From Tears to Glory
It had been almost exactly two years to the day since I’d last heard my ratchet sound off to the tune of a running tope so when my Saltist chattered into life and I saw the line start to peel off the spool, I was more than ready. There was no need to strike, I just tightened up the clutch and let the pennel circle hook find its hold. The rod carried on pulling down as the increase in resistance seemed to make no impression on the fish and I backed the drag just a tad to allow the reel to give line. And give line it did: that first steady run went on a satisfyingly lengthy amount of time and after standing there enjoying the sensation for a while, I tightened the drag a notch or two to check the tope’s progress.
It seems like shore fishing for tope in the UK has exploded over the last few years. Perhaps in the past, such catches seemed out of reach for many anglers but now social media is reinforcing how possible they are on a near-daily basis. The impression that many prospective tope seekers may get from seeing so many smiling faces holding these sleek, powerful predators is that there really can’t be that much to it if everybody else is catching them.
What is left behind in the transition from reality to digital image, however, is the backstory to each of these successful sessions. The trophy shots just show the glorious technicolour climax of what could (in many cases) have been a long and tedious pursuit. Of course, it is possible to shortcut the ‘putting in the hours’ side of shore tope fishing but for a great many anglers, chances to do so will be few and far between. If they get any at all.
I’d been massively fortunate in that, for the second time in two years, I’d gotten word that one of my friends had just encountered a pack of tope while out shore fishing. What’s more, I was one of only four people to know that they were likely to be present at the same location on the next day’s tide. To me, this is the angling equivalent of someone giving a betting man a dead cert to back. It would have taken something like an alien mothership appearing over Cornwall and vaporising anyone who left their homes to stop me being on those rocks the next day. Not only was I mad keen for reel-screaming action, I was also determined to redeem myself for the last time that I’d been gifted such valuable intel.
It’s not always easy to explain away those sessions where you catch but still feel like you failed, but that’s exactly how I’d felt two years ago after landing my first shore tope of any size. I’d had about seven runs that morning but somehow only managed to land a single tope, a fish of 17lbs 12oz. Despite the capture, that morning felt more like defeat than victory. I’d been handed a golden opportunity, the kind that comparatively few anglers are ever lucky enough to have fall into their laps. I’d spent about six hours shore fishing for tope with hungry fish in front of me the whole time and through a combination of inexperience with the species and me failing to adapt to the situation, I hadn’t made the best of it.
Although I tried to look back at the session more favourably over time, it was hard not to feel bitter at how complacent I’d been. Following the advice of my mates, I’d just used a single large hook with a medium-sized mackerel bait as this had worked well for them the day before. I hadn’t tried to change anything presentation-wise after the first few missed runs. I hadn’t tried to think about why the fish were getting away with picking up and dropping the bait so easily. I hadn’t followed my own advice of bearing in mind that different things work for different anglers and varied my approach to find what worked best for me.
Of course, I knew that dropped runs were typical behaviour from tope but still, one fish caught out of seven or so chances was just not good enough. Most importantly, I felt like I’d learnt very little of value from the session and, because of the disappointment, it felt like the tope I had caught almost didn’t count. I’d experienced this feeling a few times throughout my fishing life and I knew how to make it right with myself. I had to put myself in front of tope again, try harder and do better.
Over the months that followed, a thought often returned to haunt me: we hear so often of anglers fishing ten sessions or more for one run. Could that mean that if I didn’t find a presentation that worked better for me, I’d have to fish as much as seventy trips to land another fish? Despite these misgivings, I continued putting in sessions at the particular points in the calendar where tope were most likely to be encountered and I thought carefully about every aspect of my approach. With no bites or runs to tell me if I was on the right path, however, I was very aware that I was just flying blind.
2019 came and went without so much as a flutter on the rod tips from the fin beat of a nearby tope. I think I must have fished a dozen or more sessions targeting them – not that much for some but for me, a very substantial proportion of my fishing time considering I was only able to fish once a week on average that year.
When 2020 rolled around, I was determined that I would find some tope to test myself against. Immediately following the lifting of lockdown restrictions on angling, tope were caught at a mark I knew but word got out quickly and the place was busy for the next few days. This would have been a turn-off to me even without social distancing regulations, so I concentrated on using my knowledge of the tope’s movements in previous years to try and preempt their next one.
I subsequently put in three sessions at a spot that I knew had past form for tope and that would be in the path to intercept them if the pack travelled down the coast. These trips passed without a single click of the ratchet (from a tope anyway) but I still felt like this move was the right thing to do and could have paid off. I think the failure of this effort had much to do with how incredibly barren Cornwall’s nearshore waters were through June. With spider crabs in huge overabundance and a distinct lack of any food fish, there would have been little to draw the tope close to shore in the first place and even less to keep them moving along on the hunt.
Despite this lack of action, I’d begun to feel like I was getting closer. My mate Mark Reed had enjoyed considerably more shore tope fishing success than myself and through regularly talking to him, I was able to benefit from his experiences. I also took an interest in any details of tope end gear posted online by successful anglers. Seeing that what I was doing was similar to what they were doing, I reckoned that if I had a run I would now stand a good chance of hooking it.
This new surge of confidence brought about a subtle change in my fishing: instead of embarking on my tope sessions preparing to fail, I was now preparing to succeed.
The steady increase in drag brought the tope’s run to a halt and I had a chance to gain some line and an impression of the size of the fish. It felt heavy, although not very lively. I was excited by the sheer heaviness down the line and I remember saying out loud that I thought it was a good fish. As I worked it towards the shore, however, I began to wonder if the tope had managed to wrap itself up in the rig and leader as it was more or less dead weight. It made a couple more short lunging runs as I tried to guide it into the rocks and, as I brought it the last few inches to the surface, the reason for its weighty feeling down the line became obvious: it was foul hooked in the pectoral fin and I’d been dragging it sideways towards the shore. Fortunately, the hook held and we were able to leader the fish into the rocks and quickly bring it ashore.
There are moments in anglers’ lives that are culminations. Moments where two beings that have been on long, winding paths in vaguely the same direction both hit their respective home straights and accelerate headlong into a collision course. Gazing into the bright green eye of the magnificent creature cradled in my arms, I could feel a sense of inevitability in our meeting. The two years of fruitless pursuit since the last of its kind that I met contrasted starkly with the rush of the last leg of our journey towards each other, but throughout the blanks and my times of doubt, I’d kept on the trail and stayed on course. I felt that in doing so and seeing my journey through to this point, I’d made up for my past disappointment and I could finally put it behind me.
I went on to land three tope that afternoon, two at exactly the same weight of 22lbs 9oz and a third that was somewhere in the high teens of pounds that I returned without weighing. Again, the fishing gods were smiling upon me – as well as Mark Reed, I was also sharing the rocks with Pete Hersey, an angler with at least as many Cornish shore tope to his name as anybody else in recent years, if not more. Fish for fish, we were all able to help each other land our prizes and, although there were inevitable missed runs and several losses, we were running at about 50% of our runs equalling a landed tope. Not a bad effort and certainly a vast improvement on the stats from my session two years previous.
So, do I think my more refined tactics made the difference this time? Most definitely! Bait-wise, I was using a medium-sized offering of a small frozen mackerel, minus the tail section. For the hooks, I opted for an 8/0 Variavas BMX as the main hook and an 8/0 Varivas Full Circle as the pennel. The circle hook was a relatively new addition and something that I’d not even road tested on other species. It took a pretty serious leap of faith to slide it onto my wire trace for the first time but, when you think about it, the design is tailored towards fish that pick up the bait and run so it’s a natural choice for small, fast-moving sharks like tope and hounds. The proof of the pudding was that all three of my fish were hooked on the circle. For maximum hooking potential, I barely nicked the circle into the bait and bound it tight in place on the bend with heavy elastic, ensuring that it was sitting at the correct angle. Of course, contact with the tope’s teeth soon saw off the elastic but by that point the fish was hooked so I didn’t feel that it mattered. Whether this is the most efficient way of doing this is up for debate but it worked for me on the day.
Shore fishing for tope is definitely not for everyone. If you have limited time and can often only fish set days, you are likely to have a hard time putting yourself in front of fish. If you are fortunate enough to have a good amount of flexible fishing time, you can mount more of a consistent campaign – but will you be able to cope with the blanks without losing heart and getting distracted? Of course, you can always pester others for information but from what I can gather, this intel is only likely to be useful to you if it is absolutely fresh as a daisy. Tope don’t seem to hang around an area long and unless you are on them ASAP, you’ll miss the boat. In any respect, I think that before embarking on a serious effort to catch tope from the shore, it’s a good idea to ask yourself just how badly you want it. For me, the pursuit of shore tope gave my angling psyche a pretty stiff workout and I lost a lot of the fun from my fishing while locked into cycles of unproductive sessions.
Unlike other species that I’ve pursued, a huge proportion of my learning with tope up to this point has been done in my imagination or in conversation with others. It’s impossible to learn much from the actual fishing when session after session, nothing happens. Despite the difficulty of catching them from the shore, I don’t get the impression that tope are a particularly complex fish. The biggest part of the challenge is putting yourself within a 100 yard or so radius of a fish that swims up to 50 miles a day in search of food. Is this really as big of a deal as people make out? From my experience so far, I’d say it certainly can be. Is it worth the time and effort, as well as having to forgo other fishing opportunities just to potentially blank again? I’d say it certainly is.