Saturday, 30 November 2013

The Great Squid Hunt

In my years of Fishing Breaks I have done some odd things in the name of running a company, but whipped by sub zero winds a mile out to sea off the Dorset coast in the darkening gloom of late November trying to catch a squid was never in any business plan I recall writing. I can barely tell you how cold it was; every time I peeked out from under my sheepskin lined hat I expected to be pebble-dashed by driving snow and all those romantic notions of hitching a ride on A Deadliest Catch trawler (Discovery TV channel most nights) are now consigned to history.

Top Cat III 

Why? Well, this what passes for fun when the Fishing Breaks crew - office, Guides and river keepers - celebrate the end of a season.  Anything fly fishing would be too much of a busman's holiday; we have done the horse racing and other suchlike but a day on a charter boat out of Weymouth harbour gets the vote most years.  Actually it is a good choice. None of us (excepting Tony King) are really any good at sea fishing and it is fun, just for a change, to be told how, what and where to fish. Mind you that doesn't stop us voicing opinions, but our Captain this year on the Top Cat III was Ivan Wellington, who at six foot three and with a penchant for playing rock anthems from his wheelhouse generally ignored any advice we gave him.

So why squid? I don't really know. We set off at 7.30am expecting a few cod, mackerel and maybe a sea bass if we were lucky, planning to be back for an afternoon session in the one of the harbour pubs for beer, fish and chips. But Ivan, who just does it his way and all power to him for that, had a plan though somewhere along the line he forgot to tell us about it. So at 4.30pm instead of heading into port, Ivan hove to with only the twinkling lights of the distant coast providing us with company, every other boat having fled for home ahead of the darkness. Off went the hooks from our rods, on went the squid jigs. These lures look a little like lurid Devon minnows minus the fins but plus a frightening array of upward facing sharpened steel points, hung from the base like grappling irons. The fishing process is simple: release the line until it hits the bottom (maybe 30-50 feet), wind in a few turns and then Squid jigspersistently raise and lower your rod tip. This is barely what you would call exciting; after 10 minutes we were all glazed over, huddled into our clothing for warmth. We tried a Mexican wave with our rod tips for a distraction and then banged out to the beat of one of Ivan's rock tunes but nothing happened as it got darker, colder and to be frank depressing. At one point someone piped up, 'What happened to the pub' to which Ivan replied 'Reel in', fired up the powerful twin diesel engines and motored a quarter of a mile to where we started twenty minutes earlier so we could drift, yet again, with the tide, jigging our rods.

And then I noticed the oddest thing. No longer were we alone at sea; all manner of craft from another big charter boat like us, to a host small fishing skiffs carrying bright white lanterns hung on small masts, were drifting in unison with us in the pitch dark. This is the commercial squid fishing fleet of Weymouth, something I never even imagined existed. Suddenly I felt we must be in with a chance and sure enough my line went heavy. Squid don't fight as such, they just hang onto the jig but as there is no barb or hook you have to smoothly and continuously bring them in, flipping them onto the deck with a single movement. Let the line go slack for a moment and they just drop off. But if you are successful, watch out for their fury. Squid move by jet propulsion and when they leave the water you will be subjected to an arc of white, briny water that comes your way at speed.

Squid in tank
1-2kg Loligo forbesi squid each roughly 2-3ft long
Nobody knows the full story of the squid's life around the UK coastline but from September to December they come close to shore to feed on crustaceans, small fish and other squid. The life of the commercial fleet such as it is, maybe a dozen boats, is precarious, the success depending on the breeding cycle from year to year as the pros do it just like we did, the only difference being hand lines rather than rods. This lack of mechanisation might explain why the fishing fleets are so few and so small it being what they call in the jargon 'low-impact' fishing with no heavy nets dragged over the sea bed and a low bycatch of unwanted fish caught unintentionally.  It might also be because the window of opportunity around dusk is so brief; from the moment we jigged our first squid to the boats heading in was no more that 45 minutes, but it is fast and furious when it happens. The squid are clearly in a shoal that move with the tide. When you are over the shoal every line has a fish and every line sent back down is instantly grabbed. But you can't stay with the shoal for more than a few minutes at a time so each boat takes it in turn to drift the prime spots, sharing the bounty out amongst everyone.

There is still a certain amount of romance about making a living from harvesting the sea on this scale and Weymouth on Monday's crisp, chill night was the epitome of that as we chugged back in. Around us the boats were packing the squid on ice, stowing away the gear and hosing down the decks. Piled up on the quay were the lobster pots, sea bass nets and the oyster gathering scoops, all proof that you have to bend with the seasons and nature to be successful if this is the life you choose. For us the choice was the warmth of the pub and the much delayed fish and chips; I suspect we will be back next year. 

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