If there is any chance of fish over two pounds, the landing net or gaff is almost a necessary item of tackle. Not only do fish often kick off when being lifted on a hook through the air, but if at all large their weight, coupled with the weight of the lead, may be sufficient to break the gut tackle which doubtless many readers of this book are in the habit of using. Even with coarse deep-sea gear which will sustain sixty pounds or more, a gaff or net should be used with large fish, as the hook is so likely to tear out. I have often seen a landing-net carried on the Scotch boats.
I was once fishing with a No. 7 hook and a fine gut paternoster for sand-dabs when I hooked a conger of over seven pounds. We had a landing-net, but into this it resolutely refused to be inveigled, and my Welsh boatman, though well used to these ' serpents,' as the Scotch call them, was disinclined to handle the creature. I played the fish until it was dead beat and not the flap of a tail left in him, and a pretty piece of sport he gave me. Some twenty minutes elapsed from the time he was hooked before he became limp enough to allow himself to be carried by the current, tail foremost, into the landing net.
If not provided with a regular gaff, a very good substitute can be made out of a hake hook, the barb of which has been filed off or hammered down. It is easily whipped on to the first available stick.
Assuming that the amateur fisherman is all prepared for the fray—provided with rod, reel, line, paternoster, hooks, various leads, baits, and has his boat moored on the fishing ground according to the marks — now comes the time when his own skill and judgment must be brought into play. Probably he will have some general idea of the fish in this particular spot. If the bottom be sandy or marly he will, of course, expect flat fish, and perhaps gurnards, whiting, and cod ; if over rocks, pollack, coalfish, bream, conger, wrasse, and other rock fish.
Some men make it a rule to use tackle strong enough to catch the largest possible fish which may be about. For instance, if they are on good flat-fish ground, and rocks are not far distant, knowing that towards evening the congers may come out from the rocks and travel over the sand in search of food, they perhaps fish with stout gear and big hooks which may be relied on to hold a conger. The result is that they catch very few flat fish—perhaps none at all. I rather prefer to use the tackle for the fish which are most abundant, and trust to luck and skill for landing any larger fish which good fortune may throw in the way.
In some cases it is possible to compromise a difficulty of this kind by having one big hook on the paternoster mounted on gimp or soft hemp for big sharp-teethed fish, and a smaller hook on fine tackle suitably baited for small fish. But so far as my experience goes it is no uncommon thing, if this method is practised, to find the large fish taking the small hook on gut, unless it be a cod, which will usually give the preference to a large bait. Conger in particular appreciate fine tackle.
It is of the very first importance to have the best possible baits, and among those which are suitable for fishing on or near the bottom are lugworms, mussels, ragworms, live or dead shrimps (the latter peeled but not boiled), or pieces of fish such as pilchards, herring, mackerel, and smelt. With either lugworms, mussels, ragworms, and pilchards, herrings, or sprats, the fisherman is likely to have some sport if any fish are about. In this connection the Bait chapter should be studied.
If the fish expected are mostly small, such as whiting or whiting pout, the tackle, of course, may be very fine ; for cod something stronger is necessary, and the hooks should be proportionately larger ; but always have the vertical portion of the paternoster stouter than the hook links. The exact form of paternoster must depend on whether we anticipate finding our fish right on the bottom or a little above it. In very deep water we should fish at a greater distance from the bottom than where it is shallow.
The right weight of lead can only be determined by experiment or local knowledge. The best plan is to put up a rather light sinker, and if that holds the bottom, well and good ; if it does not, add to it or change it for a heavier one. Whether the weight does or does not hold the bottom, can easily be felt. After baiting the hooks, the paternoster swung over the side, the check to the reel is taken off by pushing back the button, and down runs the tackle to the bottom by mere force of its own weight, the reel spinning round. A finger should be kept on the rim of the reel to prevent it overrunning and to check it altogether immediately the lead is felt to hit the bottom. After a few seconds lift up the point of the rod and lower it again, and see if the lead is keeping its position or is being carried away by the current. Where there is much stream it will probably be necessary to pay out a few more yards of line, for the current will gradually carry the tackle out at an angle with the boat. It is possible, of course, to fish with such an extremely heavy lead that the line hangs almost perpendicularly, but it is far better to use a lighter lead. By letting out a few extra fathoms of line the bottom will be held very well, particularly if the line be fine.
Having ascertained the proper lead and let out a sufficiency of line, the check can again be put on the winch, and the rod should be held over the water with a gentle strain on the line. Unless the first fish is very small there will be no mistaking its bite. Immediately the little tug tug comes at the top of the rod, the angler should strike and proceed to reel up, and not on any account draw in the line with his hands.