A Couple of Days Fishing for Skate at Oban

To be quite honest, being an ageing office worker with the upper body strength of a 10 year old means I don’t always relish the chance to play tug of war with a skate almost as big as myself. I’m neither particularly keen or successful as a skate fisherman, but a great forecast, small tide and late March meant I didn’t have a many other options on the sea fishing front. So a trip to fishing for skate at Oban was on the cards, with Ian recruited as crew.

Perfect weather for a day afloat in March. A view over the islands to the south of the Firth of Lorne.
Perfect weather for a day afloat on the Firth of Lorne in March

This was to be a two day effort, with an overnight camp in between, which meant a lot of scurrying around to sort out gear beforehand. It was a leisurely start on Friday and we launched at Ganavan around 11, just after low water, and headed out into a very calm Firth of Lorne. The plan was to revisit the Lochaline area as I’ve not tried it for several years.

Well, we fished for around 6 hours without so much as a sniff from a skate. Ian was fishing a lighter rod and picked up a grand total of 3 doggies, whilst I spent more time watching the eagles on the cliffs above Inninmore Bay. An utter waste of time, and not a great omen for Saturday.

An eagle soars over Ardtornish
An eagle soars over Ardtornish
A small but pretty dogfish, one of three taken by Ian on a poor day in Inninmore Bay
Fish of the day, almost

I hauled anchor with my tail thoroughly between my legs and we headed off to find a spot to camp overnight. We (eventually) got tucked up for the night at my second choice, a remote little bay on Mull not far from the entrance to Loch Spelve. It proved a fairly tight spot to moor in but at least there was a great little spot to pitch a tent overnight. After a dinner consisting mainly of half-cremated sausages we turned in early for the night. A remote and isolated site together with a cool, starry and midge-free evening – pretty much the way I like my camping!

Next morning I was up early, mainly to make sure the boat was still there (and floating), and was rewarded with a fine sunrise over Ben Cruachan and Kerrera.

Just before sunrise on Ben Cruachan, viewed from Mull
Just before sunrise, looking across the Firth of Lorne from Mull. Ben Cruachan in the background, Kerrera in the foreground
The sun rises over Ben Cruachan with Alcatraz sitting at anchor on Mull
The sun rises over Ben Cruachan with Alcatraz sitting at anchor on Mull

Coffee and breakfast was followed by re-stowing everything on the boat and undoing the overnight mooring, However we were soon heading out towards my usual marks near Kerrera and fishing before nine, or around 90 minutes before slack water low.

Hauling ashore from our overnight mooring
Hauling ashore from our overnight mooring

Water depth was 515 feet and I was using a 2lb lead to get a whole mackerel down and pinned to the muddy seabed. Mackerel isn’t my first choice of skate bait where there might be spurdogs out to play, but with Ian possessing the one respectable coalie we had between us there wasn’t much choice in the matter.

A simple skate rig - One mackerel, one 12/0 crimped to 18 inches of 400lb mono, plus a 2lb lead
One mackerel, one 12/0 crimped to 18 inches of 400lb mono, plus a 2lb lead
A coalfish rigged for skate fishing
A coalfish rigged for skate fishing (yes, the tail does get cut off!)

In the event it didn’t seem to make any difference as there was little in the way of spurdog (apart from one nice but skinny specimen for Ian), and the skate liked the mackerel just fine.

A good bend on the rod as Ian persuades a skate towards the surface
Ian persuading a skate to start moving
A common skate comes aboard Alcatraz
A common skate comes aboard Alcatraz

I won’t bore you with the full details of every capture, but we hoisted 7 skate to the surface and had two more throw the hook. That is waay better than any day I’ve had previously – I think the most I’ve had aboard Alcatraz before is just 3. Most of them were small(ish) males but the biggest was a female that looked to be in the 150-160lb bracket. The tide was pulling her under the boat and we were both getting knackered by that point, so we didn’t pull her aboard. Maybe a bit more, maybe a bit less, but I can’t say the precise weight bothers me too much.

My turn to try and surface a skate from 510 feet below.
Fish on! Another skate heading towards the surface
A first skate on to my rod
A first skate to my rod (one of Ian’s pics)
A 107lb male skate caught off Kerrera
A 107lb male skate caught off Kerrera

Apart from that, all the others did scrape over the gunwhales, with the best being a male of 107lbs (we had 4 males and 3 females in all). It had some sort of tag fitted, of which only the black circular base remained. There wasn’t any identifiable number on this one, so it was possibly one of the few skate tagged with a radio beacon – if anyone can shed light on this that would be great.

A small common skate from Kerrera, near Oban
A small common skate from Kerrera, near Oban
The only spurdog of the trip, and a rather skinny specimen
The only spurdog of the trip
Ian with an 85lb common skate, caught off Kerrera.
Ian with an 85lb common skate

Ian also managed the dubious honour of being the first person I’ve ever seen to get bitten by a skate. Probably more of a glancing blow than a full on crush your hand effort, it still did a fair bit of damage and certainly looked impressive with a nice pin cushion effect. This was a particularly pissed male skate which was quite aggressively trying to bite anything it could and managed to extend its jaws just as Ian extended his pliers to remove the hook. Oops!

Ian's hand after getting bitten by a common skate
Ian suffering after getting too close to a skate’s jaws. Note the lovely pincushion effect!
The mouth of a common skate bristling with sharp, backward pointing, teeth.
The mouth of a common skate bristling with sharp, backward pointing, teeth.

After swabbing copious quantities of Ian’s DNA from Alcatraz’s decks and covering his hand in band-aids we got back to fishing again. Slack water high was about 4.20 and I reckoned we could give it another 90 minutes after that before the tide picked up again.

In the event that was pretty much spot on, as I pulled up a small male of around 60lbs – and no sooner had that hit the deck than Ian was into another fish, again a male, which gave a good account of itself before coming aboard for a photo opportunity.

A last skate for Ian
A last skate for Ian

By this time it was well after five, so we decided to call it a day and head in whilst our backs were still just about in working order. 4 to me and 3 to Ian, and both of us happy with our lot, bandaged fingers notwithstanding. I’m not sure I’m converted to skate fishing as such, but it was a great way to spend a couple of days in a beautiful part of the world.

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Into The Wilderness of Ardmeanach

Ardmeanach lies on the exposed, lonely but very beautiful west coast of Mull. Only twelve miles in the round, it is almost inaccessible in places due to trackless terrain and boulder strewn hills that drop 1500 feet into the sea. The emptiest and most remote part is called simply “The Wilderness”.

Ardmeanach peninsula from the south, with layer upon layer of lava flows clearly showing

I’d no idea how much, if any, of the Ardmeanach is fishable, but The Wilderness is a name that oozes potential, and I’ve fancied exploring it for a couple of years now. With a few days of calm and dry weather forecast I grabbed the opportunity before the midges woke up for summer.

Arriving on Mull, a short stopover at Gribun gave an introduction as to what to expect, with layers of ancient lava flows stacked one atop the other to build a very dramatic coastline.

Across to Gribun cliffs
The Gribun Cliffs, Mull. Around 1000 feet high, with the road creeping along the bottom

If only the fishing at Gribun proved as exciting as the surroundings – but a couple of hours fishing the end of the cliff line you can see above generated not one hint of interest to either mackerel on the bottom or float fished ragworm.

Fishing Gribun - very deep water at the base of the cliffs

Ardmeanach itself lies just round the corner from Gribun, and was an intimidating sight, partly hidden in the clouds.

View to Ardmeanach - follow the base of the highest line of cliffs to get access to The Wilderness

It is trackless, apart from the meanderings left by goats and deer, but the initial approach isn’t difficult as you pick your way across fairly typical heathery grassland.

Approaching Ardmeanach Wilderness, Mull

As the sheep thin out towards the edge of The Wilderness the going gets quite a lot harder. I dropped down over the cliffline and down towards the shore, to make my way across the slope towards the tip of Ardmeanach.

Only goats make the trails here - rough country in Ardmeanach, Mull

In retrospect this was a mistake, as the scree and boulder fields were daunting, especially combined with constant switchbacks and climbing around inlets and across streams. The winter had clearly inflicted a lot of damage, with fresh rockfalls and washed out shorelines. Progress slowed to an exhausting crawl!

At least the wildlife showed up pretty much on cue – with a pair of golden eagles circling the cliffs and wild goats aplenty.

Golden Eagle, Ardmeanach Wilderness, Mull

Almost 4 hours after I started off I pitched up for the night at the tail end of a massive old scree slope – hoping it was as inactive as it looked, as other areas had plenty of fresh falls.

Camping in the Ardmeanach Wilderness, Mull. The base of an old scree slope provided a sheltered spot for the night

The solid cloud base thinned for a little while, to allow the moon to outline the cliffs above my little tent, but I was pretty tired and hit the sack early.

Moonlight above the cliffs, Ardmeanach. A break in the clouds allowed the moon to highlight the drama of my surroundings.

A solid night’s sleep was followed by an early morning wander across the shoreline in search of Mull’s famed fossil tree. In the event I didn’t quite have enough time to work my way round to it, but there was plenty of other geology to marvel at, including these basalt columns which were guarded by a wary herd of feral goats.

Goats and basalt, Ardmeanach, Mull.
Herd of feral goats on the beach near the fossil tree, Ardmeanach.

The coastline here, and around most of Mull was dictated by the lava flows that covered the whole area 65 million years ago and created the likes of Fingals Cave on Staffa a few miles away.

Small Atlantic Swell, Ardmeanach Wilderness.

Most of the area around the peninsula was fairly shallow so I wasn’t too bothered about giving the fishing a miss in March – more possibilities in late summer and autumn I’d have thought.

Tip of Ardmeanach peninsula.

Striking camp, I headed back but kept higher than the previous day in an effort to keep away from the deep gashes in the shore. The goat tracks kept pushing me upwards until I hit the base of the cliffline a few hundred feet up.

High in the Ardmeanach Wilderness.
About 500 feet above the sea, near the base of the cliff line.

This part of the route was definitely easier going than the previous day, although a little hairy in places, especially with the mist swirling around. The downside came a little later, as it proved very difficult to pick the best layer of rock to traverse – too low and you end up climbing up again all too soon, whilst too high and you find yourself with a serious cliff between you and the car.

Leaving the Wilderness, Ardmeanach.

In the event it still took the best part of 4 hours to get back to the car, although I reckon another trip would be quicker now that I’ve got some on the ground experience of the route.

So, what to make of Ardmeanach and its wilderness? Fishing-wise it was a washout, although there are some decent rock stances worth another look. On every other level it’s a jewel of a place – visually spectacular, lots of wildlife, amazing geology and quite challenging physically. The only other person I met was the farmer and his dog at the start of the hike (both friendly). Definitely recommended for a prepared hiker, with or without rods.

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Exploring Mull

Chart of the seas surrounding the Isle of Mull Mull is one of the most accessible of the Hebrides, but never seems to get much attention beyond the skate grounds accessible from Oban and Lochaline. Few people other than sea kayakers and yachties seem to be aware of just how stunning it’s more exposed coastline really is. A couple of years ago I whiled away a cold winter’s afternoon sketching out a plan to fish the Torran Rocks, which lie off the SW tip of the island. There were a variety of permutations possible, but the idea that proved most appealing was to be a little more ambitious and go for a full circumnavigation of Mull, launching at the Puffin Dive Centre and heading clockwise round past Iona, Staffa and Caliach Point before heading down the Sound of Mull and back to Oban.

A beautiful little pocket beach on the south coast of MullDoing this involves running a 16 foot boat over 50 miles out from the launch point, and a total distance of over 100 miles, much of it completely exposed to any SW Atlantic swells, so a fair bit of thought went into the planning and various backup positions. Obviously I needed settled weather to allow the swell as well as the wind waves to drop, and also added another fuel tank and a new PLB and other bits and pieces to Alcatraz’s inventory just to increase safety margins all round.

The big advantage of working things out beforehand is that you have a checklist you can just work through to get the show on the road, so a decision to go for it on Saturday afternoon allowed an early start on Sunday morning and an easy launch at Puffin Divers a little before nine in the morning. Just me and a rather bemused little spaniel, plus 110 litres of fuel, headed round the south of Kerrera and then out across the Firth of Lorne towards landfall on Mull at Frank Lockwood’s Island, about 12 miles distant.

Malcolm's Point and the Carsaig Arches viewed from the sea Our first destination was Malcolm’s Point, a volcanic cliff rising 700 feet from the sea. It’s only accessible by sea or by a long walk – something that’s true of most of the south coast of Mull. There was a small, slow, swell running and the coastline is ironbound so no chance of landing to view the Carsaig Arches, but I picked up a few small mackerel and a couple of coalies on micro-lures and noted that the cliffs pretty much continued underwater, with a depth over 300 feet within 150 yards of the shoreline.

Pressing on we started to see the little pocket beaches of white shell sand set against pink and grey granites of Uisken, and I pulled inshore to one set against the little island of Garbh Eilean to a have a poke about and let Bonnie get a break. The sand here is packed hard and fairly steeply shelving, but there was only a very slight swell in the lee of the island and no problem leaving the boat anchored just off the shore. We stopped off for a while, and Bonnie would have been happy to spend all day here, but it was time to press on towards the Torran Rocks and Iona.

Over 40 miles out and with reefs everywhere, you’d think it would be stuffed with hungry pollack, but it proved a little disappointing with only smallish pollack and mackerel, plus a couple of stray whiting. The lack of tide probably had quite a lot to do with it, and a more serious attempt at the area should produce better results, but I decided to head up the Sound of Iona and stick with the rough schedule I’d worked out earlier.

Iona is as beautiful as the guide books tell you (at least on a sunny day), and we soon passed the Fidden Farm campsite on the mainland, where I stayed with the kids a few years ago Bonnie doesn't seem too impressed with Fingals Cave on Staffa and which has to be one of the most scenic in the UK. The Sound itself is very shallow in parts with the sand ripples clearly visible and must have a few flatties lurking in the sand, but this is one for a future trip. North of Iona the next destination was Staffa and Fingals Cave for a couple of photos (just to prove we’d actually been there really) I landed on the island from a charter boat 30 years ago, but didn’t fancy bouncing my own wee craft off the rocky landing point without a good many more fenders.

Further north, a quick stop at Treshnish point produced more mackerel and pollack before heading up towards Caliach Point and the wreck of the Aurania – a 14000 ton, 530 feet long, liner wrecked on the point after being torpedoed in 1918. Very little of it shows on the sounder, bar one chunk (boilers?) that rise 25 feet or so from the seabed. It’s very close to shore so decidedly risky to fish in anything other than very calm weather.

Several basking sharks spotted within a few miles of Treshnish and Caliach Points A basking shark slowly circles Alcatraz off Treshnish Point
Between Staffa and Caliach Point there seemed to a concentration of basking sharks and I met no less than 5 individuals – enough for me to start keeping a sharper lookout to avoid any collisions. I’ve seen them plenty of times before, but not in such numbers, and they will come within feet of the boat if you just wait for them to swim by. Very nice bonus to encounter!

Anchored off the beach at Port Langamull, near Caliach Point, Isle of MullAnother shell sand beach on the north coast of Mull I had a wee shot on the Caliach Bank, but nothing seemed interested and it is quite a large area to try and pin anything down, so I was quite happy to have a closer look at another pocket beach and let Bonnie have a run around. White sand and clear water really does have a tropical feel about, although it wasn’t too hard to resist the temptation to dive in.

From a purely angling viewpoint you could ask what the point of it was – after all I spent more time powering along than I did actually fishing, and I didn’t catch anything of any size or particular interest. However, for me the fishing wasn’t the main reason for going and it more about stretching my boating abilities a little further, immersing myself in the wild and exposed beauty of the Sea of the Hebrides and having a thoroughly good time exploring spots that are still largely outside the reach of most people.

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