Cornish Reef Fishing

Looe in Cornwall has been a constant throughout my life and a significant stopping off point for fishing adventures for close to sixty years. We were staying in an apartment overlooking the estuary and we delighted in watching the ebbing and flowing of the tides from our vantage point.

Pauline and I had booked the short break to coincide with a boat trip I was joining organised by my friend Keith Armishaw. The trip was to be a reef fishing trip giving the chance of a wide variety of species.

A strong North Westerly wind had been blowing throughout the week making conditions difficult for trips to fishing grounds further off the coast. Keith had organised a week’s fishing that included reef fishing, Shark and tuna fishing. I was heading out on the Thursday and Pauline and I met up with members of the fishing entourage and their families in the  ‘Old Salutation Inn’. This old Inn situated in the heart of East Looe has a wealth of old shark and fishing images upon its walls. Old black and white portraits of huge shark hanging at the weigh station beside their proud captors. Fortunately, such slaughter is now a thing of the past as a more enlightened generation now return all shark alive in the hope that a thriving sport fishery can be maintained for future generations.

 Fishing was of course high on the agenda as we dined and it appeared that the days shark fishing had been challenging with a very rough sea making conditions difficult for even seasoned anglers. A good shark had been brought boat-side and was estimated at 95lb. A qualifier for the Shark Angling Club of Great Britain that has its headquarters in Looe.


Optimism for the reef fishing day was high and with fishing likely to be on reefs closer to the coast there would be a degree of shelter from the prevailing North West wind.

I arrived quayside at 8:00 and met with fellow anglers for the day. Keith Armishaw, Dom Garnett, Mark Everard, Reg Talbot, Peter Evans, Nick Roberts and Tony Christou. Whilst waiting we chatted to the film crew who were busy filming a spin off drama of ‘Death In Paradise’. It was enlightening to see how many technicians and support were involved in such a production that undoubtedly brings significant income into the town.

            We were fishing from Dan Margetts Sowenna

            The boat departed Looe harbour and passed the unique Banjo Pier where I had started my lifelong angling journey close to sixty years ago. I always relish the trip out to the fishing grounds with the splendour of the Cornish coast  as a magnificent back drop. We passed the historic Looe Island that provides shelter for Looe and its foreshore.

            Shortly after passing the Island, we stopped to catch fresh mackerel for the days bait. It was a joy to find them in abundance. Strings full of writhing mackerel were swung on board to be unhooked by a busy crew.

            After catching a good supply of bait, we set off for a reef a couple of miles off the coast. As the boat bounced over the waves I caught sight of gannets diving in a feeding frenzy and thrilled at the sight of a tuna bursting out of the sea in a flurry of spray.

            On arriving at the reef Dan throttled back and set up a drift. A variety of tackles and baits were employed. Live mackerel on long flowing traces, baited feathers and slow jig lures.

            Within moments mackerel and scad were swung aboard along with whiting and pouting. Larger specimens proved elusive with no bass or pollock succumbing to the bigger baits and lures. After one more short drift Dan positioned the boat and lowered the anchor. The engine was cut and it was good to bob around in the lively sea as we lowered our baits. I elected to start off using small strips of squid on size 6 Chinu Sakuma hooks and fluorocarbon hook lengths. Within seconds of the bait hitting the bottom the light rods tip rattled and I reeled in a small pouting and small male cuckoo wrasse. Second drop and a better rattle on the rod tip resulted in a small red bream one of five i went on to land up to around 1lb. The last time I had caught red bream was on a reef fishing trip in the mid-seventies when they were a common catch. The species had declined with very few caught for several decades. A recent increase in numbers caught is encouraging. A handsome female cuckoo wrasse of close to a pound was also tempted with the small bait tactic.

            Mark Everard fishing closer to the cabin also tempted a brace of red bream his first of the species. Mark was also delighted to catch a huge scad that would probably have tipped the scales close to 2lb.

            The sight of bent rods around the boat prompted me to send down a larger bait. A mackerel flapper on a 10/0 Sakuma Manta was lowered to the sea bed and was soon devoured by a conger of around 10lb. Conger sport continued and I watched my fellow anglers rods bending in a typical scene of traditional deep sea boat fishing.

            For the following hour or two conger, wrasse, scad and pouting were caught as regular teas and coffees were delivered by Dan and his helpful deckhand.

Dom Garnett with a colourful cuckoo wrasse

            As the day drifted past Dan discussed an option to try a new mark close inshore where he had received reports of specimen small eyed ray. Ray are not a common feature of boat catches off this part of Cornwall and with a brisk North West Wind buffeting the boat the sheltered waters close to the coast seemed worth a try.

            Dan set off and we were soon anchoring over clean ground just a few hundred yards offshore. It was good to survey the rocky shoreline from the boat places I had visited on coastal walks with Pauline on numerous occasions over the years. The area undoubtedly had huge shore fishing potential and I couldn’t help formulating plans to one day visit and fish. There are so many places to cast a line in this world and so little time!

            I tried small baits first on my light rod hoping to tempt something different. Whilst I like catching small eyed ray they are abundant up off the Somerset coast and if I want to catch them I can go to Minehead. A mackerel seized my small squid strip and was swung aboard and added to the bait store.

            On the opposite side of the boat Keith Armishaws rod took on an impressive curve as something large pulled back on the end of the line. We all watched in anticipation as the battle ebbed and flowed. The head of a large conger estimated at between 30lb and 40lb appeared and writhed at the side of the boat. I suggested we get a picture but the trace failed as Dan tried to pull the fish through the gate. This counted of course as the trace had been touched.

            Dan is a very keen skipper and works hard to try and find fish willing to experiment to build on his already extensive experience. When it became clear that sport was slow close inshore it was back out to drift the reefs once more. Sport soon resumed with wrasse, mackerel, pouting and scad.

            Dan suggested we try one more mark on the way back to Looe. By now it was late in the day and the afternoon sun illuminated  Looe Island. Gannett’s dived into the calming waters. A short drift brought a few mackerel and  a large pouting succumbed to my slow jig.

            Sowenna bounced back towards Looe and we chatted about the day and past and future trips. Seagulls wheeled and turned behind the boat as a few fish were filleted for the table. The ride home after a day’s fishing as the light fades is something I always savour as I gaze back into the boats wake.

            The tide was well in as we chugged into Looe and its familiar lively harbour.

            I walked back towards the car park with Dom and Mark chatting about our trip. All three of us reflected upon an enjoyable day but all conceded that a dabble after large gobies with LRF tackle had perhaps been the highlight of the trip a chance perhaps to rekindle a connection to childhood adventures beside the sea.