It’s a species of fish that looks like no other. It grows to a huge size, and hunts by swimming along the seabed waiting to ambush its prey with a mouth that springs shut like a bear trap. Thirty years ago it was one of the most popular species caught in shallow Irish waters. It’s flat, and is like a cross between a giant flatfish and a shark. Graeme Pullen looks back in his archives to report on a species that looks like a sea bed mugger, by starting some…..
Many years ago, too many years I fear, I was something of a Monkfish enthusiast. For here was a fish that was big, growing in excess of 60lbs in weight, and could be caught in sheltered waters. In fact, now I think about it, every single fish I caught came from estuarine or bay waters that were sheltered from the main force of the open Atlantic. Unfortunately for the Monkfish, it has gained a reputation among gourmets in Europe as having tail meat that is as good as (some say better) than lobster. But the “Monkfish” you are most likely to find on the restaurant menu is actually the Angler fish. Virtually a swimming mouth, of insignificant sporting value for anglers, and is lies on the seabed, waving a long ,slender antennae over its mouth with what looks like a fishing lure on the end. In effect that is just what it is, and the moment a small fish swims up to the lure for an inspection, the jaws open and close with a snap, and the fish is down the hatch. They generally grow 8 /20lbs around British waters, but the biggest I could find mention of weighed a staggering 200lbs .However, the trawling that goes on for the Angler fish commercially, still has a by catch of Monkfish, but this latter species is otherwise known as the Angel shark, and the meat from its tail, together with the Angler fish, is often lumped together as “Scampi”. To be honest, if its cooked and presented properly does it ever matter? Food is food. But the Monkfish the anglers want to catch is the flat varietry.Averaging possibly 30lbs; it has a fairly selective area if you want to target them. I recall forty years ago some were caught by anglers around the Isle of Wight, but perhaps they are such slow growers that they never came back from commercial pressure. There are always a few caught off the Sussex coastline, with a 60-pounder being top fish.
However, the Angler Fish, often called mistakenly Monlkfish,could be the real weightmaster,as the largest of these bear-trap jaw specimens I could track down was taken in 2010 by a Rose-of-Sharon trawler working the Labadie Bank, some 80 miles south of Cork harbour. It had an astonishing gutted-out weight of 122lbs, and was estimated to weigh around 150lbs as a whole fish. In the States the Angler fish is now the highest value finfish, so important that scientists from NOAA have been targeting them with an extensive tagging programme. They want to find out if there are two different populations and are now working with commercial fishermen to plant electronic tags on hundreds of the species. Each recapture offers the chance of a $500 reward. They have already tagged 150 specimens, and the electronic tags, about the size of AAA batteries, are surgically implanted under the skin, sending back recordings of temperature, depth and time, every ten minutes. The fact that the Angler fish is also found at depth is no problem as the tags have been shown to work up to 6000 feet deep.
Or own Monkfish in contrast have a flat body, looking like an elongated Skate, but with two large, partially detached pectoral fins sticking out from the side of the body. The back is a sandy colour, perfectly camouflaged for pouncing and hunting, and it is thought they eat mostly other flatfish, crabs and molluscs. The distribution ranges from the north-eastern Atlantic right down to the Canary Islands, though the specimens we have had there look considerably lighter and may be a sub-species. There is no doubt they like shallow water, but they can still be commercially targeted up to 450 feet deep. The reason thought for their fondness of the shallows is that of partially submerging themselves in the sand for ambushing their prey, but this can surely be done as easily in deep water. I feel they like the shallow depths of estuaries and bays purely because these are the areas of greatest concentration for flatfish and crabs, their main food source. While they may carry an average weight of 30lbs,they can be targeted by anglers with light tackle.
When I say light, I mean light rods, in the 6 to 20lb class, with 12lb class being a good size, but definitely keep the line strength above 20lbs, with 30lbs better. Depths will only be 30 feet or less, so keep your leads light, and you could be in for a slug-it-out battle. They don’t rush off like a tope, and very often you can ease them up of the sea bed without them knowing. But once they do wake up to the fact they are on the way to the boat, watch out, as they can explode in a flurry of foam on the surface, and head right back down again. On the lighter rods you can bend them double without fear of snapping, and using light line is totally pointless. You’ll need to rig up a straight running leger. Clements boom, six foot trace of at least 80lb mono, or 50lb cabled wire like Sevenstrand Duratest.Now they can be taken on small hooks and baits, but target them like this and you’ll invariably spend the day plagued by Dogfish, which also like the same area. Better to use a large bait like a whole mackerel, tail, or mackerel flapper (the best), and try to lob the baits away from the boat. The bites when they come will invariably be just a change of angle or direction of the line, with occasional nodding of the rod tip. The Monkfish will snaffle the bait, and then I believe they are off to try and find some more food which is why you often get peculiar bites. Just wind down on anything unusual and hit them hard two or three times. Hook sizes should be 8/0 at least, O’Shaughnessy being the favoured patterns.
Now to the spots where they used to be targeted, and therefore offer the best chance of an encounter. Places in the British Isles I have heard them caught from are off the Sussex coast, off the Isle of Wight, and off the Welsh coast. No numbers, just odd fish. So where do you go if you want to load up on them? In Ireland there are several places they can be taken. One of the little known spots is at the back of Inch Strand in Dingle Bay on high water. The Monks move into the estuary area to feed on the flatfish, and they share this spot with the sleek Tope, as I have taken them at the mouth of Inch, both on the way up, and on the way down as they go in to feed on flatfish as well. The hotspot in Ireland is just around the corner of Kerry Head at a place called Fenit.Here, in Tralee Bay is your best chance of hooking up to one of these prehistoric looking creatures. They can be taken anywhere as single captures, but if you want the numbers you need to steam back up inside the Bay, and anchor just yards from shore, over the mussel beds. My belief is that they are feeding over these for flatfish, which in turn are looking for tiny crabs and crustaceans among the mussel shells. I did hear an angler tell me they crack open mussels, but I fear that may have been linked to the “black stuff” so readily on tap in the country.
As you what you can expect here? Obviously, as with all fishing the worst case scenario is a blank. Years ago a good, average day in the months of May to October would be about three Monkfish in a day. As to the best, I seem to recall doing a film over there with Jack Charlton, and managed to get a test day before filming. I was the only one to take the trouble to mash up a bucket of mackerel for chum, and boy did it work. I think I had 8 big Monks on test day, and taking Jack out with the film crew the second day I think we had four. These were all 25 to 40lbs fish, and gave as good a scrap inside the boat as they did out.
One other point worth remembering. Extreme care should be exercised in taking your hook out, as they can stretch forward and actually shoot the jaws and teeth out in a millisecond, even in the boat. I have seen a picture of an angler with a Monk’s jaws firmly clamped on his wet weather over trousers in, shall we say, the chandelier region? Fortunately the fish tore out the front of the trousers only. I also know more than a few anglers have had bites from Monkfish, and armed with all those teeth they can be a handful. Always use long nose pliers or a T-bar to lever the hook out, and file the barb down which makes it easier to take out. Any deep hooking just cut the trace, as you’ll either damage the fish, or the fish will damage your fingers. If you want to pose one up safely for pictures the only real place is behind them, holding the wrist of the tail, and supporting the body from underneath, with your hand on the belly, not up near the jaw. Being a cross between a skate and a shark means they can twist from side to side, but also arch their back to rear up. Don’t say you haven’t been warned!
As to tagging, I have had one I tagged in the summer, safely released and forgotten about, recaptured the following year. I think it was within a few days of when I caught it, and wait for this, it was in exactly the same spot. Now the question is, if that fish left for the winter, where did it go to? Or if it didn’t migrate, does that mean they might stay in Tralee Bay year round? Move on northwards up the coastline and you come to Westport, or Clew Bay. Funny how they like to feed in Bays, again I believe it is predation on the flatfish population. The last time I fished Clew Bay was more than a few years ago, and we actually fished outside of the many creeks and islands that dot the bay. On that occasion I managed to land a big ton-up Common Skate, and even missed another. A success, but no Monkfish. These are more likely to be caught in the upper reaches of the Bay, and when I talked with one of the locals it was amazing just how far up they swam. Apparently the best spot fifty years ago was about 200 yards from where the boat left! However, that was then, and this is now. Today you can still get the occasional Monk up there, but you had better put down a good trail of mashed fish and oil to draw them near you. My own opinion is that there may well be plenty there, but they are not in the spots they used to be. Everything changes, especially with fishing, and if the small crustaceans are in a different part of the Bay, then the flatfish will be feeding on them, and the predatory Monkfish will be close by. So be prepared to experiment a bit, and always put down a bag of mashed fish, or toss over a few cubes of mackerel to spice them up. The Irish record stands at a huge 73lbs,and that fish came from Fenit in only 1980.A specimen from the boat weighs over 50lbs,while the same for shore caught Monks is 25lbs.Quite honestly I don’t think I ever heard of a Monkfish under 20lbs caught, so where are all the juveniles ? The top weight for adults is reputedly in the 100lb range, but it seems strange that no immature fish are ever taken.
Moving north again from Westport you round Achill Head and enter Blacksod Bay. I have done quite a bit of fishing up here over the years. An open, rugged beauty that truly gets a battering from the open Atlantic, but that Bay, huge and running parallel to the ocean, truly has some remarkable fishing. It doesn’t receive a great deal of commercial pressure, and this may result in the high head count of species. Many different rays, plus packs of tope enter the Bay, running several miles right inside to the town of Belmullet. In fact the best tope fishing to be had in the Bay is off a spit of land barely half a mile from the town. These pack tope run to over 40lbs and undoubtedly hunt the shallow flats for flounder and dabs. There are two sections of sunken rocks between here and the town, but if you carefully sneak through them, on the southern side are some mussel beds. The water is barely feet deep, and you need to keep quiet on the boat, with baits being cast away in a spread. But here there is a mark for Monkfish, and I consider myself fortunate to have been in on the discovery. We had several super fish, including my one and only claim to specimen fame with a Monk in excess of 50lbs.I would doubt we hooked that fish more than 200 yards off the shoreline, and the chance of a shore caught specimen must be well on the cards. A point I did find in this shallow water was the mistake of tying the chum bag on the anchor rope. Being shallow in depth there was no real tide to hold the boat, so we swung on the wind. The little tide you do get obviously carries the smell trail away and you may think casting off the stern your bait is in the chum slick. Wrong. You need to tie your bag off the stern, and then you can see the exact direction the chum is going, and set your baits out accordingly. It took me the best part of a day, sitting fishless doing this, yet as soon as I realised the baits were outside the chum, the next casts off to the side of the boat gave us three Monks hooked. Certainly a tip worth remembering.
The Monkfish have always been considered something of an unusual catch, but even so we have to thank the work done with tagging research by the Central Fisheries Board, and two people, Peter Green and Paddy Fitzmaurice. They have provided more information than anywhere else on recaptures, migration and growth rates of this prehistoric fish. Years ago, the Irish scene was run on a specific species weight being eligible for a certificate.Which was fine, except you needed to kill the fish to weigh it ashore and send the body off, presumably for CSI style identification. Today, the numbers are under such pressure from commercial sources, that the species has been removed from this specimen list, and any potential record must be transported live to shore, weighed and then released. Now that does seem to make a lot of sense, as after all a rod and line capture is only a rough indication of any fish size. The largest of any species are always recorded by commercial vessels. So what sort of stats did this intrepid duo come up with from that tagging research? Shane O’Reilly now runs the tagging programme as Peter Green has retired, with lots of people tagging fish, but, according to Shane there has not been any Monks tagged in the last four years. This could well be because the current recession has seen less anglers fishing for them, or it could be an indicator of something more serious, like a stock collapse, which is why tagging programmes are so important. Tagging tapered off in the early 90’s, contrasting the boom years of 1977-1990 when the Board was averaging 50/60 monks tagged in a season. Of course there are more Monks caught that don’t necessarily get tagged, but in Ireland I would venture a guess that most skippers have tagging equipment. Shane said there was a move in Tralee to ban certain types of nets, as Fenit in particular was a Mecca for anglers after a Monkfish tagging scalp.
It was in 1970 that the Inland Fisheries Trust initiated the tagging programme for marine fish.Initially, two types of tags were tried out. The Jumbo Rototag (which are used in the ears of cattle) and Petersen discs. As the early taggers reported Monks were extremely aggressive in the boat they opted for the Rototag, which was much easier to use when inserting the tag into the dorsal fin of the fish. Plus of course you were BEHIND those man-trap jaws, and not in front! Most Monkfish were tagged in water of 5 metres of less, and between 1970 and 2001 no less that 1,107 were tagged using the Rototags.Average size was 30lbs, so not small by any means. A staggering 1,037 came from Tralee Bay, while 70 came from further north at Clew Bay. To date 187 have been recaptured, which is a very high return for any tagged fish. All the fish recaptured by rod and line anglers(47.6%) were subsequently returned alive to the water.179 were taken from Irish waters,5 off the French coast,2 from the South coast of England, and 1 off the North coast of Spain. The longest a Monkfish was at liberty was over 12 years, taken in Tralee Bay and recaptured off Kerry Head. It was released again, and then recaptured 276 days later off Bunmahon, Co.Waterford.3 other Monkfish have been at liberty for more than 10 years. Longest traveller was a fish tagged in Tralee Bay and recaptured 1,160 km away, by a trawler off San Sebastien, in the Bay of Biscay.
The tagging programme is still running, but the Central Fisheries Board is now called Inland Fisheries Ireland. The tagging runs with the help of 100 sea angling charter boats, and central to the programme is a core message for anglers-CATCH-PHOTO-RELEASE. Many anglers have yet to latch into their first Monkfish, and the experience is sure to be a memorable one, especially when it comes to unhooking inside the boat. Hopefully the conservation work will see this species return to its former glory, as the Irish have done wonders their Bass shoals back. So next time you are looking for something different to add to your species scalp belt, think Flat, think large, think….MONKEY BUSINESS !!!!.
COPYRIGHT: Graeme Pullen. All rights reserved.