Seasoned in the Abyss

This story first appeared in the January 2019 issue of Black Tide magazine.

‘Sport the war!’ yelled Tom Araya from the car stereo speakers, his tuneless roar sitting perfectly atop the savage pulse of the music. Thundering down the A30, the great tarmac spine of Cornwall, I reflected on how unfortunate it was that the first Slayer album I bought was ‘Divine Intervention’ (which I didn’t like at all and returned to the music store) and not this record or any of those that preceded it. As a 13-year-old recently awakened to the existence of thrash metal and on a constant search for heavier sounds, ‘Seasons in the Abyss’ or ‘Reign in Blood’ would have blown my mind. Instead, I ended up exchanging ‘Divine Intervention’ for something else by another band and went around completely ignorant of the visceral majesty of Slayer firing on all cylinders for several more years.

Still, there was little time for wistful thoughts on this morning. I was racing against the dawn, hoping to arrive at my destination in time to get down to the water before the sun appeared above the horizon. I had good reason to be so concerned about catching the early morning halflight. It would coincide perfectly with the first run of the ebb on the mark I was going to fish and this combination of low light levels and the stimulation of the moving water would hopefully create the first decent feeding opportunity of the day.

In my mind’s eye I pictured dark backs emerging from the kelp. The pollack had been laying up over the slack water but now their fins bristled and their gills flared as new urgency rippled through their plump, muscular bodies. As they rose up off the bottom, their huge eyes scanned the dimly lit water above them looking for any sinuous living shape. They did not have to wait long. Small sandeels summoned to the surface layers by the growing daylight vanished in metallic flashes as the camouflaged assassins rocketed up to snatch them in their travels. This silent carnage went on for perhaps half an hour before the sun’s rays began to pierce through the depths and illuminate the subsurface world. The sandeels had now all migrated to the upper layers and the pollack dropped back into the kelp, melting away seamlessly into the gently swaying fronds.

After pulling up at the parking spot, I sorted myself out a little bag filled with the bare minimum of tackle and affixed a spinning reel to the butt of my bass rod. The bait box was stuffed full of packets of frozen sandeels of various sizes and the only thing left to carry was a gaff – extra insurance should I hook a proper slab.  I carefully picked my way through a series of fields and over a couple of small stone walls before reaching the cliff top, where I began the winding descent down the narrow path to the rocks below. Reaching the base of the cliff, I proceeded to make my way over angular crags of black rock, following a route that my feet seemed to instinctively remember from past trips. I reached my chosen platform and eagerly began to trickle my sandeels along the bottom, trying to skim the top of the kelp and draw out a golden olive missile. The pollack, it seemed, weren’t in the mood this morning though and I was only getting the odd tap on the retrieve. I did eventually land one or two small fish, but this wasn’t how I wanted to spend my day. Fortunately, I had no intention of staying, having already planned to move to a second venue: a new spot for me that I was particularly excited about. 

I made my way back to the car and drove a few miles down the coast. After a similar trek out to this new mark, I finally alighted on a small mushroom of rock that faced out to sea with a strong ribbon of tide running parallel to it well within casting range. In front and to my left, two fingers of reef were visible through the clear water with a gully in between. To my right the water seemed to be deeper with a bouldery shore giving way into darkness with no visible features. I began by fishing to the left, running my sandeel through the gully and quickly hitting a few small pollack in the 1lb class. These would have been fun on lighter tackle but with the bass rod I was just horsing them in and quickly releasing them, hoping to attract the attention of something that would properly curl the old Conoflex right over. Leaving the left side for a while, I began exploring the area to my right, noticing that the water directly out to sea was that bit deeper than it was further around. After retrieving my eels through these depths and right alongside the reef in front, it was clear there wasn’t a concentration of feeding pollack here and I began quartering my casts off to the right where the current was broken up slightly by an emergent rock. I soon found myself playing a small pollack and then something that hit the eel strangely and fought in a more dogged fashion, eventually proving to be a ballan wrasse of a couple of pounds or so.

The next take was clearly from a better stamp of pollack and, although not a monster, this fish had enough mass to make some short stabbing dives for the bottom. I quickly vanquished it, however, and brought a fish of around 3lbs to hand. This was a great sign and I quickly released the pollack and cast out a fresh eel, feeling that the chance for a proper one was imminent. The next take was heavier and the rod locked up for the first time that day against the weight of something significantly stronger. I muttered to myself, ‘This is a better fish’ and I felt myself grin involuntarily as I began to play the athletic pollack to shore. It stayed deeper for longer than the previous fish and made a last ditch dive which I was well prepared for. It was no surprise when a beautiful slab-flanked pollack appeared through the depths and broke the surface, gasping. I carefully climbed down to the water’s edge and plucked it from the gently lapping sea. This fish would be coming home with me so I secured it in a convenient crack in the rocks before quickly getting back to the fishing. 

The pollack seemed to taper off after this capture and it was the wrasse that came to prominence. Much of the time the following wrasse would just bite the tail of the eel clean off, but occasionally they’d hook up cleanly and give a muscular fight to shore. I landed several to nearly 4lbs, each one giving a strong account of itself and one fish in particular having the most gorgeous colours just in its tail: an abalone-like effect that was absolutely stunning. As the fishing slowed I took a break and weighed my biggest pollack, getting a reading of 5.4lbs – a nice fish and one in the absolute peak of condition; fat as a hog and with the tail of a sandeel poking out of its gullet.

By 2pm, I was ready for my next move and I made my ascent back up through a narrow channel in the rocks, stopping for one last look from the top before heading back to the car. I hastily gulped down a meal of cold pasta salad and washed it down with a few cups of warm coffee from the flask. Without seriously considering alternative spots, I pointed the car back in the direction I’d come from and made my way steadily back to the mark I’d spent the early morning on. This time, I wasn’t so much thinking of the pollack fishing, more somewhere I could fish on the bottom in darkness with a good chance of picking up something sizable. The frontrunners would naturally be conger and huss, but this was the same mark that had gifted me a ling the previous year and you can never rule out the chance of a rogue cod that takes up residence on the rough ground. 

I made the same journey out again, only this time laden with much more gear, and planted my kit in the same spot I’d occupied early in the day. This mark faces front on to the sea and immediately to the left there is a reef that partially uncovers at low tide. To the right, the bottom drops away into a good depth of water and this is where I was going to position my baits as soon as the sun dipped below the horizon. In the meantime, I spent some time covering the water with the sandeels again, picking up a small pollack or two for my troubles. There was clearly more fish there as I could see them slashing at baitfish over the reef, but they were not overly interested in what I was doing and I started to think about setting up the bottom rods.

Before I had a chance to start sorting out my gear, I heard the sound of voices and turned to see two anglers arriving on the mark. Although I had never met either of them before, I instantly recognised them as Alan Rule and Jason Hawke: two of the county’s top shore fishermen with many specimen fish to their names. After a few friendly introductions, they told me that they were fishing for a club event and elected to set up to my left, fishing over the back of the reef. I decided to continue spinning for a short time until the light went completely, then I packed away the pollack gear and put together my two heavier outfits, arming them with large mackerel baits, before lobbing them both out into the quiet dark water. We were all soon getting bites, the taps and pulls of strap congers. Jason was first to land an eel, although it was of no great size, and I followed up with one of my own soon after.

I’d been aware for a while that I was feeling unusually confident. I just knew that I was going to catch something respectable, although I was thinking it was going to be an eel or perhaps a good huss. It wasn’t too much of a surprise then when after a tentative bite followed by a series of pulls against the rod tip, I struck into something large and ponderous that shook its head as I hefted it from the bottom. I remember saying, ‘Good fish’ to Alan and Jason, and I concentrated on keeping the weight moving as it was staying down and threatening to reef me. As I rhythmically pumped the fish shorewards, I was dimly aware of Alan and Jason excitedly speculating as to what it might be. The pattern of the fight didn’t scream eel and if this was a huss it was an absolute monster as the resistance was very strong. I wasn’t thinking about what species I’d hooked myself, I was just concentrating on guiding it to where Jason was poised with the gaff. The fish was rooting hard for the bottom as it came in close and I did feel it stick once briefly on an obstruction. The fish was still well down as it came in beneath us and I applied more pressure to it, feeling it yield and begin to come to the surface. The glimmer of a white underbelly appeared through the water and Jason shouted, ‘Ling!’ before the fish fully emerged into view and revealed itself to be not a ling, but a mighty gutbucket of a cod that flared its gills and convulsed angrily on the surface. Compared to the gyrations of the pollack I’d been catching all day, the movements of this fish seemed to happen almost in slow motion and I could clearly hear how much water it was moving: a low ‘sloosh’ rather than a high-pitched ‘splash’. Jason was in prime position as I guided the leader to him, floating the cod up over a ledge before he administered a textbook gaff shot right in the fish’s chin. As Jason passed the gaff to Alan and he lifted it to safety, we speculated over the weight; I felt instantly that this fish was every ounce of fifteen pounds and probably more, whereas Jason was more conservative, calling it at fourteen. Alan kept his own counsel and, critically, he was the man in possession of a set of very accurate digital scales that would take all the guesswork out of the equation. I stayed back and watched Alan and Jason’s faces as they hoisted the cod aloft and steadied it to get a reading. Alan said, ‘Bloody hell, it’s seventeen!’ and Jason craned in for a closer look before saying, ‘Seventeen twelve!’, both of them looking over at me to see what my reaction was to the news. I have no idea what my expression must have communicated but inwardly I was singing hymns to the sea gods! The three of us gathered round for a proper look as I slipped the cod into a rock pool. Although Jason had done a flawless job of gaffing it without causing any significant damage, it had gorged the 8/0 out of sight and was now destined for my dinner table.

‘That’s a grunter!’ said Alan as the cod came to rest in the corner of the pool. As I gazed down at my prize, the significance of what I’d just caught began to sink in. Although I’d caught a bigger fish over in Norway, this was undoubtedly the most momentous cod I had ever caught and am ever likely to catch. For years I’d dreamed of a UK shore double but I’d never seriously considered the possibility that it would happen in my home county. To put it in context, big shore-caught cod are very rare catches in Cornwall. My previous best in the county was a fish of 7.7 – already nearly a pound over the county’s specimen weight for club anglers. Although there has been a trend of the odd double being caught from rough ground marks over the years, as far as I was aware, this was the biggest of them and therefore probably the largest cod from the shore in Cornwall for a decade or more. The fact that the fish was such a stunner made the capture even more special for me. The cod had the rich brown flanks of a fish that has been living over rough ground for some time, coloured by deep dark water, rocks and kelp: seasoned in the abyss. People talk about ‘lifetime’ fish and, at least on a regional level, this was unquestionably one of those and one that I felt extremely fortunate to have been in the right time and place to encounter.

I didn’t spend too much time revelling in the capture of the cod though, there were clearly more fish to be caught and I was keen to get my baits back in the water. I’d brought along some frozen cuttlefish for this mission and it was half of one of these, with thick brown and black liquids oozing from its innards, that I bound to a freshly-sharpened 8/0 and put out around 50 yards to the area the cod had come from. This had the desired effect and I was soon guiding a huss into the rocks to be landed by Jason. This was a fish of no particular size and with no appealing markings, so I released it quickly and went about getting another bait on the spot. It wasn’t long after that Alan (having secured a weighable dogfish) and Jason packed up and made their way back over the rocks with me choosing to stay on for a little longer. Alan had kindly helped me photograph the cod and I went about getting a few extra ones from different perspectives before I gutted it, all the while keeping half an eye on my rods. Interestingly, the cod’s stomach was absolutely crammed full of velvet swimming crabs of various sizes, including one palm-sized beast. I had fully expected to discover some evidence of fish but there was none to be seen. 

The bites continued but were of the strap conger variety, and after another hour, I decided that it was time to face the climb back to civilisation. The trek back to the car took more than double the time that it usually does, and my lungs and shoulders burned from the effort of awkwardly lugging the fish up the cliff as well as all my kit. Way before I’d reached my car, I’d decided that a sugary celebration was in order and I resolved to find a 24 hour shop on the way home. Luckily, the Tescos in Penzance was just such an establishment and I greedily stuffed down a bag of Jelly Babies and a bottle of Dr. Pepper on the rest of the drive. Oddly enough, I felt no need for another dose of Slayer on the way home, instead favouring the more relaxed sounds coming from the radio. West Cornwall had exceeded all my expectations yet again and I had been lucky enough to have plucked another secret from its mysterious waters.