The search for Staffa sea bass

Keen to prove resurgence in Hebridean sea bass is no myth we set off with folding kayaks. 

Our destination is a sandy bed off a small beach on Staffa’s east coast close to a nearby skerry.

It is extremely remote, impossible for commercial fishermen to access, unlikely to have been fished regularly and probably not at all this year. Only a kayak can pass between the narrow gap between the skerry and Staffa.

Virgin water

Sea kayaks give access to waters that might otherwise be difficult with a larger boat and they are also more fun to fight a fish from.

It’s extremely peaceful travelling without the urgent sound of outboard motors and individual kayaks give paddlers in a gtoup the chance to choose which waters they might prefer to fish.

Fishing restrictions

The Minimum Landing Size (a measurement regularly set for all fish types to ensure none are taken that have not yet spawned) was set at 36cm for sea bass 10 years ago.

Brussels blunder

Unfortunately the clipboard toting beaurocrats at HQ EU got it horribly wrong as many sea bass that size have yet to spawn.

Bass numbers crashed partly due to this oversight and partly due to a recent increase in popularity of the fish in restaurants.

There is talk of increasing the Minimum Landing Size to 42cm and, in March 2015, the EU limited recreational fishers to catching three sea bass per day around most of the UK. This is controversial as commercial drift netters continue to take industrial catches measured in tones.

No shrimp

The ban does not extend to western Scotland for a good reason – sea bass do not often venture this far north.

However, Scottish waters are warming and there have recently been reports of sea bass catches within the Hebrides at Wigtown, Luce Bay.

St Kilda tuna

Indeed, in September 2013 the boat Orca III caught Scotland’s first recorded tuna – it had been spotted in a shoal chasing mackerel off St Kilda and, weighing in at 515 lb. and measuring over seven foot long, the fish was no shrimp.

Before we head out for Staffa I notice a westerly breeze. Our destination will be in the lee of Staffa but nevertheless, I am reminded of my checks: there is a 15 knott westerly wind, the sea is choppy. The outlook for 48 hrs is calm. I call Tobermory RNLI, informing them of our route, departure time, ETA, craft type and name, passenger numbers, passenger names and edtimated return time.

Wrong clothes

Our journey into wind and through cresting waves is uneventful if a little choppy but, if a kayaker waited for millpond-sea in the Hebrides, he’d be a patient man or a disappointed one.

I subscribe to an attitude commonly misattributed to the fell walker Alfred Wainwright – there is no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes. It rhymes in both Swedish and Norwegian so it is likely to originate in Scandinavia but they can fight amongst themselves for credit for the author is lost to posterity.

Wilderness island

We arrive to an island deserted of people – just us, diving gannets, comical puffins and inquisitive grey seals.

I already know where my sea bass is lurking: the sand eels are on the sandy bed, the pouting and mackerel are over the eels and my bass is in the kelp patiently eying up all three.

Fussy eater

I congratulate myself for my succinct understanding of the intricate dynamics of the food chain below me. And then I remember how bass also like shore crabs, hermit crabs, green peeler crabs, baby brown crabs, squid, prawn, ragworm, lugworm, sand eel, sprat, baby flatfish, baby lobster, mussels, clam, scallop, pouting, mackerel and whelk.

Indeed bass like to eat anything that can’t eat them. He could be anywhere.

The water is clear so I am fishing the mid depths with a sparkling spinner in pursuit of a set of pristine white mackerel feathered hooks. If he’s lurking in the kelp either side of the sandy channel, he’ll go for my offering – the shiniest of glittering mouthfuls in and around Staffa. The spinner chases my feathers and, he’ll soon chase the spinner.

Caught

I stick at it in expectation of an orgy of leaping silver fish but there is no bite from the bass and the mackerel I slowly accumulate have answered the call for supper.

I string the accumulating number of mackerel through the gills and keep them fresh in the cool seawater strung to the kayak’s side. My bass remains ever elusive.

Deftly dangle

I decide to fish the deeper water and drop a mackerel and lugworm cocktail baited hook to a within a few feet from the seabed, irresistible to any self-respecting bass. The hook is raised off the bed to stop crabs and other unwanted crawling critters from stealing my bait.

Deeper

I enjoy fishing the lower depths as it leaves plenty of time to do almost anything else. I think of a story told by, Rosemary Nicholson, the housekeeper at nearby Ulva House:

”My father was ploughing at the time, it was a sunny day, when these two Lancasters came over very low, and the horses went haywire, jumping and bucking all over the place, so he had to unhitch them from the plough, and by the time we got them in the stable you could cream the foam off their backs in great scoops, they were so scared. Anyway, we heard a double thudding, and very quickly, the Lancasters came back. You see, they had found a submarine on the surface off Staffa. The [Royal Navy] fleet was in Loch Na Keal. It’s deep all the way up. And someone told me this, I don’t know if it’s true: that at Fingal’s Cave shortly after, there, carved at the very back, were the initials of submariners, dated that very day. You see they had surfaced to see Fingal’s Cave, and carved their names, and been drowned. Where’s the wreck? No one knows. They may have got a little way before they sunk”.

Soon

Fishing the lower depths leaves plenty of time for wandering minds. At this rate I’ll have time to break the German submarine’s Enigma code so, reluctantly, and despite fishing with the patience of a monk from neighbouring Iona, I accept there may well be no bass north of Jura. Yet.

Hebridean seas are warming and the bass will come.

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