Sleeping with the fishes

Sometimes in the course of my rangering duties, pretty often in fact, I have cause to feel very lucky indeed. Last monday was just one such moment.

I joined a team of enthusiastic foodies and fishermen on a Catch & Cook event, organised by Dart’s Farm. What a superb day, which showcased our local coast and countryside to its fullest.

The day started early with a hearty breakfast, before we trooped down to Exmouth Docks to get on board the Rose Ann for our day on the waves. The weather was superb, a blissfully sunny September morning with the promise of more sun to come. It was a day which put many of the August school holiday weeks to shame. In fact, by the end of our seven hours at sea I had caught plenty of sun as well as fish!

We met Mike and John on board, and set off for the hour’s motoring to the area we were to fish that day. It just so happened that the reef was due south of Seaton, which meant for the first hour we sailed blissfully past the entire East Devon coastline. And didn’t it look magnificent? I don’t get to see it from this angle very often, and by only looking upon the Jurassic Coast from land or a beach, you miss the point considerably.

We were about five or six miles off-shore, bouncing along at about 18 knots, and this provided a constantly changing backdrop of cliff colour, shape and activity. The cliffs rippled past like a sinuous wave, with each valley cutting its own cleft to the sea. Leaving the Exe we passed the Otter and Sid valleys, Branscombe vale shot back towards the West, before the Axe cut its way into view. In this time we had travelled past 120 million years of geology and spent the day fishing within site of all three eras. Perhaps this fact was a little lost of my fellow fishermen, and I didn’t want to get on my soapbox, they were here to enjoy themselves!

Once over the wreck we were issued with our reels and Ugly Sticks - strange name for a fishing rod, I never did ask why they were so called - and John made his way around the boat getting people ready to drop a line. I was politely last, waiting patiently for the weight to be loaded onto the simple rig and get my hook baited.

Its important to point out now my life history of fishing, it wont take long. When I was 12 my grandmother bought me so much tackle, rod, reel, video: the lot. A complete course fishing  outfit. I was wide-eyed with excitement when I opened it Christmas morning, before spending  many fruitless hours at Cheddar reservoir fishing for pike, perch, rudd, anything! A year later I had given up with not so much as a nibble. And that is pretty much how it has always been with me and fishing. I bought a beach caster and mackerel feathers a few years ago and had one evening on Budleigh beach when I landed three shimmering beauties, but otherwise I had similar luck to my childhood days. I am not much of a fisherman.

Today was set to be different though! I dropped my line over the side and, on its way down, the bait was snaffled by a modest sized pollack. I was totally chuffed to have broken the day’s duck and from there I landed two black bream (one was the size of a dustbin lid)and a large(ish) bass. Despite feeling a bit queezy through most of the day, the hours sped past and I couldn’t believe it was already time to head back to land and receive our masterclass in fish preparation from Dave Kurley at the Fish Shed.

I know Dave from filming the award-winning Think Deep last summer, and he is a mine of information and a natural raconteur when it comes to fish. Everyone got stuck in, filleting, gutting and scaling the fish, while Dave gave the technical low-down on why some fish are left guts in and some have to be gutted as soon as landed. He even showed us how to fillet a flatfish, although i am not sure how many of us will be brave enough to attempt that with a £30 turbot any time soon!

The whole day was a celebration of what we have here. Right here on our doorstep. The distinctly French scene of fresh fish being prepared in front of an enthusiastic audience in the open air, was only betrayed by the accents and pots of tea on the tables. The vivid red cliffs were our wallpaper for a day on the bright, brilliant blue sea. The evening meal recipe... well, ok that was French but grilled fish with a simple burre blanc is surely the best way to appreciate four different and toe-curlingly fresh fish, isn’t it?

It reminded me, strangely, of my time living in London. It wasn’t until the last week before I moved to Exeter that I let my guard down and allowed myself to do the ‘touristy’ things. Here we were indulging in a day of fishing, which (for the complete ham-fisted novice) could not be bettered anywhere on earth!

Sure, apart from the fish there was a disappointing lack of dolphins, and a single guillemot, nine gannets and a skua was nice but not what I would have been looking for on a pelagic birdwatching cruise. But the event shed a beautiful autumn light on this part of the world and confirmed to me why so many people love to come here for their holidays. We are so lucky to call this home.