INTERVIEW WITH A LEGEND… “The Jack Bray Story”
With the blue shark anglers having their first productive season for years you start to wonder if things are returning to the good periods of thirty years ago. Just when you think the latest surge in blue sharks must be down to the lack of Spanish longliners harvesting them in mid Atlantic due to fuel costs preventing them doing long runs, along comes the nail in the coffin. The mackerel, having been mercilessly targeted years ago make a comeback, and then the big purse netters clear them out by the metric ton. You figure the increase in blues is down to an increase in baitfish i.e. mackerel. Now the macks look under the cosh again so maybe 2010 really was the last of the good shark years. I was down in Boscastle, standing on the pier looking at yet another westerly 5, wondering why on earth I had bothered investing in a boat if I could never get out. The family were down too as I had already designated the trip as a non fishing three days, and they wanted to drive south in search of better weather. The north coast of Cornwall has the best Porbeagle shark fishing in Europe, but if you can’t get out due to weather, the next best think is to talk about sharks. On the south coast is Looe, home of the British blue shark industry, and also very “touristy”. Maybe a trip there to the Shark Angling Club of Great Britain would give the family some shopping, and me some salvation from north coast weather.
I spent many week long holidays when I was in my late teens fishing out of Looe, and it was 1971 when I was out with my Dad on the “Ganesha” with skipper Ernie Curtis. At that time to get into the club you needed a shark over 75lbs. I weighed in a 76 pounder, and have never been the same since. Worse was to come. In that same year Joyce Yallop broke the British Mako shark record with a mind blowing 500 pounder aboard Alan Dingle’s “Lady Betty”. To be sure that was an injection of enthusiasm that I have never found a cure for. In those days, and the twenty preceding it, all the sharks were hauled up for weighing. At about 5pm with boats lining up by the East Looe quay to offload their catch you could barely find space to walk, the crowds were that enormous. It was a huge buzz, with a macho atmosphere that only the skippers and anglers felt, the majority of people just ogling at the various sized sharks. In the boom years before even I started there it was something like 2000 sharks a year coming in. Walking along the quay now trying to dodge dropped ice cream cones and people forcing chips and burgers down their throats I found it hard to get a picture of the old days. The info I had was that there was a bar there dedicated to angling, but the only place I found was full of ….well, not many keen fishermen, so I decided to not even report on it. The SACGB headquarters that I knew had long since gone, replaced by a modern fish market. The small office on the quay now had some pictures up, but despite my enquiries about the older times/skippers/boats I was just treated as a potential for a boat booking. Most of the people to be fair were too young to even know what I was talking about. I soon left, and walked a few yards along to where the most famous tackle shop of yesteryear was, Jack Bray’s. Right on the quay it was still there, and in the window was a good montage of all the old Looe skippers and the boats they made famous. I felt a strange twinge, as I had fished with a good few of them over the years. Arthur Clements”MAKO”,Alan Dingle “LADY BETTY”(what a great skipper),Ernie Toms “EILEEN”, Bill Butters “PAULA”A.J.Pengelly “OUR DADDY”, Jack Soady “VALHALLA”, Frank Prynn”POLARIS”,though the skipper I knew on Polaris was John Kitto,a wrecking specialist using Decca. As I was writing down the names, a young lady appeared and asked what I was doing. She thought I was a price checker from a competitor’s shop! When I explained at the lack of information and disappointment from my first two enquiries she asked if I would like to talk to a piece of history, Jack Bray’s son, Martin. What a question. Is the Pope catholic??? And the young lady was Jack Bray’s granddaughter, Mattie.
With introductions made, the pen sharpened, and a clean sheet of paper, what I started hearing was music to the ears. I had thought the main publicity machine for the initial blue shark fishing at Looe was the Club. Not so, I learned from Martin. His dad Jack was the main driving force for bringing Looe to the attention of the general public in the 1950’s.The history was fascinating. Jack Bray was a butcher in Looe, as was his father before him as far back as 1890.He soon diversified from this into running cruises on a daily basis, down to Falmouth. This presented problems of needing a central office, so he bought the current premises to operate as a booking office. Jack soon saw the potential of the ordinary man, as opposed to the well heeled gentry, booking boats for shark fishing. The bookings came in so fast that Martin was asked to get out of education ASAP and help out in the shop, which was getting really busy. Then, they used to run at least 12 Cornish boats with the mizzen sails. Superb sea boats, they were excellent for drifting in the south westerly swells. Back then all the skippers had matching jerseys with their names or boats embroidered on the front. It was a throwback to the old sailing days. Jack never went into chartering himself. His job was on land, promoting the sharking potential, and back in !959/60 he took stands at the Earls Court Boat show. Soon royalty were flocking to fish his boats, and while the rich and famous were able to afford a set of Big Game tackle, then around £80 for a full setup, the general public could not. So he purchased the latest and greatest of that era, Hardy Zane Grey Palakona 5 and 6 rods. Hardy 7-inch Fortuna reels. A working man could not
afford to buy a full set of this luxury tackle, so Jack would hire it to them, at £1-50 an outfit. Martin told me they were so busy they would take £300 in a day, just from hiring tackle out. Can imagine the equivalent prices today? A full day’s charter on one of the boats, a full day mind you, was just £8,and when I was there in 1971,my Dad paid the princely sum of £15 to charter the “Ganesha”.A couple of anglers sharking from Jack Bray’s shop would pay just £11 a day, with tackle included. When the “general public” started weighing in some good sharks it didn’t sit too well with some quarters, but by then it was too late. Sharking was available to the masses. Between 1955 and 1965 Martin said it was considered the gold rush years. They simply could not stop taking money from frantic sharkers. He recalls around 6000 being the most sharks in a year he could remember, as by then the ports of Falmouth, Mevagissey, Polperro and Plymouth were all in the frame as well. What I never realised was it was so busy in that decade the shark boats were “double crewed”. Out went the luggers during the day for the shark anglers, then when they returned in the evening another crew fuelled up and went out all night doing pilchard netting. In those days there was a pilchard operation running in Looe full time and it was from here that the skippers got their unlimited supply of pilchards. This little fish, for those who don’t know it, are full of oil, and about the best rubby or chum for attracting sharks you can get. Said Martin-“You have to imagine the entire ocean off Looe was one big oil trail. The netters had been out all night, so there were already sharks tracking the nets as they hauled in and washed down. Then in the day, fifteen to eighteen shark boats went out, and stopped every mile or so after the ten mile mark. It was nothing for them to go through 5 stone of pilchards a day, so there was over 1000lbs of mashed pilchards going into the water, day after day. Many of the sharks must have stayed off the coast all the time”.
The area has always had sharks of course, and years before the angling, men were sent out on the cliffs to spot the vast shoals of pilchards that came right into the bay. They would communicate with the fishermen who crewed 20 foot open boats under oars, and direct them using flags, to the pilchard shoals. They sharks came right in close with the same shoals. One story with Jack Bray is worth reporting, simply because it reflects the Big Game hunter of that era. In 1956 Jack was in the shop when a basking shark came right up the river. Never one to miss an opportunity, Jack ran back in the shop and came out with a harpoon gun, the lanyard of which he tied to a Hardy Palakona Big Game outfit. He harpooned the giant shark, and then fought it on the rod and reel all the way down the river, finally landing it on Looe beach. Now that’s what I call a fishing story, except Martin came out of the tackle shop store with an old black and white print to prove it.13 foot shark, with harpoon and rod and reel beside it!!
The very early sharking days saw numbers of royalty and titled anglers going out in style. They took hampers filled with lobster and champagne, and according to Martin were extremely wealthy people. Two pictures belonging to Martin I had never seen before, and even though in black and white of the era they made extremely envious viewing. Most of us shark nuts have seen Joyce Yallop’s British record Mako hanging up, but Martin has a picture of the monster strapped alongside the “Lady Betty” before it was hauled up on the dock. It reflects the actual awesome size of the head and jaws. Then the other picture is of what must be a one-off I had never heard about. Two big Mako were landed at Looe on the same day. On 31st July 1963 the “Silver Spray” came in with a 313lb fish by skipper Edgar Williams, and Jack Soady aboard the “Valhalla” had a 291 pounder. Both on tackle supplied by Jack Bray. The early days saw a few Porbeagle brought in and claimed as Mako, but final identification of the basal tooth cusp on the beagle, and lack of them with Mako finally saw the amazing numbers of this highest prized fighting shark taken out of Looe, and further westward, at the port of Falmouth, the brothers of Frank and Robin Vinnicombe caught more 300lb Mako than any other skippers. The main reason for the reduced number of sharks as far as Martin can see is the lack of anglers now trying for them. If more boats go out, with bigger chum trails those supreme predators, Blue, Porbeagle, and Mako could still be out there. Maybe I’m living in the past, but having taken Blue, Porbeagle and Thresher from British waters I only have the Mako to go. On the north Cornish coast where “Hi Sea Drifter” goes out (or doesn’t, according to weather), I get through up to 80lbs of mashed trout and bran, but on the other hand I have had a pretty good strike rate on the Porbeagles.So armed with the enthusiasm gained from seeing Jack Bray’s old photos and talking to Martin, I reckon I need to buy a second boat just to take all the mashed fish out!
If you do still fancy a trip out for the sharks, or indeed all the other species on their reef marks, “Hands Deeps”,”Eddystone”,”Brentons”,Philipps Rocks” and the inside mark “Knight Errant” the pollack,ling,conger etc,are all still there. I suggest giving Martin a ring and he might be able to tip you off as to a reputable skipper. He did also inform me that the skipper I got my first qualifying blue with, Ernie Curtis is now a bass specialist fishing round the nearby Looe Island. Wait for this….. He has had catches of thirty bass a session! Now that’s information you would never have known if I hadn’t gone into Jack Bray’s old tackle shop.
Contact-Jack Bray & Son. Martin or Mattie Bray, The Quay. East Looe.Cornwall.PL13 1AL. Tel-01503-262504 or 262677
COPYRIGHT: Graeme Pullen. All rights reserved.