Going Cuckoo in the Wild West

This story first appeared in the August 2018 issue of Black Tide magazine.

The hundreds of thousands of holiday makers that flock to Cornwall each summer must eat up the little books of Cornish folklore and legends. You see them all over the place. Apart from the gift shops, I’ve seen them in petrol stations, village stores; hell, I’ve even seen them in the shop at Truro Cathedral (which is odd considering the heavy undertones of paganism in most of the stories). The average tourist, having paid for his little book and wandered into the square outside the Cathedral, might take a seat on one of the benches, tilt his nose to absorb the tantalising aroma of Warren’s pasties wafting from across the pavement and flick through his purchase. After skimming over a few tales of giants and little people (extremities of size are a common theme in Cornish folklore) along with a mermaid here and a witch or two there, the tourist may look up, blink a few times and take another look at his surroundings. Thirty yards away is a man singing Frank Sinatra covers and virtually all the shops in sight are part of national chains. There is very little that would distinguish this place, the ‘capital’ of Cornwall, from any other city in a lot of the south of the UK. Neither are there any pointers as to what could have inspired the Cornish to have come up with such fanciful mythology, unless they happened upon the colourful properties of lysergic acid a good few centuries before the rest of the world did. 

Truro is far from the only place that is devoid of clues as to the origins of these outlandish tales. You can go to virtually any of the major coastal destinations, even the ones with more overtly romantic names like St. Ives and Mevagissey, and walk away equally none the wiser. The big mining towns in the centre of Cornwall fare just as poorly, as Camborne and Redruth are equally barren of inspiration. Fortunately, all is not lost for there are at least a few places left that retain something wild, where if you let yourself be absorbed by the land and seascapes, it is easier to understand how they shaped the superstitions of the old Cornish folk. For me, the area around the Land’s End peninsula epitomises this ‘old Cornwall’ vibe, with its angular geographical features and stark scenery. There is something mysterious about the country down here, a sense that maybe a semblance of the past is still alive in these jagged cliffs and deep clear waters.

I’m going to use the term ‘far west’ to describe the region I’m talking about. As far as boundaries go, working back from Land’s End, let’s draw a line from just short of St. Ives on the north coast to just shy of Penzance on the south. Anything west of that line is 100% spriggan country. There’s a fair bit of diversity in the coastal features between the north and south facing shores and, for a relatively small area, there’s an awful lot of fishable spots. Much of the fishing tends to be rough ground opportunities, with the south coast in particular offering direct access to some impressive depths of water. These depths at various times of year can host an extraordinary array of species, including a good deal of the more unusual ones.

I relish the opportunity to go fishing down in the far west of Cornwall. For sure, I’ve had some great sessions on both sides of the peninsula, but equally as important is the unique feel of the place and the sense of adventure I feel when I journey down here from my home in Newquay. For the last few years, I’ve taken to making a kind of annual pilgrimage to one particular cove on the south coast, a hotspot that is especially rich in one family of fish: the wrasses. The object is always the same: to catch five (or more) different species of wrasse in one day. We’re all familiar with our luxuriously-lipped friend the ballan and its almost ‘mini me’ relative the corkwing, but in this part of the world the toothy goldsinny, the diminutive rock cook and the rare Baillon’s wrasse are also available. Top prize for me, however, is the gloriously colourful cuckoo. The males in particular can be outrageously gaudy and catching them is like adding a taste of the tropical into my steady diet of greys and browns – the more typical hues of UK marine fish.

Fittingly, seeing as how I’ve already talked about Cornish superstitions, I have one of my own about fishing this place. After parking up next to a small stream I quickly sorted my gear out and got ready to head out to the first mark. Before I started walking, however, I had to have a good look into the stream itself. Every time I’ve been here before and done well I’ve noticed the presence of a trout or two in the lively brook, lazily holding in their lies behind rocks and clumps of weed. Having made that connection, seeing these fish now gives me confidence for the day ahead. This particular morning, however, I was a bit nonplussed to find that even though I looked all the way downstream to the tiny bridge I couldn’t see a single trout. Nevertheless, I didn’t dwell on it for too long and I was soon skirting along the right side of the cove, aiming for a little gully nestled into the point. This gully is like a minor miracle. How it can be home to so many different species of wrasse living in (what I presume is) harmony is beyond extraordinary. Amazing too is how on the right day you can pretty much select which species you want by which part of the gully you drop your bait into.

I’d rigged up to go straight for the smallest inhabitants, knowing that the larger ones would come my way as bycatch anyhow. I carefully threaded a tiny section of rag onto a size 16 hook and plopped it out a few yards into the gully. A small ballan was the first fish of the day, followed by a goldsinny. This wasn’t a bad start and soon a good size corkwing came my way. ‘Any minute now’, I thought to myself, ‘I’ll get a rock cook’… but it never happened. Despite catching a good number of small ballans, a few corkwings and several goldsinnys, the (normally quite obliging) rock cook remained elusive.  After fishing for well over an hour I admitted rock cook failure and packed up the light gear, heading back to the car to eat lunch and regroup. 

Popping open the boot of the car to repack my bag, my attention was drawn to a small disturbance on the surface of the glistening stream… was that what I thought it was? I shielded my eyes and looked carefully through the water – it was! Just behind a large squat stone where two tiny ribbons of current met and spilled into a deeper run was a little pale trout. Despite me busying myself with packing and rooting through the car for my lunch, the trout did not seem bothered by my presence at all. I was a bit surprised at this. Wild trout are usually pretty skittish creatures and will bolt for cover at the first sign of something large and potentially predatory. Not this chap. Either he wasn’t clocking me at all (perhaps because of some weird trick of the light) or he could see me plain as day and figured that he didn’t have much to fear from a guy who couldn’t even catch a rock cook. I sat peacefully for ten minutes and ate my lunch, watching the fish going about his business. I saw him move several times to what looked like pond skaters scudding along the surface but despite his best efforts he didn’t manage to eat one.

Thoroughly refreshed and with the omens looking better for the afternoon, I loaded myself up with gear and began the short steep climb to my next spot of choice. I actually stumbled across this mark maybe four or five years ago looking for somewhere completely different and I liked it so much that I’ve been back several times since. I have no idea what its name is, although it must have a name (every fishable rock in Cornwall has a name) and someone went to the trouble of fixing in some metal footholds at some point through the years, so it must have been a mark of importance to somebody at some point. Nowadays, it gives the impression of being lightly fished, but I’ve found it tends to give a higher ratio of male to female cuckoo wrasse than other spots I frequent and, for me, that’s a good thing.

I clambered down the cliff and tackled the tricky final descent with the aid of a rope for safety’s sake. Setting up on the flat rock that forms the natural base camp, I couldn’t help chuckling to myself at how overgunned the tackle was for the size of the fish I was seeking. The phrase ‘using a sledgehammer to crack a walnut’ came to mind! Still, the gear was chosen to deal with the challenges of the mark itself and there are a few. The middle of the cove forms a deep bowl and about 30 yards out immediately in front of where I was stood the depth shallows off to a reef. The leading edge of the reef forms a ledge that has cost me gear in the past although it is a decent spot to spin across for a pollack or two. Problems can arise if the local fishermen have stationed any pots in the immediate vicinity. The bottom here is not that tackle hungry usually, but introduce ropes into the mix and it’s a different animal. Seeing a few buoys out there but none that looked too likely to cause me problems, I lobbed both my rods out into the belly of the cove, noting the satisfying length of time it took for them to touch down.

Rod tips soon began rattling but I was in no hurry to reel in. Cuckoos often play around with the bait for some time before they trip up and hook themselves so I sat on my hands and waited. The hooks I was using were small and wickedly sharp coarse fishing patterns so I was confident that eventually the point would find a hold. Not for the first time, I had tried snelling my hooks to the light traces just to see if the difference in angle would make any difference to hooking power. I missed the first couple of bites and one of the recasts produced a small ballan. Perhaps an hour of fishing had passed before I reeled in the first cuckoo of the day, a small female. I popped her in a bucket of fresh seawater to await photographing, rebaited and sent out another cast. About fifteen minutes later an animated bite turned out to be a decent male, a riot of blue, orange and golden yellow appearing from the depths and being swung to hand. By this point I had already returned the little female but I soon had another to join the male in the bucket and be photographed together.

The bites dried up a bit over the top of the tide and I put together a lighter rod with a float and began prospecting around. There’s usually a few pollack in residence, and mackerel and garfish are regular visitors. I played around with the depth and soon a stuttering bite gave me a nice fresh mackerel. I kept this to one side and added another not long after. Glancing round at my bottom rods, I saw a few healthy jags on the tip of the left hander and on reeling in, I was delighted to see that I had tempted a double shot of cuckoos, a male and a female. After photographing and releasing the colourful pair I decided to call it a day on the cuckoo front. I find that cuckoos aren’t a particularly hardy species and don’t always do well post capture so I tend to limit the amount I catch in a session to no more than half a dozen.

With an hour still left to kill I decided to see if I could winkle out an eel. I mounted a 6/0 through the head and guts of one of the mackerel and cast it out way to the left where the ground shallowed up. I left this rod to fish for itself whilst I tried spinning a sandeel for pollack. After a fruitless half an hour tickling eels over the bottom, I turned my attention back to the conger rod which was showing a few signs of life. I reeled into weight and after a short wrestle a dark strap of about 7lb came to the rocks and was handlined out. Pleased enough with this mini result, I felt like the day had drawn to a natural conclusion and I packed down, scaled the cliff and trekked back to the car. I saw a couple more trout in the stream on the way back too – hopefully good omens for my next visit! 

It’s always fulfilling to have a decent day fishing somewhere that I feel a strong connection with. The first time I turned up to fish this place I remember looking out from the cliff with the sun’s rays glistening on the mirror calm water and thinking, ‘Yeah, I like it here’. The fact that the fishing that followed was fun and interesting was just the icing on the cake and cemented the bond. Since then, I’ve expanded my range of marks to many others in the locality and felt similar connections with most of them too. These relationships with the marks are definitely one of the things that keeps me coming back for more, maybe over and above the actual fishing. The days when people believed in piskies and giants may be long gone but I would have to say that there is definitely still something magical about the far west of Cornwall.