Shetland marks the very northern extremity of the British Isles and defines the final truly unexplored frontier for UK sea anglers. Steve Souter explored the magical location in depth some three years ago, and the incredible fishing experienced there is something he will never forget. The feature that follows first appeared in Total Sea Fishing Magazine.
Despite fantastic stories of unbelievable fishing and invitations stretching back 10 years or more, I had never previously managed to drag my carcass across the sea to Shetland. That all changed some years ago and what I experienced on my first visit goes down as the most incredible fishing of my life. The average size of fish was ridiculously large and the sheer weight of numbers finally collapsed me to my haunches in an exhausted but utterly satisfied stupor.
Located some 400 miles south of the Arctic Circle and plumb between Scotland and Norway, the Shetland Islands are a jigsaw-like archipelago of more than 100 island and mini islets. Getting there is no great trial and I drove off the ferry into Lerwick at 07:30 only a little bleary-eyed. The morning was calm and clear and my regular fishing buddy, Scott Gibson and I were immediately met by Shetland trio Laurence Williamson, Mark Duncan and Jeemie Reid. All of them are obsessive sea anglers with intimate connections to the fishing industry, which, along with oil is the economic lifeblood of these islands.
A little over an hour later we were leaving the quay at Cullivoe, blasting a trail past beautifully stark coastal edges and on towards the very outer extremity of the British Isles. Licensed boats in one form or another are dotted all around the Shetland Isles but, at the time of writing, there were no full-time angling charter boats as such in the immediate vicinity. Laurence however, had worked a masterstroke in enlisting the aid of two friendly and knowledgeable boat crews to take us out to the fish. Indeed this was to be a two boat assault with Scott and Mark joined by local lad Stuart Bruce on the 27ft ‘Mareel’, jointly skippered by brothers Owen and Raymond Strachan. I pitched in with Laurence and Jeemie aboard the 26ft ‘Joanne Claire’, run by Ian Nicolson and Richard Gray.
Gather the Winds
The biggest problem with plotting a boat fishing adventure to anywhere on Shetland is the huge risk of spoiling weather. The area is not like a Norway or some other cold northern cloister where safe shelter can be found by slinking up a convenient high-sided fjord. Rather, it’s a landscape laid bare to the full hellish fury of the North Atlantic Ocean on the one flank, and exposed to vicious assault from the North Sea on the other. We were uncannily fortunate in the wind stakes, and hardly a ripple and only the gentlest of lazy swells confronted us.
Our destination was Muckle Flugga located just north of the island of Unst and some 30 minutes away. Often tagged the northernmost point of the British Isles, geographical sticklers would point out that a smaller neighbouring rock, Out Stack is the rightful laird of that lofty honour. Local folklore has it that Flugga and Out Stack were the result of two love-drunk giants tossing great rocks at each other as they vied for the attention of a beautiful mermaid. The tale concludes that the same devilish half-woman did a fine job of later drowning them both!
Flugga lighthouse sits like a portentous white albatross atop perhaps the most inhospitable nest of stone that I have ever seen. Steeply sloping rocks then plunge dramatically downwards, rending the sea and serving warning to the foolhardy to maintain a safe distance. The scene of many an old shipwreck, and a place of ghosts if you ask me, there’s a palpable goose-bump atmosphere of lingering suspense born of strong visual first impressions, a little fear perhaps, and the sound of a thousand high-pitched seabird voices. Thankfully we wouldn’t be courting catastrophe by venturing too close.
The favourite rod among the crews was the Team Daiwa TDXB3050, while battle-scarred 6/0 Penn Senators carrying at least 80lb braids were the dominant reels. Rigs were quickly knocked up on the way out to the fishing grounds. Laurence’s rigs were simple blood loops tied in 100 -150lb mono to 12/0 Norwegian eels – or Gummi-makks to give them their correct name. These were simply looped into place through the swivel on the lure. Either a bar pirk of up to 1½ lbs with the treble hook removed, or a similarly heavy lead is attached to the bottom. I don’t usually fish this big or as heavy, but following Laurence’s lead, I made a couple of these basic three-hook rigs in 100lb mono with 10/0 Gummis, which were the biggest I possessed.
Our boat arrived first and Ian cut the Cygnus’s engine to begin the drift about a ¼ mile off Flugga. Ian confirmed what I could see from peeping through the wheelhouse door – a hard bottom and perfect cod country. He informed us that the depth would run out from 65 metres to 90 metres, but that the tide wasn’t too strong as yet and we should enjoy a steady drift. Fearing instant snags all of us left the fancy pirks in our boxes for now and clipped on plain 1¼ lb Bopedo leads.
The depth wasn’t killer and the leads were enough to keep the lines perpendicular. The method was no more complicated than a simple lift and drop back in classic pirking fashion. Cod to 14lb fell to Laurence and I, and a 10lb pollack went to Jeemie on the first pass over the rough ground. After a quick study of his plotter numbers Ian repositioned the boat and the fish instantly got bigger. Laurence led the way with a cod nudging 20lb, followed by a bigger coalfish and a then a double shot of two cod into the twenties of pounds which had him giggling like a girl and panting like an old man in turn.
It seems wrong and somewhat contradictory to describe this first couple of drifts as ‘slow’, but what was to come a short while later would scramble the brain and muddle the perspective of any angler.
Believe in Better
I had seen cod of this stamp many years ago from various Scottish ports, but even then you would have been lucky to see two in a season. The big coalie that Laurence had just caught was another matter, as I have never clapped eyes one of this size in Scottish waters. Laurence’s interjection that huge shoals of these and bigger fish are regularly encountered in northern Shetland might sound like make believe… but I believed him.
A call over the radio from one of the Strachan brothers confirmed that the Mareel was fishing nearby, and they were straight into strings of 20lb plus cod! I could be forgiven my reflexive doubts because that sort of thing is beyond rare, nevertheless we wasted no time shipping the lines in and shifting up closer to the companion boat.
As we motored past the Mareel our envious eyes could see all rods bent over into fish. The cod madness began as soon as we stopped, and I have never experienced anything like it. Double and treble-headers of big cod hammered into the Gummi-makks before rigs could hit bottom, or almost as soon as they were lifted. 20lb fish didn’t raise and eyebrow now as two fish over 30lbs hit the deck. As soon as Ian judged that we had drifted too far – usually when we started connecting with single cod – he’d give the call and we’d be up and at the heart of the shoal again.
In the melee I changed over to some of Ian’s bigger 12/0 commercial Gummi-makks as I felt that my 10/0 dwarfs were responsible for too many fish shucking hooks halfway up. And I would’ve used the biggest 14/0 Gummis if I could have laid my hands on any. Huge as this size of lure may sound, they are as nothing in the volumous gobs of this calibre of cod. Laurence’s throwaway comment: “I wouldn’t like to be a little fish down there!” rang true enough and has stuck in my head ever since. Competition for food is one thing, but no off-the-shelf term came to mind for the mayhem unfolding below.
It was crazy, exhausting and difficult to keep up with who was catching what. Richard and Ian worked their socks off, continually hauling fish into the boat and racing to clear our feet. The next several drifts were a blur of activity and laboured breathing… and if we caught a fish that was under double-figures then I don’t remember it.
After an-hour-and-a-half of cod chaos spliced with the odd angry coalfish and ling, tidal strength increased dramatically and even 1½ lb pirks were kiting. Ian suggested we dodge the tide and steam seven miles to one of goodness knows how many wrecks that pepper the surrounding waters. I think we all welcomed the opportunity for a breather. We stopped to call across to the Mareel that we were moving and the grinning crew held aloft some of the better fish that they had kept. Notably, Scott Gibson hefted a 25lb coalfish taken on a Williamson speed jig, and the Hairy Bear, Mark Duncan cradled a 34lb cod, the best so far.
Piltocks and Olicks
Thirty minutes later, and a substantial wreck stood out pin-sharp on Joanne Claire’s expensive 3D imaging equipment. It was absolutely swarming with fish above and all around the metalwork, which lay in 120 metres.
Our lures didn’t even get close to the bottom. Cries of “PILTOCKS!” came from the wheelhouse – piltock is Sheltie for coalfish – as all three of us were slammed against the gunwale and violently smacked all over the place by teams of huge coalfish. Trying to control bunches of wild horses might have been easier, and it was all we could do to hang on. Rods bucked and line tore from tightened reels that smoked under juggernaut strain. At one point I loudly thanked god for my butt pad and harness and instantly regretted the cheaply spent breath.
Repeatedly, full houses of coalfish in the 15-25lb bracket fought every inch of the way up. In a bizarre loop of twisted self-punishment, as soon as one string of fish was unhooked I’d send the rig back down only to clench back tears of pain as I was spun through the same set of coalfish revolving doors. The only halt in the action was when a hook snapped, a swivel burst or a rig exploded… and all of these things happened to one or other of us. Somewhere in all of this Mareel joined us and she was sucked into the same unbelievable fishing.
Jeemie was collecting bruises and changed to a single big wine-coloured Red Gill on a long flowing trace. And he proceeded to take huge coalfish every drop with the best going 29lb. Two hours of this were without doubt the most intense and physically demanding fishing that I had endured. I must have busted my personal best for coalie a dozen times but couldn’t quite push it beyond 25lb.
We were crumpled, shattered heaps by the time Ian blessedly moved off the coalfish to try for olicks (ling to you and I). Commercial jigging machines have apparently snared massive ling to 70lb hereabouts, and when I pressed Ian on how big the other fish went, I was told: “Cod to over 50lb and piltocks to over 40lb”.
King of Ling
The shift resulted in respite from the coalie horde but no peace. Chunks of mackerel or coalfish were hung on the lures and the olick action kicked off. I started the ball rolling with a double-shot of fish in the high teens of pounds, only to be gazumped by Laurence with a ridiculous treble-shot and over 70lb of ling in a single lift! And he did exactly the same thing on his next two dips. I have been around the block a bit and I had never seen three ling caught on the same rig until now, and I could only shake my head as it unfolded again and again. My best ling went 32lb on the digital scales, while Laurence and Jeemie both decked 35 pounders. But the ‘King of the ling’ title and full bragging rights went to the Hairy Bear on Mareel with a 37lb beast to go with his biggest cod of 34lb.
I sat debilitated on the wheelhouse step, slumped forward, with vacant eyes and a hanging jaw. I felt like I’d come through 15 rounds of boxing and then been run over by a bus. If I never live to fish another day then I’ll die happy in the knowledge that I experienced this incredible fishing… but that’s not the plan. Countless untapped wrecks and areas of deep-water reef lie in the waters surrounding Shetland. And by the time this feature goes to press I should be back exploring some wonderful possibilities and pursuing even bigger fish.
Travel, Charter Boats & Tackle Shops
A four or five day trip to Shetland including travel, accommodation and boat fees can be done for a few hundred pounds. And if taking the ferry rather than a flight then there are no restrictive baggage allowances or out-of-gauge rod holder issues to contend with.
The most convenient ferry option for most UK mainland travellers is the North Link Ferries’ service from Aberdeen to Lerwick. For those that prefer to fly, Sumburgh in the south of Shetland is the main airport. A number of airlines operate regular flights to Sumburgh from the major the Scottish cities and other UK airports. More ferry and flight information can be found at www.northlinkferries.co.uk and www.flybe.com
A charter boat has begun operating in the area since this feature first appeared in the press. Oberon is a 43ft Aquastar operating from Cullivoe. Skipper John Keggie can be contacted for bookings at www.oberonshetland.com or call 07793 120958.
Lerwick is the main hub of activity in Shetland where there are three well stocked tackle shops. Ocean Tackle Store in particular is crammed full of all sorts of fishing gear, including numerous items that are not widely available back on the UK mainland. Charlie and Valerie in the shop also offer a superb online service at www.oceantacklestore.co.uk
More fishing features, news and tackle reviews can be found each month in Total Sea Fishing Magazine. Visit the TSF website here.