By Ian Burrett
Where to Look
Tope like features or structures, so look for reefs, deep hollows, trenches etc. Back Eddies around headlands are my favourite marks as they tend to be holding areas for bait fish. You can usually pick the strength of tide by the distance away from the headland. I like at least 25-30 ft of water below me and a reasonable amount of tide so a 2-10 oz lead will hold comfortable during the tide run.
If the mackerel are out of season then in many areas, the staple diet is Whiting and Dabs so a high concentration of those will be a good starting point.
I usually use chopped up mackerel for rubby dubby placed in a heavy netting bag tied near the anchor. I use it to bring the tope into the area, once there, they will find the baits. A surface ruby dubby can work well in shallow water
Rods & Reels
I would strongly recommend a lever drag combined with braid because more fish are lost with anglers messing about with star drags than any other reason. A lever drag has a pre-set clutch so once you push the lever up you can strike with confidence knowing that your drag settings are right. The time taken to sort the correct drag setting with a star drag can lose the fish or worse, cause a gut hooked fish.
Many people over estimate the pulling power of the tope and use rigs that are far too heavy. This can spoil the enjoyment of the fight. A tope is a running fish that will eventually return to the boat, so line is given when the tope swims away and gained when it swims back towards the boat. Because of this you can generally fish with a 6-12 lb outfit balanced with a Penn 975 LD, Abu 6600LD or similar. In deep water with strong tides it may be essential to fish a 12-20 as the lead weight will kill the action of a lighter rod and you could be pulling the fish against the tide.
I generally use a 30 lb braid with a 40-60 lb nylon leader because I want to enjoy the feeling of fishing light rods and reels , without endangering the fish by loosing one because of the main line parting and having the tope dragging booms and leads etc. round the ocean.
Again the traces are down to personal choice but I believe it is impossible to purchase the perfect trace from the shops. The all wire traces kink and cause danger at the side of the boat when the skipper is handling the trace.
My favourite trace has only 1 ft. of 100-150 lb wire to a swivel and 6ft of a heavy mono. I personally prefer 150 lb. mono as it is easier for me to handle and kinder to my hands at the side of the boat. We once lost an 80lb. tope at the side of the boat because the angler had bought a shop trace with only 80lb mono instead of the 150
Hooks are matter of personal choice; I have experimented with circular hooks but didn’t find any advantage over a conventional J pattern. We seem to fish smaller hooks as the years go by. By tradition a 10/0 was used. We dropped this to an 8/0 then 7/0 and now my preferred hook is a flattened barb 5 or 6/0 O’Shaunessy.
This often a matter of choice but generally Mackerel is my preferred bait in Scotland and Dab in Wales. With mackerel I usually either fish them as live bait or chop it in half just behind the main dorsal fin and hook it through the lips leaving plenty of hook showing. Other baits are whiting, pout, eel section, coaley and lamprey.
In regards to the dab bait, I like to use the head and shoulders with the guts trailing. The best thing about this bait is the lsd’s will never touch it.
Fish the lightest lead you can get away with, Drop the lead to the bottom and leave it in the minimum resistance possible with the fish alert ratchet on, so the tope can pick the bait up and run with it.
When to Strike
The old text book ruling was, wait until the start of the second run before striking, but this use to lead to a lot of gut hooked fish, which nobody wants to see these days.
The size of the average bait is just a small ‘smarty’ to a decent tope so you can assume the bait is in its mouth once it starts that ballistic run. With a live bait I will wait approximately 5-6 seconds from the first twitch of the rod tip. When fishing in strong tides you may well have double the depth of line out in a huge bow. It is therefore important to wind as quickly as possible until the clutch starts to slip. This is particularly important in strong tides because the tope will often swim uptide. Anglers often at this stage think they have lost the fish. The weight of the tope against the drag will set the hook so you don’t need a great strike.
The way the tope feeds varies from day to day depending on their mood. Some days you can have 10 runs 10 fish other days 10 runs and just a few fish. This can even change through the day. I remember one day we had 9 runs in the morning and hooked all nine. The afternoon also produced 9 runs and we only hooked a couple.
Over a season a 1 in 2 hook up rate is the norm, e.g., A day when we hook up 20 tope we will have approx 40 runs. This is mainly down to the skill of the anglers. Bear in mind that a good angler with a positive wind down and the correct rig will have a much better conversion rate but nobody wins them all.
When the tope are being picky we tend to go down in bait size and fish a fillet (providing their aren’t to many dogs about) As it’s such a small bait you can wind down instantly into the tope. The other suggestion is to fish a live bait. This will often out fish any other method and some days it is the only bait that will get touched. A live mackerel is my favourite bait but I have caught tope on Whiting, pout, dabs and even Coalie.
The reason for most dropped runs is the tope feels the resistance slowly coming on the line and realizes something is not quite right so drops the bait. I cannot stress enough the importance of winding down quickly to minimize that time between you deciding to strike and setting the hook.
If you have had a dropped run don’t assume it’s all over. Tope are a predatory fish and are far more likely to pick up moving bait. As soon as the fish has dropped the bait, wind it slowly back to the boat in a jerking manner. You are trying to imitate the movements of a dying fish. If this doesn’t work then drop it back but keep the bait moving. This will often result in the tope turning and chasing the bait. In this instance it is important to strike the fish immediately as the tope will often gulp the bait straight down and can result in gut hooked fish.
If you do happen to gut hook a fish don’t be too alarmed as the tope like other sharks can swallow their stomach again, this is a defence mechanism designed to get rid of unwanted contents. I had in the region of 500 tope this year and only on two occasions did I have to leave the hook in.
If you know there are fish about but you are not getting the runs; a moving bait will often pick up more fish. When fishing in tide, I will fish a lead that is too light to hold on the bottom and keep dropping it back 6 ft at a time. Providing you are fishing with light balanced tackle you will feel when the tope hits the bait. Engage the reel and wind it back to the boat until you feel the weight of the fish. I will sometimes have well over a 220 metre spool of braid out fishing in just 100 ft of water.
A dead bait firmly plonked on the bottom particularly when fishing with little tide doesn’t give off any signals for the tope to home in on. In this occasion we will often resort to the float (even in 150 ft of water) set a few ft. of the bottom or freelining in shallow water because it provides a moving bait.
Extra fish are often picked up (by using Pollack tactics.) at slack water, which is the time tope tend to go off the feed.We drop the bait to the bottom and wind slowly back to the boat similar to redgilling. The tope don’t half go in this scenario because they are often hooked just a few feet under the boat and make a desperate dive for the bottom.
Handling and Code of Best Practise
Tope can be the most frustrating species to fish for and often results in feast or famine. They will swim 50 miles a day looking for food. You can have a great day fishing one day and return to the same mark the following day and just catch the odd one or two. They do however tend to be creatures of habit and will often be in the same location at the same stage of the tide.
One of my anglers caught a fish on a mark that I had tagged four years previously on the same mark.
For me, it’s the dropped baits and the runs that make the tope such a buzz to fish for. There’s always that split second when you wind down into the fish and your not totally sure if it is hooked or not; particularly when the tope uptides you.
When you have got a decent pack around the boat, I can’t think of another fish, certainly in the UK that can give an adrenaline rush for so many people for hours on end. You can miss a screaming run and don’t care, because you know you will have another one within minutes.