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Common skate fishing

Common skate fishing at Baltimore, Ireland
One of a catch of 17 common skate from Baltimore that included 8 over 100 lbs (45 kg)
Common skate are the largest skate in the world and one of the largest fish in Irish waters. What was once considered to be a single species of fish is now recognised as two – the flapper skate (Dipturus intermedia) and the somewhat smaller blue skate (Dipturus flossada). The latter has a more southerly distribution and frequents deeper water. The common skate caught by anglers around the coast of Ireland are almost always flapper skate.

Sadly, of course, the 'common' skate is no longer common at all in most places and is listed as critically endangered by the IUCN. Around the shores of Britain and Ireland there has been a steady westward retreat, so today these mighty fish which may be well over 50 years old are only found off west-facing coasts from West Cork to the north of Scotland. However, in these areas they can still be quite numerous with anglers making catches well into double figures on some of the recognised skate hotspots. In these strongholds of the species the average skate can weigh over 100 lbs (45 kg) and in recent years fish over the record weight of 221 lbs (100 kg) have been tagged and released in Ireland. Male skate – easily recognised by their long claspers – are smaller than females, probably never exceeding 200 lbs (90 kg).

Unlike smaller members of the family, large skate are often found on rough ground, even rock pinnacles. This is probably because of the availability of large prey like ling and pollack. But they are also efficient scavengers and will take quite small baits at times, which can come as a surprise to anglers fishing for something smaller! Tag returns show that common skate do not move around much. They may stay in the same general area for many years. Since they are resident they can be caught right through the year but the most productive months are usually May, June and July. Calm seas with good visibility normally fish best. During long periods of settled weather skate often move into shallower water, sometimes right to the top of a reef.

Common skate fishing at Baltimore, Ireland
Landing a skate can be a protracted affair, especially when the tide is running

A typical rig for skate is an 8/0 hook, preferably tied (not crimped) to a heavy monofilament trace. Sometimes a foot or two of heavy mono rubbing leader is added above the weight as protection against the spines on the fish's tale. The first few moments after a skate has taken the bait are crucial if you are to avoid a back-breaking struggle to prise the fish away from the sea bed. It is often possible to haul the fish a little way off the bottom before it has time to realise what's happening. However, a skate in midwater can still do a remarkably good impression of being glued to the ocean floor. Tackle gets tested to the limit by skate fishing. Even on 50 lb class gear an encounter with a big skate in 200 ft (60 m) of water is likely to be a protracted affair. If the tide is running hard there may be no alternative but to buoy the anchor and follow the fish downtide.

Large skate are usually boated using two gaffs, one in each wing. Properly done, well away from any vital organs, the harm to the fish should be minimal. Once on board, the fish should be handled with care and returned to the water as soon as possible. By tagging them anglers make a useful contribution to the survival of this endangered species. However, the effort is more than wasted if the fish do not survive the experience.


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