Monkfish: Squatina squatina
Few anglers fish deliberately for monkfish (Squatina squatina), except in such places as Clew Bay, Co Mayo, where they are particularly numerous. Outwardly, they are unprepossessing creatures. The monkfish (some sea anglers and many professional fishermen call it the angel fish) is the only representative we have around our shores of a family called the Rhinidae. In body structure it looks like a cross between a shark and a skate. The trunk, so to speak, is flattened, but not to such a degree as it is in a skate. The characteristic skate ‘wings’ are there, much foreshortened. As with sharks and skate, the mouth is ‘anterior’, that is set under the head, so that food is swept up off the sea-bed in a shovel-like manner. The colouration is typical of cartilaginous fish that haunt inshore waters — a drab brown with flecks and patches of white.
Monkfish approach inshore waters in the spring and summer and are caught fairly frequently by shore anglers, sometimes even right in the surf within a hundred metres of the shore. They appear to be commoner in the south-western waters of the British Isles and are particularly numerous off the west coast of Ireland. They are usually taken on clean ground.
Little is known of the diet of monkfish. It seems pretty certain that fish supply a large part of it, and since the monkfish is not a fast swimmer, a reasonable guess would be that flatfish of various species predominate. Undoubtedly crustaceans too are scooped up from the sea-bed by that intimidating mouth. Dr Michael Kennedy gives mullet as an important item of food for monkfish. From all this the angler may gather that a fish bait is probably the best to use, a cut of fresh mackeral being as good as anything.
Tackle and Fishing Methods
If you are going out specifically for monkfish, your tackle had better be substantial, though monkfish are more inclined to move about and do not have to be hauled in the manner of big skate. On the other hand, tackle need not be very complex. The kind of boat rod you would use for medium conger would do nicely, and a multiplier armed with 14 or 18 kg (30 or 40 lbs) b.s. line should kill any monkfish going. A big hook, fished on a few inches of wire for safety’s sake, should carry a good-sized bait of fresh mackeral or herring. Monkfish feed on the bottom, so a runningwith enough weight to hold it down meets the case.
It is much more likely, however, that you will pick up your monkfish while after other species. If you have not a great deal of line on the reel, you are likely to find yourself in some difficulty. The usual tactic of monkfish is to move inexorably out to sea at a dignified pace. This habit is a good clue to what you have on if you hook a big fish unexpectedly. A skate would go to the bottom and hold on; a tope would run very fast. But the old monkfish just keeps a-going. All you can do is to keep a steady pressure and hope that he will turn before your line runs out. Eventually you will be rewarded by the sight of something that looks like a double-bass that has been left out in the damp wobbling slowly to the surface.
It is perhaps unfair to be facetious about the odd appearance of the monkfish, for it can put up a thrilling fight. I remember one occasion when a monkfish was hooked from a high rock just at nightfall. The angler was tope fishing with the light tackle that is frequently used from rock stations — 8 kg (18 lb) b.s. line and light surf-casting rod. The run that the monk gave was much slower than that of a tope, and when he struck, the angler was thinking in terms of greater spotted. He expected a dead weight to come through the water. Instead his rod was forced firmly down and the fight was on. By the time he had turned the fish (since he was tope fishing he’d been using more than 270 m or 300 yds of line), darkness was falling and a big swell had begun to run. In the dark, with the constant possibility of a big roller coming in, this was no joke. To add to the complications, each time the fish was brought close in, it dived for a submarine ledge. On each occasion it had to be hand-lined out. The fish was finally landed by torchlight three-quarters of an hour after it had been hooked. It weighed 18 kg (40 lb) like most monkfish!
If you are positively determined to catch monkfish, the best place to fulfil this ambition is Clew Bay, in the neighbourhood of Westport, Co Mayo. Why it should be so I cannot say, but numbers of specimen monkfish have been taken from boats fishing a little off shore there. If you prefer to fish from dry land, Fenit Pier, Co Kerry, has produced numbers of large monkfish. Work from the viaduct, choose the biggest spring tide you can, and fish the fastest part of the ebb. These are two places from which consistent catches of monkfish have been obtained. But a big one could turn up almost anywhere. I venture a guess that very few monkfish that have been landed were ever caught deliberately.