Bristol Channel ventures – Ilfracombe fishing

This article was last updated on June 17th, 2014

Ilfracombe on the North Devon Coast is a popular destination for holidaymakers and is an ideal base from which to explore the beautiful area of the West Country. The town also has a small fleet of charter boats that give anglers the opportunity to sample exciting and varied sport. There is a huge range of marks within easy reach of Ilfracombe with rocky reefs, sandbanks, and wrecks amongst the features that provide refuge for many species.

The Hutchings Family have been operating the Charter boat, “Jay Jay” for the last couple of years and are building a reputation for finding their customers top rate sport throughout the year. The boat is skippered by Brothers Mark and Paul with their father Dave helping out with the business.

Mark had invited me out on a trip with a party of local anglers keen to explore the winter potential. Recent trips had seen good catches of spurdog, bull huss and conger. We hoped that there would be the chance of cod as the waters off Ilfracombe have a proven track record for big cod and with a cold winter setting in hopes are high that this could prove to be a good season.

Paul Hutchings at the wheel

Paul Hutchings at the wheel

Bitterly cold winds from the North and East had severely curtailed sport over recent weeks and my two previous excursions aboard “Jay Jay” had been cancelled.

However a brief respite eventually came and I found myself setting off for Ilfracombe braving icy roads that were in truth unwise to venture out on. The call to the sea is strong though and I eventually pulled up and parked on Ilfracombe Pier.

I was soon welcomed aboard by Paul Hutchings and his Father Dave who was acting as deckhand for the day. Ross Stanway, Daniel Welch, Matt Jeffery and Scott Andreis are all frequent passengers onboard “Jay Jay’ and reflected upon a wealth of adventures on previous trips as we set off up channel.

Ilfracombe Jay Jay

As we steamed past the popular holiday resort of Watermouth a dolphin breached in the wake of the boat an exhilarating sight to start any day afloat. It was a bleak grey day and dark clouds hung ominously over the Welsh coast twenty miles to the North. The village of Combe Martin is hometown and viewing it from the sea brought back many happy memories and a fondness for familiar landmarks. Far behind the village with its three-mile long high street were fields decorated with drifts of snow.

We anchored up in the bay with the distinctive Little Hangman Hill towering above us. Between here and Lynmouth are some of England’s highest and most dramatic sea cliffs.

This first mark was little more than a stop off to wait as the tide eased allowing us access to a deepwater mark several miles offshore. The mark had given some good fish on previous trips however and could turn up the occasional surprise. A variety of baits were lowered to the seabed and Dave distributed a welcome round of hot tea and coffee.

It was not long before the inevitable dogfish found our baits and were swung unceremoniously aboard. After half an hour Paul called for us to wind in our lines, it was time to head out to sea.

“Jay Jay” is a fast and spacious Evolution 38 with a top speed of 26 Knots that cruises at 18 Knots. The boat is well equipped with all the latest technology, safety equipment and full toilet facilities.

We were soon anchoring up three or four miles off the shoreline fishing a deep drop off that regularly produces good catches of spurdog, huss and conger. Large fish baits are the top baits for these species and squid and frozen Ammo mackerel were the favoured baits. Some of our party also offered cocktails of worm and crab in the hope of tempting a hefty cod.

The tide was still running hard but it was possible to hold bottom easily using a 1lb weight. I was using 23lb b.s Berkley big game, others on the boat had elected to use braid which enabled the use of a lighter weight. As always thought has to be given to weight choice to avoid tangles. I had elected to use a simple running rig with a hook length of around 3ft the last 1ft of this comprising of 150lb b.s Sakuma wire to resist the rasping sharp teeth of the expected spurdog or possible tope.

Matt Jeffery was first to hook into a fish and his rod took on an impressive curve as he persuaded a reluctant fish far below to come to the boat. Soon the first spurdog of the day was encompassed within the net a good-sized specimen of just over ten pounds.

Matt Jeffery bends into a spurdog

Matt Jeffery bends into a spurdog

Matt Jeffery with a double figure spurdog

Matt Jeffery with a double figure spurdog

It was my turn next to do battle as I felt a heavy pull transmitted through the line to my rod tip. No need to rush when you feel a fish, give it a few moments and when the time is judged to be right crank the reel handle and lean back into the fish. This is always an exciting moment as the weight of the fish is felt for the first time. This time it is undoubtedly both a weighty and powerful adversary. The rod lunges over and line trickles from the reel against a tightly set drag.

I have every confidence that my tackle will subdue whatever I have hooked and I lean back and gain a yard or two of line. For the next few minutes I coax the fish towards the surface. The rise and fall of the boat assists me as I pump the rod up to gain line, then slowly lower it winding line onto the reel. Every now and then the fish gives a powerful lunge and a few yards of line are given to avoid a break.

I feel certain that this is no spurdog and hope that I have connected with a large cod though when a large conger surfaces I am not surprised. At close to six feet long the eel is an impressive site as it writhes upon the surface beside the boat. Too big for the net this one; the gaff will need to be carefully employed beneath the eels chin.  Paul expertly sinks the steel and swings the eel over the gunnels. The eel pulls the scales to 32lb and is held aloft for a quick picture before being flipped back over the side where it departs back into the Bristol Channels murky depths with a flick of its tail.

Wayne Thomas holds aloft a 32lb conger

Wayne Thomas holds aloft a 32lb conger

A mackerel and squid cocktail is soon sent back down and within minutes I have hooked another eel of around twenty pounds which is unhooked at the side of the boat using a T.Bar.

Scott Andreis is next to do battle and is soon posing with a conger of 22lb. As the tide eases several more conger succumb to our baits giving a spell of exciting sport. Conger may not be everyone’s favourite but they give a good account of themselves testing the tackle to the limit.

Daniel Welch adds a second spurdog to our tally at around 8lb. Ross Stanway then boats a vividly marked bull huss. With a brisk South Easterly breeze now rocking the boat and the tide starting to flood its time to head back inshore.


Daniel Welsh with a spurdog

Daniel Welsh with a spurdog

We arrive in calm waters beneath the towering cliffs of Great Hangman Hill. Sheer cliffs that rise to over 1000 ft a spectacular backdrop to any fishing trip. The cliffs have a rich and fascinating history with long disused mine shafts visible as they emerge from long forgotten workings that were part of an incredible industry as men mined for silver and ore. The foot of these cliffs are seldom visited by anyone though a dedicated few do venture along the shoreline armed with specialist climbing gear. Kes Webb a local adventurer has publicised the area in a television documentary entitled,  “The Hidden Edge”.

After the lumpy conditions off the coast it was good to be in waters sheltered from the icy breeze. These grounds have a rich history of specimen fish and a vast range of species can be caught including tope, ray, huss and conger. During the summer month’s triggerfish, black bream, bass and pollock give great sport. On this day however it was just dogfish that took our baits as we downed a few more cups of hot tea and coffee.

Ross Stanway with a bull huss

Ross Stanway with a bull huss

One more mark was tried for the final hour of the day and brought us a few small conger, dogfish and a plump pouting. The trip back to Ilfracombe soon passed by as we chatted about past trips and future plans. We sailed into Ilfracombe as the light started to fade and winter lights reflected in the harbour.

I certainly intend to board “Jay Jay” again and try to help unlock the undoubted potential off the North Devon coast. In comparison to other areas of the UK there is a great deal yet to learn about these waters where the Bristol Channel meets the vast Atlantic Ocean.

JAY JAY – For bookings contact Dave on 07827 679189 or 01271 863398
Local Tackle Shop – Variety Sports – 01271 862039

Author: Wayne Thomas

Wayne is an accomplished angler and author who writes regularly for several magazines, newspapers and is also author of the Fishing Handbook, an introductory guide to the world of angling. Wayne predominantly fishes in his native North Devon where he regularly fishes in both salt and freshwater. Wayne is also chairman of the Combe Martin Sea Angling Club and formerly a committee member on the NFSA Wyvern Committee.