An Irish Anglers World

Running to Standstill

“Within the past two months this writer had the bizarre experience of having his heritage and understanding of the inshore fishery off Greystones, Co. Wicklow questioned by commercial fishermen who only entered the fishery after the fish had disappeared, while the best that EU fisheries decision makers to include our own Fisheries Minister Simon Coveney can do in an effort to protect north east Atlantic mackerel is to impose economic sanctions on Iceland and the Faroe Islands. For Christ Sake guys and gals you get paid enough money, do the right thing for once in your lives and make an honest judgement call that benefits all rather than political expedience to a few, after all neither the EU, Norway or Iceland/Faroe Islands owns the resource”……..

Greystones, Co. Wicklow to this writer is much more than a dormitory town with a half finished harbour cut and pasted on. Greystones is tradition, heritage, deep family roots, mackerel off the head, cod on the Moulditch, plaice on Reilly’s, Len O’Driscoll, competition weigh ins outside the Beach House, Grandfather Willie Redmond, and Dad God rest him patiently teaching the impatient how to row. Greystones isn’t a throw back, Greystones isn’t nostalgia, Greystones is here and very much now.

Memories and past thoughts are strange taking you back to yesterday today. One becomes immersed, so it was on a recent July morning during that glorious heat wave where temperatures soared to 30 degrees. There’s nothing like motoring through the harbour mouth at 05.30am, a slight chill in the air, Bray head softened by haze, Jean Anne pushing aside a lazy swell, Gary sat in the bow untangling a set of feathers, occasional snippets of conversation, voices raised to be heard over the engine.

Early summer morning on the slip at Greystones harbour.

Most significantly there’s the anticipation of what the day might bring, mackerel bouncing and darting on the feathers a precursor to the main event, a big female tope racing off down tide. Two dozen mackerel should have covered all our needs providing enough fresh baits with some left over for rubby dubby, sadly on that beautiful morning we managed four after two hours solid jigging so missing the start of the flood a key element of our plan. Under normal circumstances we would have boated enough in ten minutes, for anyone with even a smidgeon of interest in marine matters these are very worrying times.

Feathering for mackerel is almost a right of passage, a gateway into sea angling as a hobby or an occasional pursuit on holidays to while away a few hours with the added bonus of bringing something home for tea. The perception held is that mackerel are prolific, and they are under normal circumstances, however in 2013 four years into a stand off between rival commercial fishing nations north east Atlantic mackerel are being decimated, what Gary and I experienced off Bray Head on the morning of Thursday 11th July 2013 the resultant.

A solitary summer mackerel the resultant of over fishing circa 2013.

The target biomass for north east Atlantic mackerel to give maximum sustainable yield is presently accepted as 2.2 million tonnes, EU countries and Norway under agreement remove on average 500,000 tonnes per annum. Include now the Faroe Islands and Iceland and one can push that figure beyond 800,000 tonnes. Add in mortalities, discards, possible high grading and a not unheard of illegal landing or two (reference Fahy, Overkill, Chapter.16), and it is feasible that an extremely unsustainable 1,000,000 tonne of mackerel are likely being currently removed from the north east Atlantic. Given the species ranking in the marine food chain this very real possibility is scary stuff indeed and certainly warrants immediate attention.

The above passage is anecdotal, speculative, a sweeping statement? Could be all three, however one fact is absolute Gary Robinson and Ashley Hayden, two very experienced sea anglers fishing two strings of feathers off Bray Head on July 11th last boated just four mackerel in two hours, a very graphic reflection of where the fishery is at.

I digress so back to the fishing, Gary and I now had four very fresh chances to lure a tope, so majoring on the positives we gunned the engine and set a bearing towards a mark north east of the Moulditch. Dropping anchor into a four meter tide, after Jean Anne had settled Gary proceeded to lower a precious bait on a running ledger 60 feet to the seabed while I continued to jig in the hope of increasing our mackerel tally. Ten minutes and an additional mackerel later Gary’s reel sang, text book stuff after 10 seconds he leaned into the tope while engaging the spool, fish on.

Gary Robinson playing a tope off Greystones, Co. Wicklow, Ireland.

A quick explanation: in this day and age there is no need to wait for a tope to slow down and turn, yes hitting a running tope early may result in the bait being pulled from the fishes mouth, however a scissors hook hold for conservation purposes is the ideal and an early strike delivers this aim practically every time.

Powering off down tide the fish quickly turned towards the boat prompting Gary to reel like hell to stay in contact. Heeled over in its fighting curve adjusting drag where required, thumbing the spool, pumping when allowed the sleek fish came reluctantly closer before nothing. Gary uttered “She’s gone”, his disappointment palpable, on reeling in the culprit turned out to be a faulty crimp. With evidence that tope were about and still four baits to the good we quickly set about getting two more in the water.

An hour later with the north run now easing yours truly decided to try a fresh bait. Retaining the original untouched mackerel, beggars cannot be choosers, I attached a juicy blood filled replacement with the tail snipped off to prevent spinning and sent it on its way. Within an instant a run developed. Again striking early the tope ran up through the gears ripping line off the old Penn before doubling back. On this occasion all went to plan and after a hectic five minute scrap the heavy female approaching forty pounds was lifted carefully over the gunwale by Gary.

A summer tope caught off Greystones, Co. Wicklow, Ireland.

What lines she had sleek and beautiful, blue grey merging to white, broad shoulders, wide pectorals and that big notched tail a species built for speed. Scissors hooked, pliers extracted, belly supported photograph and away. Slack water heralded a fallow period livened by a half hour slot as the ebb picked up strength. Gary then witnessed heaven and hell, three lost runs including a mid water hit and a follow to the boat. To see a large tope swim up from sixty foot below and hover behind a bait within two meters of your sitting position is something else. Marry that with a bull huss in similar pose next drop and you can appreciate that fishing is more then just catching, nature in full view is truly amazing.

Now bait less Gary and I decided to weigh anchor and point Jean Anne towards Greystones a creamy Guinness and toasty courtesy of the Beach House. Some traditions die hard however they can fade away, like the fishing off Greystones. Yes this is 2013 and not 1975 but don’t let that trick you. Sea birds were noticeable by their scarcity, strings of whelk pots the predominant sign of commercial activity, and as for angling craft allowing for it being a Thursday morning we shared the sea with only one other during the most settled high summer conditions in seven years.

A small huss from the ridge, Greystones, Co. Wicklow.

In conversation with a retired east coast trawler skipper who I met by chance the following Saturday, unprompted the gentleman poured out his very experienced take on what has happened to our inshore waters citing inshore mussel dredging as a key factor in their decline, “no mussel beds, no food attractant, no fish”. Seventy years of age and a fisherman since the very early sixties this man pointed the finger directly at Governance (political and regulatory) and the larger fishing operations that control the sector to the detriment of coastal jobs now long gone or under threat.

As I write on Monday 15th July 2013 Minister Coveney with the support of Britain and Spain is in Brussels placing the mackerel issue firmly on the agenda of the EU Fisheries Ministers meeting taking place, would that they replace confrontational politics between nations with common sense. The once great North Sea mackerel fishery up to the 1960’s delivered annually up to one million tonne, it collapsed and has never recovered, are we that short sighted to dawdle and repeat the same mistake?

Gary and I enjoyed a wonderful morning north east of the Moulditch connecting with a true sport fish while being witness to natures wonder. Over riding the joy however was a pervading sense of loss made apparent by the absence of a true measure that summer is here, shoals of mackerel. Mackerel are integral like strawberries and cream a heritage and more, they represent a key element of the north east Atlantic marine biological jigsaw and should not be looked at purely in terms of capital invested, jobs, or future revenues.

Yes we may have caught tope that July day however the inshore waters were lifeless epitomised by the dearth of sea birds and mackerel. Change needs to occur both in thought and deed, not for economic reasons but for moral, the wheel has turned well beyond blind acceptance and we have to act now or it will be too late……..

Ashley Hayden © July 2013