Monday, 2 May 2011

Fishing For Free

Image Above: Observatory
Location: Isle of Erraid, Mull, Scotland

The sea is still rough despite the run of fair weather, it doesn’t help that I am fishing amongst the island’s outer reefs and islets. Every wave that strikes the rocks in deep water gets the chance to echo into the following wave, sometimes briefly doubling their height as they merge. I am at the top of the tide and like a thrown ball reaching its apex I am waiting for the pull of gravity to lay claim to its own.

The fish have been small but catching and returning them safely to the sea is reassuring, a bit like inspecting investments for the future. If they come up repeatedly undersized I’ll move and try again, some days this can be a little annoying even though I still find a rod twitching under the strain of a fish mesmerizing. The fish are mostly half pound Coley and Pollock underlings that haunt the island in vast shoals, the relatively shallow margins keep them out of reach of larger predators. Sometimes when the incoming tide coincides with the onset of evening they venture into the sandy bay overlooked by the cottages, filing past the pier in a steady stream. As the tide retreats through the narrow opening to the ocean for a short while it runs as a river; I once looked down into these swirling waters from a drifting boat and saw a shoal overpowered by the current and stirred up like leaves as they were carried back to open water. Despite their size they fight above their weight eager to outpace the rest of the shoal in the frenzy to feed. Often in the process of unhooking them they regurgitate partially digested sand eels onto the deck of the boat. These needle like fish are not true eels but occupy the unfortunate position of being at the top of the menu of most the oceans fish and the birds that share their territory. They are the potato, rice, or wheat of the sea, even their larger cousins, the greater sand eels, prey on them.

The sand eels apart from their incalculable numbers have a trick up their sleeve, when pursued they can literally swim into the sand. It is not unusual to uncover them while raking for cockles in silty sand of the bay. They too haunt the pier and bay through the summer months, hiding in broad daylight and shallow water while making the most of the smaller creatures. Lacking teeth they suck at the court bullion of life that is the ocean, creatures barely visible to the naked eye yet ,dense enough in numbers to colour the water and top the boat’s wake with a phosphorescent glow. The plankton, both plant and animal, larva and adult, seed and tree, swimming whip tailed blind and stupid, kicking, eating, reproducing, dying, developing, absorbing, exchanging.

In the summer giant fish, the basking sharks, come to gorge themselves as the sun powers up the plankton, these barrel mouthed monsters cruise the waters of the sound sieve netting dinner as their fins cut the breeze like sails. If I turn off the boat’s engine, curiosity often brings them within a hand grab and the realisation dawns, that if you stack up enough small parts, you can make an awfully big pile.

The piles I am fishing for today are a little smaller than the sharks but old enough to have spawned in the depths of the ocean. I know its early in the season but hopefully the larger Pollock and Coley have begun to return from deep water having spent their seed. For bait I have sand eels made from wrapping ribbon with hand painted eyes that stare back like those of the corpses scattered on the deck. When the first proper strike comes, it bends the rod down to the gunwale, arching to the tip until it almost touches the water, I pull back and wind in but it has gone. It felt like a good sized Pollock, and I guess it is waiting in ambush on the reef below. I drop the lure again and begin to jig, once the weighted end of the line touches down, bang again, but as I wind the line goes slack. On the third drop the fish runs with the eel snagging the hook firmly into its jaw. The rod is bent double and dancing like a diviner’s willow, I adjust the tension on the real not wishing to hand out any more line and begin to lift the fish from the reef.

When it breaks the surface I reach over the gunwale and lift the fish into a waiting box, there is always a moment when I pause and check myself, as if the events of the last few moments were some other reality. What was once fish needs to become food and with a heavy well honed knife I cut in from behind the pectoral fin, following the line of the gills to the spine which breaks with a crunch. Turning the fish over I cut again from the other side and the head comes away with most of the guts. It only remains to open up the organ cavity, a slit away, the small piece of flesh, where the guts are attached via the anus. I toss the head and guts back into the ocean as gulls slip from the rocks eager for a free meal. With a little rinse back over the side of the boat the fish is laid on icepacks in a cool box.

I have fished here long enough to know that odds on landing another are slim unless I wish to remain out for the evening. Luckily the boat belongs to the community and I have no overheads to pay off with my catch so I can turn tail and head for home. I take the long route out into the sound of Iona and clear water where the swell rides in off the Atlantic, almost undisturbed by contact with land. Amongst the jumble of islands a familiar but reassuring sight greets me, the small cone topped observatory. Its blackened windows stare out to the sea, past the boat and sound, to the lighthouses that lie on the edge of the horizon. Sometimes in the evenings I wander up the winding granite steps and watch the sun return to the ocean.

Image Above Left: Basking Shark in the Sound of Iona

Image Above Right:A Pollock in the box, Sound of Iona


  1. Sounds lovely....a lovely spot, too. And don't those Pollack fight a bit? Last fished for them many years ago just off Staffin Island on Skye. Hoping to head back up that way again in the not too far distant future....

  2. Last year i had one that felt like i had hitched up to a sub, but yeah i have to pinch myself often when i manage to get out there with a rod. Thanks Paul