For the Redgills, black was easily the best colour. Next in line of trophies for best lures would be plastic worms, but these fished better with a slow retrieve, under slower tidal conditions.Finally,some of the Dutch had either feathers or straight plastic tubing as a sandeel. These were nowhere near as effective. On the bottom fishing, the Ling found a pirk with thin mackerel fillets on each prong of the treble to their liking, perhaps edging out the legered baits. As for conger they sloped across the seabed to snaffle any half macks or head and guts that were anchored on the seabed. Now here’s tip. Those anglers using a weight maybe a tad too heavy for the tidal conditions got their eels snagged up more than those using leads just light enough to tow the bait down to the bottom. I believe as the conger moves off it trundles the heavier lead into any snags. This creates resistance to them; they spook, and lock their tail into a crevice as they feel the restriction on movement. With the lighter lead as the conger picks it up and moves off the lighter lead is slighter off the seabed and snags less. Only a theory, but here is a really good tip. You hook a conger, crank down and the lot goes solid. The eel has backed up into a cave or creive, locked its impressively strong tail around something and even with 50lb line, he ain’t coming out. Rather than immediately pull for a break, stand the rod down, slack off, and have a cup of tea. Give it at least five minutes. Sometimes the conger will swim out on its own, giving an indication on the rod tip. More often than not its muscles relax. All you need do is take the line from the rod tip,handline down until you feel tension, then haul hand-over-hand and by applying maximum pressure(more by hand than you could pull with a rod),the eel will be off the seabed in seconds. Then grab the rod, crank like crazy and get tight so you have full pressure on the rod. Its worth a try as if you break out you have to spend five minutes setting up again and still have to wait for the next bite.                    

Mike with a fat Pollack on light tackle.

                     If we thought the fishing was good on the ebb and over the slack, then the early flood proved better. I don’t think in forty years or so of sea fishing I have ever seen such a huge amount of fish come off one area of rock. The Old Head is renowned as a good mixed fishing area, and I have heard of Coalfish well into double figures coming from it. I believe it can only be the action of the tide. Just slightly out from the main outcrops lies some broken ground, and here Mark has found a spot for big Common Skate. Not sixty pounders, but giant flatties running over the ton and a half mark. Enough to put a bend in a 30lb rod for an hour if you can’t get them off the sand. As the Dutch group eased off on the Pollack lure fishing and concentrated on bait then the conger fishing got more hectic. I saw twenties coming over the side, unhooked, photographed and returned by Mark. Several thirties were in there, one of which I was fortunate enough to drag out from under a rock after it snagged up. The only piece of tackle that went unused was the Porbeagle shark rod. And it was probably just as well. With several fish boxes of prime cod, Pollack and ling aboard (all the conger are returned), it was time to pull anchor and head for home. The only drawback I had was the thought that I never dropped down small hooks to see what was there. Could have been the elusive Red Bream, or even a big Coalfish.However,a single day of prime rock fishing close to shore had given us a catch that any wreck boat would have been delighted with, yet we only worked a scant half mile or so from the lighthouse. It just makes you wonder if a lot of boats are steaming over the better inshore fishing, burning fuel, yet catching less. One thing is for sure. All aboard will be looking forward to the next trip to……”The Ultimate Reef”.

Charter boat contact-Mark Gannon email:

COPYRIGHT: Graeme Pullen. All rights reserved.