With a vision to turn one young man’s angling dream into a reality – one group of friends exceeded their wildest expectations and had the skate fishing trip of a lifetime…
Sea angling is a frustrating sport for many. We all hope something exceptional happens for us, but this seldom comes true, or reaches the height of our expectations and ambitions.
The same thing plays out through the eyes of most human beings in almost all walks of life; few of us reach the pinnacle of our desire and experience those moments.
This is a story of some kindred spirits with a dream of seeing the extraordinary and having a moment and memory they’d be able to treasure forever.
Sowing the seed
Ryan Thompson, Harley Thompson, Liam Gunn, Paul Wastell and I all got talking at the European Open Beach Championships back in February this year.
Harley had come second in the juniors with a lovely bass. We were all beaming, seeing the youngster’s delight and perhaps having flashbacks to our own childhood memories and what got us well and truly hooked on this magical thing that is fishing.
I turned to Harley and said, ‘It must be a dream come true at such a big event to get up there amongst the prizes.’ He replied quickly, saying, ‘It’s all about getting out and enjoying the fishing, having friends around to share it.
Anything else is just a bonus.’ Perhaps we could all learn a thing or two from the youngster; at just 10 years old he has such a pure outlook on it all.
The lad spends as much time as he can out fishing; he’s polite, kind, encourages others and simply has a passion for his angling and adventure.
He is living and breathing this magnificent hobby that we all share and love and his passion is infectious. As a group, we all chatted excitedly in the aftermath of the EOCB about the prospect of chasing future fish in locations like Norway, and the conversation descended into fishing tales from days gone by.
We asked Harley what he’d love to catch. Without hesitating the little chap told us he’d love to get after a common skate. But he also told us, with trepidation in his voice, that he wasn’t sure he could handle one at his age.
Ideas are infectious. His father, Ryan, had a dream to get one for himself, and he experienced many ups and downs until the task was completed. Harley had lived this adventure through his father’s eyes.
On the way home, almost the whole seven-hour drive back to Aberdeen, the chatter between Liam and I had been about how we could make the wee man’s dream come true.
The task itself seemed almost insurmountable for a 10-year-old, and to be honest, its conclusion would be uncertain. Yet we decided if there was even the smallest of chances he could do it we should try.
It didn’t have to be a huge one, and we knew some spots that throw up 30lb-50lb fish, which may be manageable.
After returning from Scotland a group chat was formed and we all began planning an adventure to Scotland’s majestic highlands and islands.
Tides, weather, barometric pressure, and suitable dates were all discussed. We all became preoccupied with rig making and preparation in the days and weeks leading up to our planned escapades.
The video calls, audio notes, and banter back and forth ensured that our enthusiasm was sky high when we hopped into vehicles and began the journey. Ryan, Harley and Paul set off from north east England, with Liam and I heading west from Aberdeen.
By Thursday evening, we had rendezvoused and set up for the first short session. The weather looked almost perfect, even providing a nice breeze to keep the incessant midges at bay!
The scenery was fit for a Rabbie Burns poem and excitement was churning in the pits of our stomachs. This is the ultimate UK adventure; you’re chasing the largest specimens available from the shore and seeing the most visually stunning coastlines that, in my biased opinion, the UK has to offer the intrepid angler.
Trips like this are always worthwhile. Even if you blank you’ve still seen and experienced something that people pay to go and see without rods.
Upon arrival at the first venue, we were blessed with a crystal clear, star-speckled night sky with a slight easterly wind, which caused a gentle ripple across the water’s black surface.
I heard a quote recently where someone said that if you believe something is your destiny, it almost becomes self-fulfilling. This trip had such an heir of positive energy and expectation; it all seemed to be conspiring to make something happen for us.
As Liam and I were removing the rods from the back of the car, a van’s headlights shone up the track toward us. Ryan, Paul and Harley had arrived, right on schedule. We greeted each other like long lost relatives, grabbed our gear and set about getting baits out.
Immaculately presented baits and rigs were cast out; I glanced along the bank at all the Century carbon, left and right. I don’t think there has been so many Eliminators in one place outside of the factory!
We had the T700s, T800s, T900s and T1000s. Harley also had a Fireblade out. We all had powerful reels, capable of coping with the mammoth fish that lurk in these murky lochs.
Some of the lads had spurdogs and thornbacks in mind; cocktails of mackerel and Bluey flew out. The others only wanted a common skate. Forty-five minutes to an hour passed when Paul had the meekest of taps on his T700, which turned out to be the first dogfish of the trip.
Time started to pass in a blink; everyone had their heads down, focussed and baiting up regularly.
There was a mellow feeling. I’m not entirely sure if this was due to the ambience of the setting and the soothing sound of the nearby stream trickling into the loch or the fact that we were all tiring.
After all, it had been a long old day. As with a tiring mind, negativity can easily creep in. Liam and I chatted about whether this mark would deliver the fish or not. It became very slow going indeed.
At the very moment our enthusiasm and belief reached its lowest ebb, Ryan had a cracking pull down on his T800, and a fish was definitely on.
As I made my way toward him in anticipation of a decent fish breaking the surface, he called out that it’s off. Oh no! This is the nature of fishing; it teases you, toys with your emotions and dashes your dreams.
The lure of the highest highs is always punctuated with the crushing of spirits at some time or another. It was just Ryan’s turn now, just not in the way we expected.
I stood waiting for his rig to break the surface with bare hooks and instead, he had one of the smallest dogfish most of us had ever seen, just six inches long.
The rest of us were practically rolling around on the floor, sides hurting with the eruption of laughter. Such a thing happens to us all at some time or another.
It does a great job of humbling even the most profound of egos. As we were ripping Ryan over the comedy, we inspected the tiny dog,. It had bite marks; something far larger had grabbed it, and that’s what Ryan had initially been fighting.
This reinvigorated us, giving us the appetite to fish on until the small hours when we finally threw the towel in, exhausted, hoping to get some shut eye in the back of the van.
A New Day
Liam nodded off in no time at all and slept like a log. In contrast, I lay awake, tossing and turning; my body was knackered, but my mind was troubled by how poor the session had been.
Being the Scots group, the pressure was resting on our shoulders to produce marks that would yield that magical fish. Considering we live in Aberdeenshire, it’s a kind of strange pressure to put on ourselves, as the west is hardly local.
However, we just wanted the lads from the northeast to have a great trip, particularly Harley. Sleep seemed to last minutes, though the reality was longer. The guys were soon up and I couldn’t lay there a minute longer.
To my delight, Ryan had fired up some cracking breakfast baps, making us feel a little more human. The custard and cake for dessert seemed a bit on the peculiar side, but, if truth be known, I probably needed the carbs.
Bellies full, positive mental attitudes initiated, we loaded on our gear like Nepalese Sherpas and made our way towards the mark. The weather was nothing short of fantastic at 18-20 degrees, with dry air and not a cloud to be seen.
This mark is one of the more difficult to access, and the heat certainly did not make it any easier.
This was to be a real team bonding session, everyone gelling and working together to ensure safe passage of ourselves and our gear onto the mark would be a true testament to our flourishing fraternity.
In all honesty, I personally felt this was the coming together of something special.
Baits were soon being fired out, and knowing the venue pretty well, my expectations were low in daylight; it tends to throw up the better fish nocturnally.
There was another more important reason for arriving early; to make sure we got to fish the most desirable spot. You never know when these venues might get busy.
With the internet, everyone has the same idea, and it’s the worst thing driving all that way with spiralling fuel prices, only to realise you have another bunch of marauding raiders parked in the best place.
You then have another big drive to the next available venue – skate musical chairs. The predicted slow daylight fishing with hardly a tap passed rapidly, thanks to the constant craic from the lads.
Harley’s one-liners to gee us up were superb; he really has a tremendous sense of humour and camaraderie. The setting sun meant it was time to get the big rigs out.
Before long we were under a blanket of absolute darkness. In the true tradition we decided on a pact that the first man or boy to land a skate would have to eat a Bluey head, more of a punishment than a reward, but it spiced things up a bit.
Before long all hell broke loose; Paul’s T700 took a proper lunge forward. He lifted into it and Liam shouted, ‘skate on’. At that moment, the trip really became real for all of us.
Harley was beaming with excitement as he watched Paul’s Shimano Stella 10,000 start to have line stripped off it, which caught him completely unaware of the sheer power and weight of a swimming fish of serious size.
Paul recomposed himself, turning the fish and getting into a pump and wind rhythm. Harley was spurring him on with words of encouragement.
The fish was coming towards him and the rest of us suddenly realised that, however big this fish was, we were going to need to make sure landing happened.
I have to say, I was impressed with Paul. He was using a British continental rod effectively. The blank was designed for clean beach work and far smaller fish than this, which would mean Paul was experiencing some tremendous sport and sensation playing this behemoth of a fish.
I wasn’t sure of the size, but as soon as I got a glimpse, I gulped. I think we all gasped; it was enormous. It was like watching a stealth bomber rising up through the water column.
The magnificent beast flapped its wings and turned back to the depths, causing Paul to lose a fair bit of the line he’d worked hard to get back on.
Paul appeared somewhat beat up and in total disbelief at what had just happened. It’s something many an angler experiences when chasing fish this large; you are not in control, the fish is.
Before long, he had the fish again turned, and it was coming back to the surface when the large female skate breached. We were all in awe, aside from Liam, who sprang into action, skilfully guiding the fish onto the rock below.
With all breathed easy again; what an effort. A staggering fish lay before us. It was quickly photographed and measured at 66in x 88in, which meant it was around 205lb.
The fish was returned, and we all shared the moment watching her flap her wings back down to the depths. I remember that I felt like it was objective completed but I soon realised that our night had only just begun.
We congratulated Paul on the fish of a lifetime; he was absolutely buzzing. We all were!
I prepared the Bluey for Paul and without hesitating he bit the head off it and started crunching away. ‘Good lad’, I thought, relieved it wasn’t me.
Although wouldn’t anyone do it for a 200lb magnificent common skate? Staring at our rod tips once again with a sense of expectation, the silence of the night became deafening, each of us willing our rods to fold over.
It seemed like only a few minutes had passed, when Ryan announced he was getting a bite. He thought it was a spurdog, only for Liam to watch the bite progress and guess that it was a skate.
Ryan poised himself, and after a small run he lifted into the fish and instantly felt it was a skate. Liam was right. Putting a full lock on his Kompressor SS to try and get the fish moving towards him.
Ryan really knuckled down and bullied it to the surface in no time at all – 10 minutes, perhaps. At the same time, Paul had his other T700 lurching right over, and he was into another monster which was stripping line.
Paul’s fish was putting up the kind of scrap we all dream of. It was running him ragged and the struggle was compounded by the energy expended on the 200lb fish a short time ago.
Paul was really suffering from the power of this fish, but, inch by inch, he was getting line back, pumping and winding like his life depended on it and before long, we all saw a huge fish surface in the blueish-green torchlit water.
He edged his way along the rocks in a trance like focus; it was like Derren Brown had him under hypnosis or something. All he could do was concentrate on landing what would surely be a fish he could tell the grandkids about.
Liam, the star that he is, was down on that ledge like a gazelle, promptly landing both fish safely. What on earth had I just witnessed in this manic period?
The teamwork to accomplish this was so unselfish, doing things for each other the way it should be amongst anglers who only have a desire for each other to achieve. This is how dreams come true.
Ryan’s fish came in at 62in x 80in, which meant 171lb, and Paul’s at 68in x 88in, a staggering 211lb. After a short moment and a few pictures, the two fish were slipped back into their dark abyss.
The double release was a memorable spectacle. What a truly incredible sight to witness; the trip had already exceeded all expectations.
However, if Paul had to eat any more Bluey, I thought he might start growing gills; his skin already had an oily shine to it. We stood in amazement.
Harley was telling his Dad how proud he was of him. It was a special moment between father and son, but I thought this usually only happened the other way around!
‘Lee would have loved this Dad’, said Harley, which choked us all up a bit. Lee was Ryan’s best pal and fishing buddy who sadly passed away through illness.
At that moment, a shooting star streaked across the sky. I am certain we all wondered if the two things were related. I’d like to think so, and it somehow completed the spectrum of emotions running through us.
Time lapsed into the small hours. I peered around, seeing tired eyes. We were all physically and mentally spent, but we somehow continued on, replaying the events of earlier in the night to lift spirits.
I have no idea how, but Harley still seemed to have oodles of enthusiasm and energy. He kept going; his desire for a hook-up was admirable.
Just as that ran through my mind, his Kompressor SS shuddered, and a little line peeled off, he snatched the rod and leant into it, and the fish set off on a run.
There was an unspoken consensus amongst us that 10-year old Harley may not be able to land the fish; it might just be too much of a task for the lad.
We stood right at his side, ready to help should he need us for anything. But Harley had other ideas. His unflinching will and determination, fuelled by adrenaline, meant he would do everything possible to see this fish break the surface.
What I witnessed next was very much like a passage in Ernest Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream. One of the young sons has hooked a Marlin.
All of the adults are there are around him, but even though he is suffering he wants it so badly that he refuses help. The adults are not sure whether to make the tough call to intervene or let the boy go through what could be considered an initiation ceremony of sorts.
Landing a common skate at 10-years old would be an almost impossible task; something not done before. But should it be achieved, the benefits to confidence would be unparalleled.
As boys, all we want is to be accepted by the adults; it’s a tough process to be one of the guys. Here was Harley in the battle of his life, staring into the darkness, dreaming, hoping, wishing, daring to do what might be beyond his age constraints.
During the massive effort to get the fish moving toward him, he slipped down managing to fracture the bottom of the rod, which only added to the chaos.
He apologised to Dad (Ryan) but all there was in response were words of encouragement for the little man, not just from Ryan but from all of us. We were all willing this to happen for him; there was a deluge of positive energy and encouragement flowing through the air toward Harley.
All of our hopes and dreams rested on him. The fish had taken the line across Paul’s lines and it became clear we needed to get all other rods out of the way quickly.
I honestly have no concept of time during this period. We were all in this deep focus. The communication between father and son was beautiful to see; the bond and their understanding was so close.
To all our relief, Harley had the fish turned and coming towards him, bit by bit. He was heaving with all his might. What was surely a tremendous fish was gradually coming in.
You could cut the tension with a knife; our hearts were in our mouths. We were all on the cusp of seeing something special, the dreams of a small boy coming true.
As it surfaced, the little man was cool as a cucumber. It had to be at least as heavy as Harley, perhaps heavier. Liam was again waiting in the wings, ready to swoop and land the fish for his little pal.
After a few tense seconds a fabulous common skate was safely landed. The atmosphere among us was incredible disbelief and pure euphoria.
We all embraced in a group fist bump, letting out Ric Flair type cries and screams that could be heard echoing along the loch. For the briefest shining moment, a little boy became a star and we rejoiced in jubilation.
Our emotions poured out and we felt like lords of the rocks. Somebody, please tell me how life can be any better than this?
In the end, Harley’s fish was heavier than him; 53in x 69in meant 109lb. A 10-year-old had broken the 100lb barrier. Sheer strength of character, determination, and technique had triumphed over stature or physical prowess.
The boy was standing on the shoulders of giants. We were all smiling so much that our faces were aching. What a night!
I wasn’t even slightly bothered that I hadn’t had a touch all night, but Liam, after his tricky work landing four common skate for others, probably deserved a bite himself by now.
We all agreed that he should fire out another octopus and mackerel cocktail on the T1000. We were all like nodding dogs on our seat boxes by now, in the ‘long blink’ phase that all night fishermen know well.
We badly needed sleep, but if there is one thing that can wake a man up, it’s a Daiwa Saltiga dogfight with a running drag! Our eyes were again as wide as saucers.
Liam was up like a spring salmon to snatch the rod out of the rest, and he was into a good fish. However, the fatigue and a fish moving like a steam train soon had Liam in agony fighting this beast.
You really want to be fresh when fighting these loch monsters. The fish had dived deep and suctioned to the seabed, almost the worst outcome.
He dug deep, Liam, ever resilient, found a bit more strength to lever it off the ground, slowly heaving a sizable fish up toward him.
I have no doubt through Liam’s arms and back; it felt like an eternity, it always does, but, before long, a huge skate breached. Another absolute beast on the deck, with this time Ryan keen to return the favour on landing duty.
The fish was 202lb on the chart. A fifth skate of the night and a third over 200lb. We were witnessing nothing short of extraordinary.
We all congratulated Liam; smiles again were ear to ear, and we began chatting about what an experience it had been. For the other adults and me, it had been watching Harley listen, learn, and achieve something magical that had made the highlight.
You simply can’t put a price on moments like this – like-minded people making memories. The trip had enriched us all and fed our souls. It encapsulated everything I love about fishing.