Learning to fish

So by now the boat’s good, the weather’s good and the fishing’s good. It’s just the catching that’s the problem… It’s not just what we can catch in terms of our fishing abilities (or lack thereof!) but also what we can catch without being locked up for gross shellfish embezzlement and lobster lifting.

Kensa near Killigerran

Every time we’ve been out on Kensa in the last couple of weeks, it’s been to test out a new arrangement of rigging, or the ballast tank, or to practise using a new bit of kit. While we’ve been out we’ve been fishing with hand lines in a ‘might as well try for some fish while we’re out here’ sort of way. Kensa’s moored up the Percuil River at the moment, so getting out to decent spots to fish takes a while. Without an engine, we have to tack up or down the river at least once and there’s reasonably strong tide to contend with too. We’ve caught a few mackerel and pollock on these trips, but we’re talking enough for a very tasty dinner or two. Not enough to sell. So although it’s possible to fish like this, it’s certainly not profitable. Had we sold the mackerel we caught the other day when we went out to test out the pollock board (it did not catch any pollocks but worked as a marvellous sea anchor!), it would have been the most expensive fish ever sold once we’d taken into account the three hours spent getting back in from the lighthouse against a strong ebb tide and a gusty northerly.

Simon and Stella

None of this is a great surprise to us, and to an extent such is the nature of fishing. We were never planning to base our business around fishing from Percuil, even if we’d hoped the weather might have allowed us to have made some more trips from there with a greater return by now. There’s a lot we can do to improve on this.

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Firstly, as we’d always planned, we’re moving Kensa round to Portscatho as soon as possible. The weather is much more settled, strong easterlies are unlikely (although not impossible) in the summer months and we should be able to work in Gerrans Bay from a mooring in the pit from now until the autumn. We will probably need to pull her out for any strong east sector weather that comes our way, but that’s to be expected. So on that front we’ve been getting together all the kit we need to lay a mooring here and we’ll do that as soon as we get a day with light enough conditions to do so. It’ll make a real difference to us to be able to get to fishing grounds almost as soon as we leave the harbour and we’ll learn a lot quicker when we’ve got plenty of space and fishing areas to play in.

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So what are we going to do to catch more fish?! Clearly experience is not on our side, but this is all part and parcel of what we’re doing. We need to find ourselves good fishing marks and learn how to target the right species with the right kit. We’ve been identifying as many established and known marks as possible and every time we go out we’ll find more places that are good for catching fish. Or we’ll find more places that aren’t good for catching fish….either way we’ll build up our knowledge over time. Here’s a mark we found the other day. It’s called Shit Rock.

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So this brings us to our choice of tools for the job and the vast possibilities that lie ahead for blaming them if we don’t catch any fish… The first thing we’ll be using is a pollock board. This was recommended to us by a friend fishing from a similarly sized boat in Newlyn, who really rates his and uses it often. It’s basically a rig of lures which you troll for pollock with, along with a small plastic dive board which is attached nearest the boat and designed to sink until you’ve caught fish or are going too slowly, at which point it bobs to the surface. We may have had limited (no) success with this so far, but this is likely to be because weather conditions and time constraints meant we could only get far enough to try it out over predominantly sandy ground. This is not ideal for catching pollocks, who are like the emos of the fish world and prefer to hang out in dark rocky wrecky places, listening to depressive soft punk.

Setting the pollock board

Secondly, hand lines. Or a variation thereof. We’ll continue to use basic hand lines and spinners or feathers for catching mackerel but we’ll upgrade a bit for everything else. We’ve been setting up poles that we can use for catching bass that will fix to the boat and extend outwards like big fishing rods; the idea being that you can have four lines with lures fishing at one time while moving along without them tangling with each other or getting in your way. This is used quite a bit by inshore fishing boats and should suit our set up well. We’re making these up at the moment and will try them out soon. If you don’t hear much about them for a while we probably haven’t got the hang of them yet. If, however, we catch a monster bass using them I will shamelessly post photos on every social media network available.

Thirdly, we’ve got pots. I mentioned a bit about these last time. Everything’s going well with getting all the kit together and we’ve got great places for catching crab and lobster in Gerrans Bay, but we hit a bit of a snag with these today. Basically, the rules are that unless you have a shellfish permit (free to obtain for anyone fishing commercially) you aren’t permitted to land more than two crabs or lobsters in total in any one day.  Once you get a permit, you can land as many as you like (provided they aren’t berried females (pregnant) or undersized). So we went about getting a permit as we’d always planned and discovered that only registered boats are eligible. This is a problem for us; as you probably know by now, we fit into a strange niche in fishing legislation, being under 10 metres and unpowered other than by sail and oar. This means that we don’t need to be registered and therefore don’t need to fish with a licence or quota. This is brilliant on most levels, but scuppers us when it comes to obtaining shellfish permits and funding for useful things like insulated fish boxes amongst others. We spoke to the lovely people at Cornwall IFCA (Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority) to clarify our position and they confirmed that unfortunately despite operating formally, openly and within the law, they will not be able to issue us with a permit. So this season at least, we will be selling crab and lobster but no more than two a day. They will be priced at £150 each, on a first come first served basis.*

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On the subject of licensing, it is now pretty much definite that licensing will be brought in shortly for our category. It is not certain exactly when this will be or how it will work, but from what we understand it is likely to be akin to the process of obtaining a tax disc for an old car that is exempt; you fill in the paperwork and get a tax disc but you don’t pay anything. It shouldn’t change much in practice, but everyone fishing from an unpowered sub-ten boat will be accounted for and able to be monitored. As IFCA explained, once this happens we will be able to get a permit for shellfish. So the future is bright and lobster coloured.

Kensa at sea

Finally, we’ll be using nets. This is likely to be our bread and butter and should bring in more fish than any other method. There are lots of different types of nets of different sizes and shapes available depending on what you’re trying to catch, but the type we’ll be using are called gill nets. These are vertical panel nets that you set in a straight line, weighted at the bottom and anchored to the sea bed and secured at the top with floats. Essentially an underwater tennis net. Nets, and gill nets in particular, are controversial and we’re aware of this. The controversy stems from the high efficiency of gill nets, which means they are associated with a high incidence of bycatch. Gill nets work by trapping fish in the mesh as they try to swim through the net and historically this has meant that both protected species and undersized fish have been needlessly caught using this method. However, gill netting is now much more closely monitored and there are regulations in place regarding minimum mesh size and location. Furthermore, it is the case that gill nets that are set correctly with the right mesh size are not only highly effective but also highly selective. We’ve taken all this into consideration when deciding to use nets and when buying them and we’ve also gone to several authorities and individuals for advice. We’ll be using two different gill nets with different mesh sizes, both designed to catch only larger fish. One will target bass and the other mainly pollock and cod. Both have mesh sizes well over the minimum measurement and have been proven to fish with very little bycatch (small fish just swim through the mesh) and environmental impact. We want to use the most sustainable methods practicable and we’re happy that this set up meets our aims.

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We also spoke to IFCA about the issue of outboards. This is something we’ve been pondering for a while. Clearly we are neither allowed nor intending to use an outboard as a means of propulsion while fishing or travelling to and from fishing. That’s fine; we have no desire to do this and are not about to spend all this time designing and building a boat and business around unpowered fishing only to slap an outboard on the transom and try to get away with it. It goes against everything we’re working to do. But it’s been niggling us that working from a boat with only sails and oars poses a safety issue. We would far rather be able to get an outboard out of a locker and attach it to Kensa to motor ourselves out of difficulty in the (ideally only ever hypothetical) case of adverse weather or gear failure than to have to call the lifeboat out. Similarly, we don’t ever want to be in the position of being able to get someone else out of danger but for an engine that we had decided not to carry onboard.  We feel it would be irresponsible to ourselves and others not to, so we’re telling you and everyone now that that’s what we’ll be doing!

Stella and the mackerel head

Our final, high risk fishing method involves the dog. She’s been mightily interested in fishing and boats so far, loves being out on the water and jumps in the punt before we can get a look in. The only things we’ve come home to find destroyed so far are the covers of two books; one about boat design and the other about fishing. So she’s clearly a clever discerning dog. She’s also a massive fan of fish. She saw us catch a mackerel the other day and was very interested in it indeed. We gave her the head to eat while we were barbecuing the rest of it and she loved it. So our plan is to train her up to sniff out the shoals for us. In the best case scenario we’ve just given her a taste for fishing and for mackerel; in the worst case we’ve just given her a taste for sitting on a boat and trying to eat everything we catch. Either way training a mackerel hound is worth a try. Frankly we need all the help we can get!

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*Not really. They will be normally priced, but we will take bribes.

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