Tope (Galeorhinus galeus)
The tope (Galeorhinus galeus) is a member of the great class of requin sharks (Carcharimidae), the family which contains killers like the notorious tiger shark as well as such innocuous creatures as the smooth hound (Mustelus mustelus). In comparison with some of its relatives, it is a small fish, with a possible maximum length of 2.1 to 2.4 m (7 or 8 ft) but, by virtue of its speed and sporting qualities and the fact that light tackle can be employed in its capture, it is held in high esteem by saltwater anglers. It is a long, slim, almost torpedo-shaped fish, varying in colour from grey to fawn.
The tope may conceivably be confused with its relative the blue shark, or even with spur. The characteristic notched tail of the tope, however, apart from other zoological differences, should make identification simple here. More serious difficulty arises with the smooth hound, which usually has a notched tail itself. The surest way to distinguish it from the tope is by examining its teeth, which are flattened, grinding teeth like those of the rays. I should stress, perhaps, that this examination should be done after the death of the fish.
No one, as far as I know, has made any detailed investigation into the growth rate of tope, since the species is not of commercial value (except to the Chinese, who utilize them for shark-fin soup). However, it may be stated that most tope caught around our coasts range between 9 and 18 kg (20 and 40 lb). Small fish, or less than 9 kg (20 lb) weight, are often reported from English Channel waters, sometimes in quantity, but I fancy that there is a strong possibility that many of these fish are smooth hound. Tope of between 18 and 22 kg (40 and 50 lb) may be considered good fish, and a sprinkling of fish up to 28 kg (601b) are reported each year. Tope of more than 28 kg (60 lb) come into the category of fish-of-a-lifetime.
Tope are widely distributed throughout the oceans of the world. As far as British waters are concerned, they come inshore in April or early May, having spent the winter months in deep water (Dr Michael Kennedy reports of specimens taken by trawlers in depths as great as 154 fathoms). June, July, August, and September are the months which provide the best of the tope fishing, but occasional fish are caught at odd times throughout the winter, usually in south-western districts and often in special circumstances. In Milford Haven, for example, large tope were taken in the January of 1962; these fish were plainly interested in the big shoals of herrings which had entered the Haven at that time. However, few specialist tope fishermen would consider serious fishing for the species once November is out.
While the tope are in the shallow, littoral water breeding takes place. Tope are viviparous, the young being born alive in numbers varying between twenty and forty. Tiny tope of a kilogramme or so in weight are sometimes taken inshore in winter, which suggests that the young do not spend their first winter in deep water.
Tope are usually accounted demersal fish, that is, bottom swimming and bottom feeding. It is certainly true that tope feed a good deal on flatfish and other demersal species like whiting, but there are many occasions when they feed quite near the surface on such fish as mackerel and even sand-eels. Traditional tope-fishing methods are geared to the idea that they are bottom-feeding fish exclusively and, as we shall see, bottom fishing over clean ground, gravel or sand, is usually adopted. But it is becoming increasingly clear that mid-water and surface fishing yields good dividends in the way of fish caught and enhanced interest in the fishing itself.
Tope are widely distributed throughout British waters. Even in districts where no specialist tope fishing has been done the enterprising sea angler would almost certainly be rewarded if he fished consistently for them. As far as established centres for tope fishing are concerned, there are a number of stations on the English Channel which produce good tope annually, and where experienced boatmen may be found. One centre which every year yields its quota of specimen tope is Littlehampton in Sussex. The Thames estuary is noted for its tope fishing (the sport was practically born at Herne Bay), and the Solent has always yielded consistently good fishing.
On the east coast, a good deal of tope fishing is done on the Wash, but few specimens over forty pounds have been reported from this district. At one time it was alleged that the rockier, south-western coast of England did not produce many tope, but I am sure that this misconception arose from the fact that the methods that had evolved in the 1920s for tope-fishing on the south-east coast were not applicable in, say, Cornwall. I have found that wherever rocky ground and reefs are present, the local tope may very well be found feeding on the pollack and mackerel of the reefs rather than on the adjacent clean ground.
In Ireland there are a number of places which can be rated as excellent from the tope fishing point of view. Amongst them I would give pride of place to Kilmore Quay in Co Wexford, where very large bags of tope are made, though the average size of fish is small — somewhere around 12 kg (251b). However, when bags of a couple of dozen fish in a day’s fishing are commonplace, there is little to complain about in this.
Without particularizing, it may be said that there is consistently good fishing for tope right along the south coast of Ireland, wherever a boat may be hired. On the west coast, very good results have been obtained in the last few years in the Shannon Estuary, while farther north there is reputed to be excellent tope fishing out of Moville, Co Donegal. There is great and growing interest among sea anglers in tope fishing, and it may be asserted with confidence that this necessarily sketchy list of tope-fishing stations will be greatly added to in the next few years.