Earning Your Spurs
Heavy raindrops pelt the hood of my jacket as I carefully mount the head half of a mackerel on an 8/0. I lash the bait down hard with heavy bait elastic, nicking the pennel hook through the top of the offering before clipping the main hook into the impact shield. There’s no room for an exaggerated swing so I just push the rig behind me and aim into the clouds, the cast arching out 60 yards or so before splashing down. The rig hits the seabed in a plume of sand, the current snatching away the lighter material while the remainder falls in slow motion. The tide gradually pulls the line tight, the lead shifting on its axis against the draw and the grip wires clawing into the sediment. The bait rests on the bottom, a ghostly cloud of oil beginning to seep from its flesh.
It’s a dark night and water visibility is next to non-existent but my bait is not slow in attracting attention. A pack of small dogfish are already tracking down the source of the scent, moving sinuously across the bottom. Their search is quick and efficient and they soon find my bait; one instantly trying to engulf the whole offering while a smarter fish waits its turn to nip in and tear a chunk out. The first fish gives up trying to choke down the mackerel and the second lunges to clamp on when suddenly something imperceptible seems to disturb the rest of the pack. The attitude of the group changes in a heartbeat from feeding mode to caution, and all the fish except the one latched on to the bait abandon their positions and begin to shrink away from the scene. The remaining fish tries desperately to rip away a mouthful from the hard gill plate section for a moment longer before giving up its hold and rapidly wriggling away.
A second later, the reason for the dogfish’s alarm emerges from the gloom, a group of four long sleek shadows moving quickly a foot or two off the seabed. They’ve broken away from the main shoal to investigate the faint food signals drifting from this area close to shore. Their search takes them nearly a quarter mile from the main body of fish, a group numbering several hundred, all of them females. The shoal has been together for a year or so, forming when the fish reached maturity; one of the four is clearly in pup now, currently 18 months into her two-year gestation period. The group circle the mackerel head once before the lead fish drops to take the bait in its underslung mouth, locking its teeth into the flesh and rocking its body from side to side.
It wasn’t much of a bite to start with; a decent whiting would have rattled the tip harder. Then under my watchful eye, the fluorescent monofilament abruptly lost all tension and sagged down to the surface of the tea-coloured water. I pounced on the rod like a cat attacking a ball of yarn, reeling up the slack and feeling down the line with cold, wet finger and thumb. The line drooped loose again and I reeled tight into… strangeness. Whatever was on the end clearly had more weight than the dogfish we’d been hauling in, but it wasn’t like the strap conger that had been mixed in with them – there was no instant resistance, no angry thumping. I began to steadily pump the fish towards the wall, not wanting to jinx the capture by voicing my growing suspicions as to what I’d hooked.
Mark Reed and I had travelled a little further afield than usual for this trip, crossing the border to raid the shores of our neighbouring county. Cornwall has some appetising shore fishing prospects at this time of year, but my heart was set on something that we weren’t likely to find in a single session in home waters: the spurdog. I’d caught a grand total of two spurs previously: a small one on my first trip to Norway four years ago and an even smaller one last year in South Devon. I’d learnt absolutely nothing about spurs from these fleeting encounters – the fish were too small and they were one-offs – but I knew enough to know that they weren’t exactly famous for savage takes and tearing runs.
As the fish got about halfway in, it must have realised that it was in some trouble and began to make a bit of a stand. I could feel it’s tail twanging the line as it resisted my efforts to coax it closer. I was sure that I’d hooked a spur but it wasn’t until I finally drew the fish to the surface and saw the purpley-brown back appear through the dirty water that I finally let myself believe it. ‘I’ve got a spur!’ I said excitedly to Mark, who was busy preparing to cast out his next bait. It seemed like an age of waiting for him to get into position with the net, the beaten spur lolling on the surface some twenty feet below me. I couldn’t see how good the hookhold was and I almost laughed at how nervous I was about losing the fish – usually it’s something I hardly think about. Thankfully, Mark the netsman made expert work of scooping up my prize and I felt my anxiety instantly melt away.
I’d never been in the presence of a sizeable spur before and it was interesting to note that there was more girth to the fish’s body than I’d thought there would be. The body itself was soft – giving away the species’ general preference for deeper water. There was little of the fit, lithe feeling of a hound or tope; the spur looked and felt like it had more in common physically with the black mouthed dogfish that anglers who’ve been to Norway will know and (probably not) love.
Spurs are a much more happening fish than the boring black mouth though. Their sleek form coupled to arguably the coolest-shaped tail of all the UK shark species makes them a great fish to look at. On top of that, there’s the exclusivity: spurs are not common catches from the shore in many regions. In some areas they’ve never been a feature, whereas in others (like Cornwall) they were once a regular winter target until overfishing drastically reduced their populations and made them an unrealistic target from the shore.
Hopefully, that could be about to change. For the last decade it’s been illegal for commercial vessels to land spurs in Europe and, as a result, the population seems to be gradually recovering. Such extreme measures are wholly justified, from a biological point of view; spurdogs are a relatively primitive species, slow-growing and potentially very long-lived (the better part of a century). They have a tendency to take a lot of time to produce not a lot of offspring, although there is evidence pointing to the population in the North East Atlantic ramping up its reproductive rate a little to compensate for their reduced numbers. Even so, the species is exceptionally vulnerable to commercial pressure and has little potential to support a sustainable fishery.
With the pictures taken and my fish returned, Mark and I returned to our posts on the wall. Lights shone from the land on the other side of the bay, giving the low-lying clouds a supernatural glow and extending orange fingers of light across the water. The rain came in fits and starts with the odd heavy shower, but fortunately the westerly wind had no chill to it. As I watched, Mark’s right hand rod gave an odd indication, the line fell slack and soon he was reeling in a spur of his own. This time it was my turn on landing duties and I slipped the net under a fish closer to ten pounds than nine. Although Mark had talked about being less excited by the prospect of spurdogs than the possibility of encountering one of their larger relatives, he was clearly delighted to land his first UK spur.
The backing tide had very little oomph in it and the lazy current seemed to make the fish finicky. I had another bite that I was sure was from a spur but didn’t hook. As if to confirm my suspicions, Mark caught a small one soon after. This was to be our final spur of the evening, however, and the rest of the session consisted of nothing but small Devonshire dogs. We’d caught a few straps into low double figures earlier in the session so it had been more than worth enduring the constant pestering from the mini dogs to catch a half dozen or so decent fish between us. We gave our spot a thorough spring cleaning, eliminating all evidence of our presence for the last five hours, before packing up and heading for home.
Back out in the murky waters of the bay, the two remaining spurs from the exploratory group had returned to the main shoal. Witnessing two of their number disappear had unsettled them but they now sensed that their shoalmates weren’t far away and were returning to the group themselves. The mass of fish congregated in the deeper water, circling rhythmically. They weren’t feeding and, for the moment, smaller prey fish could move around them in relative safety so long as they gave the shoal a wide berth.
At this point in time the spurdogs were relatively safe themselves too, free to roam the inshore waters ravaging anything edible in their path. Protected by European law, the shoal was under little threat from the gillnets and longlines that annihilated their ancestors. Their future, however, was in as perilous a position as any whiting that dared to pass too close to the shoal. Once Britain finally leaves the EU the viability of the spurdog fishery is certain to come under review, and if the commercial lobbyists have their way you can bet that spurs will be back on the menu. It’s unlikely that anglers’ interests will be meaningfully represented in these discussions; fans of the species can only hope that there’s a few sensible heads at the table when the decisions are made or the ongoing recovery of the spurdog is sure to be callously cut short.