A day on Bluefin Off Ilfracombe – With South Molton Angling Club

Ilfracombe harbour once again ready to depart for a day aboard John Barbeary’s boat ‘Blue Fin’ with members of South Molton and District Angling Club. It doesn’t really feel like a July morning with a cool North East breeze blowing into the harbour. The predominantly grey sky seemingly typical of the summer of 2024 so far.

The sea is not too rough however and the forecast gives the wind easing throughout the day and with good fishing enjoyed on another Ilfracombe Boat last week I am optimistic for the day ahead. We all climb from the harbour steps and greet John and his deckhand Ted. Club members today include Edward Rands, Dave Hathaway, Nick Stringer, Chris Allin, Steve Edmonds and myself.

         South Molton Angling Club has been established for over fifty years and has several miles of trout fishing on local rivers. Its membership of around fifty are mostly game fishers with a segment of occasional sea anglers. The club has a healthy social side with trips most months of the year with trophies awarded to recognized members achievements. All in all a friendly easy going club without a serious competitive streak.

         The prospect of a slightly turbulent sea raised a few concerns about the sea anglers curse of mal-de-mer that were to prove found less. All concerned members had taken Stugeron tablets as a precaution. Discussion around previous unpleasant trips were recounted with lessons such as abstaining from alcohol the previous night  recalled from observations of past excursions.

         The plan for the day was to stop off on route to catch bait and then drift a few reefs for bass or pollock before dropping anchor in the hope of tope.

         The feathers went down a short distance from port and strings of writhing mackerel were swung on board. Ted the friendly crewman for the day worked hard assisting with unhooking. It was interesting to listen to Ted’s wisdom as he commented upon the effectiveness of different coloured mackerel feathers. A few days previous he had noted how white feathers had proved effective during one tide with blue and silver more effective on another. The mackerel preferences are undoubtedly influenced by many factors including what they are feeding on naturally perhaps combined with light levels, water clarity and tidal state.

         It seemed that all our strings of lures were working as be drifted off Ilfracombe’s rocky foreshore. Strings of mackerel were swung on board. John commented that it was like the old days when mackerel were always abundant throughout the summer months. Mackerel numbers seem to vary each year and after several years of poor numbers the last two seasons have been encouraging. It has also been noticeable that mackerel have been present throughout the winter months along with garfish.

         Having caught plenty of mackerel we steamed on down channel passing the cragged slate promontory of Morte Point and the treacherous Morte Stone. The promontory of Morte Point pushes out into the Bristol Channel the rock formation running down its spine resembling that of a huge dragon immortalised in grey stone. The resulting tidal race over the Morte reef is a renowned holding place for bass with huge shoals sometimes present harassing mackerel and whitebait as gannets plunge into the resulting melee.

         We pushed on down across Woolacombe Bay and its sands of gold to Baggy Point its steep cliffs the haunts of climbers and seabirds. We drifted over a couple of reefs catching a handful of pollock and a few more mackerel. It was perhaps surprising that we did not catch more fish such as bass as the huge number of birds present was a sure indication of bait fish and predators. Fish were undoubtedly present with plenty showing on the boats sounder.

A 4lb pollock for Nick Stringer

This whole job of being a skipper can be very frustrating. Finding the fish is just one part  of an incredibly complex puzzle. The experienced skipper will have developed a unique gift of being able to inspire anglers with tales of past successes and explaining the lack of success with a recipe book full of valid excuses.  As the tide eased John put us on a mark slightly West of Baggy and dropped the anchor.

         The rod tips soon rattled to the pull of dogfish. Ed Rands hooked several bull huss and a few small conger put a bend in members rods.

Ed Rands with a bull huss from a rough ground mark

As the tide eased further towards high water John took us out to deep water , tope were our intended quarry. Once again we settled at a new mark located from Johns extensive log book of carefully jotted coordinates.

         Steve Edmonds hooked what was undoubtedly a good tope that bit through his heavy mono hook link after a few minutes.

Steve Edmonds battles a fish that later bit through his trace.

       A few moments later it was my turn and a good fish took off taking line from the reel. The battle ebbed and flowed with the fish hanging deep beneath the boat after its initial powerful runs. I exerted pressure and brought the tope to the boat where it was skill-fully netted by John.

         The fish was carefully weighed pulling the scales to a respectful 35lb. Five minutes or so later I hooked into another tope that was a few pounds lighter.

Throughout the time at this mark a steady stream of dogfish came to the boat along with a few small huss and strap conger.

         As the tidal speed increased I hooked into another fish that powered away using the tide to its advantage. This was undoubtedly a good fish and started to move against the tide a sure indication that it was an above average specimen. Eventually pressure brought the fish within view a sleek tope that hung heavy in the tide causing several anxious moments as it rolled in the leader. Fortunately I had taken the precaution of using a heavy rubbing leader of 150lb b.s mono to protect the braid mainline.

Braid is beneficial in allowing the use of lighter leads and has no stretch ensuring excellent contact with the business end. It is also extremely strong in relation to its thin diameter. Its disadvantage is its poor abrasion resistance and fineness when sorting tangled lines.

         The fish was eventually scooped into the net and brought on board where it thrashed wildly before being secured carefully to remove the hook. This fish proved to be the heaviest of the day scaling 41lb. The fish swam away strongly disappearing into the clear waters from whence it had come.

A 41lb tope

         With the tide now at full strength mid tide we headed back inshore to drift a few more reefs. This proved unproductive and with the tide easing John headed back up channel and anchored at another deep water mark where tope were again the intended species. A couple of small conger, small huss and plenty of dogfish rattled the rod tips. Dave Hathaway hooked a very powerful fish that put a good bend in the rod ripping several yards of line from his reel. Sadly the fish bit through the heavy mono trace of 150lb b.s after a short battle leaving Dave to ponder on what could have been.

Ed Rands with a string of mackerel


         By now it was time to head back and John agreed to stop off for a few fresh mackerel close to Ilfracombe. Fortunately the mackerel were still there and we all caught enough for a delicious evening snack when we got home. Is there a better fish fresh from the sea?

         Reflecting upon the day I was obviously pleased to have boated three good tope and cannot help but ponder upon my luck. It is said that luck can be cultivated and there is some truth in this. I was fortunate to secure a prime position at the stern of the boat enabling a bit more freedom as to the weight selection. The anglers at the stern can use lighter weights and trot the bait out ensuring that the fish attracted by the baits scent intercept these baits first. I chose to use larger mackerel flappers that stopped the pesky dogfish devouring the bait before the tope found it. I also opted to use a heavy duty wire trace to ensure I did not get bitten off. There is some debate regarding the pro’s and cons of wire versus heavy mono. An option is perhaps to use circle hooks that tend to hook fish in the scissors of the jaw. Used in conjunction with heavy fluorocarbon they might be an option but for me its heavy duty wire until I am convinced otherwise.

         Choice of tackle when boat fishing is very much a matter of personal  preference. There is balance to found between using tackle strong enough to subdue most fish hooked in a reasonable time without detracting from the joy of bringing the fish to the boat.



Evening Tope Fishing off Ilfracombe

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I was delighted to be invited to join a few friends on Dan Welch’s new boat Predator 2.  Dan had spotted a window of opportunity with light winds forecast over the evening high water. Strong winds were forecast to sweep in overnight irradicating any boat fishing trips over the weekend.

Five of us climbed onto Predator 2 at 3.30pm. Skipper Dan Welch, Dave Welsh, Derek Stevens, Jonathon Stanway and myself.

The sea was calm and the water clear as we set out from Ilfracombe’s harbour. I relished the familiar scenery of North Devon’s rugged coast and landmarks. It is always refreshing to leave the hustle and bustle of the town to reach the tranquil detachment of the open sea.

We stopped for a drift off the tunnels outfalls catching a few mackerel for bait. We then steamed out to drift over a few reefs for bass. I stuck with the feathers and ensured that we had a full bucket of fresh bait for the main event.

Our intended target was tope over the high water slack. After  several drifts without bass Dan suggested we head out and drop anchor. The tide would be running quite hard but would soon ease ensuring that we capitalised on the maximum time for tope action.

I always feel a sense of anticipation as the boat settles at anchor and the engine is cut. A peaceful silence descends, just the gentle slurp of water against the boats hull and the occasional cry of a seagull.

Several manx shearwaters were circling gracefully above the water. I was unsure if they were shearwaters but a quick google as I write this confirmed my identification. I was fascinated to learn that the manx shearwater are long lived birds sometimes living beyond fifty years of age. A fifty year old bird has it is estimated flown over 600,000 miles on migration throughout its life.

         Looking up the Bristol Channel the dark towering cliffs of Great Hangman and Holdstone Down were capped with wisps of white mist. The sea was oily calm, thousands of jelly fish drifted past in the clear water. To the West weak sunshine struggled to break through a sky of grey.

         I prepared a mackerel flapper and sent it into the depths with 1lb 8oz of lead to combat the strong tide. With all our baits in place we chatted of our appreciation of the evening and the prospects ahead. A couple of dogfish rattled the rod tips and were brought to the surface often just hanging onto the baits letting go at the side of the boat.

                  Dan was first to hook into a hard fighting tope bringing a fish of perhaps twenty five pounds to the boat after a good tussle in the strong tide.

         Jonathon hooked a good fish that came off after a few seconds. I felt a sharp rap on my rod tip and paid out a couple of yards of line. I waited until the rod tip ripped over hard and tightened into a powerful fish that headed off down tide at a rate of knots ripping several yards of line from the reel. I leant back bending the rod, relishing the powerful force at the end of the line.

         After the initial powerful runs the fish started to succumb to constant pressure and I pumped a heavy weight to the surface. From time to time there came heavy lunges and I was forced to give a little line. As the fish neared the boat we peered into the depths to catch a glimpse of the sleek shark like creature.

         The tope was a good fish and caused a few anxious moments as it thrashed at the surface demolishing Dan’s tailor in the process. Plan B of a large landing net eventually secured the prize.

         The fish was carefully weighed in Dan’s capacious weigh sling registering a weight of 36lb. After a quick photo the tope was returned and swam strongly away.

         The next couple of hours saw tope caught by all on board most around 25lb.  Several fish were also lost as hook holds gave way or in one case the braid was severed as the fish probably rolled in the line.

Jonathon Stanway holds a fine tope

Dave Welch with good tope

         Derek Steven’s was thrilled to catch his first tope and told me that he has fished all over the world but still relishes the beauty of the North Devon coast that is undoubtedly his home territory.

Derek Stevens is delighted with his first tope

         Weak sunshine broke through the grey sky illuminating the seascape. We chatted making plans for future fishing forays all keen to join with Dan on Predator 2. At present Dan is only doing a few trips for mates with a limited number of short range local charters. In the longer term Dan will expand his Chartering to compliment Ilfracombe’s fleet. Offering exciting options for both local and visiting anglers as Ilfracombe’s reputation as a recreational boat fishing destination grows.

Skipper of Predator 2 Dan Welch

         As the tidal flow increased and holding bottom became difficult Dan suggested it was time to head back to port. The boat bounced over the calm water seagulls following in the slipstream as always keen to savour any discarded bait.



South Molton Angling Club – Lyme Regis Boat Trip

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A quick report from SMAC Chairman Edward Rands  on the clubs trip to Lyme regis.
Jim Rickets picked up myself, Danny Boyles, Nick Stringer and Nick Jackson from Witheridge and off we went, we arrived at Lyme regis 1hr 15 minutes later and met up with Richard Power and then our skipper Shawn Trinder of “Jurassic boat trips
We were soon aboard and steaming to our first drift we had pollack, pouting and mackerel. Then sat at anchor on 3 different marks depending on the tide.
We had scad, poor cod, cuckoo wrasse, bream, a dogfish, a bull huss and conger, I had one estimated at 60lb+ on bream gear, size 2 hooks and 25lb line.
The weather was kind, the sea was pretty flat and again shawn looked after us admirably with first class gear,bait and instruction if needed.
Thanks to Jim for driving and those attending for supporting the cause and enabling the trip to go.
Regards Ed Rands ( chairman)


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Happy Season everyone hope your all having a nice day. Sorry we have been quite of late but we have had lots going on with sorting out bits and pieces with boats and where we are going moving forward.Also battling this constant crap weather we are having. We haven’t been getting out a lot at all so far we haven’t been able to get to the sharks this season 🥲🥲 but we have done a couple of channel trips on the spurs and Huss. Now with the season changing and the summer species coming in it should start to hot up just need the weather to sort its self out so we can get out. Couple of new things this season we have been working on are as follows : 6 hour bass lure trips based around the perfect state of tide to get on the marks that produced some great sport last season available online asap. Also a slight change to our summer Sharking it’s now going to be summer big game fishing, if it’s booked as a shark trip that’s what we will be doing but if we happen to get surrounded by the BFT’S like last season we can switch up and go and have some fun on them and we’re also able to use new methods this season to exciting stuff and can’t wait to try these out then once the weather puts pay to our season down west we are going to go back to our roots and fish up channel this will be on the nice Time tides for the all day trips and when we have the neaps a lot more 4 hour trips I’ll get on the times and dates for booking as soon as I can. I have decided to take a step away from the summer tourist season and do all day trips through out august again I need to put these online but keep your eyes peeled as July and September are 99% booked out apart from a couple of dates so once I put them on I am sure there going to go quick. That’s enough from me with the update and I look for to seeing you all soon and getting stuck In to some serious rod bending pain locker fishing cheers Dan

Rough Sea Triggers plan B

  We had been looking forward to our trip on Reel Deal targeting Porbeagle shark for months and with the weather set fair I climbed out of bed eagerly at 5.00am. It was still dark when I set off to pick up fellow sharker Peter Robinson. I had offered to pick up Peter so that we could share the extortionate cost of parking on Ilfracombe Pier for the day.  A £15.00 charge to park for a day during the summer season is likely to deter visitors and adds a significant cost to a day’s boat fishing.

            We arrived at the harbourside and greeted Bruce who had booked the trip over twelve months ago following on from a successful excursion after the shark last Autumn when Bruce and James had brought shark boat-side between 100lb and 175lb.


    In addition, Dan Hawkins skipper of Reel Deal had just recorded the first two blue fin tuna to be caught from the Bristol Channel. They had also caught a fine porbeagle estimated at over 200lb. In addition, earlier in the season several thresher shark had been caught and it was likely that these could still be present in the rich feeding grounds at the mouth of the Bristol Channel.

            The weather forecast gave light winds of less than 10mph. I was slightly concerned as I felt a chill breeze as I stepped out of the car. There was also white water visible opposite the pier as a large swell pounded the rocks.

            We greeted Dan quayside who seemed confident that all would be well with the wind forecast to drop later in the day. We were joined by three other anglers  and we set off out of the harbour heading West towards the sharking grounds that are situated an hour or so steam beyond Hartland Point.

            It was immediately obvious that the wind was brisker than forecast and it was more than a little lumpy as we bounced across the tide race off Morte Point. A good number of gannets could be seen diving into the turbulent waters a clear indication that mackerel and bass were present.

            Dan eased off the power and gave us a bad prognosis. The wind was far stronger than forecast and images of Bude via surf cams showed a wall of white water. Sharking would be unpleasant and very likely unproductive. It was up to us but Dan thought we would be wasting our money and suggested we abort. He left us to ponder for a few moments and after a short debate we decided that the skipper generally knows best.

            And so rather deflated in spirit we bounced back on the waves to Ilfracombe. Bruce and I started to think of plan B. Lure fishing off the shore could be worth a go with plenty of bass in the estuary?

            On arrival back in Ilfracombe we clambered off the boat and within minutes Dan told us there were a couple of places on the Charter-boat Carrick Lee fishing locally. There were a few trigger fish being caught. Bruce had never caught a trigger fish so within minutes we were buying  fresh king ragworm from the harbour Kiosk and handing over cash for a day on Carrick Lee. We said our goodbyes to Peter who was going to catch the bus home to Barnstaple. Pete had endured a very slow days boat-fishing a few days previous and wasn’t keen for a repeat.

            We jumped on board ‘Carrick Lee’ to be greeted by the owner and skipper of the boat Paul Simon. There were six of us on board three who were visitors to the area and Paul Lorrimore who I know through Combe Martin SAC and his excellent Bay-side Burger Bar in Ilfracombe. Between us Bruce and I had enough tackle to combine efforts and put suitable rigs down to the sea bed. First stop was to the bay of my home village Combe Martin where we used small hooks and small baits to try and target a range of species with trigger fish high on our wish list.

            The calm waters of Combe Martin Bay were certainly more tranquil than the wild waters off Hartland Point. It wasn’t long before Paul was into the first fish of the day a ballan wrasse of perhaps 2lb. There were plenty of gentle raps on the rod tips but fish were hard to find. Paul followed up with a lovely little red mullet a species I have yet to catch. I really need to do a bit more light species fishing this Autumn.

            As the tide eased away sport was slow with just a couple of strap eels seizing baits. Skipper Paul pulled up the anchor and we set off for pastures new. After a short stop in the bay beneath Little Hangman we headed out to fish beneath the spectacular towering cliffs beneath Great Hangman. Paul put us on a bit of rough ground off Sherricombe Waterfall a mark I knew to have been productive over the years. Sherricombe Waterfall has a fascinating history. It is said that during the Second World War submariners from German U-Boats visited the craggy shore to collect freshwater during the cover of darkness. Many years ago, there was a path  down to the sea near this point where locals would access the foreshore to gather laver. There were also rumours of smuggling activities. This path has long since crumbled along with the memories of those who walked the treacherous path. Mining was carried out deep within the cliff’s and it is still possible to see the remains of shafts on the sheer cliff face.

Towering Little Hangman

            Whilst the scenery was spectacular the fishing wasn’t and after a few hours trying various rocky marks at anchor. We also tried drifting the well -known reefs at Copperas Rock. It was apparent that if the fish were present they were not feeding. The boat was buffeted by a strong offshore breeze, reinforcing the knowledge that our shark fishing trip cancellation had been a wise move.

            Paul our skipper had tried very hard to find fish but is was undoubtedly a hard task. A return to Combe Martin Bay was welcome and again we hoped for trigger fish. After a couple of moves we eventually found success. Bruce’s rod arched over as he made contact with a hard fighting fish that was safely netted. A fine trigger fish of perhaps 3lb was held up and admired. A fish that always looks so unreal in British waters a visitor from warmer climes that is often linked to climate change. Their numbers fluctuate year on year and any link to climate change is tenuous.

            Five minutes later I too added a trigger fish to the days tally.

We hoped for more trigger fish over the remaining couple of hours but they proved elusive. Paul had tried hard throughout the day. We had caught nine species between us, small tope, wrasse, pouting, pollock, strap eels, poor cod, red mullet, scad and trigger fish.

            It has been a very mixed season for Ilfracombe Charter boats. Early summer had seen huge numbers of mackerel with calm weather. Occasional calm periods during July had allowed Reel Deal to venture to the shark grounds where several thresher shark were caught along with large porbeagle. During August poor weather and disappearance of the mackerel ruined the opportunity to take tourists on the short fishing trips that can boost the bank balance for charter boat owners in these increasingly difficult times of rising costs. The life of a charter boat skipper may seem like living the dream but it’s a far from easy way of making living.


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Earlier this year Defra reopened the UK Spurdog fishery to commercial fishing. Recognising that the female breeding stock needed to be protected to give the fishery longevity they restricted the slot size to 100cm.

To understand the significance of this you need to know that female Spurdog do not reach sexual maturity until they are around 15 years old and that their pregnancy lasts for up to two years. The younger female Spurdog have smaller pups which have a low survival rate but as the females get older and larger, their pup sizes increase and so does their survival rate.  A 100cm female Spurdog is around 20 years old whereas a 120cm female Spurdog is around 40 years old and her pups have a significantly increased survival rate. 

We were therefore very surprised when we heard recently that Defra are now considering a request from the commercial sector to increase the maximum landing size to 120cm.

The recreational angling community regularly access the smaller shark fishery on a catch and release basis and it represents a revenue stream which our recreational charter skippers and coastal communities rely on.

The situation was discussed at a recent Pat Smith Database trustee meeting where it was agreed unanimously that our smaller sharks (Spurdog, Smoothound, Bull Huss and Tope) need our protection as much as their larger cousins (Blue, Porbeagle, Thresher).

Our sport has a seat at the Fisheries Management table but if we don’t use this opportunity to make our views known we will be sidelined by the other players so as a first step we have decided to send a letter to the Fisheries minister signed jointly by as many charter skippers, angling clubs and angling related organisations as possible.

If you would like to be a signatory and help protect the fishery from future closure please get in contact  with the Pat Smith Database at [email protected]

Anglers, Angling clubs and Charter boat skippers are encouraged to contact their local MP to raise awareness of the issues and the urgent need to protect these small sharks for over fishing.

Letter sent to Selaine Saxby on behalf of CMSAC

Dear Selaine Saxby,

You may already be aware that Defra recently opened the UK spurdog fishery this year.  With spurdog having a low, even negligible commercial value in the UK, this was a decision I found difficult to understand but recent events are even stranger. It has now come to the attention of the recreational sea angling sector that Defra are considering a request from the commercial sector to increase the slot size to 125cm from its current level of 100cm. This will allow the targeting of larger spurdog which will predominately be female.

To understand the significance of this you need to know that female spurdog do not reach sexual maturity until they are around 15 years old and that their pregnancy lasts for two years. The younger female spurdog have smaller pups which have a low survival rate but as the females get older and larger, their pup sizes increase and so does their survival rate.

In short this species have a very challenging reproductive cycle that requires the female stock to be given protection. Targeting the female breeding stock will, as we have witnessed previously, lead to the demise, and perhaps even closure of the fishery once again.

The RSA sector, who contribute £1.5 billion to the UK economy, access the spurdog fishery on a catch and release basis which provides a much needed revenue stream for recreational sea angling charter skippers and their local coastal communities. Continued access to this fishery requires it to be managed in a sustainable manner which is not consistent with a slot size increase.

We believe that Defra do understand the needs of the fishery as Mark Spencer MP was quoted as saying, 

The UK and EU will also prohibit landings of spurdog over 100cm in length to discourage the targeting of larger females and provide protection for the breeding stock(source Communications and Management for Sustainability – April 2023)

Having made these comments its difficult to understand why Defra are even considering an increase in slot size for spurdog.

For the reasons above I am requesting your support to ensure that the slot size remains at 100cm. If Defra are of the opinion that it is correct to allow an increase in slot size then I am asking to see the scientific evidence which confirms that increasing the slot size will not damage the breeding stock within the fishery. In the absence of this evidence then in my opinion the precautionary principle, as stated in the Fisheries Act (2020) should apply.

Spurdog have become an important recreational species for sea anglers in North Devon with large numbers caught each winter from Charter boats fishing out of Ilfracombe. The fishery brings welcome visitors to the area during the winter months with some anglers staying in local accommodation and visiting local eating places etc.

I look forward to your urgent response

Your Sincerely, 

Wayne Thomas
Wayne Thomas
The Shippen
        Loxhore Cott
Near Barnstaple
North Devon
        EX31 4st
Tel – 01271 850586