Maerl Magic

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

This year has started slowly for shore anglers in Cornwall. After a lacklustre winter season, the hope was for a bumper dose of early spring action to make up for the disappointment of the previous few months. Unfortunately, these hopes have been dashed by the crazily bipolar weather and a distinct lack of the usual suspect species inshore. Normally, by May, I would have expected to have had some thrilling sport with hounds and gilthead bream on my home turf along with middleweight ray action slightly further afield. Although I have caught a few hounds and bream, the fishing has been far from its best and I have had to go back to the drawing board to think of somewhere likely to produce a few more bites and a good chance of a quality fish. 

The estuary of the River Fal is one place I typically turn to when fish are sparse on the county’s open coast. The lower reaches contain a multitude of fish attracting features such as rocky shores, muddy inlets and shallow bays as well as the deep main channel that runs through the belly of the estuary. The area is rich in marine life, sporting worm beds and a wide variety of crustaceans as well as being home to unusual fish species such as the red band fish. The Fal also boasts other less common marine organisms such as a harvestable population of our native oyster and areas of sea grass and maerl beds. The importance of sea grass as food, nursery areas, and hunting grounds is widely known but maerl (a slow growing algae that forms coral-like structures) is also an absolute magnet for marine life. The cover provided by the matrixes of maerl offers refuge to a multitude of organisms that would otherwise be vulnerable to becoming a meal for a predator. 

One of the Fal’s maerl deposits is located in the area where the Penryn River empties into the main estuary, not far from where the north bank curves into the foreshore of the Trefusis estate. The Trefusis stretch of the Fal estuary’s west bank is well-known among Cornish shore anglers as it offers easy fishing on to clean ground. The only obstacles to worry about are the seemingly ever present crab pots (and their associated ropes) and the occasional wayward water user.

Perhaps as a result there is a tendency to look down on the spot as being more of a beginner’s mark, but the fact is that Trefusis regularly throws up impressive fish and has proven itself capable of producing a monster at any time and any tide. Out of habit, I typically used to fish at the point where I know the depths of the main channel come closest to the shore (about halfway along the stretch) but since last year I’ve put a few more hours in at a more southerly mark, hoping to catch the attention of any predators that may be on their way to or from the maerl beds.

The Fal estuary, as you might expect, sports worthwhile quantities of thornback ray running to the mid teens of pounds, but it also proves attractive to spotted ray to perhaps British record proportions. Spotteds over 5lbs are regularly caught and 6 pounders are a realistic goal. Fish over 7lbs are for the fortunate few but they are present and they do get caught. In addition to the rays, bull huss are common throughout the Fal, mostly running to low double figures. These roam freely over the predominantly clean ground inside the estuary and can sometimes be picked up in the day as well as at night. Top bait for both ray species is undoubtedly live sandeel, with these shimmering morsels seeming to pick off the choicest fish year after year. Frozen sandeel is very much second best but it is the bait that I use most frequently and I have still caught plenty of fish with it. Crab (in my experience) fishes poorly for Fal thornbacks, although having caught fish in the neighbouring Helford estuary on live prawn I suspect that would do well in the Fal also. The huss in the Fal favour sandeel, either of the frozen variety or fresh deads.

For me, Trefusis has always been a particularly intriguing place to fish. Having said that, I don’t have much appetite for daytime sessions there – it is those sessions crossing from the evening into darkness that I savour the most. Under the blanket of night the place takes on an absorbing atmosphere, a quiet brooding that is filled with tension and the anticipation of the next bite. Lights twinkle across the river from the bulk of St Mawes Castle, the low hum of machinery is audible from Falmouth docks and at any moment a ray may swoop gracefully on to one of my baits. Admittedly, many of these ray are quite modest specimens; Trefusis seems to be especially fond of throwing out male thornbacks weighing not much more than 5lbs. Catch the attention of a female spotted, however, and you are likely to be a happy angler as these generally average around the 4lb mark. To date, my best spotted ray from Trefusis had been a fish of 5lbs 7oz but I’ve felt ever since that this was a figure I could definitely improve on. With this thought in the back of my mind, I made an evening voyage out to Trefusis planning to catch the four hour run up to high water – probably my favourite time slot to fish at this venue.

I arrived to find my first choice mark vacant and the water looking reasonably clear with a south westerly breeze ruffling the surface. All the signs looked promising and I began to set up, baiting two pulley dropper rigs with frozen sandeels. These would be carried into the distance and pinned to the bottom by 6oz plain leads. I like to let these to roll a little and find natural troughs by letting out a little loose line and allowing the current to pull against the bow. Any depressions in the seabed are natural ray feeding spots and definitely worthwhile seeking out. My first two casts went out to their intended areas and I quickly set about getting my kit sorted for the rest of the session before baiting a spare rig. The rods curved gracefully into the tide and after watching for a while, I was pretty sure that there wasn’t a huge amount of crab activity out there.

Time ticked away, and I focused on keeping my cast times to around half an hour to keep in tune with the wear and tear on the baits. As the fishing was slow, I put together a third rod and sent out a speculative cast at an angle upriver. As darkness fell, everything started to look good for a fish and I was sure that it was just a matter of time. I had begun preparing a bait for the next cast when I happened to glance up and see that the line on what was now my middle rod was hanging limp. A quick tighten up revealed signs of life on the other end – a few little bumps were followed by a purposeful draw and I reeled into the fish. At first contact, the fish felt substantial although it soon began to come in quite easily. This pattern of behaviour made me strongly suspect I was battling a huss that was lightly hooked and would shake itself free when the pressure came on in close. As the fish drew nearer, it became obvious that it was kiting in at an angle and was about to pass under the line on my right hand rod. It was also staying deep and heading right for a barely submerged ledge. I changed the angle of the rod and leant in hard to check the fish’s progress. By this point, I was certain that I had a ray on and the way it was putting up such staunch resistance towards the end of the tussle made me think it was a decent spotted. The leader knot appeared, although it was clear that the fish was still hugging the bottom and trying to find refuge in the rock ledges. Fortunately for me, despite the fish’s best efforts firm pressure won out and a dark submerged shape soon appeared in the torch beam. The ray surfaced and I could see that it was indeed one of the gloriously marked spotteds that the Fal is noted for, with a dorsal surface the colour of melted butter and big inky spots. This was clearly a good fish and when plucking it from the water the first thing that struck me was the muscular thickness of its body through the middle. I couldn’t be certain, but this looked and felt like the biggest spotted ray I had ever caught. I quickly unhooked my prize and slipped her into a good sized rockpool to recuperate.

As I rummaged through my bag for the scales (which had not been troubled much in the last few months) I wondered whether the fish might go over 6lbs. It certainly had some heft to it when I held it and the prodigious girth of its middle was promising. Carefully weighing my prize revealed a weight of 6lbs 2oz: a figure I was absolutely delighted with! A few quick pictures later and she was swimming off back into the depths. Luckily, she had not been deep hooked and I felt confident that her chances of surviving to contribute to the next generation were very good. 

Soon after catching the first I landed a second spotted ray, a male that I did not weigh but I would have guessed at around 3lbs. It was a handsome fish and I quickly returned it, thinking that there was a strong possibility it was a prospective mate for the bigger ray. I fished on for a while longer but with two quality fish caught I felt that my chances of any more decent ones were pretty slim. Trefusis is a spot that rarely gives up a bumper session – more often one or two good fish are the best you can hope for. I added a couple of dogfish before finishing up just after the top of the tide. You can fish the ebb here and there is often another decent window of fish activity about two hours down, but it is generally not as dependable as the second half of the flood.

The lower Fal estuary is a fascinating body of water to fish and undoubtedly contains many hidden gems just waiting to be found by anglers who fall under its spell. When things are going well the fishing can be really fulfilling, but when things are bad they can be pretty torturous. There are few places that I fish that feel as stone dead as the Fal does when it switches off. What is worse is that it seems to pick on certain anglers, inflicting blank after blank on them even while others are catching fish. Trefusis is particularly notorious for doing this. One very successful ray angler I used to regularly see fishing there told me it took him three years to catch his first thornback from the mark. For me, this adds to the attraction of the place. I enjoy the fact that it is moody and inconsistent as it makes the little victories that bit sweeter. It is easy to forget that even though some spots may have reputations as ‘soft’ marks, that does not necessarily mean that there aren’t good fish to be caught and great memories to be made at them for the more experienced angler. Sometimes a little thought and a fresh approach to a familiar place could be the difference between the frustration of enduring a lean spell and the exhilaration of catching a new personal best.