I’ve had a strong desire to catch a tope, ever since a school trip to Anglesey in the mid-nineties, where I witnessed a large specimen captured and released. That experience put the species right at the top of my “to catch” list of British sea fish.
The tope is Britain’s largest inshore native shark, and grows to a maximum size of around 2 metres in length and 95lb in weight. I love my freshwater predator fishing, so when I was offered a chance to fish for these sleek predators, with two Scottish International anglers, Brian Burn and Willie Kennedy; I just couldn’t refuse!
After a bit of hasty organisation, my friend Craig and I made the trip from Derbyshire up to the beautiful Galloway coast. We checked into the Queens Arms Hotel in the picturesque and quaint, Isle of Whithorn, and settled down with a pint; leaving just enough time to set the next day’s scene with Brian and Willie, before we each got some much needed rest.
The beautiful Isle of Whithorn harbour is a scene straight from a postcard!
Early next morning we headed down to the public slipway with Willie’s boat and set off towards some of his favourite marks. As is customary in sea predator fishing, we stopped to catch some fresh baits on the way out. On this occasion we were after mackerel, which were both abundant and obliging to our mackerel feathers. So it wasn’t long before we had enough bait to last us the day. We motored on to a small wreck mark and dropped more feathers down, to pick up some pollack, coalfish and poor cod. Neither Craig or I, had caught any of any of these species before. They were not specimens by any shout, but a few more species on our lists nonetheless!
Soon we were dropping anchor and setting up our rods for the Tope. We rigged the fresh mackerel as “flappers” ( which involves making a fillet cut from the tail towards the head, on both sides of the bait. Then removing the exposed section of spine, allowing the fillets to “flap” freely in the current). The flappers were mounted on barbless hooks, attached to a heavy wire trace. Above this, a paternoster boom was mounted, which held the line clear of the large leads required to hold bottom. Finally, a heavy monofilament “rubbing trace” joined the wire trace to the mainline, to resist the abrasive flanks of a tope if it managed to twist and rub against the line.
Most of the baits were simply dropped behind the boat, to be fished “downtide”, whilst a couple of baits were also cast “uptide”, with large gripper leads used to hold bottom. Willie had obviously taken us to a good mark, because the rods hadn’t been cast out long before the first bite materialised.
Brian and Willie kindly let me strike the first bite, and after a good 5 minutes or so, my first ever tope neared the surface. There’s something quite eerie about the first glimpse of a fish caught from a boat. You have just spent ages in battle with a creature that you’re not sure of the exact size, or even species! Then suddenly, you spot the flash of a flank in the clear water below. This flash instantly betrays both the size and colour of your capture; which in turn can either raise your anticipation further, or dash your remaining hopes of being connected to a monster!
Luckily the first “flash” of the day was a long, slender bar of silver, and as soon as I saw it I knew I was locked in a tug o’ war with a respectable tope. Brian did the honours with landing the fish, and the barbless hook was removed before I posed for a photo.
In general, tope don’t seem to fight too hard. They are difficult to haul up from a reasonable depth, and feel heavy all the way to the surface, but it is not until they see the boat that there is any serious pulling in the opposite direction. Once inside the boat though, tope scrap tremendously! They feel like they’re 100% muscle and take a lot of holding still in order for the hook to be removed. Without maximum concentration at this point, it would be easy to get injured by a flailing tooth or tail, as Willie was reminded when this first fish tore a hole in his t-shirt, but luckily didn’t connect with him!
My first Tope! A fin-perfect creature of around 18lb in weight
We weren’t waiting long before Craig was also into a fish, which came to the boat with little resistance. It soon became apparent why, when a small lesser-spotted dogfish appeared at the surface. Craig went on to land a couple more of these mini-predators, as well as a greater-spotted dogfish, or bull huss as they are more commonly known. Dogfish have a reputation as being the scourge of the bottom-fishing sea angler. They readily take baits intended for larger sharks, conger eels and rays, to name but a few. Despite this, I managed to avoid catching a single one!
Craig displays his reasonably-sized Bull Huss – the largest of either dogfish species he landed on the day
Eventually, Craig’s patience paid off, when he latched into a tope, which was soon followed by another, which turned out to be the largest anyone boated all day. A stunning example of around thirty pounds in weight.
Craig and Willie proudly display Craig’s stunning 30lb Tope
The action was getting fast and furious, with all four anglers hooking into fish in quick succession. On more than one occasion, we encountered a double hook-up, where two fish were hooked simultaneously. I managed to lose more fish than I landed. Some managed to roll on the line, causing it to part. Others simply spat the barbless hook mid-battle. This was frustrating, but between the four of us, we managed to land over 20 fish during the day. This was far more action than I anticipated, and a great result considering the tide was very strong, constantly giving us problems keeping our baits on the bottom, despite using a massive amount of lead. All of the tope and dogfish were returned alive and well.
Brian and Craig tussle with a tope each, at the same time!
I must express our special thanks to both Brian and Willie for a very special day’s fishing. We must have bored them senseless with our constant barrage of questions, as we tried to learn as much as we could from their vast experience. They took us out, let us use their tackle and boat, gave us all of the know-how and assistance we needed. Along with being two of the most genuinely nice blokes you could wish to go fishing with. We really can’t thank them enough for giving us a session to remember. Except maybe to offer a day’s freshwater predator hunting in return!
Brian with another cracking Tope, caught as the action really hotted up!
If you’re a coarse angler or predator enthusiast, and you get the opportunity to go out on a boat and try for tope, I cannot recommend it enough! Give it a go!
Until next time, tight lines!