Targeting Common Skate
Before choosing a rod for skate angling, some thought must also go into the venue chosen. Although it is possible to land a large fish in excess of one hundred and fifty pounds on thirty pounds class gear, this can be a little risky. I have broken several thirty-class rods over the years, when larger fish have been hooked.
Most skate landed are taken in at least two hundred feet of water, and usually much deeper. Combined with a fierce tidal flow, anything between two and four pounds of lead are required to keep a large bait “nailed” to the sea bed. Most rods below fifty pounds class are unable to cope with this amount of lead and this will dictate your choice of rod. My personal choice is a Penn International Tuna Stick, 50-130lb class and has never failed.
Once the correct rod has been chosen, it is equally important to purchase a quality reel. I cannot stress enough; the pressure exerted on tackle during a battle with a common skate will soon find any faults or weaknesses, usually resulting in a disappointing outcome for the angler. A Penn 6/0 or similar is ideal.
The reel should carry approximately five hundred yards of line, and in deep water, fifty-eighty pounds breaking strain braid can be invaluable. The thin diameter of braid cuts through the tide allowing the use of lighter leads, a god send when a small dogfish manages to hook itself and has to be reeled up two or three hundred feet!
Bearing in mind that an average skate battle will last anywhere between thirty minutes and two hours, make life easier and purchase a shoulder harness. This will support your back and clips onto purpose made “lugs” attached to the reel to take the pressure off your arms and back. Also, do not forget to use a butt pad. This facilitates the rod butt, but more importantly, serves well in protecting the “family jewels”.
It is important to carry two strong gaffs aboard, as this is the only way if you wish to boat a large skate. When required, gaff the fish in the extremities of the wings, avoiding damage to internal organs. This causes no harm to the fish. One skate I had caught in particular had been boated four times previous, and the only gaff marks I could find were the ones I had just made.
This is the business end, as they say and, as with your choice of rod and reel, is obviously every bit as important to get right. A skate can have a wingspan of five or six feet, which works out at thirty square feet of surface area on each side! This surface area is rough and will cut through nylon or braid relatively quickly. To combat this, it is important to incorporate at least six feet of “rubbing trace” into a skate rig. I use two hundred pounds breaking strain nylon. It has never let me down and does not seem to deter bites in any way. The hook length should not be too long for two main reasons. First and foremost, a shorter hook length will detect a bite sooner avoiding deep hooking, especially with smaller skate. Secondly it helps keep a larger bait firmly on the seabed. In my experience, skate prefer a static bait. Keep the hook length approximately four to six feet.
Hooks must be strong and sharp. Bronze O’Shaugnessy patterns, size 10/0 are ideal and will rust away quite quickly if a fish is deep hooked. Pennel rigs tend to provide a greater chance of success due to the large size of bait normally used. Again, it is important to be totally confident of all knots used, as a skate will soon sort out any weak points resulting in a lost fish. I use copper crimps and Berkley swivels, doubling the nylon through the swivel before crimping into position. Although two hundred pounds nylon hook-length is sufficient to land skate, I often incorporate a wire biting trace. When using such large bait, you can never be sure exactly what may lift it and if it is big and has teeth, I want to get it to the surface!
Methods / tips
If you are a boat owner and trying skate angling for the first time, it is important to anchor. Look for sand banks, gullies or drop offs on the seabed that slope into at least two hundred feet of water. Anchor high on the bank and fish down the slope into the deeper water. Skate respond well to a scent trail so it is a good idea to tie an onion bag of mashed or finely chopped fish and bran to the anchor chain prior to anchoring.
Anchor during the fast part of the tide. Angling may be almost impossible at this stage but the scent trail will work well and bring skate to the vicinity as the tide begins to slacken.
Do not be disheartened if the first venture results in a blank. Skate angling requires a certain amount of investigation to get it right. They may only feed on a flooding tide, or the ebbing tide may be the switch that turns them on to the feed. Eventually you will find the key to success. The area may also be seasonal and only respond during select months. Identify this time slot and you will find fish return to the same mark every year.
Identify a hot spot by observing other fodder fish caught in the area, such as large numbers of dogfish or spurdog. Skate will feed on these and their young.
Skate will readily take smaller baits such as mackerel fillets or calamari squid, but this will usually attract smaller, unwanted species such as rays and dogfish. Start with a large bait such as whole mackerel, or several if they are small. Whole large squid can be excellent or try a combination of the two.
I have been told that dogfish work well in other parts of the country, but not so in Ballycastle. I have witnessed large skate taken on whole coalfish, three-pound Pollack and even two-pound rainbow trout. A recent trip where dogfish were a nuisance, pulling mackerel baits to pieces, I eventually caught a male skate of one hundred and fifteen pounds on four whole mackerel! This demonstrates the size of bait or fish a skate is able to engulf.