Tope Fishing Tips: Fishing Methods, Baits and Tackle
It hardly needs saying that tope feed almost entirely on fish, though specimens have been found to contain such apparently indigestible creatures as large spider crabs. When tope are present in numbers, anglers out after other species often have their tackle smashed, even though the bait may be lug or rag-worm. However, it is not suggested that such baits should be deliberately used in tope fishing, though it has always struck me that a very large soft crab might well prove attractive. In general, fresh fish baits — mackerel, herring, flatfish — will be taken, but in some years squid and cuttlefish come inshore in large quantities, and in these circumstances tope may very well become preoccupied with feeding on them, with the result that other fish baits are ignored. This was certainly my experience on one occasion, and is worth bearing in mind.
Tope are powerful, fast, hard-fighting fish, but because of the nature of the fight and the tactics they adopt there is fortunately no need to use the kind of heavy tackle that is necessary for conger and skate fishing. 6.7 kg (15 lb) b.s. monofilament nylon is strong enough for the experienced angler, though it would be wise for the newcomer to tope fishing to use, say 14 kg (30 lb) line to begin with. Experience has shown that for all-round work (which includes shore fishing for tope involving long casting) a multiplier is the best reel to use. However, if only boat fishing is contemplated, a single-action centre-pin reel is perfectly adequate. One thing must be stressed : there should be plenty of line. I never go tope fishing with less than 270 m (300 yds) of line on and even then there is a slight element of risk; on one occasion I had all my line run out by a tope when I was shore fishing.
For shore fishing, a light beach-caster is very suitable and indeed, although it is more than 3.3 m (11 ft) long, it can be used for boat fishing as well, though many anglers would prefer a more conventional boat rod of 1.8 m (6 ft) or so. The rod should be light, however, to match the line you are using. Just because tope are comparatively large fish, do not be tempted to buy one of those frightful, so-called ‘heavy-duty’, boat rods which are fitted only for dislodging congers from reefs and big skate from the bottom. Incidentally, hollow-glass is the best material for your xod. Split-cane is pleasant to use and to handle but it suffers badly from the effects of salt water even when carefully looked after. Make sure that you have stainless-steel rod rings and a reliable-up winch fitting. Having your reel fall off when you are playing a 22 kg (50 lb) fish is no joke.
Because of the tope’s sharp teeth, and also because of its rough skin, a wire trace is an absolute necessity. Cable-laid steel wire is by far the best to use. Alasticum is too liable to kink during the fight. A twisted wire covered in plastic is available, but this is most untrustworthy, and cannot be recommended. This kind of wire rusts from the inside, so that while there is no deterioration apparent from the outside, it will break like cotton at a small stress.
The trace should be not less than 1.2 m (4 ft) in length. The reason for this is that tope often roll on the surface during play and a big one is capable of wrapping a good deal of trace around itself. Once the nylon main line rubs on its rough back there is every chance that it will part. Some boat anglers go much further than this and use traces as long as 6 m (20 ft). This possibly has the effect in the first place of allowing the bait a certain amount of presumably attractive play on the sea bed, and in the second place of keeping the lead as far away as possible from the tope. To use such a long trace, however, presents difficulties in landing the fish.
The lead should run freely above the trace, stopped by a. Make sure that it is free to run, because tope are often very cautious fish and are liable to drop the bait if they feel the weight of the lead. How much weight you use will depend, of course, on the strength of the tide; but try not to use more than you have to.
The hook should suit the bait, that is to say it should be no bigger than the bait demands. If your bait is half a herring for example, a single No. 6 /0 is adequate. Many newcomers to tope fishing seem to think it necessary to use what almost amounts to a shark hook, but although a big tope has a big mouth there is no advantage in this; the smaller hook gives much better penetration. Some experienced tope fishermen prefer to use a whole fish, in which case two hooks are very often used.
Baiting up This is a matter of considerable importance in tope fishing. Most successful tope fishermen believe that the hook should be as inconspicuous as possible. I myself, having too often had the experience of wary tope dropping a carelessly mounted bait, am careful always to hide the hook altogether in normal tope-fishing — fishing over rocks being an exception, as we shall see.
Tope generally take the bait in this manner : there may be a few nibblings and nudgings at the rod top to begin with, then several metres of line are stripped off very quickly. It is fatal to strike at this point. The tope has the bait between its jaws but it hasn’t begun to swallow it yet. There will be a pause, during which the angler might think that the tope has dropped the bait, but then the line will race off again and the fish may be struck. Because of the way that line is often stripped from the reel by the bite, the reel must be free to run, yet not so free that the action of the tide or the wind will make the spool revolve. The reel is therefore left out of gear with the check on, or if the tide run is very fast, it is left in gear with a very light drag set.
As soon as the presence of a tope is suspected the check should be knocked off, and if the reel is in gear it should be switched to free spool, the angler lightly checking it with his thumb to stop it over-running. When the moment to strike comes, the thumb can be used to brake the spool altogether. I write ‘strike’, but there should be no wild slashing of the rod over the shoulder. All that is necessary is to check the fish for a few seconds until the hook is set well home. The reel can then be flicked back into gear, the light drag having been pre-set, and the fight is on.
The tope must be allowed its first run against minimum drag. If it is checked too early on the light gear, either the line will go at once or the fish will roll to the surface and smash you that way. Eventually the fish will begin to slow down and by increasing thumb pressure you will be able to see if you can turn it. After a few encounters, your ‘feeling’ for what the fish is doing will increase in sensitivity and you will be able to handle it with increasing confidence.
No attempt should be made to land the tope until it is completely quiescent. Amay then be used, but it is perfectly easy to tail the fish, that is, grasp it firmly round the ‘wrist’ of its tail with both hands and haul it inboard or on shore. It can’t bite you if it is held well out at arm’s length. Don’t attempt to recover your trace and hook until the fish is dead.
What I have described so far has been simplefrom shore or boat over clean ground, but, as I suggested earlier, tope are to be found also in quite different circumstances — over rocky ground where there may be a fast tide race and where pollack feed, the kind of place that is also attractive to shoaling mackerel and bass. Obviously, bottom fishing is impossible here, and in any case the bait is much better for some movement since the tope are not shovelling up dabs from the bottom but chasing shoal fish. There is no need to bother with a running lead; a simple is rigged and the tackle lowered over the side of the boat until the lead taps bottom. The line is then taken up a fathom or two and a detachable float is set on the line. The boat is then allowed to drift over the reef. When a run comes the strike is made instantaneously.
It is better to use a very big lack of fish than a whole or a half one for this kind of fishing. Sand-eels are often a good bait for tope in these circumstances.
You’ll notice that all the rules of tope fishing seem to be reversed in this reef fishing — no running lead, an instant strike, and an unconcealed hook — but these factors, which would, almost certainly ruin all chance of success in conventional tope fishing, work the other way over the rocks. It is fair to say that all the fish I have caught in this manner have been of moderate size, though, as at Kilmore Quay, there is usually the chance of a good bag in the numerical sense.